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June 11, 2014

There was a day when one of my fashion accessories talked back. It told me to take a hike. I had said something about it on Facebook or Twitter or snapped a picture of it for Instagram and it was none too pleased. It said it to me nicely enough, but the point was clear: cut it out.

I’ve been learning social media as I go. We all have. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all the rest have added something new, something original, to the human experience. We are adapting as we go, learning how to use these things well and learning how not to use them badly. We learn by success and by failure. But we do learn over time. At least I hope we do.

When my children were young and very young, I enjoyed telling people about them through these social media channels. I enjoyed sharing their quirks and foibles, their little triumphs and their little follies. Sometimes I wrote about them and sometimes I snapped pictures of them. It was harmless, I thought. And mostly it was.

But I see it now: Some of these photos weren’t for you or for them—they were for me. My kids were accessories to me, a way of making me look good in your eyes or making me feel good about myself. I would only share the details of their lives and times that helped me in some way. I was using my kids as a kind of fashion accessory, what the dictionary defines as “a thing that can be added to something else in order to make it more useful, versatile, or attractive.” That was it! I was using my kids to somehow make myself more attractive. It was all about me.

But then that day came when I said something about one of them—nothing terrible, nothing humiliating, but something that would have been better to keep quiet. Later that day we went to church and someone brought it up. “Hey, your dad said on Twitter that …” or “I saw that Instragram of you in the …” Embarrassment ensued. Awkwardness. And later, a plea to dad to cut it out, to not use social media in this way again.

And it was then that I realized I had been treating my children as just an extension of myself. When they were babies it was easy enough to tell people about them, knowing they would never know or care what I said or who knew. But then they got a little bit older, and then a lot older. They made a transition into maturity and independence. They didn’t want to be my accessory anymore, to have me publicize what they had said or what they had done. And it was no longer fair of me to treat them that way. It’s not that I can’t say anything about them or share a picture of them, but that at some point it is only fair to ask their permission, to let them in on it, to make them equals, not accessories.

Parents, have an exit plan. Make the transition before they need to beg you to. We love to see pictures of your baby when he is born. We love to see pictures of your daughter when she takes her first steps. We love to hear about the ridiculous things they say when learning to form words and thoughts and ideas. But at some time they will be their own people and those cute things will become private things. Those cute pictures will be family pictures. At some point your kids may no longer find it fun.

June 10, 2014

Last weekend I was a guest on Up for Debate on Moody Radio where we discussed whether or not Christian parents should send their children to public schools. I am not opposed to homeschooling or Christian schooling—not even a little bit—but do maintain that public schooling may also be a legitimate option for Christian families, and this is the perspective they asked me to represent. It is quite a controversial position in parts of the Christian world today.

As I prepared for the show I went back through my archives to find what I had written on the subject in the past. I found that I first wrote about it around eight years ago when my son was in first grade. Well, he is now just days away from his eighth grade graduation and this seems like an opportune time to revisit the subject and to ask, What have we learned in ten years of public schooling (which includes two years of kindergarten)? I spoke to Aileen and together we jotted down a bit of what we’ve learned from having three children in public schools. Here are ten lessons from ten years of public schooling.

1. Develop and Deepen Convictions

I often find that parents who put their children in public school are represented as being without convictions while parents who homeschool or who enroll their children in Christian schools are the ones with strong convictions. Admittedly, that is sometimes the case and if you are a person without convictions it is unlikely that you are homeschooling. But before Aileen and I put our children in school we developed and deepened our convictions about public schooling and these convictions allowed us to enroll our children with confidence and to keep them there with confidence. At the same time we have regularly revisited the subject to ensure that we have not grown complacent but are still following conviction. My encouragement to any parent considering any of the educational options is to develop and to deepen Bible-based convictions, and then to respond charitably to those whose convictions differ from your own.

2. It Is Possible

There is a lot of fear involved in parenting. There is an extra measure of fear in public schooling, and especially so when so many Christians warn of all you stand to lose if you allow your children to attend them. The gentlemen who represented homeschooling on the radio last weekend said he had statistics to prove that something like 83% of all Christian children who go to public school end up forsaking a Christian worldview. That is a scary statistic, though I am far from convinced it is accurate, at least when it comes to families who are Christian in more than name. By the grace of God, the last eight years have not ruined or harmed our children, at least as far as we can tell. I will grant that they are still quite young and have lots of growing up to do, but when we evaluate, we do not believe we made a bad decision all those years ago. We made that decision in light of biblical convictions, and we believe our experience has validated those convictions.

