Cross or Resurrection 2: Greater than John the Baptist

This is a continuation of the series starting with Cross or Resurrection 1: Which is Determinative? Sorry this has taken some time to appear.

A Mandaean baptismI was interested to read a news article, linked to by Joel Watts, about Mandaeans who have found refuge in the USA. It seems that the little known religion of Mandaeism, until recently most widespread in Iraq, is now flourishing in a small way in Massachusetts. The chief prophet of their religion is none other than John the Baptist, and they practice baptism, weekly in rivers. However, they reject Jesus as a false Messiah, and the Holy Spirit as an evil being. Mandaeism in fact seems to be a surviving Gnostic sect with its roots in the early centuries AD.

Already in the time and region of Paul’s journeys related in the book of Acts there seem to have been widespread groups of “disciples” who “knew only the baptism of John”, among them Apollos (Acts 18:24-25) and a group Paul met in Ephesus (19:1-6). These were not Mandaeans, as Apollos already knew about Jesus, and the Ephesus group were quick to listen to Paul’s teaching about him and accept the Holy Spirit. But it is not fanciful to see a real continuity between those among these groups who never accepted the Christian gospel and the modern Mandaeans.

So what can we say about followers of John the Baptist, in ancient times and today? Jesus’ commendation of John had something of a sting in the tail:

Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Matthew 11:11 (NIV)

So, for Jesus, John is greater even than the Old Testament saints, but he is still outside the kingdom of God. And I would suppose that Jesus would say the same about his followers, those who only know his baptism, whether ancient “disciples” or modern Mandaeans. Indeed that seems to have been Paul’s understanding, for he baptised the “disciples” again, this time in the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 19:5). It was only after that that the Holy Spirit came on them, with gifts indicating that the kingdom of God was breaking into their lives.

The baptism of John was for repentance, as he declared himself; indeed he recognised that Jesus would bring a greater baptism, “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11). Christian baptism is far more than just a sign of repentance: it is a sign of death and resurrection, as Paul explained:

We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

Romans 6:4 (NIV)

The ancient Jews offered regular sacrifices and sin offerings as a sign of their repentance. But these animal sacrifices had no power to change them:

The law … can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. 2 Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. 3 But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. 4 It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

Hebrews 10:1-4 (NIV)

Similarly, baptism for repentance has no power to change those who repent, if they do not go on to accept the message of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Mandaeans clearly do not believe that through being baptised once they have been “cleansed once for all”, as they undergo baptism as a weekly ritual.

Sadly we see the same attitude in many of our Christian churches. Roman Catholics are encouraged to confess their sins regularly to a priest in private. Anglican worshippers, among others, are expected to repeat at least every week words such as the following, from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer liturgy for The Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion:

We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we from time to time most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.

When the priest offers the absolution, they believe that their past sins have been forgiven – but also that they are expected to continue to sin, so they have something to confess the next Sunday. Clearly this kind of repeated ritual is no more effective than Old Testament sacrifices or Mandaean baptisms, as it cannot “make perfect those who draw near to worship”.

The biblical picture of the true Christian believer is very different:

No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God.

1 John 3:9 (NIV)

John Meunier offers an interesting discussion of this verse and how it was understood by John Wesley – not, as I expected, as the basis of his controversial teaching on sinless perfection. Indeed, as the apostle John writes earlier in the same letter, we should not claim to be sinless and perfect:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.

1 John 1:8-10 (NIV)

But note those words “purify us from all unrighteousness”. Neither animal sacrifices nor repeated baptisms can do this. Nor can a declaration of forgiveness which comes with an expectation that more sins will follow. The Cross of Christ can bring forgiveness of sins, but apart from the Resurrection the only righteousness it can bring is that of death, of someone who cannot sin because they are dead. As John the apostle writes, a person can live a righteous life if and only if they are born again of God, if the life of the risen Jesus is within them.

So if we live by the Cross without the Resurrection, we are no better off than John the Baptist, forgiven our sins but still outside the kingdom of God. But if we leave our expectation of continuing to sin at the Cross and move on to take hold of the life of the risen Jesus, the kingdom of God is within and among us, and we can bring it to the world around.

