- Church teaching
- Contemporary prophecy
Helpful as the writings and words of great Christian teachers are, our study of them must never take precedence over our study of the Bible itself. All human beings are fallible and can be misled and deceived - a fact which the apostle Paul recognised too well. 'Even if we... should preach' 'a different gospel' let us be 'eternally condemned' (Gal 1:8-9) It follows that we should maintain a healthy suspicion of all we hear, even from those we most respect within the church, having the attitude of the Bereans who when they heard the teaching of the apostle Paul 'examined the Scriptures every day' to see if it was true (Acts 17:11). All church teaching should drive us back to the Bible knowing that if any Christian teacher and the Bible ever disagree, then the teacher is wrong and the Bible right. Our views of medical ethics should not simply be absorbed from the pages of the books of Christian teachers without us asking the question, is this in line with Scripture? Christian teachers have a habit of perpetuating the errors of the past, and each is fallible in some respect. No-one but Christ has a perfect understanding of God's Word.
Conscience is a God-given faculty through which God can guide us but we need to ensure that our consciences are being continually shaped and moulded by exposure to God's word. Christians who claim to 'have a peace' about a certain course of action may simply have consciences which are uneducated through lack of exposure to God's word or blunted through habitual disobedience. Similarly those who 'feel convicted' may actually have oversensitive consciences which are more informed by human authority than God's law. So while we should take notice of conscience it has its limitations and must always be tested against God's Word. If given the wrong place it can lead us astray. So it is not enough for a Christian to say that because their conscience is clear over some medical ethical decision that therefore their decision must be correct. A clear conscience does not mean that we are therefore innocent as Paul clearly reminds us in 1 Corinthians 4:4.
There is of course a broad diversity of opinion among Christians about the contemporary function of the gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12. At one extreme are the cessationists who hold that the use of certain gifts such as prophecy ceased in New Testament times. At the other extreme are those who have jettisoned the Bible and rely entirely on 'prophetic words' for guidance. The first group despise all prophecy, the second group capitulate uncritically to everything claiming to be 'from the Lord'.
The Bible reveals that there were 'prophets' in New Testament times (Acts 13:1; 21:8-10; Eph 2:20; 3:5) and gives us no reason to believe that this ministry should not operate today. There are detailed instructions about both the functioning of prophetic gifts within the church (1 Cor 14; 1 Thes 5:19-21) and also about the discernment of true and false prophecy (Mt 7:15-20; 2 Pet 2; Jude 3-16). God clearly did speak to his people directly, to warn them (Acts 11:27; 21:10), to encourage them (Acts 15:32; 1 Cor 14:3) and specifically to direct them (Acts 16:6-10).However Jesus and the apostles also warned repeatedly about the dangers of false prophecy and throughout the whole of Scripture we are given principles for assessing it: Prophets who make false predictions are not speaking God's word (Dt 18:21-22), but neither are those whose true predictions are accompanied by false teaching (Dt 13:1-5). True prophecy exalts Christ (1 Jn 4:1-3), edifies the church (1 Cor 14:4) is consistent with existing Scripture (1 Cor 14:37-38) and is accompanied by a godly life (Mt 7:15- 20) and a teachable spirit (1 Cor 14:29-33) - for even those who have been used by God as his mouth-piece may be misled (Gal 2:11-13). What the speaker sincerely believes is a prophetic word may in fact have its origin in his imagination (Ezk 13:1) or worse still, in some ungodly source (1 Ki 22:19-23). This is why it is so important that all 'words from the Lord' be carefully weighed and tested (1 Thes 5:19-21; 1 Cor 14:29).
We should exercise caution and seek the confirmation of other Christians, and most importantly the words of Jesus and the apostles in the Bible. Any 'word' which is inconsistent with the teaching of the Bible cannot be from God and must be firmly rejected. Similarly any Christian who claims 'the Lord told me' contrary to the plain teaching of the Bible is simply wrong, regardless of the depth of their conviction.
Holding things in balance
Holding the commands of Christ means that we will have the respect he has for the Bible, and while not rejecting the fact that God can speak to us through church teaching, conscience and contemporary prophecy, we will be careful to test everything against Scripture. We should also have a sober view of our own capacity to be 'led astray'. If even Peter and Barnabas could be led astray, as they clearly were over the circumcision issue (Gal 2:11-13), then how much more may we?