This is a guest post by Richard A. Brown, a member of the Community of Christ.
A people with a prophet or a prophetic people?
That question’s been kicking around in the Community of Christ (known before 2001 as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or simply the RLDS Church) for decades. President W. Grant McMurray included these words in his inspired counsel in 2004:
“Listen carefully to your own journey as a people, for it is a sacred journey and it has taught you many things you must know for the journey yet to come. Listen to its teachings and discover anew its principles. Do not yearn for times that are past, but recognize that you have been given a foundation of faithful service, even as you build a foundation for what is yet to be. As a prophetic people you are called, under the direction of the spiritual authorities and with the common consent of the people, to discern the divine will for your own time and in the places where you serve. You live in a world with new challenges, and that world will require new forms of ministry.” –CofC Doctrine and Covenants 162:2
In his first message of counsel to the church, current President Stephen M. Veazey offered this counsel to the 2007 World Conference:
“God is calling for a prophetic community to emerge, drawn from the nations of the world, that is characterized by uncommon devotion to the compassion and peace of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Through divine grace and wisdom, this faith community has been given abundant gifts, resources, and opportunities to equip it to become such a people. Chief among these is the power of community in Christ expressed locally in distinctive fashions while upholding a unity of vision, foundational beliefs, and mission throughout the world.” –Doctrine and Covenants 163:11a
There are two parts to this concept, two halves that together complete wholeness, as well as the starting point for change. First is common consent through prophetic discernment by the whole body. This requires intense listening to one another as a way to listen to the Spirit. In 2012/2013 national church conferences in Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and the USA used deliberate methods seeking common consent to deal with questions related to ordination and marriage for members in same-gender relationships. Those were breakthrough experiences for the church and ultimately pointed to major changes in sacramental practices.
The other component calls for prophetic action on social-justice issues. This latter area provides the focus for my book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile (Isaac’s Press, 2017). I use the examples of ancient Hebrew prophets to identify the principles and practices to speak a “word of God” in our 21st-century societies and then act on it.
This involves speaking truth to power and identifying injustice, idolatry, and inequality. Just as the post-exilic prophets in ancient times also saw themselves as bearers of God’s hope for downtrodden and marginalized people, that, too, is often required of a modern-day prophetic people.
As Western Christianity moves away from its centuries-old understandings of Christendom (various forms of church and state), it has opportunity to rediscover its roots as the “Way of Jesus.” That will require examining itself as institution, religious movement, and faith community. Included in that is a rediscovery of its prophetic function to exist alongside its pastoral and priestly ones. The task facing Christianity, both locally and as a worldwide body, is outlined by noted author Brian D. McLaren in his book, The Great Spiritual Migration:
“Each generation faces some great work, some heroic challenge that summons its children to courage and creativity. The great work of this generation will be to respond to the quadruple threat inherited from previous generations: an ecological crisis that, left unchecked, will lead to catastrophic environmental collapse; an economic crisis of obscenely increasing inequality that exploits or excludes the world’s poor while dehumanizing the rich as well; a sociopolitical crisis of racial, ethnic, class, religious, and political conflict that could lead to catastrophic war; and a spiritual and religious crisis in which the religious institutions that should be helping us deal with the first three crises either waste our time or make matters worse.”
To face one of these crises would be difficult enough; to face all four simultaneously will require all hands on deck–including the best potential contributions of each of the world’s religious communities. To save the world from this quadruple threat is the great work for which all people of faith and goodwill, including Christians, must be mobilized (p. 166).
Obviously, this is not an undertaking exclusively for Community of Christ, or any other single denomination or religion, for that matter. Yet to even phrase the task in this way indicates how far the Community of Christ has come.
No doubt there are many sane, sober, and rational voices within the church that would counsel caution right now, considering the precarious financial situation the leadership has identified for the membership. (Full disclosure here: I am a retired church employee myself; my own job was eliminated eight years ago during one in a series of staff downsizings.)
There is wisdom in such counsel, of course. There is wisdom also in these words attributed to Jesus: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25 NRSV). Can we take these words as including “the church”? If so, how do we bridge the gap?
To accept the challenge of truly being a prophetic community is risky business, indeed. Would it be best to wait until the church’s financial spreadsheets offer a more favorable report? Naturally, some would jump in at this point to argue we should have been more frugal in the past. That discussion may not be helpful in moving forward. In any event, I don’t have answers for all the questions and issues raised in this regard. This would appear to be an ideal scenario for prophetic discernment, however.
What I do know is I wrote Speak to the Bones in response to what I felt was the urging of the Spirit. I care deeply about my faith community and what is happening in my larger community, nation, and the world. The example of prophets such as Nathan, Elijah, Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, and others gives me hope that we 21st-century folk can, when necessary, speak truth to power and challenge inequality, injustice, and idolatry. Those terms are as relevant today as they were more than 2,500 years ago.
My faith community, which began as a peculiar American movement during the Second Great Awakening, continues to cherish and uphold a vision of Christ’s peaceable reign. Different groups within that religious movement have taken divergent paths. God hasn’t given up on us—any of us—so far. Neither should we.
Do you think it is possible, or even a good idea, for an entire faith community to be prophetic? What would that even look like in your own, local context?