The Church needs prophetic voices.
Throughout the bible, prophets have always boldly spoken truth to power, calling their people to repent of the systemic sins of their time and to turn toward God in renewed faith and devotion. And throughout the history of the Church, we have benefited greatly from such prophetic voices, which have been pivotal in starting reformations, revivals, awakenings, and civil rights movements.
Given the moral, political, and ideological upheaval that the American Church is currently experiencing, we could really use some prophetic voices in our time. Voices that can cut through the noise, courageously call out our collective sins, and inspire us in the direction of greater faithfulness to Jesus.
But there’s a not-so-subtle distinction between being a genuinely prophetic voice and being divisive and problematic.
That distinction just isn’t obvious to everyone. There is no small number of church leaders and Christian influencers who use their platforms to bully others, heap shame on them, or even to lead them into the direction of their idols rather than away from them.
To state it more directly, they are not prophets. They’re just jerks.
While Jesus was never one to beat around the bush to spare anyone’s feelings, the intent behind his words was always kindness and grace, as well as righteousness.
That can be a difficult needle to thread, and some of us do it better than others. In fact, we might even just do it better on some days than on others.
But if you have a public platform, or follow Christian leaders who do, here are four signs that reveal when someone has left the realm of being a prophetic voice and ventured into jerk territory.
1. Prophetic people purposefully engage with conflict. Jerks just perpetuate division.
In many ways, a person with a prophetic voice is born for conflict. A prophet necessarily stands in opposition to the status quo of sin, injustice, and complacency. What’s more is that they oppose the power structures and traditions that are serving to maintain that status quo. Having the courage to do so quickly creates enemies.
Jesus said it himself. Standing for what is good, pure, and true can be incredibly costly.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:34-38)
Even still, while the person with a prophetic voice is always willing to meaningfully engage with the conflict their words invite, they aren’t stirring up division simply because they enjoy the drama.
Only jerks do that.
Prophets speak plainly and directly, because they are burdened for the truth. Jerks are intentionally inflammatory, because they know that controversy will grow their platform. Prophets are ultimately looking to end the conflict for the sake of both righteousness and unity. Jerks are in it for the pageantry of war.While the person with a prophetic voice is always willing to meaningfully engage in the conflict their words invite, they aren't stirring up division simply because they enjoy the drama. Click To Tweet
2. Prophetic people speak to the sins of their own tribe. Jerks judge others.
While there are certainly instances where God called the prophets of old to speak messages of repentance to other nations, most of them spent their time speaking out against the ills of their own people.
Prophetic voices of our time need to be willing to look at their own tribes and faith traditions in the mirror and speak to the prevailing idols and collective blindspots.
The apostle Paul put it this way.
“For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.’” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13)
Likewise, the apostle Peter says, “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God” (1 Peter 4:17).
So another indicator that someone isn’t being prophetic but rather just being a jerk is if they are always talking about the sins of “those people.” The people who look nothing like them. The people whose struggles are completely different than themselves, their family, and their community.
Calling out the sins of “those people” costs you nothing. The people in your tribe applaud you, and “those people” aren’t listening anyway. Looking the people you love in the face and calling out their sin is what takes real courage.
Prophetic rebuke best takes place in the context of relationship.Prophetic rebuke best takes place in the context of relationship. Click To Tweet
3. Prophetic people are grieved and burdened. Jerks feel superior.
Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets deliver some pretty scathing rebukes. And they often used vivid and even literarily creative imagery to do so.
To cite one example, here’s what Ezekiel once said to his own people, the nation of Israel.
“And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor that I had bestowed on you, declares the Lord God. But you trusted in your beauty and played the whore because of your renown and lavished your whorings on any passerby; your beauty became his. You took some of your garments and made for yourself colorful shrines, and on them played the whore. The like has never been, nor ever shall be.” (Ezekiel 15:14-16)
We’d be hard pressed to find a more vivid censure in our own public discourse. Yet these words were directed by God himself.
Nevertheless, Ezekiel took no joy in delivering them. None of the prophets did. They were often grieved and sorrowful individuals. In fact, none of them ever applied for the job of prophet. They were often reluctant participants in their own ministries. Plagued by a sense of inadequacy, God dragged most of them into it kicking and screaming.
Someone who has been “gifted” with a prophetic voice feels the weight of it. They aren’t speaking hard truths because they feel like they’re so much better than everyone else. They have just been given an inescapable sense of duty by God to do so.
It’s difficult to detect the disingenuous humility of another person, but it will always reveal itself eventually. And what a person shows you in a momentary pulling back of the curtain can tell you a lot about whether they really are a prophet, or just a jerk.Someone truly gifted with a prophetic voice feels the weight of it. They aren't speaking hard truths because they think they're so much better than everyone else. They just have been given an inescapable sense of duty by God to do so. Click To Tweet
4. Prophetic people always point to grace and redemption. Jerks just like judgment.
It’s a common misconception about the bible that the Old Testament is all about law and judgment while the New Testament is all about grace and forgiveness. Both Testaments are about all four of those concepts.
When you read some of the prophets’ more graphic condemnations, it’s easy to lose sight of their overall message. But if you read through to the end of their prophecies, they always end on a promise of restoration and an invitation to redemption.
The prophets only used such strong words so that they could shake the people awake—catch their attention, so that they could be brought back into the fold. The prophets urgently warned their people of coming judgment. Not so that they could rub the people’s noses in it, but so that the people could avoid it altogether. Their singular mission was always redemption.
In fact, even when judgment became unavoidable because of Israel’s refusal to repent, the judgment always came with a promise of restoration and redemption. The prophets always reminded the people that their failure—no matter how horribly egregious—was never final. God would still honor his covenant with them. And he would eventually make all things new.
Prophetic voices are fighting for your redemption. Jerks speak only judgment over the lives of others.Prophetic voices are fighting for your redemption. Jerks speak only judgment over the lives of others. Click To Tweet
God uses broken people to heal the brokenness of our world.
Every generation of the Church has blindspots. Every generation of the Church tolerates, and even defends, its own set of sins and idols. So we will always need prophetic voices.
But a prophetic voice isn’t defined merely by its eloquence, its turn of phrase, its brashness, or its ability to mass market itself and build an audience. A prophetic voice is defined by brokenness.
And that’s because God only uses broken people to mend what is broken in the world. That’s how we know that it is really him who is at work within us.
We don’t need mighty individuals who will strong arm the Church into submission. We need meek leaders who are willing to speak the truth in love, endure the pain it costs them, and never give up on what God has called them to do.