December 14, 2017

Those Know-Nothing Evangelicals

know.jpgOver the past five years I have written a number of things that build a basic “iMonk” critique of evangelicalism. If you missed the basic class, there’s no reason you should be left out. Therefore, I present….reruns of some of my better work.

Let’s find out why high profile American Evangelicals have decided to go invisible on what they really believe….or don’t believe. It’s an Internet Monk “Reforming The Church” special.

As an out of the closet, seven-point, Reformed Christian, I embrace some things that are rapidly going the way of the dodo. Chief among these is my belief that Christianity must be explicitly confessional, rather than generic and invisible. For those of you who have been reading the Left Behind series, that means I believe we should write down and subscribe to statements of belief that define our understanding of the Gospel and the principle and relevant teachings of scripture.

I am such a throwback that I believe a church which is not confessional runs the real possibility of not being a church at all, since much required of a church will be impossible apart from a confession agreed to by all members.

Confessionalism, as I’ll call my strange interest, stands in contrast to the prevailing mood in evangelicalism, which could best be called doctrinal invisibility. Contemporary Christians want to go high-profile in every conceivable way except in saying what they believe. In doctrinal matters, the best most can do is a kind of generic “Jesus is Lord-ism,” and the worst is to declare war on confessional Christians as divisive bigots harming the Body of Christ and driving away seekers. According to the latest reports, my team, though playing respectably, is not winning this contest, and soon we can expect evangelicals to anathematize anyone who insists we endorse the Apostle’s Creed.

I remember the glee that some of my liberal brethren used to take in the words of the hymn “My Faith Has Found a Resting Place. Not in device or creed. I trust the ever living One. His wounds for me shall plead.” While they celebrated what they thought was the hymn’s decrying of creeds and confessions, the hymn in fact contains an abundance of theology- particularly about the atonement- that those without creeds and confessions have found it quite convenient to deny and reject. I join Eliza Hewitt in eschewing creeds as objects of saving faith, even as I value the orthodox creeds and confessions for preserving the content of the faith that I place in Christ Jesus.

With evangelicals trading members in increasing numbers and many sojourning in various theological camps and various worship styles, it has become increasingly difficult for churches to subscribe to a confession, to apply it to their ministers and require it of their members. A church with a confession these days is likely a church accused of Pharisaism or intolerance. What happened to the great confessional heritage of evangelicals? Why will a mention of the Heidelberg Catechism, The 1689 London Confession, The New Hampshire Confession or the Baptist Faith and Message elicit such hostility from so many?

There are a number of roads that have led to this situation, and I think its an interesting trip for thinking Christians who want to understand what is happening right under their noses that may forever change what we understand as Christianity. Let’s start with the demise of denominationalism.

Denominations began as both evidence of the reformation’s success and proof of its failure. Defining themselves by Biblical confessions over against the Roman Catholic Church, Protestant denominationalism testified to the vigor of the reformation’s pursuit of the truth of sola scriptura. At the same time, denominations testified to the failure of reformation Christians to achieve unity, a mark of the true church that Roman Catholicism could always claim belonged more to Rome than to the reformers.

Throughout most of Christian history, denominationalism served as a preservative of doctrinal truth and the blood-bought heritage of orthodoxy. Even with the debacle of modern liberalism and the many obvious failures of denominations as human institutions, it would have been considered ridiculous to suggest that the Christian mission would have been better served by eradicating all denomination labels. Southern Baptists, perhaps the most missionary of evangelical denominations, started thousands of churches that were happily labeled “Baptist,” even in communities that looked on such a label as equaling hysterical rural snake-handlers.

I remember hearing my pastor talking about a motion that came before the Southern Baptist Convention to re-name the denomination the “Continental Baptist Convention” to more accurately recognize the non-regional nature of the denomination and to avoid any prejudice against the South. Our pastor opposed this change because the name represented a known and affirmed set of doctrinal beliefs, and to change the name would not clarify our commitment to those beliefs, but would raise questions about “just what do these people believe?” Imagine the debate today if the SBC made a motion to change the name of the denomination! There would be a large contingent wanting to scrap any name at all!

