Since the days of Moses, prophets have been serving as God's messengers ... and stirring up plenty of controversy along the way.
Like their ancient predecessors, today's prophets aren't afraid to step on a few toes if it means getting the word out. And, just as biblical prophets often went unappreciated, many modern-day prophets face disregard and outright criticism--both inside and outside the church. This is true even in the charismatic/Pentecostal community, which embraces the continuation of the fivefold ministries but still wrestles with the practical aspects of releasing those gifts.
Cindy Jacobs, a popular author and co-founder of Generals of Intercession, argues that there is a "serious double standard" in how prophetic ministry is judged in comparison to the other fivefold gifts. And she believes it is leading legitimate prophets to squelch their gifts.
"We're so critical toward the prophetic gift, yet a pastor or teacher could get up and say the same things--supposedly under the influence of the Holy Spirit--in their sermons and not have any accountability for it," Jacobs says. "The same excesses that have plagued the prophecy movement have affected the other gifts."
Ted Haggard, pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and president of the National Association of Evangelicals, counters that most charismatics and Pentecostals heartily support prophetic ministry, but are legitimately reacting to excesses unique to the prophetic movement.
"I don't think the church has rejected the prophets of our generation," he contends. "I do believe, though, that we have many false prophets who feel persecuted because they believe they are authentic--thus the illusion that prophetic ministry is more controversial than it actually is."
What are those excesses, and how should they be addressed by leaders in the body of Christ? Moreover, how can today's prophets communicate their message effectively, not just to the church but to the world around us?
Money plays a key role in this issue. Similarly, the need for accountability and the presence of false and "conditional" prophecies comes into play as well.
With all the challenges surrounding prophetic ministry, some may suggest that it should be avoided altogether. After all, how can something so controversial be any good for the church?
However, even its most vocal critics argue that the benefits prophets bring to the church far outweigh the challenges that come with this gift.
For C. Peter Wagner the signs are clear that God is using modern-day prophets to an extent unmatched since biblical times. The former cessationist-turned-cheerleader for the prophetic movement cites several readily confirmed prophecies given by his friend, Chuck Pierce.
During services December 8 and 9, 2003, Pierce prophesied in relation to the war in Iraq that "the strongman that has not been found will now be found." Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was arrested December 13.
On May 5, 2004, the day before the National Day of Prayer, Pierce prophesied that God would open the nation to prayer in an unprecedented way on the next day. He said that God would confirm this word by blanketing Washington, D.C., with hail. Sure enough, hail fell on May 6, the National Day of Prayer.
Wagner says that such fulfillments bring legitimacy to the movement and assure believers that God is hearing their prayers. "When something like this happens, it builds faith tremendously," he contends. "Especially when there are factors of timing and tangible things."
Few have experienced the controversy of the prophetic movement more intensely than Mike Bickle, who was pastor of Kansas City Fellowship (KCF) in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1990 when the ministry of several prophets in his church brought criticism from a group of charismatic pastors in the city. Although the late Vineyard founder John Wimber came to assist in reconciling the various parties involved, several leaders ultimately parted ways.
Bickle cites two dramatic fulfillments of prophecies given by a former KCF prophet, who named specific dates several months in advance and stated that God would judge "the secular arena in the United States" and then judge "the church."
The day the prophet predicted God would judge the secular arena (October 19, 1987) has since become known as "Black Monday," the worst single-day decline in the U.S. stock market since 1914. On the day he predicted God would judge the church (February 21, 1988), televangelist Jimmy Swaggart confessed to moral failure.
But critics of the movement suggest that such fulfillments cannot make up for numerous prophecies that never come to fruition or are unverifiable at best.
Ted Haggard is a supporter of prophecy--his church has numerous prophets in active, recognized ministry. But he is concerned that relationships can sometimes get in the way of judging true and false prophecy.
"If we like someone who gives a prophecy, we don't scrutinize it like we would if the relational ties were not there," he says. "As a result, we've had many false prophecies explained away to the dismay of those who believe that prophecy should, in fact, be true."
For instance, on January 10, 2004, a controversial leader in the prophetic community gave a word in response to Osama bin Laden's prediction on Arab television that the United States would experience a catastrophe within 35 days.
The prophet stated, " ... In the same period that bin Laden predicted catastrophe against this nation, I shall bring him forth, I shall raise him out of his own hiding place, and I will bring him to a place of accountability."
Asked to explain the prophecy's apparent lack of fulfillment, the prophet responded that his prophecy was "interpreted incorrectly" and that "it did not specify a particular day that the 35 days would commence."
While Haggard believes that everyone in the body has gifts for ministry, he suggests that the popular prophetic movement has motivated people to prophesy who are not called to be prophets.
"Flippant encouragement to prophesy has led to a massive proliferation of using God's name in vain," Haggard contends. "This causes controversy because all believers desire that God's name and Word be honored."
