A letter to our (former) elders

Introduction

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:

  1. I think it does a good job of modeling firm yet respectful disagreement with church leaders
  2. 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
  3. It presents the hope of the gospel as an alternative
  4. I am regularly asked about this letter and the topics it addresses, so I know it’s still relevant

I pray it’s helpful.


The Letter

Hi everyone,

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.

In Christ,

Josh

Comfort & Security in Times of Suffering

“Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?”

Amos 3:6

This isn’t a very popular sentiment. I know a lot of you will disagree with it; many of you will find it offensive. But it’s a great comfort to me. Not only is it a great comfort, but I believe it’s the only solid ground to stand on during these anxious times. If you’re looking for those things — comfort and a firm place to plant your feet — then I recommend resting in the providence of God.

When Becca was diagnosed with epilepsy in 2017, our world was rocked. In many, many ways we’re still struggling to get our feet back under us. I’m a reader, so the first thing I did was turn to books about suffering in an attempt to wrap my head around what was happening to us and why; I never expected my bookshelf to have a whole section devoted to suffering. The books that gave me the most comfort were ironically, unexpectedly, the ones that insisted that suffering is part of God’s good purposes, that he wills it for his own glory and for our ultimate good — even though we may not understand it or like it.

I’m not saying it’s easy to believe these things. At first, the idea that God might be responsible for suffering (for Becca’s epilepsy or the coronavirus or anything else) was repulsive to me. But as I kept pressing in, I became convinced that this is the plain testimony of the Bible. (Kevin DeYoung has an excellent post summarizing this.) Once I saw in the Bible that God exercises his sovereignty for the good of his people, even in painful ways, I couldn’t un-see it. But I still didn’t find it comforting.

The comfort comes when I consider the alternatives. I would rather rest in the arms of a God who loves me and who has promised to work all things for my good, even if I can’t understand how this particular thing is truly for my good, than turn myself loose into a world where God is either too impotent or uncaring to do anything about the suffering he didn’t intend. If this is only of the devil, or merely random and meaningless, or simply the way of the world — none of these can give me more comfort than the truth that there’s a Father in heaven who loves me, is watching over for me, intends all things for my good, has promised to be near to me in my suffering, and has reconciled me to himself through Christ so I will one day enjoy him forever.

And the thing is, I can see it. I don’t need to imagine ways that God might eventually use Becca’s epilepsy for her good — I can see many of the ways he’s already using it even now. Her faith and character are stronger. Her testimony is beautiful. Our family is being refined and improved. Our children will be better men and husbands and fathers than they would be without this. And while I may not be able to identify ways, yet, that he’s using coronavirus for good, I absolutely trust that he’s doing something in and through it that couldn’t be done any other way; and if it could be done in a better way, I trust that he’d do it that way instead.

None of this is to say that I can wrap my head around all the ins and outs of the dilemma. How can God be providentially sovereign over suffering without himself being responsible for sin? I don’t know, exactly. How do we balance God’s providence with free will? I’m not sure I can adequately answer that question. I honestly don’t like all the implications of this; if it were up to me, I’d often choose differently — but if it were up to me, I’d’ve made a wreck of the whole thing a long time ago; I can hardly manage a family of four, much less a whole universe; and I certainly wouldn’t have given my wife a disability, which means we would’ve missed out on the blessings and growth that have come from our suffering together.

So, yes, there is comfort and security here. If you do not yet know the love and care of the one true God, consider this your invitation: Repent of your sins and turn to Christ. He died to save sinners like you and like me. And, having done so, he blesses us with the assurance that he is caring for us and that all things work together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose.

