Three times in my life, now, someone has told me that they have received a direct and special revelation from God. Three times in my life, now, has someone said that their words in some unique way represent the very nature and will of God.
The first time, I was in my final year as the Youth Minister of a church in Louisville, about to be appointed to serve as the pastor of my own church. One of my closest friends had been the pastor, but he requested a transfer to another church, to be replaced by a man with whom, I soon learned, no matter how kind he was to me and my family, I simply could not work.
In one of his first sermons before his new congregation this pastor claimed that God spoke to him in the middle of the night, telling him to say what he was about to say. He had, in other words, received a special revelation from God, which in an authoritative way represented the will of God, which he was to then communicate to his congregation.
When I told my grandfather, a retired Southern Baptist pastor turned author of devotional books, he told me to tell my boss that the next time God called him up in the middle of the night, he should call me and place God on three-way calling so that I could hear the voice too! While my grandfather's comment may have been in jest, he understood the dynamics of the situation well. When someone claims a revelation from God which no one else can test or even witness, no parameters can be placed on that revelation. When the person claiming such a revelation is in a position of authority over a congregation, the situation becomes even more dangerous. To their own authority is added, if anyone in the congregation believes them, the very authority of God.
The next time someone claimed a unique and personal revelation from God, I was - though I didn't know it at the time - about to resign after only four months as a pastor. The chair of my Pastor-Parish Relations Committee, the committee responsible for overseeing the pastor and for mediating disputes between the pastor and the congregation, called me in the middle of the week to complain about my preaching. She was a charismatic woman, who had a profound and life-altering salvation experience, which she saw as ushering her into a special relationship with God. Her complaint was not with my skill as a preacher, or with the professionalism with which I executed my duties as pastor (both of which had been problems with their previous pastors), but rather with my interpretation of scripture and the theology which I taught from the pulpit.
"Freedom of the Pulpit" is a long-valued Methodist tradition. Simply put a pastor is not employed by the individual congregation which he or she serves, but rather by the United Methodist Conference in which they serve. They are then appointed to a particular congregation, and charged with using their gifts to meet the needs which they and the Conference to which they are accountable identify for that congregation. While the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee (or, in churches with more than one staff member, the Staff-Parish Relations Committee) has a role in evaluating the pastor's performance and in communicating local concerns to the pastor, the pastor has near-absolute freedom to teach and preach as she or he sees fit, under the supervision of the Conference Board of Ordained Minister, the District Committee on Ministry, and the District Superintendent, and not the local congregation.
Placing the pastor's freedom to teach and preach beyond the supervision of the local congregation allows the pastor to, in some way, preach and teach prophetically, telling the congregation things which they may not want to hear. Because of this, not all congregations value the pastor's "Freedom of the Pulpit," because it means that the theology taught in their church may not be a theology which they agree with.
A friend of mine, now retired, was a pastor in the American South during segregation. Feeling called by God to speak out on behalf of the Civil Rights movement, he preached racial equality in every church that he served - by no means a popular or even safe decision. After one sermon he overheard two men in a heated discussion in the back of the church. One of the men was berating my friend, calling down curses on him for such sins as race-mixing and stirring up trouble. The other man, my friend recalls, calmly said,
"I don't like what he has to say anymore than you do. But, if he can't tell us what he really thinks, we've got nothing."
My congregation, and particularly the woman who chaired the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee, didn't see it that way. Faced with a pastor who had the nerve to tell them that their vision of God was a destructive one, counter to the Gospel, the "good news," something simply had to be done. So she called me at home to give me a laundry list of complaints from the congregation, and to set me straight about some things. I was dead wrong, she asserted, in some of the things I was saying from the pulpit. How did she know this? God told her.
When someone claims a unique revelation from God, a revelation which can be neither witnessed nor tested from the outside, there can be no discussion with that person. God agrees with them, so it doesn't matter what you say or why you say it. To disagree with them is to disagree with God.
Earlier this week someone contacted me about an essay which I had written. The conversation at first seemed constructive, but as it dragged on it became stranger and stranger. This person claimed to have had conversations with God, in which God revealed things to them. In short, the content of that revelation, while private and totally inaccessible to others, trumped all religions traditions and reasoned theological statements. This conversation brought to mind my two previous encounters with claims of direct revelation, and forced me to consider a problem.
It is easy to dismiss such modern claims of special revelation, especially (as in the first two examples) you know the person making the claim. You see their basic humanness, their fundamental character flaws. Sure, they're not bad people; you've seen far worse. But neither are they such saints that they could claim, by virtue of any merit they possess, some special insight into the nature of God. They've been wrong before, and they'll be wrong again, so it is easy to assert that when they make such reckless and dangerous claims, that they are obviously wrong.
