Frequently I am invited to add my name as an endorser of a position paper on some topic of public concern: Often it is a statement by an interfaith group advocating for more aggressive efforts to find peaceful solutions to the conflicts in the Middle East, or a network of evangelicals expressing concern about something going on in the larger culture. I always read the statement in question over carefully before agreeing to add my name. And when I decide not to sign it, it often has to do with my impression that the group making the declaration is trying too hard to be “prophetic.”
In my early days of social activism I talked a lot about being “prophetic.” I don’t use that word much these days. When I use the word at all, I am typically quoting other people, or discussing biblical “prophetic” literature, or arguing with my Mormon friends about whether the prophetic office has been restored in the current age.
A cynic might suggest that I have steered away from “prophetic” stances because I have had the duty, as a seminary president, to raise money in circles where being “prophetic” does not attract donors with considerable giving capacity. I have tried to stay honest with myself about that possibility. I do know that I have what I consider to be some plausible theological reasons for avoiding thinking of myself as engaged in “prophetic” activity.
In ancient Israel there was often a tension between the prophets on the one hand and the kings and priests on the other. In my theology, the three “offices”prophet, priest and kingwere finally brought together in the person of Jesus Christ. As his followers, we are obligated to try to keep them together in our own lives: being prophetic, which certainly includes speaking on behalf of what we understand to be God’s will for humankind, must be connected to a priestly identification with people’s actual hopes and fears, as well as to a commitment to a “rulerly” desire to make things happen in ways that are practical and fair.
At least we ought to strive for this kind of integration as much as possible. I don’t question that there are moments in historyNazi Germany is an obvious case in pointwhen we have no choice but to utter unqualified prophetic verdicts, to proclaim a bold “No!” to a specific state of affairs, even if in doing so we are voices crying in the wilderness. But outside of those extreme situations I see it as dangerous to see ourselves as simply being prophetic.
On a more practical level, I also have come to see the need to emphasize the public importance of the teaching role. The task of teaching requires more from us than, for example, simply announcing our political preferences. Those of us who get paid to teach courses know that when we plan an introductory course in some important area of the intellectual life, we do not say everything we know in the first lecture. Students need to be invited into an exploration of new and/or difficult subject matter, and they need to be instructed in the basics before getting into the complexities. Good teaching does not consist simply in saying true things, but in leading people into the truth, even if that takes some time. And much can be gained by emphasizing, wherever possible, the continuity between the new areas of learning with what students already are convinced of.
And classroom teachers even need to be a little careful with the idea of “leading people into the truth.” We are all learners. Some of the best courses I have taught have been ones where I came away with the sense that I learned as much asmaybe even more thanmy students in the process.
Much the same can be said, I think, for the public teaching roleas exercised by pastors, denominational officials, lay leaders, and the like. Our public pedagogy requires a measure of empathy and reassurance toward those whom we want to influenceas well as a humble recognition that we ourselves are learners.
Such characteristics are often missing in those Christians who emphasize the need for “prophetic” statements on various topics. I worry that too much of an emphasis on the prophetic role leads to the neglect of the teaching office. If our goal is simply to say a lot of true things, then we can take comfort in the fact that we have performed our prophetic responsibilities when we issue straightforward public statements that come off as critical, say, of the concerns of many other Christians. But if our assignment is to teach the truth, then we have a more difficultand more highly nuancedtask.
I learned a marvelous phrase from the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. We are living, he liked to say, in a phase of redemptive history that is “the time of God’s patience” with a sinful world. That does not mean passive withdrawal from the urgent issues that confront humankind. But it does mean that as much as possible we must not adopt a posture of addressing the urgent issues “from above,” but rather by taking a place in the midst of other people of faith, and indeed in the midst of the larger human community, in order to work with others to clarify the questions and look for the kinds of solutions that promote human flourishing.
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.