Be Cautious About Prophets

A letter from Dustin Ellington serving in Zambia

November 2015

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Dear Friends,

Greetings from Zambia. It is always a joy to hear from former students who are thriving in pastoral ministry. I invite you to read this recent email interaction I had with one such pastor now serving in Malawi. The subject line reads, “Extension of my ministry area.”

Jankens: I just wanted to inform u that my ministry area has been extended to eight congregations from five, with 1,600 members as the minimum number of congregants.

Ellington: You must be a busy man! I don’t know how you manage, but you must be depending heavily on Jesus Christ. Are you still the only ordained pastor for all of these people, or do you have an associate pastor?

Jankens:  I am the only ordained minister for all these people and [there is] no associate. It’s true that I must totally depend on Christ. I must [be] an associate pastor to him. Grace and peace be yours. Amen.

Rev. George Jankens, now a pastor in Malawi, back in his student days

Rev. George Jankens, now a pastor in Malawi, back in his student days

The African church has grown to be massive in size, and it’s full of life. Rev. Jankens graduated two years ago and now serves as solo pastor to eight Presbyterian congregations—the smallest of which has 1,600 members. Imagine how many lay leaders he trains, and the countless funerals and weddings he must officiate!  I’m touched by his perspective, that he must be an associate pastor alongside Christ.

With so few trained leaders, the church here in southern and central Africa is vulnerable. Two current challenges, which go together, are proliferations of “prophets” and of the message that Jesus Christ is the ticket to wealth on earth. We are encouraged that Justo Mwale University is daily in the thick of working to equip Christian leaders to face these challenges.

In Zambia and neighboring nations newspapers keep eager readers up-to-date on the latest whereabouts of prophets. People hang their hopes on powerful “men of God” who come to town announcing blessings and prosperity. In contrast to Rev. Jankens, who rides a bicycle between his eight congregations, the last such article I read said the visiting prophet arrived in Zambia from impoverished Malawi by private jet. Zambian military and police escorted him to a large stadium, where he allegedly worked miracles of healing and foretold the future. His organization claims to have raised over $100 billion for development in Africa, though evidence isn’t available. Another prophet promised in the past month that everyone who came to the stadium would receive an automatic deposit in their bank account. (Sorry, but Sherri and I didn’t attend, so we can’t really say whether it happened!)

Justo Mwale faculty offering a panel discussion on the prosperity gospel.

Justo Mwale faculty offering a panel discussion on the prosperity gospel.

What are prophets? Can we have prophets today? Are prophets dangerous, or are they specially gifted and worthy of elevated status? Is God still speaking in the same way he spoke to the Biblical prophets? What does having modern-day prophets mean for the relevance of the Bible? Africa’s Christians, and certainly our students, are wrestling with these questions. So Justo Mwale’s faculty this year has held discussions and written a book dealing with these very questions. My own chapter’s title is “Be Cautious about Prophets but Zealous to Prophesy: 1 Corinthians 14 and Today’s Questions about Prophecy.” The book will come out in 2016.

Meanwhile the Council of Churches in Zambia (CCZ), an organization of some 50 or so Christian denominations working together, has been leaning on Justo Mwale for assistance in thinking through the church’s challenges. Recently the CCZ asked us to provide, during their biennial conference for church leaders, a panel discussion on the prosperity gospel. We gave short presentations based on chapters we wrote for a book on the prosperity gospel two years ago. The head of our school, Dr. Zulu, spoke from various Old Testament passages to say that God will help Africa to prosper, but that this does not mean it will occur without suffering and hard work.

I spoke about the need to avoid using key Bible verses to defend one side, but instead to interpret verses in light of the whole chapters and books of the Bible in which they are found. This clarifies the meaning of particular verses and enables us to gauge the prosperity gospel responsibly. I thought I made some good points, but a bishop quickly stood up to claim Jesus had promised that anyone who follows him will have their material possessions in this life multiplied a hundredfold (Mark 10:29-30). I was a little disheartened by the interpretation but challenged the crowd to read these verses in light of the rest of what Jesus says in Mark’s Gospel. And one of my colleagues suggested that they might also want to judge by what Jesus does in Mark’s Gospel.

Unfortunately, it seems the church in our part of Africa has largely swallowed the idea that Jesus will make people rich in this life, and many pastors and congregations market themselves with promises of wealth. Recently a colleague visited a church and heard he was very welcome—but if he stayed and wasn’t getting rich within three months, he should probably look elsewhere.

Pray for Justo Mwale students to be genuine disciples and faithful preachers (Photo by Johanneke Kroesbergen)

Pray for Justo Mwale students to be genuine disciples and faithful preachers (Photo by Johanneke Kroesbergen)

Please pray for Justo Mwale University as we seek to train teachers and preachers for Africa’s  church—people who will be genuine disciples and faithful preachers of truth from Scripture. Many of our graduates face overwhelming needs; like Rev. Jankens, may they be faithful “associate pastors” to Jesus Christ, the head of the church and source of its life. May Justo Mwale be a center of discipleship and intellectual activity for the sake of the gospel in Africa.

We also appreciate prayers for our family and for Zambia as a whole. We live in a city that continues to be without electricity for 8 to 13 hours every day. It’s tiresome. The power cuts affect us but also everyone else, from the inconvenience of not being able to take a shower (water pumps need electricity), to many families missing more meals than usual (food costs have risen sharply), to what seems like an increase in violent crime (exacerbated in the absence of security lights).

We are so grateful for the prayers and support of so many of you. Presbyterian World Mission is going through a serious shortfall in its funding of mission co-workers. Ten co-worker positions have been discontinued in 2015, and 40 more of the remaining 150 may need to be dropped in 2016 unless giving significantly increases. While our support has risen in the last couple of years, we still need about $16,000 more per year to continue our work. Please pray about this need and consider a year-end gift toward our sending and support by clicking here. For those of you who haven’t supported us financially but would like to do so, this would be an excellent time to begin regular support. We are so thankful for all of you who make our work possible!

May the light of truth shine upon you this Christmas season and in the year to come.

Yours in Christ,
Dustin and Sherri Ellington — Dustin — Sherri

The 2015 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 154

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