Is the Gift of Prophecy in the Church Today Handled Carefully and with Discernment?

Having spoken in and visited a wide variety of churches over the years, I want to share some thoughts on the gift of prophecy, and prophetic utterances, especially in our churches. I am frankly concerned with what we say to the world, but in particular what we say to our children and grandchildren, when we label statements made in our churches—which are not biblically grounded and/or do not prove to be accurate—as a “word from the Lord.”

Many prophetic utterances I have heard are expressly biblical: “God says He loves this church as His own bride.” Great, God’s Word has been spoken. Of course, a person without a prophetic gift also has Scripture and can and should speak it; this doesn’t require supernatural enablement.

Many “prophetic words” are general and non-predictive enough that they are impossible to confirm or deny. E.g. “God says He will be glorified in our midst and bring people to Himself through this church.” No doubt He will, but it will be impossible to conclude that this word has or has not been fulfilled. Even if we see no new converts, we can suppose that some have come to Christ in the workplace and through the giving and example of our church members.

Other prophetic words do have a predictive element. “Someone sitting here is suffering from cancer; God promises He will heal them today.” Someone may come forward and say, “It was me.” Time will tell if there is healing. If there is, praise God. (And hopefully the healing is confirmed after tests show the cancer is gone, rather than announcing a healing one Sunday only to be followed by the funeral six weeks later.) But even if no one comes forward and claims to be healed of cancer, the prophetic word is still trusted: it’s assumed that yes, someone was healed, but they didn’t know they even had cancer, so they didn’t know they were healed, and that’s why we haven’t heard the report. OK. That’s possible.

Still other words are highly specific. For example, deaconess Sally West stands up and states, “God says He will fill this auditorium to overflowing, so that six months from now, so many people will be coming to this church there will not be room for them.” “Hallelujahs” and “Amen” abound. If it proves true, people will remember the prophecy. If six months from now there are still hundreds of empty seats in the church, no one will talk about that prophecy. But some will quietly wonder and doubt.

If Sally West is right one out of six times, it can be confirmed one way or the other, then it’s like the roll of the dice. When Sally brings another prophecy, the discerning will wonder, even though they may not risk sounding unspiritual by raising the question, why they should believe her words. Sadly, when they hear God’s Word preached, they may doubt it too, since no clear distinction has been made between the words of the prophet Jeremiah and the words of the prophet Sally West. Both had a gift and calling to speak God’s words, didn’t they?

This is part of my problem. We can’t have it both ways. Either Sally is bringing words from God like the biblical prophets did, or she is not. If she is speaking with God’s authority like a prophet of old and her words do not come true, by Old Testament law she should be stoned—or at very least, in our “age of grace,” she should be discredited and no longer trusted to bring prophetic words. And, presumably, she should be encouraged to remain seated rather than stand and speak on behalf of a God who she has a history of misunderstanding or misrepresenting.

But if she’s not bringing a prophetic word in the sense that Jeremiah was, then this should be made crystal clear. Because I’ve talked with so many confused people about this, I don’t think it’s usually made clear by church leaders. (Sometimes, yes, but often not.) At the very least, shouldn’t someone say, “Since your prophetic gift, just like a gift of teaching or exhortation, can be misdirected and you can misread the Sprit’s leading and can’t be sure your words are from God, we ask you not to say the words ‘Thus saith the Lord’” (unless you’re willing to be put to death if it becomes clear your prophetic word wasn’t valid).

To be honest, when someone says to a church assembly, “Thus saith the Lord,” I think they should be corrected on the spot unless they’re quoting or at least paraphrasing or summarizing Scripture.

Scripture is indeed what the Lord says. But when someone “senses” something is God’s will, or has words come into their minds, they may sincerely think they have a prophetic gift, or that they’re hearing a prophetic word, but they may come up with something which either violates Scripture or even if it doesn’t is simply NOT a word from God. They can sincerely love God while bringing up nearly any thoughts that come to their mind.

How do they know or not know they’re speaking words from God? When you have a gift of teaching, the text has an objectivity to it; true, you can misinterpret and misstate it but there is accountability and correction because others have the same Bible in front of them. But barring an obvious violation of Scripture, who is to say the “prophetic word” is or isn’t from the Lord? Who else can enter into the person’s head and help sort out what may be from the Lord and what may be from the recent divorce or inheritance or low blood sugar or something that came to mind through watching American Idol?

