Sunday, May 28, 2006

Defining Reformission by Mark Driscoll

I have just came across this interesting quote by Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, WA. while surfing the Christian blogosphere:
Reformission is a radical call to reform the church's traditionally flawed view of missions as something carried out in foreign lands and to focus instead on the urgent need in our own neighborhoods, which are filled with diverse cultures of Americans who desperately need the gospel of Jesus and life in his Church. Most significant, they need a gospel and a church who are faithful both to the scriptural texts and to the cultural contexts of America....What I am advocating is not an abandonment of missions across the globe but rather an emphasis on missions that begins across the street, like Jesus commanded (Acts 1:8)

- Mark Driscoll, The Radical Reformission
I wholeheartedly say a resounding AMEN to these words by Mark Driscoll. Too often, our idea of missions is to uproot ourselves, travel to a far-away distant land, experience a foreign culture and preach the gospel in a foreign language. I agree that missions is not something that is solely done in some remote countries, but should begin across the street. To put it in a local context, do we really need to go to Thailand to preach the gospel when we have plenty of unreached people in Singapore who never have the gospel preached to them? Not that I am against overseas missions, but I think we must adopt a balanced approach to missions at home and overseas.

After reading a couple of blog reviews, I think I would most probably be purchasing the book The Radical Reformission: Reaching Out without Selling Out, which appears to contain a number of interesting ideas. I thought the three formulas provided by Mark Driscoll conform pretty much to my perception of the Christian environment today:
  1. Gospel + Culture - Church = Parachurch
  2. Culture + Church - Gospel = Liberalism
  3. Church + Gospel - Culture = Fundamentalism
According to Mark Driscoll, it is important that "(1) the gospel (loving our Lord), (2) the culture (loving our neighbour), and (3) the church (loving our brother)" works together to ensure success in our mission to the world.

On the second formula, I do have a special concern for churches and Christians that seek to be culturally relevant. While we might fall into the trap of sectarianism, where being so culturally irrelevant that you lose your mission, the trap of syncretism is just as real - being so culturally relevant that the message is lost. I see this happening particularly with Christian youth, where there is a danger of infusing too much entertainment and seeker-friendly sermons into the worship service that I am afraid the gospel is neglected – people are converted to the church or the pastor but not to Jesus.

Update! 1 June 2006: I have gone to SKS Books Warehouse yesterday to buy the book. It appears to be the last copy in the store.

Friday, May 26, 2006

A Rebuttal to an Open Theist Email

A couple of months ago, I have come across an interesting, and I would say, an extremely hate-filled email, titled Frankie's Powerful Message, which attacks Calvinism. The curious thing about this email is that it is hosted on a Buddhist website in Singapore (Hmm … I wonder why it is so).

According to the email, the author is identified as Frankie Lee. And judging by his email address, Frankie is probably a Singaporean and it seems his beliefs are quite consistent with Open Theism. He denies the omniscience of God – that God has any foreknowledge of the future. For the most part of his email, he denounces the doctrines of Calvinism as the “Lies of Satan.” The email can be found at this link.

I have divided my rebuttal into the following sections:
  1. On John Calvin and Michael Servetus
  2. On Open Theism
  3. On Irresistible Grace
  4. On John Wesley’s View of John Calvin
  5. On Augustine’s View of Astrology
  6. On the Fall of Adam
  7. On the Anthropomorphic View of God
  8. On the Total Depravity of Man
  9. On the Absolute Sovereignty of God
  10. On God’s Sovereignty over Evil and Suffering
On John Calvin and Michael Servetus
Frankie Lee wrote,
Due to the deep rooted mindsets of Christians who were mostly influenced by Calvin's misleading doctrines, my teachings from Truths will shock and disillusioned many Christians. It is unthinkable that anyone will ever believe in the words of John Calvin, who was infamous for slandering God, blasphemies, and he actually burned a human being alive, and in order to satisfy his rage and hatred against Servetus, he asked for green wood to slowly torture him ....via slow- cook.Yet, his followers are aplenty.
It amazes me that many opponents of Calvinism have to resort to blaming John Calvin for the death of Michael Servetus, who denied the doctrine of the Trinity. This is an ad hominem fallacy, as it has absolutely nothing to do with refuting the theological doctrines of Calvinism.

