What The Gospel IS and IS NOT — Part 1

When I was a kid, my earliest theological instruction amounted to the following:

  • God made everything.
  • Jesus is God’s Son.
  • Jesus died and came back from the dead.
  • Good people go to heaven.
  • Bad people go to Hell.

As I grew, others explained to me that Jesus died for our sins. I hadn’t quite connected the dots about sin, though.

Then, when we moved to a town in the southeast, my stepmom began taking us to a Church of God (the denomination based out of Cleveland, TN).

I couldn’t stand the service: the pastor yelled and screamed a lot, but my stepmom liked him. I thought he was a blowhard.

So, as a compromise, my stepmom sent us to children’s church. The other kids in there were jerks who made fun of me, as I didn’t know the Bible at all.

But I had received a children’s Bible for Christmas that year. So I started reading that.

I also started reading a real Bible; there were plenty around, given that my dad worked in a hotel and The Gideons always left them in the rooms. (I’m not in the KJV-only camp, but I really enjoyed, and still enjoy, reading the Bible in KJV.)

Things started clicking.

Yes, good people go to heaven. But none of us are any good! I began to realize that, if it were up to us to be good enough, we would all fail.

Yes, bad people go to Hell. But we’re all bad!

So if none of us are any good, and all of us are bad, and God is good and heaven is only for good people, we are otherwise screwed. Hell is what we all deserve.

Enter Jesus, who took the punishment we deserve, and came back from the dead, and acts as our High Priest in heaven.

So easy a third-grader can understand, but so complicated that many adults won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.

I can’t recall the exact nanosecond, let alone the date that I received Christ, but it was definitely in the Spring of 1976. I was 9.

Before long, I was the one in children’s church who knew the Scriptures better than everyone else. And it wasn’t an intellectual pursuit, either; I believed it.

I would get baptized that Summer, along with others in that church. I never embraced Pentecostalism–the only tongues I have ever spoken are English and Redneck–but I can’t say that my experiences at that church were all bad, either.

Nine years later, as a college freshman, I began to hang out with the Christian Fellowship Club. They were dominated by Pentecostals, good folks but definitely overzealous. They were members of the local Assemblies of God (AoG) church, and I typically hitched a ride on Sunday evenings. (I worked Sunday mornings in my first semester.)

That AoG church was a mixed bag.

On the positive side: the pastor at the time–JA–was a good man who preached the Gospel faithfully. One of the engineering professors–JJ–was also a member there, and occasionally preached. He was a good man.

On the negative side: many folks within the church were steeped in Prosperity Theology and her bastard cousin Word of Faith Theology.

There were folks within that church who taught that, if you are living “in the Spirit”, you will never get sick and will have more material wealth than you know what to do with.

While I had no doubt that God could–and did often–heal people, and while the Bible was very clear that God will provide for your needs, these “Prosperity” teachings did not seem to ring true with Scripture.

And Word of Faith theology? That was even more insidious.

I remember, during my time at a Fundamentalist school in 7th grade, spending significant time in the library. In that time, I stumbled across a pamphlet about three popular cults: Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists.

Word of Faith theology struck me as straight out of the Mary Baker Eddy School of Christian Science, all with an evangelical/charismatic spin.

I remember a tract that was on display in one of the charismatic churches: How To Write Your Own Ticket With God. By Kenneth Hagin, one of the granddaddys of modern Word of Faith theology.

It struck me as downright arrogant. I wasn’t an expert in Scripture, but I couldn’t recall one instance where someone went to God and said, “Here is what I want…give it to me.” (The closest thing to that, the prayer of Jabez, still does not cross that threshold.)

In Scripture, it is God who tells His people what to do, not the other way around. Clay, meet Potter.

At my school, we had a flight instructor who was a Christian. He had become paralyzed, from the waist down, in a car accident. He was a faithful member of that AoG church.

He had prayed many times for healing, and many fine men of God had laid hands on him and prayed for healing. And yet he remained paralyzed.

“Is this man living in sin?” I doubted that was the case.

“Is God’s word not true?” That was a logical possibility.

“Does God’s word really mean what these Prosperity peddlers tell us?” That was also a logical possibility.

But as I looked at Scripture, it became clear: while God does heal people and deliver from suffering, there are times where God allows suffering. I was well aware of the historical persecution of Christians by hostile governments from the Romans of old to the modern Communists and Islamic governments.

If Prosperity Theology or Word of Faith theology was valid, then why have Christians suffered so much in the past? Why do Christians in the Communist bloc suffer so much? Do they not pray for deliverance?

I figured if Robert Tilton or Brad Champion (a Word of Faith hothead who was big for a season in the Daytona Beach area) were so right, then surely all they had to do is go to the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, and Iran and preach their bold word, and all those people would be free! Surely all Champion had to do was go to the Halifax Medical Center and lay hands on the sick…he could put the hospital out of business!

But of course they wouldn’t do that…because they were full of crap!

If we are concerned about finances and physical health, I’d say American Christians have it pretty easy. Today, we speak in terms of “First World Problems”.

During those years, the Christian world would be rocked by scandals among the Prosperity peddlers: Jim Bakker would go down in flames and even end up in prison; Jimmy Swaggart would be caught in a sex scandal of his own; Peter Popoff would be caught using a transmitter, exposing his faux “spiritual gifts”. Pat Robertson, during his Presidential run, would have his own premarital scandal–more importantly his lying about it–exposed.

But others would arise to fill that vacuum. Robert Tilton, Paul Crouch, Benny Hinn, Keneth Copeland, and Marilyn Hickey would rise to prominence. Tilton would get his cover blown by network television, and Benny Hinn would get caught–time and time again–making theological pronouncements that were not just heretical but downright bizarre.

P.T. Barnum once said it: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” And there will always be a critical mass of people looking to have their ears tickled.

Those contentious years–the 1980s–gave me a boot camp of sorts on what the Gospel is and is not.

Jim Bakker, as he languished in prison, began to study everything the Bible taught about money and prosperity. He would arrive at the conclusion that would be the title of his best work: I Was Wrong.

Jesus, when preaching about material things, rarely had good things to say to those who had lots of money.

When He challenged the rich, young ruler, the man chose his riches over Jesus. A man asked Jesus to intervene in an estate dispute–to force his brother to divide the estate with him–and Jesus would have none of it. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus punctuates a comparison against the parable of the shrewd steward: the former, knowing his reckoning was imminent, taking action to prepare whereas the rich man arrogantly disregarded the most basic form of compassion for Lazarus, who begged at his gate for food.

He also had a terse word for those who expected Him to bring political revolution: “My kingdom is not of this world.”

The prosperity He preached pertained to eternal life, not life on earth. In fact, regarding this earth, He said it plainly: “Heaven and earth will pass away.” He promised He would prepare a place for us, and that He would come back and receive us. He did not promise to make this earth better; He did not promise us great wealth on earth.

In fact, Jesus told the Disciples that things would get very bad for them: many would pay the ultiimate price for following Him.

He did, however, promise ultimate prosperity:

He promised that He would go and prepare a place for us;

He promised that He would come back;

He promised that, when He came back, He would receive us unto Himself.

While we humans are created a little lower than the angels, when we–those of us who are in Christ–are resurrected, we will be like the angels in heaven.

And yet we will have it even better than the angels. You know why? None of the angels are children of God. And yet, when you receive Christ, you receive the gift of adoption as His child.

That gives you a privilege that even the angels don’t enjoy.

You know what that means? Even the lowliest toilet scrubber in Heaven will have more wealth than the richest men on earth–combined–ever had.

Think about that the next time you hear Joel Osteen or Benny Hinn or Paula White or Joyce Meyer or Creflo Dollar or any of the other Word of Faith wackos.

They wouldn’t know real wealth if it bit them in the nether regions. And unless they repent, this earth is the closest to heaven they will ever get.

SBC Pastor Robert Jeffress May Have Stepped In It

Robert Jeffress, a Southern Baptist megachurch pastor and one of President Trump’s “spiritual advisors”, has made a very bold proclamation.

When it comes to how we should deal with evil doers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary – including war – to stop evil…In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.

He’s either on-par with the best of the prophets and Apostles, or he is on the same footing as Hananiah.

If he turns out to be wrong–as Hananiah was–then it’s a very big deal, as he will have established himself as a false teacher.

I don’t throw that tag–false teacher–around lightly. There are many folks with whom I have disagreements, but I would not hit them with the “false teacher” tag. That carries huge theological implications.

I reserve that tag for teachers, preachers, and other would-be “church leaders” who, among other things, either (a) preach a false gospel, (b) deny essential doctrines of the Christian faith (e.g. the Fall, the Atonement,  the Resurrection), (c) engage in behaviors that are immoral, malevolent, fraudulent, or otherwise disqualifying and then reject discipline when confronted, or (d) make prophecies that do not come to pass. There are other criteria on that list, but I’d say those four cover most of what qualifies one as a “false teacher”.

Examples of such teachers: Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, Rob Bell, Joyce Meyer, Paula White, Benny Hinn, the late Jack Hyles, the late Harry Emerson Fosdick, John Shelby Spong, Harold Camping, and Jack Schaap. That is not an exhaustive list, but those are examples of teachers/preachers who would fall under my understanding of “false teachers”.

And if Jeffress is wrong here, then he has earned a spot on that list. This is because he has taken an opinion, and–using Scripture–boldly asserted a word from God.

That’s a heck of a truth claim on his end. And while he could be right, he does not seem to carry the gravitas of Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Ezekiel, or Daniel. His exegesis of Romans, quite charitably, leaves some room for concern.

Keep in mind that this is no small matter, as Trump could act on Jeffress’ advice and start a war that quickly goes nuclear and leaves millions dead.

If Jeffress is wrong, that will put the SBC will be in the mother of all dilemmas, as they will be under severe pressure to take decisive action against a popular pastor.

Don’t get me wrong: I will cry no tears for Kim Jong-Un. If things go south, it will be the end for the Kim dynasty. Having been good friends with the son of one who escaped that regime, I will drink Guinness…Extra Stout…to the death of Ding Dong IIIKim Jong-Un.

Still, it’s a very bad idea to claim to have some special word from God on these matters. Unless, of course, you actually have such a word.

Having said that, as a recovering Baptist, I’m a tad and a half skeptical of Mr. Jeffress’ truth claim.

Rainer, TWW, and Church-Killers

Fair disclosure:

(1) I’m not a Thom Rainer fan. I am skeptical of anyone or anything coming out of LifeWay.

(2) I’m not a Calvinist, let alone a NeoCal.

(3) I absolutely reject the mindset that accepts that the pastor can do no wrong.

I generally give the pastor the benefit of the doubt until the facts won’t allow it.

With that out of the way, we have this from Rainer, HT to Dee at TWW.

Rainer provides a quick blurb on what he calls seven reasons why churches often experience dramatic declines in their attendance.

(1) Scandal. I agree with him on this one, having seen a couple of them firsthand. Sex/adultery scandals are often the worst here. When a pastor (or anyone in church leadership) falls–or, more accurately, swan-dives–into sexual indiscretion, he’s committing treason: against his family, against his church, against Jesus. He’s effectively dropping a nuclear bomb on everyone around him. (And yes, those scandals can include women in key positions, too.)

(2) Sudden departure of a pastor or staff person. Most of the time, this occurs when a popular, well-respected pastor either (a) retires or (b) gets “the call” to go elsewhere. Pastors can do the latter for a number of reasons, some of them good, others not so much.

On one hand, a pastor may have reached the point where he has outlived his usefulness at a particular church. In a perfect world, this would never happen, but–in case you didn’t get the memo–we do not live in such a world. At some churches, it’s a given: their niche is for the training of itinerant pastors. I know of churches in rural Kentucky that are like that: seminary students preach there every Sunday and Wednesday, and they cycle in a new one every couple years. These are typically very small churches who cannot afford to have a full-time pastor.

OTOH, I’d have to admit that I share Dee’s skepticism. When a pastor gets a “call” to go elsewhere, it’s almost never a call to preach at a smaller church; oh noes: it’s almost always a “call” to a larger church that is paying more money and offering more perks. I’ve often observed that today’s “ministry” is more like a corporate ladder: get a 4-year degree, go to seminary and get an MDiv (and maybe even a DMin or PhD or ThD), then take on small-ball ministerial gigs. If you manage to speak well, not piss off the wrong people, you will progress to medium and then larger churches where the sky is the limit.

That’s a very corrosive culture, and the Church is worse for it.

(3) Closure or decline of a major employer. I would have labeled this Economic decline of the area. Yes, this can be a big deal, particularly in a town where there is one or two major employers and plants start getting shut down.

Sometimes, this can happen over time, however.

I was one a part of a church that experienced such a decline over a couple decades. In the early 1900s through the WWII era, they were in the prime part of town and church attendance was booming. But as a tobacco plants and distilleries began to cut jobs and then eventually close altogether, families moved out. And then the government housing projects moved in, and more families moved out. This dynamic impacted every church in that area. Even the prominent black church–which was a mile away from my church–moved out, as they didn’t even want anything to do with the decaying community.

I used to run outside after church on Sundays in that area. Today, I would be an idiot to do that.

(4) The Church changes its position on a Biblical/moral issue. While Dee focuses on churches that fell victim to what I call “NeoCon hijackings”, I will attest to what Rainer is describing: churches that embrace liberalism or reject conservatism. I know of churches that have bolted the SBC, not because of their coverups of abuses (that would be a good reason) but rather their conservatism. These are churches that endorse homosexuality, abortion, communist economics, and a lower view of Biblical authority.