Why My Boys Believe in Santa Claus

My favorite thing about Christmas is the waiting. It wasn’t always that way: When I was a kid, my favorite thing was opening my presents. (We didn’t do Santa, so the presents came from mom and dad.) As I grow older, though, I could sit with the waiting for what feels like forever—because I know for a certainty that the waiting will pay off. The seasonal anticipation builds to a climax that happened in history more than 2,000 years ago. Continue reading “Why My Boys Believe in Santa Claus”

I need Christmas more than ever before

We’re about three weeks from Christmas, and we haven’t put up any decorations. No garland, no lights (inside or out), no tree, no angels, no stockings. Our house looks about as festive as it did around Labor Day, which is to say that it looks exactly how it has looked on any given day since we took down last year’s decorations. Continue reading “I need Christmas more than ever before”

Spurgeon: Rejoice in creation (old and new)

This is a guest post by the Prince of Preachers, C.H. Spurgeon. I would say it’s my favorite excerpt from his sermons, but that’s not entirely accurate, as it’s the only Spurgeon excerpt I’ve ever read. Still, I can’t imagine finding one I like more than this.

—–

I must confess that I think it a most right and excellent thing that you and I should rejoice in the natural creation of God. I do not think that any man is altogether beyond hope who can take delight in the nightly heavens as he watches the stars, and feel joy as he treads the meadows all bedecked with kingcups and daisies. He is not lost to better things who, on the waves, rejoices in the creeping things innumerable drawn up from the vasty deep, or who, in the woods, is charmed with the sweet carols of the feathered minstrels.

Continue reading “Spurgeon: Rejoice in creation (old and new)”

The truth incarnate

artofthehobbit1Jack often asks me why I like The Lord of the Rings so much, and I usually tell him it’s because I think it’s one of the best stories ever told. What I really want to say is that I think it’s one of the truest stories ever told, but I don’t think he’s quite old enough to get the difference between ‘true’ and ‘real.’

Earlier today I read an essay called “In Praise of Stories” (one of the many excellent essays in The Christian Imagination) that touches on the same topic:

But what do we mean by a true story?… In what helpful sense is a fictional story about a boy and a slave on a raft, or, worse yet, a story about hobbits and wizards, true? Here is the answer: Any story is true, fictional or otherwise, that testifies accurately to the human condition.

Continue reading “The truth incarnate”

But for the grace of God

The other day, while discussing some not unsubstantial family problems, someone asked me, “How is it, Josh, that you turned out the way you did?”

I assumed this was meant to reflect positively on me, and replied, “Only by the grace of God.”

In retrospect, my response sounds a little trite; it’s the sort of insincere response that people often give without thinking much about what exactly they’re saying. But I meant it. I mean it. I’m not sure of much in this life, but I am sure of this: I could very easily have walked a different path to end up in a much darker place and as a far worse person. And I’m not on my current path—a path of faith and hope and grace and life—because of anything I did. No, I’m walking this path in spite of anything I did. Left to myself, left to my pain, my past, my family, my circumstances and the natural consequences of my too often foolish decisions, I would not be here. But for the grace of God.

Continue reading “But for the grace of God”

When life hands you Lemonade

When I pulled up to the parking lot of Engedi Church last night, I was surprised to see how many cars were there. Certainly more than I had expected for a Monday night — nearly as many as I find for a proper Sunday morning service. We had shown up at the abandoned strip mall-turned church building-turned temporary movie theater for a screening of Reparando, a documentary film about Guatemalans who are “embracing the pain of their past to repair the next generation.”

After watching the trailer, I had planned on seeing a powerful film. What I hadn’t planned on was seeing such a moving testimony about the power of the gospel to transform lives. The documentary follows the stories of Tita and Shorty, two Christian leaders who work passionately to improve their community, La Limonada (‘lemonade’). La Limonada is an asentamiento, an urban slum community that, if I remember correctly, is home to some 60,000 people. It’s the largest slum in Central America. This is a story that needs to be heard.

Continue reading “When life hands you Lemonade”

Out with the Old, in with the New

Yesterday, after nine months of determined devotion, I finally finished my first entire read-through of the Old Testament. Genesis through Malachi. “In the beginning” all the way to “lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.

I won’t be stopping here, of course. The New Testament is on the other side of the page, and I’m eager to get started — but it’s worth reflecting on what I’ve noticed while reading through the L. and the P.

Continue reading “Out with the Old, in with the New”