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:
- Who is speaking, and to what audience?
- What exactly is being said?
- What did it mean for them then?
- 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.