Sunday, August 23, 2009

If You Get My Meaning

A friend called the other day to comment on my post about the Word of Faith movement. He didn’t post the comment; he wanted to talk to me personally. He and I have known each other through thin and thin; and in the Pentecostal “stream,” shall we call it, he’s seen up close, as a congregant and associate pastor, only the Word of Faith school.

By the way, I think this is one reason I’m a bit less bitter than so many ex-WoF folks:  I grew up in a true, classical Pentecostal denomination, with a doctrinal statement and a central government that kept the local churches accountable for what they taught and did. The churches that go into the Word of Faith movement, from what I’ve seen, have been bodies in fellowships or in associations and affiliations, or independent churches:  Local bodies whose pastors are really subject to no head, though they’ll tell you that “Christ is our head.” What that means in practice is that they can do what they wish and teach what they wish; and if they go off-kilter, no one is there to call them out. That’s a breeding ground for heresy.

My friend brought up one thing I hadn’t mentioned, but had meant to. He thinks (and I do agree) that part of the problem with Pentecostal (by which he really means “Word of Faith”) churches is the unique interpretations of Scripture, bits and pieces ripped out of place and used to buttress any new “revelation” that takes the fancy of the pastor/teacher. These are people who look for the “hidden meaning” of Scripture. What it plainly says isn’t enough; at least, it isn’t enough for them.

My friend thinks all this would be cured by good expository preaching. I think he has a point, up to a point. I strongly believe that one thing the WoF preachers and teachers need to repent of is giving new, out-of-context meaning to Scripture. The Bible says what it says, and the things written in it—all the stories and letters and commandments—had a specific meaning to the people who wrote them.

I once read that the rules for reading the Bible were really simple;  ask yourself these questions as you read:

  1. Who is speaking, and to what audience?
  2. What exactly is being said?
  3. What did it mean for them then?
  4. What (if anything) does it mean for me/us now?

The problem is that if we don’t do the third part—understanding what a message meant then, to the people who heard it then—we’ll mess up the fourth part. And sometimes, we go with the “everything in the Bible has meaning” mantra and come up with some really silly scenarios. Because everything in the Bible might very well have meaning; but not all of the meanings are explained.

Case in point:  When Elisha healed the dead son of the Shunamite woman (see 2 Kings 4:32-35), he stretched himself on the dead boy’s body and walked around and then stretched himself on the boy’s body again. As the boy came to life, he sneezed seven times. Now what’s that all about? What’s the meaning of those seven sneezes? Why is that in the Bible? Well, it’s in there because…the boy sneezed. That’s all the Bible says. And yet, somewhere, I’ll bet someone has given a message on the Seven Sneezes That Bring Life (try this link for something close—and, by the way, the writer is not Pentecostal). Where God says nothing, maybe we’d best shut up, too, rather than looking for something that isn’t there.

Will expository preaching solve the problem? No. Because the problem isn’t with how we teach; it’s with why we teach. For I have a sneaking suspicion that those folks who come up with new twists to the Gospel are teaching for the wrong reasons. They want fame. They want to justify sin. They want no one over them. They want authority. And one sure way to get all this is to say, “Everything you’ve ever been told before now is wrong. I, and I alone, have the thing you’re seeking. I know the true heart of God.” At the heart of false doctrines lies, not false methodology (as in, the wrong style of preaching), but a false heart. Most Word preachers I’ve heard have made much of the fact that they’ve had little training in theology. They are proud to know so little, and make much of being self-taught (God-taught, they will insist). It’s almost a class-warfare thing. They seem intent on proving something to the rest of the world:  I’m as good as you, if not better. That’s a heart issue. It’s a sin issue.

Here’s a sobering warning from James:  “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1). We cannot preach to prove something to the world, or to show others up or to lift up ourselves. God will not put up with it. We may not reap the consequences of bad teaching on earth, but we will surely reap them in Heaven—or rather, in Hell.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Why Michael Vick doesn't deserve a second chance (and you don't either)

Michael Vick wants a second chance.

Bill Smith doesn't think Vick has earned one.

Everyone knows who Michael Vick is (at least, everyone in the US). Michael Vick is a notorious name now. Has been since 2007, when his Bad Newz Kennels dog-fighting operation was busted.

Bill Smith isn't so well known. He's the founder of Main Line Animal Rescue in Philadelphia, and he's angry that the Philadelphia Eagles have signed a contract with Vick. Sporting News Today quotes Smith as saying: "There are a lot of people out there who deserve second chances more than Michael Vick."

Here's something I'd like Bill Smith to consider—and Michael Vick's critics and defenders as well. Throughout the debate over Vick's reinstatement in the NFL (a reinstatement that still hasn't exactly happened, by the way), you hear "second chances" thrown around a lot, and by both sides. He deserves a second chance; we owe him that. No, he doesn't deserve a second chance; he hasn't earned one. And at the root of the discussion is the idea that a second chance is something you earn, and either Vick has earned one by pleading guilty and enduring prison or he hasn't earned one because, well, he just hasn't.

Here's something to think about: Michael Vick doesn't deserve a second chance. Because, in the end, no one "deserves" a second chance. But everyone needs a second chance.

You don't earn the right to start over. The most you can do is show that you take sincerely the gift of starting over. You can tell God and the world what you've done, how you've failed, where you've been wrong. That's confession. But confession doesn't earn a second chance. It's just being honest about yourself. It sets you up to receive a second chance; after all, if you don't admit you were wrong, how can you start over?

And after confession comes change. It's where you do things differently. You change the people you hang around, if you need to (and Michael Vick seems to have seen that he needs to). You change the way you think about yourself—the lies you tell yourself, that let you cut yourself a break, that let you excuse what you know can't be excused. That doesn't earn you a second chance, either. When you at last do what you know you should have done at first, you may earn someone's trust, but you aren't earning a second chance.

