Tag Archives: charismatic movement

Blessed, by Kate Bowler: The Quandary of the Prosperity Gospel

My mother had been diagnosed with stage IV cancer, a deadly case of glioblastoma, or cancer of the brain. My heart sank when her doctor told me, over the phone, that even with surgery, the cancer had a near 100% probability of return, and it would be fatal. In her eighties, my mother had only a few months to live, at best.

My dad and I opted for the surgery, which would give her as much time as possible, to be with family, before her ultimate death. Radiation and chemotherapy would bring her more misery than healing. After living a full, wonderful, and vibrant life, it was best simply to allow her to say goodbyes to those who mattered most to her.

Yet after the surgery, when I would come by and visit her in the evening, in her skilled-nursing room, she would have the television on. Night after night, she would tune into watching a very popular Pentecostal preacher, out of Houston, Texas, or another similar preacher.  The message was subtle, but consistently positive: If my mom had the right thoughts, healing was just around the corner.

It is important to know something about my mom.

She went to church, but she was not someone who was avidly, evangelically minded, let’s just say. So, for her to be mesmerized by a television preacher was completely out of step for her. But these were not normal times.

She was dying of cancer.

If only she had faith, she was told, she would be healed….

…..the prosperity gospel offered her a chance of survival.

 

Reading Kate Bowler’s Blessed: A History of the Prosperity Gospel was not like reading a PhD thesis, even though she originally wrote this as her PhD thesis, while a student a Duke University’s graduate program, in religious history. I read; that is, listened to, Kate Bowler as she beautifully read her book to me, via audiobook, while in the midst of “lock down” mode, during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Blessed surveys the historical roots of the prosperity gospel, and how it continues to be a multi-billion dollar, church-based industry, filling up many of the largest megachurches, in the United States, and saturating the television airwaves, cable networks, and Internet podcasts. The influence of the prosperity gospel even extends up into halls of political power, in the United States White House.

I learned a couple of new things about the prosperity gospel. First, I realized that, contrary to common belief, the prosperity gospel is not really about learning how to become rich and wealthy, per se. Instead, the prosperity gospel primarily appeals to people who are just trying to survive. Folks in prosperity gospel churches typically do not mind if their pastor drives an expensive car, lives in a massive mansion, or wears outrageously fancy clothes. The pastor’s wealth is evidence, reassuring the faithful, that the prosperity gospel really works.

Adherents do get bothered when pastors embezzle funds, or practice deceit in gaining riches, because that would be a sign that those pastors really do not believe what they are preaching. For the prosperity gospel promises that it is God who will provide, and such provision is not a result of human contriving. Followers of the prosperity gospel look to their pastor’s genuine success as reassuring themselves that they might be able to get that long, lost promised promotion, or that nice, new house, to replace the cramped, rented place they are in now, or …. in the case of my mother…. an extension on a life, with a newly restored body, then currently riddled with cancer.

It helped me to have more compassion on those who are drawn to the prosperity gospel.

Secondly, the prosperity gospel is not always that easy to detect. There are what can be called “hard-sell” prosperity gospel preachers, who are pretty upfront in propagating “name-it-and-claim-it” rhetoric. One of the more popular 20th century prosperity preachers, Oral Roberts, used to talk about this concept of “seed-faith,” where believers need to think of “giving to God as a seed we sow, and not a debt we owe.”

In prosperity theology, God has established a contract with the believer. Prayer is a legal binding act. We can call upon God to enforce the terms of the contract by “demanding” God to act, because the believer is legally entitled to receive healing and wealth.

Early 20th century prosperity teacher E. W. Kenyon even taught that Jesus transferred the “power of attorney to all those who use his name.” By speaking out in “the name of Jesus,” that legal authority is given over to the person, who desires to see God act, through healing and other material well-being. For example, Kenyon replaced the “ask” in “ask, and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7), with the word “demand.” We can demand God to do things, because God has contracted himself to do them! Kate Bowler demonstrates that Kenyon’s message was an amalgamation of Christian theology, specifically as derived from the late 19th century Keswick spirituality movement, and the “New Thought Movement,” of the same era, a more loosely religious philosophy of “mind cure” and self-help.

