“In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 17:6; 21:25)
The Old Testament book of Judges records roughly a 400 year period of time in the life of the people of Israel, during which Israel experienced a downward spiral into anarchy. Remember, these were the people of God who experienced God’s discipline and holiness at Mount Sinai and whose children went on to conquer the land of Canaan. But all was not well. A growing unbelief and apostasy (falling away) marked both the beginning of the book of Judges and the start of no less than 12 cycles or downward spirals. Israel began the book of Judges by seeking the Lord concerning how to fight their common enemies (Judges 1:1). Israel concluded this descent into the abyss of anarchy by seeking the Lord concerning how to fight one another (Judges 20:18). On four separate occasions, the biblical writer reminds us that “In those days there was no king in Israel” (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). Welcome to the biblical precursor to Postmodernism. Yep, there really is nothing new under the sun.
One of my favorite books in seminary was James Sire’s book, The Universe Next Door. It was an excellent catalog of differing worldviews placed within the context of the history of philosophy and how one worldview gave way to the next: Theism, Deism, Naturalism, Nihilism, Existentialism, Eastern Pantheistic Monism, New Age Spirituality. Sire’s book is now in its Fifth Edition and he has added two more chapters to include recent events: Postmodernism and Islamic Theism. Thirty years ago, these last two weren’t even on the radar. Now, they dominate the radar, making it hard to see anything else. Interesting how times change.
Sire’s chapter on Postmodernism, entitled “The Vanished Horizon,” is a worthwhile read, especially given that Postmodernism (a mishmash of thought, dominated primarily by pluralism, nihilism, and existentialism) represents the dominant worldview of the Post-Christian West. It is the philosophical air of Western Culture; the drop of India Ink in the water we all drink daily. Sire took the title from Friedrich Nietzsche’s parable, “The Madman,” in which the main character wrestles with the aftermath of the “death of God,” saying, “Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?”
I have written on Postmodernism previously and can’t repeat all of that here. Suffice it to say, Postmodernism represents the philosophical death-rattle of the West and the intellectual successor to Francis Schaeffer’s “Post-Christian” label from 40 years ago. Post-Christian simply meant that our Culture no longer needed Christian truth or categories to answer its important questions. God hadn’t died (the “God Is Dead” movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s). He had simply become irrelevant. Postmodern means there are no authoritative or ultimate answers to life’s (and society’s) important questions. Ultimate truth is no longer a category to be explored. The Modern era of the previous 200-300 years had ended in the intellectual exhaustion of Naturalism (“We’ll find all the answers we need by exploring Nature”), yielding only hopelessness of Nihilism (“no ultimate truth” or simply “nothingness”) and the personal subjectivity of Existentialism (“it’s all about me and living in the moment”).
The rise of Postmodernism as the dominant worldview of Western Culture represents the final collapse of the “philosophic center” (i.e., Judeo-Christian theism) which gave Western Civilization its cohesion for nearly 1,900 years. As Sire observes in his review of Postmodernism, “A culture cannot lose its philosophic center without the most serious of consequences, not just to the philosophy on which it was based but to the whole superstructure of culture and even each person’s notion of who he or she is. Everything changes. When God dies, both the substance and the value of everything else die too.” Sire continues, “Our age, which more and more is coming to be called Postmodern, finds itself afloat in a pluralism of perspectives, a plethora of philosophical possibilities, but with no dominant notion of where to go or how to get there. A near future of cultural anarchy seems inevitable.”
Welcome to what it means to live in a Postmodern culture, an age increasingly described by contemporary philosophers as “Post-Truth.” Objective truth has been replaced with self-validating opinions. “Truth” now consists of whatever half-baked assertions are made by self-serving politicians, activists, social media mavens or internet bloggers. After all, if it’s “trending” on the internet, it must be true. To bring Sire’s line of thought home, to be Postmodern and Post-Truth is to stand on the edge of “the abyss” with nothing separating you and me from social and cultural anarchy than the wisdom of voters, the good judgment of politicians, bureaucrats and judges, and the journalistic integrity of media commentators and internet bloggers. To be Postmodern and Post-Truth is to stand on the edge of “the abyss,” where there is no ultimate truth, and where every man (and woman) does what is right in his or her own eyes. In a Postmodern, Post-Truth world, truth is what I make it. Truth is every man (and woman) doing that which is right in his own eyes. Good luck with that. It didn’t end well for ancient Israel. Cheating gravity, including God’s moral gravity, never does.
In my next article, I want to explore what it means to be a Disciple of Jesus and the Kingdom in our Postmodern, Post-Truth world. Hope you’ll stay tuned.
