“Do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” (1 Thess. 5:20–22)

It is Wednesday night, and I am sitting in the civic auditorium in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, waiting for signs of the apocalypse. I am not the only one. The hall is filled with 7,000 arm-waving, body-swaying worshipers, singing what could be described as adult camp songs.

Perhaps I should be in the Middle East, where most professional prognosticators say the final battle will be fought. But some are pointing to this heartland metropolis. Two thousand years ago, who would have put any money on Bethlehem?

I came to learn about prophecy. No, not biblical prophets, but real, live prophets—the Kansas City prophets, as some call them. Actually they eschew the label prophet, preferring to use the more cautious nomenclature of prophetically gifted minister.

These men—pastor Mike Bickle, and prophets such as Bob Jones, John Paul Jackson, and Paul Cain—and their church, Kansas City Fellowship (KCF), are creating a stir in charismatic circles. They claim that the prophetic gift should be restored in the church, that prophecy is a natural, biblical means for God to speak to his people, and that (here’s the apocalyptic part) this increased prophetic activity is a sign of the emergence of the last-days’ victorious church. They practice what they preach.

Their message is getting heard. Charisma magazine ran a cover story on their activities in late 1989 and has published several updates on the church’s activities. In Britain, Some Said It Thundered, by David Pytches (subtitled “A Personal Encounter with the ‘Kansas City’ Prophets”), is a best seller. John Wimber, the leader of the Signs and Wonders movement, has taken the Kansas City prophets on a world tour of conferences featuring their message, and in May 1990 he announced that KCF had become a part of his Vineyard network of 300-plus churches. Now, one month later, in 100-plus-degree weather, 7,000 people from across the nation have gathered at the church’s third annual leadership conference to hear what all the buzz is about.

Not all the buzz has been good. In fact, for the last few months before the conference, KCF leaders have seen themselves on the receiving end of “persecution.” Several cult-watching groups have expressed apprehension, and a few, condemnation. Even some Vineyard churches have expressed grave concerns about the direction the prophets are taking them.

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KCF’s main tormentor has been next-door neighbor Ernest Gruen, pastor of Full Faith Church of Love, a large, charismatic congregation in Shawnee, Kansas. First through the distribution of a taped sermon and then of a 233-page document, Gruen leveled some serious charges. Concluding that “we have, in Kansas City, the beginnings of a charismatic heresy,” he documented exaggerated and false prophecies by KCF staff that were used to promote the church’s ministry; strange teachings, such as that New Testament prophets, unlike the Old Testament variety, are fallible; that some prophets promote unbiblical activities such as out-of-body experiences; and that churches and individuals have suffered institutional and psychological harm from words allegedly “spoken from God.”

The bulky document contains about a dozen of the 45 letters Gruen says he received from area pastors supporting his action; also included are negative testimonies about KCF from counselors, ministers, and laypeople, as well as transcripts from selected portions of KCF audiotapes describing their strange teachings and practices.

The apostle Paul wrote, “Do not treat prophecies with contempt” (1 Thess. 5:20). Until now I never wondered why he felt the need to give such a warning.

I have scheduled a lunch with Pastor Gruen for Thursday noon—tomorrow. Tonight, though, I await the star prophet himself, Paul Cain, who is to speak after the camp songs are over. Whenever John Wimber, Mike Bickle, or others in the movement talk about what prophecy should look like, how it should operate, and what kind of integrity a prophet should possess, they all point to Cain. “He is a ten on a scale of ten,” Wimber tells me, giving his usual wise qualification, “as far as we know.”

To tell the truth, in the two days I have been here, I have not seen much to substantiate the detractors’ claims. Either the apprehensive critics are responding simply to the weirdness of the goings on (and it is weird) or KCF and Vineyard leaders are a little scared and have done some serious house cleaning. I suspect both may be true.

On Monday afternoon Bickle opened the conference by saying, “Let us exalt Christ,” and proceeded to lead two hours of worship and prayer—which I took as a positive sign. Of average height with an athletic build, Bickle would stump the panelists on “What’s My Line?” Instead of a preacher, he seems like a clean-cut, former high-school football star who is now Midwest regional sales manager for Xerox.