Continued in Cross or Resurrection 3: What about Jesus’ life? See also Cross or Resurrection 2a: Stop confessing your sins!

 

So what is the central message of the Bible?

Yesterday, in my post No, Mr C, that’s not the central message of the Bible, I wrote that Prime Minister David Cameron doesn’t seem to know what that central message is. But I made no attempt to state what I think it is. So it is with good reason that Archdruid Eileen, in her own post The Central Message of the Bible, asks:

But if some nice words about being good aren’t the central message of the Bible, what is? Is there a central message at all?

A family Bible from 1859Now those are very good questions, especially the second one. Does the Bible have a central message? Or is it just a collection of different documents each with their own central message? It certainly is such a collection. But it is not a random collection: the books were chosen, under God’s providence, to convey an overall message, the story of God’s dealings with humanity from the beginning to the coming end. And this message, as it is a coherent one, can be summarised and its central point can be found.

So what is this central message? The Bible does include the words which Cameron chose to write out, and also some rather different sentiments which the Archdruid notes. How can we say which, if any, of these are central? I suppose that is a matter for literary analysis, a subject in which I would not consider myself an expert. But I can still offer my tentative opinion. And this is based on the idea that the focal point of a narrative is usually not at the centre but towards the end, after an extended build-up, but also not at the very end because there is usually some kind of epilogue.

On that basis, the focus of the Bible is not on the Old Testament, which is an extended build-up, but also not in the latter parts of the New Testament. That tends to suggest that it can be found in the four gospels. Then within each of these gospels we can look for the central message. Each of them (at least if we include the longer ending of Mark) consists of a long build-up and a short epilogue, and in the focal position there are two climactic events, the crucifixion and the resurrection.

Is one of these two more central than the other? Well, that is the point of the series which I recently started, and intend to continue, Cross or Resurrection. So here I will only give a sneak preview of the conclusions I expect to reach in that series, that these two are equal in importance, in the Bible as well as in the Christian life.

I note also what the Apostle Paul considered too be “of first importance”, with the cross and the resurrection given equal place:

that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.

1 Corinthians 15:3-5 (NIV)

So, I would conclude that the central message of the Bible is very simple: Jesus was put to death on the cross and rose again from the dead.

No, Mr C, that's not the central message of the Bible

As the Guardian reports, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has contributed to the People’s Bible project, a copy of the King James Version handwritten by celebrities and ordinary people. Thanks for the link to David Keen on Twitter.

David Cameron at his home in OxfordshireApparently the PM ignored his office’s suggestions and chose his own verses to write. And this was his choice:

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. 9Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.

Philippians 4:8-9 (KJV)

Now these are good sentiments for a top politician, who should hopefully not just “think on these things” but also put them into practice. But I am concerned by the following words, a spokesman’s explanation of Cameron’s choices:

The reason he chose those verses is because he’s always liked them.

They contain the central message of the Bible about leading good lives and helping each other as best we can. There is no hidden meaning and I wouldn’t read between the lines.

No, Mr Cameron, that is not the central message of the Bible. So if this is really the whole reason why you chose these verses, then you clearly don’t have much understanding of the Scriptures.

This morning I read this on Google+:

To most Christians, the bible is like a software license. Nobody actually reads it. They just scroll to the bottom and click “I agree.”

It seems as if, apart from a few favourite verses, that is what the Bible is to David Cameron. Without a firm scriptural foundation it is no wonder that his Christian faith, in his own words, “sort of comes and goes”.

But if Bible believing Christians keep out of politics, from fear of “dominionism” or compromise, then of course we can’t expect any better of those do who find their way into high office.

