Volume 17 - Issue 1

The Kansas City prophets: an assessment

By Nigel G. Wright

In a previous article.1 Nigel Wright, of Spurgeon’s College, London, indicated that the contemporary movement known as ‘Restorationism’ is in a state of continual flux. The current article is by way of a provisional update on this condition and is concerned with the new impetus given to some parts of the movement by the rise of the ‘prophetic’ in association with John Wimber and the Kansas City prophets.

As always on this subject, careful qualification is necessary. The influence of John Wimber is by no means confined to Restorationism, nor does it apply equally, or sometimes at all, to that diverse movement. Wimber has equally close relations with the New Frontiers network of churches led by Terry Virgo and with charismatic Anglicans associated with Bishop David Pytches. The rise of the prophetic has made its impact across the charismatic movement. Neither would it be true to say that emphasis on the prophetic is itself new. Since the inception of the charismatic movement the dimension of heightened awareness of the voice of God has been present. From 1979 onwards, David Pawson advanced a claim to fulfilling a prophetic ministry, and more recently Dr Clifford Hill has argued, written, prophesied and predicted along the same line in connection with the magazine Prophecy Today. What is new is the emergence of Paul Cain and the Kansas City prophets with an apparently advanced experience of this ministry.

John Wimber has described how in late 1988 he came into contact with Paul Cain and was stirred through him to a new level of concern for holiness and for the prophetic ministry which until then he had not taken seriously.2 Since that time he has been concerned to promote this new emphasis among the contacts which he has built up over the years. Accordingly, Paul Cain and others of the Kansas City prophets have ministered in England to a representative gathering of leaders at Holy Trinity, Brompton, in July 1990 and more generally the following October at conferences in Harrogate and London. A mark of Paul Cain’s acceptance can be seen in the positive responses of Clive Calver, General Secretary of the British Evangelical Alliance,3 and of R.T. Kendall, for whom Cain has spoken at the Westminster Chapel, London.

At the same time Cain has by no means been universally endorsed by charismatics. There are hints that within Wimber’s Vineyard movement some have struggled to come to terms with the new emphasis of the Kansas City prophets. Most notably, there have been strident opposition and detailed allegations from a prominent charismatic leader in Kansas City itself, Ernie Gruen, which have been taken up by Clifford Hill in an internecine dispute within the prophetic camp. Gruen’s allegations include the charge of manipulation and the suggestion in the case of one of the prophets, Bob Jones, of mental instability and occultism. Hill has circulated such allegations privately and has reported them in Prophecy Today. Wimber, in turn, has had the reports investigated, has applied discipline where necessary, and made a full response in print to the allegations.4 Subsequent to the July 1990 meetings attempts at clarification and reconciliation between Cain and Hill have been made and have proven partially successful. The concerns remain concerning some of Cain’s teaching and some of his associates.5

The Kansas City phenomenon has two aspects to it. The wider prophetic impulse articulated in particular by Mike Bickle is a panoramic view of the purposes of God in the next generation which include the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in an unprecedented manner as a prelude to the coming of Christ. As such, the prophetic teaching resembles closely the early claims of Restorationism as articulated on the platform of the Dales Bible Week in the early 1980s. It is a form of post-millenialism such as has often been expressed in enthusiastic movements in the church’s past. Within this wider context, Paul Cain’s contribution is more in the nature of extended ‘words of knowledge’. In meetings he will identify and then address persons whom he normally does not know by means of extensive information concerning their circumstances. It is in this regard that Cain is considered to have an ability far beyond that of others. If plain fraud is ruled out, the man has, by anybody’s standards, a quite remarkable talent.

Yet questions are to be raised about Cain. The first concerns his prediction that the United Kingdom would experience revival in October 1990. This claim was published in connection with the conferences to be held in the UK in that month. The suggestion was clear. John Wimber was reported to have brought all his family across to be part of the events.6 I was present at the Docklands Arena on the final night of the conference which, if anything, was less eventful than most such meetings I have been to. The discussion since that time, true to the psychology of cognitive dissonance, has been around what is meant by ‘revival’ (apparently something different is suggested to Americans by this term than to the British) and whether throughout the country as a whole there are signs of increased spiritual effectiveness hingeing around October 1990. Creative redefinition is under way. An alternative interpretation might be that at this point Cain stepped beyond the area of his gifts and made a misleading statement.