Mike Bickle says that prophetic ministry in the United States today is still immature in its expression and that even the most well-known prophets miss the mark sometimes.
He notes that the prophet who predicted judgment of the secular arena and the church has since given several prophecies that were not fulfilled--including a time-sensitive prediction that California would be destroyed by an earthquake.
However, the fulfillments Bickle has seen have led him to exercise caution in labeling prophets as "false," even when their predictions do not come to pass.
"The easy response is to discount a prophetic person who gets it wrong," he says. "That's not the right response. We have the 'horrible' job called discernment."
Instead of false prophecy, Bickle identifies much that occurs in current prophetic circles as "soulish" or "humanly generated," claiming that it comes from people who are genuinely sincere, but ultimately overzealous and attention-seeking.
"There is a substantial amount of humanly generated activity in the name of the prophetic," he says. "Just as there is humanly generated preaching in the teaching ministry and humanly generated evangelism in evangelistic ministry."
"I see genuine prophetic ministry increasing radically, but the hype, human zeal and religious enthusiasm will increase as well," he notes.
"Ultimately, critics will have more opportunities to be convinced, but there will be plenty of opportunities for them to write it all off if they want to."
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
Many argue that this human element in prophecy necessitates a commitment to examining every prophecy in light of Scripture--and ultimately pursuing some form of accountability.
Michael Fletcher, pastor of the 3,000-member Manna Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, is an advocate of prophetic ministry, but argues that many of the problems surrounding the prophetic movement arise when personal and prophetic experiences are elevated in authority beyond Scripture.
"Whenever you allow the prophetic to interpret scriptures--a prophetic hermeneutic--then you have a whole new set of meanings and ideas that may be derived from Scripture but are not grounded in it," he suggests. "That makes us all look flaky."
Clem Ferris, a prophetic leader with Grace Churches International, based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, agrees, suggesting that the current spiritual climate--which he describes as "apocalyptic"--sometimes creates an environment for imbalance in prophetic ministry.
"Imbalance comes from the subjective nature of the prophetic word," he says. "There is the temptation of sensationalism, not guarding against a spirit of error."
His solution? "The subjectivity of the prophetic word can only be balanced by the objectivity of the written Word," he says. "Therefore, prophetic ministries today must maintain an orientation to sound and systematic theology in their own lives, while constantly being subject to the judgment of the written Word of God."
Ferris suggests that prophecy is by nature fallible and imperfect--underscoring the need for biblical scrutiny. "We must remember that we are not judging people here," he notes. "Only the message and the spirit that drives it."
Fletcher agrees, citing Paul's contention that "we know in part and we prophesy in part" (see 1 Cor. 13:9).
"That means that prophecy comes from God, but it passes through the soul of the prophet--allowing his or her impression of the word or picture to be included with the word given," he says.
"If the prophet allows more of his own impression to win the day, he can misunderstand what God is trying to say--or, the listener can misunderstand what God is saying."
THE 'JONAH FACTOR'
At no time is the prophetic movement more vulnerable to criticism than when its members describe events in the future that they believe will occur. Like the prophet Jonah, they find themselves in a particularly tight spot when they predict disaster with the implication that it will be averted by repentance.
C. Peter Wagner notes the instance of a well-known prophet predicting in 1998 that portions of California would fall into the ocean as the result of an earthquake. Because of the prophet's respect in the prophetic community, many responded to the message, scheduling intercessory-prayer events throughout California.
While the disaster never occurred, Wagner does not question the validity of the prophecy, noting that the prediction--like that of Jonah--came with an implicit condition: "Repent, and disaster will be averted."
Critics would contend that this is merely a convenient ex post facto explanation for a false prophecy, since--unlike Nineveh--there was no tangible evidence that California experienced large-scale repentance or spiritual renewal.
In the late '90s, prophetic messages abounded detailing the coming Y2K cataclysm, but many fears were debunked in 1999 long before the ball dropped in Times Square. As a result, prophecies began to take a decidedly conditional tone--highlighting the potential for disaster, but admitting that God could change His mind.
For instance, Bill Hamon, an author of numerous books on prophetic ministry, issued a "consensus of nationally known prophets on Y2K" derived from a gathering in Colorado Springs on January 28, 1999. While the report predicted minimal problems related to the turn of the millennium, it stated, "Y2K is a minor problem in comparison of what is coming later."
World War III, temporary Islamic rule in America, bombs in school buses, malls and stadiums and destructive weather patterns were just some of the disasters predicted in the report. However, the time frame for fulfillment was vague, and it was essentially stated in the document that these events could be averted by national repentance:
"God will remove His protective covering over America unless we turn the church to righteousness and the nation back to godly ways by the end of the year 2002."
Wagner admits that there is no tangible way to verify prophecies such as these, but he believes that God uses conditional predictions to mobilize the church to prayer and intercession.
"We believe that many prophecies are given to activate the body of Christ to stand in the gap powerfully enough so that God will change His mind," he explains.