My pastors position was typical of the attitude that prevailed towards denominations until recently. With all their problems- and denominations have many of them- there was a kind of explicit witness to Christian truth, a sort of open confession of Christian belief that accompanied the denominational label. When did evangelicals decide they didn’t want anyone to know what they were all about?

Probably the first sign of change was in the controversies that accompanied the rise of Billy Graham and the generic evangelicalism that appeared in his wake. Denominations often seemed at odds with the kind of unity presented in Graham’s ministry, and in fact, Graham’s embracing of all denominations as partners did create a blurring of beliefs, and a preference for minimal confessionalism. In order for Baptists to work with Roman Catholics in a Graham crusade, quite a bit of doctrinal baggage had to be set aside!

The betrayal of orthodoxy by liberal denominations and the narrow fundamentalism of other denominations made non-denominational identifications, such as the Charismatic movement, parachurch organizations or “Community” Church labels, appealing to many evangelicals. Soon, evangelicals’ own success created a movement of church consumers willing to reject denominational labels and adopt an approach to church preference that was no different than their approach to buying a car. And along the way, doctrinal confessionalism became part of the embarrassing legacy of denominationalism that was abandoned in a new concern for generic, “purpose-driven” unity.

(This need not have happened. Spurgeon changed the name of his church from New Park Street Baptist to Metropolitan Tabernacle. Many explicitly confessional churches have no identifiable denominational name on the sign. But it is a fact that the modern trend towards generic churches has also been a trend away from creeds and confessions in the life of the church.)

But the rejection of denominationalism isn’t the only explanation for doctrinal invisibility. The Charismatic movement, and its broad influence within evangelicalism, is a second contributing force to why your local church may no longer really care if anyone knows what they believe.

As I have suggested elsewhere, the history of Christianity contains abundant evidence of a struggle between “Word-oriented” Christians and “Spirit-oriented” Christians. The current triumph of anti-confessionalism is coextensive with the influence of “Spirit-oriented” Christianity. It isn’t that all Pentecostal-Charismatics are non-confessional- some warmly embrace their own attempts at confessions- but Pentecostalism’s inherent suspicion and hostility towards settled theology that is the problem.

The Charismatic movement is solidly premised on the idea that God is currently doing, revealing, speaking, and working in a way identical to- or even greater than- He did in the Biblical era. Charismatics must be suspicious of any confession or declaration of faith that indicates God has finally spoken and acted. Charismatic apathy or hostility towards written confessions is as predictable as their confidence that God is speaking through his anointed leaders today, revealing an on-going message inspired by the Holy Spirit. The fact that “confessional” Pentecostals will seldom correct or cross an “anointed” messenger shows the problem.

Pentecostal-Charismatic vitality makes a strong argument from experience that they are on to something right, particularly when compared to the dead formalism of many confessional churches or the apostate liberalism of many mainlines. Young people particularly see Charismatic enthusiasm as convincing evidence God is with them. While truly Biblical people should be grateful for the true spiritual life evidence in many Pentecostal-Charismatic churches, we have to be equally concerned with the inability of many within this camp to Biblically discern Christian essentials. Charismatics have enthusiastically demonstrated both truth and error. In recent years, the amount and seriousness of the error has become distressing enough to question whether many Charismatics have any sense of orthodoxy from which to judge themselves, or even want to be within the orthodox confessional tradition at all.

All one must do is listen to Paul Crouch and Benny Hinn defend their version of Christian unity to know there is much that is wrong and getting worse. Crouch and Hinn- and thousands of other Charismatics- believe that what God has revealed to them is on an equal level with scripture and not to be argued with. Crouch will say that God sent 9-11 in order to promote his son’s end of the world movies, and not bat an eye. Hinn’s famous departures from historic Christian orthodoxy are not a problem, but the Hank Hannegraff’s who pointed out those errors are tools of the devil.