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He displayed a down-to-earth, though passionate manner in his talk on Monday night, presenting his vision for the conference, for prophecy, and for the future of the church. He said prophecy can be divided into three parts—revelation, interpretation, and application—and pointed out that a lot of the problems caused by prophecy are due to immature practitioners who misconstrue the interpretation or application.

Later, Jack Deere, the Vineyard’s resident biblical scholar and former Dallas Theological Seminary faculty member, gave me an example. One of their prophets saw a vision of a dark cloud over a man’s head; in the cloud was a dollar sign. The prophet then accused the man of financial wrongdoing. As it turned out, the man was innocent, but two weeks later it was discovered that an employee of the man’s business had been extorting money—which was probably the proper reference for the prophecy. Deere said the right approach for the prophet would have been to ask God what the symbols meant and how to act on them.

Deere admits there are some legitimate criticisms of the prophetic movement, all of which they are trying to correct. For instance, some prophetic ministers have tried to establish revelations or doctrines that were not grounded in Scripture (such as the idea that eating beef was necessary for discerning demons). That practice is now forbidden. All KCF and Vineyard leaders stress that the prophetic movement is immature and apt to make mistakes (except for, they stress, Paul Cain). While they believe that many of their prophets are extremely gifted, they also recognize that few have had biblical and theological training.

The mechanics of KCF’s, and now the Vineyard’s, prophetic ministry are impressive—at least in theory. It is as if a group of dispensationalists, who believe the charismatic gifts have ceased, were asked what checks and balances they would put in place if they were forced to have prophecy in their church. For example, people are encouraged to say, “I think the Lord is saying …” instead of the more dogmatic, “Thus saith the Lord,” which can, and has, caused much trouble and ill will, especially when the prophetic word does not come to pass.

Another guideline requires that prophecies are not to be controlling, such as in predicting babies or marriages (which would interfere with the normal decision-making process). People are encouraged never to make a decision solely on prophetic instruction. Prophecies about sinful activity are to be given in private. Predictions of national disasters, economic events, and divine visitations are discouraged, and only allowed with prior approval from church leaders. In fact, at KCF all public prophecies must first be cleared by the church staff. Most prophetic utterances are now recorded so people can be sure what was said and hold the prophet accountable. Many of these cautionary rules are recent damage-control efforts in disastrous situations, some of which have been documented by Gruen.

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One reason there are so many guidelines is that the church allows for a generous margin of error in prophetic words. Many critics, from both within and without the charismatic camp, point to the Old Testament criteria for prophets of 100 percent accuracy and thus dismiss the KCF-led movement. In response, many speakers have referred to arguments found in Wayne Grudem’s book The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today.

Grudem, who teaches theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and attends a small Vineyard-affiliated church, argues that every prophet today will make mistakes. The corresponding role of Old Testament prophets, who could not make mistakes without being declared false and put to death (Deut. 18:20–22), in the New Testament are not prophets but apostles. They were the ones commissioned to “speak God’s words” and to expect obedience (Gal. 1:8–12; 1 Cor. 2:13). Paul’s injunction to test all prophecy assumes there will be some error (1 Thess. 5:20–21). He even says that prophecies are now imperfect (1 Cor. 13:10). According to the New Testament schema for the church, prophets are to be subject to teacher/elders, who are entrusted with the leadership of the church (1 Pet. 5:5; Acts 20:17). The purpose of prophecy in the New Testament is to upbuild, encourage, and console (1 Cor. 14:3), and not to speak “the very words of God,” even if the words are 100-percent accurate. According to Grudem—and KCF and Vineyard leaders agree—there is a discontinuity between the canonical revelation found in the Bible and the revelation received by modern-day prophets.

Even Grudem’s critics agree he has done a thorough study of the scriptural evidence, although some, like Robert Thomas, believe Grudem has “made far too big a discontinuity between New and Old Testament prophecy.” In addition, Thomas, who teaches New Testament at California’s Master’s Seminary, believes Grudem has not overcome one basic theological obstacle. “How can you have inspired utterance that has error?” he asks. “That is a contradiction in terms.”

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There is another key element to the prophetic movement that you could miss if you only read its books, articles, and position papers. Undergirding the whole enterprise, giving shape to its structure, motivations, and goals, is a thoroughgoing apocalypticism.

