Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Kingless Kingdom of the Social Gospel

A Kingdom Without the King

“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”[1] That was H. Richard Niebuhr’s lament concerning the rise of liberal theology in early twentieth century America and the social gospel that advanced because of it—a gospelless gospel for a kingless kingdom.

According to Niebuhr, “the kingdom of God” had always been a fixture in the theology of American Christians. But the concept had become increasingly subjective as people re-defined it according to their own needs. For the earliest Protestant colonizers of America, the kingdom of God meant “the living reality of God’s present rule, not only in human spirits but also in the world of nature and of human history.”[2] That view was rooted firmly in the sovereignty of God and man’s complete inability to bring this about apart from God’s regenerative work in the hearts of men.[3] The permeating influence on the surrounding culture would come about through the evangelistic exploits and transformed lives of those already living in submission to His sovereign rule.  

For their evangelical descendants, the kingdom of God was advanced by regenerating society through faith and love. The Roman Catholics erred by identifying the church (as they understood it) to be the totality of the kingdom of God.[4] But as German liberalism crossed the Atlantic, the conversion of souls took a back seat to the conversion of a corrupt society. The liberals, with their limited focus (or sheer unbelief) in eternal life/damnation, replaced the Great Commission with a social gospel. They actually thought God needed them to bring the kingdom by transforming a society full of oppression, injustice, and inequality. They wanted to see the kingdom come through the Christian takeover of society—where they would right all the wrongs through social action and activism.
Alva McClain observes:

According to this emphasis, the Kingdom of God is the progressive social organization and improvement of mankind, in which society rather than the individual is given first place. The main task of the Church is, therefore, to establish a Christian Social Order which in turn will actually make “bad men do good things.”[5]

Pay close attention to that quote. It drives at the grave soteriological error of a social gospel informed by liberal theology. First, they do not see man as “dead in [his] trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1)[6] but rather as someone in need of “improvement.” McLain backs his argument against their denial of depravity by quoting the pioneer of Christian social activism in America, Walter Rauschenbush—“bad men do good things.”[7]  

Second, their view of the kingdom collectively rather than individually is reflected in their view of sin. As you read this paper you will notice that the social justice advocates quoted never refer to individual sins such as lying, sexual immorality, and blasphemy. They always define sin as something corporately enacted on the oppressed—institutionalized sins like racism, exploitation, pollution, not being environmentally friendly, and paying employees low wages. Thus they veer away from Christ’s atoning work as the solution for sin, and seek a remedy through social activism. McClain goes on to say:
The Kingdom of God became a “democracy” in which man and God (if there is a God!) struggled together for the social redemption of mankind. The Social Gospel thus developed may be traced back to a number of religious and philosophical tendencies: First, an unwarranted belief in the inherent goodness of man who, it is assumed, will do right if only given the right kind of social environment. Second, an almost exclusive emphasis immanence of God which  . . . proceeded to strip religion of supernatural elements, and more or less came to identify God with the “social consciousness” of humanity. Third, a politically naïve acceptance of Socialism as the best theory of government . . . by means of rigid social controls. Fourth, a critical attitude toward the Bible, highly subjective . . . as might more easily lend themselves to strictly social interpretation. Fifth, the diminishing of essential theology to an alleged universal Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man.[8]
Niebuhr was accurate when he described the soteriology of the social gospel: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”[9] They were his soteriological enemies, but he also realized that they were his eschatological cousins.

The Eschatology Factor

Postmillennialism was the prevailing eschatology of the nineteenth century. It informed Christian missiology and led most churches into the twentieth century. It would take two world wars to kill off the unrealized postmillennial optimism for a world increasingly conformed to the transforming power of the gospel.

The theological liberalism that took root in America at that time, while rejecting the evangelical gospel, still held to the same eschatology, and flourished in that postmillennial climate—at least in the concept of a temporal world constantly improving under the advancement of God’s kingdom.

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), widely regarded as America’s greatest Christian theologian, was famous for his thundering sermons on God’s judgment. But he anticipated that the millennium would begin in this world, around the year 2,000, before the final return of Christ. He saw this time preceding Christ’s return as an era of peace and well-being where learning and wisdom would increase. He foresaw new methods of global communication giving people more time to savor “divine things.” Religion would be the chief concern of all people and Christianity would spread far and wide. From his vantage point at mid-eighteenth century, Edwards calculated that about two hundred and fifty years were needed to convert the nations to faith in Christ.

Edwards took his calculations seriously and derived them from the following estimations: fifty years for Christianity, “in the power and purity of it,” to win over the Protestant world, fifty more years to gain the ascendancy over the Roman Catholics, a further fifty years to subdue the Islamic world and usher in the Jewish nation, and an extra hundred years to completely evangelize and convert the heathen world—250 years beyond his own lifetime.[10]
By the time of Edward’s death in 1758, post-millennialism was growing and morphing with ever-closer links to the realms of politics and nations. For the new emerging revolutionaries of that time, the antichrist was no longer the pope but rather tyrannical earthly governments (although the pope qualified for that realm as well). The Puritan preaching of New England became heavily invested in the hostile rhetoric against Britain that fanned the flames of revolution.[11]
 Edwards would have detested liberalism and their agenda of a social justice kingdom advanced by human means. But his eschatology provided the fertile soil out of which another gospel would emerge.[12] Indeed Niebuhr identified the rising social gospel strain of liberalism as the direct descendant of a postmillennial genealogy.[13]

Is the Kingdom Presently Within Us?