The Charismatic movement at the beginning of the 21st century is increasingly without the necessary humility to know that confessionalism is essential to understanding and affirming the work of the Spirit in the church. Christian history is replete with examples of heretics who declared themselves above scripture and above orthodoxy. The state of affairs today indicates that Montanus would have been welcomed on TBN, accompanied on piano by Kim Clement and band.

Have evangelicals gone this far? No, but they are well on the way. There are very few evangelicals willing to critique Charismatic errors. The predictable Charismatic response- that any criticism is opposing the work of the Holy Spirit- seems to have intimidated everyone. The Charismatic domination of evangelical media no doubt plays a part in that reluctance. (Note that D. James Kennedy is on TBN!)

Even more disturbing, evangelicals have embraced much of the rhetoric of Charismatic hostility to confessionalism themselves. Anyone who has been out and about in evangelicalism knows that rhetoric denouncing confessionalism and embracing being “led by the Spirit” will bring a sure standing ovation. Liberal evangelicals are now trying out the rhetoric of open opposition to Confessional Christianity as a potent weapon against conservatives in this age of tolerance. The controversy in the Baptist General Conference over whether to call the Openness heresy unacceptable previews what evangelicals will be experiencing in the future.

The third contributor to doctrinal invisibility are the commercial interests of evangelical publishing and music. Again, this writer has spent considerable ink pointing out that evangelicals have rapidly become a major commercial niche within the American economy. Christian publishing and recording generate billions of dollars in revenue. But they also have done something else: they have caused evangelicals to define themselves by what they watch, read and listen to more than by what they believe and confess. In order to make more money, evangelical commercial interests have exploited the anti-confessional trend.

Take, for example, the Christian publishing empires. A successful author such as Joyce Meyer now crosses any and all confessional lines and is marketed as a generic evangelical. Her books are as palatable to Pentecostals and Baptists as they are to Charismatic Catholics. The fact that Mrs. Meyer is a member in good standing of the Word-Faith movement of Kenneth Copeland and Kenneth Hagin is not going to be emphasized. The day when a Word-Faith teacher would be unwelcome in a Baptist church are gone. Mrs. Meyer, who has many commendable applications of scripture, gives no evidence in her popular books of a specific commitment to anything other than the most generic kind of Christianity. One will read all her books without finding that Mrs. Meyer holds loyally to the bizarre views of Hagin and Copeland.

Such doctrinal invisibility is on purpose. The editors and publishers of the thousands of books Meyer sells will make sure that no hint of her own specific Word-Faith doctrines appear on to those pages. While there are some publishers that exist to present specific doctrinal points of view, the largest and most influential Christian commercial interests are the most skillful practitioners of doctrinal invisibility.

Charismatics have prospered most in this environment. Not only because they have been among the most successful in the fields of Christian publishing and recording, but because they are the most comfortable asserting their beliefs in a non-denominational, non-confessional manner. I have always noted with interest that in any situation where many different denominations are working together, the Pentecostal-Charismatics will quickly dominate the direction and tone of things. Their confidence that they perceive and present God’s message better than others quickly adapts to the doctrinal vacuum of a “nondenominational” context.

So Christian publishers will market a Joyce Meyer or a T.D. Jakes or a Tommy Tenney or a Rick Joyner or a Benny Hinn to all of evangelicalism with few clues that these teachers have doctrinal deficiencies that would have kept them far from the pulpit of most non-Pentecostal (and some Pentecostal) churches just a generation ago. Once these men have become best-sellers, then the commercial interests dub them as anointed by God and sent by the Spirit with messages all Christians must hear and honor. Those whom the Reformers would have excommunicated (or worse) have become the voices all evangelicalism must listen to. All because we have abandoned confessional Christianity and become “Know Nothings.”