Although not a prophet himself, Bickle does claim to have heard the Lord’s audible voice on rare occasions. All have been apocalyptic messages. According to his revelation, the Holy Spirit is about to take action to “restore the person of Jesus to the center stage of redemption.” And that’s not all God is up to: “I [God] will change the understanding and expression of Christianity across the earth in one generation.” In other words, we are on the brink of tumultuous change. The reason for this great change is that we have become the lukewarm Laodicean church of Revelation 3. One sign that these things are imminent is the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the USSR. It seems Bickle believes that the spiritual follows the natural (he points to 1 Cor. 15:46). Thus, sudden cataclysmic political changes mean corresponding spiritual changes are on the way.

Evidences of this apocalyptic infrastructure have permeated the conference. At the podium on Wednesday morning, Rick Joyner, who has a prophetic ministry based in Pineville, North Carolina, claimed that God promised he will witness the “coming of the King.” Many speakers have cited John 14:12, where Jesus promised his followers that they will do “greater works” than those Jesus performed, a verse these speakers see as an unfulfilled promise that will come to pass in the last days.

Even the “ministry times,” which have followed all the addresses, have an apocalyptic element in that each “word of knowledge” (a form of prophetic utterance) and every “healing” is seen as an extraordinary sign of what will become common in the imminent revival.

“Still waiting for your other party? Would you like more coffee?”

It is 12:30 Thursday and, well into my third cup of coffee, I am taking up valuable table space at a crowded Big Boy. I call the church again to find out where Ernest Gruen is. This time I reach him.

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It seems he and his staff are caught in a multihour meeting with John Wimber, Paul Cain, Mike Bickle, and Jack Deere. In fact, the meeting is taking a turn, Gruen says, that would make it “inappropriate” for him to talk to CHRISTIANITY TODAY about his charges.

I feel as if I have been outmaneuvered by the Holy Spirit. I decide to order the house specialty and look over my notes.

What to make of Paul Cain?

Before coming to the conference, I listened to a dozen tapes of his teaching and testimony and read what I could find about him. His story is like a lost book from the Bible, filled with miracles, visions, angels, and God’s pervasive presence. Cain seems untouched by the modern world’s existential doubts and secularity.

Like Jesus and the Buddha, Cain’s legend begins with a miraculous birth. Pregnant in her midforties, suffering terminally from tuberculosis, a heart condition, and cancer, Cain’s mother was purportedly visited by an angel who promised that she would be healed, that she would bear a son, and that he should be called “Paul,” because he would have a ministry like unto the apostle Paul. (“My great predecessor,” Cain smilingly calls him.) The angel gave her a sign that this prophecy about her son was true: that she would live an unusually long life. Last year she died at the age of 104.

Cain received his first visit from the Lord when he was 8. The Lord told him he would have a great ministry if he kept himself pure. As a teenager, he was already on the healing circuit, crisscrossing the country—his specialty, prophetically telling people their names, backgrounds, and their ailments, and that the Lord was healing them. Crowds would sometimes report seeing angels standing beside Cain as he spoke. He became known for his reclusive ways, fasting for days before his talks, being blindfolded in the back seat of the car on his way to the assemblies so that nothing he saw would distract him from his revelations.

As a young man he was engaged to be married, but, he claims, one night while he was driving the Lord appeared in the passenger seat and said that he was “jealous” of Cain’s company, and called him to a celibate, single life. With Cain’s consent, the Lord also took away Cain’s sexual desire.

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At this time, Cain came into contact with several leaders of the healing revival of the early 1950s: Raymond T. Richey, Jack Coe, A. A. Allen. But the most important influence was the late William Branham. Known as a humble and frail man with powerful gifts, Branham packed more stadiums and churches than anyone else in the movement, often allowing the young Paul Cain to preach in his place.

Cain refers fondly to this close friendship, but many of his contemporary critics are uncomfortable with this association. Throughout his career, Branham believed in a modalistic doctrine of the Trinity, being associated with the theologically deviant “Jesus only” Pentecostals. In addition, shortly before his death in 1965, Branham began to emphasize bizarre predictions and doctrines and ambiguously to imply he had some special role in God’s intentions. Some zealous extremists were soon baptizing people “in Branham’s name.”