Thanks to everyone who helped launch our GoFundMe Campaign for our children’s book on the Kingdom of God. Thank you! You’re awesome! Last week we completed the process of scanning the 21 original chalk-pastel illustrations for the book. This week we are beginning the “composition and layout” phase. We hope you will join our campaign with a generous gift, and share our campaign with your email, Facebook, and Twitter friends. As our way of saying “Thank You,” everyone who contributes to the campaign will receive a complimentary (that’s FREE) autographed copy of the book when it comes available. Also, you can now follow our progress with the book on our website. Just click on Creating A Children’s Book in the Menu. We hope to have the book ready for publication by May. So, stay tuned!
“Do not be as the horse or as the mule which have no understanding, Whose trappings include bit and bridle to hold them in check, Otherwise they will not come near to you.” Psalm 32:9
Let me begin with a disclaimer. Here it is: I know nothing about horses. My knowledge of horses is limited to old episodes of “Mr. Ed” and John Wayne movies where the Duke always seemed to ride a horse that was just a bit small for him (What was that all about?). It was probably God’s mercy on the horse that prevented me from having one while managing a local Christian guest ranch for 5 years. My favorite “horse-ism” comes from Bum Phillips, the former coach of the Houston Oilers (now the Tennessee Titans). He raised horses and retired to his horse ranch in the early 1990s. When asked why he liked horses so much he replied, “Because a horse doesn’t talk about you behind you back.” Hmmm. We could use more horses in ministry. So, there’s my disclaimer. Now, here’s my article.
If you haven’t seen the 1998 Robert Redford movie “The Horse Whisperer,” then you’ve missed a treat. The movie is well done, brilliantly acted and set against Montana scenery that is nothing short of breath-taking (even for those of us who live in the Northwest).
The movie goes something like this. Thirteen-year-old Grace MacLean and her best friend Judith go out early one winter’s morning to ride their horses. As they are riding up an icy slope, one of the horses falls, dragging both horses and both girls onto a road where a truck appears, resulting in a horrific accident in which Judith and her horse are killed, while Grace and her horse, Pilgrim, are both severely injured. Against the advice of friends and vets, the mom (Annie) chooses not to have Pilgrim put down. Grace loses her right leg below the knee. She eventually recovers but is deeply traumatized, becoming angry and withdrawn. Her horse, Pilgrim, is also traumatized, to the point of becoming uncontrollable. In an attempt to heal both her daughter and the horse, Grace’s mother Annie contacts Tom Booker (played by Robert Redford), a “Horse Whisperer.” And “the game is afoot” (or “ahoof”).
As I watched the movie over the holidays on one of those cable movie channels which likes to play a particular movie repeatedly for a week, it slowly dawned on me that I was watching a post-modern discipleship tale. God really doesn’t really come into the movie, although Annie and Grace are taken aback when the Booker family says grace over dinner (the scene is cute and well acted – everything is in their expressions). So this isn’t a spiritual or Christian movie. If that bothers you, well, “Build a bridge . . . and get over it.” But it is a movie that offers us some basic lessons on discipleship, if we are willing to listen.
As the movie unfolds you soon realize that Tom Booker is not simply working with Pilgrim. In reality, he is “discipling” the horse, the daughter and the mom, working to bring all three out of deep personal woundedness and confusion and into a place of healing and a new perspective on life and what’s really important. We discover that it isn’t just about the horse. It’s about the circle of influence of everyone around the horse. And there’s our first lesson on discipleship from The Horse Whisperer. Discipleship is never simply about us. Why? Because our discipleship eventually affects everyone around us. As God touches us and changes us, He, in turn, begins to touch and change those around us whom we touch. It’s the “ripple effect” of our discipleship.
The discipleship relationship begins with the first phone call from Annie to Tom Booker. “I read an article which said that you help people with their horse problems,” says Annie. “Truth is, I help horses with people problem,” Booker replies. The first lesson we learn is a lesson on perspective. Perspective is a funny thing. For example, Jesus didn’t come to earth to appease an angry God. He came to earth to redeem fallen and rebellious men. In other words, Jesus doesn’t help God with people problems; He helps people with God problems. Discipleship isn’t about changing God’s attitude toward us; it’s about changing our attitudes toward God. The second lesson is about relationships and gifts. For any relationship to succeed you need to know who you are in relation to the other person. This involves knowing both who you are and what you’ve been called and gifted to do. It means knowing both your strengths and your limitations. It means not allowing other people’s misconceptions to determine who you are, what your gifts are, or what you’ve been called to do. In this respect, the journey of discipleship is a journey of self-awareness – coming to an authentic knowledge of who we are and where we fit in the Kingdom of God.