A second area of concern relates to Cain’s former associations with the evangelist William Branham, one of the post-war healing evangelists.7 Similarities include the part played by angelic visitations in their careers and their extraordinary accuracy in the ‘word of knowledge’, allied, in the case of Branham, to ‘therapeutic failure’8(limited success in healing), and in the case of Cain, in my estimate, to failure of prediction on the wider scale. In other words, within certain limits both men were extraordinarily gifted. The Branham connection however is of concern because of the excessive devotion shown to him by his followers, extending to the expectation of resurrection after his death in a road accident, and the suggestion of heterodoxy in some areas of doctrine. Prophetic ability is apparently no guarantee of doctrinal orthodoxy.

A third area concerns the nature of religious experience and specifically the interface and interaction between the spiritual and the psychic. This is as yet an inadequately explored area9 but is profoundly suggested by the entire Wimber phenomenon.10 Without entering into value judgments on Cain’s ministry, it is possible to ask to what extent what is being displayed is spiritual gifting or psychic capacity and what is the relation between these two realities.

The jury is still out upon the category of the ‘prophetic’ in general and the Kansas City prophets in particular. That the living God is still the speaking God ought to be a point on which all might agree even if the exact nature of that speaking is differently conceived. Plainly, some claims to divine speaking are more volatile than others, and this might suggest that we have a responsibility to choose and support some models of the prophetic over against others, not by denying the total validity of other forms but by asserting the primary value of the less volatile.

A final, tentative thought: if Martin Luther King, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Paul Cain might each in their own way be seen as prophetic, we might nevertheless ask which form of prophecy is most needed by the church and the world today. The answer to this question cannot be merely intuitive but theological, pastoral and political in nature.

1 ‘Restorationism and the “house church” movement’, Themelios 16.2 (Jan/Feb 1991).

2 Equipping the Saints Vol. 3 No. 4 (Fall 1989), pp. 4ff.

3 See the article by Mike Wiltshire, The Impact of the Prophetic’, in Rennoal No. 176 (Jan. 1991), pp. 28ff.

4 See ‘A Response to Pastor Ernie Gruen’s Controversy with Kansas City Fellowship’ in Equipping the Saints(Special UK edition, Fall 1990), pp. 4ff.

5 A fuller account of the controversy is given in the article ‘Seers in the Heartland: Hot on the trail of the Kansas City prophets’ by Michael G. Maudlin in Christianity Today (14 January 1991), pp. 18–22.

6 On the back cover of Equipping the Saints (Special UK edition, Fall 1990) are Wimber’s words: ‘It has been prophesied by Paul Cain that revival will break out in Great Britain in October 1990. I am, by faith, believing that we will “bring some back” to share in Anaheim at this event.’

7 Branham’s career is described by W.J. Hollenweger in The Pentecostals (SCM, London, 1972), pp. 354–357. See also the interview with Cain: ‘Paul Cain answers some tough questions’, in Equipping the Saints Vol. 4 No. 4 (Fall 1990), pp. 9ff.

8 This was Hollenweger’s judgment from observation of particular gatherings in Zürich after having acted consistently as Branham’s interpreter: see Ibid., p. 355.

9 See, however, Morton T. Kelsey, The Christian and the Supernatural (Search Press, London, 1977).

10 I have attempted some exploration in a different but related context in The Fair Face of Eoil: Putting the Power of Darkness in its Place (Marshall Pickering, London, 1989), pp. 115–123, and in an as yet unpublished paper delivered under the auspices of the C.S. Lewis Centre: ‘The Theology and Methodology of Signs and Wonders’.

Nigel G. Wright

Spurgeons College, London