And yet, when they make claims of some special revelation, they are following a pattern set before them by our own religious tradition. After all, they are not the first people to claim some revelation from God which provides special insight into the very nature or will of God. The Bible is full of such claims of special revelation. Such is the nature of prophetic literature.
A prophet is simply someone who receives a message from God, and then shares it with a community of faith. What, then, separates the prophets of old from the modern would-be prophets mentioned above? My friends at Debunking Christianity would probably say "nothing." They might applaud me for seeing such a troubling connection between an easily discredited modern phenomenon and the ancient claims which lie at the heart of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, and then lament that I lack the courage to, in face of this, abandon my faith in a pre-modern superstition.
What, after all, is the difference between my former pastor claiming to have heard the inaudible voice of God, and this conversation between Jeremiah and God, recorded in Jeremiah 1:4-10 (JPS), in which Jeremiah is called to go and speak for God:
The word of the LORD came to me:
Before I created you in the womb, I selected you;
Before you were born, I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet concerning the
Ah, Lord God!
I don't know how to speak,
For I am still a boy.
And the LORD said to me:
Do not say, "I am still a boy,"
But go wherever I send you
And speak whatever I command you.
Have no fear of them,
For I am with you to deliver you
-declares the LORD.
The LORD put out His hand and touched my mouth,
and the LORD said to me: Herewith I put My words into your mouth.
See, I appoint you this day
Over nations and kingdoms:
To uproot and to pull down,
To destroy and to overthrow,
To build and to plant.
Jeremiah's prophetic authority rests on his direct revelation from God; his calling by God to represent the Word of God. But isn't it, in form, just like the revelatory claims mentioned above? Doesn't consistency demand that if the one is impossible then the other is impossible, and if the one is possible then the other is possible? Doesn't, in other words, consistency demand that if the three above claims are absurd, then the claims of Jeremiah and the other Biblical prophets must be equally absurd?
Such a treatment, however, overlooks what the Biblical prophets and these modern would-be prophets do not have in common: a spiritual community to support their revelatory claims.
For a prophetic claim to make it into a collection of works which is seen by more than one enduring religion as representing in some special way the very Word of God, it has to be accepted not only by a community of faith in its own time. It must also transcend its own time, and be accepted by generations as an authentic revelation. It must speak beyond its time and place to all times and all places.
The process of moving from a claim prophetic revelation to the Biblical canon was for these claims a very long and arduous one. According to Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos, Dora Pierce Professor of Bible and Professor of Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and author of several books, including Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice and Reformed and Feminist (long-time readers know that this is not the first time she - my former teacher - has been mentioned here) the process includes:
1. The initial revelatory claim: that is, for instance, Jeremiah's teachings in his own lifetime.
2. The acceptance of that claim by a community.
3. The later recording and compiling of the teachings represented by that initial claim, which often happens long after the death of the prophet.
4. The acceptance of the writings by a community.
5. The growing claim that, in some way, the initial teachings and the writings in which the teachings were compiled represent in some special way the very Word of God.
(These are not her exact words, but my memory of a lecture which she gave on the subject. And, as you know, memory is a tricky thing, so I apologize if I have in some way accidentally misrepresented the details of her view. Amy, is this basically what you remember?)
While it is dangerous to use science as a metaphor for religion, the process of moving from the initial claim of divine revelation to its codification in scripture is not entirely unlike the scientific peer-review process. The revelatory claim, in other words, must be backed up by the experience of others, even if that experience isn't an empirical one. The revelation isn't just a case of God speaking to one person, in isolation. Sure, it might start that way. But then the person receiving the revelation is called to go out and share it with others. As they, the people of God and intended audience of the special revelation, receive and accept the revelation as mediated through the prophet, it becomes accepted as the Word of God.
Each of the people claiming some special revelation from God are, frankly, not on par with the prophets of old. Corrupted by spiritual pride, and using their revelation as a weapon against others to accumulate power and authority for themselves, they may or may not believe that they received an authentic revelation from God; but whether they even believe that themselves, their revelatory claim has not been supported by anyone else. It has not been accepted by a community, nor is it often even presented to a community for acceptance.
I can't say whether or not there are in fact cases of special divine revelation, either today or in the past. I'll never know that, and frankly I'm perfectly comfortable not knowing. I can say that the people who make revelatory claims as a means by which to dominate religious discussion and claim that God agrees with them are not in a good position to judge the merits of their own claims. So used to seeing themselves as right, would they recognize the voice of God if God had the audacity to disagree with them?
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