The lessons come quickly at this point in the movie. When Booker finally sees Pilgrim for the first time he reluctantly agrees to help, on the condition that the despondent and withdrawn Grace takes part in the process. “You have a problem with that?” Booker asks Grace. “Isn’t it obvious?” Grace replies. “Not to me,” says Booker. “You’re either in or you’re out.” When Annie tries to intervene, Booker cuts her off, “With all due respect, this is Grace’s decision.” Grace’s response is non-committal. “There’s nothing better to do around here,” a seemingly detached Grace responds. “That’s not good enough,” Booker retorts. The scene ends with Grace coming to terms with what she must do. There’s a discipleship lesson and principle here. You can’t disciple someone who doesn’t want to be discipled. And no one else can make that decision for you. Grace must agree to be involved. “There’s nothing better to do around here” wasn’t a sufficient answer. When Jesus first called His disciples He didn’t ask them if they were busy, or if they had other things to do. And they didn’t respond to His call by saying, “Well, I’m bored and I’ve got some time on my hands, so, sure. Why not.” The call to discipleship is a call to make a conscious choice to re-orient our lives and decide what is important and what is not. I fear that much of contemporary Christianity is made up of people who “prayed a prayer” but who never made a conscious choice to re-orient their lives. They are “The Church Of ‘I’ve Got Nothing Better To Do,” and that isn’t good enough.
About an hour into the movie there’s a scene where the horse, Pilgrim (hmm, aren’t all disciples “pilgrims”), bolts, knocking Booker to the ground, and escapes, running into a nearby meadow. Tom Booker follows Pilgrim into the meadow. There he sits in the meadow at a distance and simply waits. The two stare at each other from a comfortable distance. It goes on all day and into the evening. Booker waits for the horse to come to him. Finally, Pilgrim approaches Booker on his own terms and the two walk back together. Sometimes discipleship is like that, especially if you are working with deeply wounded people. You pursue them but at a comfortable distance. You simply have to wait for them to come on their terms. Discipleship is often about healing and overcoming our woundedness. It’s about learning to trust those who disciple us, while all the time, like Pilgrim, our “body language” says “stay away from me.”
In another scene, Tom Booker lassos Pilgrim. When the horse calms down he approaches Booker who removes his gloves, drops his coil of rope and kneels down. Booker Gently pulls down on the lasso around Pilgrim’s neck. The horse gradually lowers his head and Booker gently removes the lasso and caresses the horse’s head. The two have now come to terms, and Pilgrim now trusts him. Pilgrim is in the process of “surrender.” I found a Tom Booker quote which I assume is from the 1995 book that the movie is based on. I don’t think the quote appears anywhere in the movie. As a result, I don’t know where the following quote fits, so I’m placing it here. Here’s what Booker says about surrender: “Sometimes what seems like surrender isn’t surrender at all. It’s about what’s going on in our hearts. About seeing clearly the way life is and accepting it and being true to it, whatever the pain, because the pain of not being true to it is far, far greater.”
Discipleship is all about “surrender,” or to use a more biblical word, “submission.” Discipleship is the process by which God transforms our hearts and brings our will in complete surrender or submission to His will. It is through our submission to God’s good and perfect will that we begin to see clearly the way life is, the way God intends it to be. Discipleship is that surrender by which we accept God’s will and make a choice to be true to it, because the pain of not being true to His will is far, far greater.
In another scene, it’s roping and branding time for young calves, and Annie and Grace help out. Toward the end of the scene, Booker approaches Grace, “You did real good out there today. So I think it’s time that you started earning your keep around here.” He proceeds to assign her chores around the ranch. “Think you can handle it,” Tom asks Grace. “That isn’t a question, is it?” she responds. Funny how in our walk of discipleship God asks us questions which are not really questions at all. “Do you trust Me?” isn’t a question God asks. It’s a call to faith that He challenges us with. Divine questions are never intended to gather information.
“Take a ride with me,” Tom says to Grace in another scene. Much to her surprise, Booker promptly places Grace in the driver’s seat of a pickup truck. They get off to a fitful start. “I don’t think I can,” says a fearful Grace. “It isn’t a question of whether or not you can,” replies Booker, “You are.” Life and discipleship are often like that. Most things God calls us to do aren’t built around what we think we can or can not do. God simply orchestrates a circumstance and calls us to obey, regardless of what we think we can or cannot do. The scene ends with Tom and Grace sitting on the back of the truck, overlooking a meadow, and talking about life. Discipleship is like that. Discipleship is time spent together; talking, exploring, questioning. Discipleship is about coming to terms and dealing with the deep wounds of our lives, unpacking the baggage of our lives that prevents us from pursuing a deeper walk of discipleship into the Kingdom of God.