Philip Schaff (1819-1893), author of History of the Christian Church, wrote,
From the standpoint of modern Christianity and civilization, the burning of Servetus admits of no justification. Even the most admiring biographers of Calvin lament and disapprove his conduct in this tragedy, which has spotted his fame and given to Servetus the glory of martyrdom.

But if we consider Calvin’s course in the light of the sixteenth century, we must come to the conclusion that he acted his part from a strict sense of duty and in harmony with the public law and dominant sentiment of his age, which justified the death penalty for heresy and blasphemy, and abhorred toleration as involving indifference to truth Even Servetus admitted the principle under which he suffered; for he said, that incorrigible obstinacy and malice deserved death before God and men.

Calvin’s prominence for intolerance was his misfortune. It was an error of judgment, but not of the heart, and must be excused, though it cannot be justified, by the spirit of his age.
Most contrary to Frankie Lee’s overly exaggerated statement “asked for green wood to slowly torture him ....via slow- cook,” Philip Schaff wrote,
In one respect [John Calvin] was in advance of his times, by recommending to the Council of Geneva, though in vain, a mitigation of punishment and the substitution of the sword for the stake.
It must also be noted John Calvin does not have any formal power in Geneva. Here is an excerpt from an article by Matthew Gross,
In considering these executions, is important to note that Calvin never held any formal power outside the Church during his time in Geneva. The government of the church in Geneva was Presbyterian ¬– it had a pastor and a consistory, or board of ruling elders. Contrary to popular portrayal, the government of the church was not the government of the city. … The consistory handled moral matters, and the maximum penalty it could impose was excommunication. … Calvin himself was not a citizen of Geneva during the upheaval in Geneva, and thus was disqualified from voting, holding public office, or even serving on the Council of Two Hundred until very late in his life, and at least four years after he achieved “the height of his power” to which so many Calvin detractors refer. Thus, it is with this understanding, the understanding that Calvin held no formal secular power, and that any power he did have was subject to the review of two different citizen’s councils...
And lastly, to sum it up, William Wileman has given an excellent concise summary of the facts in his article Calvin and Servetus:
  1. That Servetus was guilty of blasphemy, of a kind and degree which is still punishable here in England by imprisonment.
  2. That his sentence was in accordance with the spirit of the age.
  3. That he had been sentenced to the same punishment by the Inquisition at Vienne.
  4. That the sentence was pronounced by the Councils of Geneva, Calvin having no power either to condemn or to save him.
  5. That Calvin and others visited the unhappy man in his last hours, treated him with much kindness, and did all they could to have the sentence mitigated.
On Open Theism
Frankie Lee wrote,
The scriptures revealed many accidents that happened to human beings, and it shock God and surprise Him but many professed-believers-and stickler- of- the -Word "refute" the Bible because they had find it hard to trust the Bible. While they claimed that they do not understand many mysteries of God, and were ignorant about many things about God, then why they comments on something that they have no knowledge of?
It is in this paragraph where Frankie Lee revealed his real theological leanings. His statement “many accidents that happened to human beings, and it shock God and surprise Him” exposes him as an Open Theist.

One of the heretical teachings of Open Theism states that God has no foreknowledge of human choices; that God can be shocked, surprised and can repent like we do. Now, unlike Open Theism, both Calvinists and Arminians do affirm the foreknowledge of God. John Piper compares the statements by John Calvin and Jacobus Arminius in his article Is the Glory of God at Stake in God's Foreknowledge of Human Choices?,
John Calvin wrote, "[God] foresees future events only by reason of the fact that he decreed that they take place." And Jacobus Arminius wrote, "[God] has known from eternity which persons should believe . . . and which should persevere through subsequent grace." Denying God's foreknowledge of human choices has never been part of Christian orthodoxy.
Even John Wesley, whom Frankie Lee later described in his email as “the genuine servant of God,” affirmed the foreknowledge of God in his sermon on the doctrine of predestination.
The first point is, the foreknowledge of God. God foreknew those in every nation, those who would believe, from the beginning of the world to the consummation of all things. But, in order to throw light upon this dark question, it should be well observed, that when we speak of God's foreknowledge, we do not speak according to the nature of things, but after the manner of men. For, if we speak properly, there is no such thing as either foreknowledge or afterknowledge in God. All time, or rather all eternity, (for the children of men,) being present to him at once, he does not know one thing in one point of view from everlasting to everlasting. As all time, with everything that exists therein, is present with him at once, so he sees at once, whatever was is, or will be, to the end of time.
On Irresistible Grace
Frankie Lee wrote,
A lot of confusion stems from Calvin's definition of God, denigrating God and place God as "Sovereign", having "Foreknowledge", and "All Powerful", intruding into affairs of human beings, and "Overriding all human will", to the point of "Invasion of privacies", that had become" God's Will has become Irresistible".
Not only Frankie Lee denies the foreknowledge of God, he also denies the sovereign will of God. The question is – can anyone thwart the will of God? We find in the Scriptures that no one can.
I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. – Job 42:2

