Tag Archives: charismatic movement

Finding the Right Hills to Die On: Gavin Ortlund’s Case for Theological Triage

Do you know how to diagnose theological controversy, and treat it well? Author Gavin Ortlund helps us to figure this out.

Wearing masks in church? Vaccinations? What about critical race theory? Racism? QAnon? The Election!! I try to be optimistic, but it seems like Christians have had a lot of opportunities to divide over many different issues in 2021, many of them with theological underpinnings (The challenges of trying to do “online church” for over a year has not helped matters). Finding the right hill(s) to die on is not easy. I have my own story to tell about theological controversy, but it goes back a few years.

However, before I jump into that, I need to issue a disclaimer: It is very tempting, in the face of intractable theological disputes (or political disputes among Christians) to either run off into a corner, and cut yourself off from other people, and double-down on your viewpoint. It is also tempting to try to “church hop,” in order to find another expression of Christian faith that suits you better…. only to find that your new church has a lot of the same problems as your old church did, just framed in a different way.

Yet perhaps the most difficult temptation is to become cynical, and simply get disgusted when theological controversy arises, over a matter that you find to be somewhat trivial, over-hyped, or perhaps destructive, or even downright stupid, but that someone else considers to be super-important. Of course, there is the other side to this: someone ELSE might strongly disagree with YOU, because they think the issue is really super-important, and they find it frustrating that you do not seem to understand the gravity of the issue! After all, the same Jesus who loves the whole world is also the same Jesus who threw the money-changers out of the Temple, challenging the complacent! So, maybe you SHOULD be more concerned about the issue being discussed!!

An extreme example of the temptation to become cynical can be found in Abraham Piper’s recent TikTok videos. Abraham Piper is a son of John Piper, one of evangelicalism’s most well-known pastors. At age 19, Abraham was excommunicated from his church, then tried to return later, only eventually to walk away from the faith. In the meantime, Abraham Piper has since become a multi-millionaire making jigsaw puzzles. He also has a TikTok page, with over 900 thousand followers, (compare that to his famous pastor/father, who has a 1 million Twitter followers) where a number of Abraham’s videos flesh out how he has deconstructed his faith on subjects ranging from “Almost nobody believes in a literal hell,” “If you’ve ever quit a religion, did you become something else?”, “If you still live with evangelical parents,” and “Three times Jesus stole stuff from people.”

Provocative stuff, for sure. But pretty sad in the end.

By the grace of God, I have not gone to such major extremes, with any of these temptations, and I certainly would not encourage them in others. When Christians double-down on their beliefs, or church-hop to get away from other Christians who do not see things exactly the same way, or who walk away completely and give into cynicism, the result is usually bitterness and resentment towards others, and that is never healthy. However, I can see how a lack of honest conversation, preventing people from expressing their questions and doubts in a non-confrontational way, can drive people to go to certain extremes. Finding the right hills to die on is not a very easy thing to figure out. Raising questions and doubts can sound scary when theological controversy surfaces, but they need not prompt conversation partners to automatically go into “freak out” mode when controversy arises. I would like to share my own brief story, and offer a positive resource I have found for working through such difficulties.

Why Splits in Churches and/or Other Christian Fellowships Can Be Nerve-Racking

Perhaps this will sound like a rant, but it is a pet peeve of mine: There are certainly times where Christians do need to separate from church bodies and/or other Christian fellowships, when they have lost their way spiritually or morally, drifting into theological error. However, there are other times when Christians can divide over matters that during the time of crisis seemed all-important and ultra-critical. However, looking back on the controversies months or years later, we realize that such controversies were far too overblown, doing more harm than good.

Here is my story: It was the 1980s and I was a campus leader in my small college Christian fellowship group. The charismatic movement swept through my group and I was caught right in the middle. Two of my dearest friends, who both helped to disciple me, took opposing perspectives in the controversy.

One of them, who later married a wonderful gal I had dated in college, had taken me to a charismatic prayer meeting. For a guy like me, growing up in a liberal mainstream Protestant background, I was dumbfounded when people started to speak in tongues all around me. My friend helped to establish me in having a regular “quiet time” with the Lord, using the Dake Annotated Bible, a popular Pentecostal study Bible in those days (Though I must confess I found myself buried more often in reading Finis Jennings Dake’s notes, as opposed to just focusing on the text of Scripture itself… but that is another topic for another time).

