What happens when a prophecy is not fulfilled? Does a false prophecy make a false prophet?
There were many prophecies in 2020 that Donald Trump would win re-election. Many still believe that he did and that the election was rigged. A large portion of the American evangelical church voted for Trump. Many are still in denial that Trump lost.
Jeremiah Johnson, a charismatic church leader in America, sent out a prophetic warning, “a chorus of mature and tested prophets” were in agreement; Trump had won. “Either a lying spirit has filled the mouths of numerous trusted prophetic voices in America or Donald J. Trump really has won the presidency and we are witnessing a diabolical and evil plan unfold to steal the Election. I believe in my heart the latter is true.”1
Johnson later repented, as did many other high profile American prophets who had prophesied Trump’s victory. But many have not and still believe Joe Biden’s presidency is a hoax.
This American evangelical fiasco raises serious questions about the state of the evangelical church and the charismatic and pentecostal movements embedded within evangelicalism in America.
Can the church still recognise a prophetic voice within its ranks and if so, how do we discern our prophets’ messages?
What is the point of prophecy?
The point of prophecy is not to predict the future but to speak for God. In speaking for God, a prophet may well predict the future, but this is not always the case.
Jonah is a classic example of a prophet sent by God with a message that didn’t come true. Jonah was called to warn the city of Nineveh to repent and turn from its evil ways. If this ancient metropolis refused to listen to Jonah, God would destroy the city in forty days.
Was Nineveh destroyed? No. Did that make Jonah a false prophet? No! Why? Because Nineveh repented and God forgave the city.
The point of prophecy is not to predict the future but to speak for God. And when God speaks, it is a call for us to turn from our idols to God. When we don’t, bad things happen. When we do, we are forgiven, and blessed by God.
The two cultures – dominant conservative vs prophetic alternative
In his classic book, The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann opens by correcting a common misapprehension about prophets and prophecies. “The dominant conservative misconception, evident in manifold bumper stickers, is that the prophet is a fortune-teller, a predictor of things to come.” Brueggemann argues this tends toward a mechanical reductionism of “the future as it impinges upon the presence.”2
Johnson was convinced he was on a roll with calling the Trump presidency. He had dreamed what he believed was the trifecta prophecy which included a World Series win by the Dodgers and a Donald Trump election win in 2020. Two out of three aint bad. But it doesn’t measure up to a prophecy in America if it doesn’t happen. The Dodgers won but, as we know, Donald lost.
Johnson now admits the danger of pandering to an audience wanting to hear about the president. “Nine out of ten messages I was preaching were about the Lord, nothing political or current… Whether you want to call it a temptation or not, that’s what sells.”3
None of us are perfect, and we are all called to ask God’s forgiveness of our trespasses and to forgive those who trespass against us (Matthew 6:12). But the question remains. What makes a prophet a prophet? Getting it right all the time? Staying away from critiquing the world’s idols – what’s political and current – for nine out of ten messages? Or playing it safe and sticking to words of encouragement?
Brueggemann offers a more comprehensive and biblical prophetic paradigm rooted in the Old Testament prophets such as Jeremiah and Isaiah in the tradition of Moses and continued in Jesus. “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”
This prophetic consciousness speaks out as a critical voice on the culture of our times. The prophetic voice dismantles and ‘calls out’ the dominant culture as illegitimate. The prophet speaks for God in rejecting the present order of things. Brueggemann holds that every dominant culture in every time is grossly uncritical. And the prophetic role of the church is to call this out.4
The call of the church is to nurture this prophetic imagination and voice in order to herald God’s kingdom to earth by evoking an alternative culture.
Brueggemann’s assessment of the prophetic imagination is cast in a recognition that God’s kingdom is still arriving on earth. God’s kingdom comes to us from beyond, revolutionising our dominant culture which is opposed to God’s kingdom. And this kingdom of God is heralded to us through the prophetic imagination both in the prophets, Christ and in the Church’s preaching now.
How do we know when God speaks?
So how is the prophetic voice in the church to discern between the dominant culture that God is ‘calling out’ and the alternative culture that God’s kingdom promises?
Many would say more prayer, even fasting, certainly repentance. And these are all praise worthy when committed with contrite hearts. But how can we hear God when we are more tuned in to our cultural icons, devoted to ideologies that put our self interest first, and box God into a theology that panders to our demands and expectations.
If we don’t recognise the dominant culture, how can we turn to God? If we don’t recognise the idols of our times how can we hear God speaking to us, the church? Won’t we be muddled, thinking our dominant culture and idols are God? But to know when God speaks means encountering God – the real thing, not the fake.
The 2021 storming of the United States Capital building is a stark reminder of how the dominant culture blinds us to the way of Jesus and the coming kingdom of God which we the church have been called to herald. Michael Stalcup sums up the confusion on 6 January 2021 as a violent mob stormed the Capitol.
“Here were stomach-turning contradictions on full display: the Christian flag flying alongside the Confederate battle flag, “Armor of God” jackets alongside a “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie, Jesus’ name emblazoned alongside Trump’s. Perhaps the most striking contrast of all was the juxtaposition of the Christian cross and the gallows erected outside the Capitol, anticipating the vigilante execution of our nation’s leaders. These gross misrepresentations of Christianity dragged God’s name through the mud in front of the whole world.”6
A first step in turning from such idols is learning to understand the difference between the coming of God’s kingdom on earth and the dominant culture that so easily deludes us.
In my next blog, Trump’s False Prophets II: This is not America, I will explore how we can better discern the difference between Christ’s coming knigdom and our world’s culture.
- Prophetic Reconing, by Stefani McDade in Christianity Today, July/August 2021, p58
- Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, (40th Anniversary Edition), Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2018, p2
- Prophetic Reckoning, p59
- Brueggemann, pp3-4
- This image was originally posted to Flickr by Tyler Merbler at https://flickr.com/photos/37527185@N05/50820534063.
- Michael Stalcup, Jesus Amoung The Insurrectionists, Red Letter Christians
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