For the LORD Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back? – Isaiah 14:27
As God of all creation, it would seem preposterous to imply that God is not allowed to be “intruding into affairs of human beings.” Isn’t it clearly written in the Scriptures,
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen. – Romans 11:36

But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?' "Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? – Romans 9:20-21
The question is, if God does not “override human will,” how could anyone willingly seek God? It is written that “no one who seeks God” (Romans 3:10-11); that the “man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them” (1 Corinthians 2:14). It is also written,
All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. … No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. – John 6:37, 44
Because no man has the natural ability to choose God, it is solely up to the sovereign will of God to overcome the hardened hearts of men and to draw men to Him. And because the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8:30 that those whom God calls, He also justifies, it is clear that the electing grace of God is irresistible.

On John Wesley’s View of John Calvin
Frankie Lee wrote,
"Nothing can happen chance, and there is no accident in God", with such ideas emanating from Calvin, obviously fooled the world, in his definitions and wrong views about the Bible. John Wesley, the genuine servant of God preached that Calvin was a Blasphemer. But Calvin was infamously known as a wicked human being, and a murderer. Some believe that he was an anti-Christ, a wolf in sheep clothing's in Christendom, and I find the latter is more accurate portrayal of Calvinism.
It is likely Frankie Lee received his information that “John Wesley … preached that Calvin was a Blasphemer” from the Wesley’s sermon on Free Grace in 1740,
This is the blasphemy for which (however I love the persons who assert it) I abhor the doctrine of predestination, a doctrine, upon the supposition of which, if one could possibly suppose it for a moment, (call it election, reprobation, or what you please, for all comes to the same thing) one might say to our adversary, the devil, "Thou fool, why dost thou roar about any longer?
Now, John Wesley did not directly accuse John Calvin of being a blasphemer. It is important that we need to balance the above words of John Wesley with his other sermons. And here is an excerpt of another sermon that he later preached in 1770,
John Calvin was a pious, learned, sensible man; and so was James Harmens. Many Calvinists are pious, learned, sensible men; and so are many Arminians. Only the former hold absolute predestination; the latter, conditional.

One word more: Is it not the duty of every Arminian Preacher, First, never, in public or in private, to use the word Calvinist as a term of reproach; seeing it is neither better nor worse than calling names? -- a practice no more consistent with good sense or good manners, than it is with Christianity.
What could have caused this change? Well, if one knows the history of Methodism, one would know that George Whitefield, a friend of John Wesley and the co-founder of Methodism, is a Calvinist. After Wesley’s sermon on Free Grace was published, George Whitefield wrote a letter to John Wesley in response to the Free Grace sermon. Here are a couple of excerpts,
But perhaps you may say, that Luther and Arndt were no Christians, at least very weak ones. I know you think meanly of Abraham, though he was eminently called the friend of God: and, I believe, also of David, the man after God's own heart. No wonder, therefore, that in a letter you sent me not long since, you should tell me that no Baptist or Presbyterian writer whom you have read knew anything of the liberties of Christ. What? Neither Bunyan, Henry, Flavel, Halyburton, nor any of the New England and Scots divines? See, dear Sir, what narrow-spiritedness and want of charity arise from your principles, and then do not cry out against election any more on account of its being "destructive of meekness and love."

How then, in holding this doctrine, do we join with modern unbelievers in making the Christian revelation unnecessary? No, dear Sir, you mistake. Infidels of all kinds are on your side of the question. Deists, Arians, and Socinians arraign God's sovereignty and stand up for universal redemption. I pray God that dear Mr. Wesley's sermon, as it has grieved the hearts of many of God's children, may not also strengthen the hands of many of his most avowed enemies!

