Are all Christians supposed to prophesy?

Mike Bickle of the International House of Prayer in Kansas City (IHOP-KC) centers his “prophetic ministry” on the idea that all Christians are supposed to prophesy. To give an example of his argumentation:

The church, from its inception on the Day of Pentecost, was to be of a prophetic nature. It is clear that the spirit of prophecy is potentially available to all…”For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn…” (1 Cor 14:31). [pg. 38; Mike Bickle, Growing in the Prophetic, 2008]

1 Corinthians 14:31 is especially used by Bickle over and over again as a kind of grand proof-text for his theology. The idea is this: Paul says “you can all prophesy,” so that must mean “all of you” as in “all you Christians.” Hence, all Christians should be able to prophesy, and so all Christians should be willing to participate in the “prophetic ministry” that is pouring out of IHOP-KC and into other churches.

Is this the case?

Firstly, let’s not forget what Paul had said earlier, when he was discussing the important part every person played in the church:

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? [1 Cor 12:27-30; emphasis]

Paul’s point here is that not all people are prophets – only those with the gift are. The original grammar of “Are all prophets?” suggests that the question is to be answered with a hardy “No.” Bickle actually acknowledges this specific verse in his Growing book, but treats it only briefly before skimming across it to another topic. He also, on some occasions, tries to separate between prophets and those who are prophetic, even though scripture nowhere makes such a distinction, and Bickle’s ultimate conclusion would still contradict Paul’s point.

Secondly, let’s remind ourselves of the three rules of exegesis: 1) context; 2) context; 3) context. So, seeking to follow all three of these rules at once, let’s review the full context of the verse quoted by Bickle.

What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. [1 Cor 14:26-33]

Paul begins this section by saying that when the Corinthian church comes together, “each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” (v. 26). Paul is going back to what he said in chapter twelve, when he discussed the importance of individual roles, comparing it to the parts of the human body (1 Cor 12:14-20), and later applying this to the individual skills within the church (1 Cor 12:27-30). The purpose of this gathering together and the using of individual skills is “for building up” – that is, the edification of all in the church (v. 26). Just as every part of the human body serves some need that benefits the others, so too does every individual member of the church perform some task that benefits the others. No one is unimportant, from the pastor who gives the sermon to the old man who just comes to listen and be edified. The important thing, as Paul will demonstrate here, is that our goal be not the use of our gifts alone, but the building up of God’s body through those gifts.

Paul goes into detail about the individual gifts, starting with those speaking in tongues, stating that there should be “only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret” (v. 27). Note again that Paul is emphasizing order in the church for the purpose of edification. In this vain, Paul states something I think many Charismatic churches forget: “if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church” (v. 28). The original Greek here is actually pretty strong – in fact, quite strong. In our modern language, Paul would literally be saying, “If there isn’t an interpreter, tell ’em to shut up.”

Paul now moves on to those in prophecy: “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said” (v. 29). Note that Paul is talking about a specific group, just as he was before with those who speak in tongues. Here he is talking about the prophets, not the entire church. He says “let two or three prophets speak,” and then “let the others weigh what is said” – who are “the others”? The others with the gift of prophecy. He outlines the order of this further with: “if a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent” (v. 30). In other words, Paul is starting to tell them to take turns – if someone starts to fulfill their role of prophet, don’t interrupt them.

At last we’ve come to the part Mike Bickle always falls back on: “For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged” (v. 31). With a greater understanding of the context, let us ask: who is the you here? Is the you here the entire church? Is it every Christian who has ever lived? No – given what we’ve seen before, the you here refers to those with the gifts of prophecy. This is seen when Paul says “one by one,” referring to the previous rule regarding those with the gift of prophecy. Paul is saying that those with the gift of prophecy should take turns – not that everyone can prophesy.

And just in case some might want to pull the “your interpretation versus his” card, here are some others who are on my side:

All – Who have that gift. [John Wesley’s commentary]

For ye may all prophesy one by one,…. Not every member of the church, but everyone that had the gift of prophecy… [John Gill’s commentary]

In fact, it would seem that no one has interpreted this verse to mean literally all Christians everywhere until the time of Mike Bickle and his Kansas City associates. While I am not saying that the mere novelty of something is enough to dismiss it, when we have to assume that everyone has misread a passage of scripture until more than 1,900 years after it was written, it should be enough to make us ask for discernment. Especially when, reviewing the entire context of said passage, that interpretation is shown to be an invalid one. Nowhere in scripture are all Christians commanded to prophesy, let alone is that taught in this verse. That is a conclusion that one simply can’t come to when looking at 1 Corinthians 14:31 honestly.

In the past I’ve written that when I see someone misuse scripture, I don’t immediately assume they’re doing it on purpose. I assume one of four things: 1) they’re going from memory, and have just forgotten how it originally went; 2) they honestly just simply don’t understand what the text is saying; 3) they’re going from a second-hand source, and haven’t double checked what the original text said; 4) they’re doing it on purpose, knowing they’re mishandling the text. The first one cannot be the case as Bickle has written this in a book and spoken about this in sermons, and so has had plenty of time to review the verse. The second one can’t be true because anyone can see what this verse means by reading the fullness of the chapter, and no one in any previous commentaries misunderstood the verse this way. It’s possible that the third one might be true, and Bickle is going off another interpretation, but then he would be guilty of gross negligence for not examining the scripture himself – something a spiritual leader should not do. The fourth one is entirely possible, given what we’ve seen before. If it is possible – whether intentional or unintentional – Bickle needs to come to repentance.

And if this is the case, then Mike Bickle has taken a verse out of context and abused it to give validity to his warped theological views. His views take but one spiritual gift and extend it well beyond where Paul intended it to go, and is using this to try to convince people to join his “prophetic ministry” movement, centered around IHOP-KC in Kansas City. If anyone reading this is caught up in this “prophetic movement,” I encourage you to let this blog post be the beginning of spiritual discernment. Examine what is said, and examine everything by the testimony of scripture. Where a person strays from God’s word, go no further – where a person complies with God’s word, stand shoulder to shoulder with them. Don’t let what anyone says or teach be the final word or the final clinching argument for you – let God speak, and let God guide you with His eternal and holy word.

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