Priests or Prophets?

Current Affairs / Religion

Mark Silk posted a riff that was occasioned by a post by a UCC pastor who was very very concerned that McCain and Obama were holding a joint event to day in an evangelical mega-church. She’s particularly worried that this action of their serves to legitimate a civil role for evangelical churches that Rick Warren typifies.

Silk writes, regarding the question of the civil role:

“Establishmentarian religion serves to bless, convene, and otherwise hold a sacred umbrella over the community at large. When consensus has to be built, it is there to build it; when a common goal has to be achieved, it is there to hallow it. Nationally, in the first part of the 20th century, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopalians or the Bishop of the Methodists or the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterians were there to do the job. After World War II, a more interfaith approach came to the fore. Perhaps the greatest contribution of establishmentarianism in American history was to set its seal on the civil rights movement.

But the lesson mainstream religion took away from that era was not of its own role but of the prophetic one, incarnated in Martin Luther King, Jr. And ever since, it is the image of the prophet, not the priest, that has mesmerized the imaginations of American religious leaders. That goes, of course, for those evangelical leaders who, modeling themselves on the black civil rights clergy they had once reviled, created the religious right a generation ago.”

Read the full article here.

Silk makes an assertion that I’d not ever thought about. The conservative religious voice sees itself as speaking just as prophetically to the secular world and to the nation as does the liberal religious voice.

So who is the true prophet? How do we decide?

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Nick writes: “So who is the true prophet? How do we decide?
    I know you meant this as a shorthand summary question, Nick, but as stated, it’s too hard a problem — and it assumes facts not in evidence, viz., that there is such a thing as a “true prophet.”
    Reframing the question might make it more tractable: In deciding whether to do (or refrain from) Action X, how do we determine the extent to which we will allow ourselves to be influenced by Prophetic Teaching A?
    We find some guidance, of course, in two of my favorite Scripture passages. The first is Deut. 18.21-22: ‘You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD ?” If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.
    The second is 1 Thess. 5.19-21 (The Message Bible): “Don’t suppress the Spirit, and don’t stifle those who have a word from the Master. On the other hand, don’t be gullible. Check out everything, and keep only what’s good.
    On the merits, we could do worse than to judge prophecy by the Summary of the Law. It can be paraphrased as, Always face the facts of the reality that God created, as opposed to living in a fantasy reality created by your own imagination; and always seek the best for others as you do for yourselves.
    I would expand on the Summary of the Law by emphasizing two crucial facts that we too often fail to face: First, our powers of observation and inference are limited; what we think we know may be incomplete or flat-out wrong. Second, things change; we can’t assume that what we observed in the past is the same as it was.

  2. Thanks D.C. You’re right – I meant the use of the phrase as a shorthand summary of a much larger problem. And by my use, I meant to indicate that the problem might well be intractable since we have too different competing claims and no clear methodology for discriminating between them.
    I’ve written about this elsewhere. People have been claiming the mantle of a prophet way too easily for my taste. (And just to be clear… I have not heard God calling me to be a prophet, so I’m not throwing my hat in the ring.)
    In Eastern Orthodoxy there’s a concept of “reception” that we’re not talking much about in the Episcopal Church. A true teaching by the spirit is one that is accepted by the people of God that represent the body of Christ in the world. The church’s changed stance on kosher laws, the teaching on the Trinity, on the inherent evil of slavery, on equal rights for individuals (which overthrows racism) have all been pretty much universally received by the Church. But that reception was not instantaneous in any of the instances and for some that I listed the process is still ongoing.
    Perhaps the only way to test the truth of a prophetic claim is to have sufficient distance (in time?) that we can discern the true source of the claim. (Is it our desire or projection of the same onto God, or is it God?) But for that to happen we’d all have to act a great deal more humbly and treat each other much more gently. And that doesn’t seem likely given our present trajectory.

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