Browsed by
Tag: Prosperity-theology

When One Issue Drowns Out Others

When One Issue Drowns Out Others

After interviewing Allan R. Bevere a few days ago I discovered another video. First, here’s my interview with Allan. We were talking about the United Methodist Church General Conference in 2019 looking for a way forward as a denomination with regard to same-sex marriage and related issues.

The new video is from the Adventist News Network (HT Spectrum Magazine), which is an official project of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Long time readers of this blog will know I grew up Seventh-day Adventist, but am now a member of a United Methodist congregation. Here it is:

The issues in the two denominations are different. While United Methodists discuss homosexuality and same-sex marriage, Seventh-day Adventists are discussing ordination of women. In many discussions, I have heard the arguments against women’s ordination expressed in terms of the danger of a slippery slope toward accepting homosexuality. The claim is that the same arguments might be, and have been, used for both.

In the process of discussing these issues, however, we see a number of things:

  • Money becomes a key. In the United Methodist Church it becomes a question of how much power our brethren in the global south should have over the church seeing as they are financially supported by the American church. In the SDA Church the issue of tithe has now been raised, as the North American Division wants to reduce the percentage of its tithe sent to other divisions.
  • People are accused based simply on their viewpoint. I understand how this happens. Sincerity does not mean one is right. One can be passionately and sincerely wrong, even when rightly motivated. (I should know! I’ve been there and might be now!) But one can be firm on one’s convictions and still be respectful.
  • Each side accuses the other of bringing disunity. This is a choice that comes to all. When a “Martin Luther” moment comes is it an act of disunity or an act of conscience?
  • One’s opponents may be seen as guilty of putting a stop to the gospel message, such as the implication in the Adventist News Network video that those who support women’s ordination are holding back the work of the gospel and preparation for the coming of Jesus.
  • Conformity is seen as unity.
  • Everyone starts looking at the legal ownership of church property (see the first point)!

I have made my opinion on women in ministry clear, so I can’t stand back and play facilitator to a discussion. I believe that those God has gifted in any way should serve in that way, and I do believe women can be and are gifted for ministry. I believe God equips those he calls and the equipping is quite enough evidence. On homosexuality I’ve tried to stand back. A very good friend who passed away recently said to me once: “Henry, it’s very hard to be both a prophet and a facilitator.” He was very right. So I’ve refrained from any pulpit pounding type statements on homosexuality. It doesn’t mean I have no opinions; just that I’m going to let others do the discussion, and there’s no lack of those ready and waiting to engage.

But let me turn to two other issues on which I’ll make something of a statement. I’m a firm believer on the one hand that we should have unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and especially charity in all things. (Note the interesting and difficult history of the saying I paraphrase.) On the other hand I believe in keeping your essentials to a minimum, as reflected in the doctrinal statement I use for my publishing company, Energion Publications. I’ve discussed this before, and will link to my post Not All Doctrines Are Equal, which links to several others.)

For my first issue I’m opposed to just about any form of prosperity theology, or even letting finance drive the train. Financial management is necessary, but it’s generally the first thing to get in the way of good moral decision making. We simply don’t take the time to find a way to do things that is financially responsible and yet morally right.

In the case of the controversies I’m mentioning, this comes up in wanting to diminish the influence of some people over finance. Money is the presenting issue, but behind it is the fact that someone does not like the viewpoint of the other person. Whether I agree with someone or not, I believe as a Christian that I must respect that person. The believer in Africa, South America, or Asia is not diminished before God because I don’t like the way he or she will vote in a conference. Financial status should not change the nature of our relationships in the family of God. In this case, I think it would be better to lose a vote than to in any diminish another person.

Of course, this must include not diminishing the person who is on the other side, or who is being argued about. Whether we are talking about the level of a person’s financial contributions, their sexuality, or simply their gender, it can be (usually is) paternalistic and diminishing when the person with the power discusses whether to share that power with the person who does not. In the kingdoms of the world it may be necessary. I think Jesus calls us to better behavior. (Not that I know how to always do it right.)

