I’ve been thinking about prophets recently and our tendency to try to fit them into a single mold. But the scriptural record doesn’t seem to support that. Prophets have the same mission: call the world to repentance, testify of Salvation, and to preserve God’s revealed covenants. But beyond that the mission, strategy, style, aesthetics, politics, and perspective of prophets vary wildly. And that’s a good thing.
Take, for instance, the conservative/liberal philosophical paradigm (not political paradigm – this is not a political essay). Here conservatism plays a preserving role of maintaining current behaviors and knowledge. And philosophical liberalism could mean seeing gaps or problems in current behaviors/knowledge and seeking change or additional light and knowledge to solve the problem.
Many see a prophet’s role as inherently conservative. But that’s not justifiable. There are times when what God’s children need is to break out of destructive conservative attitudes and habits. This is the case for Isaiah (see Isaiah 1:10-20). These kinds of prophets deliver a needed call to repentance away from ultra-orthodoxy when the conservatism of the people and culture caused them to put the law above the spirit. They call the people to stop worshipping the signs of the covenant (see caricatures of the ancient Pharisees) and to instead worship the God the covenants point towards living by spirit of the law. This is what is needed when a culture begins to promote things like putting law above love, fundamentalism, or blind obedience.
Other times, what’s needed is a reigning in on unjustified changes. This is the case when we see, time after time, God’s people going after false gods and idols or justifying wickedness (See Exodus 32). They sacrifice their covenants on the alter of liberalism, they steady when no steadying is needed, and they justify where there’s no justification. In this case what’s needed is the prophetic call to repent and return to the signs and covenants that have been abandoned or abused. See Moses and several prophets following him in the old testament (though not all as some fell more on the liberal side as a whole — see Isaiah above).
And, of course, both can be needed at the same time for different problems. In one regard the people can be departing from the covenant and in another regard they may be worshipping the covenant rather than God. So sometimes a prophet may need to approach from different angles for different problems. And if we insist on coloring everything a prophet does as being necessarily conservative or necessarily liberal then we’ll miss out on the larger picture of what God is doing.
I think it’s important that we all remain open to various types of prophetic voices to avoid excesses, extremism, and abuses on different sides. What signs do you see in your faith of the people or church emphasizing things like blind obedience, ultra-orthodoxy, tribalism, or only literal interpretations? What signs do you see in your faith of people or the church advocating lawlessness, non-commitment, relativism, or meaninglessness? And what prophetic voices do you hear from people that God witnesses to the truth of their voice as they call to repentance, salvation, and covenant living?
So I see a kind of prophetic rudder. At times the ship deviates too far to the right and what’s needed is a correction to the left. Other times the ship deviates too far to the left and what’s needed is a course correction to the right. And our human history is full of overcorrections. But if we characterize prophets as necessarily being only conservative or only liberal it makes about as much sense as designing the rudder of a ship to only turn left or right. We need the full range of steering to head in the direction God desires.