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A Question for all Complementarian Cessationists

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Many of my closest friends are cessationists when it comes to the issue of spiritual gifts. I have only the highest regard for them and thank God daily for their contributions to the body of Christ.

But I do have a question for them, a challenge, if you will. It concerns their insistence that, on the one hand, all NT prophecy was inspired, inerrant, and possessed the same authority as that of the apostles and, on the other, that women are prohibited from teaching men or exercising authority over them in the corporate gathering of the church. Let me explain.

In his book on spiritual gifts, cessationist (and good friend) Tom Schreiner cites Ephesians 2:20 and concludes that “New Testament prophets have the same authority as the apostles” and that all prophetic ministry was designed to establish the theological and ethical principles on which the Church of Jesus Christ would be built (104). Again, he insists that “if prophecy still exists today, it is hard to resist the conclusion that the foundation established by the apostles and prophets hasn’t been completed” (107). Again, says Schreiner, “We see in Ephesians 2:20 that the words of the prophets play a decisive role in the shaping of the doctrine and life of the church. . . . They [the prophets] play a foundational role in establishing the church of Jesus Christ” (108).

Let me remind you again of Schreiner’s assertion, namely, that all prophetic revelation was inerrant and foundational to the universal church of Jesus Christ. Yet, we read in Acts 2 that when the Spirit is poured out on “all flesh” that “your sons and daughters shall prophesy,” which according to Schreiner means that every son and daughter who prophesied was contributing infallible revelation essential to the building up of the universal church of Christ.

Likewise, we would conclude the same about the “young men” and “old men” and the “male servants” and “female servants.” Do we really believe that all of the prophetic utterances that came forth from all God’s people listed here are essential to the foundation of the universal body of Christ? Since you and I are a part of that body and are required by God to submit our lives to whatever theological and ethical truths are contained in that foundation, it would be quite helpful for us to know what they are. But nowhere in Scripture are any of these revelatory experiences recorded.

In his book, Tom attempts to dismiss this latter point by arguing that there was lots of prophetic revelation in the OT that was never inscripturated, or included in the biblical canon, so why should we expect anything different in the NT. The answer is obvious: nowhere are we told in the OT that all prophetic revelation was foundational to the universal church of Jesus Christ. But that is precisely what Schreiner argues in the case of all NT prophecy. The situations, therefore, are decidedly different. My good friend cannot so easily dismiss the absence from Scripture of potentially tens of thousands of prophetic words since he believes that every single one of those prophetic words is infallible, authoritative, and foundational to the life and beliefs of the universal body of Christ.

Now, I come to the main point of this article. Consider the implications regarding Paul’s permission that women can prophesy but his prohibition of them from teaching men or participating in the public evaluation of prophetic utterances. Clearly women can prophesy (see Acts 2:17-18; 21:9; 1 Cor. 11:5). But if that is true, what does he mean in 1 Corinthians 14:34 when he says, “Let the women keep silent in the church; for they are not permitted to speak”? The likely answer is that Paul is prohibiting women from participating in the passing of judgment upon or the public evaluation of the prophets (14:29). Evidently, he believed that this entailed an exercise of authority restricted to men only (see 1 Tim. 2:12:15).

If one should ask why Paul would allow women to prophesy but not evaluate the prophecies of others, the answer is in the nature of prophecy itself. Prophecy, unlike teaching, does not entail the exercise of an authoritative position within the local church. The prophet was but an instrument through whom revelation is reported to the congregation. “Those who prophesied did not tell the church how to interpret and apply Scripture to life. They did not proclaim the doctrinal and ethical standards by which the church was guided, nor did they exercise governing authority in the church” (Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the NT and Today, 121-22).

But to publicly evaluate or criticize or judge prophetic utterances is another matter. In this activity one could hardly avoid explicit theological and ethical instruction of other believers. If we assume that in 1 Timothy 2 Paul prohibits women from teaching or exercising authority over men, it’s understandable why he would allow women to prophesy in 1 Cor. 11:5 but forbid them from judging the prophetic utterances of others (especially men) in 14:34.

