“But these dark powers do not rule the universe: they are in rebellion against Providential order; and by bell, book, and candle, literally or symbolically, we can push them down under.”
A faceless hood unfolds from Corbett’s crypt, and clammy fog fast fills the churchyard lawn. At witching hour, hours before the dawn, some specter’s skin-crawl claw creeps in to grip the throat with fingers like a hangman’s rope. This ancient power manifest tonight (malice-made-flesh, perverse incarnate wight) has come to leach your life and, worse, your hope. Best pray that Tailor John will too soon chime his cock-crow toll, his solemn, pealing call; or incantate the Word — some sacred rhyme breathed out on quivering, unsure lips is all you’ll need; or light the feeble, flickering shine of candle flame to drive away the pall.
Three stone steps, then through the chapel doors to stairs ascending down into the hull. There’s ceiling tiles beneath our feet (black-and-white-checked chess-board squares) and far above our heads the vaulted roof-ridge keel’s held high by buttressed ribs. Brilliant stained-glass portholes cast colored light full bright from some delightful land on pews where galley bondslaves four times each week row their oars in common meter to the drums’ command. On the sternchancel deck, beside the ship’s-wheel pulpit, the faithful helmsman crouches, steering strong and true along the Captain’s bearing, guided by the sextant of the Word. The westward rose-window prow cuts through the swells to lead our rightwise stone sanctuary toward the kingdom that has overturned this world. A watchman chimes eight bells from the crow’s-nest belfry; the lamps are lit, main and mizzen sails unfurled; the crew belowdecks gathers at the board to eat a double portion, strong wine and hardtack rations. Weigh anchor! We’ve long leagues left in this topsy sea — keel-up, mast-down — and still the Captain cries, “Sail on.”
In a coppice of aspen, their trunks silver-white, bright beams of splendent sunlight like spearshafts in flight pierce down through a ceiling of branches. The leaves as a yellow-green snow falling soft in the breeze drift to earth, and they flash as they turn in the sun. I swear — swear to God! — that the leaves of Lothlorien pale when compared to this common, anonymous wood; the Fields of Elysium, set next to this, cannot be nearer to heaven; if Avalon ever had gardens, their beauty’d be counted as none by any who’ve had the grand fortune to stand in this spinney. No wonder the ancient pagans built altars to worship the gods in these spaces where numina stoop to ordain common places.
Here are a few ways I’ve been thinking about my celebratory response to Dobbs:
First, the Lord has prepared a table for us in the presence of our enemies (Psalm 23:5), which is to say he has prepared this table publicly. It’s a feast of rich food, fatty meat, and fine wine (Isaiah 25:6), and he has commanded us to feast with joy (Nehemiah 8:10). So if God has commanded me to publicly feast with joy, it will not do to simply wrap a dinner roll in a napkin, slip it into my purse, and sneak away from the table to chew it in the corner at home. Feast! Laugh! Invite your neighbors to pull up a chair — the food is plentiful, the bread and wine are on the house (Isaiah 55:1), and there’s plenty of room for more. Let us eat and celebrate, for death has turned to life (Luke 15:23–24)!
Second, public celebrations tell the watching world not only what the law of God is (don’t kill babies, duh) but that the law of God is good. His law is good (Psalm 19:7)! His justice is good (Psalm 98:9). His Word is good (Psalm 119:103). His work in this world is good (Genesis 1:4,10,12,18, &c.). We delight in his laws (Psalm 119:16). When we see the righteous judgment of God fulfilled on this earth, it is a very good thing indeed! And when we rejoice and celebrate in public, we are giving a public testimony to God’s goodness.
Third, rejoicing at the end of wickedness is a biblical model. When the Egyptians were thrown into the sea, Moses, Miriam, and the Israelites danced on the shores of the mass grave (Exodus 15:1–21). When David killed Goliath and cut off the giant’s head with his own monstrous sword, the people sang and danced in the streets (1 Samuel 18:6). When God gave the Ammonites into Jephtha’s hand, his daughter met him with tambourines and dancing (Judges 11:34). “When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous” (Proverbs 21:15).
Fourth, we too often forget that the joy of the Lord is our strength (Nehemiah 8:10). Do you want to be strong, church? Do you want to be strong, Christian? Then be joyful! Delight in the Lord and in his rule! When you see the work of God in this world — when our prayers that God’s kingdom come and will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10) are in some measure answered — then rejoice, and be strong in the Lord (Ephesians 6:10).