But Kate Bowler shows that there are “soft-sell” prosperity gospel proponents, where the message is a lot more subtle. The prosperity gospel largely grew out of Pentecostal and charismatic movements, but not all Pentecostal/ charismatic churches can be called “prosperity gospel” churches, as such. Nevertheless, Kate Bowler identified a number of Pentecostal/charismatic-based ministries, that I believed were not “prosperity gospel” oriented, that upon closer examination, promoted this more toned down approach to prosperity theology

Even the famed Oral Roberts, left his Pentecostal Holiness background, to become a member of the United Methodist church, a more classically “respectable” denomination. In contrast with other, more “hard sell” prosperity gospel promoters, that sometimes eschewed modern medicine, Oral Roberts campaigned to build a large medical hospital, that would rival medical care given in more secular settings. Today, Oral Roberts University has a large percentage of undergraduates who go into graduate-level medical programs, in some of America’s leading medical schools. In other words, the line between prosperity gospel teachings and non-prosperity gospel teachings gets blurred in such “soft-sell” prosperity movements.

This lesson is all the more important to me, as I have often held a certain grudge against a form of cessationism, an evangelical interpretation of Scripture that teaches that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as a gift of performing miracles, possessed by a particular person, ceased to operate in the era of the 1st century Christian church. Cessationists, generally speaking, believe that while the New Testament was still being written, there was a definite need for miraculous gifts of the Spirit, such as speaking in tongues, to flourish. But once the New Testament was completed, and the last of the original apostles had died off, those miraculous gifts ceased to function. Everything a Christian ever needs now is found in the pages of the Bible. Speaking in tongues today is no longer expected.

Though I am not convinced that such an uncompromising cessationism is really Scripturally founded, I am now more sympathetic towards those who hold to this position, as many such cessationists tend to conflate the distorting influence of the prosperity gospel with nearly all forms of Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement.  I would argue that such a categorization is unfair, particularly in light of the fact that a number of Pentecostal and charismatic group explicit reject the prosperity gospel. But the pervasive presence of “soft-sell” prosperity theology so effectively blurs the line, that I can see why so many cessationists hold to the aggressively non-charismatic positions that they do.

The very slippery nature of the prosperity gospel, as it rose within the Pentecostal and charismatic movements, has therefore proven to be a quandary for me. Simply saying that “such-and-such is teaching the prosperity gospel” defies easy categorization.

I am therefore grateful for Kate Bowler’s work, as it helped me to have more empathy for those who are drawn to the prosperity gospel, and to realize that the fine line for drawing where the prosperity gospel really begins and ends, is not always easy to find. Yet what makes Bowler’s work the most poignant is that during the latter stage of her research into the prosperity gospel, she herself was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, at the relatively young age of 35. Though apparently immunotherapy has extended her life thus far, the interests that originally plunged her into her PhD research, suddenly became deeply personal.

What is missing in Blessed is a clear, Scriptural exposition as to how the prosperity gospel falls short of solid, orthodox Bible teaching. For that, I have found a number of helpful blog posts (such as #1 and #2) written by Costi Hinn, a nephew of hard-sell prosperity Bible teacher, Benni Hinn, who left the prosperity gospel a few years ago. Costi Hinn, now a more Reformed-mind Bible pastor in Arizona, blogs occasionally at The Gospel Coalition. But I was not expecting Bowler’s PhD thesis to be a polemic, anyway. Blessed stands alone as an authoritative treatment on how the prosperity gospel came to be, and continues to flourish.

I eventually persuaded my mother to turn off the television. I read the Bible to her during my every other evening visits, while the cancer slowly took her life away. I knew that she desperately wanted to find healing, and she really wanted to believe that what the prosperity gospel teachers were saying were true. I honestly think that such prosperity preachers meant well. Believe me, I really wanted them to be right, too.