Cain points out that friendship does not imply agreement and so tries to distance himself from Branham’s teaching, while affirming the authenticity of Branham’s ministry. Critics counter, How could Branham have a valid ministry if he taught heresy?

As the fifties wore on, many revivalists’ ministries began to self-destruct, becoming alienated from their denominations and resorting to questionable claims and practices to keep up interest and finances. Cain, too, eventually had to give up his traveling ministry and his television program. Retreating to his mother’s house, he sought to rekindle his love for God and his devotion to holiness. In Chicago last year, Cain cryptically referred to a nervous breakdown during this period. He calls these the “almost-silent years.”

The silence broke in 1987 when Cain connected with KCF. Each saw the association as a fulfillment of prophecy. Years ago Cain had been promised he would stand before a “new breed of Christians” characterized by their humility, purity, and power, and KCF, he believes, was that group.

This association led to another, more strategic one. Through the coordination of Jack Deere, a meeting was planned between Wimber and Cain in December 1988. To show that God was behind what Cain had to say, he predicted that “the day I arrive, there will be an earthquake in your area,” and “there will be a big earthquake elsewhere in the world the day after I leave.” December 3, the day he arrived, there was a small earthquake in Pasadena; December 8, the day after he left, a major quake struck Soviet Armenia.

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Wimber credits Cain’s ministry with saving the Vineyard. Cain told him that God stood ready to forgive the sins of the Vineyard, that Wimber was to take a more authoritative and directive role, and that he was no longer to tolerate “loose living and low standards,” but was to emphasize holiness.

In turn, Wimber has endorsed Cain’s ministry by showcasing him in a worldwide network of conferences. In a talk at KCF in May 1989, Cain described his dramatic reversal of fortunes: “I’ve been on ‘The 700 Club,’ and Charisma is doing an article.… In one short year, after being on the back side of the desert for maybe 27 years, almost-silent years, the Lord in one year has brought that prominence. That I should be with John Wimber and with the Vineyard and be with the Kansas City Fellowship.… I mean, national-level stuff is coming down. And why? The Lord is trying to establish something. He is trying to do something, quickly, immediately. He is saying, ‘If I can do all of this so quickly, just take courage because I will surely visit you.’ ”

During that same series of talks, Cain described one instance of how revelation comes to him: “There was a young girl in the meeting, standing over to the right. I had a vision of that, seeing her praying for her father’s salvation. Then … I saw the face of someone I knew … Howard Hughes.… I said, well, Hughes isn’t the heavy part. It’s Howard. I said, ‘You’re praying for your father’s salvation. His name is Howard. And he will be in the kingdom tonight.’ ”

In another recorded talk, Bickle summarized all the ways Cain receives revelations: by mental impressions; by physical symptoms (pains in his body corresponding to where someone is afflicted); by the angel of the Lord visiting Cain in dreams, trances, or standing by him invisibly and speaking to him; by seeing spiritual lights, different hues meaning different things; by hearing voices either internally or audibly.

All this background information I took with me as I sat down to listen to Cain last night. Everyone was expectant. I had been hearing Paul Cain stories at the conference center, at my hotel, even during breakfast.

The first thing that struck me was how ordinary he looked. A gray-haired, sixtyish, frail man, he did not have the Charlton Heston stature I thought was required for those who have angelic visitations.

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The second surprise was that he was, rhetorically speaking, such a poor speaker. His tapes gave me some forewarning, but this was the man everyone in that audience most wanted to hear. He rambled, digressed, lost track of his thoughts. As he jumped from subject to subject, he gave vague descriptions of spiritual compromise, the need for restoration, and what the church should look like. His talk was littered with allegorical interpretations of Scriptures. All specifics and any hope for application were left to each listener.

During the talk, Cain coached the audience in a way that bordered on manipulation. By his own admission, he is a poor speaker until he “gets the anointing.” But the anointing sometimes seems to depend on how much the audience is responding to his talk, clapping, or shouting Amen. Cain calls attention to where the audience missed its chance to respond or chastises them for an improper attitude.