O.K., there’s a lot more to this movie that I’m skipping over due to time constraints. You really should watch it for yourself. The climax of the movie comes when it is time for Grace to ride Pilgrim again. When Pilgrim refuses to allow Grace to mount him, Tom has to try something new. He ties Pilgrim’s left front leg up so that he cannot use it, making Pilgrim effectively lame. Tom forces the horse into submission and finally Pilgrim lies down in complete surrender with Booker beside him. Booker calls to Grace, “Grace, this is where you come in. I want you to get down here. Grace, I want you to sit next to me. Trust me just one more time. Come over here next to me. I want you to stroke and rub him all over. We’re going to show Pilgrim how to help you ride him. There comes a point where I’m not needed anymore. And we’re at that point.” It is a powerful and moving moment that needs to be seen to be fully appreciated.
One of the hidden dangers of discipleship is to create co-dependency between a disciple and a teacher. The challenge of discipleship is to know when to acknowledge that “there comes a point where I’m not needed anymore. And we’re at that point.”
O.K., time to wrap up this “discipleship rodeo” (Sorry, couldn’t resist. “Bad dog, bad dog. Stop that!”). In my opinion (for what it’s worth) much of what passes for discipleship in Western Christianity appears to be little more than education – the transfer of information. This approach is epitomized by the “discipleship class” or “discipleship curriculum.” The operating philosophy here seems to be “knowledge=discipleship.” In other words, once you know everything I know, you’ll be a disciple (complete with a diploma or certificate to prove it). This really shouldn’t come as any surprise when we reflect on the heavy emphasis placed upon the gift and role of teaching in Western Churches, most of which are pastored by teachers (i.e., someone with the 5-Fold gift of a Teacher as opposed to the gift of a Pastor). The strength of a teacher is his gift/ability to teach. His (or her) drawback is that a teacher has never met a problem or challenge that couldn’t be solved or met with more teaching. The problem here, as it applies to New Testament discipleship, is that biblical discipleship is not so much educational as it is relational. It’s more “take a ride with me” than it is “meet me in class with your lesson done.” The ride and the conversation ARE the lesson. The promise and potential of the organic or simple church movement is the opportunity we have to restore discipleship as a relationship as opposed to an educational program.
We formed a Rising River Media, a non-profit publishing and media company, to provide publishing resources oriented toward the organic church community with an emphasis upon discipleship and the Kingdom of God. In that spirit, Gale has been working on a children’s book (pre-teens) entitled Alex’s Amazing Kingdom Adventure with a wonderful story and 21 original pastel illustrations spread over forty full-color, 8X11 pages. The illustrations are nearly done (only 6 more to go) and we are about to move into the layout and composition phase. While we have worked behind the scenes over the past year to produce the book out of personal resources, we are at a point where we need to ask for help to get this project across the finish line. For this purpose, we have established a GoFundMe Account to raise money for this project. Our goal is to raise $7,500 to cover our expenses as we work to get the book finished, into print and available to order (plus some marketing). We want to ask for your help and support to bring this project to completion. Your gift will be GREATLY appreciated. And everyone who donates via our GoFundMe campaign will receive an autographed copy of the book when it comes available!
A Time To Invest In The Future Of Organic Church
I believe that as practitioners of organic church we have a responsibility to help whet the spiritual appetites of our kids and grandkids for spiritual truth. As I have been writing a series of books on discipleship and the Kingdom of God, I have realized that one of the critical things we need to do is to communicate the reality of the Kingdom of God to the next generation. Alex’s Amazing Kingdom Adventure is our contribution to that effort. Gale and I hope you will join the effort and help us make it a reality.
Follow Our Progress!
You can follow this work-in-progress and see the process of creating a children’s book here. We will keep you updated on both our progress and the process of turning this book idea into reality!
In the interest of full disclosure, I have a dog in this fight. And that deserves a brief explanation. I have personal experience with how The Shack and the feel-good universalism it promotes (see below before you react) have destroyed individuals, their faith, their marriages, their ministries and their house churches. Ideas have consequences. That includes sloppy theological ideas masquerading as kleenex consuming therapy. In response to those experiences, I wrote a book on Universalism entitled All Dogs Go To Heaven, Don’t They?: Biblical Reflections On Christian Universalism and Ultimate Reconciliation.
Just when I hoped that The Shack might have gone away, it is back with a vengeance, this time as a movie. Sigh. Honestly, I would have been very content to avoid the book, the movie and the controversy, had it not been for a couple of things. For starters, I am somewhere between amazed and appalled at the disturbing number of Christians on social media, blogs and websites who openly gush about how wonderful and “powerful” the movie is. O.K., we’ll come back to that. But what pushed me over the edge and prompted this newsletter is the fact that the principle author of The Shack, Paul Young (it was co-authored by Wayne Jacobsen, who sued Young over authorship), has now published a non-fiction book, entitled Lies We Believe About God, in which he clearly states his theological beliefs. And (drum roll please), yes, he is a confirmed and committed universalist. Surprise. What had previously been denied and hidden is now revealed for what it is. There’s more aberrant theology in Young’s belief system which he lays out in this new book. In an eye-opening article entitled “What Does The Shack Really Teach? “Lies We Believe About God” Tells Us,” reformed blogger Tim Challies has done a review which paints a fairly disturbing picture for anyone who takes orthodox theology seriously.