St Martin, Soldier and Conscientious Objector

Statue of Saint Martin cutting his cloak in two, above the gate of Höchst CastleToday, on both sides of the Atlantic, we mark 11.11.11, Armistice Day (now known as Veterans Day in the USA), and also, as Shane Claiborne reminds us, the feast of St Martin of Tours (316-397). Claiborne marks the day by sharing the testimony of a modern equivalent of Martin, a soldier who became a Christian and chose not to fight any more. He writes:

As the son of a Vietnam veteran who died when I was 9, I can’t imagine a better way to honor the soldiers and veterans today than by sharing Logan’s testimony …

The testimony ends:

Let us follow this subversive centurion in the way of Jesus, our ultimate Commander and the last, best hope for human kind. There is an entire guild of contemporary centurions marching to the beat of a different drummer, a Prince that grants peace nothing like that of Rome. War has been conquered, it is over, if we want it…

Meanwhile Jim West quotes Erasmus, from his book Against War – I have updated the English:

Where is the kingdom of the devil, if it is not in war? Why do we draw Christ into war, when a brothel suits him more than war? St Paul says that it is wrong for there to be any disagreement between Christian people so great that they would need a judge to mediate between them. What if he were to come and see us now, making war all round the world for minor and trivial reasons, fighting more cruelly than any heathen or barbarous people?

So today, let us remember those who have lost life or limb fighting other people’s battles, often without caring or even knowing what cause they are fighting for. But let us also carefully avoid glorifying war or presenting it as God’s will. And above all keep out of the trap of expecting God to be fighting on your side and against your enemies. If you are not sure why this is important, read, as conveniently posted at Experimental Theology, Mark Twain’s short story The War Prayer.

Cross or Resurrection 1: Which is Determinative?

J.R. Daniel KirkJ.R. Daniel Kirk (no relation of mine) opened up an interesting discussion with his post Resonate: Matthew (Ch. 11), a review of part of Matt Woodley’s book in the Resonate series The Gospel of Matthew: God with Us. Daniel wrote:

The first section of the commentary on ch. 11 contrasts the prosperity gospel of health, wealth, and happiness with the story of John the Baptist. …

If John is any indication, life in the kingdom is not about seeing fortune and glory here and now. It is as much or more about crucifixion.

To this I responded in a comment:

Well, surely an exegete of Matthew 11 should have avoided suggesting that “John is any indication” concerning “life in the kingdom”. Verse 11 makes it clear that John was NOT in the kingdom. That doesn’t justify the prosperity gospel, but it does invalidate some of the criticisms of it.

Daniel replied with a comment which ended:

There’s a sense in which resurrection might make good on many this-worldly blessings such as the prosperity gospel indicates, but not in this life. I’m all for resurrection, but the cross is determinative here.

I took strong objection to this claim that “in this life … the cross is determinative”. In response to my comments and some others, Daniel wrote a further post In Hope. Now I can agree with much of this post, such as:

There is a “both/and” here, in that believers in the NT are living under the reign of the resurrected Christ, and have the power and mandate to take hold of the future that is ours and bring it to bear on the present. Romans 6, despite its future tense verbs, implores those who are in Christ to “present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead” (Rom 6:13).

So resurrection power and reality intrudes on the present by the power of the Spirit.

However, the focus of this power is the ability to walk in righteousness, an act that is itself a putting to death the deeds of the body.

He is also right to point out the triumphalistic errors of the Corinthians, who claimed in effect that only the Resurrection, not the Cross, was determinative for their Christian life. But, it seems to me, he falls into the opposite error when he makes the Cross determinative, and allows us now no more than “glimpses” of the Resurrection:

The cross of Christ, lived out among Jesus’ followers, brings about glimpses of what will be.

This theme in fact ties up with some others which I have already been looking at on this blog, and with yet others which I have been thinking about. So I will post the above as the introduction to a series, in the course of which I will seek to justify my rejection of Daniel’s position and present my own, more balanced and hopefully also more biblical, view of the relative importance of the Cross and the Resurrection in the Christian life.

Continued in:

"In The Beginning": a section heading?