According to Wagner, the challenges arising out of the modern-day prophetic movement, should be solved through accountability, not suppression of the gift.
"One of my concerns is that some prophets have not yet learned to handle contemporary prophetic protocol," he explains. "They're freelancers and operate on their own without the constraints of the body of Christ."
Founded in 1998 by Wagner, Cindy Jacobs and several others in the prophetic community, the Apostolic Council of Prophetic Elders (ACPE) offers apostolic oversight and accountability for its members.
"ACPE was organized on the basis that prophecies were being released without checking with others," Wagner says. "I personally detect a lot less flaky prophecy than there was a few years ago."
Wagner explains that the ACPE offers both "peer-level" (prophet to prophet) and apostolic (apostle to prophet) accountability, but he admits that it is difficult to get prophets to voluntarily submit their messages to scrutiny.
But Keith Hazel, a prophet from Calgary, Alberta, and the leader of LifeLinks, a fellowship of 60 churches, says efforts at peer accountability within the prophetic movement are often ineffective.
"Most are accountable to each other, and no one ever calls them to give explanation to their unfulfilled and often dramatic prophetic words," he says. "There is a tendency to speak esoterically about mysterious and undefined things and later reinterpret them to prove that they are indeed true prophets."
Hazel suggests that the current prophetic movement has been diverted with the advancement of personal agendas and the building of reputations to comply with an "American superstar brand of Christianity."
"In the context of the New Testament, this is unique," he contends, "since the prophets of the Bible loved obscurity and went about their work with humility."
Wagner agrees that the movement has its share of mavericks. But in his view, the issue is maturity, not heresy.
"Where are we now when it comes to having a functional accountability system?" he asks. "On a scale of one to 10, we're at about a four. Prophets tend to be independent, so they're not under the direct covering of an apostle. Most prophets are hypersensitive to criticism. But it's a function of insecurity, because we're in the beginning of a movement."
While some may have a perception of prophets ministering in independence, many note a trend toward partnership and cooperation of prophets with other ministries in the church.
"We're seeing prophetic ministry becoming integrated into a place of safety and balance by prophets' willingness to function alongside other seasoned ministries for accountability," Clem Ferris says.
"The most seasoned and trustworthy prophetic voices today will demonstrate a spirit of submission, humility and love, while walking with fellow local church elders."
Ted Haggard says that prophecy keeps the church from becoming impotent, irrelevant and dry. "It's a life-giving flow of communication from heaven--it's irreplaceable in New Testament ministry," he says.
Michael Fletcher notes that the network of churches he oversees ultimately owes its effectiveness to the ministry of prophets, who partner with other ministries in their midst.
"They are the edge; they help us stay ahead of our game," he says. "Prophets provoke in the local church the reality of God; they enable us to find where people best fit in the body; they provoke the use of spiritual gifts in others."
Navigating the dangerous world of prophecy and finances
While most in the church have no problem with compensating pastors, evangelists and teachers for their service in the kingdom, the place where finances and prophetic ministry intersect can often be a minefield of controversy. Prophetic ministry takes a particularly dangerous turn when it finds its way into fund-raising methods often seen on Christian television.
During a recent national telethon, several well-known preachers "prophesied" to audience members that they would receive benefits ranging from complete financial restoration to "increase in greatness" and even "apostolic authority." Outside the context of a fund-raising effort, most would consider such prophecies commonplace, but many were alarmed when the speakers made their fulfillment conditional on financial gifts.
In the midst of such claims, it's easy to forget that prophets--like other ministers--are worthy of compensation. Peter Wagner notes that the sensitivity surrounding prophetic ministry and money is exacerbated by the perception that monetary gifts may influence the content of the prophecy.
"There are some prophets who are manipulative, using prophecy to get money or control," he says. But Wagner believes these are an exception, not a rule, citing a friend in prophetic ministry who sometimes returns love gifts when he senses that the person sending the gift has wrong motives.
While some would argue that prophets should eschew financial remuneration completely to avoid scandal, Ted Haggard believes that prophets should receive the same compensation prescribed for elders (see 1 Tim. 5:17-18).
"However, prophecy for profit causes people hesitation and invites criticism," he contends. "It dishonors the cause of Christ for those who operate in the prophetic to be compared to a psychic hotline."
So, how should prophets in our midst be supported?
Cindy Jacobs notes that providing compensation for a prophet is no different from giving a love offering to a teacher, pastor or evangelist, but she admits that there is more opportunity for abuse among prophets, because of the "weightiness" of the gift's power.
Jacobs believes the solution is to consistently combine prophecy with sound teaching, so that gifts become an expression of appreciation for the composite ministry of the prophet, not merely the prophetic words.
"We have to raise money, but I'm always careful not to make people feel beholden to me because I gave them a prophecy," she says. "We believe in the law of sowing and reaping, but we need to be cautious about what we say and how we say it. We can't buy the anointing."