I’m sorry, but this really shouldn’t come as a surprise. A few years ago I purchased and read Burning Down The Shack: How The ‘Christian’ Bestseller is Deceiving Millions, by James B. De Young. The author is a life-long graduate-level bible scholar who has known Paul Young personally for many years. De Young reveals all of this in the first 26 introductory pages of Burning Down The Shack (an Introduction entitled “The Story Behind The Story”). In those 26 introductory pages, we discover that Paul Young, the author of The Shack, was someone deeply conflicted in his faith who had begun questioning many of the foundational doctrines of Christianity and had embraced a form of Universalism known as Ultimate Reconciliation. We also learn that friends of Paul Young reviewed the manuscript of The Shack, were appalled by the Universalism he was promoting and had urged Young to “tone it down.” This was, perhaps, the part of the story that grieved me the most – the idea that all along the way there were those who knew what was happening early on and did not do more to stop it (or at least expose it). Now, 20,000,000 copies later, here we are having to deal with what I can only describe as a cancer growing within Evangelicalism that has the potential to kill the message of the Church (see “The Suicide Of Christian Theology” below).
From Objectivity To Subjectivity
The co-author and publisher of The Shack is Wayne Jacobsen, whom I heard speak at a conference several years ago (after the book but before the movie). Jacobsen is an excellent and polished speaker whose talks affected me in several ways. First, listening to Jacobsen helped me understand the origin and appeal of The Shack. Jacobsen is a “story teller.” His approach to nearly everything is “I’m not here to tell you what to believe, I simply want to tell you where I am on my personal journey.” In this regard, he is an example of the Postmodern approach to truth which is to communicate personal truth by telling personal stories which embody those truths. While this approach can be both disarming and endearing, it also has its downside. Hence, The Shack. The challenge of this Postmodern approach to truth is its tendency towards “He who has the most heart-wrenching story must also have ‘the truth’.” In short, personal subjectivity has become our new “epistemology” (theory of how we know): “It spoke to me, therefore, it’s true.” So, label this first impact upon me as reiterating “the triumph of the story” in communicating truth. If it’s a good story, then it must be “true.”
Jacobsen’s second impact upon my own thinking was to highlight the growing move away from objectivity toward subjectivity in theology. In the space of one “all-too-short” generation (namely, mine), theology has gone from being “objective” to being “subjective.” Let me explain. Theology, as it is being conducted at the grassroots level today, is no longer about those objective truths which you and I believe about God. Rather, theology is now about how that objective “truth” makes us “feel” about God. Theology is now all about me (the “subject”), rather than about God (the “object”). If the “truths” I profess to believe about God make me feel good about God and about other people, then those “truths” must really be true. Hence, Universalism becomes “true” because I no longer feel bad about God sending all those nice people to hell. And I am no longer forced to give difficult answers (like, “yes”) when someone asks me if I think they are going to hell without Christ. And how better to communicate those “make me feel good” truths than through heart-wrenching stories in which everyone gets what they need (or at least what they want), and no one receives anything bad (like “punishment”). So, label this second impact “the triumph of subjectivity” in determining truth. After all, the universe really does revolve around me. My happiness is God’s highest goal. Joel Osteen (and a host of others) told me so.
The third impact of Jacobsen’s talks was to remind me of “the triumph of therapy over theology.” Many of Jacobsen’s writings are best described as “therapeutic stories” in which deeply wounded, conflicted and/or confused people find themselves in conversations with others about their relationship with God. And the conversations take on the flavor of therapy sessions in which good theology takes a back seat to a good story and therapy (“How does that make you feel?”). Mind you, now, I have NO aversion to counseling or therapy. But that isn’t what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking about here is the current trend toward treating an entire generation of believers as victims in need of therapy (the term “snowflakes” comes to mind), rather than as sinners in need of redemption, repentance and the in-filling of the Holy Spirit. For me personally, the high point (or low point) of this “triumph of therapy over theology” came in Jacobsen’s first talk when in one fell swoop he declared that the whole idea of “the fear of the Lord” was an Old Testament concept which does not appear or apply in the New Testament. I could only respond by reminding myself that this news must have come as quite a shock to Ananias and Sapphira who were struck dead out of the holiness of God for the sin of lying to the Holy Spirit, with the result that “great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things” (Acts 5:11). Hmmm. Not a very “therapeutic” moment. More like a theological moment in which the Church rediscovered both the holiness and the fear of a God Who doesn’t take sin in the lives of His people nearly as lightly as we do.