Despite the flaws, a hum of excitement and expectation pervaded the auditorium. Part of it, I think, is the circus factor—a fascination with the sheer “otherness” of Cain’s life: speaking with angels, knowing people’s secrets, predicting the future.

But the world Cain paints is attractive and exciting in itself: History is alive, and we are in the center of God’s strategies. Signs and wonders, said Cain, will continue to increase to where the church will do “greater works” than Jesus did. This last-days church will be unequaled in power, purity, and unity (with a surprising ecumenism that includes Catholics, Baptists, evangelicals—even Episcopalians).

Cain describes his vision of an army of children that will parade down the streets, healing whole hospital wards. He foresees news broadcasts where the anchors report no bad news because everyone is in sports arenas hearing the gospel. Over a billion will be saved. The dead will be raised; limbs will be restored; those with handicaps will jump from their wheelchairs and crutches will be cast aside; and those in the stadiums will go for days without food or water and never notice.

Needless to say, the vision was a little overwhelming—and more interesting than the usual three-point sermon.

For his finale, Cain gave a quick series of prophetic utterances—which he often claims validate his message. Most of what he said is indecipherable without further details, which, one would hope, the people for whom the words were meant can provide. For instance, the prophetic ministry is coming to both Ireland and Iceland, through the work of some people who were named. Also, Dawn, the daughter of attendees, “has encountered humanism” and “the end will be greater than the beginning.”

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The conference-induced adrenalin has run its course and I am on a flight back to Chicago, trying to identify some themes from my time in Kansas City.

First, there is the surprising balance between caution and enthusiasm. History has shown that those who see themselves on the vanguard of the apocalypse tend not to value the niceties of nuance and balance. But this is not the case in Kansas City and at the Vineyard.

On Thursday night we saw the fruit of the meeting I had interrupted earlier that day. Wimber announced that he had made peace with Gruen, who, although he had not changed his conclusions, agreed to trust Wimber with the matter. Wimber explained that even before Gruen had publicized his concerns, Wimber was already investigating KCF and its prophetic ministry as part of its application to enter the Vineyard. Many new, more rigorous guidelines were already put in place. Some prophets had been restricted from speaking before groups and were being given theological instruction. To cap it all off, Mike Bickle received public correction for exaggerating some prophecies, for allowing too much latitude with some prophetic ministers, and for unnecessarily provoking other Kansas City churches by making unwise statements about the role of KCF.

Other, healthy emphases emerged during the conference. Overall, the talks were refreshingly Christ-centered and God-honoring. There seemed a concerted effort to preach against anything resembling a personality cult; humility and accountability were repeatedly stressed. One theme of the prophecies was that God does not want to work through superstars.

Although there were no apocalyptic signals—no earthquakes, no raisings from the dead, no mass healings, no angelic visitations—much of the goings-on at the conference still seemed strange. Paul Cain would say “the number five means grace”; or someone would talk about the “golden senses,” where people felt, smelled, saw, heard, and (I suppose) tasted supernatural activity; or mystical and out-of-body experiences would be described.

Jack Deere had a ready reply to these concerns. He asked in his workshop, What can you expect from a God who asked one Old Testament prophet to go naked for three years and another to marry a prostitute? God seems to have a history of not only using the foolish, but also the strange.

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In fact, this is exactly the problem with getting a handle on this group. How is one to “test” prophecies and prophets? Regarding the prophetic scenarios about a coming revival, how can we judge what has yet to take place? As a Christian who believes in the God revealed in Scripture, I find that I cannot dismiss practices and teachings solely because they have a high weirdness quotient. God acts sovereignly. He does what he wants. As long as a movement adheres to Scripture, what can we say?

Still, I am not ready to enlist in this “prophetic” vanguard. Many times I heard the plea to judge the prophetic movement by its fruit. So far it’s a mixed assortment. There have been dissension and division, though this seems on the mend. There has been enthusiasm, but excitement is not one of the fruits of the Spirit. Many people testified to the encouragement they received from fulfilled prophecies. Yet Gruen and others provide testimonies that point in the opposite direction.

One thing is certain. The Vineyard and KCF cannot continue the way they have been going without some of the promised dramatic changes coming to pass. And soon.

I am reminded of Gamaliel’s words: “If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men” (Acts 5:38–39).

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