Simply put, how can complementarians deny women a teaching ministry that entails the exercise of authority, on the one hand, and then affirm that women prophesied with an authority equal to that of the apostles, on the other? It would seem that either they must abandon their complementarian convictions, or that they must recognize that there was a form of prophecy that was not foundational in nature and did not entail an authority equal to that of the apostles. And if they opt for the latter, there would then be no conflict between the on-going validity of prophecy today and the finality and sufficiency of the biblical canon.

So, again, my question is this: If all NT prophets exercised an authority equal to that of the apostles, and women prophesied, how can Paul prohibit women from exercising the apostolic authority that is inherent within the NT gift of prophecy?

We continuationist complementarians have no problem with this, for we recognize that not all NT prophecy was foundational and not all NT prophecy carried the same authority as that of the apostles. Therefore, for Paul to endorse women prophesying and yet prohibit women from exercising authority over men is entirely understandable.

Finally, we are now able to understand Paul’s intent in Ephesians 2:20. It simply isn’t possible that Paul could be referring in this text to all who exercised the gift of prophecy. A quick survey of the many instances where prophecy was operative as well as those who are described as prophesying demands that we understand Paul in Ephesians 2:20 to be speaking of a smaller, select group of prophets (distinct from the apostles) who were used by God to establish the inerrant and infallible theological and ethical truths essential to the foundation of the universal church of Jesus Christ.

No cessationist I know of, especially those who are complementarians, believe that the “sons and daughters” of Acts 2:17 were inspired by the Spirit to speak inerrant and universally binding theological truths. Nor do they believe that the multitude of “young men” and “old men” and “male servants” and “female servants” who are explicitly said to “prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18) did so in a way that their authority was equivalent to that of the apostles.

I have yet to meet a complementarian cessationist who believes that Philip’s “four unmarried daughters who prophesied” (Acts 21:9) or the women in Corinth who likewise prophesied (1 Cor. 11:5) did so with an authority equal to that of the apostles, whose words and exhortations constituted the foundation of the church of Jesus Christ.

My final question grows out of the exhortation of Paul that Christians should “earnestly desire the higher gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31), included among which (perhaps even most of all) being the gift of prophecy. Again, in 1 Corinthians 14:1, he writes: “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.” And as much as Paul wanted them all to speak in tongues, he desired “even more” that they should “prophesy” (1 Cor. 14:5). Finally, he closes this chapter in 1 Corinthians with the exhortation: “So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Cor. 14:39). And Paul appears to endorse at least the potential for all Christians to prophesy (see 1 Cor. 14:24,31).

Paul’s instruction to the churches throughout the first-century world would undoubtedly have been identical to his instruction to the Corinthians. The apostle did not embrace one perspective on revelatory gifts that would apply to the Corinthians and yet another, different perspective for the churches in Macedonia and Italy and elsewhere. Likewise, the same set of practical guidelines imposed on the Corinthians would have been required of all Christians in every other city and church.

If Paul actually viewed all NT prophecy as infallible, morally authoritative, equal in authority to that of the apostles, and essential to establishing the foundation of the universal church, we must be willing to say that the Apostle urged every Christian in every local congregation to earnestly desire that he/she might be the recipient of inspired and authoritative revelation that would serve to lay the foundation for the body of Christ throughout all ages. I’m not willing to do that.

Thus, I believe Ephesians 2:20 describes all the apostles but only some of the prophets who together were used by God to establish the theological and moral parameters binding on all Christians in every age. Many more men and women, young and old, were blessed with the gift of prophecy and exercised this charismatic endowment for the “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1 Cor. 14:3) of believers in churches everywhere then, and I believe, today as well. They did not speak with infallible apostolic authority and their words were to be judged and weighed (1 Cor. 14:29; 1 Thess. 5:19-22).

[Some of this article has been adapted from my book, Understanding Spiritual Gifts: A Comprehensive Guide (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020).]

1 Comment

I've often found it fascinating that many of my cessationist friends argue that the gift of prophecy in the NT is actually just a synonym for preaching yet also tell me women should not preach, somehow seeming to ignore the various texts which refer to women prophesying in the New Testament. I find their inconsistency baffling! Either prophecy was not the same as preaching OR God was apparently okay with women preaching, right?

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