I have words come to my mind as all of us do. I see God’s hand in this, and I believe He has given me portions of my books, and I hope His hand is on most of what’s in the books. But would I claim, “My book is a prophetic utterance; it is a Word from God”? No. Yet wouldn’t I hope my books, after all the thought and prayer and Bible study and editorial input, would in the end be just as true and God-honoring as what a person might stand up and say off the top of their head in church, even if moved by God’s Spirit?

Now, Wayne Grudem’s definition of prophecy might allow my books, with all their flaws, to be like long written prophetic utterances, since he believes the gift of prophecy allows for significant misunderstanding, error, and misstatement. But in my opinion, this is not how the average person in our churches understands a “prophecy”, or a “word from God.”

On page 413 of Bible Doctrine, Grudem has a chart of a man’s head with “revelation” coming into his head from God and “prophecy” coming out of his mouth. The problem is what lies between revelation and prophecy: the man’s head. His head is full of childhood joys or miseries, abuse, pain, bias, propaganda, and desires, fulfilled and unfulfilled. These will affect what he thinks, which includes what he thinks God is saying to him.

How many men have come to women in our churches saying “God told me I should marry you”? One man in our church told that to a woman and she believed it (I think he did too). He abused her terribly for years and now they’re divorced and she’s in recovery. Of course, another man can say that and the woman believes him and the story turns out great. But the point is, aren’t we as human beings often not trustworthy in discerning which thoughts in our brain come from God and which are just from us or from the world? But when we say “God says this” many people in the church will believe it, even if they shouldn’t.

1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 says, “Quench not the Spirit. Despise not prophesyings. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” This is a beautiful balance in appreciating prophecies, while using discernment to determine what’s good and what isn’t, and embrace the good while filtering out the bad.

Because so many church-attenders do not know Scripture, they are not inclined and not equipped to do what the Bereans did and match up what is being said with what Scripture says (Acts 17:11). Indeed, they’re not studying the Scriptures daily in the first place. They’re watching television and listening to talk radio and spending time on social media, but this doesn’t equip them to discern whether what they’re thinking is really from God. They need their church leaders to help them by clarifying the fundamental difference between the infallible Word of God and the very fallible prophetic utterance.

“Thus saith the Lord” in particular can be an incredibly arrogant or presumptuous statement whenever it’s not followed by words from Scripture. While they sought to be accurate and faithful, of course, I doubt that Paul and Peter and Luke were even themselves aware that what they wrote was fully divinely inspired. If we believe the gift of prophecy is essentially the same as was given to the writers of Scripture (and while Grudem doesn’t, some undiscerning people do), then the Bible is but a tiny fraction of God’s revelation to us, way less than one percent.

Hundreds of thousands of pages worth of “Thus saith the Lord” statements have been stated in churches for two thousand years. If you just took the prophetic utterances stating or implying “Thus saith the Lord” that are uttered in any given weekend across this country in thousands of churches—some with multiple prophetic utterances in multiple services, amounting to tens of thousands of weekly “prophetic utterances from the Lord”—they could easily exceed the word count of Scripture.

Some of these people are deliberately seizing a platform for their own agendas. Some prophetic utterances end up promoting multi-level marketing, business investments, car dealerships, etc. Let’s exclude these extremes entirely and only deal with those that are sincere, which is I think most of them. But when it comes to speaking the mind of God, and especially the very words of God, sincerity just isn’t enough. For instance, well-spoken “prophetic words” with repeated “Thus saith the Lord” have been stated that convey God’s intention for a church to acquire a certain piece of real estate.

Suppose this is the “word from the Lord” spoken to the church: “God is saying He wishes us to buy that abandoned strip mall and develop it for his glory.”

Well, no doubt the person speaking sincerely believes it. (Let’s assume he doesn’t own the abandoned strip mall.)

If it doesn’t pan out, a leader might privately admit, “Well, maybe brother so and so was a little off in the details, or maybe his timing was wrong.” But saying this publicly may erode confidence in “words from the Lord” (including the ultimate Word from the Lord, Scripture). On the other hand, some people will always believe the man was right but the church didn’t act on it properly, and God’s revealed will wasn’t followed.