Abraham Was Wrong (And So Are The Universalists)
Therapeutic efforts designed to “apologize” for God’s seemingly harsh behavior remind me that, all too often, like Abraham, we misunderstand the moral universe which we profess to so clearly understand (See Genesis 18:25ff). Abraham adamantly claimed to know that there were no less than 10 righteous people in Sodom, and that God had obviously misunderstood the situation and was about to perpetrate a great moral evil by judging the innocent along with the wicked. Abraham’s mistake was threefold: 1) He claimed to understand reality better than God did, 2) he assumed that God was “unfair” and had no plan for saving the righteous, and 3) He was unwilling to trust the God he claimed to know. In the end, Abraham was wrong. He misunderstood the moral universe he claimed to understand. There were not 10 righteous in Sodom. God did have a plan (something about Angels and getting out of Dodge). And Abraham learned a valuable lesson in the difference between “believing” in God and “trusting” Him. Those who promote Universalism don’t trust God’s goodness in rightly judging the moral universe and doing the right thing when it comes to judgment and punishment for sin.
I believe in the theological task of the Church. Our task is to help people think right thoughts about God, and so to avoid both idolatry-of-the-mind on the one hand and deception-of-the-heart on the other. I believe in the importance of therapy to help people come to terms with the heartbreaking issues of their lives. But more than any of these, I believe in the trustworthiness of God. In the dark night of the soul – in the miry pit of destruction which the Psalmist knew so very well (Psalm 40:2) – when cute stories, doctrinal formulations and therapeutic preaching all fail, I can reach past “easy belief” into the realm of fervent trust in the God Who is objectively there and subjectively trustworthy. I trust Him.
Talking to Postmoderns about doctrine elicits the same response as my mother elicited from me when she tried to explain the benefits of Castor Oil. Needless to say, this postmodern allergic reaction to doctrine explains why thinkers and theologians like Francis Schaeffer are all-but-forgotten while books and movies like The Shack represent the new Evangelicalism. We have gone from “theology” to “therapy.” But visceral reactions not withstanding (“take a box of kleenex with you when you go to see The Shack”), the question remains: What about truth? What about doctrine?
If you don’t like the word “doctrine” simply substitute the word “teaching.” How biblical or “orthodox” is your doctrine, and why should that even be an issue? Before you answer, consider the following. According to a survey of 35,000 Americans by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 57% of people attending Evangelical Churches responded that “Many Religions Can Lead To Eternal Life”. According to Chuck Colson, the people at Pew conducting the survey were so surprised by the results that they re-did the survey and got the same results. They then asked another question, “Do atheists go to heaven?” 50% of Evangelicals responded “Yes.” Colson described this as “the total abandonment of truth.” And that is why this generation of professing Christians is gushing over The Shack. Welcome to that generation which Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias described so well when he pondered how to reach a generation of people who “listen with their eyes and think with their feelings.” Welcome to “The Shack: The Movie,” a prime example of listening with one’s eyes and thinking with one’s feelings.
Creeds or Chaos?
In 1948, British author and apologist Dorothy Sayers wrote Creed or Chaos? Why Christians Must Choose Either Dogma or Disaster (Or, Why It Really Does Matter What You Believe). Sayers argued exactly what the title suggests, namely, the critical importance and unavoidable nature of doctrine in the life of the Church (the book is available on Amazon.com). And, yes, that includes house church. Simple house churches are not exempt from the theological task of teaching right doctrine. We see this in Acts 2:42 where the early house churches devoted themselves to “the apostles teaching.” We all desire “the simplicity of Christ” but sometimes that simplicity must be doctrinally explained. Alan Hirsch’s observation that the creed and message of the early church was “sneezable” is a brilliant observation: “Jesus is Lord.” But it wasn’t long in the life of the early church before questions arose about who this Jesus really was, particularly in relation to Jehovah. Was Jesus God, or merely god-like? Was Jesus “of the same substance” or was He “of like substance” with the Father (the difference between homoousios and homoiousios). Was He co-eternal with the Father, or merely the first of God’s creations (Arianism). Was He the ghost-like phantasm of Docetism, the created demi-urge of Gnosticism, or the incarnation of the second person of the God-head. As a result of these questions, the first 4 “general councils” of the Church (Nicea -325, Constantinople-381, Ephesus-431, and Chalcedon-451) dealt with these very issues and produced confessional creeds which remain among the most succinct statements of Biblical belief every penned.