One of the key biblical texts that social gospel advocates appeal to is found in Luke:
Now having been questioned by the Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God was coming, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17:20–21)

Social justice advocates see the phrase as proof of the kingdom of God being a present reality indwelling God’s people. But could that be the case considering that Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees whom He had elsewhere rebuked and refused entry into the kingdom (Matt 21:43; 23:13)?
While in koine Greek, entos humon does translate as “inside of you,” it often carries the meaning of “within reach.”[14] But the “in your midst” or “among you” renderings are more faithful to the surrounding context of the passage. The kingdom of God was present among the Pharisees because Christ was present among them. Also, the later passages of Luke 19:11–27 and Luke 21:31 reveal a kingdom that awaits a future arrival.

Michael Vlach explains: “Jesus’ bodily presence carries with it a presence of the kingdom. Yet there are consequences for when He leaves the earth for a while. While He is physically removed from the earth the kingdom is not present but will come in the future.”[15]  John MacArthur adds that the kingdom, in its present form, is a “spiritual dominion” and not an “earthly geopolitical realm”:
Jesus described the current state of the kingdom as intangible and invisible: “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within [or among] you” (Luke 17:20–21 NKJV). He also said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36 NKJV).[16]

No Gospel, No Kingdom

Without doubt, the most devastating error of the social gospel is its eternal ramifications. Kevin DeYoung does well in articulating the heinousness of the crime:

To proclaim the inauguration of the kingdom and all the other blessings of God without telling people how they may become partakers of those blessings is to preach a nongospel. Indeed it is to preach an antigospel—bad news—because you’re simply explaining wonderful things that your sinful hearers will never have the opportunity to be a part of. The gospel of the kingdom—the broad sense of “gospel”—therefore, is not merely the proclamation of the kingdom. It is the proclamation of the kingdom together with the proclamation that people may enter it by repentance and faith in Christ.[19]

Cultural Restoration vs. Gospel Proclamation

Tony Campolo argues that Jesus first and primary message was not about sin but to inform people that “the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matt 4:17; Mark 1:15).[20] What is so deceitful about such a contention is that Campolo makes no mention of Jesus actually preceding that statement with the call to repentance: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17). By ignoring (or concealing) such critical detail, Campolo is able to then persuade the reader further based on his own definition of God’s kingdom.

And that is exactly what he does: “God wants this kingdom to become established on earth, now! . . . God’s kingdom is a new society that Jesus wants to create in this world—within human history, not after the Second Coming or a future apocalypse or anything else. But right now.”[21]

Pay special attention to that last quote. Any lengthy reading of social gospel activists like Campolo will regularly encounter the phrase “God wants” or “Jesus wants.” Such phrases implicitly impugn God’s sovereignty by suggesting that God needs human agents to help Him bring about what He desires but cannot quite bring to pass. 

While Campolo concedes ultimate fulfillment awaits Christ’s return, he still sees God’s kingdom being expanded “through faithful servants, both inside the church and outside the church, bringing hope to the poor, liberation to the oppressed, and the creation of a new society in which love and justice reign.”[22] Campolo continues in that vein: “Remember: the whole creation is waiting for us to be instruments of God, through which it will be delivered from its present tragic condition.”[23]

If you are wondering what he meant by “faithful servants, both inside the church and outside the church,” Campolo makes it pretty obvious: “Believe it or not, U2’s lead singer Bono is using his wealth and celebrity status to do just that: increase the kingdom of God in the here and now.”[24] So, according to Campolo, not only is kingdom expansion achievable by Christians, unbelievers are also growing its territory.

Kevin DeYoung repudiates such theological delusions of grandeur. Since the kingdom of God is not yet physically present on earth it cannot be physically expanded—especially by well meaning social workers: “The kingdom isn’t geographical . . . and therefore you cannot ‘expand the kingdom’ by bringing peace and order and justice to a certain area of the world. Good deeds are good, but they don’t broaden the borders of the kingdom.”[25]

Brian McLaren tries to conceal his theological guilt by veiling his error in an endless stream of questions. But at times he overplays his hand revealing how he understands God’s kingdom and the human means by which he believes it will be established:
What if Jesus’ secret message reveals a secret plan? What if he didn’t come to start a new religion—but rather came to start a political, social, religious, artistic, economic, intellectual, and spiritual revolution that would give birth to a new world? What if his secret message had practical implications for such issues as how you live your daily life, how you earn and spend money, how you treat people of other races and religions, and how the nations of the world conduct their foreign policy? What if his message directly or indirectly addressed issues like advertising, environmentalism, terrorism, economics, sexuality, marriage, parenting, the quest for happiness and peace, and racial reconciliation?[26]
Campolo and McLaren bring nothing new to the table. They are merely echo chambers of the liberals from a century ago. 

Social Salvation vs. Individual Salvation

Reconciliation between sinful men and a Holy God, and the preaching thereof, is simply not on Jim Wallis’ radar when it comes to the core of Christianity:
It’s time to reassert and reclaim the gospel faith—especially in our public life. When we do, we discover that faith challenges the powers that be to do justice for the poor, instead of preaching a “prosperity gospel” and supporting politicians who further enrich the wealthy. We remember that faith hates violence and tries to reduce it and exerts a fundamental presumption against war, instead of justifying it in God’s name. We see that faith creates community from racial, class, and gender divisions and prefers international community over nationalist religion.[28]
Much as Wallis detests the prosperity gospel, his social version is no better. It may land him at the other end of the political spectrum, but it brings him no closer to the gospel faith that pre-occupied Jesus’ ministry—calling on sinners to repent (Matt 3:2; Mark 1:15) that they would be spared from God’s wrath (Luke 13:3, 5). Both those who are wealthy and those who are oppressed will still find themselves shut out from God’s kingdom lest they repent and believe (John 3:36).
Wallis’ delusion and hypocrisy run deeper than that as well. I say delusion because anyone with normal vision should be able to see (and smell) the hypocrisy of calling a Marxist manifesto, “God’s Politics,” while chastising his right wing opponents for their narrow claim that “God is on our side.”[30] Wallis may try to present himself as non-partisan—“God is not a Republican or a Democrat”[31]—but that veneer is already destroyed by the time he gets through his introduction.