Money comes up in terms of church property as well. Allan Bevere noted that the one thing that may connect us soon is our pensions (speaking as a pastor). One of the things that will likely cause controversy is those congregations who, no matter what happens, may want to withdraw from the United Methodist Church. Then we face the specter of people claiming the name of Jesus fighting it out in secular court due to church property. Quoth Paul, “Why would it not be better to be wronged? Why would it not be better to be defrauded?”

Second, however, is the issue of hierarchy. All of these issues become issues of power. Who gets to tell who else what they should and shouldn’t do, and who gets to enforce the result. Again, after noting how the rulers of the nations behaved, Jesus told his disciples it was not to be that way with them. The greatest should be a servant. (Mark 10:41-45) I wonder how the debate would change if we saw it as a question of serving rather than having power over. (In fact, I have a problem with the whole idea of a separated class of ordained clergy, but that is a different debate.)

I hope and pray that both my former and my present denominations will find a Christ-like way through their divisions. I don’t actually feel very hopeful. Perhaps it’s “Oh me of little faith!” Still it doesn’t look that good, no matter which direction the wind blows on the various doctrines. There is likely a right and wrong answer.  I tend to believe in moral absolutes while doubting our ability to come very close to them. But we must not violate much clearer moral values, such as the way we treat one another, in the pursuit of those truths.

When we pursue absolutes at the expense of other absolutes, the resulting mess is absolute.

Preachers: Respecting without Idolizing

Preachers: Respecting without Idolizing

Eddie Arthur at Kouya Chronicle comments on recent debates about John Piper and justification. Amongst other things, he says this:

It might surprise some of you that I recommend Doug’s articles because in his review of Piper’s criticism of Wright, Doug comes down fairly and squarely on the side of Wright, not Piper. For most Evangelicals John Piper has a status approaching infallible. However, on this question, everything I’ve read leads me to side with Tom Wright (though I will fully admit to not yet having read Piper’s book).

(HT: Gentle Wisdom, in a related post, also well worth reading.)

Eddie is to be congratulated on his attitude of respect for John Piper, while at the same time being willing to recognize where Piper is not quite so strong. After reading Eddie’s blog for some time, I would have expected no less. But many Christians find it difficult to both hold a preacher or teacher in high regard and disagree with them. If we shift the cultural and religious context, and refer to leaders instead, I suspect it is a strongly human characteristic. We like to either like or dislike someone, and to do so without qualification.

There will be those who think I don’t respect Piper at all. After all, I have criticized him recently. But I have also appreciated what he has to say on many topics, including prosperity theology, though I differ there in the details. Mark Driscoll is another preacher I have criticized, but also one from whom I have much to learn. My theological perspective is very, very different from these two men, yet I find myself continually blessed by interacting with what they write, even–or especially–when I dislike it.

The other day my wife and I were watching 60 minutes on Joel O’Steen. Now if you want to find a preacher who gets on my nerves there he is. There’s all the glitzy, prosperity oriented, shallow, showmanship that I dislike most. When the segment was over my wife and I discussed it. We frequently do this, because we both teach, and often do so together. We found that there were things we could learn from the work in ministry, as well as many things that we both deplore. I look, for example, at the time he spends on his sermons. Wouldn’t it be great if more preachers spent that kind of time and effort on their proclamation of the word each Sunday!

My wife frequently gives a portion of her testimony when we’re teaching. She was greatly blessed and had a life-changing experience with the Holy Spirit at the Brownsville Revival here in Pensacola. Now many readers will again be surprised that I have any connection with Brownsville, given the more rationalistic tone of my own faith. But those who have read my own testimony will perhaps remember this. She tells of how she was powerfully changed and for many weeks continued attending the revival and drinking in everything that evangelist Steve Hill had to say. Then came the night when he read a text and made a point and she said, “That’s not right! That’s not what that text said!” With a bit of thought she realized that two things were compatible. Steve Hill could be wrong. Steve Hill could be God’s instrument in a powerful change in her life. The two things were not incompatible. She tells that as an important point of maturity in her Christian faith.

