I just finished teaching a course on Contemporary Religious Movements at Tyndale University College. One of the things that I enjoyed about the course was seeing the connections between the different groups. We focused on groups that developed during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
What was interesting was that there were two basic types of leaders of the sects that developed during this period. I call them the Bible teacher and the prophet. There is some overlap between them, but most leaders fall primarily into one or the other.
For example, Joseph Smith, Jr. was definitely in the prophet category, not that I consider him to have been a real prophet. But the religious group that he created was based primarily on what he considered to be his personal revelations. No one could have sat down with just a Bible and come up with Mormonism. It is based on the ideas of their prophet.
On the other hand, John Thomas of the Christadelphians and Charles Taze Russell of the Jehovah’s Witnesses never claimed to be prophets. They sat down with their Bibles and attempted to discover the truth of Scripture outside of traditional interpretation. Even if we disagree with the teachings of Thomas and Russell, we can at least see where in the Bible they got their ideas. They were Bible teachers, even if orthodox Christians might argue that their interpretations were incorrect. (Check out my book, The Watchtower and the Word)
The Seventh-day Adventists are an interesting example (See my post Are Seventh-Day Adventists Christians?) William Miller, who had predicted that Jesus would come in 1844, was definitely in the Bible teacher category. His interpretation was not based on his own prophecy but on an interpretation of Daniel. Now the explanation by others about why Jesus didn’t return in 1844 was a blend of revelation/interpretation. And Ellen G. White, the founder of Seventh-day Adventism wrote her books in the style of a Bible teacher. But she was seen, during her lifetime, as a prophet by her followers.
Oneness Pentecostals are another interesting example (See my post How Did Oneness Pentecostalism Start?). Their understanding of the proper baptismal formula comparing Matthew and Acts was in the Bible teacher category (taught by Canadian R.E. McAlister). But the development of a Jesus only baptismal formula into a rejection of the Trinity was understood as revelation.
The categories of Bible teacher and prophet are not perfect, but they help us to understand the different types of sectarian leaders of this important time in history.
This post originally appeared here.