It is highly recommended that you have an air sickness bag on hand while watching the following video:

A Trojan Horse in the Reformed Camp

Supposed bastions of Reformed theology have not been immune to its infiltration. The language may now be couched in better soteriology, but its Calvinistic uniform has served as a Trojan horse to ease its infiltration. Tim Keller pastors one of the largest non-liberal Presbyterian churches in the United States—Redeemer Church in New York City. He is a founder of The Gospel Coalition and revered by young Calvinists. But he has also garnered considerable respect in the secular world. The social justice projects of his church have won him plenty of admirers from outside the church. And Keller works hard at phrasing hard-edged biblical truths in a way that is far more socially palatable.
The question that needs to be asked is whether he rephrases, or revises, central salvific truths. In many instances I would argue for the latter. Keller’s use of the term Shalom may differ from Campolo’s “expanding the kingdom” through human effort apart from regeneration, but his description is eerily familiar:
You may find yourself longing intensely for something that your reason tells you is futile or your conscience tells you is absolutely wrong, but you can’t stop wanting it or seeking it. Then you experience an inner unraveling of psychological shalom, commonly given names like “guilt,” “being conflicted,” or “anxiety.”[36]
Conviction of sin, which produces guilt, is a central work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers and unbelievers. But Keller’s quote regarding guilt sounds far more influenced by modern psychology and seems to be described in a negative light. But it is in his description of how shalom is obtained that Keller sounds most like an echo chamber of his liberal predecessors from a century earlier:

When the society disintegrates, when there is crime, poverty, and family breakdown, there is no shalom. However, when people share their resources with each other, and work together so that shared public services work, the environment is safe and beautiful, the schools educate, and the businesses flourish, then the community is experiencing shalom. When people with advantages invest them in those who have fewer, the community experiences civic prosperity or social shalom.[37]
Niebuhr’s postmillennial eschatology was not without its problems. But both he and Jonathan Edwards saw no possible advancing kingdom, or shalom, through wedding missionary endeavor with civil/governmental institutions. They desired the transformation of society but only ever saw the kingdom advancing or expanding through the advancement of the gospel. Both Keller and Russel D. Moore may well be emblematic of a growing infiltration of the social gospel into how the evangelical and Reformed movements view the kingdom of God, its timing, its scope, and the role believers should be playing in that.      

The Protest Rally that Jesus Failed to Organize

Two passages of Scripture that rarely, if ever, gets press regarding biblical arguments against the social gospel are in Matthew 11 and Luke 7 when John the Baptist, while imprisoned, sent his disciples to question Jesus over His messiahship.

If ever there was a circumstance for Jesus to enter into robust social engagement of his time, the unjust imprisonment (and imminent beheading) of John the Baptist would have been it. Jesus may have proclaimed John the Baptist to be the greatest of the Old Testament prophets (Matt 11:11), but He also sent his disciples away with a mission field report. Jesus made zero effort to visit John or seek his liberty. Jesus did not arrange for His disciples to picket the prison or make an appeal to the United Nations.

Jesus knew that both He and John were on divinely appointed timetables for martyrdom. As He would later inform Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm” (John 18:36).

Does Matthew 25 Argue for the Social Gospel?

You would not tell your children, “Wash always; if necessary, use water.” Nor would you advise a friend, “Be a faithful husband; if necessary, love your wife.” Those redundant instructions defy logic. They also beg the question about what other means you would employ to accomplish those goals. You might as well tell someone, “Stay alive; if necessary, breath oxygen.”
And yet many Christians rally around a similarly illogical statement when it comes to evangelism. “Preach the gospel; if necessary, use words,” is a mantra that is a darling of social gospel activists. 

Tony Campolo is one of the most prominent advocates for the social gospel. His handling of Matthew 25 typifies the wider movement. While not explicitly denying the gospel of grace alone, he argues that it is our treatment of the poor and oppressed that will determine our eternity: “I place my highest priority on the words [red letters] of Jesus, emphasizing the 25th chapter of Matthew, where Jesus makes clear that on Judgment Day the defining question will be how each of us responded to those he calls ‘the least of these.’”[44]

The Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education (EAPE), of which Campolo was founder and president, clearly defines who he thinks “the least of these” are:
That Jesus was homeless and taught that we may encounter Him in “the least of these”—the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, widow, stranger and imprisoned (Matthew 25:35-40), is the basis of what Tony calls the Whole Gospel and informs EAPE’s[45] holistic ministry. And it raises questions for the Church and every Christian: what should be our response to the homeless and to “the least of these”?[46]
Note Campolo’s use of the term “Whole Gospel.” He is implying that proclamation of the good news is only a partial gospel and must be accompanied by social action in order to become a complete or “whole” gospel. But his imbalanced emphasis betrays his mishandling of Matthew 25:35–40.

Works vs. Faith

The Bible repeatedly teaches that good works are ultimately God’s works because they are the natural fruit of salvation; never the cause (cf. Ezek 36:25–27; Jas 2:14–17). And in Matthew 25 you don’t see judgment based on works, you see works revealing who is truly saved by faith. John MacArthur is emphatic on this point:
The good deeds commended in Matthew 25:35–36 are the fruit, not the root, of salvation. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that they are not the basis of entrance into the kingdom. Christ will judge according to works only insofar as those works are or are not a manifestation of redemption, which the heavenly Father has foreordained. If a person has not trusted in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, no amount of seemingly good works done in His name will avail to any spiritual benefit.[47]
Note also those who Christ condemns were actually surprised that their works did not qualify them: “When did we . . . not” (Matt 25:44).

False Faith vs. True Faith

Another critical issue in understanding Matthew 25 is to recognize that the division Christ makes is not between the church and the pagan world, but between true and false Christians. While the pagan lives in open unbelief, the false Christian is an imposter who has blended in among God’s people. False Christians are the recipients of Christ’s most terrifying judgment:
So then, you will know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” (Matt 7:20–23)
Matthew 25:34–46 makes a similar division between those who have genuine faith and those whose faith is false, according to the evidence of their works. Note carefully that both groups of people think they are Christians because they address Jesus as “Lord” (Matt 25:37, 44). Both groups are also surprised by the verdict. The surprise reveals humility among Christ’s people (“when did we,” Matt 25:37–39) and self-righteousness among those who are faking it (“when did we . . . not,” Matt 25:44).

Citizens of the World vs. Citizens of the Kingdom

Finally, the beneficiaries of these good works are not the disenfranchised people of the world, as Campolo suggests. The word “brothers” (Matt 25:40) is vital to understanding where our benevolence is to be directed. Jesus is saying that the fruit of genuine faith is evidenced in the way we care for fellow believers who are suffering (cf. John 13:35; 1 John 3:10–11). MacArthur brings this point home:
The King’s addressing these people as brothers of Mine gives still further evidence that they are already children of God. . . . Because of their identity with Christ, they will often be hungry, thirsty, without decent shelter or clothing, sick, imprisoned, and alienated from the mainstream of society.[48]
This is not to deny any duty we have to love the disenfranchised people of the world. But if proponents of the social gospel were serious about Scripture, they would target passages that refer to loving our neighbors (Matt 22:39)—even loving our enemies (Matt 5:44). Christ’s words in Matthew 25 have nothing to do with the social justice being advocated by its proponents. 

Incarnational vs. Eschatological

It is after Christ’s return that this great and final judgment takes place. The heirs of the kingdom enter the kingdom of God fully prepared for them from the foundation of the world (Matt 25:34) where they will live forever with the King as He reigns on the new earth over His kingdom.

Matthew 25:34–46 was never written as a blueprint for salvation through social work nor should it be employed as such. It is not an argument for preaching the gospel through our actions alone, but rather that our actions authenticate the gospel we preach. And those actions must be prioritized towards our suffering fellow believers. We must care for other believers because Jesus commanded us to. We must also realize that a lack of care may point to a lack of saving faith. And you should always preach the gospel with words because they are always necessary.

Only the King Brings His Kingdom

George Eldon Ladd rightly points out:
Jesus did not expect men to overcome evil by their own power. Nor did He conceive of a gradual conquest of evil by processes immanent within historical and societal experience. It is significant that Jesus said nothing about building the Kingdom or of His disciples bringing in the Kingdom—both being expressions which have been popular in modern theology. Evil is so radical that it can be overcome only by the mighty intervention of God.[52]
And what is that mighty intervention? Thomas Schreiner answers clearly that it all hinges on the person and work of Christ:
How is it that the eschatological promises, the promises of the kingdom, are now available for believers? Paul anchors these promises in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Justification, redemption, sanctification, reconciliation, propitiation, and defeat of the principalities and powers have been secured through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In other words, no one can enter the kingdom apart from the forgiveness of sins.[53]

[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (New York, NY: Harper and Row Publishers, 1937), 193.
[2] Ibid., 51.
[3] Ibid., 144.
[4] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 863–64.
[5] Alva J. McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom: An Inductive Study of the Kingdom of God (Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 1974), 11.
[6] All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible unless noted otherwise.
[7] Walter Rauschenbush, Christianizing the Social Order (New York, NY: MacMillan Company, 1912), 127.
[8] McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom, 12.
[9] Refer to note 1.
[10] James McDermott, One Holy and Happy Society: The Public Theology of Jonathan Edwards (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 1992), 78.
[11] Although I would argue that if they were really serious about a revolution they would have thrown the coffee in the harbor.
[12] It is easy to be an armchair critic of Edward’s eschatology, especially with the extra 250 years of hindsight we now own. But I want the record to show that my criticisms are only for the sake of tracing the roots of the social gospel. Edwards’ burning desire for mission to all people groups cannot be esteemed highly enough and other eschatological persuasions should still be able to extend charity in recognizing the role postmillennial Christians played as pioneers in the realm of global missions.
[13] Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America, 161.
[14] Michael J. Vlach, Majestic Reign: A New Creationst Approach to the Kingdom of God (The Master’s Seminary Course Notes, Kingdom of God Class: Unpublished, 2015), 308.
[15] Ibid., 309.
[16] John MacArthur, Parables: The Mysteries of God’s Kingdom Revealed Through the Stories Jesus Told (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2015), 40.
[17] Keith Essex, “The Mediatorial Kingdom and Salvation,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 23, No. 2 (Fall 2012), 221.
[18] Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism: The Interface Between Dispensational and Non-Dispensational Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993), 101.
[19] Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 108.
[20] Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo, Adventures in Missing the Point (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 47.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid., 51.
[23] Ibid., 52.
[24] Ibid., 54.
[25] DeYoung and Gilbert, What Is the Mission of the Church?, 121.
[26] Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 4.
[27] Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York, NY: Macmillan Company, 1917), 142–43.
[28] Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (New York, NY: Harper One, 2005), 4.
[29] Ibid., 6–7.
[30] Ibid., xviii.
[31] Ibid.
[32] McLaren and Campolo, Adventures in Missing the Point, 25.
[33] Ibid., 21.
[34] Brian McLaren, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World (New York, NY: Jericho Books, 2012), 157.
[35] John MacArthur, Reckless Faith: When the Church Loses Its Will to Discern (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994), 109.
[36] Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York, NY: Dutton, 2010), 174.
[37] Ibid., 175.
[38] Both Keller and Moore are very conciliatory when it comes to acknowledging Roman Catholics as Christian brethren.
[39] Russell D. Moore, The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 85.
[40] Mark Galli, “Speak the Gospel,” Christianity Today Website, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/mayweb-only/120-42.0.html (accessed October 31, 2015).
[41] Rick Warren, 40 Days of Community: Better Together Devotional: What on Earth Are We Here For? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 61.
[42] Jim Wallis, “Pope Francis’ Message for Washington,” Sojourners Website, https://sojo.net/about-us/news/pope-francis-message-washington (accessed October 31, 2015).
[43] Voddie Baucham, “You Cannot Live the Gospel,” Youtube Website. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Rd2WiYyDxs (accessed October 31, 2015).
[44] Tony Campolo, “Tony Campolo: For the Record,” Tony Campolo Website. http://tonycampolo.org/for-the-record-tony-campolo-releases-a-new-statement/#.Vg4Hbnh7DxM (accessed October 31, 2015).
[45] The EAPE has been recently re-launched as “The Campolo Center for Ministry.”
[46] Red Letter Christians, “What if the Homeless Man on the Bench Was Jesus?,” EAPE Website. http://eape.org/tag/matthew-2535-40-rich-mullins/ (accessed October 31, 2015). Red Letter Christians is another social justice group who have created a canon within the Canon by prioritizing Jesus’ spoken words in Scripture. Not only are they undermining biblical authority and inerrancy, but if they were really serious about the “Red Letters” then they would have a lot to say about hell since Jesus had so much to say on the subject. It just goes to show how little they really care for the Bible whether the letters are black or red.
[47] John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 24–28 (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1989), 122.
[48] Ibid., 124–25.
[49] Vlach, Majestic Reign, 339–40.
[50] Refer to note 1.
[51] McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom, 11.
[52] George Eldon Ladd, The Presence of the Future: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism, Revised ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1974), 333.
[53] Thomas R. Schreiner, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 641–42.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Tale of Three Churches

Disclaimer: In calling this presentation A Tale of Three Churches, the term church as used here denotes that each of these fellowships calls themselves a church. It is not the acknowledgment of all of them as true churches in the biblical sense.

This is the examination of three high profile churches and their approaches to ministry in three key areas—leadership, preaching, and mission/evangelism. All three churches are large in size and globally influential.

The Churches

A church in the land without the Spirit is rather a curse than a blessing. If you have not the Spirit of God, Christian worker, remember that you stand in somebody else's way; you are a fruitless tree standing where a fruitful tree might grow. — Charles Spurgeon

Hillsong Church originated in Sydney Australia and has its roots in the Australian arm of the Assemblies of God denomination (which is Pentecostal). It has now franchised itself to many major cities all over the world including London, Moscow, Capetown, Paris, Amsterdam, and New York.

A major reason that I have included Hillsong as one of the churches to profile is because of my long history interacting with them during my time in Australia, and because they are about to open their latest franchise in our own Los Angeles backyard.

You may have noticed that I am using the term franchise for describing Hillsong's strategy of reproducing themselves around the world. It is not meant to sound derogatory ... no, actually it is meant to sound derogatory. I should be up front from the outset that I am a staunch critic of this organization and as we examine them in the areas of leadership, preaching, and mission/evangelism you will get to see a lot of major reasons for that criticism.

The major thrust of Hillsong's global impact has been their music. Their choruses are sung around the world in multiple languages and produced with world leading musicianship and production values. Their music has been a massive magnet in drawing people from all over the world to their many conferences which are equal in scale to anything that happens in the USA. Their youth band, Hillsong United, had their last album make the top ten on Billboard's secular charts. The music is a very big deal and has provided an enormous platform for the preaching ministries of Brian and Bobbie Houston (yes his wife is a "pastor") as well as their books.

Saddleback Church is a multi-site church with its mother ship located in Orange County, California. Originally affiliated with the Southern Baptist movement, Saddleback has risen to massive global prominence through their pastor Rick Warren who is possibly the world's leading proponent of church growth methodology. Warren's status now goes well beyond the role of pastor and he sees himself as a global statesman and activist in transforming the world. And no, I am not describing another episode of Pinky and the Brain.

Undoubtedly, Saddleback's major catalyst for growth in size and influence has been Warren's phenomenally popular books—The Purpose Driven Life and The Purpose Driven Church. Purpose Driven Life has sold over 32 million copies and is the bestselling non-fiction hardback in history. Did I mention that Purpose Driven Life is the bestselling non-fiction hardback in history? The book essentially is Warren's philosophy for life and has gained widespread acceptance even among business organizations and sporting teams. Warren has now actually placed a patent on the word purpose which is why this presentation has cost me $5.00 thus far (five mentions of the word at $1 apiece).

Grace Community Church in Sun Valley California is the third church we will be looking at in this presentation. It is a suburban church that experienced significant growth through the "Jesus movement" of the sixties and seventies.

Though not as large as Saddleback or Hillsong, GCC is a burgeoning mega-church with a major global impact through it's Master's Seminary, Shepherd's Conferences, and the radio ministry of its pastor John MacArthur. On the modern evangelical landscape, GCC is seen as a stick in the mud church with doctrinal rigidity and an aloofness from the various trends that have swept through churches over recent decades.

The Leadership

I exhort the elders among you ... shepherd the flock of God ... exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. — 1 Peter 5:1–4

Leadership: Hillsong Church

The pastor of Hillsong's founding church is Brian Houston. He also oversees all the other Hillsong churches as well as being the National President of the Australian Christian Churches denomination (an amalgamation of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches including those formerly known as the Assemblies of God). He is actually the Senior Pastor of every Hillsong church around the world which must certainly make matters of church discipline and visitations very challenging.

Due to my rather lengthy history of correspondence, investigation, and articles on the Hillsong empire I was not able to ask specific questions regarding their philosophy of leadership and model of church government. While the inner workings cannot be precisely known, due to their high international profile and the mass marketing of their material, a fairly accurate picture can be assembled quite easily.

The pictured book title gives an excellent synopsis of Brian Houston's philosophy of leadership. While he carries the title of senior pastor, he really functions much more as the CEO of a vast organization and marketing machine where mentors his people as a life-coach and motivational speaker. Tony Robbins with some Bible verses for window dressing.

Since his wife Bobbie is his fellow senior pastor it is clear that his philosophy of church leadership is not informed by 1 Timothy 2–3 and Titus 1. Brian is seen very much as the visionary pastor and his staff and congregation are to be zealously protective of that vision. Any criticism is very poorly received. Brian and Bobbie's consuming desire, according to their website bios, is to place value on humanity. Their approach to building the church is very much pragmatic and based upon the various models they have tried and then sticking with the ones that achieve the best numerical results. That is why I used the term franchising earlier. Because there models of success in church growth are the blueprints for every other Hillsong franchise around the world. Listen to Brian long enough and the pragmatism always shines through. He is very slick at not taking sides and not alienating any demographics in what he says. When interviewed on abortion, Houston said:

On the subject of abortion I'm pro-life. But in a way I'm pro-choice as well, because I believe in the sanctity of life and I believe that life begins at conception. But I also believe that ultimately human beings have to make their own choices, and I ultimately can't tell you what you should do.

Attitudes towards money are also an important issue for church leaders as Paul says that those who are elders must not be "a lover of money (1 Timothy 3:3). Although Brian Houston bristles at the suggestion that he is a prosperity preacher, he lays out his financial theology quite clearly in his book titled You Need More Money. In it he encourages us to "become comfortable around money" by "putting on your best clothes and ordering coffee in a fancy restaurant or hotel lobby. Even though you could make the coffee for half the price at home, the total experience may enlarge your thinking. You may even feel better about yourself and life." 

Hillsong is now a very marketable brand and carries a strong allure with it. I can guarantee that outstanding music and musicianship will be an essential part of the new Hillsong that opens soon in Orange County. And the musician's caliber always trumps his character when it comes to selecting the right team. 

Key Quotes:
"I appoint the elders and then the rest of the elders vote on that." — Brian Houston

"When you are doing what is correct in God there is a protection over your life. Like—hello—it is just there. So it is a very powerful thing. Amen. Yeah, fully." — Bobbie Houston

Leadership: Saddleback Church

Saddleback's senior pastor is Rick Warren. I was unable to get any answers regarding Saddleback's leadership philosophy and model of church government. What we do know is that Warren's big picture initiatives do give us a window into his philosophy of ministry.

His approach is very ecumenical when it comes to interfaith dialogue but heavy handed when dealing with Purpose Driven dissenters. Joseph Farah of World Net Daily has pointed out:

While mega-pastor Rick Warren has joined a group of 100 church leaders calling for interfaith dialogue and the building of "common ground" with Muslims, he has a slightly different outlook toward Christians with whom he disagrees. In his latest missive to fellow pastors, he writes: "You've got to protect the unity of your church. If that means getting rid of troublemakers, do it." 

Perhaps this hints at Warren's leadership Modus Operandi. 

Tellingly, Warren had absolutely nothing to say about eldership and church government in an article he wrote on his church leadership website, pastors.com. His article was called Organize Your Church on Purpose and Giftedness. And that is pretty much all he talked about concerning church structure. There was no information I could find on the Saddleback website regarding other pastors or elders. Perhaps the revelation of being complementarian or egalitarian would put a major dent in the breadth of his appeal. Though Warren is seemingly silent on that issue, the fact that women have filled his pulpit during weekend services on a number of occasions shows his hand in that regard.

Concerning how much power he wields on Saddleback's elder board remains a mystery. But time has borne out the reality that those churches who buy into the Purpose Driven program are counseled to remove dissenters or wait for them to leave.

With phenomenal book sales, Rick Warren has become a bankable brand. And he clearly has an army of spin doctors constantly working to purge the internet of criticism as well as contradictory statements he has made. I personally know of people who have had their web servers pressured to remove their websites by Rick Warren's defenders. One individual had his blog shut down. There do seem to be some sacred untouchable cows in what Janet Mefford has referred to as the Evangelical Industrial Complex and Rick Warren certainly looks like one of those protected species. One cannot help but think that he would be difficult to overrule at the eldership level in Saddleback church.

Leadership: Grace Community Church

Grace Community Church is a church ruled by a plurality of forty elders. John MacArthur may be the elder most recognized for his preaching and teaching gift, but that does not translate to veto power at the eldership level. He does not always get his way and neither do any of the other elders. Votes must be unanimous to pass and forty elders means a tremendous safety buffer of checks and balances. it would be near impossible for a pope or dictator to rise up within such a leadership structure. 

John MacArthur has a 45 year track record of leadership informed by Scripture, applied consistently in all spheres of life, and lived by example in the leadership of his family before the members of GCC for all of those years. 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are the filters through which every elder candidate passes. The evidence is overwhelmingly demonstrative of this high view of Scripture. For example, elders with children who apostatize or live in constant rebellion normally step down from eldership both in obedience to 1 Timothy 3:4 and Titus 1:6, and a desire to prioritize the evangelism of their own immediate family. GCC's commitment to male eldership and male preachers again speaks volumes for their unwavering subservience to the dictates of Scripture rather than the whims of the world.

John MacArthur's leadership has also been a bastion of biblically understanding when separation is necessary. MacArthur has four decades of refusing to buy into ecumenism, capitulating to Rome, nor associating with false teachers and apostates. Sadly, MacArthur's sterling example on this front has been emulated by scant few.

