Friday, July 10, 2015

Burning Hearts Are Not Nourished by Empty Heads

Christianity Today 26, 100 (Sept. 3, 1982). | Sept. 3, 1982 | R.C. Sproul

How can we love what we do not understand?  What do you read first when the newspaper arrives? I dive for the sports pages—an involuntary reflex action left over from a youth spent with visions of Pittsburgh Pirates and Steelers dancing in my head. The child within me still suffers more anxiety over league standings than the Falkland Islands. Old reading habits die hard. It is the same with Christian magazines and periodicals. When I first began reading Christianity Today, two columns hooked me quickly. One was "Eutychus and His Kin," the other, "Current Religious Thought." I still go first to "Current Religious Thought," for I know I will encounter some vignettes of intellectual insight to nourish my too-empty head.

We live in what may be the most anti-intellectual period in the history of Western civilization. We are not necessarily antiacademic, antitechnological, or antiscientific. The accent is against the intellect itself. Secular culture has embraced a kind of impressionism that threatens to turn all our brains into mush, and the evangelical world has followed suit, developing an allergy to all things intellectual. The kind of debate waged between Luther and Erasmus or Edwards and Chubb would be unacceptable today. Their reasoning was too acute, their polemics too acerbic, their critiques too rapier-like for our modern comfort zones. Debates, if they are held today, are won by charm and a benign smile rather than by lucid argument. Satire is almost extinct, the verbal gladiators who used it having perished with the fathers.

To be sure, William Buckley persists, but he is an anachronism, a refurbished antique whose style is so uncommon that some mistake him for something new. How I pine for the days of yore when Ad Leitch responded to Tillich's recasting of traditional categories of divine transcendence from "up-there" to "down-there" on the depth dimension of the Ground of Being. Does anyone remember Leitch's article in the early sixties about the impact Tillich's theology would have on church architecture? He said that instead of steeples pointing heavenward we would have to have our church services while assembled in a cavernous open pit. Our search for the Ground of Being would occur not while singing "Rise Up, O Men of God," but rather ''Go Down, Moses." Kierkegaard, after evaluating the state of the church in nineteenth-century Europe, wrote, "My complaint is not that this age is wicked, but that it is paltry: It lacks passion." The Dane should be alive today. Passion we have —it is reason that is in eclipse.

Christianity is an intellectual faith. This does not mean that it flirts with intellectualism or restricts sainthood to an elite group of gnostic eggheads. But though the Word of God is not limited to intellectuals, its content is addressed to the mind. There is a primacy of the intellect in the Christian life as well as a primacy of the heart. How can that be? To speak of the primacy of both mind and heart sounds like a neo-orthodox creed, a dabbling in dialectics. How can two distinct things have primacy at the same rime without resorting to contradiction? Must there not be one ultimate primacy, or at least a primus inter pares? We can, I think, have two primacies if they hold their primacy in different relations. The primacy of the intellect is with respect to order. The primacy of the heart is with respect to importance.

 We know that the disposition of the heart toward Christ is of supreme importance. If our doctrine is correct, our intellectual understanding of theology impeccable, it is to no avail if our heart is "far from him." If the head is right and the heart is wrong, we perish. On the other hand, if the head is confused, the understanding muddled, and the doctrine fuzzy, there is still hope for us if our hearts beat with a passion for God. Better the empty head than the empty heart.

Why then bother with religious thought, or speak at all of the primacy of the mind? Precisely for the sake of the heart. How can we love what we do not understand? How can we worship an unknown God? If the character of God remains an enigma to us, all our singing, praying, and religious zeal becomes a useless passion, a beating of the air. Religion degenerates to superstition and liturgy becomes a form of magical incantation.