Fifth, C.S. Lewis wrote, “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.” In other words, our joy is not complete until it becomes praise; unexpressed praise is unfulfilled joy. If you’ll pardon the metaphor, enjoyment without praise is a joy that’s aborted before it reaches full term. Does the end of Roe bring you joy? It should. And if it does, then publicly praise the God who ended it.
Sixth, there is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance (Ecclesiastes 3:4). This is a time to laugh and dance. The great dragon Roe has been slain by the Lord Jesus Christ! There will be time for mourning and for tears, but if this is not the greatest cause for celebration in my lifetime, I don’t know what is. Read the times, and respond appropriately (1 Chronicles 12:32).
And finally, yes, we need to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). Christians everywhere will continue providing support, comfort, and care to women who find themselves in unwanted pregnancies and difficult circumstances. Do I care about the struggling single mother who doesn’t know how she’s going to support her baby? Absolutely, I do. You should, too (James 1:27). Do I care that she may not be able to legally kill her own child? No, I don’t. Not even a little bit.
Not incidentally, Romans 12:15 (“weep with those who weep”) also commands us to “rejoice with those who rejoice.” I am rejoicing, so please, join me! “Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me!” (Philippians 2:18). God would have it so.
The bells of Christendom, now long gone, once rang throughout the West. Laudo Deum verum, they tolled, and all who heard were blessed. They knelled sad news of every death and lauded every birth and marked at quarter hours each day the turning of the earth.
But all the bells of Christendom are fallen mute and dumb: Where are the Sabbath summons, now? The public calls to come and worship Christ the risen king? Where, now, their glad refrain? Where Benedictus Dominus? Where Oremus proclaim?
The dormant bells of Christendom wait silent for that day when the church, like bantys at the dawn, cock-crows all men awake. But who will steal to soundless steeples? Who pull the bellman’s rope? Where are the men to set the world a-ring with sounding hope?
Let’s toll one bell for Christendom — ring one, at least, again! Then Tailor Paul will clap his tongue, and with his full amen lay low the powers of the air. He’ll drive the storms away. He’ll gong the gospel — Christ is won! — and keep the fiend at bay.
Do you hear the bells of Christendom? Listen to their knell! Though still an echo on the wind, they sound a rising swell ’til, from steeples and from belfries, their peals will fill the sky. Yes, we’ll hear the bells of Christendom resound before we die.
June is Pride Month, which means that in a couple days we’ll be inundated with some version of what I’ve started to call the gaygrocer flag.
Why ‘gaygrocer’? I‘m glad you asked.
In just a couple of days, look at your social feeds or your friend’s profile pictures or at the storefronts downtown. Have you ever seen so many different people and businesses agree on one thing? You won’t see that many American flags on the Fourth of July. But the thing is, I’m not convinced that they all agree with it, or even that they’ve given much thought to it. Some are true believers, sure, but for many (most?) it’s just the cost of doing business — like Havel’s greengrocer.
Václav Havel wrote about a greengrocer in communist Czechoslovakia who hung a sign in his window saying “Workers of the world, unite!” The greengrocer didn’t believe it — in fact, he very much disagreed with it. But he knew that the sign was the cost of doing business; if he didn’t put it up, things would start to get… well, uncomfortable. It’s not what he wants to say, or even what his customers want to hear; he’s only signaling to the right people that he’s on the right side.
Here are some relevant excerpts from Havel:
“Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?
“I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions… The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: ‘I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace… ’
“The greengrocer declares his loyalty (and he can do no other if his declaration is to be accepted) in the only way the regime is capable of hearing; that is, by accepting the prescribed ritual, by accepting appearance as reality, by accepting the given rules of the game… The greengrocer had to put the slogan in his window, therefore, not in the hope that someone might read it or be persuaded by it, but to contribute, along with thousands of other slogans, to the panorama, that everyone is very much aware of. This panorama, of course, has a subliminal meaning as well: it reminds people where they are living and what is expected of them. It tells them what everyone else is doing, and indicates to them what they must do as well, if they don’t want to be excluded, to fall into isolation, alienate themselves from society, break the rules of the game, and risk the loss of their peace and tranquility and security… ”
It’s the exact same way with the Pride flags in June. The flags don’t say, “I agree with the regnant progressive gender and sexual ideology,” so much as, “I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” (FWIW, I think it’s much the same thing with BLM, “Hate has no home,” and “We believe” signs.)
But what happens if the greengrocer takes the sign out of his window? What if the gaygrocer simply refuses to fly the flag?
Here’s Havel again:
“In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth… By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted facade of the system and exposed the real, base foundation of power. He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal.”