John H. WaltonIn his book Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology John H. Walton, as quoted by James Spinti, offers an interesting interpretation of the very first word of the Hebrew Bible, bereshit, generally translated “In the beginning”. Walton links this with the word toledot, usually rendered “generations” but perhaps meaning more like “story”:

bĕrēʾšît is a strikingly appropriate term to introduce a sequence that will be carried on by the tôlĕdôt transitions. It marks the very first period, with the tôlĕdôt phrases introducing each of the successive periods. If this be the case, the book would now have 12 formally marked sections (a number that is much more logical than 11). If the bĕrēʾšît clause is a marker comparable to the tôlĕdôt clauses, it could easily be seen as functioning in an independent clause, just like the tôlĕdôt clauses. The conclusion then is that it is an independent clause that functions as a literary marker to introduce the seven-day account, just as the tôlĕdôt phrase is a literary marker that introduces the passage that follows.

In other words, the suggestion is that Genesis can be divided into twelve sections, a symbolically significant number. And if bereshit is “an independent clause that functions as a literary marker”, it is not a part of the sentence “God created the heavens and the earth” but more like a section heading.

If this is true, Genesis should be divided not into the fifty chapters in our regular Bibles but into twelve chapters of uneven length, with the following titles (regular English chapter and verse references in parentheses):

  1. In the beginning (1:1-2:3)
  2. The story of the heavens and the earth (2:4-4:26)
  3. The story of Adam (5:1-6:8)
  4. The story of Noah (6:9-9:29)
  5. The story of the sons of Noah (10:1-11:9)
  6. The story of Shem (11:10-26)
  7. The story of Terah (11:27-25:11)
  8. The story of Ishmael (25:12-18)
  9. The story of Isaac (25:19-35:29)
  10. The story of Esau (36:1-8)
  11. The story of Esau (36:9-37:1)
  12. The story of Jacob (37:2-50:26)

In each case, it should be noted, the story of an individual (male in every case) includes the stories of his family during his lifetime, while he was head of the clan. In many cases the story concludes with the man’s death. But it is unclear why there is no separate story of Abraham, starting after the account of his father’s death 11:32 – nor why there are two separate stories of Esau. Nevertheless this kind of analysis of the book should be helpful for readers.

The more profound implication of this analysis is that it offers a third interpretation of the first verse of the Bible, to put alongside “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (NIV etc) and “When God began to create the heavens and the earth” (CEB etc). We could almost translate as follows:

Chapter One

God created the heavens and the earth.

Lance Wallnau on Occupy Wall Street #OWS

Lance WallnauLance Wallnau has just released a new video (21 minutes) on the front page of his website, entitled Seize This Moment in Time. In this video he touches on the Occupy Wall Street situation, while also sketching and referring to his Seven Mountains picture. Here is my transcript (slightly tidied up) of the relevant part of the video (starting at 18:13):

This is the reason why when I started looking at social transformation, and I became frankly fatigued with the realisation that most believers still don’t have a handle on how it happens. Well, you just take a look at what’s going on with the Occupy Wall Street situation. What you have is you have the government creating policies that help to produce a problem in the mortgage market. You have them doing it and then you’ve got the business mountain over here and the banking and the Wall Street deal over here. These business guys fund the politicians. The politicians are helping make these people money.

You know, the people in the streets are actually picking up with a sense of outrage that there is an element of dysfunctional self-interest going on. Where? In the high places of these systems that it’s in a sense taking the rest of the country for a ride it should not be on, over a precipice, a financial collapse.

But we that are the believers have to be able to pray for government and pray for business and start to raise up champions in these areas who can begin to influence these systems, because over here in the church realm, if you’re going to be in the church, in the religion compartment over here, and you do not raise up believers that are in proximity to the tops of these systems, then you wrap these systems up and you give them to the enemy. This is what I have been saying for years.

But never before have I seen so conspicuously the power of media. Now look at this. Government, politicians that are even capitalising on economic unrest, media which is capitalising on the opportunity to get viewership over the phenomena, and economics which is the issue of where our whole system is going – where those three come together, government, media and business, you have the tipping point of the entire dialogue going on in our country right now. Media has the spin control, economic engines are the issue, and government is the legislating player that is trying to capitalise on it.

I say it is time more than ever for believers to get together here and start invading all seven [mountains]. I say take all seven into a new realm, because we are in those mountains, it is time to mobilise and go up those mountains.