(If one has any doubt on the agenda of Christian publishers, look at how they handle any author or artist who actually manifests open heresy or immorality. The publishing and recording interests seldom do anything other than promise future corrections. Even when the product is proven to be damning doctrinal poison, it’s still left on the market to do its insidious work. The only accountability these people know is accountability to their own profits. Also, watch how quickly evangelical publishers will create books for Christian musicians or study Bibles for best selling writers or otherwise multiply products as quickly as possible. Soon every Christian recording star will be a best-selling author with a study Bible.)

So, just what do the Veggie Tales believe?

The final contributing influence to today’s doctrinal invisibility is the Church Growth movement. This movement has brought an ethic of pragmatism into the church and placed it squarely in the place where the Bible once stood. This can’t be underestimated as in influence in today’s churches. The Church Growth pragmatists feel confident that they can authoritatively tell the church what to do, solely on the basis of market research. Today, the Church Growth movement is a bully, and the theologians and Biblical scholars are cowering in its wake.

Which is amazing, because the Church Growth pragmatists have, literally and seriously, nothing on their side except the evidence they have manufactured. Church Growth pragmatism is like a man who puts a bowl of meat in front of a dog, and then claims to have taught the dog to eat meat. He then writes a book, holds seminars and becomes a celebrity with this knowledge. Biologists and dog experts are strangely silent, and those who dare to challenge his expertise are laughed at and denounced.

The CGPs have made the church like the world and invited the world in. In some cases, they have shown up. From this, great things have been concluded. The fact is, church growth pragmatism constantly acts as if the reason people are not Christians is that they don’t like hymns, pulpits, denominational labels and offerings. Get these out of the way, have donuts in the lobby, invite everyone to wear shorts and the Holy Spirit will finally be free to work. Or is it that if we remove all those turn-offs, it will be easier for people to come to Jesus?

Not that this hasn’t been tried before. Liberals did it and look where it got them. Today, liberalism has become, in some quarters, rabidly anti-Christian. How did they get that way? By deciding to alienate no one and get the world in the church to tell us how it’s done. The “Purpose Driven” church may or may not be confessional and Biblical, but the fact that there is some question about where one derives those purposes is a crack in the dam. At this point, the church growth movement has shown that it is far more interested in getting its purposes from research, marketers and entertainment than from scripture. Chruch Growth pragmatism knows the power of technology, entrepreneurism and entertainment. And they assure us the Holy Spirit uses them all and the Bible approves them all. I don’t believe it.

I don’t believe it because every historical example we have of genuine, Biblical church growth, genuine revival and genuine evangelistic expansion of the church have ignored the things the Church Growth pragmatists major on. Church Growth pragmatists have crafted an approach works for western (mostly American), white, suburban, baby boomers. That’s all. Christianity is booming among the poor, the non-white, the non-American and the non-pragmatic. Like it or not, everything we are seeing in the current world-wide expansion of Christianity in Asia, South America and Africa repudiates the American Church Growth pragmatists.

But this hasn’t stopped the pragmatists from announcing that doctrine must be the lowest of low-profiles. Seekers don’t want doctrinal preaching. Keep it down in the education program basement for those theological types. Seekers don’t want to be discouraged over issues like morality or theology or church government or leadership. Seekers don’t like anyone being wrong. It all needs to be about a relationship. They want that unconditional love and no-commitment church membership. I can’t help but laugh when I hear that some CGP pastor is wrestling with what to do with all the cohabitating couples who want membership.

Suddenly everything is about attracting people. Worship, teaching, pastoral care, doctrine, church discipline- they have all taken a back seat to the CGP concerns of making people comfortable in church. As a former youth minister, I’ve seen where this is going. Give ’em what they want, and they will want more, until they finally go back out the door they came in.