But it really frustrated me that the message she was hearing was promising something that could not be ultimately delivered. It really felt like the prosperity preachers were cheating my mother out of what was vastly more important. In fancy theological language, the prosperity gospel was offering an over-realized eschatology, promising something for her in this life, that only properly and fully belonged in the next. The prosperity gospel was a distraction, that while surely helpful in many ways, was ultimately obscuring the message of the True Gospel.

It was more important that my mom discover what it meant to be reconciled with God. I did pray for my mother that she might be healed. But I also prayed that during those final weeks, that she might have a genuine and rich encounter with the God who Created her, the great Redeemer, who bought her life with a price, that she might find lasting peace with Jesus.

My mother died soon thereafter.

I pray that her soul might be resting in that everlasting peace.

For more Veracity posts on Pentecostalism, the Charismatic movement, and the prosperity gospel, you might want to read the following posts. There is also a multipart blog series on “the baptism of the Holy Spirit.” You can start with a book review that introduces the whole series.


Christians Behaving Badly

I do a lot of face-palming these days, during the COVID-19 scare (even though I am not supposed to touch my face!). It seems that some Christians can do and say some downright awful things (particularly when it comes to science), that give the Gospel a bad reputation. But I think that there are some lessons to be learned here.

A few weeks ago, I was greeted by the following headline in an op-ed for the New York Times.

The headline was so offensive that even the normally secular-liberal New York Times later toned down the headline to read, “The Religious Right’s Hostility to Science Is Crippling Our Coronavirus Response.”  It was still a pretty scathing article, that went over the top at crucial moments. Nevertheless, the article sadly had some cogent and sobering points to make.

When I read stuff like this, I either get really mad at the journalist, or I get upset with the folks being criticized by the writer, depending on the validity of the evidence being presented and on the perception of bias. Sometimes I do both. But I think it is worth taking a deep breath, and think carefully through what is going on here.

The author, Ms. Katherine Stewart, clearly has no love for Child Evangelism Fellowship, an evangelical ministry my wife and I support, as a few years ago she wrote a scathing, one-sided critique in a book, The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children. If you want to see an example of journalistic bias gone mad, read Ms. Stewart.

But in her NYT op-ed, she wrote about a Baton Rouge, Louisiana pastor who refuses to abide by the federal health guidelines. He will not close his 1000+ member megachurch from meeting on Sundays, as he believes this whole COVID-19 lockdown thing is merely a cover for politically-motivated, government-sponsored religious persecution. In a recent Reuters piece, grabbing the international headlines, the Reverend was reported as saying that “God will shield us from all harm and sickness.”

This is the prosperity gospel at its very worst, but before anyone freaks out too quickly, there are about ten things to note about this:

