It has always been popular in Christian circles to claim God’s leading when it comes to one’s personal and professional decisions. But in the past few years, a few high-profile figures made the news for claiming to hear from the Lord in their predictions about the last presidential election and their choices to switch or leave their denominations.
Is there any pastor in America who has not, at one time or another, been told that the reason a church member is doing something is because “God is leading” him or her? That phrase tends to be a conversation stopper for most Christian leaders. After all, if God Almighty, the Creator and Lord of the universe, has spoken, who are we to object?
The truth is, God does speak today. He created the universe by speaking. “Thus says the Lord” is the repeated refrain of Israel’s prophets. The distinction between the God of Israel and every other god in the ancient world was that he speaks—while idols cannot (Ps. 115:4–5). And it’s a sign of God’s judgment throughout Scripture whenever he stops speaking (1 Sam. 3:1).
Unlike the God of deism, the God of the Bible is personally involved in the affairs of earth, leading his church and caring for his children. One major way he leads is by speaking. Our job is to learn to recognize his voice, listen well, and wisely discern how to obey what he is saying.
But those of us in church leadership are often left wondering what accountability looks like in this area. That is, how can we assess whether a word is from God or not—and what vetting criteria should we consider when the Lord seems to speak to us or someone under our care?
I know personally that God speaks. My life was dramatically changed by a word from the Lord.
I was married, had young children, was an elder at our small church, and was thriving in my dream job: teaching law in the MBA program at the Ohio State University (OSU). But after coming to Christ at age 18, I had always felt drawn to full-time ministry—I just was never quite sure God had called me. A friend challenged me to ask the Lord for a sign. “Pastors kick Gideon around all the time,” he said, “but God answered his request.”
So, while participating on a conference ministry team with Vineyard in England, I decided to ask God for a sign. I gave the Lord no specifics—only that he would speak to me before I was to call home to my wife in three days. First day, nothing. Second day, nothing.
On the third day, the conference keynote speaker, John Wimber, began his evening session by saying, “Some of you here are praying about full-time ministry. You’ll know it’s the Lord speaking when it is the last hour!” I began gripping my seat as Wimber went through a long list of things uniquely relevant to me and my situation.
Then for good measure, a member of the ministry team shared a dream he had about me, which was followed by a prophetic word from someone else—all answering my question about full-time ministry with a resounding “Yes! I have called you.”
When I shared my experience with fellow elders at our church, they unanimously confirmed it. Unbeknownst to me, they had believed for some time that I was to leave OSU and become our first senior pastor. They were just waiting for God to speak to me.
The Lord also spoke clearly to my wife, and we decided to take a radical step of faith. I left my tenure-track position as a professor at Ohio State and entered full-time ministry. For the next 35-plus years, I pastored and led our “little” church that became Vineyard Columbus.
God is infinitely creative in the ways that he speaks. He speaks through nature. He speaks through dreams at night and visions in the day. He speaks through images and impressions. He speaks through prophetic words and actions. He speaks through our consciences, preaching, wise counsel, circumstances, and experiences; he speaks through the history of the church, through the books we read, and through our minds and emotions.
However, he speaks most clearly and infallibly through the Bible (the written Word of God) and through Jesus (the incarnate Word of God).
The problem is that we can unfortunately be entirely mistaken about whether God has spoken and about what he has said. The apostle Paul reminds us that in this present age “we know in part and we prophesy in part. … For now, we see only a reflection as in a mirror” (1 Cor. 13:9, 12).
Our partial knowledge, imperfect prophecy, and difficulty in hearing have led sincere Christians to wrongly believe (for example) that God has told them exactly when Jesus will return, that God will bring about revival at this place and time, or that God wants thisparticular candidate elected president.
In the same way, we must accept the reality of human limitations whenever believers claim the Lord’s leading . We must hold truths in tension as we seek to correctly discern words from God—welcoming the possibility that God still speaks today while acknowledging that we don’t always hear clearly. As Paul says, we should neither despise prophesy nor naively embrace prophetic words without first testing to see whether they are from God (1 Thess. 5:19–22).
We are told not to believe everything we hear when people claim a word from the Lord, but instead we must “test the spirits to see whether they are from God,” as 1 John 4:1 advises. So how do we discern whether someone is being led by God in their words and actions? Here are a few safeguards for biblical discernment that I have found helpful over the years:
1. God’s written Word is the standard by which we judge any word of prophecy or claim of leading. For example, any word that contradicts God’s written revelation concerning what is true, what is moral, or what is his expressed will must be rejected.
2. Jesus, the incarnate Word is also the standard by which we judge any word of prophecy or claim of leading. For example, words that are manipulative or self-seeking, harmful to others or out of sync with the Spirit of Jesus are suspect. Jesus is full of wisdom, kindness, gentleness, truth, grace, and patience, so words or “leadings” that don’t reflect his character should be rejected.
3. Humility should characterize anyone offering a prophetic word or claiming a leading from God. For example, rather than confidently asserting “Thus saith the Lord” or “God is leading me,” it is more honest to say (because of our human frailty), “I think God may be saying” or “I have a sense God may be leading.”
4. Community discernment is a major safeguard against mistakes in hearing and applying a word from God. The mind of Christ is not the private possession of an elite few (e.g., the pastor and his or her inner circle). Paul reminded the whole church in Corinth that “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16, emphasis added)—in other words, not just you!
One question I frequently ask engaged couples is “Are there any people you know, in your family, among your friends, or in Christian leadership who have expressed reservations or concerns about your upcoming marriage?” I want to know whether this couple is open to input from the community around them and willing to hear their counsel or whether they are closed, acting independently and autonomously.
5. Transparency is another mark of genuine prophecy or leading from God. Words delivered and decisions made in secret are always suspect. The eyes and ears of others and their objectivity and sensibility are safeguards. It is easy to convince (deceive) ourselves into believing that in this particular case, because people just wouldn’t understand or because it will take too long to explain, we cannot include others. Secrecy is a great indication that something is seriously wrong! God’s word can always stand the light of day!
6. Accountability is key regarding any prophecy, leading, or major decision. Does the pastor or leader who claims God is leading have any meaningful check of his discernment and actions? Is there a board or leadership team empowered with authority, or do they simply function as a rubber stamp? Is the leader open to be challenged? Has the leader ever acknowledged being wrong—that what she thought was the voice of God was in fact not God speaking at all? Does the leader respond well to legitimate questions, or does he evade them by claiming “God has spoken! Who are you to object?”
Accountability is particularly critical when money, power, and/or position are involved. If the person who claims “God is leading” personally benefits from that leading, basic knowledge of human nature demands that tough questions be asked. I have much more confidence in the authenticity of a word from God that involves substantial sacrifice and a cross than one that results in personal advancement and financial gain!
It is true that phrases like “The Lord is leading” get attached to silly ideas and selfish desires. It is easier to be cynical and dismiss outright the notion that God still speaks today outside his written Word.
But just like Gideon’s fleece, as well as my own story of entering ministry, sometimes we need a timely word, nudge, or reminder from the Lord. As Jesus said, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4, emphasis added).
Rich Nathan is the founding pastor of Vineyard Columbus, a multiethnic congregation in Columbus, Ohio and was their senior pastor for 34 years. He is the author of three books: Empowered Evangelicals, Who Is My Enemy? and Both-And.