So, all that to say: If you really believe in progressive gender and sexual ideology, by all means, fly the gaynbow flag with pride. But if you don’t actually believe it — if you’re simply doing it to demonstrate your right to be left in peace, if you’re just playing the game, if you’re living the lie — well, then simply refuse to fly the flag.
Some time ago, my wife and I met with the elders at the church we were attending to address some concerns that we had about perceived shifts in the teaching and practice of the church. Specifically, we were concerned about two things:
An overemphasis on Christianity as a means of lifestyle improvement
The failure to confront false beliefs held by those who attend and lead the church, including the promotion of heterodox teaching and personalities
What follows is a copy of the email we sent to the elders to express our concerns and request the meeting. We met to discuss these concerns (and others), and we later left the church.
I’ve changed the names of the church and pastor in the email below, but I wanted to share it because:
I think it does a good job of modeling firm yet respectful disagreement with church leaders
I still see these concerns in the broader church, and I suspect others may feel the same way without necessarily knowing how to articulate it
It presents the hope of the gospel as an alternative
I am regularly asked about this letter and the topics it addresses, so I know it’s still relevant
I pray it’s helpful.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I love Fourth Church, and I especially love its people, and it’s been a pleasure to be a member of Fourth for nearly a decade. Over the past few years, though, I’ve grown increasingly concerned about a shift in the direction of the church and certain elements of its teachings and practice. I’ve shared some of these concerns with a few of you before, but I believe it’s time to formally present them to the entire board in hopes of earnestly addressing them together.
First, and most seriously, I’m concerned about an overemphasis on Christianity as a means of improving our lives.
I typically see this happening through the prolific use of vague, feel-good, and poorly defined Christian buzzwords (e.g., breakthrough, victory, abundance, impact, healing, overcome, flourish, purpose, favor, etc.) that are routinely illustrated in temporal terms and promise to meet our felt needs in, for example, our finances, marriages, careers, health, etc.
Pastor William has previously described this to me as an “inaugurated eschatology,” but I continue to worry that, at times, it’s actually an over-realized eschatology that gets perilously close to (or perhaps actually is) a thinly veiled, and therefore more palatable, version of the prosperity gospel, which is an anti-gospel.
God can, of course, provide all these things and more; he can and often does. But nowhere in the Bible are lifestyle improvements and the fulfillment of physical, felt needs promised to Christians, and nowhere are they taught as necessary implications of the gospel. (‘Felt needs’ is here distinct from real needs; see Matthew 6:31–33, Philippians 4:19.) The gospel is a proclamation of what God has already provided for us in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; it is not the promise of what God will do to materially improve our lives in the future. Yet I worry that this gospel truth is being shrouded at Fourth Church behind language that encourages people to interpret Christianity according to their own personal desires for bettered circumstances.
I think it’s worth sharing here that I’m convinced that the promise of an inaugurated eschatological breakthrough in this life, as commonly understood and if preached without careful definition, would be unintelligible (and likely offensive) to the Apostle Paul, who was imprisoned, beaten, stoned, thrice-shipwrecked, thorn-afflicted, and executed; to Stephen and the martyred Apostles; to those in Hebrews 11 who were tortured and sawn in two and killed with the sword; to the faithful martyrs of Revelation, slain for the word of God and their witness; to the 21 Coptic martyrs beheaded by ISIS in Libya just a few years ago; and to the countless faithful Christians around the world who are today worshipping in secret and suffering persecution for the faith.
The gospel of Christ is good news even for a man who is downwardly mobile, suffering, poor, and miserable, and who lives in that worsening state until he dies. It is good news for the young, single mother with cancer, struggling to feed her children and avoid bankruptcy while receiving medical treatment that will destroy her body until her organs fail and her children become orphans; it is good news for her orphans. It is good news for the house church pastor tortured and forever disappeared into a communist Chinese gulag.
Has God failed these people? Have his promises failed? Absolutely not! All of God’s promises are yes and amen in Christ; if they have not received breakthrough in this life, it is because God has not promised it. Still, he has saved even these from their sins and guaranteed their eternal joy in the presence of God. That Christ is the Christ we need. Preach that Christ alone, and leave behind whatever false promises or winking intimations of earthly breakthrough that distract from his gospel.
I do know that Pastor William is careful to include a proclamation of the gospel every Sunday, so my concerns are perhaps a matter of priorities or relative importance. Still, I want to see our church clearly elevate the gospel of Christ crucified for sinners as supremely important and to dial back or, better, do away with any assertions or insinuations that God will materially improve our lives. There is no potential temporal breakthrough that can improve the gospel of Christ, and no definite hardship in this life that can make this good news even the slightest bit worse.