There is a content to the Christian faith. That content is directed, by way of order, to the mind. The New Testament calls us to be childlike, but not with respect to understanding. It is the plea of the apostolic heart that we not be ignorant in our heads. God has made us with a harmony of heart and head, of thought and action,  God the Holy Spirit superintended a Book that is to be read, whose verbal content is to be so understood and digested that our hearts may burn within us. As the ankle bone is connected to the knee bone, so there is a marvelous circuitry fashioned by God that flashes back and forth from head to heart. The more we know him the more we are able to love him. The more we love him the more we seek to know him. To be central in our hearts he must be foremost in our minds. Religious thought is the prerequisite to religious affection and obedient action.

We must have passion—indeed hearts on fire for the things of God. But that passion must resist with intensity the anti-intellectual spirit of the world. The entrance of that spirit into the house of God is like a Trojan horse, concealing within its belly the troops of the enemy who would beguile us with contentless religion, thoughtless action, and vacuous zeal—fire without; light. Its only legacy will be a tomb for a forgotten deity inscribed with the; epitaph, "To an Unknown God."

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

How Bible Preachers Can Turn Into Cult Leaders

High profile church leaders need accountability to keep them focused on Christ and his truth.

There are 3 stepping stones used by personality cult leaders in developing a following. Loyalty to Bible to Movement to the Leader. If they were just to go around saying: ‘I am the messianic hero – follow me,’ then they would mostly just be ignored as crazy. So instead they use a 3 step strategy.

