While I could probably share several thoughts on congregations or ministries as systems (and I may), I’ve been highly interested in the role of the “prophet” in a system. Much of this interest has been fueled by spending the last 10 weeks taking a prophets class though I’m always interested in prophet related insights because of how I tend to function in systems myself.
Steinke writes on page 44 of How Your Church Family Works,
“…True prophets are without honor in their own anxious country. Many of God’s messengers are ignored, mocked, or annihilated. But the false prophets who cry, ‘Peace, peace,’ and heal the wounds of the people lightly are too often welcomed. They promise stability but invite no reflection. False prophets offer simple, immediate relief. They don’t challenge people to change their limited point of view.”
Given the tendency of groups to move towards stability and conformity (homeostasis), it only makes since that a force that may seek to challenge the dynamics and inner-workings of the system may face a stiff challenge if not fierce opposition.
In my readings of N.T. Wright as well as the Prophets class I’ve thought about the parable of the wicked tenants. The landowner sends a couple representatives to bring a corrective message to those that were being unfaithful in stewarding what had been entrusted to them. The wicked tenants beat the messengers and finally the landowner sent his own Son thinking that surely they would respect Him. However the Son was beaten and killed for bringing both the message of correction as well as for his representation of the landowner.
In the past I’ve focused on this merely as a parable that served as a prediction or “proof-text” that Jesus knew ahead of time that he was going to die. I think there is an element of that there, but the emphasis of this is really Jesus placing himself in the same position as the many prophets that the Lord had sent to His people. The prophets were continually rejected (see life of Jeremiah) and ironically much of the rejection comes at the hands of the current leaders of the religious “system” of the day. Jesus himself finally comes as the last prophet and is dealt with in similar fashion by the religious system of his day.
I’m beginning to see that the religious (and other) authorities over the course of Israel’s history were continually moving towards cultural homeostasis in the context of pagan nations. It was easier for the leaders and the people to adopt behavior patterns that were part of the larger system of the surrounding pagan nations. The Lord sent his prophets to call them to repentance and commit again to the Lord’s covenant. They were in effect saying to the people and leadership that they were embracing a corrupt system and they needed to turn from it and return to the “system” that God had called them to.
Common sense tells us that this is a rough calling for the prophet, but from a systems’ perspective the prophetic role becomes an even more unenviable position. Many leaders seek to find quick solutions so as to reduce anxiety. The prophet sees when the whole system is based on a faulty foundation and is willing to create a certain level of anxiety that may result in learning and change. Anxious communities, people, and leaders (anxiety meaning they have a high vested interest in their self-preservation in the context of community) react against the prophets because their way of living/dealing/coping is threatened.
Obviously the gospels portray Jesus in this kind of role with the leaders of his day as well dozens of others of Biblical leaders. It’s relevant to consider how the system might be functioning off of a faulty foundation. It’s relevant to consider how the prophet’s most severe opposition was actually from the religious leadership – those who had “control” and the most to lose. I’ll be sharing more thoughts down the road on the importance of the role of the leader in any system, but any leaders should seek to recognize who the true prophetic voices are in their system who can help bring needed change, learning, and even repentance. They should also recognize the difference between those true prophets and those who claim to be prophets, but are only seeking to reduce their anxiety – or as Steinke puts it, those who are chasing “fool’s gold.”