3. The Family Goes to Public School

The third lesson is this: You do not send your children to public school—you send your family. What I mean is that public schooling requires the participation of the parents which, in our experience, is something the school values just as much as we do. We have attempted to remain involved with the school and with its teachers. This means that my wife volunteers and spends at least one morning a week in the school and that both of us volunteer to go on class trips. Not only that, but we attempt to get to know our kids’ teachers and to interact with them through the year. They appreciate our involvement and we appreciate their support. This was one of our big takeaways from the excellent book Going Public.

4. Don’t Send Your Kids As Evangelists

One of the common reasons people send their children to public school is to allow them to be salt and light among their fellow students. However, this is a heavy burden to place on young children, and especially young children who are not yet believers. Children are not born believers and, therefore, cannot be expected to be evangelists until they are converted. We never placed that responsibility on their shoulders. (With all of that said, we have found that as our children show an interest in the gospel and become believers, they naturally become evangelists as well. As our kids have grown, they have had many excellent conversations with their fellow students and our kids have pillaged the house for Bibles to give away at school.)

5. Be Open To Alternatives

Aileen and I heed the old mantra, “A kid at a time, a school at a time, a year at a time.” We are not public schoolers by blind ideology and feel very willing to explore alternatives if and when it seems a wise course of action. My son’s graduation to high school has given us good reason to explore all the alternatives once more and we find ourselves seriously considering Christian high school. We public school best when we are willing to not public school.

June 02, 2014

As Christians we have the great privilege of knowing that God speaks to us through his Word, the Bible. There is no other book like it—no other book that rewards us with God’s own words. But to know what God says to us, and how God means for us to live, we need to do a little bit of work. Every Christian, and every preacher in particular, has to go from the text to today. We all wonder, “But what does this mean to me?” or “What does this mean to my congregation?”

Every word of the Bible was written at a certain time and in a certain context. Even the most recent of those times and the nearest of those contexts is at a great distance from us in time and space. Thus, when we read the Bible, we have to determine how those words apply to us today in our very different times and very different contexts. It is not always a simple task.

TTTT1We have all seen situations—and many of us have caused situations—where we have been sloppy in going from the text to today. The young man who marches three times around a young woman and waits for her walls of romantic resistance to crumble is not properly understanding how to go from the text to today. Similarly, the muscleman who tears a phone book in half while quoting, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” is not properly accounting for the context of that verse. (Here is another example of a tricky text.)

There are different ways Christians attempt to get from the text to today in ways that are faithful and accurate. I’m going to borrow from my friend James Seward and display one of these ways with a triangle that has four T’s on it. Look at figure 1 and you’ll see it: One triangle, three corners, four T’s.

TTTT2We will begin with the right side of the triangle. Let’s let the top corner represent our text—any text within the Bible. The bottom-right corner will represent today. You can see this in figure 2. What we are prone to do is to hurry our way from the text to today, just like that young man and that muscleman. We underestimate or under-appreciate our cultural and chronological distance from the text and are too quick to assume we know how to apply the text to our lives today. We sometimes get it right, but often we do not. Every Christian acknowledges this as a potential problem and different traditions attempt to deal with it in different ways.

I am convinced that the most faithful way to deal with it leads us to the bottom-left corner of the triangle. The TT down there stands for them/then—the people for whom the words were originally written (see figure 3). What if, instead of going straight from the text to today we go from the text, to them/then, and only then to today? In this way, before we apply the text to ourselves, we attempt to understand what the words meant to those who first heard them. So when Paul wrote the church in Philippi and said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” what did he mean? What did he mean to communicate to them/then? Once we have established what the text meant to them/then, we can more accurately apply it to ourselves—to us/now.

TTTT3How can we go from the text to them/then? Broadly, through prayer, through meditation, and through study. We pray and ask the Holy Spirit to illumine the text so we rightly understand it; we meditate on the text, expecting that God will reward this deep contemplation with greater understanding; we study the text through cross-references, word studies, sentence diagraming, commentaries and other resources. We do all of this to understand what the text meant to the original recipients.

Once we have done that—once we have a solid understanding of what the text meant to them/then, we are prepared to visit the third corner of the rectangle. Now we take what we have learned and we ask how it is meant to impact us today. How do we do this? Largely through prayer and meditation, though some further study may be involved. Now we pray and ask God to show us how he can apply his truth to the specifics of our lives and times; we continue to meditate on the text, looking for immediate application, and still trusting that God will use our deep contemplation to give us insights into his Word. You can see this all in figure 4.

The Bestsellers
June 01, 2014

A short time ago I launched a new series called “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I am looking at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We have encountered books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris (I Kissed Dating Goodbye) and Randy Alcorn (The Treasure Principle) all the way to Joel Osteen (Your Best Life Now) and Bruce Wilkinson (The Prayer of Jabez). Today we look at one of the bestselling Christian novels of all time and one of the very few books to receive the Diamond Award.