You’re in a church that affirms the inerrancy of scripture so you’re safe. Right? Sorry. No.  There are other problems.  Liberals have long pointed out how that cult-like authoritarian leaders are almost all pastors in conservative Bible believing churches.  Unfortunately and painfully that is true.  Why?  And how do we correct the problem.
Three Stepping Stones to Cultish Authority
There are 3 stepping stones used by personality cult leaders in developing a following. Loyalty to Bible to Movement to the Leader. If they were just to go around saying: ‘I am the messianic hero – follow me,’ then they would mostly just be ignored as crazy. So instead they use a 3 step strategy.
  • First, they promote loyalty to the truth of the Bible. This massive absolute trustworthy authority gets them lots of sincere followers and provokes little challenge.
  • Second, they promote loyalty to their movement as a means to implement obedience to the scriptures. Fair enough to do so and necessary, but the break point becomes when loyalty movement becomes more important than loyalty to scripture. Then people are drawn into the next level and for them the movement becomes a cult. The successes of the movement are boasted about in an unrealistic manner. All sorts of benefits are promised. The value of defending each other is emphasized. But most others are still loyal to scripture.
  • Then the third stage is the transfer of loyalty from the movement as a group to the messianic hero leader himself. Lots of subtle ways to do this: self-promotion, boasting, mentoring, special promotions etc. Telling people their destiny is linked to being around a great leader etc. Leaders introducing each other in bloated unrealistic ways. Anyway, at the same time different people in the movement can be at different stages in this loyalty slide: Bible to Movement to Leader.
Once the person is loyal to the next level, loyalty to the previous level can be dispensed with quite conveniently. e.g. Once people are blindly loyal to the movement, then the Bible can be dispensed with. Once people are blindly loyal to the leader, the interests of the rest of the movement can be dispensed with. This explains how certain cultish people can be so hypocritical. They no longer really care about the Bible or really care about the interests of other people in the movement. Their professed loyalty to these other things are just stepping stones for people to stop on in the manipulative plans of a personality cult.
In some cases, the driver of this movement is not actually the leader – it is the followers. They move themselves with no encouragement to the next level of cultish loyalty. In fact they push the decent honest leader to behave as if he was God-like, they hero-worship him and flatter him and try to attack anyone who disagrees with him. But it is evil and idolatry and good people must stand up to this degeneration and stop it.
The pattern also explains how someone can be teaching stuff that is almost 100% Biblically correct and yet still be leading people astray like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Yes, it’s painful, but this is how good honest God-loving people get sucked into a personality cult. We must expose this manipulation and try helping these people back to God and the Bible.
Why do Bible Believing Groups So Often Go Cultic?
Liberals have pointed out how many Bible believing groups abuse their followers in a cultic manner.  How do we as evangelicals explain how belief in the inerrancy of scripture co-exists with spiritually abusive behavior? I would explain as follows: The cult leader wants absolute power. He does not want partial power or a degree of power. He wants it all. Anything that is affirmed as absolute and infallible automatically carries with it an enormous amount of power and authority. The cult leader wants to share some of that. So he tries to associate himself with the authority (in this case the Bible) in the minds of his followers. This is the same dynamic as the junior wannabe deputy cult leaders who suck up to the senior ‘apostolic’ and ‘senior pastor’ ‘cult leaders’ / ‘wannabe Pope’ – who try hang around them in the hope that they might get some of their power. It is also a bit like the junior leader who ‘name drops’ about all the important people he knows in order to get people to put him on their level. So the cult leader wants to affirm the high authority of the Bible and then also put himself on a similar level of authority as the sole interpreter of the Bible to his followers. That way, he and not the Bible gets affirmed as the final authority.
Now in churches which don’t affirm the inerrancy of scripture, this trick to steal authority from scripture won’t work. If the Bible doesn’t have authority, then all that counts is everybody’s human opinion. Why should I listen to you – I have my own opinion. Now in such churches there are other ways for people to manipulate to get power. In these instances, power usually goes to the Modernist or Post-Modernist academics who are seen as all knowing and the men with all the answers. But in these instances, it is basically an intellectual following. They can’t get people bowing and scraping to their every whim and hanging on their words as if they proceed directly from God.
Now really the problem is not with the inerrancy of the Bible. The problem is with cult-leaders who act as though their interpretation of and application of the Bible is infallible – and their cult-followers who believe it.
To give a further illustration as to why personality cultists tend to prefer to affirm the infallible word of God. There is real money and there is counterfeit money. They look similar, but on close examination they are not. But what do the counterfeiters counterfeit? Do they counterfeit one dollar coins? No. That would be a waste of time. They counterfeit hundred dollar bills (or hundred rand notes for South Africans). But does that mean that all hundred dollar bills should now be suspect. No. The issue is that counterfeiters go to the trouble of counterfeiting something that is real and valuable. They don’t copy cheap stuff. So there is very little point in trying to counterfeit liberal, modernist or post-modernist Christianity. It has no real authority, so there is very little to steal or borrow from. The infallible word of God on the other hand carries with it divine authority – now for those who want to be ‘little gods’ in their own community – that is a good stepping stone in their quest for divine status. So that is why personality cultists like to affirm the absolute authority of scripture – just that they never want scripture used to hold them accountable. You can’t do so because they are the only one who can interpret it. If you challenge them, then they say you are interpreting wrongly and must listen to their interpretation. Their interpretation can bend and change with whatever is convenient at the time – so it is not actually scripture which has divine authority – but them that has divine authority.
Charismatic Elitists
Certain elitist Charismatic groups take this authoritarianism to an even more extreme level with the idea that God speaks through the Messianic leader with ‘words of knowledge’ and a ‘hotline to heaven’ with perfect accuracy – but that the ordinary congregation member can’t get guidance from God themselves.  Then what do you get? A man interpolated as the voice of God – who you better absolutely obey else you are disobeying God.
Correcting Cultic Authoritarian Interpretations of Scripture
A correct understanding of scripture corrects these problems.  While the Bible is infallible, the interpretation of it is not – and the senior leader is accountable to other leaders and in extreme case ultimately everyone else in proving his interpretation of scripture from scripture.  Historic confessions referred to these teachings as ‘the priesthood of all believers’ and ‘the clarity of scripture’.  In the book of Galatians, even the apostle Peter made a mistake and had to be corrected by the apostle Paul.  Nobody then is above challenge. Systems of church governance which give mechanisms to hold senior leaders accountable to their followers help correct such personality cults developing.  If your church doesn’t have those, seriously consider pushing for reform or moving to a church with healthier governance.