  • First, a lot of folks read articles like the NYT op-ed and they inform their opinion of what Christianity is like. It bears remembering that we should draw people’s attention to Christ, first and foremost. If we draw too much attention to Christians, and not Christ Himself, then the “Christians behaving badly” will tend to lodge in the minds of non-believers. We should focus our attention where our attention is due, in our witness: to Jesus Christ.  Therefore, my intent here is not to narrowly criticize particular persons, but rather to take a step back and reflect on how we think about such matters more broadly. “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16 ESV). Ignorance in these matters is not bliss.
  • Secondly, about the author of the op-ed: A lot of Christians will simply dismiss an article like this completely out of hand. Insert the name of whatever “demonic” political party you want, and go from there. We can decry that this is yet another piece of evidence that our nation has “forgotten God,” and that the American Christian church is in serious need of repentance, etc. But here is the thing. I obviously do not know the spiritual status of Ms. Stewart. But more than likely, she is not a Christian.  So, it is not simply that she has “forgotten God.” Rather, it is more likely that she has never heard the Gospel winsomely presented to her, in such a manner that she even knows who this “God” of the Bible really is, much less how to “forget” such a God. The bottom line:  You simply can not expect a non-Christian to think and act like a Christian… Why? …. Well, at the risk of stating the obvious, because that person is not a Christian. Rather, we need to pray for a person like this, that they may winsomely hear the Gospel! A good verse to memorize that teaches this is Colossians 4:5, “Walk in wisdom toward them that are without.”
  • Thirdly, most Christians are abiding by the federal social-distancing guidelines. In fact, the overwhelming vast majority of evangelical Christians are taking COVID-19 seriously. We should remind our non-believing friends of that. So, when someone reads something like this NYT op-ed piece, hopefully that person has a relationship with a Christian who can demonstrate for them, in living color, that Ms. Stewart’s description of a typical “evangelical” does not square with the actual evidence.
  • Fourthly, about the Louisiana pastor, making those international headlines. He has some information-source problems. Like the Louisiana pastor, journalist and editor of The American Conservative, Rod Dreher, and the author of the provocative The Benedict Option, is from Baton Rouge. According to a Rod Dreher essay, which towards the end is quite gut-wrenching, the Louisiana pastor believes that COVID-19 has a “99.3 percent recovery rate.” I do not know where the pastor gets his information from, but this is completely incorrect.  According to the WHO, the mortality rate, according to research done in early March, is about 3.4%, not 0.7% as is claimed. Of course, we know a lot more about COVID-19, as of mid-April, than we did back in early March. By collecting more data over time, we will get a better handle on the mortality rate. That rate varies depending on what part of the world you are in, and how much testing has been done. Nevertheless, we should continue to do what we can to minimize that rate. If the eventual rate, over the long term, becomes greatly lower than 3.4%, it would mean that “social distancing,” and other public health measures (more ventilators, better testing, etc.), have proven to reverse the earlier trend. Would that not be awesome?? But the pastor is not alone here in passing on incorrect information. I have Christians friends who contend that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu. The problem is that the mortality rate for the flu is 0.1%. Even allowing for some margin of error, the math used by those who think that COVID-19 is just like the flu, just does not add up. Some even suggest that the current lower-than-expected death rate in the United States is all due to political misinformation. Yet perhaps there is a simpler answer: As of mid-April 2020, most Americans are abiding by the federal social-distancing guidelines, and perhaps those efforts are actually working to reduce the amount of fatalities! I do not like it when non-believers misrepresent the Christian faith, but we do not do anyone any favors when we pass on misinformation, particularly when we call ourselves Christians, for whom the truth should matter more than anything else.
  • Sixthly, here is a particular objection to how this pastor handles the Bible: The Louisiana pastor’s interpretation of Romans 13 is badly misinformed. He believes that when Romans 13:1 says “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,” what Paul really meant to say is “Let every person be subject to the governing church authorities…. not political authorities.”  I do not know any New Testament scholar who reads the text in the original Greek who would concur with that particular reading…… Furthermore, we must seek to know the whole of Scripture well enough to compare Scripture with Scripture. In this case, it would be important to recall 1 Peter 2:12, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”
  • Seventhly, because this is a Pentecostal church, other Christians should take note. Pentecostal churches, like this one in Louisiana, are highly-integrated, multi-racial churches. This church represents the cultural and ethnic diversity in Baton Rouge in such a way that they put the vast bulk of evangelical churches, across America, to shame. In particular, this church is reaching out to the poor and disenfranchised, with greater effectiveness, than most evangelical churches. These are very difficult days for many people, who are out-of-work, due to the COVID-19 crisis, and this pastor is feeling the effects of this crisis on his people first hand, unlike a lot of wealthy evangelical churches, who can probably ride out this crisis without that much suffering. So, before you completely throw this Pentecostal church under the bus, for how their pastor is handling the COVID-19 crisis, it bears to keep that in mind.
  • Eighthly, many Christians and non-Christians alike will be tempted to look down upon this controversial Louisiana pastor and conclude that he is “in it for the money.” The desire to draw this conclusion is understandable. After all, he is part of the prosperity gospel movement. But I would caution against this. Arrogant self-promotion is one thing, but greed is a different animal. Many of this pastor’s congregants are on the worst receiving end of the devastating economic consequences millions of Americans are experiencing, due to the COVID-19 crisis. Those most likely to throw stones his way probably are not experiencing the dire consequences experienced by those who could not make their rent payment this past month, because the restaurant or retail store they worked in laid them off indefinitely. I do not agree with the pastor’s decision, but I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he is acting with the greatest amount of sincerity. Some things are worth a lot more than $$$ … but it does not mean that you make well-informed decisions. It is quite evident that this pastor’s recklessness in ignoring public health concerns tells us how his own inflated sense of self-importance is blinding his sense of moral judgment.
  • Ninthly, I will give the Louisiana pastor some credit when it comes to church attendance. He is obviously concerned that once the COVID-19 crisis is over, that some people might find the habit of not going to church a hard habit to break. It will be interesting to see how many people will stop going to church, once the crisis is eventually over.  On the other hand, the current “stay at home” orders provide a good opportunity for others to rethink their relationship with God, or lack thereof. Pray that we see new faces coming to our churches, at the end of this crisis, and that we know how to receive them.
  • And finally, if you view this YouTube video interview with the controversial pastor, you will get the sense that he is mostly concerned about the freedom of religion. He does a have a point here about the threat of government coercion, and respecting the right of a person to act upon the convictions of their conscience. It is kind of odd to think that a liquor store is considered an “essential business,” when a church meeting is not. Point well taken. But is the real issue here about religious persecution? No, it should be evident that religious persecution is not in view here. Christians are not being singled out for their beliefs. If anything, this pastor’s grandstanding about “religious liberty” only trivializes freedom of conscience, and gives opponents of the Christian faith cause to attack genuine religious liberty.  During a public health crisis, Christians should do the right thing, not ultimately because the government tells them to do it, but because it is the right thing to do. We should not allow a persecution complex to become an excuse for not being properly informed, and thus not acting in a way that demonstrates how a Christian might best love their neighbor.