Is this “dominionism”? Well, it is certainly better than when “you wrap these systems up and you give them to the enemy”. His final point here is an important one: as Christians we are already in the mountains, because we are in the world. God has sent us into the world, and we shouldn’t seek to be taken out of it, but to be protected in it (John 17:15,18). So it cannot be wrong for us to seek to succeed, to climb to the top, on whichever mountain God has placed us on.

Packer: "A totally impassive God would be a horror"

J.I. PackerFollowing the death of John Stott, J.I. Packer is surely now the unchallenged elder statesman of Anglican* evangelicalism. He is a special hero among the “Reformed” Calvinists, whether Anglican or not. But is he in fact a Calvinist? Or is he more an Open Theist?

According to traditional Christian theology, one of the key characteristics of God is that he is “impassible”, i.e. he “does not experience pain or pleasure from the actions of another being”. This view has its origin more in Neo-Platonism that in biblical teaching, but came to dominate Christian thinking through the influence of Augustine. The Reformers such as Luther and Calvin took on this idea, and it has become enshrined in “Reformed” theology through doctrinal statements such as the Thirty-Nine Articles (1562) and the Westminster Confession (1646), which both describe God as “without body, parts, or passions”.

Most of today’s “Reformed” Calvinists would follow their heroes and their confessions and teach that God is impassible. But in recent years many other theologians, evangelicals among them, have challenged this doctrine. Some of those making this challenge are associated with Open Theism, a teaching which is anathema to Calvinists.

It is in this context that Roger Olson has had some interesting things to say about Packer.

A few days ago Olson quoted Packer as writing that “Arminianism is an intellectual sin”, and so writing off Olson, and myself, as sinners. Ironically Packer justifies his position by quoting the Arminian Charles Wesley. But this is from something which Packer wrote in about 1958, and so may not represent his current views.

Today Olson shows he bears no grudge for being called a sinner by posting And now…kudos to J. I. Packer for this brilliant article, about a 1986 article in Christianity Today. It is this article which is relevant to the impassibility debate, because in it Packer seems to reject this doctrine, at least in its classical form. Olson quotes him:

Let us be clear: A totally impassive God would be a horror, and not the God of Calvary at all.  He might belong in Islam; he has no place in Christianity.  If, therefore, we can learn to think of the chosenness of God’s grief and pain as the essence of his impassibility, so-called, we will do well.

In other words, Packer agrees with the biblical text that God suffers grief and pain, and tries to turn the definition of “impassibility” on it head. In doing so he goes not only against Islam but also against the Westminster Confession, and against the Thirty-Nine Articles of his own orthodox Anglicanism. Olson comments,

In fact, I believe IF that article were to be published today WITHOUT the author’s identity attached, many conservative evangelicals would assume it was written by an open theist or a “leftwing evangelical” and attack it as dangerous.

Personally, I do not see how the article’s central thrust can be reconciled with classical Calvinism. … Classical Calvinism is closely tied to classical theism.  It certainly does not believe that God can change his mind or “make new decisions as he reacts to human doings.”

So what can we conclude? Is Packer’s thinking inconsistent? I suspect not in quite the same way that Olson claims. Clearly the mature Packer of 1986 is not the same as the young Packer of 1958. But even while misrepresenting Arminianism in 1958 he could agree with the Arminian Wesley that a key effect of God’s grace is “my heart was free”. And by 1986 his position seems to have embraced much more freedom and openness than classical Calvinism would seem to allow.

Packer is a hero of “Reformed” Calvinists worldwide. No doubt he would still reject with horror any suggestion that he might be an Arminian or an Open Theist. But what he has written seems to put his current position closer to Arminianism and Open Theism than to Calvinism. It is also further from Neo-Platonism and closer to biblical Christianity.

* Packer is apparently still an Anglican, despite leaving the official Anglican Church of Canada in 2008. The church where he is Honorary Assistant Minister, now known as St John’s Vancouver Anglican Church and meeting at a new location, states that “We remain in communion with the greater part of the worldwide Anglican Communion through the auspices of the Anglican Network in Canada.”