Or maybe the whole thing was not from the Lord, but just this brother’s idea that he had one day driving by the strip mall. Or maybe he heard of a church that bought a strip mall and used it for God’s glory, so he sensed that would be a good thing to do, and next thing you know he was speaking the words as if they were a revelation from God. Remember, he’s been told he has “the gift,” and that means that his subjective idea, his opinion, and the words that come together in his mind to express that opinion, can now be understood and declared as a revelation from God.

How many ideas come and go from all of our minds? Some of them are good, some bad, some profound, others ridiculous. But hopefully we know enough not to think that whatever pops into our minds is necessarily from God.

Hopefully we don’t lay claim to spontaneous thoughts, even those that might seem spiritual, as being revelations from God. If we prematurely conclude “this must be from God” often we’ll not act wisely. If we speak too soon, we may later be embarrassed by what we said, realizing it was our own impulsive notion, not the revealed will of God. But if we’ve publicly declared it as a word from God, what now?

The biblical command “be quick to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19) has application sometimes even to what might be from the Lord. This is my concern about the thoughts that suddenly come to mind during church where someone assumes God is speaking to them, though they’ve had no time to weigh the thoughts against Scripture, nor to consult with wise godly counselors.

In my own life some things which have popped into my head, including a sense of what I should say or do, have proven unwise on further reflection. Many of the things in which I clearly see the hand of God are things I did not immediately see as coming from Him. It wasn’t that God directly revealed to me exactly what He wanted, but that I prayed and sought guidance from his Word and wise brethren, and made a choice, and now looking back we see how God blessed that choice. Certainly I’ve done certain things I would otherwise never have done on my own because I sensed an unmistakable direction from God (including civil disobedience on behalf of unborn children). But mostly life doesn’t work that way for me—usually I don’t have instantaneous revelation, but have to seek and pray for wisdom over time.

Suppose someone in the church senses God’s leading to stand and say, “God has revealed to me that He desires our church to begin a soup kitchen and a jail ministry and a halfway house to reach the least of Christ’s brethren.” Wouldn’t it make sense to hold off speaking to the congregation and bring this prophetic word privately to the church leaders first, and ask for their prayer and guidance? Then, if God is in this, go ahead and bring the prophetic word a week from now. If it was from God, won’t it still be from God in a week? (And maybe the leaders will meanwhile say, “We sense God’s direction here, but we need to start these ministries one at a time, and we think we should start with the jail ministry.” Then you won’t make the church think that if they wait on the soup kitchen, they’ve disobeyed God.)

It seems to me that elder-qualified church leaders, people of prayer, have a responsibility to discern God’s direction for the flock that can be quickly bypassed by the sincere musician who feels led to say, “Thus saith the Lord, I want this church to have an orchestra.”

Don’t misunderstand. I crave God’s voice, and would welcome it wholeheartedly. The idea doesn’t frighten me (if it happened, maybe it would); it excites me. I have sensed the Lord give me words as I share my faith and as I speak. I have said things while speaking that never before had entered my head, which I knew were not from me. (A couple of times I’ve wanted to stop and write it down because God was speaking more to me than to anyone and I didn’t want to forget it.) Yet I’ve never sensed these words were dictated to me, and I have to realize it is a subjective feeling on my part by which I determine God was really speaking.

At times in my life I’ve cried out for unmistakable direction, clear and resounding words from God. As a high school Christian I diligently sought the gift of tongues and baptism of the Sprit, praying for them night after night, but nothing happened. A godly man said to me, “God will not give you the gift of tongues as long as you keep praying in English.” He gave me a book with syllables to repeat to “prime the pump.” But it didn’t seem right or authentic to me.

In retrospect I realize I already had the baptism of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13), and God gave me other gifts besides tongues, but my point is I would love miraculous interventions of God, and to hear direct words from God, but I have found God to work in my life in less directly revelatory ways. Far more illumination has come from studying, meditating on, and discussing His Word than from momentary “Thus says the Lord” revelations. Of course, I don’t mean He must work the same in other people’s lives.

Suppose that prophetic word about the church buying the strip mall, which the church has given a platform for, is actually believed by the people, and they fear to disagree with it, because who wants to disagree with a word from God, or even a word that is likely from God? To try to come up with the necessary money to buy the strip mall, people may curtail their giving to missions and go further into debt. This strip mall is now synonymous with the will of God, by virtue of prophetic revelation.