So, why is it that there is this perceived hostility towards science, that encourages people to think that either (a) Christians are “anti-science,” or on the flip side, that (b) the claims of modern science today are simply a part of a deceitful, politically-biased narrative?

I believe that the answer comes down to trust.

Take the example of how a number of ultra-orthodox Jews have been dealing with the COVID-19 crisis in Israel. During the early period where Israeli authorities were trying to warn their citizens about COVID-19, and encouraging them to abide by “social distancing” techniques, many ultra-orthodox Jews eschewed such public health directives.  Such conservative Jews do not accept the New Testament as authoritative, yet they do accept the Hebrew Scriptures (the “Old Testament” for Christians) as the Word of God. Their allegiance to the Scriptures far outweighs their respect for government-issued directives.

But in recent days, Israel’s ultra-orthodox community is beginning to take the public health warnings seriously. Israeli authorities are trying not so much to be heavy-handed in their approach, but are focused more in building relationships of trust.

It can be really hard to build relationships of trust, particular among people with whom you have serious disagreements with. I know from personal experience that such efforts at making friends, and breaking down barriers takes a lot of hard work, and a lot of humility. But to see how the Jewish ultra-orthodox community is starting to come around to “do the right thing” is an encouraging sign that such relationship building is really worth the effort.

It may not be so much an issue of there being a supposed conflict between science and the Bible, as the New York Times revised op-ed title put it , the so-called “Religious Right’s Hostility Towards Science.” Rather, it is more likely a sense of distrust of scientists and medical doctors, in conservative religious communities, that drives what appears to be an “anti-science” antagonism. Building a sense of trust between religious conservatives and scientists (including medical doctors) will go a long way in addressing the so-called “warfare thesis” behind science and the Bible.

I missed worshipping in physical proximity with other believers this past Easter Sunday, celebrating the Resurrection of our Lord together. “Virtual” worship was better than nothing, but it is not the same thing. I pray that current public health crisis will end soon, and life can return to normal.