Bonus Material:
Book Review — The Master's Plan for the Church by John MacArthur

The Preaching

The preacher's job is to deliver the goods, not to manufacture them. — Dr. Irv Busenitz

Forty Days of Your Best Prayer of Jabez Now — Cameron Buettel

Preaching: Hillsong and Saddleback Church

Probably the most critical question that congregants need to ask about the preaching they sit under concerns whether the text drives the sermon or the sermon drives the text. Hillsong and Saddleback preaching overwhelmingly falls into the latter category. It does not take long for a discerning listener to realize that both of these churches churn out sermon after sermon where a pre-determined idea gets married to a biblical passage deemed as a suitable partner. Furthermore, the suitable text is often ripped wildly from its proper context in order to make that square peg fit in their round hole.

Hillsong have also brazenly displayed their contempt for biblical authority by their willingness to edit Bible verses in accordance with their own agenda. Tragically, they are a sacred cow in Australia and have escaped any public rebuke from any prominent Christian leaders. Their willingness to make Hillsong altered Bible verses for their Hillsong adjusted gospel presentations is nothing short of disgraceful. Their conflicting excuses for doing this would be laughable if they weren't so tragic.

Both Brian Houston and Rick Warren approach the task of preaching from the starting point of their own chosen topic. That is not always a problem, but it is if that is the totality of what they feed their members. An even greater problem is when you start with a patently unbiblical idea. But perhaps the ultimate tragedy is when an essential soteriological truth gets buried beneath the weight of their own agenda. And that is precisely what happened when Brian Houston preached at Rick Warren's church out of 2 Corinthians 7:8–10.

Bonus Material:

Key Quote: 
"The Bible's a big book, and you're never going to get people to have total agreement on that big book." — Brian Houston

Rick Warren has committed the same crimes on numerous occasions. Most of us were shocked when John Piper invited him to be a keynote speaker at the Desiring God conference. What Warren delivered was some shambolic handling of Scripture. Among the many problems was his redefining of repentance in non-lordship terms; Warren described Jesus' words concerning his yoke and his burden as a discussion on felt needs; and also demonstrated that he is the master of the humble boast—a difficult manouvre that can only be performed by those most expert in promoting their own humility: 

(Watch this video from 43:30 to 44:25, warning: video may induce vomiting)

Bonus Material:

John Piper's interview with Rick Warren was also very revealing in a very unrevealing sort of way. We all know Rick Warren is a smart operator. His MO is always to adapt to his audience and Piper is no exception. It is bizarre that Piper recognizes Warren as a pragmatist, and Warren's pragmatism demands that he gives Piper the answers he wants. Trying to understand Warren doctrinally is like shooting at moving goalposts, and yet Piper just doesn't see the pointlessness of this exercise. Warren tells Piper he believes in the doctrines of Grace and then tells an inter-faith forum (made up of Hindus Muslims etc) that he has no interest in seeing them converted but wants to work together with them. He said on national TV that "God's not mad at you, He's mad about you" and then tells Piper his hero is Jonathan Edwards (who preached Sinners in the Hands of an angry God). And then tells Larry King his hero is Ghandi, tells Barack Obama his hero is Martin Luther King, and tells the Catholics his hero is Mother Theresa. The man is a chameleon. Warren told his church he is opposed to homosexual marriage and then denied it on Larry King. He positively commended the President of Syria (in person) for his treatment of Christians and then told Syrian Christian refugees who live in America that he never did such a thing. He can talk to Muslims for an hour without ever mentioning the Lord Jesus Christ and then tell Piper it's his central focus. Warren can tell Piper that penal substitutionary atonement must always be there in Gospel preaching, but I cannot find a single sermon with him talking about it. If I sound upset it is because I am. Warren needs to be taken to task over these inconsistencies and if John Piper will not do it, then who will?

Bonus Material:

Both Hillsong and Saddleback profess submission to the authority of God's Word. But I fail to see how they can possibly do that when they continually preach Scripture as the servant of their own sermonic thrusts.

Preaching: Grace Community Church

John MacArthur's preaching legacy is already well established. Having pastored the same church for 45 years and preaching through the entire New Testament verse by verse, MacArthur is a preacher who has continually been enamored with God's Word. I once heard him say that he does not read the Bible to find a sermon, he reads the Bible to know the mind of Christ. This represents a clear reversal of the approach practiced at both Saddleback and Hillsong. I am convinced that the greatest treasure chest on the world wide web is John MacArthur's entire sermon archive available for free download.

Try downloading a sermon of MacArthur's from the seventies, eighties, nineties, and noughties and you will be struck by the textually driven nature of the preaching. Even the illustrations are overwhelmingly drawn from biblical cross-references. The lack of engagement in cultural matters of that time only serves to give an aura of timelessness and current relevance to the listener. How ironic, that so many in their quest for relevance actually make themselves irrelevant. Mark Driscoll's sermonic illustrations connected with the movie Talladega Nights are only a few years old and already most people have no clue about those illustrations.

MacArthur's suit and the big pulpit he stands behind also speaks volumes regarding his desire to point his people towards God's Word. The large pulpit makes the preacher look smaller and the Bible ever in front of him takes pre-eminence. Though not legalistic about it, MacArthur believes that wearing a suit helps represent the seriousness of the task of handling and proclaiming God's Word.

I generally do not buy the mega-church pastor claims that they are being edgy and contextual and relevant by wearing their street wear or casual clothes. Personally I don't take offense at Rick Warren's Hawaiian shirts, but I think it speaks volumes about his heirarchy of importance when he wears a suit to the White House and jeans in the Lord's house.

It also needs to be said (pause for a moment and check for a log in my own eye) that there is something decidedly lame about middle aged men trying to dress like their teenage sons. Petra tried to do it in the nineties somehow thinking that spandex is a viable fashion option for men in their fifties. Brian Houston works hard on his fitness and likes to wear skinny jeans. Rick Warren sits on a stool in the middle of a vast stadium because he thinks it is a way of connecting with his audience ... and probably because he doesn't fit a pair of skinny jeans. But God's Word endures when our coolness fades into oblivion. There is nothing more relevant than pointing all people away from ourselves and towards its own timeless truths of God and man, sin and death, judgment and eternity. It's why young people who are concerned about those things flock to hear the silver haired man in the suit with his Bible always before him.

Bonus Material:
Book Review — Rediscovering Expository Preaching by John MacArthur and The Master's Seminary Faculty

Missions and Evangelism

Preach always, if necessary use words — Rick Warren

Wash always, if necessary use water — Cameron Buettel

There are only two times you should preach the gospel; in season and out of season — Ray Comfort

Mission/Evangelism: Hillsong Church

An extensive examination of Hillsong's mission endeavors will expose you to a lot of social justice programs. They certainly do many helpful projects both locally and internationally, but they are driven by humanitarian goals rather than adorning the preaching of the gospel. It is also noticeable that their aid projects are not prioritized towards suffering believers, but rather among the community at large where great effort is made to raise their community profile. In fact among the myriad of Hillsong outreaches I was unable to find anything that involved any form of evangelism and witnessing. This stems from two major problems:

1. The evangelism is done during the main church service; and
2. The main church service fails to do any evangelism.

My background is in the AOG movement of Australia and I personally lived through the rise of Hillsong to where it has become the overwhelmingly dominant force in Australian charismaticism and evangelicalism. During that time I have personally challenged them repeatedly over the discrepancies between their doctrine statement and what they preach. The most glaring example is their doctrine statement which has always insisted on repentance as a necessary part of conversion and yet I have never heard repentance preached from any of their preachers or articles in more than two decades. In January 2010, after being affronted once more with their false gospel and continually obstructed and ignored by their leadership, I went public and called them out (see also bonus material below).

The gospel that is preached would best be described as a hybrid word-faith message of success, sensuality, and self-esteem. There is no preaching of God's character, man's depravity, the danger of judgment, Christ's person and work, and the call on all men everywhere to repent and believe the gospel.

Key Quote: 
"Doctrine Statement, Shmoctrine Statement!" — Cameron Buettel

Bonus Material: 
My recent interview on Worldview Weekend Radio concerning the gospel according to Hillsong
My entire correspondence with Hillsong's chief theologian, Ps. Robert Fergusson
My online discussion with Hillsong's Executive Pastor, Ps. Joel A'Bell

Mission/Evangelism: Saddleback Church

The only global mission work being promoted on the Saddleback website is Rick Warren's PEACE plan. Here is their own description:

The vision of the PEACE PLAN is to mobilize Christians around the world to address five GIANT PROBLEMS:

Spiritual Emptiness
Self-Serving Leadership

The Christian Church was designed by God to take the lead in this effort. It has the world's largest distribution network, the most people ready and to serve, and the greatest motivation of all—the LOVE of Jesus Christ. Since responding to these five global giants through the local church is what Jesus says Christians must do, that’s where the PEACE Plan focuses. We have committed ourselves to fulfilling these five expressions of God’s love:

Promote Reconciliation
Equip Servant leaders
Assist The Poor
Care For The Sick
Educate The Next Generation

That sounds more like a UN charter than an evangelism strategy. To quote from the Saddleback website:

The bottom line is that we intend to reinvent mission strategy in the 21st century. This will be a new Reformation. The First Reformation returned us to the message of the original church. It was a reformation of doctrine - what the church BELIEVES. This Second Reformation will return us to the mission of the original church. It will be a reformation of purpose- what the church DOES in the world.

Attention Pastor Warren - why not try preaching that "message" that the first reformers recovered before we even start talking about doing anything. This "second reformation" Warren is fantasizing about only reflects poorly on his understanding of the biblical Gospel and the nature of true conversion. The heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart, not purpose driven education. 

Warren's second reformation mantra of "deeds not creeds" is a giant red flag. He really believes that the church has got its doctrine right but are not living in accordance with it. Michael Horton, however, would beg to differ. In reality, the problem is the exact opposite of Warren's assessment—he is actually preaching the wrong doctrines and they are living it.

Rick Warren's massive selling book, The Purpose Driven Life, has some major weaknesses. These include the use of many different, and sometimes bizarre, Bible translations to somehow give a Scriptural rationale for Warren's agenda. He also fails to differentiate between believers and unbelievers when applying biblical promises. But worst of all, his gospel presentation is just a complete crash and burn: 

Bonus Material:
John MacArthur explains what is wrong with The Purpose Driven Life ...

It may be politically incorrect but it needs to be said—Rick Warren is an epic failure as an evangelist. I cannot see any good reason why I should believe that most of Saddleback's tens of thousands of members are truly regenerate.

Mission/Evangelism: Grace Community Church

The gospel permeates every arm of GCC's mission arms. Rather than their social work being the heartbeat of their mission program, it is the kindness that accompanies their gospel preaching. Whether door to door in the local area, the annual Christmas concert, or their foreign missionaries and seminaries, all of these are done for the express purpose of reaching out to hell-bound people with the message of eternal life. John Pipers article below explains why true societal transformation only happens as an indirect byproduct of missionaries who evangelize rather than a team of social workers.

Bonus Material:
Missions: Rescuing from Hell and Renewing the World by John Piper


The differences are stark between GCC and Hillsong/Saddleback. Am I biased? I am very biased towards biblical alignment and GCC has that in spades. I am not foolish enough to believe that I can put an end to the violence done to the gospel by churches like Hillsong and Saddleback. But I do believe that we should make a concerted effort to pressure these churches into either conforming their teaching to their doctrine statements or conforming their doctrine statements to their teaching. It is time to put their cards on the table.

Bonus Material:
My recent interview on Tony Miano's radio show — When Doctrine Statements are Used to Deceive

Bonus Material:
You Might Be a False Teacher If ...