I would hint further, that you unjustly charge the doctrine of reprobation with blasphemy, whereas the doctrine of universal redemption, as you set it forth, is really the highest reproach upon the dignity of the Son of God, and the merit of his blood. Consider whether it be not rather blasphemy to say as you do, "Christ not only died for those that are saved, but also for those that perish."

Dear, dear Sir, O be not offended! For Christ's sake be not rash! Give yourself to reading. Study the covenant of grace. Down with your carnal reasoning. Be a little child; and then, instead of pawning your salvation, as you have done in a late hymn book, if the doctrine of universal redemption be not true; instead of talking of sinless perfection, as you have done in the preface to that hymn book, and making man's salvation to depend on his own free will, as you have in this sermon; you will compose a hymn in praise of sovereign distinguishing love. You will caution believers against striving to work a perfection out of their own hearts, and print another sermon the reverse of this, and entitle it "Free Grace Indeed." Free, not because free to all; but free, because God may withhold or give it to whom and when he pleases.
On Augustine’s View of Astrology
Frankie Lee wrote,
Augustine, a worshipper of Mary, was an astrology who believed in the superstition about Stars in the sky. The practice of astrology is understood as abominations and affront to God, and even sorceries were rudely condemned. The idea of Predestinations was seem to have passed from him to Calvin, and that concept became the mindsets of our world, which gave us "Fate"," Once saved always saved", Omnipotent God, Sovereign God, and Almighty God.
History reveals to us Augustine rejected the practice of astrology in his work The Confessions,
By now I had also repudiated the lying divinations and impious absurdities of the astrologers. Let thy mercies, out of the depth of my soul, confess this to thee also, O my God. For thou, thou only (for who else is it who calls us back from the death of all errors except the Life which does not know how to die and the Wisdom which gives light to minds that need it, although it itself has no need of light--by which the whole universe is governed, even to the fluttering leaves of the trees?)--thou alone providedst also for my obstinacy with which I struggled against Vindicianus, a sagacious old man, and Nebridius, that remarkably talented young man. The former declared vehemently and the latter frequently--though with some reservation--that no art existed by which we foresee future things. But men's surmises have oftentimes the help of chance, and out of many things which they foretold some came to pass unawares to the predictors, who lighted on the truth by making so many guesses.
On the Fall of Adam
Frankie Lee wrote,
When God was surprised and shocked that Adam sinned, the Slanderer explained that God was in pretense of a shock, for God had foreknowledge and knew in advance of all events. An accident occurred in the Garden of Eden, but the Devil teaches that, in God there is no accident. Yet the Word told us that there was accidents, with the exceptional cases whereby, unless a Child love and obey God, all things will work for his own good as directed by Him.
What Frankie fails to understand is that God’s envisioning of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is contingent upon God’s foreknowledge of the Fall of Adam. If God has been “surprised and shocked” at the Fall of Adam, then it is quite out of the question that God has set apart the elect from the rest of the sinners before the creation of the world since He would not have anticipated any sinners in the first place. In other words, the foreknowledge of God is vital for salvation to work. For it is written,
For he chose us in [Christ] before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love [God] predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – Ephesians 1:4-5
On the Anthropomorphic View of God
Frankie Lee wrote,
God spoke that He regretted creating man, but Christendom cannot, would not, and refuse to believe in God's words, for they rather trust in the lies of an Evil-one than God, who spoke the Truths. Very few "Christians" believe in the innocence of God, for they rather believed that "He" is guilty, thus blaspheming God without being conscious about it. Up till this day, Christians still believed, and doubt God, and rather see that God surely must have participated in the fall of Man, presuming guilt on God the Creator, just like Eve who trusted the words of Serpent. Who have you place your confidence about your personal eternity, or with whom have you trusted for Eternity?
Frankie’s statement is a prime example of an Open Theist taking a particular anthropomorphic text of the Scriptures to a literal extreme that is not consistently supported by the rest of the Scriptures. By the rest of the Scriptures, I would mean the following,
God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill? I have received a command to bless; he has blessed, and I cannot change it. (Numbers 23:19-20)

He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind. (1 Samuel 15:29)
As we can see, it is dangerous to interpret the divine nature of God using such anthropomorphic texts that seems to imply a limit to the omniscience of God. For example, in Genesis 3:9 where God is seeking Adam in the garden, God said, “Where are you?” If an Open Theist wishes to be consistent in his interpretations, he would have to suggest God has a poor knowledge of geography and that His range of vision is limited.