But the blatant distrust of science that some Christians feel compelled to accentuate is harming the witness of the faith. We need to do better in reaching out to our fellow misinformed Christians for the sake of protecting the reputation of the Gospel, as we proclaim the Good News to an unbelieving world.

(For a more in-depth response to the Louisiana pastor defying the “stay at home” order, I have included the video of Rod Dreher making his analysis of the controversy)


An Interdenominational Church Asks: What Are the Core Doctrines of the Faith?

It is kind of hard to know what it means to celebrate our unity in the midst of our diversity, when we do not even know what that diversity is.”

— Troy Knapp, philosopher, poet, Michigan Tech fan, and fellow connoisseur of Mexican fajitas

The 19th post in a multipart series.

I am part of what might be called an evangelical interdenominational church. What I really appreciate about it is that there is a core set of fundamental beliefs (eight, to be exact), that guide the life and practice of the community. In a more denominational church setting, you will find certain doctrines or beliefs that are elevated in such a way, that it becomes difficult for other believers to fully subscribe to those beliefs, without going, “And, so, why is this such a big deal here? Can we not just focus on the essentials of the faith?”

The problem with being an evangelical interdenominational church is that it is not always that easy to figure out what a core doctrine is, versus a non-core doctrine. My Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox friends do not have this problem. It is all a “package deal,” my friends across the Tiber or across the Bosphorus might say.

In the meantime, we Protestants have to wrestle with how much our interpretation of the Bible bears on determining what an essential matter is, versus a “disputable matter.” I have been a Protestant evangelical long enough to realize that what might be an essential matter for one Christian, might not be an essential matter for another Christian. Some like and value confessional creeds, to help guide the faith of the church membership. Others believe creeds to be too divisive, and that all you need is the Bible. Therefore, you do not need a creed! Without a magisterium authority to settle matters, it is pretty difficult to know exactly where to draw the line. This is why there are so many thousands of Protestant denominations to begin with!

So, while I may cringe at some of the things that my Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox friends have to swallow somehow, they come back to me, looking around at all of the GAZILLION Protestant denominations we have, and they ask, “So, tell me, Clarke. How is that whole ‘sola scriptura’ thing working out for ya?

I just crawl back into my little hole and avoid giving an answer.

As a result, some think of an interdenominational church as simply a “pie-in-the-sky” wish dream. I do not think so, but I can see why there are those who disagree. It is just that such churches are really hard to find. But as my friend Troy says, a lot of times you may not even be aware of what the differences are that exist between believers.

In one of our foundational documents, in our church, we have the following statement: “Those other elements which have caused confusion and division in the past within the Church of Jesus Christ shall not be permitted to destroy the unity of this body. Accordingly, we urge that attitudes of Christian love and tolerance be expressed toward those within the Body of Christ holding different points of view.” But according to my friend Troy, many of us are simply not aware that there exists other believers in Jesus, who hold to “different points of view,” much less do we know how to love those people, despite those differences.

For three Sunday afternoons, my church held a series of teachings on the “Nature of the Chapel,” (the name of the church is the Williamsburg Community Chapel). The first week, led by our lead pastor, Travis Simone, and our Connect team leader, Hunter Rue, offers some teaching on the difference between biblical authority and biblical interpretation, a theme that shows up quite often here on the Veracity blog. The second week, led two other pastors, Rich Sylvester and Claude Marshall, focus on trying to figure out the difference between what is a core issue and what is a non-core issue in the church, using the issue of the charismatic gifts as a case study. The third week, led by Travis Simone again, looks at the issue of complementarianism versus egalitarianism, with respect to women in leadership in the local church.

It should be no mystery to realize that the question of having women as elders/pastor is the most contentious of these issues, particularly in view of the tremendous pressure being exerted on the church by the surrounding culture, regarding any and all matters pertaining to gender and sexuality, within the past few years. For an extended discussion, I would encourage the reader to go through the blog series I have been writing on the topic, that starts here.