Is God Holy? Not the Beginning of the Gospel

A few weeks ago in a blog comment a certain DJ wrote:

How is the point of the bible not Gods holiness??

In a follow-up comment, responding to me, he or she wrote:

I’m sorry but if you think Gods attribute for love is greater than his attribute for holiness open up your bible read it and repent because THAT is nothing but heresy.

Could DJ be right? Well, possibly if his or her Bible consists only of the Old Testament. But if he or she is a New Testament believer, then the facts are clearly against DJ, as shown by a quick look through a New Testament concordance. The main word group meaning “holy”, hagios and its cognates, is used about 188 times, excluding the phrase “Holy Spirit”; of those only about 11 refer to God the Father (including three in Revelation 4:8) and about 14 to Jesus Christ. Another word group hosios is used about 13 times, but only twice of God the Father and four times of Jesus Christ. The vast majority of the uses of both word groups refers to holy people, as individuals or as a group.

Perhaps most tellingly, the only place in the teaching of Jesus where either “holy” word group is used of the Father is in the Lord’s Prayer, where the verb is usually rendered “hallowed” (Matthew 6:9 || Luke 11:2). The only other apostolic teaching focusing on the holiness of God is in 1 Peter 1:15-16, where the apostle expounds the Old Testament passage “Be holy, because I am holy”.

So it was interesting to see Scot McKnight tackling this same issue in his post today Gospel and Rhetoric. Scot asks (his emphasis):

How do we “present” or “explain” or “preach” the gospel? Where do we begin? Do we begin with God as utterly holy and perfect and demanding total perfection to enter into his presence? [By the way, a Reformed theologian told me the other day he doesn’t believe this is taught in the Bible.] Or do we begin with God’s love? Or where do we begin?

The Torn VeilWell, the Reformed theologian is right, at least concerning the New Testament. There is no sign there of “God as utterly holy and perfect and demanding total perfection to enter into his presence”. I can see where the idea might be found in the Old Testament, e.g. Psalm 24:3-4 and Isaiah 6:5. But the picture we see in the New Testament is quite different: the way into God’s presence has been opened up, the veil of the temple has been torn from top to bottom, and holiness is no longer a condition for drawing near to him.

By contrast, the New Testament refers, using the agape and philia word groups, to the love of God the Father for humanity more than 30 times, and to the love of Jesus for humanity about 40 times. The picture is clear: at least under the new covenant, God’s love is a far more prominent characteristic than his holiness.

Yes, God is holy. The Bible clearly teaches us that. But it is only a minor theme, at least in the New Testament. Far more central to its teaching is that God is love, and that out of that love he gave us his Son so that his demand for holiness need no longer be a barrier to people coming into his presence and enjoying the fullness of life which he offers.

So why do so many preachers continue to present the holiness of God as the starting point of the gospel? Is it because their theology is that distorted and their concept of the gospel is that narrow? Perhaps this is true of some, like DJ. Or is it, as McKnight suggests, that they can turn this message into a powerful rhetorical device? Maybe, but I think that device is losing its effectiveness. Frightening people into committing their lives to Christ still works with some of them. But probably more widely effective these days is the kind of positive feel-good message and rhetoric associated with Joel Osteen and with prosperity gospel preachers. However, what McKnight says about the former applies equally to the latter:

this rhetorical bundling into what some call the gospel is designed to be a species of what I am calling persuasive rhetoric, at times (but not always) even emotionally manipulative rhetoric. Sometimes, sadly, it seems aimed at precipitating an intense experience. … One reason so many make decisions and don’t follow through is because the rhetoric was aimed at an insufficient response and appealed to a decision on the basis of an emotional story.

In either case some of those who make decisions for Christ continue into discipleship classes where they receive further and hopefully better balanced teaching, and go on to a mature Christian faith. But sadly very many of those who respond, if they don’t fall away, continue to let their ears be tickled by the same kind of basic preaching which first grabbed their attention but fail to move beyond it.

