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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

John Wimber and the "Prophetic Movement"


Gary Tyra’s The Holy Spirit in Mission is an important book, successful in significant ways and even in its weaknesses an occasion for deep reflection. Tyra, associate professor of biblical and practical theology at Vanguard University, is at his best when he focuses on the biblical and pastoral aspects of “prophetic speech and action in Christian witness”, as the subtitle puts it. In those chapters focused on biblical interpretation and pastoral wisdom Trya provides not only fresh insights but also a model for the kind of scholarship that can effectively bridge the gap between Pentecostal experience and non-Pentecostal habits of thinking. As the global Church becomes increasingly shaped by Pentecostal experiences foreign to the faith journey of many other Christians it is necessary for the good of Christian unity and fellowship that patient, careful work be done to overcome suspicions and misunderstandings between Christians who have experienced the work of the Holy Spirit in different ways. This effort to bridge communities leads Tyra to make an understandable decision to limit his study to prophetic speech and action, and avoid discussion of the ecumenically sensitive topic of modern-day prophets and apostles. Given how controversial this subject is even within charismatic and Pentecostal circles, it is understandable that Tyra would seek to avoid the topic. Tyra skillfully shows how the biblical narrative illustrates the central role prophetic speech and action and he draws on his pastoral experience to suggest ways that openness to prophetic leading can be responsibly incorporated into individual and congregational life.

Had Tyra limited himself to biblical and pastoral counsel his strategy of encouraging the prophetic guidance of the Spirit while avoiding the controversy of a modern day office of prophets and apostles would have been successful. Unfortunately, Tyra decided to devote a chapter to contemporary church history to prove that “missional faithfulness and the global growth of Pentecostalism” are intrinsically tied to prophetic speech and action. Any attempt to demonstrate the role of prophecy in Pentecostalism without touching on the delicate topic of “prophets” is extremely challenging because many of the stories that seem most to validate the power of prophecy in Pentecostalism’s growth are unavoidably connected to the actions of highly controversial prophets. Nowhere is this clearer than in the history of the widely influential Vineyard Churches. Yet, astonishingly, Tyra seeks to tell the story of prophetic speech empowering the Vineyard movement without including the controversy over the role of prophets that caused such division within the leadership of the Vineyard movement. Tyra limits his account to one interview he conducted with Lance Pittluck an American Vineyard pastor and current board member. Pittock claims that the growth of the Vineyard movement in England was due to a prophetic word heard by John and Eleanor Mumford. If this were the simple truth then the story would fit neatly within Tyra's book. Unfortunately, this is only a narrow slice of the story of how supposed prophecy influenced the Vineyard in England. This broader narrative is expertly told in William Kay’s 2007 book Apostolic Networks in Britain, published as part of Paternoster’s “Studies in Evangelical History and Thought” series edited by, among others, Mark Noll and David Bebbington.

In Kay’s telling, the story of the Vineyard in England is inextricably tied to the controversy around the notorious Kansas City Prophets and the broader controversy over modern day prophets. Whereas Pittock’s account of the Vineyard in England focuses on the type of prophetic speech that does not rely or eoncourage a view of an office of prophet, and is therefore easy to fit into Tyra’s broader discussion, Kay’s thicker narrative puts the controversy over modern day prophets at the center of an understanding of how the Vineyard ministry evolved in England and leads to major questions over how John Wimber himself came to view prophetic knowledge. According to Kay, “Paul Cain, the most prominent of the Kansas City Prophets, told John and Eleanor Mumford that the revival would ‘probably find its starting point…when the Lord will just start to move throughout London and throughout England.” What Pittock sees as a wholesome prophecy given by the Mumford’s to Wimber was in fact part of deeply divisive stretch in the history of the Vineyard movement. I quote Kay at length:

Paul Cain went to see Wimber at the end of 1988 to warn him to give greater priority to holiness within the Vineyard movement. Cain brought with him the background influences of the Latter Rain movement....[which] developed an eschatology all of its own. By identifying the new apostles as ‘manifest sons of God’ whose task would be to restore the church, it rapidly generated hyper-real expectation of its proponents and their central place within the unfolding drama of the end times and, in doing so, moved outside the normal parameters of bliblical doctrine…there is no evidence that Latter Rain beliefs were transmitted directly through Cain to Wimber. Nevertheless Cain made an impact on Wimber.

Several participants tell the sotry of these extraordinary events. The meeting between the two men was engineered by Jack Deer, a onetime professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, who had been fired from his position because o fhis conversion to Third Wave beliefs. Deere had asked Cain for a sign by which he could persuade WImber to meet together. Cain replied, the day I arrive there will be an earthquake in your area.’ When Deere asked whether the earthquake would be a big one, he replied, ‘no, but there will be a big earthquake in the world on the day I leave.’ So Wimber reluctantly welcomed Cain to his home in Anahiem on 5th of December 1988. Cain, in prophetic mode, told WImber to ‘discipline and rasie up a people of purity and holiness’ and that Wimber’s role ‘would be significantly altered—more authoritative (not authoritarian) and directive.’ He also told Wimber that, if he issued this call for holiness, Wimber’s son Sean would be delivered ‘from rebellion and drug addiction.’ The earthquake on 3rd of December 1988 occurred at 3:38 am, the day that Cain had reached California. Cain left on the morning of December 7th when the Soviet-Armenian earthquake occurred at 10:51 p.m. (Pacific Standard Time).

In August 1989 Cain prophesied ‘revival will find its starting point sometime in October [of 1990] when the Lord will just start moving  through London and through England’. In June 1990 Sean Wimber came back to the family home and returned to the faith. Wimber saw this as a patterning event symbolic of the global revival. ‘As more prodigals return’, Wimber said, ‘pockets of revival spread throughout the house of God’. In obedience to these prophecies, WImber moved with his family to England and organized a series of regional conferences entitled “Holiness unto the Lord’ throughout the United Kingdom…

The predicted revival failed to materialize. WImber initially attempted to account for this by explaining that revival was to come in stages, but this was unconvincing. In January 1991 at the Revival Fire conference Wimber had to face criticism. He then asked the question, ‘did revival come in October?’ and with evident disappointment he answered it himself, ‘no, it has not in England at this time.’ And he went on to state that, rather than revival, America would experience the judgement of God in the First Gulf War because of the nation’s rejection of the Lord. When the First Gulf War eneded rapidly and without any setbacks for the Americans, the role of prophets, which had been a matter of dispute in the Vineyard since the early 1990s, boiled over at a Vineyard Board meeting at Snoqualmie Falls, Washington, in May 1991. Wimber fell out with Cain and later with the entire prophetic movement: ‘I don’t believe there are such things as prophets today’.

The dramatic difference between Tyra’s telling and Kay’s does not impugn the motives or memory of Lance Pittluck. What Pittluck may have heard was a partial truth, the kind of sanitized history that we are all inclined to pass on about groups we are committed to. Tyra would have been better served by either not trying to use contemporary history as a proof for his thesis or by telling the full history in a way that includes the controversy over modern-day prophets that is so clearly at the heart of the Vineyard’s ministry in England. As it stands, his attempt to simplistically bind his biblical and pastoral wisdom to contemporary history is a significant weakness in an otherwise strong book.


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