I blogged yesterday about being willing to live with uncertainty. Just as we like certainty about the facts we use in living our daily lives, we also like certainty in our leaders. A preacher is either good or bad, not quite good but fallible. But that is the wrong perspective. We are all human, all fallible, all less than perfect. I can often learn from people whose behavior I do not like, or whose teaching grates on me in many ways. At the same time, I must always be aware that even people I truly appreciate may be in error.

I need to respect preachers, teachers, and leaders, without making the mistake of idolizing them.

Of Necessity and Suffering

Of Necessity and Suffering

I’ve appreciated much of what John Piper has said about the prosperity gospel. Prosperity theology strikes me as not just false (Biblically and experientially), but particularly dangerous because it either drives one from faith and its actual benefits, or creates a very shallow Christian at best, ready to be driven away at the first difficulty. “Come unto me, all you who want to get rich,” just doesn’t sound much like Jesus to me.

Via Adrian Warnock’s blog ( PIPER FRIDAY – Suffering is Essential to Christians), I found this set of notes from a talk by John Piper.

I’m going to use the same quote Adrian did:

Let me underline one of the statements I’ve already made: Suffering is an essential part of your Christian existence. I choose the word essential very carefully. Paul said to new believers in Acts 14:22, “Through many tribulations we will enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is Christianity 101. Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 3:2-3 that we Christians are destined for suffering. This is your destiny—suffering. Think it not strange when the fiery ordeal comes upon you. And 2 Timothy 3:12: All who desire to live a godly life will be persecuted. And Romans 8:16: We are fellow heirs if we suffer with him. There is one God-appointed path to glorification—suffering. If you are making it your life ambition to avoid suffering, you will perish and suffer forever. And all this Pauline talk is based on Jesus’ talk.

I am not in disagreement with this statement, but I would take a slightly different angle on the issue. Suffering is an essential part of the way that the universe is put together. The difference in suffering for a Christian is one of perspective, and not one either of suffering exclusively. I’m not in disagreement with Piper here. One commenter at Adrian’s blog seemed to think Piper was indicating that only Christians suffer, which would be a foolish thing to say, not to mention demonstrably false.

There’s also a reverse link that I have heard frequently, the idea that suffering or receiving persecution indicates that one is right. I hear this frequently about great leaders of the past. If they hadn’t been right, why would they have been so persecuted? This sentiment reflects an awe-inspiring ignorance of history, in which people on all sides of various controversies have suffered persecutions. The trinitarians, who won, were persecuted until they did win. The Arians, however, also suffered for Christ. Gnostics suffered as well. In the reformation, Catholics and all varieties of protestants were persecuted at various times for their beliefs. Persecution is an indication of persistence on the one hand, and a severely overdone desire for control on the other, but it doesn’t tell you whether someone is right.

Back in March, I wrote about Bill Dembski’s article on theodicy, in which he argues that though evil occurred later in humanity, that evil (the fall) was nonetheless the logical cause of death and suffering. (Note that the article was revised on March 15, 2007, and the date of that post was March 4, 2007. I have not reviewed the article since that revision.) Though I have often written negatively about Dr. Dembski’s work, I find this particular article intriguing and challenging.

I would suggest, however, that in order for their to be free will there must be options with consequences. Those consequences must offer the full range of results of the choices. Further, if there is both free will and interaction with other creatures, not all consequences of any one creature’s choices will fall on that creature alone. To take a simple example, if I fail to pay my power bill, I’m not the only one who has to sit in the dark. My wife shares that problem with me. If one person takes an incomplete course of an antibiotic, and as a result helps release a resistant strain, the consequences fall on many, not just one.

One can easily imagine a universe in which there is no suffering, or no negative consequences, but such a universe would simply be a machine. I think it’s difficult if not impossible to demonstrate that the universe is not a machine, though most of us persist in the belief that somehow it is not and that our choices matter.

Which leads me to a brief excursus on free will. I have heard many folks say there is no free will only to discover that what they mean is that our will is not completely free, i.e. that there are options closed to me. What I am speaking about here is any departure from the purest determinism. If the universe is not perfectly deterministic, and more specifically if my actions are not 100% determined by knowable causes, then I would call that free will. I would imagine a continuum, from pure determinism through absolute freedom. On the one hand, there would be no responsibility, because there would be no I with an input into my decisions. On the other hand, there would be no order against which to observe freedom in action. I’m calling anywhere on the intervening continuum free will. My feeling is that the reality is much, much closer to determinism than to complete freedom.