Can confessionalism survive in this environment? My friends in seeker churches all- and I do mean all- speak about their concern that the Christians in their churches are starving on a constant diet of seeker sensitive teaching and preaching. I hear nothing but the constant drumbeat of pragmatic teaching from these ministers. A Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Donald Barnhouse or Charles Spurgeon would never be allowed an opening prayer, much less a sermon. Church growth pragmatism has- in my opinion- produced an assault on preaching and the Bible in worship that many evangelicals will never recover from. Many evangelical children have grown up never having heard a solid Biblical exposition or having sung the great hymns of the faith. I cannot see confessionalism arising from this mess. I have hope that a generation seeking Christianity with backbone and foundation will turn back to historic orthodoxy and the great heritage of the faith once delivered, but to do so will mean turning their backs on Church Growth pragmatism.

It is no accident that intentionally confessional churches are increasingly full of young couples and young families who have found they very much want something completely different. I’m wagering that when evangelicals finally go over the edge and become virtually indistinguishable from liberals, there will be a surprising remnant looking for the old books and the old creeds, and insisting on building churches that reject the seductions of pragmatism.

Throughout history, Christians have rediscovered the confessions of their ancestors. They have contemplated that in times when it was vital to be bold and courageous in their profession, they needed to be bold and courageous in the declaration of their faith. Evangelical America has seen little reason to follow the example of their ancestors, and has decided to pass by those confessions and to replace them with worldly wisdom. They will discover, I predict, that they have nourished a body without a skeleton.

Michael Spencer is a writer, preacher and campus minister in southeastern Kentucky.

Comments

  1. you have really nailed the current state of the “evangelical” church in the states. makes me sick to my stomach – all i can think about is “Laodicea”. between the cgm and fellows like Clark Pinnock, evangelicalism has morphed into something other than Christian, sad to say.

  2. Jim Gieseke says:

    Another well written article by Mr. Spencer showing that the evangelical emporer is buck naked.

    Two questions:

    1. Does one’s eschatology affect how one views such news? (are we expecting to win the world for Jesus or are we expecting that great apostasy might occur).

    2. Is there a tendency to overlook the supernatural component of false or apostate teachings in the Reform perspective?

    Jim Gieseke
    Houston, Texas

  3. Reformed eschatology is rather chaotic. Most of us wind up saying things like amil + postmil+ get back to me. I am an optimisit about the church in the non west and a pessimist about the church in the west. See Iain Murray, The Puritan Hope. If Piper ever writes his eschatology, I will buy it. Till then…Sam Waldron will do.

    I think many Reformed folks are cautious about Spiritual warfarism. I know I am. And getting more so.

    Thanks for reading the essay.

  4. Jim Gieseke says:

    I am not Iain Murray, and my information is limited, but the impression I am getting is that the explosionn in Christianity in the third world is largely an export of heresies exported from the United States. That seems to be the case in Nigeria.

    I have less optimism about the organized church, but believe that God is able to preserve a believing remnant and has done so during the 20 centuries since Jesus Christ walked the earth.

    As for spiritual warfare, no lover of the Truth wants to buy what the “latter rain/new apostolic”
    and other types are selling and start marching around the block looking for demonic strongholds, yet we do have some clear scriptures indicating that Satan blinds the eyes of unbelievers, that he has his own ministers, and we are warned repeatedly that we have a duty to study, to exercise discernment and not be deceived. One’s ability to be deceived seems to have little relationship to one’s intelligence or ability to use logic, and I think we err in the other direction if we overlook either the enemy’s capabilities or the Holy Spirit’s role in opening blinded eyes.

    Mr. Spencer, I really enjoy so many of your posts and I praise God that He has given you such a gift. May God use your gifts to the edification of the body.

    To God alone be the Glory!