Furthermore, the Open Theist also shows a simplistic understanding of God’s emotional capacities, revealing his inability of reconciling two seemingly opposing emotions within the divine heart of God. However, if one is able to understand the difference between the divine will of decree and the divine will of command, one would be able see how God is able to, at the same time, desire one thing while decreeing another.

The most indubitable example of the two wills of God is found in the execution and death of Jesus Christ at the cross. While God, through His will of command, does not desire an innocent man to be executed, God, through His will of decree, declared that Jesus Christ should die to atone for the sins of the elect. Therefore, it is quite reasonable to conclude that God would have expressed regret or felt sorrow in His heart that Christ had to die. However this does not mean God, at any time, regretted His decision and would have changed His mind to send Christ to the cross.

On the Total Depravity of Man
Frankie Lee wrote,
Up till this day, the independent Will of man, of the Devil, and many human events and spiritual events which are uncontrolled by God, such Truths will never be accepted by Fundamental Leaders. Up till this day, the free moral Will of man, this teachings has never really sank in into the hearts of Christians, the implications and the significance about it. In real actual life, there is really a free moral will of human being, and of the Devil and of God, and even Angels.
The Scriptures clearly establish the moral inability of Man to freely choose God.
  1. “Children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.” (John 1:13)
  2. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:44)
  3. “You did not choose me, but I chose you...” (John 15:16)
  4. “There is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.” (Romans 3:11)
  5. “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14)
On the Absolute Sovereignty of God
Frankie Lee wrote,
God's will was not carried out in this world, and God was not in full control of this World, so Christians must obey God, to bring God's will into this world, to bring Him over here to control most of the things in this world, and Christians are to participate in praying that God's name be not blaspheme, and be kept Holy, from the Lord's Prayers.
Apparently, Frankie Lee thinks that God is not in control; that everything happens by chance. However, the Scriptures indicate that the Open Theist deviates from the correct understanding of God.
Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please. - Isaiah 46:9-10

I foretold the former things long ago, my mouth announced them and I made them known; then suddenly I acted, and they came to pass. Therefore I told you these things long ago; before they happened I announced them to you so that you could not say, 'My idols did them; my wooden image and metal god ordained them.' - Isaiah 48:3,5
As we can see, these verses clearly state God knows the future. Not only has He known “what is still to come,” it is written “[God’s] purpose will stand.” It is astonishing that Open Theists would go as far as to imply the sovereign plan of God is subjected to chances and accidents. In other words, God is capable of making mistakes.

On God’s Sovereignty over Evil and Suffering
Frankie Lee wrote,
Obviously, it is accurate by statements and facts, and by reality, we can safely say that Satan is the source of all diseases, the troubles for humanity, and "responsible" for the death of human beings and caused all human sufferings. However, the Devil had the consenting Adults, and the cooperation of our Ancestors, and they sold human beings to bondage, so the problems existed mutually with man and cooperation with the Devils, leaving God out of the equations, so to speak.
The trouble with this sort of thinking is that the person forgets Satan is only one of God’s created creatures. To imagine that God is not in full control and the actions of Satan and humans are not under God’s sovereignty absolutely gives ourselves way too much credit and mocks the power of God. The Scriptures indicate of no such thing. Contrary to Frankie’s theory that “God [is] out of the equations,” or that God is not sovereign over suffering, the following verse refute his theory:
The LORD said to him, "Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD? – Exodus 4:11
We can also observe in the Book of Job where God not only allowed Satan to harm Job, God claimed responsibility for the actions of Satan.
Then the LORD said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason." – Job 2:3
God is responsible for deaths, as we can see from this verse:
See now that I myself am He! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand. – Deuteronomy 32:39
For further reading on the sovereignty of God over evil, John Piper has written an excellent article Is God Less Glorious Because He Ordained that Evil Be?

More resources: on Open Theism
CARM on Open Theism
Open Theism: A Florida Baptist Witness Special Report
Articles on the Openness of God Debate

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Bible College, Here I Come!

Praise and thank God! I have just been accepted into a Bible college in Singapore. The letter of acceptance has arrived last week. This wonderful news is all due to God alone. However, some people do deserve mention, such as my family who has given me support, the excellent references from my church pastor, the church worship director and a long-time sister-in-Christ who is a Bible lecturer at another college.