My other friend, who helped to answer a lot of my spiritual questions while I did my laundry, was one of the most passionate defenders of biblical inerrancy… a real stickler for clinging to the text of the Bible. He had been kicked out of a charismatic Bible study, for asking too many questions, and was told never to come back. To say that he “disliked” the “charismatic movement” would be an understatement. He firmly believed that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased to operate after the last of the first century apostles had died. Once the New Testament was completed, the church had no more need for such miraculous gifts. In his mind, speaking in tongues in our modern era has continued to be all about promoting deception in the church.

Both of my friends truly sought to love Jesus, but they had a difficult time getting along with one another. Trying to find common ground between my two friends was like trying to get my dog to get along with another neighbor’s dog. It was exceedingly difficult. And the rancor disturbed our whole fellowship group. Most people simply tried to stay on the sidelines, adopting more of a “stick-your-head-in-the-sand” approach, but that did not go over very well either.

After my friends both graduated from my school, the controversy erupted among the followers my two friends left behind. As a campus Christian leader, I was simultaneously accused of “quenching the Spirit” by one party and of “smuggling charismatic deception” into the group, by another party. Weeks of meeting with people who had gotten their perspectives out of joint eventually produced some good fruit, and many relationships were eventually restored. We got through the crisis, but this was not terribly unlike the “pro-mask” versus “anti-mask” parties that have divided churches in the era of the coronavirus pandemic.

I really hated being in the middle of this theological controversy, which was also a controversy of different personalities. Nevertheless, theological controversy is just something that Christians, particularly Protestant evangelicals, simply do and have from time to time. The question is how do we navigate such treacherous waters. Trying to figure out which battles to fight and which battles to lay aside requires gaining a lot of wisdom, a process that I must honestly (and personally) admit can be pretty hard to discern.

Gavin Ortlund’s Helpful Resource for Doing Theological Triage

That is why I took a great interest in Gavin Ortlund’s Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage, put out by the Gospel Coalition and Crossway books. It is a pretty short yet powerfully succinct book, that elaborates on Al Mohler’s theological triage model, discussed in a previous Veracity blog post. Another helpful resource in this category is Andy Naselli’s and J.D. Crowley’s book on the Conscience: What It Is, How To Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ, also reviewed here on Veracity.

Gavin Ortlund outlines, as I would frame it, basically four orders of theological issues, faced by Christians:

  • First rank issues:  These would be theological issues that are “essential to the gospel.” For example, if someone denies the authority of Scripture, the divinity of Jesus, or the necessity of believing that Jesus died for our sins, then these would be issues serious enough for a Christian to leave a church and seek a new fellowship.
  • Second rank issues: These would be doctrines that are “urgent for the church (but not essential to the gospel).
  • Third rank issues: These would be doctrines that are “important for Christian doctrine (but not essential to the gospel or necessarily urgent for the church.”
  • Fourth rank issues: These would be teachings that are “indifferent (they are theologically unimportant).

The ranking system that Ortlund uses is reasonable enough. The problem comes in trying to figure out what doctrines fit in which ranking. This is where the “triage” part comes in, where being able to diagnose which issues belong in which category requires some wisdom and forethought.

Starting from the bottom up is easiest for me to process. A good example of a fourth rank issue is about where the Apostle Paul wrote his letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians from. My lead pastor holds the view that Paul wrote these letters while in a prison in Rome. This is the predominant view among many scholars as well. But I disagree with my pastor on this one, as I find the case for Paul having been in an Ephesian jail, when writing these letters, as more convincing. But is this dispute weighty enough for me to leave the church? No, of course not. The average Christian probably might yawn, and say, “Who cares?“, and for the most part, they would be right. The theological ramifications involved are in the category of indifferent.

However, there are other issues that are important, but neither essential to the gospel, nor urgent for the church. Like Gavin Ortlund believes, issues such as the age of the earth, and the timing sequence of events surrounding the Second Coming of Jesus, including the nature of millennium, are surely important, but they are neither essential to the gospel, nor urgent for the church.

It is the second rank category that most troubles me. Yes, there are issues that are “urgent for the church (but not essential to the gospel).” But I find that the category of urgent is far more elusive and slippery than what counts as essential and non-essential. For example, Gavin Ortlund is a credo-baptist, believing that believer’s baptism for adults should be a doctrinal standard for the church, while generally accepting previous receivers of infant baptism as members in his church; that is, infant baptism is “improper, yet valid.”

Ortlund therefore places the nature of baptism in the category of a second rank issue. It is urgent for the church, and it has an impact on how a local church governs itself.