The coronavirus pandemic (encompassing fear, anxiety, social distancing and isolation, joblessness, the prospect of national or global economic recession or depression, sickness, death) has highlighted my concerns, and I believe it demonstrates the ways that imprecise assurances of breakthrough can mislead people with a false understanding of God’s promises and his work in the world. I deeply question how well we’ve prepared people to suffer in this time.
Second, I’m concerned about a failure to confront false beliefs held by those who attend and lead Fourth Church, including the promotion of heterodox teaching and personalities.
I am primarily referring to the people at Fourth who adhere to the Word of Faith movement or the prosperity gospel, whether wholesale or piecemeal. I worry that these individuals are encouraged in their confusion and error, at least in part by Fourth’s use of the terms and concepts I previously mentioned.
Please hear me: There are, of course, careful, faithful, and biblical ways to use concepts and terminology such as “breakthrough,” “abundance,” “victory,” “authority,” “declare,” “claim,” and other, similar words. When used in an ambiguous or sloppy manner, however, they serve as dog whistles to the many people in the congregation who have adopted erroneous beliefs, and it allows those beliefs to continue unchecked — even if Fourth Church’s theological lexicon carefully avoids particular Word of Faith applications.
Worse, some of Fourth Church’s ministries openly promote heterodox teaching and personalities. As just a few brief examples, I would point to:
The use of videos by Todd White as training for the prayer team. White is a charlatan who peddles videos of demonstrably fake healings, shares platforms with false teachers including Kenneth Copeland and Bill Johnson, denies the full deity of Christ, and claims to be without sin (see 1 John 1:8).
The adaptation of Randy Clark’s material for use as Fourth Church’s prayer manual. Randy Clark is similarly associated with false teachers (including Johnson, White, and Shawn Bolz) and the New Apostolic Reformation, and has conducted frenzied “School of Healing and Impartation” events at Bethel Church and elsewhere.
The inclusion of material from Shawn Bolz in the prayer manual and in communication from other ministries. Bolz claims to occupy the office of Prophet (as distinct from exercising the spiritual gift of prophecy), delivers false prophecies, and has been credibly accused of using the same cheap parlor tricks practiced by stage-show psychics. (Importantly, removing Bolz’s quotes from the prayer manual does not exorcise Bolz’s theology from the manual or from the church.)
These men are wolves on the prowl for your sheep. Each of these examples signifies a theological drift toward teachings that are more in line with the New Apostolic Reformation and the prosperity gospel than with the teachings of the New Testament and the gospel of Christ. Taken as a whole, they indicate an undiscerning shift, whether intentional or unintentional, toward troubling, heterodox influences in our church.
(I should note here that if this is an intentional shift, then Fourth Church’s leadership should state its new direction explicitly so congregants and members can be aware of it and, as their consciences dictate, choose to worship elsewhere.)
To be clear, I’m not a cessationist: I believe the Holy Spirit works supernaturally in the world today and that the gifts and fruit of the Spirit are available to believers today; I believe that God can and does provide miraculous, physical healing. My concerns are not with charismatic gifts and signs, but with the failure to carefully distinguish between a faithful, mature, and biblically-grounded approach on the one hand and, on the other hand, the undue and improper influence in our church of false teachers who hawk an undiscerning lust for signs, healings, and miracles that can lead unwitting people away from historical, scriptural Christianity.
I would like to see Fourth’s leadership provide explicit, specific, and public correction of false beliefs that are present within the church. Much of this can be accomplished by clearly defining what is meant and, just as importantly, what is not meant by the language we use. I also think Fourth’s leadership (both staff and elders) must play a more active role in holding accountable the leaders, including volunteer leaders, of ministries in which this dangerous influence is present (see Titus 1:11, 13b).
So, in summary: I’m very concerned about the overemphasis on Christianity as a means of improving our material lives and about the proliferation or tolerance of false beliefs and false teachers that have gone unchecked among some leaders, members, and congregants.
Finally, on a deeply personal note, I’m aware that much of my concern for, and heightened sensitivity to, these matters comes from our family journey with Becca’s epilepsy.
My ultimate hope for Becca is not that she will be healed of epilepsy. I wholeheartedly believe that God can heal her epilepsy in this life, and I plead with him in faith every day to do so; I am confident he will heal her fully, in the next life if not in this one. But I do not place my hope or my comfort in her healing or her breakthrough or her victory over epilepsy. Christ has made it possible for her to have life and have it abundantly, even while having seizures.
