What Is a Prophet?

It’s General Conference weekend, which for many of my marginal Mormon and post-Mormon friends brings up trauma, anxiety, and pain. I’m so sorry for that. Please take care of yourselves. Gather support around you; eat something delicious; take a walk; take a bath; do what you need to do. If it helps, give yourself permission not to watch or listen. I stopped watching conference many years before I left the church because I found it triggering. It’s difficult, because it’s a spiritual trainwreck, but you’re allowed to look away.

I know that many in our community have opted to move away from belief in God or the divine in order to heal from Mormon wounds, something I totally understand. I also know that some still struggle with lingering fear that somehow, some way, the men in power in Salt Lake City speak for God. As a person who is simply a “God girl,” one who can’t help but believe despite all the reasons not to, I write this post for others who might find themselves in a similar situation and who want to parse what is helpful and what is not from a faith-based perspective. (Though all are welcome to listen in.)

I am going to speak boldly: Mormon leaders are false prophets.

There are profound differences between Mormon “prophets” and a biblical and theologically sound understanding of this calling. Knowledge is power, so when you hear falsehoods under the guise of prophetic authority in General Conference, you can counteract them with a more informed and appropriate picture of what the prophetic impulse truly is.

Prophets Speak Truth to Power

Nathan said to David, “You are the man! … Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight?” (see 2 Samuel 11:1-15)

The first thing to understand is that prophets speak truth to power. In ancient Israel, this was often quite literal: they spoke to correct the idolatry and injustice of the king and his government (as you can imagine, this was usually much to the chagrin of king!). More generally, prophets speak to elites–those who benefit from power, wealth, and status at the expense of their neighbors. You would never hear a biblical prophet reminding the poor to be sure to pay their meager income to a multi-billion dollar corporation, for example; instead, you would hear them rebuking the wealthy for not taking care of the poor. They don’t punch down.

 The Prophetic Call Is Not Institutionally Extended

Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'” (Amos 7:14-15)

And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the king, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5)

Prophets are a major pain in the ass to institutions; therefore, the prophetic call does not come from the institutional hierarchy, whether political or religious (understanding that a division between the two is a post-Enlightenment development). In fact, typically the prophet receives a call directly from God–one, I might add, they tend to resist. While a couple of prophets were priests (Jeremiah, Ezekiel), most biblical prophets did not hold the priesthood. Several were women. More often than not, they come from outside formal structures of power, not within.

Prophets Are Not Revered

Now the priest Pashhur son of Immer, who was chief officer in the house of the LORD, heard Jeremiah prophesying these things. Then Pashhur struck the prophet Jeremiah, and put him in the stocks that were in the upper Benjamin Gate of the house of the LORD. (Jeremiah 20:1-2)

Generally speaking, prophets are reviled by the people, not revered. And to be clear, this reviling usually comes from the people of God, not “outsiders”–often the religious authorities themselves. There is no biblical equivalent of “We Thank Thee O God for a Prophet,” first because the prophet would never stand for such a song as she understands that her calling is to point to God, not herself; and second because no one’s about to write a hymn praising a prophet, as our natural response is to reject those folks!

Prophets Are Wild

At that time the LORD had spoken to Isaiah son of Amoz, saying, “Go, and loose the sackcloth from your loins and take your sandals off your feet,” and he had done so, walking naked and barefoot. Then the LORD said, “Just as my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and portent against Egypt and Ethiopia, so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptians as captives and Ethiopians as exiles, both the young and the old, naked and barefoot, with buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt.” (Isaiah 20:2-4)

Prophets are not buttoned up in white shirts and ties. They’re intense, wild-eyed, and unkempt. They’re like Isaiah, who wandered around naked for three years to make a point, or Jeremiah, who didn’t wash his underwear for a long time, then buried it in the dirt, then pulled the crumbling loincloth out from the earth as a symbol of the destruction of the people (see Jeremiah 13:1-11). Abraham Heschel says that the prophet speaks “one octave too high.” There is an intensity about them that is socially unacceptable. These are not highly polished businessmen and university presidents; they are fiery messengers who make us deeply uncomfortable and angry.

Prophets Care about Two Things: Idolatry and Injustice

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
    says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
    and the fat of fed beasts;
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
    my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
    I am weary of bearing them.

 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
    remove the evil of your doings
    from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
    rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow. (See Isaiah 1)

 

Prophets don’t go around checking women’s hemlines, policing people’s marital status, commanding social media fasts, or even insisting upon correct observance of religious ritual. At times they are downright hostile to religious ritual if it does not lead to radical care for the neighbor. That’s because the prophet insists to the point of extremity on worshipping the true and living God, not pagan idols; and demands economic justice to an extent that is neither sensible nor politically expedient. The prophet is not particularly concerned with much beyond love of God and love of neighbor (on which, of course, hang all the law and the prophets).

Prophets Preach Obedience to God, Not to the Prophet

Walk in obedience to all that the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess. (Deuteronomy 5:33)

The prophet doesn’t want to be followed or obeyed; the prophet wants the people to follow or obey God. A prophet would be horrified by the primary song “Follow the Prophet.” She would recognize it instantly as idolatry.

Prophets Are Most Clearly Seen Retrospectively

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? (Matthew 7:15-16)

And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” (Luke 4:24)

Prophets are seldom discerned in the moment. It is only afterward, through the lens of hindsight, that the community comes to understand that a prophet was in their midst. This is because the words of a prophet must stand the test of time. To hear something on a Saturday afternoon and instantly declare it prophetic reflects a deep misunderstanding of how prophetic authority is collectively discerned. There is a reason the biblical canon took centuries to develop: because the community had to decide, generation after generation, that these words and not others carried spiritual authority. Thus, the prophet is understood to be a prophet based on the fruits of their words as tested over years, not by fiat through the claim of their calling.

Mormon leaders check literally none of these boxes. They might be well-meaning people; they might be accomplished leaders; they might even have nice spiritual insights from time to time. But they are not prophets and their words are not authoritative. You don’t have to follow them.

You are free to follow God instead.

2 thoughts on “What Is a Prophet?

Add yours

  1. Love the “she” pronoun thrown in for good measure! I think words of truth and prophecy CAN be discerned in their moment of utterance, when often warnings are of the most use and not AFTER the foretold disasters. But I’ve tried to teach my kids that the only person who can testify that the words are prophecy is the one who receives it BY the spirit of prophecy. Position in a hierarchy doesn’t verify the truthfulness of anything.

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