The benefit of these sessions is that they demonstrate that there are some very real differences in biblical interpretation, held by members of our Christian community. Sadly, as with just about every evangelical church in America that I know, most people in our particular local church are unaware that such strongly held views even exist. Are the core values of this church core values for you? Or are there issues that are core values for you, that do not reflect the eight core values of this church? How do you live as a faithful follower of Christ, in your church, when everyone does not share the exact same core values as you do? How do you determine a core value, versus a “disputable matter” (Romans 14:1)?

After each presentation, a live Q&A session processes some of the content generated by the presentation, with another Q&A session recorded with just our pastors, the following week. I think all of our pastors did a fantastic job in their presentations. In the notes below, I offer some personal observations, that are mine and mine alone, that do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of our church leadership. Enjoy!

  • First Video (General Session: Week One) 1:12:00 mark:  Guess who asked this question, about the timing of the Rapture, and the nature of the millennium?  Yours truly!! Your ever curious Veracity blogger!!!!
  • Second Video (Q&A: Week One) 44:50 mark: A question was asked about how decisions get made at our church. The response given was that we have an elder board, plus a leadership team, made up of pastors, where the lead pastor serves on both the elder board and the pastoral leadership team. When asked about the job description of elders, it is partially described as setting the “long term strategic direction” of the church (46:00). I address this perspective in the Veracity blog post series on the topic related to gender and church office.
  • Third Video (General Session: Week Two) 1:06:25 mark: To follow up on the previous point, this discussion of how the church handles matters of church discipline and protecting the church against false teaching is related to the function of elders, including pastors. Yes, to a certain degree, all believers should be on guard against false teaching and unrepentant public sin, in the church. But ultimately those responsible for stepping up, to do the most difficult things, in my view, as expressed by Cliff Brigham, are the elders (1:08:46).
  • Third Video (General Session: Week Two) 51:40 mark: Backing up a bit, after Rich Sylvestor’s excellent talk on the “Postures of Polemics,” perhaps my favorite part of the sessions, only to be slightly rivaled by Hunter Rue’s presentation, the previous week, Claude Marshall speaks here about the cessationist vs. charismatic controversy. Claude is right that this issue was more divisive 30+ years ago, but the issue is still ever present, as the Charismatic Movement continues to grow across the global world, as the fastest growing segment of the church, at an ever expanding rate. But to be rather frank, most folks in our church are completely unfamiliar with the Charismatic Movement, as is the case with the majority of American evangelicals.
  • Fifth Video (General Session: Week Three) 6:45 mark: Pastor Travis goes into the most treacherous territory of explaining four views of women in ministry, based on a book, Women in Ministry: Four Views, that I wrote about in a previous blog post. He did a fantastic job, in my view.  At about 54:00 mark, Travis goes into the heart of the egalitarian view, to end up with exegesis of Galatians 3:28, which is often regarded as the egalitarian “manifesto” verse. I need to think about Galatians 3:28 a bit more, but as I see it now, there are problems with both the typical egalitarian and complementarian readings of Galatians 3:28. But to get a fuller grasp of the difficulty, I would suggest that the Veracity look back at my most recent blog post on Andy Stanley.
  • Sixth Video (Q&A Session: Week Three) 50:00 mark: Pastor Rich relates a story of someone in his small group from a Salvation Army background. I will save my response for the next and final blog post in this series.

Can “Charismatic” and “Liturgical” Christians Worship Together?

The debate over the “gifts of the Spirit” divides evangelical Christians. The debate over the ancient liturgy of the church divides as well. Is it possible to heal the divides by bringing the charismatic and the liturgical together?

Consider the “gifts of the Spirit.” On one side are those who believe that the supernatural gifts of tongues, prophecy, etc. continue on today in the church (the continuationist, or charismatic position). On the other side are those who believe that those very same gifts ceased to exist at the end of the apostolic age, in the first century of the church (the cessationist, on non-charismatic position).

Walk into just about any “typical” evangelical church today, and the antenna of any first time visitor goes up. How many people during worship are raising their hands during the singing? Is the person sitting next to you uttering some undecipherable words, just above a whisper (or louder), during the corporate prayer time? If things get really scary, you might be asking yourself, “Is that barking I hear, or is that simply the drummer hitting the snare drum, making a really odd sound?”