I will be doing a full-time Masters of Divinity at a college which will remain unnamed for now. The duration of the programme is three years and would start this July. I pray that as I embark on this new journey in my life, God will instill in me humility, courage, perseverance and wisdom.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Internet Monk: Working for God's Glory

I thought the excerpt below that is taken from the fifth point of the Internet Monk's latest post How much is too much? is a pretty good response to some of the methods of postmodern / emergent / seeker-sensitive churches.

The post is pretty good and I would encourage readers to have a look at it. I love this phrase that the Internet Monk has written: "Newsflash to Bob Ross: Joel Osteen talking about about positive thinking for 30 minutes and then mentioning the Gospel (kinda) for 30 seconds isn’t a Christ-centered ministry. Duh."
The Glory of God means God is seen clearly, truthfully and Biblically. Keep that in mind when you say you’re doing whatever “for the glory of God.”

God isn’t glorified by everything we do. What we do is commanded to glorify him. Intentionally. That means God gets the big parts, most of the lines and nothing makes sense without him.

If God becomes a clown, a disembodied voice, a divine comedian, good feelings or a large stuffed animal, He’s not being glorified. God isn’t’ glorified just because I say that’s what I want to do. God isn’t glorified by what I think is cool. God is glorified when the cross and the mediator are seen clearly, exalted and magnified. That’s what he thinks is cool. (See the Gospel of John for details.)

Doing all kinds of nonsense “for the glory of God” is as big a cop-out as I know of. It’s juvenile. If the New Testament is about any one subject, it’s about how God is glorified in his Son and the Gospel of our salvation. Can we get that point, and can we understand that the Glory of God as our central theme is going to make a big difference. The reason some churches look and act like a cross between a pep rally and the opening of a new Wal-Mart is because what’s being glorified is US, our agendas and our desires. God is the one who “blesses” the whole mess and makes it all a “good witness.” Or so we say.

Listen, I’m not trying to stifle your creativity. I think we need to use the creative opportunities in our culture to communicate the Gospel, reach people, serve real needs, and bring a witness that is relevant and bold. But there are questions that have to be asked. There are pieces that have to be in place if it’s about Jesus and his Kingdom and not just about us. The Jesus-focused, God-glorifying, Gospel-communicating center and substance are not automatically just THERE just because we are sincere, creative, enthusiastic or spent a lot of money.

I’m not trying to lay some “only what Dr. Macarthur approves” trip on you. I’m not about a regulative principle that comes with a dress code, an approved book list, a Steve Green children’s CD and “Do It Like The Puritans!” bumper stickers. I don’t want to tell your drama team they can’t recreate the prodigal son or your youth group that they shouldn’t act like real teenagers.

I’m simply suggesting that there are questions to ask to determine if we are where we ought to be, doing what we ought to do in the way we ought to do it. It’s not complicated. It’s basic, and it takes the courage to go against the flow, staying in the mainstream of loyalty to Christ above all.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

An Article on Hillsong Church: The High Cost of Faith

Before proceeding to the main article, readers might want to take a look at the interview with Geoff Bullock, the former worship pastor for Hillsong Church, in which he mentioned that he has rewritten some of the lyrics in his songs to make them doctrinally correct and in line with the teachings of the gospel.

Geoff Bullock said in the interview regarding the song Power of Your Love,
“A good example is ‘Lord I come to you, let my heart be changed, renewed’. Well, us going to God? When you just think of it naturally, I mean man going to God, that’s creation’s cry. All creation longs for communion with the Creator but we cannot go to God. The miracle of it is that it’s ‘Lord, you come to me’ so I now sing the song with ‘Lord, you come to me’. Instead of singing the prayer, ‘Hold me close’, it’s ‘You hold me close’. Just expressing it in that way...To say ‘Lord, hold me close’ is actually a misunderstanding of the Gospel. It’s sort of like saying ‘Oh Lord, have mercy’ - well, how much more mercy must He show? Or ‘Lord, forgive me’ - well, how much more forgiving can God get? I’ve become so aware of what God has done for me in having to apply grace to my journey rather than trying to prove myself worthy...It made me realise that there’s a whole culture of people pleading with God to do something that He’s already done. And when you turn around and realise the miracle - that He has done it - it turns life all the way around. It suddenly puts a value on you that you could never achieve in your own endeavour at all...”
The following is quite an interesting but pretty long article on Hillsong Church. A number of responses to the article by ex-Hillsong members can be found at the Signposts blog.