The Shack by William Paul Young

The ShackWilliam Paul Young was born on May 11, 1955, in Grande Prairie, Alberta (Canada). However, he spent most of his younger years in Netherlands New Guinea where his parents served as missionaries among the Dani, a stone-age people group. He later said, “These became my family and as the first white child and outsider who ever spoke their language, I was granted unusual access into their culture and community. Although at times a fierce warring people, steeped in the worship of spirits and even occasionally practicing ritualistic cannibalism, they also provided a deep sense of identity that remains an indelible element of my character and person.” When he was six he was sent to boarding school, but soon thereafter his family left the mission field and his father returned to Canada where he pastored a series of small churches. Later Young would tell how he suffered abuse both at the hands of tribespeople and at the hands of those at the boarding school—abuse that shaped and scarred him.

Young attended Warner Pacific College in Portland, Oregon where he earned a degree in religion. Shortly after his graduation he married his wife, Kim, and began seminary training while also working at a church. In the years that followed he held a variety of jobs, ranging from sales to janitorial.

When he was thirty-eight Young engaged in an extramarital affair. His marriage survived, but he was forced to think hard about who God is and what he expects of his people. He says that by 2004 he had come to a place of “peace with myself and peace with my sense of who I believe God to be.” But even then he was in a difficult financial situation after a series of bad monetary decisions. In 2005 he was working three jobs and had lost his home.

It was in this context that Young decided to write about his evolving understanding of God in the form of a story, thinking it might be of interest to his children. He called it The Shack. After he sent the manuscript to his children, he began hearing from them and from others that he ought to consider publishing his work. He forwarded a copy to Wayne Jacobsen who offered it to twenty-six different publishers. After the book was rejected by every one of those publishers, Jacobsen and his colleage Brad Cummings created Windblown Media and published it themselves. In 2007 they printed 11,000 copies. Little did they know that the book would go on to sell 20 million.

The Shack is a book that seeks to provide answers to the always timely question “Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain?”. It is a tale that revolves around Mack (Mackenzie) Philips. Four years before the story begins, Mack’s young daughter, Missy, was abducted during a family vacation. Though her body was never found, the police did find evidence in an abandoned shack to prove that she had been brutally murdered by a notorious serial killer who preyed on young girls. As the story begins, Mack, who has been living in the shadow of his Great Sadness, receives a note from God (known in this story as Papa). Papa invites Mack to return to this shack for a time together. Though uncertain of what to expect, Mack visits the scene of the crime and there experiences a weekend-long encounter with God, or, more properly, with the Godhead.

Each of the members of the Trinity is present and each appears in bodily form. Papa, whose actual name is Elousia (which is Greek for tenderness) appears in the form of a large, matronly African-American woman. Jesus is a middle-aged man of Middle-Eastern descent while the Holy Spirit is played by Sarayu (Sanskrit for air or wind), a small, delicate and eclectic woman of Asian descent.

The reader learns that Mack has been given this opportunity to meet with God so he can learn to deal with his Great Sadness—the overwhelming pain and anger resulting from the death of his daughter. There is very little action in The Shack and the bulk of the book is dialog. The majority of the dialog occurs as the members of the Trinity communicate with Mack, though occasionally the author offers glimpses into their unique relationships with one another.

The False Teachers
May 29, 2014

A few weeks ago I set out on a series of articles through which I am scanning the history of the church—from its earliest days all the way to the present time—to examine some of Christianity’s most notable false teachers and to examine the false doctrine each of them represents. Along the way we have visited such figures as Joseph Smith (Mormonism), Ellen G. White (Adventism), Norman Vincent Peale (Positive Thinking) and Benny Hinn (Faith Healing). Today we turn to one of the chief proponents of the popular but sinister prosperity gospel.

Creflo Dollar

Creflo DollarCreflo Augustus Dollar, Jr. was born in College Park, Georgia on January 28, 1962. Though he was raised in a church-going home, he did not have a conversion experience until the summer following his freshmen year at West Georgia College. Even after this experience he felt no pull toward full-time ministry as his heart was set on being a professional football player. It was only after that football career was cut short by injury that he began to consider other options. In 1984 Dollar received a Bachelor of Science degree in education and soon began work as a educational therapist. The next year he married Taffi, with whom he would eventually have five children.

While recovering from his football injury, Dollar had begun to lead Bible studies among his fellow students and he gained a reputation as a skillful and charismatic teacher. He called his study “World Changers Bible Study.” By 1986 he had determined that he was not meant to be a therapist but that the Lord was calling him into full-time preaching ministry.