The Suicide Of Christian Theology
Does “doctrine” matter? Do “creeds” matter? Of course, such things matter and the role of leaders is both to teach “the apostles’ doctrine” and to explain the implications of good and bad doctrine for the life of the Church under their care. And as a teacher and a leader within my own sphere, I have an obligation to point out that the Universalism of The Shack and those associated with it, represents the suicide of Christian/biblical theology or belief. First, if Universalism is true and everyone ends up in heaven regardless of what they believe in this life, then doctrine truly doesn’t matter and it doesn’t matter what you believe. The “new” Universalist mantra is, “Jesus is the only way to God, but there are many ways to Jesus.” Sorry. Good try, but no cigar. In other words, you can be a Christian, a Mormon, a Buddhist, a Satanist or anything else you choose, because ultimately it doesn’t matter. There are many ways, all of which lead to Jesus, and you’ll end up in heaven regardless. If that is true, then who cares what you believe! It doesn’t matter! Anyone failing to understand Universalism as the suicide of Christian theology really doesn’t understand the nature or the implications of Universalist doctrine. Second, if Universalism is true then it represents the death of biblical morality and ethics. There is no reason to live by Biblical morals (even though Jesus would like for you to) since how you live in this life is ultimately unrelated to whether or not you are going to heaven. Everyone eventually gets there, regardless of how they lived in this life and regardless of what fruit (if any) they produced in this life. Third, if Universalism is true then it represents the death of evangelism and the gospel message. In the words of Universalist Clark Pinnock (paraphrasing someone else), “The good news is . . . there is no bad news.” If Pinnock and other Universalists are right, then there is no good news to share because any “good news” of salvation presupposes the “bad news” of hell and eternal punishment. And finally, if Universalism is true, then it represents the death knell of missions for the Church. Why should anyone (i.e., the Taylors, the Careys, the Livingstons, the Stanleys, the Elliotts and countless others) risk life, health and material comfort to take non-existent good news to people who are going to be saved anyway, regardless of any mission or message. Doctrine, you see, really does matter.
Creeds Versus Deeds
A healthy organic church will actually spend comparatively little time on doctrinal issues, whereas an unhealthy organic church will consume itself over such issues. I find myself grieving beyond words when I see organic church discussions bogging down in doctrinal disputes over things ranging from the need to observe Jewish feasts to Universalism. People who want to turn organic church into a debate over the meaning of aionios kolasis (“eternal punishment”) in Matthew 25:46 completely miss Jesus’ point, namely, that the goats who experience “eternal punishment” do so because they failed to demonstrate their faith through such “Kingdom deeds” as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, befriending the stranger, visiting the prisoner, etc. This is also true of those wanting to turn simple house church into an “end-time eschatology study group”. How do I know? Simple exegesis, my dear Watson. Matthew 24 – 25 embodies one long discourse. Jesus begins the “Olivet Discourse” with a discussion of eschatology (“the end of the Age”) and ends the discourse with the “end of the age” separation of the sheep & goats. Tell me something. Based upon this extended passage, which do you think Jesus would be pleased to find you doing when He returns; studying the Left Behind series, watching The Shack, or feeding the hungry. When you figure it out, let me know which night you’re available to come down and feed the guys at the men’s shelter.
Welcome to the penitential season known as “Lent.” For those unfamiliar with the Liturgical Calendar, on the Western Calendar this year Lent extends from Ash Wednesday, March 1 until Thursday, April 13. Traditionally, Lent has been a season when the Church – both individually and corporately – reflects upon its own sins and failures in preparation for celebrating Christ’s substitutionary death for sin on the cross (Good Friday) and His victory over sin and death in the resurrection (Easter). Let me pause to emphasize BOTH the substitutionary death AND the victorious resurrection. There is a trend afoot in marginally evangelical circles to disparage the substitutionary aspect of Christ’s work and to emphasize His victorious work. But, alas, as ol’ blue eyes used to croon about love and marriage, “Let me tell you, brother, you can’t have one without the other.” To separate the two, or to disparage one at the expense of the other, is to destroy both.
In our age of seeker friendly messages and services, evangelical Christianity finds itself in a conundrum when it comes to Lent. We want to celebrate a penitential season without being either penitent or repentant. We want to celebrate the victory of Christ’s resurrection without personally reflecting on how our behavior necessitated the events which put Christ in the tomb. When Rembrandt painted his “Raising of the Cross” (c.1633) he sought to capture the moment when Christ’s executioners raised Him on the cross. But the face of the lead executioner hoisting the cross is that of Rembrandt himself. It was his sins which necessitated this event. That’s what Lent means, reflecting upon the role our sins played in the events we now celebrate. Unfortunately, in today’s seeker-friendly, “offend-no-one” environment, the call to reflection and repentance has not simply fallen on deaf ears. It hasn’t even been proclaimed. We want to arrive at Easter morning without having to reflect upon our part in the events of Good Friday.
But there’s more . . .