In a normal discussion, we in a church could pray about it and share our opinions, citing various Scriptures and giving equal weight to various viewpoints. But who can give equal weight to a prophet and a non-prophet? One spoke a command from God to buy the strip mall, while another “only” studies Scripture and suggests that it may not be the best stewardship.

And how motivated to study Scripture is the one who strongly senses he hears and speaks the words of God? To ask God to show from Scripture whether or not to pursue the strip mall might be seen as a lack of faith, since it has been prophetically revealed.

I think this situation produces a terrible dilemma. Without intending to, many churches are feeding this through their failure to define and clarify what constitutes an unmistakable word from God, namely the Word of God itself. (Of course, many other churches are feeding a disbelief that God never speaks to His people and through His people.)

Many who are bringing prophetic words have been told or have decided on their own “this is my gift.” Now, when an idea or thought pops into my mind, it’s just that, a thought or idea. But when a thought or idea occurs to those with a prophetic gift, suddenly it may take on prophetic revelatory significance. Where someone goes to college or even where they eat dinner may no longer be a matter of wisdom and the Spirit’s still small voice of direction, but a matter of direct revelation from the Spirit. Just as a “gift of discernment” is often a spiritualized cover for a judgmental and critical spirit, so a “gift of prophecy” may be a spiritual cover for impulsiveness, subjectivity, and laziness in searching the Scriptures. Why would I search the Scriptures when I believe God frequently bypasses them and just talks to me directly?

Cult leaders and heretics can be extremely articulate and use words to mislead. Jim Jones spoke persuasive prophetic words, and likely believed most of them, but those words led to mass suicide. Who was more eloquent, charismatic, and persuasive than Hitler? I think many of us need to learn to distrust our immediate thoughts and reactions, and correct them by God’s Word. With the gift of prophecy as it is often understood, I’ve noticed there is a tendency to trust more the words that just “come to you.”

It’s easy to encourage people to believe a spontaneous thought likely came straight from God. Hence, a woman informed me that God told her he wanted her to become involved with a certain man. Never mind that the man was married to someone else. Because when the Spirit speaks to you, you must listen. (That’s an extreme example of course, but when “God told me” means “that’s what ran through my mind” rather than “that’s what the Bible says” there is an inherent danger.)

I believe that prophetic utterances aren’t 100 percent reliable, any more than teachings are, and they should always be placed under the authority of Scripture. Having a speaking gift doesn’t always mean that what is spoken is correct. Many heretics have been gifted speakers and teachers.

However, I struggle with the practical outworking of this understanding of the gift of prophecy. True, the abuse of a gift does not discredit the gift itself. But in my opinion, a major effort needs to be made in the Christian community to qualify so-called “words from the Lord” and “prophetic utterances” as not having any inherent authority. This, however, is extremely difficult, partly because of the very terminology. A prophecy is to most people a word from the Lord. So if we have someone stand up in church and speak a “word from the Lord,” shouldn’t we expect our people to believe it is from the Lord (unless we specifically say otherwise)?

Sometimes we’re so overly fearful of being tricked that we are too cynical. Better to be taken in once in a while than discredit what actually is from God. And, yes, Paul says we are fools for Christ—it doesn’t bother me a bit that the world thinks me foolish for believing in Jesus, miracles, resurrection, Christ’s return, etc. But faith and gullibility are not synonymous. Faith is toward God, gullibility is toward men. It is easy for us to trust in men, especially Christian men and “men of God,” rather than trust in God himself, as revealed in His Word.

During the Toronto movement I spoke at a charismatic church in Philadelphia that was exceptionally biblical in its orientation. (I’d spoken there before and I knew they took the Scriptures very seriously.) Four of the pastors had just come back from Toronto. A few had been caught up in the barking like dogs and roaring like lions and other things, and believed it was of God. Their hearts were greatly opened to the Lord. I love and respect these men, and I will not tell God He cannot make a congregation bark like dogs if He wants to.

But I will say that many of the things that came out of Toronto and many of the claims that were made (I saw some of it) did not match up to Scripture and should have been corrected before they spread further. I can’t help but believe that it was their conviction that the people on the platform were speaking prophetically, speaking actual words given them by God, which caused so many people to abandon any Scripture-based spiritual discernment.

Acts 17:11 says, “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Consider whose words they were commended for judging by Scriptures: the words of the Apostle Paul! If Paul’s spoken words (not his written letters already recognized as being part of the revealed canon of Scripture) were to be subjected to this biblical scrutiny, how much more should yours, mine, Grudem’s, our pastors’, and a person who stands up at our church and says, “God is speaking to me and this is what He says”!