He and Taffi founded a church and they held its inaugural worship service in an elementary school cafeteria. Only eight people attended that service, but the congregation soon grew and was renamed World Changers Church International (WCCI). In less than ten years the church had grown exponentially and Dollar’s sermons were being broadcast over the radio through Creflo Dollar Ministries. In 1995 WCCI moved to its current location, the 8,500-seat World Dome in College Park, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta.

Today World Changers Church International serves nearly 30,000 members each week through the main campus, 6,000 through an affiliated congregation in New York City, and thousands more through many satellite campuses across America.

Dollar is known for his extravagant wealth which includes two multi-million dollar homes, expensive cars, and even a private jet. Creflo Dollar Ministries made headlines several years ago when it was one of six ministries audited by U.S. Senator Charles Grassley. “My goal,” he said, “is to help improve accountability and good governance so tax-exempt groups maintain public confidence in their operations.” The ministry was deemed uncooperative. MinistryWatch, an organization that reviews Christian ministries based on their financial accountability and transparency awarded Creflo Dollar Ministries an F rating and has added it to their Donor Alert listing. Dollar made headlines again in 2012 when his daughter called police to their home, charging that Dollar had choked and hit her. Dollar denied the charges which were dropped after he completed an anger-management program.

May 28, 2014

The prosperity gospel has not produced a new generation of great Christian hymns. Neither have Positive Thinking or Progressive Christianity. There is a reason we would not expect them to. The fact is, the deepest songs come from the deepest truth. The most faithful songs come from the most faithful expressions of the Christian faith. The richest songs come from the richest understanding of who God is and what God has done.

As Christians we are told to sing from the gospel, for one another, to the Lord—a ten-word summary of Colossians 3:16 which says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” As Paul writes to this Colossian church, he wants them to realize that every Christian needs singing lessons. If we want to sing a song that glorifies the Lord, we first need to apply some lessons.

The first lesson is this: The gospel must be the basis of your song. Before you can sing a song that glorifies God, the word of Christ—the gospel—needs to be dwelling within you. Paul has just said: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” That is a glorious message, and one worth singing about. There is, quite literally, nothing better than this in the entire universe. You will never hear a better, richer, sweeter message. If you want to sing a God-glorifying song, you first need to have that rich, sweet message dwelling within you.

The second lesson is this: The gospel needs to dwell richly within you. It is not enough to let the gospel dwell within. Before you can sing—really sing—you need to have that gospel dwelling richly within. To dwell in you richly, a message must be rich. You can’t fill yourself with a shallow, trite, silly message and expect that it will dwell richly. And this is exactly why the prosperity gospel has not produced the next generation of great hymns of the Christian faith. This is why we don’t look to churches dominated by positive thinking for rich, gospel-centered songs. Where there is a shallow and unbiblical message, there must also be shallow and unbiblical songs. Conversely, a rich message generates rich dwelling, and that rich dwelling generates rich contemplation, and that rich contemplation generates rich songs.

As we sing to God, we proclaim who he is, what he has done, and what he requires of us. We also cry out to him in supplication, asking him for those things that he delights to his people. If this is true, it is a call to substance in our songs. We have thousands of great songs at our disposal, so why would we waste our time with songs that don’t say much at all? The richer our understanding of God, the richer the expressions of praise and the richer and bolder the requests we can make in our song. If we know God only as the one who dispenses riches, our songs will ask for nothing more than wealth. If we know God only as weak and barely holy, our songs will tell of a too-small God, a God unworthy of our worship. But if we know God as he is and if we know what he has accomplished through his Son, our songs will be full of rich, sweet truth.

We sing best when that gospel is dwelling richly within us. God is not looking at the quality of our tone or the perfection of our pitch. He is looking at the heart. Tone and pitch matter, but when you stand with the congregation and sing to the Lord, it is your heart that is far more significant. You can be utterly tone deaf and sing beautiful music in the ear of God when the gospel is dwelling richly within and when you are singing to exult in the Savior.

Photo credit: Shutterstock.

May 26, 2014

Every now and again I like to write about one of the Bible’s tricky texts—those passages in the Bible that Christians tend to misunderstand and misuse. 1 Corinthians 7:10-12 is just that kind of text. In these verses Paul makes two statements about divorce. Before one he says, “not I, but the Lord” and before the other, “I, not the Lord.” Here is the text:

To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.

To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.

When I come across this text in books or blogs, I often find authors suggesting that in the first statement Paul is drawing upon a statement that is binding on all Christians while in the second he is either expressing humility or a kind of personal opinion. In either case, they highlight the full authority of the first statement and then diminish the authority of the second statement, saying something like, “Paul was humble enough to say that this was simply his understanding of the situation” or “In the second statement Paul was expressing his personal opinion.”

However, the contrast here is not between divine revelation and personal opinion. Rather, the contrast is between two different kinds of authority, each of which is from God and each of which is fully authoritative and fully binding.

In the New Testament we find the new Christians drawing upon three different sources of authority: The Old Testament scriptures; the teachings of Jesus; and new revelation given to the Apostles. Each of these was considered authoritative revelation from God. So sometimes we see New Testament Christians drawing from the Old Testament, sometimes from words Jesus spoke while he was on earth, and sometimes from new teachings given under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Never do we find these sources of authority ranked or contrasted as if one is more important or authoritative than the others.

As we come to 1 Corinthians 7:10 we find Paul speaking about divorce and drawing directly from the words of Jesus. Jesus had said, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11-12). These words had been spoken, remembered, recorded, and made an integral part of the Christian teaching on marriage and divorce. On this basis Paul could says, “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.“ He makes it clearly that he is reiterating what Jesus said.

But as Paul writes to the church in Corinth, he wishes to address an area that Jesus did not speak to specifically. While Jesus taught extensively, he did not teach exhaustively. One area he did not speak to is the case of a mixed marriage between a believer and an unbeliever. So as Paul addresses it, he does so by prefacing his words with “I, not the Lord.” In his commentary on 1 Corinthians Anthony Thistleton suggests it may be better to understand Paul as saying, “a saying of the Lord” and “not a saying of the Lord.” “To the rest I say (not a saying of the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.” He does not mean to say that his words carry less authority or that they are less binding on the Christian; rather, he is making it clear to them that this is a new teaching given by God through one of his Apostles. This makes it a teaching that carries every bit as much of the authority as Jesus’ words. Why? Because it is given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Though it did not come from the mouth of Jesus, it is still the word of God and binding on the Christian.

How should we use this text? We should use it to teach what God wants us to know about divorce and remarriage and what God wants us to know about Christians married to unbelievers. We need to highlight that both parts are fully authoritative because both parts are fully inspired by God.

May 21, 2014

Over the past few years an old form of Bible reading and interpretation has resurfaced and made quite an impact. It is known as Lectio Divina. I appreciate David Helms’ critique of this method in in his little book Expositional Preaching. Where others have, I think, come up with novel ways of critiquing it, Helm heads straight to the Bible. Essentially, he says that Lectio Divina often leads us away from the right meaning and right application of a text instead of toward it. Let me explain.

In one of the early chapters he writes about ways preachers can unfairly contextualize a biblical text. Preachers “are increasingly appealing to their subjective reading of the text as inspired. More and more, Bible teachers are being told that whatever moves their spirit in private readings of the Bible must be what God’s Spirit wants preached in public.”

He goes on to say,

One example of this kind of reading strategy has a long history. It goes by the name Lectio Divina. This traditional Benedictine practice of scriptural interpretation was intended to promote communion with God and, to a lesser extent, familiarity with the Bible. It favors a view of biblical texts as “the Living Word” rather than as written words to be studied. Traditional forms of this practice include four steps for private Bible reading: reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating. You begin by quieting your heart with a simple reading of the text. Then you meditate, perhaps on a single word of phrase from the text, and in so doing intentionally avoid what might be considered an “analytical” approach. In essence, the goal here is to wait for the Spirit’s illumination so that you will arrive at meaning. You wait for Jesus to come calling. Once the word is given, you go on to pray. After all, prayer is dialogue with God. God speaks through his Word and the person speaks through prayer. Eventually, this prayer becomes contemplative prayer, and it gives us the ability to comprehend deeper theological truths.

As Helm says, this sounds wonderfully pious. It even appears to come with solid Scriptural support in a text like 1 Corinthians 2:10 which says, “These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.” Stating his objection broadly first, Helm says, “Lectio Divina advocates a method that is spiritual as opposed to systematically studious. It substitutes intuition for investigation. It prefers mood and emotion to methodical and reasoned inquiry. It equates your spirit to the Holy Spirit.”

Of course many will object to that final sentence, but from Helm’s perspective, conclusions based on inner contemplation cannot be trusted in the same way as conclusions based on a close and studious reading of the text.

This method has gained popularity in recent years, first in private devotions and increasing in sermon preparation. “And even where it is not practiced by name, it is remarkably similar to the way a lot of young preachers are taught to prepare. They are told to read the Bible devotionally, quietly, waiting upon the Holy Spirit to speak. For you can be assured that what God lays upon our hearts from a text in the quiet of the moment he will use also in the lives of others. So ‘Preach it! It must be inspired.’”

What is the heart of the problem here? It is that the method leads to subjective, rather than objective, conclusions.

When we stop the hard work of understanding the words that the Spirit has given us and work exclusively in the “mind of the Spirit,” we become the final authority on meaning. We begin to lay down “truths” and “advice” that are biblically untenable or unsupportable. We may do so for good reasons, such as our sense of the moral health of our people or a genuine desire to renew the world we live in. But, nevertheless, we begin operating outside of orthodox doctrine. We confuse “thus sayeth the Lord” with “thus sayeth me.” We ask our congregations to trust us instead of trusting the Word.

Let me repeat that final line: “We may ask our congregations to trust us instead of trusting the Word.” That may just be the long-term consequence of this kind of preaching. Of course it has begun with the pastor allowing himself to trust himself in place of the Word.

The False Teachers
May 15, 2014

A few weeks ago I set out on a series of articles through which I am scanning the history of the church—from its earliest days all the way to the present time—to examine some of Christianity’s most notable false teachers and to examine the false doctrine each of them represents. Along the way we have visited such figures as Joseph Smith (Mormonism), Ellen G. White (Adventism), Norman Vincent Peale (Positive Thinking) and Benny Hinn (Faith Healing). Today we turn to a post-Reformation nun whose mysticism has remained influential through the centuries. She represents the false teaching of mysticism.

Teresa of Avila

Teresa of AvilaTeresa of Avila was born on March 28, 1515, to a family that would soon number twelve. Sadly, Teresa’s mother died in 1529 and against her father’s wishes, she entered the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation at Avil. Very quickly she encountered significant health concerns and was rendered an invalid for three years. It was during this time that she discovered and developed a love for prayer. However, once her health was recovered, this dedication to prayer soon waned. At that time, and in that area, the Carmelites were a relaxed order and living as a nun was easy, respectable, and could even be glamorous at times.

In 1554, when she was almost 40, Teresa had an intense religious experience while she was before an image of the wounded Christ in the convent’s private chapel. She felt that Christ “was within me, or that I was totally engulfed by him.” Such experiences became more common and she became accustomed to Christ appearing to her and engulfing her in his love, though this was regarded with suspicion by her fellow nuns and by her priest confessors. There was suspicion toward anyone who claimed to be receiving special illumination or revelation from God.

In 1558, increasingly concerned with the laxity of Carmelite life, Teresa began to consider reform. This reform would require Carmelite nuns to completely withdraw from society around them so they could dedicate their time and attention to prayer, and through a life of repentance and penance, do works of reparation for the sins of mankind. Pope Pius IV authorized this reform and in 1562 she founded a new convent, insisting that the nuns survive only through receiving public alms. She would give the rest of her life to establishing and growing sixteen of these convents through Spain. Though it all, she would have ongoing and increasing mystical experiences.

She left behind a significant number of books including The Way of Perfection (1583), and The Interior Castle (1588), which many regard as a masterpiece of spiritual autobiography alongside Augustin’s Confessions. Beside her books, she left behind some 31 poems and 458 letters.

Teresa died of cancer on October 4, 1582. It was said that she died in a state of ecstasy and that as she died, any object she had touched sent forth a sweet odor. Forty years later she was canonized by Pope Gregory XV and thereafter named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI, the first female to be so honored.

False Teaching - Mysticism

Teresa was a mystic. Donald Whitney says mysticism refers to “those forms of Christian spirituality which attempt direct or unmediated access to God.” Mystics are those who expect to experience “a direct inner realization of the Divine” and an “unmediated link to an absolute.”

At the heart of Teresa’s teaching was the ascent of the soul into sweet and unbroken mystical communion with God. She described four progressive stages in this ascent.

  1. Mental Prayer. The first is mental prayer, devout contemplation and concentration, through which the soul withdraws from everything physical around it. This happens especially during penitence and during times of observing Christ in his suffering and death.
  2. Prayer of Quiet. In prayer of quiet, the human will becomes lost in God’s will in a kind of supernatural state. Faculties such as memory, reason and imagination have not yet been quieted from outside distraction, but the mind and will are quiet in a growing experience of Christ’s presence.
  3. Devotion of Union. The devotion of union is a supernatural, ecstatic state in which human reason has become absorbed in God and only memory and imagination remain unclaimed. This is a state of bliss and peace where the higher faculties experience a sweet rest and the devotee experiences conscious rapture in God’s love.
  4. Devotion of Ecstasy or Rapture. This is a passive state in which the feeling of having a physical body disappears. Sense, memory and imagination are all absorbed in God. “Body and spirit are in the throes of a sweet, happy pain, alternating between a fearful fiery glow, a complete impotence and unconsciousness, and a spell of strangulation, sometimes by such an ecstatic flight that the body is literally lifted into space . This after half an hour is followed by a reactionary relaxation of a few hours in a swoon-like weakness, attended by a negation of all the faculties in the union with God. The subject awakens From this in tears; it is the climax of mystical experience, producing a trance. Indeed, she was said to have been observed levitating during Mass on more than one occasion.”1

Followers & Modern Adherents

Despite significant opposition to her experiences and reform, Teresa gained a substantial following in her day and was influential on her generation of fellow Carmelite nuns and on other mystics such as John of the Cross. Her influence has only widened in the centuries since, and especially after her canonization. Her books have been the primary means of disseminating her ideas.

In days past her many admirers have seen her in many different lights. “George Eliot, who cast Teresa as patron saint of the frustrated bluestocking Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch ; Vita Sackville–West, who made Teresa into a twentieth century free spirit with (but of course) lesbian proclivities; and a range of feminist theorists, from Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex to the tenured denizens of numerous women’s studies departments. To them, Teresa was a postmodern “subversive” against patriarchal power structures both secular and ecclesial, androcentric metanarrative, and whatever else is currently deemed oppressive to the female sex.”2

In recent days her influence among Christians has grown, and especially during a resurgence of interest in contemplative prayer. Her doctrine of asceticism is considered a classic explanation and exposition of the contemplative life. Teresa’s understanding of the soul’s ascent and the mystical communion with God through contemplative prayer has been influential to the likes of those who have a fascination with mysticism including Brennan Manning, Richard Foster, and Watchman Nee, along with many who were (or are) associated with Emerging Christianity. We can also spot her direct or indirect influence in the works of bestselling authors like Sarah Young (Jesus Calling) and Ann Voskamp (One Thousand Gifts).

What the Bible Says

At the heart of mysticism is the primacy of experience over Scripture. Mystics seek to experience God directly rather than through the mediation of the Bible. Scripture demands for itself a unique place in the Christian life and church and mysticism threatens to supplant it. One of the great challenges before every Christian and every generation of Christians is this: Will the Bible be enough? Will we affirm the sufficiency of Scripture—that the Bible is all we need for life and doctrine—or will we demand that God reveal himself to us in other ways, such as mystical raptures?

Protestants have long held to the doctrine of sola scripture—Scripture alone. Teresa wrote during the Counter-Reformation, the period of time in which Rome was responding to the challenge of these Protestant doctrines. Donald Whitney says, “the Scriptures alone—and not anyone’s individual experience nor the collected and distilled corporate tradition of the church—are our final authority. And the Scriptures are our final authority because the Scriptures are what God says. In this context sola scriptura means that the Bible is the ultimate authority in all matters of faith and Christian living, and thus the ultimate authority in spirituality.” The Bible is also “a sufficient guide for our spirituality. In other words, the authority for our spirituality claims its sufficiency as the director of our spirituality.” The Bible will guide us not only in what we know of God but also in how we know God.

Whitney offers two ways we cross this boundary of sola scriptura. The first is whenever

we seek an experience with Him in a way not found in Scripture. In one sense it is difficult to think of an example of an encounter with God for which there is nothing remotely similar in the Bible. Yet in another sense mankind seems to have a unlimited capacity to invent ways to “get in touch with God.” And all these have in common the presumption of the ability to experience God apart from the forms He has selected, and/or the presumption of the ability to experience Him immediately, that is, unmediated by God’s ordained means of revealing Himself to us.

A second way to cross the boundary of sola scriptura is

seeking to experience God in a way not inaugurated, guided, or interpreted by Scripture. Scripture should inaugurate many of our experiences with God, for the Scriptures are the clearest revelation of God. This is why He gave His Word to us, so that we would experience Him. And in a real sense we might say that all true experiences with God are ultimately inaugurated by Scripture.

When we understand the unique position Scripture demands for itself, we also understand the danger inherent in mysticism.

Note: Readers pointed out that initially I did not properly cite Wikipedia’s entry on Teresa of Avila; I appreciate having that pointed out and added a footnote as appropriate. It was clearly marked as a quote in my research notes but that did not make it to the article. As for the general tone of the article, it is meant to be informational more than biographical, by which I mean I do not provide exhaustive information about the false teachers; most of my interest is in the false teaching. Of course this does not excuse sloppy or inaccurate information and this article did not adhere to the standards I would want it to. I am traveling this week and, being away from my usual routines and my usual reference works, allowed myself to be sloppy in both research and writing. It would have been far better to save this for another week and to ensure it was of better quality. I will attempt to revisit this article soon and to do a better job of it. For the next few days I am in Australia preaching two to three times a day and I need to prioritize that (I’d really appreciate your prayers in this time as I have not adjusted well to the fourteen time-zone difference and am extremely tired); I will return to the article after I return to Canada. In the meantime, please do forgive me for my sloppiness.