The past few years have not been particularly kind to the Evangelical Church in America and the West. Recent surveys have shown a marked decline in Christian self-identification (in spite of valiant attempts to spin the numbers in a more favorable light). Militant atheism on both the academic and the grassroots levels is on a noticeable rise. And the recent national election has suggested a genuine sea-change and cultural shift away from traditional conservative (yes, even Judeo-Christian) values of historic proportions is currently underway. The response of the Evangelical Church has, for the most part, been to deny that anything is amiss, or that they (we) are in anyway responsible for the current state of things. As the late Michael Spencer adroitly observed, Evangelical Christians seem to believe – indeed, they insist – that “their ship is listing to one side because it gives them a more interesting look at the iceberg” (Michael Spencer, Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back To Jesus-Shaped Spirituality, page 23).
The last thing the Evangelical Church wants to do is to admit failure in its mission and calling. We assume that such an admission would mean that Jesus has somehow “failed.” It never occurs to us that our activities may not be His activities and that the failure of our programs in no way reflects any failure on the part of Jesus or the Kingdom. Could it be that we are the ones who have failed and not Jesus? Is it possible that we are the ones who have failed to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to call men to repent and believe the good news? Is it possible that we as the Church need to repent of flawed means, flawed methods and a flawed message? Is it possible that we need to repent of thinking too much of ourselves, our gifts, our “church,” our programs and our abilities, and of thinking too little of Jesus and of our need for His fresh empowerment to do the impossible? Is it possible that we need to repent of trying to co-opt and promote the political kingdoms of men rather than preaching, teaching and pursuing the Kingdom of God as we were told to do? Is it possible that we need to repent of preaching “happiness” when we should have been exhorting people to pursue that holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14)? Feel free at this point to add your own “possibilities” for repentance.
This is the purpose for a penitential season like Lent. It is a season to examine ourselves. It is a season to confess our anger and our judgmentalism toward a culture which seems determined to ignore or reject our message. Jesus’ message was rejected by the culture of His day, too. They didn’t just reject Him. They crucified Him. But He didn’t respond with anger or judgmentalism. He responded with forgiveness toward His executioners, and with the fresh empowerment of the Holy Spirit for those who trusted and obeyed Him (after all, Easter makes Pentecost possible). As we enter the Lenten Season, perhaps it is time for us as the Church to reflect upon our genuine spiritual failures of message, method and of personal character which have brought us to the place in which we now find ourselves, and to remember that the journey to Easter morning and the victory it embodies first leads us through Good Friday, the terrible price paid for our sin, and the promise of forgiveness offered by a dying Savior. Seeking forgiveness for profound personal and corporate failure requires profound humility on our part, even a sense of spiritual desperation. But such humility and desperation make the victory of Easter morning that much more meaningful . . . and personally “sweet.”
In the history of spiritual awakenings stretching back over the past 250 years of Church history, God has NEVER sent revival or spiritual awakening to either a church or a people who were satisfied with themselves, their condition, or their own gifts and abilities. Spiritual desperation is the necessary precursor for God to move in spiritual awakening and revival, and even to bring in an end-time harvest. So long as we believe we can do it ourselves, why should He act to confirm our pride and hubris? God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5).
And that brings us back to where we started. Welcome to the penitential season known as “Lent”. May you find it to be a season of profound reflection, repentance, and renewal. And may you, like Rembrandt, find your own face among those whose sins and failures placed Christ on the cross. It makes Good Friday more personally meaningful, and the victory of Easter morning personally “sweeter.”
Welcome to Rising River Media, a non-profit Christian media and publishing company. Our mission is to produce quality media resources in support of organic churches. We have four basic priorities which guide what we do: 1) To Proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God, 2) To Raise up and equip committed disciples of that Kingdom, 3) To Plant multiplying organic churches, and 4) To Serve “the least of these.” We hope you’ll take a few minutes to check out the resources we offer. Because we’re continually adding and updating resources, we hope you’ll become a regular visitor.
Maurice Smith is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an alumnus of Campus Crusade for Christ, International ("Cru") and an honors graduate of Denver Baptist Seminary where he also served as adjunct faculty. He is an accomplished author of several books on theology, spiritual awakening and organic house church.
Gale Smith serves as the Artistic Director of Rising River Media. Gale is a graduate of Spokane Falls Community College (AA) and Eastern Washington University (BA – Fine Arts). Following graduation Gale joined the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ ("Cru"), serving at their International Headquarters in the Art Department as a graphic designer. Gale is an accomplished and gifted artist in a wide variety of contexts and mediums including graphic design, logos, illustrations, water colors and pastels.
Maurice and Gale met and on Cru Staff and have been married now for 38 years. They reside in Spokane, Washinton and have two adult children. Together they coordinate Rising River Media, a non-profit media and publishing company.