Some years ago here in Portland, someone stood at a well-respected charismatic church and declared that God would send a great earthquake to judge our city. He gave the specific date. His “prophecy” was printed and widely circulated and believed for months by Christians throughout the Portland area. Evangelism was based on this—people needed to come to Christ in light of the judgment to come upon them. But the day came and went without an earthquake. I didn’t know the man who gave the prophecy, but I was assured he was a dedicated follower of Christ, a credible person with a prophetic gift.

One of the pastors of the church made a public apology. But the result was that a large number of Christians looked extremely foolish. But looking foolish wasn’t the worst thing. It was looking foolish for the particular reason of believing a “word from the Lord.” But in fact it was not a word from the Lord. By calling it a prophetic word it was given a credibility it turned out not to deserve.

When the same churches who believed this prophecy went back to preaching the Scriptures, that the risen Christ is returning again and bringing judgment to the earth, saying it was promised by prophets, would we expect people to believe that? Can they see the difference, if we failed to?

In my opinion, we dare not fail to distinguish between the one kind of prophecy, the full-fledged real deal in Scripture, and the other kind, which is so-called and sometimes proves to be authentic and other times inauthentic (even if sincere) and often we can’t know which.

That’s why I think we better limit “Thus saith the Lord” to Scripture and nothing else. Even if those words are not stated the average person thinks “if this is a word from God, then it is the Word of God; and if it’s not a word from God, why is the church providing a platform and, by implication, an endorsement for it, and why are the pastors letting us listen to it?” Even silence is a form of endorsement. (I remember how painful it was as a pastor for us to have to get up and correct from the Scriptures a nationally known Christian speaker who had said some unbiblical things from the pulpit. But we felt accountable to God to do so, because we were shepherds who must guard God’s flock.)

In fact, I think Scripture gives us an often-neglected guideline regarding prophetic utterance that is clear and can and should be implemented in churches. 1 Corinthians 14:29-33 says “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.”

I’ll conclude with a positive story that puts this passage into practice. In 1992 I spoke for the first time at a church, one of a group of “reformed Charismatic” churches. Before I preached, during the worship, several people were standing up hoping to bring a prophetic word. But they were in a line in front of one of the pastors who was standing down front. Each person, while the worship music was going on, would whisper into the pastor’s ear, and he would whisper back. It appeared he was asking questions, seeking clarification. Then, after a while he would nod to the worship leader who would finish off a song, and the person would step to the microphone and speak a “prophetic word.”

I found these “prophetic words” to be biblically based, filled with exhortations to follow Christ more wholeheartedly. They were not predictive, nor did they involve insights about someone being healed. They were basically just good little 2-4 minute sermons, although some were specific to events in the congregation and I sensed they were truly words from the Lord.

After that service was over, my first question of the senior pastor was about the line in front of the other pastor. He explained that before anyone brings “a word from God” in one of these churches, he or she is to share it with the pastor up front, who will evaluate whether it seems true to Scripture and authentically from the Lord. Often they dialogue briefly so he’s certain he knows what they think they should say. He may give them some input or direction, suggesting they emphasize a particular component of the “word” and perhaps not another. Having had it evaluated in light of Scripture, they are encouraged to go ahead and speak the “prophetic utterance.”

In the times I’ve been in these churches, having heard dozens of prophetic words, I remember only one which made me uncomfortable (because someone prefaced it by saying “Thus says the Lord”). I truly enjoy these messages because I can breathe easy, listening for God’s voice while knowing that God’s Word will not be violated. And, by the way, should someone introduce theological error into their prophetic word, the pastors will take the microphone and correct it. (This assumes the pastors know Scripture, and these do.)

Since all the people know this, it has a great effect on the person who desires to take the microphone: “If you are going to bring a word from the Lord, you better make sure it lines up with Scripture.” In that case, the person with a prophetic gift has more reason to study the Word, not less.

“The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets” (1 Corinthians 14:32). In my opinion, this is the body of Christ rightly stewarding, encouraging, and guiding the exercise of spiritual gifts, to the glory of God.

If you wish to read more about the gift of prophecy today, what it is and what it isn't, an interesting book is Wayne Grudem's The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today.

Photo by Michelle Jimenez on Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries