Evangelical Questions: Why Do You Need Prophets Anyway?
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Matthew 7:15-20 Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful answers to New Testament questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about prophets. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
A common question from Evangelicals is why do we think we need prophets? Aren’t they easily identified as false prophets? And to be honest, when I was investigating the church this was the hardest issue for me to grapple with. The idea of having prophets made literally no sense to me. These days I can see it how other Latter-day Saints see it – it’s a blessing and a gift – but back then I felt suspicious. So why is it so hard for Evangelicals to understand the need for modern prophets? I think there’s two reasons and we’ll talk about both of them.
First, Evangelicals are suspicious of the idea because they have a belief that Jesus is the last prophet – and to call anyone who comes after him a prophet is to be disrespectful to Christ. Where does this belief come from? Let’s look at Hebrews 1:1-2 “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.” I know, to your Latter-day Saint ears there is no problem with that verse. You don’t hear it how they hear it. For them that verse sounds more like, “but in these last days we will only hear from Jesus.” As with most scripture quagmires, a careful reading of the text helps us out a bit. All they hear is, “Jesus was the final prophet, no more prophets will come.” But that’s not what the text says, and it’s not what the New Testament shows.
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets, at many times and in various ways” – We have no disagreement with Evangelicals there. The problem comes here, “but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things.” In that they hear that Jesus is the last and greatest prophet, that him being the “heir of all things” means that no other “heirs” are needed. The problem here, of course, is that we’re talking about prophecy in a few different ways. When we say that we have a living prophet on the earth today we are not saying that the prophet is greater than Jesus. The Old Testament prophets pointed to a future day when God would save his people. Then Jesus came. Now modern prophets still point to Jesus. Evangelicals are confusing the role of Jesus as prophet with the role of all the Old Testament and modern day prophets. It’s a bit nonsensical since they don’t literally think Daniel or Habakkuk are in competition with Jesus. But they feel very sensitive to the idea of upstaging Jesus. One way to talk about this with them is to talk about what a modern prophet does – points us to Christ over and over.
And then the second issue comes up. Evangelicals wonder why they would need someone to, “point to Jesus” when they already have a few reliable sources of doing that. They see the New Testament as pointing to Jesus (and we certainly wouldn’t disagree with them there); they see the Holy Spirit testifying to them of Jesus (again, no disagreement, we believe the Holy Ghost does that too); and they rely heavily on the concept of the, “priesthood of all believers” meaning that they themselves contain all the needed gifts to hear from God, no “mediator” needed. We’ll talk much more about the priesthood of all believers and what that means when we get to that section of scripture but for now we’ll just say that Evangelicals basically believe that no leader can hear from God any better than they can. Their own pastors teach them, but if the individual doesn’t like what is being taught then they move to another church where they like the teaching better.
Latter-day Saints may find it odd to say it this way, but there is a sense in which Evangelicals believe that by doing this they are emulating, as closely as possible, the New Testament church. They would say they’re just trying to boil down to the essence of the gospel and follow that as much as they can. And it might sound odd to you, but underneath that is a desire for Restoration.
They can easily look around and see that the Evangelical world is in trouble in some very real ways. And they long for God to reach down and set things straight. Sound familiar? What a fascinating opening to talk about what it means that we have a restored church. It might surprise you, Latter-day Saint to learn that many, maybe even most, Evangelical churches sometimes talk about how they’re really just trying to live in a way that contextualizes the New Testament for today’s world. They think they’re living a kind of restoration. I want to talk a little more about that in way you might be somewhat familiar with.
This comes from the work of Dr. RoseAnn Benson. She previously had been in the Ancient Scripture department at BYU and now teaches at Southern Illinois University. Her book is Alexander Campbell and Joseph Smith: 19th-Century Restorationists and it’s worth reading. Let me explain what she says and then you’ll see how it relates to Evangelicals. My apologies to Dr. Benson for this simplistic summary. Her work is layered and deep and beautiful and I cringe at the way I’m about to summarize it for you, but summarize it I will.
The year is 1830 and Parley P. Prat (PPP) has been corresponding with his friend Sydney Rigdon. You know from church history that Rigdon is a Campbellite preacher at this time. PPP and other missionaries convert him and about 100 others including 5th President of our church Lorenzo Snow and his sister Eliza R. Snow. This is the basic church history information that you probably already know. What you might not know is that the Campbellite movement considered themselves a Restorationist movement. They thought they were doing the work of bringing the restoration, but they were going about it with an entirely different strategy. The Campbellites believed at that time that in order to restore the Lord’s true church they needed to pare down the essence of the gospel and remove everything that wasn’t essential.They wanted to strip away everything that was not the very basics. They wanted to clear things to the side that didn’t support the goal of restoring the the very essence of the gospel. They were trying to take the very heart of what the Bible teaches and bring it into their day in a way that would get rid of all the errors that had crept into the church over the decades. You can kind of see the logic in what they’re doing.
What happens when PPP and Sydney Rigdon meet in person is that PPP is able to agree with him about the need for a restoration – but that Joseph Smith was teaching the restoration doesn’t come from paring everything down. Joseph doesn’t want to take everything away that isn’t the rock-bottom essentials. Joseph wants to restore everything. Every, everything. He didn’t want to push anything to the side – he wanted to open everything up. To restore it all. Once Rigdon, and 100 others including the Snow family, hear this they understand. They already believed a restoration was necessary – but now they understood it wasn’t going to come through removing parts of what God had established, it was going to come through restoring everything.
Back to our Evangelical friends.
They already know things need to be restored. This is where the mental health therapist comes out in me. If they don’t trust you, or you don’t have enough relationship with you, they are not going to feel safe admitting that any kind of restoration is needed. They will feel defensive and not open up. That’s okay, it just means you need to earn more relationship collateral with them. But if they trust you enough to admit that there can be some issues with their church from time to time, you can probably have a pretty cool conversation about what restoration would look like – is it a paring down of everything so that an individual person sitting alone with their Bible is enough? Or is it a restoration of everything – so that the individual can certainly sit alone with their Bible, but they are also guided by a Prophet from time to time to keep them headed in the right direction?
Now, I told you I would tell you how I gained a testimony of having a Prophet and here it is.
Three and a half years ago I was in the middle of taking lessons from the missionaries. (If you haven’t heard my conversion story it’s a fun one and I’ll put a link to it in the description below where you can listen to it on the FAIR website. But, warning, it has some difficult themes in it and probably isn’t great to listen to around small kids – teens and up would be fine.) From Anglican Minister to Relief Society Sister – Interview with Jennifer Roach – FAIR (fairlatterdaysaints.org) And honestly I was struggling with the idea of having a Prophet. I’ve seen the worst of what can happen in churches when people in power take advantage of that power (listen to my story if you want to know more about that) and I was skeptical that a man with that much power could be trusted.
One day the missionaries say, “The Prophet is coming to Seattle and we have tickets for you.” At the time I didn’t know that this was an unusual thing. Maybe the Prophet just drops by from time to time. But it was a very special event and it was held at Safeco Field, the baseball stadium. It was a beautiful summer evening and 50,000 people showed up to see Russel M. Nelson. And he was great, just like you’d imagine. But it wasn’t his talk or anything in the evening’s program that made me change my mind. What helped me was that when I arrived about half an hour before the event was to begin and sat with friends from my ward. While we were waiting everyone around us was talking about “their prophet” – usually the one who had been leading the church when they were young, and what it meant to them to have a leader like that. To be totally honest I think my own skeptical nature on this topic would have kept me from trusting a man I didn’t know and will never meet. But I saw what having a Prophet did in the lives of my friends and how much goodness it brought to them. And I was converted to the idea that very night – not by President Nelson’s words, though they were great, but by the testimonies of my friends.
I hope these words have given you some thoughts about how to talk with your Evangelical friends about the idea of Prophets. If you have a question an Evangelical friend has asked you that you’d like to get some insight on please email me at [email protected]. I got an email this week from some Sister Missionaries in the Houston, Texas mission so shout-out to Sister Cox and her companions. I’ll be answering their question in an upcoming episode. And I look forward to seeing you all next time.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.