I also know of churches that bolted the Presbyterian Church USA due to their liberalism. The PCUSA has embraced the pro-gay, pro-abortion, anything goes paradigm that is common in mainline protestant circles. As a result, many PCUSA churches have jumped ship and joined forces with the more conservative PCA and OPC.

When churches depart from Biblical standards, it should lead to a serious disruption in attendance.

(5) A power group continues to wreak havoc in the church. Like Dee, I see the importance of such groups, as they can often be a defense against those who (unwisely) would take the church in any direction that might seem popular at the time. They can also be a defense against a pastor whose wisdom has not kept pace with his charisma.

OTOH, what Rainer is describing is a whole ‘nother insidious dynamic: where you can’t take a restroom break without consulting with that “power group.” Such churches often have committees, often dominated by the same people, who obstruct almost everything, and are resistant to even the most benign change.

Such churches can become graveyards for pastors. My church was started because a group of folks was run out of a church by a “power group”.

(6) Another church moves close by. Unless that other church is a megachurch or very large church with similar theology, that is not as much of a factor. If people are leaving your church for the New Church In Town, then they’re probably doing you a favor.

(7) A highly-contentious business meeting. I’ve seen this dynamic, and I place the blame mostly on the pastors on this one. Sometimes, these are the work of insidious “power groups”, but I’ve mostly seen this done by pastors who seek to foist very divisive plans on the church.

Sometimes, it is a “relocation” proposal, which is very difficult and sometimes is done for all the wrong reasons.

Sometimes, that involves an initiative that requires big financial commitment. Again, that is very difficult and sometimes done for all the wrong reasons.

I’ve seen pastors press their churches to add a gymnasium (aka, a “Family Life Center”) and put the church into big debt that they could not sustain. I’ve seen pastors attempt–in spite of all wisdom to the contrary–to relocate their churches, and fail badly.

In other cases, as Dee points out, you have churches where pastors, often with a NeoCal bent, seek to foist a whole new form of church government (“elder-led”) and church membership (“covenant membership”) on parishioners. Of course, such meetings will be contentious, and people will leave (this time for good reasons).


Hugh Freeze, Briarcrest, and Ole Miss

Until about 2 weeks ago, Hugh Freeze’s coaching career was a real-life Facing The Giants story: he had no college football experience, but would go on to lead Briarcrest Academy (Memphis, TN) to two state football championships and four state girls basketball championships.

From there, he would go on to take an Ole Miss football program that was notoriously low-performing and take them to four bowl appearances, including two victories against Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide.

He was known as a devout Christian who held students and players to high standards of conduct, not unlike Bill McCartney who once coached University of Colorado and founded Promise Keepers.

But now, Freeze is gone. Part of that downfall began with some recruiting violations–that’s bad, but not the end of the world–but the final straw was “personal conduct”, including at least one phone call, on his university-issued cell phone, to an escort service.

Now, the accusations are bubbling, going all the way back to his days at Briarcrest. (HT: Amy Smith of Watch Keep via FB.)

While it does not appear that the accusations involve him having sex with students, they do call into question both his judgment and a potentially-twisted sexuality.

Back in the day, when I was in middle/high school (8th-9th grade) in Memphis, paddling was not uncommon.

I was paddled 5 times. Twice by one of the principals and three of those times by one of the football coaches. One of which involved the coach goofing off (I made him laugh when I responded with, “Thank you sir may I have another!”, so he ended the punishment right then.)

But typically, whenever a teacher gave a paddling, he (or she) had at least one other teacher as a witness. And if the recipient of the paddling was female, the teacher doing the paddling was typically female.

From what I am reading about Freeze, if the accusations are true then there is some definite red flag creepiness.

I mean seriously…having a girl change her shirt in your office???

(Having her in his office without at least one other staffer present would be very bad judgment. But having her change her shirt in his office is a very serious issue.)

Personally, I hope, for Freeze’s sake, that those were just instances of bad judgment and that he learned his lessons.

But the cynic in me says he has a serious problem and he needs to take this opportunity to face those demons before it really blows up in his face.

Getting fired from a coaching job for “personal conduct” is not the end of the world, as the case of University of Louisille football coach Bobby Petrino shows.

But if Freeze does not face his demons, he’s a time bomb waiting to explode.

Burn Him At The Stake

Deb at TWW reports on the case of Steve Jesmer, pastor of what was The Dialogue Church, who raped a 13-year-old girl in his church office.

One more reason you ought to be skeptical of anyone who has charisma.

To their credit, church leaders who became aware of the incident were prompt in getting to authorities. And by all accounts, the church was cooperative in the investigation.