The High Cost of Faith
Published by News Limited, 29 April 2006, by Jennifer Sexton.

As crowds - and their cash - flood into Hillsong Church, former members tell Jennifer Sexton about the heavy price they paid for leaving the flock.

Whoa! I wanna know you, I wanna know you today.” With that catchy lyric, the lead singer rips into a punky-pop riff on his electric guitar as the band and side-stage choir spring to life. Over a sea of raised arms, five cameras capture the action as the audience, in time with the lanky, tousle-haired lead singer, belts out a thundering chorus: “You’re the best thing that has happened to me.”

No, this isn’t MTV live. It’s Hillsong Church, part religious service, part rock concert, part multi-media conglomerate. Every weekend at Hillsong churches in Sydney 19,000 people sing, clap and jump through a two-hour tribute to a God who rocks. As traditional religious congregations shrink, Hillsong attendance expanded more than 13 per cent in 2004.

There are no images of Jesus being tortured on the cross at Hillsong headquarters in Sydney’s Baulkham Hills, no vaulted ceilings. The audience sits not on wooden pews but on 3500 cushioned theatre seats. Under each one is an envelope and credit card form for believers to donate their pre-tax 10 per cent salary tithe. Ushers flood the aisles and pass black buckets down each row. The buckets have holes in the bottom, presumably to discourage parish-ioners from giving coins. And the rivers of cash keep flowing: donations and salary tithes to Hillsong were $15.3 million in 2004; merchandise, CDs, books and DVDs, returned a further $6.93 million, while total church revenue has now passed the $50 million mark - all tax-free thanks to Hillsong’s charitable status. And then there are the donations - it’s anybody’s guess how much - from the owners of the $40 million Gloria Jean’s coffee empire, Nabi Saleh and Peter Irvine, who are both senior members of Hillsong, the former as treasurer. The message of Hillsong’s prosperity gospel is: the richer you are, the more you can help others.

But along with the expanding congregation and profit margins have come the ugly rumours that won’t go away - of underhanded treatment of disaffected church members, of attempts to silence critics, of profiteering from the faithful. Only last month, the Labor Mayor of Blacktown in Sydney’s west, Leo Kelly, accused Hillsong of attempting to pressure him, via an ALP state official, to dampen his criticism of their use of public funds.

Hillsong’s main benevolent arm, Hillsong Emerge Ltd, has been accused in federal and NSW parliament of misappropriating commonwealth grants worth millions of dollars. And a former member, Robert John Orehek, was charged with fraud after allegedly fleecing believers of up to $20 million, which he sank into failed and fraudulent property investments.

THE KING OF HILLSONG EVANGELISM, Brian Houston, bounds onto the stage, clad in a dapper suit. “The faithful are in church tonight,” he declares, surveying the auditorium. “Awesome!” The background music fades away and the house lights brighten. People reach into their bags for Bibles and notebooks. Houston savours a silent pause. He’s been thinking about the seven deadly sins. “What would be my deadly sins, destructive in the lives of people?” Avarice, gluttony and wrath are apparently old hat. Houston instead says the sins are negativity, regret, complacency. Just a few weeks later, Hillsong’s formidable marketing arm has swung into action, releasing a four-CD set of Houston’s teaching on the sins that undermine potential in people, retailing for $35 in the church shop.

Houston has become the most influential pastor in the Pentecostal movement, and is a household name to born-again Australians. He also has political pulling power: Prime Minister John Howard, Treasurer Peter Costello and former NSW premier Bob Carr have all addressed the Hillsong congregation in recent years. In the last federal election, Hillsong member Liberal Louise Markus narrowly snatched from Labor the seat of Greenway, next to Hillsong’s Baulkham Hills church.

After the service - there are 30 every week in the two main Sydney venues, Baulkham Hills and Waterloo - people pour into the Hillsong shop. Half of the back display is devoted to the CDs and books by Houston and his perky wife of 28 years, Bobbie. Their bright white teeth and perfect hair seem to shine down from dozens of book and CD covers. In Bobbie’s CD set She Loves and Values her Sexuality she proclaims, “You might be happy with your weight but is your husband happy with your weight? … How are you going to do anything that might surprise your man when you need a hydraulic crane just to turn over in bed?” Boob jobs and face lifts get the thumbs up, as do good sex and a husband who says sorry with an impromptu spending spree at the jewellers. It’s a feel-good message, and when it doesn’t feel good, money makes it better.