I would note with some humor that every time I discuss this I seem to get someone who will tell me that quantum theory demonstrates determinism, and someone else to tell me that it demonstrates that there is some indeterminacy. I don’t know enough about it to argue with either one, though I lean to some level of indeterminacy.

In any case, let me get back to my point. Suffering exists in the world, and it is a necessity because there is freedom. While I do not understand the physics, I can affirm that the Biblical writers believed in some degree of human freedom and responsibility. The Bible also affirms that God’s servants, even God’s very good servants, suffer. Job is called righteous, and he suffered. Jesus, according to Christian theology, made all the right choices in his life, and he suffered. The question is not whether some form of hardship will come, but rather what will come of the hardship.

And let me make a little point here. Suffering is hard to measure, and it is probably better not to even try. When our son was suffering from cancer, one of our friends complained to my wife about a problem she had, and then was embarrassed. “How could I complain to you about my tiny problem when you are facing such a big one?” she asked. Well, just what a particular problem does to you isn’t that easily measurable. Even the moment in a situation that is hardest to take differs. I recall my lowest point being when I spoke to the doctor and heard the word that cancer had spread and was not treatable. My wife was overseas leading a mission trip, and I knew it would take hours at best to contact her. I’ve never felt anything like that pain and isolation, even when he died. (It’s coming up on the anniversary of that, September 22, so it’s kind of running through my mind again.)

My wife Jody has just written a book about grief (which also is making me remember), based on what she learned in 12 years as a hospice nurse and our own experience. In it she said:

I believe that each loss is personal and the degree of grief or pain is personal and cannot be compared!

(OK, here’s the shameless advertising plug. The book is Grief: Finding the Candle of Light and should be shipping September 21. She has also written about this on her blog here.)

The question is not one of quantity or whether or not you will suffer. Suffering is an essential. The question is what you are going to do with it. One of the things both my wife and I have been able to do is to listen with sympathy to people who are undergoing loss, and occasionally even to talk to them. Many people were encouraged by the way that James faced death. That is a good thing that happened. I know a number of people who started to wear “Live Strong” bracelets because of what they saw in James’ life and the way he faced death. More importantly, they determined to “live strong” themselves.

Those are good things. Now comes the odd question. Did God kill James in order to accomplish those good things? I’ve found that there are some Christians who seem to need to think of it like that in order to deal with what happened. Somehow it’s easier for them to handle if God is doing everything. For others, the thought that God did it is so repugnant that they will deny it with all their force, or alternatively abandon faith because they can’t deny it, and feel certain that God did it.

There is a sense in which God does everything. He is that First Cause (logically, not temporally) that brought everything into being. If it were not for God there would be no cells, no DNA to have copying errors, and thus no cancer. At the same time, all of those things are results of that basic law of cause and effect without which freedom would have no meaning. Thus as I see it God didn’t give James cancer; James got cancer in God’s world.

I have been asked how I kept my faith through this struggle. I would say two things about that.

First, I never thought that my faith would make me exempt from the troubles that are in the world. In other words, my theological thinking about suffering was refined, but not essentially changed by this experience. This is a major reason I oppose prosperity theology. One’s faith is most needed when things are not going so well. Discipline is needed when they are going well.

Second, however, it was my faith that helped me work my way through it. To ask me why I didn’t abandon my faith in the midst of this difficulty is to ask a man in danger of drowning in heavy seas why he doesn’t let go of the life preserver. He’s in heavy seas, after all! But anyone in that situation would say, “That’s precisely why I’m clinging to this life preserver.”

Faith will be tested. How and when will vary. You may find it impossible to compare your suffering to someone else’s. The question is whether you will grow from it, or get destroyed by it.

PS: For more information, see my three essays titled The Hand of God, part 1, part 2, and part 3. These three essays are edited and incorporated in my book Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic.