A Dull, Boring, Dead Christianity

Yesterday I rambled a bit about whether I can properly be called an evangelical, and I must say that I remain uncomfortable trying to make that label fit. At the same time, the majority of the people with whom I work closely find that label acceptable. This isn’t a version of “some of my best friends are evangelicals.” These folks are colleagues, board members of an organization I co-founded, and otherwise very close.

I want to recognize one distinction that is rather important. It was pointed out by two commenters, in slightly different ways. Peter Kirk pointed out that there are certain reformed evangelicals who “are trying to restrict the label ‘evangelical’ to themselves, when historically it never has been so restricted.”

Richard H got more specific, pointing out that Wesleyan evangelicals, which constitutes the group I work with the most, don’t fit the bill. And by the way, I had a good time perusing Richard’s blog a bit last night. There’s some good practical stuff there to check out.

Now I point this all out simply to launch my topic today, because I was led to it by this very discussion, and I think that it’s important to see something that is going on here. First we have a term “evangelical” which becomes just a bit too vague for some, so they look at exclusions. Adrian Warnock wants to include certain charismatics under the label, and would like some maneuvering room. (The link relates to his comments on discernment.) Phil Johnson of Pyromaniacs is less than willing to give him that room, and presents a vigorous attack on charismatic doctrinal views in two parts.

What the two men share in common is that they lead with exclusion, even toward one another. The key test is penal substitution, but that is far from enough for Phil Johnson who, despite expressions of friendship, is pretty vigorous in his language of condemnation of charismatic views. Now I personally don’t have any great problem with TeamPyro’s style, though I find it pretty boring. When you exercise excessive vocabulary enough, it loses any power it may have had. There are also very few ways to actually connect in a discussion, since bear the label “liberal charismatic” fairly well, even though it was bestowed on me as a criticism. (I used it in the subtitle of one of my books.)

Yet at the same time if you truly believe that others are embracing dangerous teachings that endanger their spiritual health and even their eternal salvation, you really ought to express that viewpoint strongly. They could use some more strategic use of words, but that’s their problem.

It seems that Phil Johnson is terribly concerned with the excesses of the charismatic movement. In his second post, he says:

A prodigious wacko fringe has always been one of the charismatic movement’s most prominent features. In little more than a century, the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements have spun off so many bad doctrines and bizarre characters that I have a thick dictionary in my office just to help me keep track of them all.

Well, color me shocked! Who would have imagined such a thing?

Well, actually, not so much. You see, one of the features of Christianity has been a wacko fringe. The reason we have such wonderful texts that Mr. Johnson can use to attack charismatic excesses is that there were plenty of such excesses in the early Christian community. Now I want you to note that I don’t use either “prominent” or “most prominent.” The prominence of a particular feature is often a function of one’s perspective. When certain cessationists look at the charismatic movement they see craziness as a prominent feature, or the most prominent one. That doesn’t mean that it is the most prominent feature.

Let’s look at this another way. When Abraham heard God’s voice telling him to leave Ur and go to a place God would show him, was he a sane member of the community, or part of the wacko fringe? Suppose you rent a truck and load up the furniture, gathering your family in your car, and when someone asks you say, “I don’t know where I’m going. God just told me to go.” Are you part of the lunatic fringe or what?

When Jeremiah preached that the Judeans should surrender to the Babylonians, was he a sane part of the community, or was he part of the wacko fringe? Again, let me ask what would happen if you advocated surrender in the face of the enemy in a modern city?

I encountered this question in discussion with a cessationist once:

One person with whom I discussed this issue [modern vs ancient inspiration] on the Internet was offended by this question: When you hear a voice, how do you know it’s the voice of God? He said, “We’re not talking about hearing voices. We’re talking about the Bible!”

But when God tells Abraham to leave his country and go to a place he didn’t know, he was hearing a voice. He may have been having a vision. We don’t know. But whether it was an ordinary voice, or a voice in a vision, he heard a voice. But he didn’t have any written scripture. Because he followed the voice that he heard, we have scripture. There are many, many people in the Bible who heard voices. If you are disturbed by people hearing voices, you probably should choose something other than the Bible as your reading material.

(From my book When People Speak for God.)

What we seek in the modern world is a safe, controlled Christianity. This can be accomplished in many different ways. We can provide a totally self contained doctrinal system which everyone is required to follow in order to be saved. I call this “salvation by correct doctrine.” It is no better than salvation by works; it is an intellectual version of earning the favor of God. But the key to the Christian message starts with God loving the world and going out to redeem it–wacko fringe included. His love need not be earned by works, nor by the intellectual work of believing a precise doctrinal system.

Throughout the history of Christianity, and I suspect many other religions, there has always been a conflict between a sense of spiritual adventure and the safety of an institutionalized system. Cessationism attempts to bring an end to this salubrious conflict after the New Testament, but there is no foundation for this in scripture. It’s amazing to me that so many people want to call doctrines “scriptural” that come from a small number of texts while ignoring the broad sweep of scripture. Throughout about 2,000 years of scripture we have God’s Spirit moving to guide his people and move them forward, and yet suddenly we use the very record of that interaction to suggest that it must cease.

It’s a safe, stable version of Christianity, but is it really any less “wacko fringe” than those crazy charismatics who generate false prophecy on demand? (By “false prophecy on demand” I refer to the practice of planning a ministry session in which everyone who lines up to hear from a “visiting prophet” is to hear a word from the Lord. Note that I don’t mean that all ministry called prophetic means “false” prophecy.) I mean, it starts with the demand that, in order to be saved, a loving God requires that you comprehend and accept that God regards you as righteous (not that this righteousness is imparted to you), and does so because Jesus, his son, was righteous. He killed his son because of his anger at your sin, which his son was carrying in some way. Thus atonement was accomplished. There are certainly quite a number of people who regard that theology as “wacko,” thought “fringe” would require a count.

Now I personally don’t agree. I think it is one metaphorical way to understand God’s love and forgiveness expressed in the atonement, but one person’s wacko fringe is another person’s core belief system. The only thing I find out of line here is the claim that it is the one and only way to understand salvation.

On the other hand, I agree that many charismatics have gone well over the edge. In our own experience with the death of our son we had experiences that varied from solid support in prayer to the other extreme of an individual who claimed God had told him that anyone he laid hands on and prayed for would be cured of cancer. He laid hands on our son and prayed, but no healing resulted. Our son, only 13 at the time, was pretty disturbed by the experience. (Understand that neither his mother nor I were present on that occasion, or we would have done something about it.) The point is that I’m personally aware of the excesses that are possible in the charismatic movement, and of how damaging they can be. There is a serious need for the application of discernment.

There is one way to guarantee no excesses in spiritual matters–shut them all down. That is what every doctrinally tense movement has done. These activities are driven by a combination of fear and a love of power. Very often people can justly claim that they fear the injury that will result if people’s bad ideas are not corrected. But the correction can easily eliminate all the life. The cure is worth than the disease.

That is the price of cessationism. You have no more nuts claiming to hear from God, but at the same time you undermine the very basis of revelation. At the same time as you deny modern miracles, and often by the same means, you undermine the case for ancient miracles. Without the presence and activity of the Spirit there is very little point to Christianity. Cessationists offer a way to be right with a God who is largely absent. They purchase safety at the absence of life and growth. All that is preserved is the doctrinal shell.

Now I want to conclude by saying that I do not regard all reformed theologians in this way. I know that for many there is life along with the doctrine. But for a few, those who spend their time attacking the other streams, all that is left is a doctrinal shell, a dull, boring, dead Christianity.

I prefer a Christianity that is both alive and dangerous. I don’t even mind being embarrassed from time to time by various excesses. In fact, I often am embarrassed. I’m going to challenge those who engage in such practices, but I’m not sorry that it’s possible for them to occur, because it shows a stream that is still capable of change, and therefore of life.

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  1. A very wise, sane post, Mr. Neufeld. And so true.

    Isn’t it ironic that the genius of the West is to take knowledge and order it, categorize it and then present it in a completely understandable and manageable form, whether that knowledge is spiritual or scientific in nature? No wonder there can be such conflict between science and religion. They can both be so rigid.

    As the scientist tends to put nature in a box, so, too, does the Western Christian try to put God in a box. But He won’t stay there!

  2. Well said!

    I would only want to question why you imply that “prophecy on demand” is false prophecy. It is not a practice I would recommend. But I have no trouble believing that God can give someone a ministry of giving prophetic words to each person in a line. I would expect most of these words to be rather vague, even banal, more words of general encouragement than actual prophecy. And of course there may be people doing this who are actually giving false prophecies, either knowingly or because they are deceived. But I don’t think you should make general accusations against those offering “prophecy on demand” unless you have very clear proofs that this cannot be genuine.

  3. And of course there may be people doing this who are actually giving false prophecies, either knowingly or because they are deceived. But I don’t think you should make general accusations against those offering “prophecy on demand” unless you have very clear proofs that this cannot be genuine.

    Well, I attempted to nuance this. I do not deny that God can work in almost any circumstances. For example, I don’t recommend letting your Bible fall open and then pointing at a verse as a way of receiving an answer from God, but my mother experienced an answer to prayer in that manner when she was younger.

    In any case of prophecy on demand in my own experience I have observed problems. I feel strongly enough about this that I would never allow it at a meeting I was coordinating, recommend it. But I would not deny that one could hear from the Lord under such circumstances. On rereading, I did not make that latter element clear.

  4. As someone who would call myself a spiritual questioner (I go to church because I like the ritual, but I don’t agree with quite a few things my pastor says or my church professes to believe), I think part of the problem with the “evangelical” label is that it’s so often used by people who preach intolerance and hatred.

    I understand that a lot of people think the Bible says X, Y, or Z is wrong, but there’s got to be a line between “professing belief” and “teaching hatred” that some of the most famous evangelicals cross an awful lot.

    I find it very upsetting that there isn’t more of a voice in the moderate Christian community standing up and saying “you know what? Those people are whackjobs and don’t have anything to do with what our religion is actually about.” Most of my friends think it’s very weird that I go to church, even though I’m a part of a fairly liberal Lutheran parish, just because they can’t disassociate “Christianity” from “that religion that all those people who say that they’re evil and need to die claim to believe in.”

    I don’t mean to rant, so I shan’t go on any further, but I’m interested in how you, as someone who seems like someone I’d get along with just fine and who could plausibly be labeled the same way those people are, reconcile the issues.

    (Um…. I suspect this may come off as a lot more aggressive than I mean it to, because there isn’t any tone of voice. I’m honestly *curious*, because you’re the first person I’ve run across who seems willing to discuss these sorts of things openly and without getting caught up in the specifics of any given argument.)

  5. Kate,

    Actually your comment doesn’t sound terribly aggressive to me. I’ve been communicating online about politics and the internet since the days before we had internet service in homes, and I generally manage to read the tone pretty close.

    I agree that Christians moderates–and I use two labels: passionate moderate and liberal charismatic–need to speak out against hatred and bigotry and abuses of the Christian message. Part of my intent in my post was to point out that some of the critics of the charismatic movement are themselves pushing at the fringes and missing the core of the message as I see it.

    I don’t suppose I speak out often enough against abuses, though part of that is just my personality. I’m much more likely to write something about the idea of gay marriage than attacking any particular opponent of gay rights, for example. I’m idea driven. I do get aboard specifics from time to time, but I have to work at it, because it doesn’t come naturally.

    Then there are folks like Fred Phelps who are so far off the map I don’t know exactly what to say, and I certainly don’t want to give him any more publicity. I hope the current jury award against him sticks so he won’t have any more travel money to carry out his vile activities.

    On another point, you mention questioning. I think “questioning” is the best way to approach faith. That’s my own biases showing, and I don’t mean to denigrate a simple, trusting faith, but while I can celebrate that, I can’t get onboard myself. I have to question.

    I dislike faith communities that tell people not to question and seek. So I’m right with you there, I think. Also, ritual can be a very helpful part of life, something that my charismatic colleagues sometimes forget. I have truly enjoyed worship services that varied from almost unstructured to very high church, but for me personally the two best I recall were high church, though one was high church with contemporary music.

    Are any of these ramblings helpful? I’d be interested in knowing.

  6. I agree that Christians moderates–and I use two labels: passionate moderate and liberal charismatic–need to speak out against hatred and bigotry and abuses of the Christian message.

    OK, how do we do that? That’s one of the reasons I blog, but I’m not a famous Christian and not many people read my blog. Serious question.

    I’ve been in churches with theologies similar to those held by Adrian Warnock and John Piper. I don’t want to speak for Warnock and Piper as specific people, but I do know that people with this theology don’t think that people like me (Wesleyan moderate women minister) are ‘real Christians’. How do I know this? Because I heard it said when I was on the inside of these movements. People who grew up as moderate Wesleyan Methodists don’t think that issues presented by conservative (charismatic or cessationist) Calvinists are worth engaging. To be honest, I think that moderate Methodists don’t actually believe that a significant number of people hold these sort of ideas. I usually get incredulity when I talk about them.

    To anyone in the UK who wants a church where they are free to question, I’d first put the caveat that one always needs to suss out a particular congregation, but the URC, Methodism and moderate Anglicanism (‘Fulcrum evangelical’ and ‘Affirming catholics’) would be good places to start.

    In the meantime, I leave my question to the famous and expert bloggers. How do the rest of us unknowns help create safe space to think in the Christian church?

  7. In the meantime, I leave my question to the famous and expert bloggers. How do the rest of us unknowns help create safe space to think in the Christian church?

    Good question. I think I may promote that to a post and see what some famous and expert bloggers might have to say, should I happen to have any such readers. I’m not sure I do that well at it myself, though I try.

    One thing that I think does help is simply stating that you accept certain practices as valid. By being a woman and a pastor, you give some other people, who might have less courage, some cover. My wife does so by being an active teacher in the church. I give people cover by expressing certain non-standard views, which gives permission for others to do so as well.

    I do believe that silence is the great enemy. Let’s just take one of my pet subjects–evolution. I taught a seminar at church on creation and evolution. One of the points was that one could have differing views on this topic, and yet be a Christian. A young man who was in that seminar went to college the next year, and encountered a fellow student who as attracted to Christianity, but with a science background said he simply could not accept a faith that required him to believe something he knew to be a lie. The young man drew on material from the seminar and explained that he didn’t have to do any such thing, then pointed him to a church congregation that would find his beliefs acceptable.

    The punch line? I didn’t really want to give that seminar. At the time I was avoiding creation-evolution because I figured that if I believed one could be a Christian and differ on beliefs about the “how” of creation, why not just keep quiet and let people believe what they wanted?

    The fact of the matter was a bit different. By being silent, I allow the folks who make the noise to push aside those who differ with them. So now I make noise. I annoy people. But I think I’m called to annoy.

    I don’t know if that’s helpful, but it has been working for me in small ways.

  8. I hear ‘Continue making noises’. I guess that’s all I can do or we can do. I guess I regret that people outside the church don’t think we’re doing enough.

  9. Yes, thank you!

    It’s interesting seeing the view from the inside, and how it’s not really all that terribly different from the view on the outside. I do sometimes look at the arguments like the one you were describing in the original post and think “you know, if we spent all that energy agreeing on things and making sure that people understand that *these* are the things we’re all about, maybe people wouldn’t think so badly of Christians…”

    I’m still… auditioning, I guess is the best word… my current church. The pastor’s a little doom-and-gloom for my tastes, but I like the congregation. There are a couple of other churches of similar denomination locally, so I may go try those out sometime soon. (Anything but the campus church, where I went last Christmas — they changed the words of the Christmas hymns, and you could tell exactly who was singing off the book versus who was singing from memory. Cacaphony doesn’t even begin to describe it, and I was left feeling sort of deflated by the weird changes that didn’t affect anything but the meter.)

  10. Sometimes making noises is the best you or I can do. There’s an interesting effect here that you are probably acquainted with as a pastor. You preach hard on some topic, like giving of your time to church/charitable efforts, and the 10% that are already active feel that they have to get more active, while the 90% you were preaching to seem not to have heard at all.

    There are a large number of Christians out there who are moderate in belief, but don’t speak out that much. That allows the more vocal folks to define Christianity for the public. But combining ‘moderate” with “vocal” is not always easy!

  11. I do sometimes look at the arguments like the one you were describing in the original post and think “you know, if we spent all that energy agreeing on things and making sure that people understand that *these* are the things we’re all about, maybe people wouldn’t think so badly of Christians…”

    That’s the hard part. For some reason disagreement draws attention more easily than agreement. Just watch the news…

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