Depending upon your theological background, the answers to these questions might encourage you to stick around, and inquire positively of the pastor, or they might encourage you to quietly sneak out the door, never to return!

Spirit and Sacrament: An Invitation to Eucharismatic Worship, by Andrew Wilson, is probably the best written case for defending the union and expression of charismatic and liturgical worship in the church. Plus, the book is short and exceptionally well written.

Continue reading


Is the Church “Joel’s Army?”

 

Locust swarm in Madagascar, as in the days of the Book of Joel. A sign of judgment against God’s people, or a symbol for the church?

A popular worship song, “Blow A Trumpet in Zion,” is taken from Joel 2, describing a terrifying army, raised up by God. Though I have sung it countless times, I never really thought about what it really meant, in the Bible.

It goes like this:

They rush on the city
They run on the wall
Great is the army
That carries out His Word
The Lord utters His voice
Before His army
Blow the trumpet in Zion, Zion
Sound the alarm on My holy mountain
Blow the trumpet in Zion, Zion
Sound the alarm!

For years, I had been taught that this “army,” otherwise known as “Joel’s army,” represents the church, faithful believers in the “last days,” living in “victory,” who are to be raised up by God, to restore genuine worship, among God’s people. It is a very stirring image. But the problem with this interpretation is that it ignores the context of the passage.

As Craig Keener, New Testament theologian at Asbury Seminary, demonstrates, the lyric lifted from Joel 2:9, “They rush on the city, They run on the wall,”  is not about a “victorious” church, but rather, the instrument of judgment against God’s people. The theme of the Book of Joel is about God’s warning of judgment, against a disobedient people, expressed in terms of “the day of the Lord” (Joel 2:1), followed by a word of hope for God’s people, assuming they indeed repent (Joel 2:18-3:21).

Furthermore, the army, as explicitly described in Joel 2:25, are not believers. Rather, it is actually a great horde of locusts, following a series of previous locust attacks, as described in Joel 1.  God’s people had been disobedient, so they felt the hand of God’s judgment, through these locust attacks. Joel, in chapter 2, then warns of an even greater locust plague. To “Blow the trumpet in Zion, Zion,” is therefore the call to God’ people, to repent, and turn their hearts towards God, in order to avoid God’s great plague of locusts against them.

You could draw an analogy, that this locust plague also represents the Babylonians, a “great and powerful people” (Joel 2:2), as sent by God, to judge the Hebrew people, thus leading to the exile of the Jews, to Babylon. Some even find a parallel with the plague of locusts in Revelation 9:7-8, possibly representing a future human army. But taking the further step of equating the locust plague with a victorious church, is really a distortion of the text. For Joel, God’s people are under judgment, so it makes no sense to make God’s people as being instruments of judgment against themselves.

A popular movement of some Christians, particularly in a few Pentecostal and charismatic circles, is to take this idea of “Joel’s army” as being a group of believers, who exercise the hand of God, to restore God’s “true” church, in the “last days” before Jesus’ Second Coming. This teaching is often associated with the “Latter Rain” movement, or the “New Apostolic Reformation (NAR).”  This elite, or so-called “victorious,” group of Christians will then act to rebuke what they consider to be “apostate” Christians.

The problem with thinking like this, is that it is very easy to identify your own group as being among the elite in “Joel’s army,” looking down upon other believers as being less “spiritual” than you are.  Instead, the antidote to this type of thinking is to learn to read Scripture more faithfully, and read it within its original, literary context.

The Book of Joel has much to teach us today about heeding God’s warning of judgment against a shallow Christianity. God will call all people to give an account for their lives, so we must all be mindful that even though God is indeed Loving, He is also a holy and righteous Judge. So, for now on, when I sing along with “Blow a Trumpet in Zion,” I hope it will cultivate a sense of sobriety in me, a re-examination of myself, and not a presumptuous, false sense of so-called “victory.”


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