May 14, 2014

The evening service may well be going the way of the dinosaur. What was once a staple of Christian worship, at least in some traditions, is increasingly being relegated to the past. Or so it would seem. I, for one, consider it a significant loss.

I grew up with an evening service—or an afternoon service, I guess. I spent a good bit of my childhood in the Dutch Reformed tradition which was wholly committed to a second service. Those Christians were very practical, so they worked around farmers’ schedules by having the second service at 3:30 or 4:00 in the afternoon. Regardless, there were always two services and very nearly every person in the church attended both. The first was dedicated to preaching God’s Word and the second to teaching through the catechisms and confessions. In my life, an evening service was as natural as breathing.

Not too long ago I wrote about Why I Love an Evening Service and said, “Of all the casualties the church has suffered in recent decades, I wonder if many will have longer-lasting consequences than the loss of the evening service.” While I shared why I love an evening service, I did not suggest why the evening service has fallen out of favor. Recently Thom Rainer speculated on it and offered six interesting ideas:

  • The advent of Sunday evening services in many churches was a cultural adaptation for its time. Its decline or demise is thus a cultural response.
  • The disappearance of blue laws (mandatory Sunday closings) allowed many alternatives to Sunday evening worship, and many church members chose those options.
  • There has been an increasing emphasis on family time. Families with children at home particularly viewed one worship service on Sundays to be sufficient for them.
  • Many pastors simply do not have the desire, energy, or commitment to prepare a second and different sermon. Their lack of emphasis was thus reflected in the congregation’s lack of interest.
  • When many churches began offering services on alternative days, such as Fridays or Saturdays, there was neither the desire nor the resources to keep Sunday evening services going.
  • A number of churches, particularly new church starts, are in leased facilities. They do not have the option of returning on Sunday evenings.

Each of those is intriguing in its own way and I suspect each of them, or a combination of them, is true in many churches. Rainer invited feedback, so I am going to suggest a few other ideas. I believe evening services may also have declined because of:

  • A diminished view of preaching. More than anything else, an evening service provides a second opportunity to sit under the preaching of the Word. When preaching goes into decline, and when people demand and expect more of a service than preaching, it stands to reason that the evening service will no longer prove a significant draw. Not only that, but a pastor is far less likely to dedicate himself to preparing a second sermon when preaching has fallen out of favor. Where the pastor’s job description used to have preaching at the very top of the list, today preaching tends to be just one of many important tasks that consume his time and energy.
  • The growth of amateur and professional sports. Sports dominate life in North America. Amateur sports have migrated to Sunday (a relatively new development) while professional sports are a Sunday afternoon and Sunday evening staple for many families. I sometimes wonder if Superbowl parties held at churches marked the beginning of the end, proving the ascendency of sport and the decline of church. Either way, unless you determine that you will not allow sports to interfere with church, sports will likely win at some point.
  • A diminished view of Sunday. Blue laws have been rescinded, and this is important, I’m sure. But I think we can dig a little deeper. There was a time in both Canada and America where Christian influence pushed a form of Sabbatarianism into the wider culture. Even though few people were convicted by Scripture, there was enough Christian influence to carry the day. As a result, sports, leagues, activities, and other entertainments tended to be held six days per week rather than seven. As Christian influence has waned, many of these activities have pushed their way into Sunday. Just about every league, every activity, every hobby, now has a Sunday component.
  • A diminished Reformed influence. While the number of Evangelicals may be increasing, the number of traditionally Reformed Evangelicals (by which I especially mean those forms that hold to a form of Sabbatarianism) has declined. The greater your commitment to a Christian Sabbath, the greater the likelihood that you will advocate an evening service as a means of redeeming the entire day. As Evangelicals have become less convinced about the Sabbath, many have become less convinced about making all of Sunday the Lord’s Day.
  • An amusement culture. Our culture is increasingly driven by a desire for entertainment. Evening services are not fun and, therefore, cannot compete with the growing entertainment options. If we measure what we do by entertainment value, an evening service will rarely win.

I want to add one more factor, separate from the others. I have seen that a lot of churches make their evening services drab. Coming to church a second time in a day is a significant commitment, and especially so for families with young children. The commitment only feels heightened when most other Christians have already stopped attending on Sunday evenings. While we should not measure our services by their entertainment value, there are things we can do to make those evening services interesting and applicable. A good evening service is a delight; a boring evening service is a chore. Many churches have undoubtedly had their evening service disappear because it did not receive enough love and care to keep it vibrant.

Is there anything you would add? What is your sense about the decline and the future of the evening service?

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