But as someone in an interdenominational church, who values the diversity of different church backgrounds, I am not convinced that baptism necessarily belongs in that second rank category. As I experienced in my college years, I found it valuable to look for common ground, and cling to that, for the sake of the unity of the fellowship, while honoring that a subset of the group, or particular individuals, might hold to one particular perspective rather strongly. To that end, I find it worth it to try to keep the category of second rank issues as small as possible, and move as many issues as possible down into the third rank category. Ideally, I would hope that the second rank category can be squeezed down to basically nothing….However, that is not always practical.

The issue of baptism, to me, can fit within a third rank category, as long as there is a genuine commitment to find common ground. For example, both proponents of credo-baptism (adult believers baptism) and paedo-baptism (infant baptism) can agree that adults can be baptized. So, it surely makes sense that you can have adult, believer’s baptisms in a Sunday morning worship service.

But it is also reasonable NOT to have infant baptism performed during a Sunday morning worship service, lest you disturb the consciences of those credo-baptists, who do not find paedo-baptism to be legitimate. Instead, if someone wants to have their infant child baptized, then why not have a private, at-home service, or part of a small group experience, as long as a pastor is willing to perform such a baptism?

Such a solution sounds acceptable to me, but this may not satisfy the need for clarity that a pastor like Gavin Ortlund would have for a local congregation. Being content with having a “common-ground” solution, with allowances for practices that fit an individual’s or a small group’s consciences, may not satisfy a local church’s desire for consistent doctrine and practice across the entire church fellowship.  There are those for whom a “common-ground” solution would not be good enough, coming across to some as being too restrictive and over-emphasizing conformity, while others would protest that not enough uniformity in church doctrine and practice can lead to other problems in the life of the local church.

The two areas that stick out for me, where this would be most problematic, is in the charismatic movement controversy, as exemplified by the introductory anecdote from my years in college; and in the complementarian/egalitarian controversy, particularly regarding whether or not women should serve as elders in a local church, in terms of governance of the church.

Some local churches do have a commitment to look for “common-ground,” while honoring issues of conscience, whereas other churches will find certain conflicting applications of conscience to be unworkable, in a local church. For example, speaking in tongues in a corporate worship service, in an interdenominational church, is not a workable solution, as that would not be pursuing a “common-ground” approach, though it might be very permissible to allow speaking in tongues in a small group Bible study, in the same church.

The various complexities surrounding the “pro-mask” versus “anti-mask” debates have taught me over the last year that the quest for unity can often be elusive when dealing with “urgent” matters, where the coronavirus controversies do fit within that second-rank category. Compound all of this with seemingly endless controversies regarding critical race theory and racism on the left, and nutty QAnon conspiracy theorizing on the right, have left many churches struggling for maintaining bonds of fellowship and unity. The craziness of 2020 led apologist Natasha Crain to call this “disagreement fatigue,” and I think that is a good way to put it. Finding “common-ground” is not always easily found.

For example, I know of Christians who refuse to wear masks and/or refuse to get vaccinated, based on some moral principle. They will cite their “freedom in Christ” as a reason why they should follow their conscience on this matter. But if someone is in church leadership, and they hold to this position, they also need to realize that their exercise of freedom is not beneficial to those other believers, whom for whatever reason, are unable to take the vaccine. Such vulnerable persons will likely not feel safe to stay in such a church. If the exercise of someone’s “freedom in Christ,” particularly in leadership, causes another fellow believer in Jesus to feel like the only path they can reasonably take is out the exit of the church door, then that tells me that such a church needs to rethink what it means to truly follow one’s conscience. If there is one thing that the coronavirus pandemic has taught me, is that I have a greater appreciation now for why some churches implement theological triage that includes the value of second-rank categories of controversy.

I just wish we did not have to be so distracted by such second-rank category issues, as I believe they keep us from focusing on fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission, to make disciples of all of the nations. But alas, that is just the nature of things, in our social media driven world today.

Gavin Ortlund has a helpful YouTube channel, where he tries put of lot his theological triage philosophy into practice, by in particular inviting Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox persons into conversations, in an attempt to find common ground with his own Protestant evangelical tradition, and the other major historic Christian faith movements. It is worth taking a look at the Truth Unites channel to see how he does it.

In the following video, Gavin Ortlund applies some of the insights from Finding the Right Hills to Die On to the discussion of the millennium, making the case that the millennium is a third-rank doctrine, and not a first or second-rank doctrine. So, I appreciate Gavin’s graciousness towards others, even in areas of disagreement, which is a big reason I consider Finding the Right Hills to Die On to be an excellent resource for working through issues of Christian conscience, within the context of a local church.

 


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.

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