I became a Christian because I needed something I hadn't earned. I needed more than a second chance. I needed to have my past wiped out before God, even though I carry to this day some of the consequences of things past. And because I became a Christian at a very young age, I spent a lot of time failing and confessing and starting over. I needed more than a second chance; I needed scores of new starts, day after day. I didn't earn a single one of them. Nothing I do today wipes out what I did yesterday. Patience with my kids today doesn't erase (from their minds or mine) the hot words I spewed at them yesterday. A gift to my wife today doesn't change a promise I broke to her yesterday. An "I'm sorry—I was wrong" doesn't earn an "I forgive you." But I still need to be forgiven. I need it from God, from my family, from everyone around me. I haven't earned it, but I need it.

It may be a while before Michael Vick earns your trust (and mine, to be honest). I think he's taking the right steps, putting the right people in his life. He's got a ways to go. But as far as earning a second chance, that will never happen. He won't earn that. He needs one, though. He needs one as much as you and I and Bill Smith do. I hope he takes the gift God offers. I hope we see the evidence of it in his life. Just as I hope I see that same evidence in my own life.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

What I Wish for the Word of Faith Movement

I've blogged about some elements of the Word of Faith movement at times, so you know that I'm somewhat familiar with it.

Actually, I'm more than "somewhat familiar." I'm "Once bit, twice shy." And that's a problem. It's not an unusual problem; but it's a problem.

The posts that have gotten the most comments have dealt with "prosperity gospel" preaching, or some other aspect of WoF teachings (like, say, ecclesiology—as in "5-fold ministry"). Seems there are a few other folks with burnt fingers out there. You have my sympathies.

A little history here: I was in my mid-20s when a friend invited me to a small country church. It was different from the traditional Pentecostal churches I'd been raised in (by the way, “Pentecostal" does not mean "Word of Faith"). The style of worship was similar, but the preaching had a different slant. There was lots of prophecy, and prayer lines formed after every evening service. The churches I had gone to didn't usually have prayer lines. Altar calls, yes. Not prayer lines.

I stayed in that church. Made friends. Got the chance to preach. Got married. And through a series of setbacks, became disillusioned. When I left after about 10 years, I told my wife that I felt as if the rug had been pulled out from under my life. I would have left Christianity altogether, I said, except that I felt like Peter: "Where else will we go, Lord? Only you have the words of eternal life."

So, like thousands, I've seen the dark side of the Word of Faith message. Some friends from that church have been burned worse than I; one carries wounds to this day, though he's in the ministry himself—as a Baptist, not as a Pentecostal.

But I see the possibilities in the Word of Faith message. I wish the critics of the message could see that. I wish, for that matter, that most "Faith" preachers could see the possibilities. Not financial possibilities. That's where the message is, at the least, erroneous if not downright heretical (are you reading this, Paula White?). Twisting the Gospel into a message and a means of profit is simply fleshly, and it goes against the Gospel. You know--as in, "the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches." And touting a "special offering" or "special gift" as a means of entry into the presence of God (as I once heard the aforementioned P. White do) means that we don't really trust in Christ alone as our Priest, though Scripture plainly tells us that it is through Christ, and Christ alone, that we come into the presence of God.

But here's what I see: The Word of Faith message, if it were rightly and biblically applied, would be one of the greatest tools for transformation (both personal and corporate) in history. It returns us to a confession of the Scriptures, emphasizing the importance of the spoken word to believers.

This might seem silly or superstitious; the idea that we speak things into being, the twist that Word-of-Faith folks put on confessions, is frankly heretical. In the New Testament, the “confession of faith” is not on “speaking forth that which is not” but rather on speaking forth our faith in Jesus Christ. Confession brings salvation, not riches or healing or blessing. Any confession that is me-centered is heretical. Confession is meant to declare who Jesus is, and faith is about receiving what Jesus has provided.

Here’s my prescription:

  1. Repent of the greed. There’s no other word for turning the promises of the New Testament into selfish “gimme” prayers.
  2. Repent of the individualistic focus. In the Old and New Testaments, blessing is by and large corporate and not individual. Even the “blessing of Abraham” is corporate: It’s for an entire nation that will come from him, and the New Testament shows that nation is the gathering of people who confess Christ as Lord.
  3. Make confession about Christ, and emphasize transformation. We are not who we once were, and the Word of Faith people have a better grasp of this than the Reformed folks do (though I think the Orthodox, with their emphasis on theosis, might have a better grasp yet). I mean that Reformed theology says, in effect, that God plays something of a word-game. We are righteous because God declares us righteous; yet, in fact, we sin because we are still sinners. This leads to the slogan that we’re “sinners saved by grace.” The truth is that we are former sinners transformed into saints by the Spirit who lives in us. We have taken on a new nature, not just a new label (yes, this is an over-simplification, but I hope it makes the point).
  4. Stop excusing liars. If Apostle X and Prophet Y and Bishop Z have dynamic ministries but live large on the Gospel, they are hirelings and are fleecing the flock. It does not matter what gifts they display or how many folks say they've been healed or "touched" at so-and-so's meetings. "Word" people need to hold "Word" leaders to account for holy living. Jesus himself told the parable: "Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do mighty works in your name?" His reply: "I never knew you. Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness" (Matthew 7:22, 23).

I love what the Word of Faith movement could be. I love the idea of a proclamation of the Gospel that leads to uncompromising, transformed lives—of people filled with the power of God's Spirit who can turn the world upside down for God. What if God's people turned into a "can-do" people who saw their mission not as getting rich but as living holy lives, and discipling the whole world?