The Church Needs Prophets, But It Wants Lawyers
[T]he sad fact is that most signs point to the church preferring lawyers to prophets. By “lawyers” I don’t mean a legion of literal J.D.’s (though ministries often lawyer-up under fire.) Rather I’m referring to those public figures who function like lawyers—as if they’re representing their church client rather than speaking hard truths. I’m speaking of the voices that both defend the church from meaningful criticism and prosecute the church’s enemies for error, perfidy, and malice.
Let’s use political punditry as an example. The anti-anti-Trump pundit functions like a prosecutor. He’s constantly pointing out the flaws and sins of the left or the media or Never Trump (or all of the above). He creates a sense of urgency—enemies this terrible cannot be permitted to win. He blinds you to the flaws of your own side with a constant, white-hot spotlight (sometimes exaggerated, sometimes not) on the worst of your opponents.
The pro-Trump pundit is the defense lawyer. He’s adept at spinning, rationalizing, and minimizing. He’s sold you on the false idea, for example, that the Trump campaign never had any improper contact with Russians or that Trump did nothing wrong in his call with the president of Ukraine—that both impeachment and the Russia investigation were a “hoax” or a “coup” from start to finish.
And make no mistake, we love our pundit-lawyers. If they’re good at what they do, they can state our position better than we ever could. By sharing their articles and quoting their tweets, they give us all the ammunition we need in our online wars. They do not, however, make us search our hearts. They do not make us question our priors.
If the lawyer-pundit is dangerous and polarizing in politics, the lawyer-pastor or lawyer-theologian or lay lawyer-Christian can present challenges for our hearts and souls. He protects us from seeing our own sin. He reassures us that while we’re of course not perfect, we are fundamentally right.
Take, for example, the response to the racial reckoning in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing. You might be spending more time listening to lawyers than prophets if you’re more familiar—seven months later—with the flaws of Critical Race Theory than with the details of wealth gaps, achievement gaps, or with the systematic violations of civil rights that are all too common in marginalized communities.
It’s not easy to find (or listen to) the prophetic voice. I’ve had to learn from painful experience to listen to voices from outside the comfortable confines of my own spiritual cocoon. It’s a source of personal shame, for example, that I couldn’t clearly perceive the realities of contemporary American racism until it was directed at my own daughter, and I was shocked out of my spiritual complacency.
American Christian culture is rife with congregants looking for lawyers, not prophets and not pastors. The church-shopping phenomenon puts us in churches that make us feel quite comfortable, and the sheer number of available congregations (especially in the South and parts of the Midwest) makes us quite mobile. From all too many members of the congregation comes the cry, “Tell us what we want to hear!”
Indeed, that is a longstanding cry from Christian pews. I’m reading Nathan Hatch’s invaluable book, The Democratization of American Christianity, and he amply chronicles the rise of populist religion in these United States, a religion that all too often can create celebrities who echo the (possibly apocryphal) words of the French populist Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin: “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”
What does this have to do with church scandals? After all, who’s defending Ravi Zacharias now? The lawyer says, “These are still isolated incidents. Why are you picking on the church? You’re doing the media’s work for them. For every fallen evangelist, there are hundreds of pastors toiling away with integrity. You critics are trying to curry favor with hostile elites. You want their approval, and by attacking your own tribe, you get exactly what you want—the applause of a lost world.”
But the prophet replies, “How many men must be exposed as predators or frauds before you realize your own church culture is broken? How many ministries must collapse before you realize that the problems within the church aren’t due to ‘them’ but rather rest with ‘us’? You can see clearly the problems with institutions like ‘Hollywood’ or ‘Big Tech’ or the ‘elite academy,’ but you won’t apply the same standards to the church—an institution with the highest possible purpose and calling.”
Spend five minutes reading the Bible, and you’ll quickly learn that prophets are often unpopular. They often shout into the void—ignored, despised, and persecuted. In the results- and metrics-oriented populism of much American Christianity, the prophet is truly without honor in his own country. His message doesn’t “work”—until hearts break under the weight of their own sin, and then suddenly it does.
This is the great failure of MAGA Christianity and it has learned nothing from that failure so far. It has abandoned trust in God and now hopes entirely in the promise of achieving by force, law, fear, threats and even violence what it no longer believes God will give it. It has turned to lawless, nihilist power and away from Jesus. So it naturally rejects the prophets God sends it. No surer sign of this is the complete prostitution MAGA Christianity has achieved in its despair over abortion as something God can ever change and its passionate resolution to therefore throw itself upon GOP lies, cruelty, and death in the fantasy that some theocratic police state will magick abortion away by raw power, force and fear.
The reward of the prophet is to be sawn in two, thrown into cisterns, and crucified. Not for the faint of heart. You have to really believe that God is love to stick with it. Without supernatural, Spirit-filled hope in a life beyond this one and in a God who guides history to our good despite our most appalling efforts to make war on Him, I don’t see how a prophet can carry on.