So McKnight argues that we need to preach “the original apostolic “rhetoric” [which] was declarative in shape instead of this kind of persuasive rhetoric. … It called people to respond, but it was not shaped to create that response. It was shaped to tell us something compelling about Jesus and they trusted the power of God’s Spirit to awaken people”. He concludes:

Many evangelists don’t trust the message so they resort to rhetorical bundles aimed at precipitating responses, which they can do but which will not very often stick. The music played during an invitation is a tip-off, don’t you think? We need to learn to trust the sheer power and glory of the good news that Jesus himself is, and we need to learn to step back and wait on God to attend and to act and get our own persuasive rhetoric out of the equation.

We are on the threshold of a new kind of evangelism, a kind that is consistent with how Jesus, Peter and Paul “gospeled.”

Joel Osteen: human but not a false prophet

The sidebar of Joel Watts’ blog Unsettled Christianity currently lists as “False Prophets” about a dozen named Christian leaders, along with some Christian ministries and some less Christian ones. Among those named as false prophets are Rick Warren and Joel Osteen. And that is typical of the kind of criticism which many Christians routinely heap on well known megachurch leaders like these two, often without any real basis in fact. I can’t help suggesting that the reason for much of the criticism is jealousy of their success.

Joel OsteenSo it was interesting to read the post by Gez today on that same blog Philip Wagner defends Joel Osteen, with a long quotation from Wagner giving an essentially positive picture of Osteen and his church, including the following:

Joel does not teach classes on theology, the differences of Mormonism and Christianity or a thorough presentation of the foundational beliefs of Christianity. He’s a pastor with an evangelism gift.

Pastors at Joel Osteen’s church, Lakewood Church, disciple people, teach doctrinal truths of the Bible and train people for ministry. They teach people truth from error.

Indeed. The substance of most criticisms of the much maligned Osteen, apart from that he has enviably good teeth, is that his teaching is weak. Yes, perhaps it is, because his ministry is not that of a teacher. He is primarily an evangelist. Those who become Christians through his church and ministry then receive good teaching.

Philip Wagner, whose post Gez quotes, has a lot more to say about criticism of Osteen in his post What’s the Problem with Joel Osteen? He notes how “a well-known pastor in Seattle” (he means Mark Driscoll) used YouTube to “tear Joel apart” for “what he did not say” – the reference is probably to the same video that I discussed here in 2007, when I was perhaps trying to be more conciliatory than I am now. Wagner also writes:

Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion – even if it is ill informed.
The disappointing thing to me is that Christian leaders speak out publically against Joel and thereby encouraging other Christians not to respect him or to doubt his authenticity.  They feel the liberty to publically attack those whom they don’t really understand or know.   It’s embarrassing.

As a Christian, I’m discouraged by the behavior of leaders who criticize, attack or diminish the significance of other Christian ministers. 

This behavior and attitude is why many people do not want to be a part of Christianity or go to church because they feel that when they go to church they will be criticized the way our leaders do to each other.

For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself” 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.  Gal 5:14-15 NIV

I believe the main thing leaders should be “called out for” is the arrogance and the divisive example they promote by publically dismissing the relevance of another person’s ministry.

Have these very public leaders, who take the liberty to bring these unfair assessments of Joel Osteen, spoken to him or one of his pastors in private about their concerns?

I may be wrong – but I don’t think they have.

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you.  Matthew 18:15 NIV

Now Joel Osteen is not perfect. After all, he is human. I happen to think that his remarks about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism were unfortunate, although that could be because they were reported out of context.

I also think Philip Wagner is wrong about this: it is a major election issue, because many evangelical Christians will not vote for Mitt Romney simply because he is a Mormon.

Nevertheless this does not warrant Osteen being demonised in the way that he has been by so many Christians. He may be a flawed prophet, but that is not the same thing as a false prophet.

So, Joel Watts, please can you now take the lead of your friend Gez and remove from your sidebar the accusation that Osteen and other respected Christian leaders are “false prophets”. I don’t expect you to take down old posts, but I would like to see a new post expressing your regret for what you have written about these people in the past.

And please can that be an example to other Christian bloggers, and writers in other media, who are bringing the Christian faith into disrepute by their often ill-informed mud-slinging.