Tag Archives: pentecostalism

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.


A Virginia Story of African-American Pentecostalism

During the heights of the 1930’s Great Depression, Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux rose as one of the most prominent African-American radio evangelists, in the history of Pentecostalism. What many do not realize is that his story began near Williamsburg, Virginia, my home town.

Michaux was born in Newport News, Virginia, in 1885. During World War I, Michaux was able to use his business acumen successfully, to obtain contracts to supply food to American troops. By 1917, Michaux had moved his family and business to Hopewell, Virginia, but he was unable to find a church, that fit well with him. Michaux had been drawn into the burgeoning Holiness movement, but he felt that more could be done to advance the Gospel, so he then moved more in Pentecostal circles.

Lightfoot Solomon Michaux (1885 – 1968). Pentecostal Radio Evangelist, Church Planter, Business Entrepreneur, and Founder of the Gospel Spreading Farm, near Williamsburg, Virginia.

Michaux returned to Newport News in 1919, following the war, and began a series of tent revivals, that appealed to many local African Americans. But Michaux bristled against newer Segregation laws in Virginia, and was sent to prison. The racial conflict spurred Michaux onwards, to expand his preaching ministry for the Gospel and against racism, and establish churches. After leaving prison, he moved his ministry operations up to Washington, D.C.

In 1929, Michaux persuaded a local radio station to broadcast his evangelistic services, called the “Happiness Hour.” When the radio station was bought by the CBS Radio Network in 1932, Michaux was catapulted into the national spotlight, with perhaps as many as 25 million radio listeners. He even ventured into international radio ministry with the BBC, in the mid-1930s, thus establishing him as a pioneer, in global radio outreach ministry.

According to the Williamsburg Yorktown Daily, in 1936, Michaux purchased a 500 acre tract of land, located along the James River, just a few miles from Jamestown, Virginia, thus creating the “National Memorial to the Progress of the Colored Race in America.” Locals in Williamsburg know it is the “Gospel Spreading Farm.” When the Colonial Parkway was expanded to connect Williamsburg and Jamestown in the 1950s, the federal government secured a right-of-way, along the river, from the Gospel Spreading Farm, to complete the road project.

Michaux’s vision was to create a type of cooperative farming community, which would serve as a haven for African-Americans, offering educational and evangelistic programs. Michaux believed that a coming economic crisis, an order of magnitude worse than the Great Depression, would severely cripple the American economy. He believed that the farm would become a refuge for thousands of African Americans, to survive such an apocalypse.

Neither the apocalypse, nor the full vision of a highly-functioning, cooperative community, ever materialized. The national influence of Michaux was further eclipsed by a new rising star, in the African-American community, Martin Luther King, Jr.

According to the New York Times, Michaux was highly suspicious of Martin Luther King. Michaux did not believe that King’s vision, enacted through protest marches and sit-ins, was wholly inline with Christian values. Instead, Michaux believed that the crisis of racism in the American culture, could only be resolved through evangelistic preaching, and not through social protests. Michaux even embraced the idea that Martin Luther King was secretly a Communist, and Michaux at times cooperated with J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI, to undermine King’s influence.

Michaux was fearless and bold in his preaching. One story from the mid-20th century segregation era relates that Michaux preached at an “all-white, KKK-infested congregation” in Baltimore, Maryland. But his preaching was so effective that a white klansman was converted and joined a branch of Michaux’s African American Church of God, in Baltimore.

Michaux died in 1968. The Gospel Spreading Farm is still in operation, but a dispute in Michaux’s local church, over the land management, led to a split in the community, that for some remains unresolved. The Gospel Spreading Farm is quietly tucked away at the very end of Treasure Island Road, a spur off of Lake Powell Road. Yet residents of Williamsburg will be most familiar with the legacy of Michaux, when they see Oleta Coach Lines buses traveling up and down the roads, surrounding the Williamsburg area. Oleta is family owned and operated, through some church members, who grew up under the shadow of Michaux’s influence.

Below is a film clip from one of Michaux’s evangelist radio sessions, singing his signature song, “Happy Am I.”


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)


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.”


Prophecy Fulfilled in the “Baptism in the Holy Spirit” (#5)

Fired up by enthusiasm, the theology of “the baptism in the Holy Spirit,” is taking over the globe. But what is it exactly? (photo credit: Getty Images, Economist magazine)

Picking up from where we left off, the fifth in a multipart blog post series

Is “the baptism in the Holy Spirit” something that happens to the believer upon conversion, or is it a subsequent experience in the life of a Christian? In examining the teachings of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John R. W. Stott, two British evangelical heavyweights of 20th century preaching, I have since found Stott’s arguments, in favor of identifying Spirit baptism to be synonymous with becoming a believer, to be more persuasive.1

Here is what tipped me in favor of John R. W. Stott’s view, and it is something that Martyn Lloyd-Jones did not address, as I read them both in college: What is the importance of biblical prophecy regarding the empowering work of the Holy Spirit? Discerning the role of biblical prophecy helps to cut through the confusion surrounding “the baptism in the Holy Spirit.” Continue reading


%d bloggers like this: