COVID-19 continues to deal unprecedented blows to our collective human existence, revealing our fragility. Even religion is not exempt from its complications. For the effects of the pandemic on religious activities have been monumental. Some of these effects have also revealed some surprises. One such surprise has been the activities of self-proclaimed ‘prophets’ in Africa. They have never been so quiet.
A Deafening Silence
Previously these so-called prophets offered predictions and solutions for every challenge. They predicted election outcomes, sporting events and visa applications. They even conducted spiritual ultrasounds for pregnant women. Most Africans have heard them brag about their abilities to exorcise any demon, cast out every disease and solve whatever problem. Despite most predictions going unfulfilled, they have excelled at gaining the admiration of gullible followers. Many of those followers are now wondering where their prophet went. For the prophets are quiet.
What is responsible for this sudden, unexpected silence from their quarters? Surely these mighty vessels of God’s power are not being bullied by a diminutive disease. Should we conclude that these prophets can no longer reach or access the sovereign God? Or has God ceased speaking to His “servants”? Where are the almighty anointing oils and spiritual amulets? Perhaps the answer to these questions is simple: the prophets also fear COVID-19.
The image of the Christian Church in Africa has suffered a significant and sustained battering in the public space because of their reckless activities. Their bold announcements have been the cause of much embarrassment for the global church. Therefore I believe the Lord is teaching us through the pandemic. He is humbling these self-styled prophets. So here are two lessons in this season on the life and activities of the so-called prophets in Africa.
1. Prophets Are Still Human
This sounds harsh. But it is true. Africans esteem their religious leaders. In a large part this is due to their perceived roles as mediators between God and humans. Religious leaders are also viewed as custodians of certain spiritual knowledge and mysteries. They possess learning beyond the reach of ordinary people. Thus their intervention in virtually every sphere of human life is deemed indispensable. For what will we as Africans ever do without the intervention of God’s special representatives? But this esteem means that undue authority is vested in religious leaders. They dominate African societies, assuming an almost unquestionable position and power.
Now the Bible does teach that leaders generally, and religious leaders specifically, deserve to be honoured (see Proverbs 3:27; 1 Peter 2:17; Romans 13:7; 1 Timothy 5:17). But before servants of God are honoured, they must be a defender of the Truth and their lives must be compatible with the Gospel of Christ (1 Timothy 5:17). Religious leaders who abuse their followers have no biblical basis for doing so. We need only read Jeremiah’s scathing rebuke of Israel’s greedy leaders and prophets (Jeremiah 23:9-40; also Ezekiel 22:26, 28). They treated their office as an opportunity for self rather than service. God is not pleased by such attitudes.
Humans are Accountable to God
As a matter of fact, the shepherd metaphor used to describe the role of pastors in the Bible implies the opposite. Those who lead the sheep should do so at expense to their personal safety and comfort; not the other way around (John 10:11-13). It is the role of the pastor to protect the flock from enemies or predators. But we are all familiar with reports of Christian leaders abusing those they were assigned to protect. Ignorant and gullible are the abusive, opportunistic leader’s preferred sheep.
Let me put a straightforward question to you: are religious leaders God? No, they are mere humans. Therefore while it is good to respect the office of the pastor, it is equally important to acknowledge that they are servants. They are not God. Nor do they possess His power or authority. They have limitations and are prone to error. This is the human condition. But this is a truth that Africans consider too infrequently. Religious leaders are called and are given specific tasks to undertake for God (Jeremiah 1:4-10; Mark 1:16-20). Therefore, their primary goal is to glorify God through their lives, mission and ministry. They should not seek vainglory from the people they have been called to serve.
Christian Leaders Exist to Glorify God
Barnabas and Paul exemplify this pursuit when God used them to heal a congenital cripple in Lystra (Acts 14:8-20). Surprised by the miracle, the crowds shouted, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” (Acts 14:11). But Barnabas and Paul did not bask in the glory due to God alone. Instead they replied, “Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, humans like you” (Acts 14:15). This is one truth that many self-styled prophets in Africa refuse to admit. But could their sudden silence during the pandemic be an admittance? For it has revealed they are humans, just like you and me.
2. God is Not at the Mercy of Humans
Who would ever have thought that something other than another world war could bring humanity to its knees? We have read about plagues and diseases in history. But no one thought that this would happen in our lifetime, or the age of modern medicine. Thus the world was caught unawares. All the educational, scientific, medical, political and economic attainments of the global powers have not yet rescued the world from the virus’ grip. Humanity has been humbled.
Similarly to the world, self-styled prophets make grandiose claims regarding their power. But the Bible is full of examples showing that God is never at the mercy of humans. Humans do not have a single drop of authority unless God grants it.
2.1 Prophecy is a Gift of God, Therefore He Deserves All the Glory
There are two thing to consider in the Bible concerning prophets and prophecy. First, prophecy is not man-made. It is a gift from God. Therefore God, who grants the gift, is greater than the gift as well as the benefactor. Essentially, it is God who deserves the praise. For He grants every gift. In other words, prophets are ultimately only ever beneficiaries of God’s grace. Therefore, they should not be elevated – whether in their own hearts or those of others (see Romans 12:3-8). So, prophets are expected to use God’s gift courteously, soberly, and with the sense of accountability. This is no different from any other gift.
2.2 Prophets Know Nothing Apart from God
Our second lesson is gleaned from the comment of Elisha regarding the Shunammite woman – when she went to Elisha on Mount Carmel in bitter distress at the plight of her son (2 Kings 4:8-37). Elisha said, “But the Lord had hidden it from me and has not told me why” (2 Kings 4:27). Elisha, a student of the renowned Elijah, was likely a prophet of international status. Yet God could still act without informing him.
This position is corroborated by Moses when he says “the secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things he revealed belong to us” (Deuteronomy 29:29). This shows our limitedness as humans and the sovereignty of God. No prophet, no matter how powerfully endowed, can fully comprehend the mind of God. Nor does God reveal everything to His human agents. This calls for faithfulness and humility when claiming to speak for God.
God is Greater than Man
The surprising quietness of many prophets regarding COVID-19 casts aspersions on their unbridled and often presumptuous predictions. It also raises serious questions over their supposed power. The truth is: God is greater than man and His mind cannot be fathomed by humans. Christians should always bear in mind that God is never at the mercy of His creation. Rather we, His creatures, are subject to Him. We are benefactors of grace. The servants of God, Christian leaders and so-called prophets are not an exception to this truth.