    Jim Gieseke (an Arminian who loves to read Reform and Puritan writers), in Houston, Texas

  5. one encouraging sign is the emergence of respect for Reformed scholarship in some charismatic churches. The founding pastor of our church (www.kpic.org) jokes about having almost finished his degree from “reform school” — Reformed Theological Seminary. During one sabbatical, he’d get up in the wee hours, to go sit in a bathtub and soak up big chunks of Calvin’s writings. The Every Nation denomination our church belongs to (www.everynation.org) is forthrightly confessional, in that we expect new members to complete a series of lessons on the hard cold specifics of our doctrine. Our “Every Nation School of Ministry” combines theological and practical training. C. Peter Wagner called it one of the best in the world.

    Take courage, brother. God is stirring up in his people a hunger for substance.

  6. With due respect Tom, I’ve heard a lot of troubling things about Wagner and YWAM.

  7. YWAM is a good organization, but they have embraced Openness Theology, which is a major problem.

  8. I’ve read some “touch not the Lord’s anointed” stuff about YWAM; lots of talk about control issues. I’m not sure I believe it all, but it’s out there for talk. If anyone ever has a clear view on it, I’d love to hear it.

  9. Paul Whiting says:

    The main problem with YWAM is that it’s become a hybrid of neo-Pentecostalism and Finney-inspired “moral government” theology over the years. A version of open theism has been a part of that theology for years. Mostly the people at YWAM are really nice in a spiritual hothouse kind of way; good place to find a spouse too; pity about the rubbish theology.

  10. Paul – Thanks for the clarity. Much appreciated.

  11. Where does a robust appetite for Truth go? The thin gruel of evangelicalism just won’t do. I am not a Shiny Happy Person. I’m Old School.

  12. Interesting stuff, but speaking as a charismatic I would like to point out that not all of us are at all happy with the type of stuff that appears on TBN and similar stations.

    You say that “The Charismatic movement is solidly premised on the idea that God is currently doing, revealing, speaking, and working in a way identical to- or even greater than- He did in the Biblical era.” Doing and working – yes I think that there are many things that God was doing then that he is still doing now – I’m sure you agree. Revealing and speaking – well no one is writing Holy Scripture any more, but does that mean God no longer reveals and speaks?

    All the charismatic churches I have been part of would be shocked to think that someone could elevate their prophecy to (or above) the level of Scripture. It deeply concerns me that there are others that don’t share this attitude.

    Scripture repeatedly warns us that false teachers will arise. In my opinion good Biblical teaching will do more to help people discern this than simply giving them lists of names of people to avoid. In fact, the latter approach can backfire as people don’t like being told who they can and can’t listen to.

  13. ScottyMac says:

    I think Mark makes some good points here in regards to charismatics. The tendency has been in recent decades to lump all of them together. Unfortunately, that leaves many word-based charismatics tied in with people like Hagin, Copeland, and Hinn. Dubious company at best, and I don’t think they deserve to be associated with such.

    While I am not a charismatic, neither am I a cessationist. In some camps, that labels me as a charismatic. Probably some sort of agreed upon definition of what makes a Charismatic is in order. I’ve always thought it was the “second wave” of pentecostalism, with the Vineyard and such being the third wave. There are some who believe that the likes of Hagin, Copeland, Hinn, and others of that ilk hijacked pentecostalism. I might find some agreement with that asessment. At any rate, I would not be comfortable riding any of the waves of pentecostalism, but I know there are some good people within the movement that are more word oriented than we might think.

    I especially enjoyed Michael’s article. He has a good grasp of the church today. His comparison of the CGM and the dog is classic.

  14. Michael, more often than not, I am a stone-hearted meanie who is as cynical and sarcastic as he is over-intellectualized. Today, however, sitting in the middle of the computer lab at the University of Texas, I began to cry. Reading the next-to-last paragraph was liking reading Isaiah’s promises for the first time. Thank you for bringing comfort to a washed-out soul of a new Diaspora.

  15. After reading what most of you have to say i realize that satan must be working overtime.

    Hope you have something to read in the big waiting room.
    good luck

  16. It is people full of jealousy like you who would put down another preacher and cause division in the church. Maybe you need to learn more about Jesus.

    Barbara