Any expectation of a coming breakthrough in Becca’s health is thin and watery gruel compared to the bountiful feast of the gospel — the sure and certain promise that God is near her in her suffering, that God has through Christ made satisfaction for her sins and will one day make her whole, that he is working even in this disability for his glory and for her good, and that she will look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living even if she has epileptic fits until the day God calls her home, where she will behold at last her savior’s face. This is the glorious hope of the gospel, the good news that a hurting and broken world needs to hear.
So I plead with you: Make sure that this gospel, and this gospel alone, is proclaimed loudly, clearly, and unapologetically at Fourth Church. Do not let the treasure of the gospel lay beside the trinkets and baubles of lifestyle improvement and vague promises of coming breakthrough. Do not allow the clear, cool water of the Christian gospel to be diluted with the pond scum — not even a drop! — of the prosperity gospel, the Word of Faith movement, or the New Apostolic Reformation. Do not allow snake-oil salesmen to peddle their quackery within our walls. Do not yoke the gospel message to the dead weight of expectations that God has promised us personal lifestyle improvements. Preach Christ and him crucified — not so that we might get a promotion, but so we might be forgiven of our sins and reconciled to God.
Underlying all of this, I suppose, is a plea for more robust oversight of the church’s theology, preaching, and practice. In 2012, after the Fourth Church members voted to leave our denomination, I sent this appeal to the elder board:
I can’t encourage you strongly enough to continue looking into options of external accountability and authority for Fourth Church, whether that’s in the form of a network or organization, or a denomination that is more compatible with our mission and personality, or simply a small group of trusted leaders and pastors who audit and regularly report on the church’s theology, preaching, and practice. Please, please, please look for a responsible way of answering to someone outside of our walls.
I repeat this plea today: Please, please, please find responsible, faithful, and proven accountability that can ensure Fourth Church does not stray from the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.
I’m hoping that this email is received as a loving corrective that motivates careful introspection, increased oversight from the elder board, and a decisive, noticeable shift in some of the church’s practices.
Becca and I hope to meet in person to discuss these matters and hear your response.
When first I read those C.S. Lewis quotes — there’s no sound like the laughter of grown men, he wrote, and nothing like a group of friends before a fire to recline and smoke, to drink and talk at ease: golden sessions, rare and therefore precious — I didn’t know quite what he meant. But, six years later, now, six short years and countless, unearned blessings — of joy, of friendship, wisdom, laughter, rest — at last I understand and must agree: life has few better gifts to give than we five friends at this, our too-infrequent fest, with manful laughter loudly sounding our own souls’ communion, our own golden hour.
In case you’re wondering about the C.S. Lewis quotes, here they are:
“My happiest hours are spent with three or four old friends in old clothes tramping together and putting up in small pubs — or else sitting up till the small hours in someone’s college rooms talking nonsense, poetry, theology, metaphysics over beer, tea, and pipes. There’s no sound I like better than adult male laughter.”
qtd. in The Narnian
“In a perfect Friendship this Appreciative love is, I think, often so great and so firmly based that each member of the circle feels, in his secret heart, humbled before the rest. Sometimes he wonders what he is doing there among his betters. He is lucky beyond desert to be in such company. Especially when the whole group is together; each bringing out all that is best, wisest, or funniest in all the others. Those are the golden sessions; when four or five of us after a hard day’s walk have come to our inn; when our slippers are on, our feet spread out toward the blaze and our drinks are at our elbows; when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk; and no one has any claim on or any responsibility for another, but all are freemen and equals as if we had first met an hour ago, while at the same time an Affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life — natural life — has no better gift to give. Who could have deserved it?”
A gentle snow is falling slow outside the windows. Pine and nutmeg, orange and clove like incense scent the pleasant air inside. There’s apple cider mulling on the stove, and gentle snow is falling slow outside.
We deck the halls with baubles, lights, and bells, a wrap of burlap garland, potpourri. The vinyl spins, and Perry Como tells the Noel tale, while on our fresh-cut tree, we’re hanging Christmas baubles, lights, and bells.
The newborn Christ is watching from the crèche, where Mary in her virgin arms holds close the ageless Son of God in infant flesh. He came for us, this babe in swaddling clothes, the newborn Christ who’s watching from the crèche.
For us — for this — Emmanuel has come: for common Christmas joys, goodwill to men, the sentimental pleasures of our home, for peace on earth, hot chocolate from a tin — for all of this, and more, our Lord has come.