GEOFF BULLOCK KNOWS ALL about Hillsong’s brand power and merchandising. He helped build it, even coming up with the name Hillsong more than 17 years ago. He launched the church on the international Christian music scene when he wrote most of the original songs, such as Power of Your Love, Refresh My Heart and Have Faith in God. For the church’s first decade he was Brian Houston’s best friend. For eight years, until a messy split in 1995, he ran the music department, nerve centre of “the brand”. Although his songs are now rarely played at Hillsong, they are popular on the international Christian music scene and Bullock lives off composition royalties paid through APRA (the Australasian Performing Rights Association).

When I meet Bullock at a sunny, beachside terrace cafe he is edgy and constantly apologises - for knocking the table as he crosses his legs, for being unable to eat much of his salad. A short, tidy man with intense blue eyes, he is approaching his 50th birthday. He hasn’t slept much in anticipation of revealing the backstage story behind the “miles of smiles” at Hillsong. “It was very nice being at the top of the tree but it just … ” He pauses, swallows. “This is going to sound dramatic. They stole my soul.”

Bullock’s moment of religious revelation struck in 1978 at Sydney’s Koala Motor Inn, where Houston’s father, Frank, was preaching. Bullock was 23 and had been touring the east coast in a rock’n'roll band, smoking dope and reading Carlos Castaneda’s stories of magic and sorcery. “It was wild,” he recalls of that November night. They sang hymns to a funked-up polka tune played with live piano, drums and bass. In the latest fashion blue safari suit, at the centre of the throng was the bespectacled 56-year-old preacher, Frank Houston, who declared that he used to smoke cigarettes before Jesus saved him. “People were trying to put cigarettes in his mouth,” says Bullock. “He lay down and he spat them out. It was a show of great confidence and charisma.”

Bullock was a needy, naive Sydney North Shore lad, schooled at the Presbyterian Knox Grammar. He believed in a higher being and was willing to try anything to reach Him, including cannabis. “I was absolutely ready for brainwashing. I was absolutely ripe for ‘love bombing’.” So, just two hours after walking into his first evangelical experience, Bullock answered God’s call, and his 21-year-old Anglican girlfriend from Lithgow in country NSW, Janine, followed. Individually, in back rooms, they were counselled. They had been born again and were now committed to Jesus. Satan would fight to get them back, they were warned. “I went in with a confident world view and I came out quite rattled. My whole belief structure had been turned on its head.”

He said goodbye to his rock’n'roll band, Arnhem, and to smoking, drinking and playing the occasional gig in topless bars in Sydney. A church leader came to his house and threw out his extensive collection of music - Joni Mitchell, Pink Floyd, The Beatles. “I had this wonderful group of friends, a great lifestyle, going listening to bands. All of that was viewed as being ‘of the devil’ … I didn’t lose some friends, I lost all my friends.”

Five years later, when 29-year-old Brian Houston set up his own church, Hills Christian Life Centre, in the newly suburban northern hills of outer Sydney, Bullock was a founding member. Young Houston was inspired by Tony Packard, who established a high–profile Holden car dealership in the area at Baulkham Hills with the catchcry “Let me do it right for you”.

Bullock was among the 70 believers at Pastor Brian Houston’s first service on Sunday, August 14, 1983, at Baulkham Hills Public School. From here a Pentecostal phenomenon called Hillsong was born. Bullock sang, played piano and was music frontman on stage for at least three services every Sunday. He recorded the church’s first six albums, three of which went gold, one platinum. He also ran the Bible college curriculum. For this he earned no more than $45,000 a year from the church and gave back a pre-tax tithe of 10 per cent, even when he couldn’t pay his growing family’s bills. Now he is being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder after being expunged from the church he helped build.

Bullock and Janine married in 1980 and had five children within a decade. At the height of his Christian stardom in the late 1980s to mid-1990s, Bullock toured the United States, Britain, Asia and New Zealand with an expanding repertoire of songs. For Sydney Sunday services they rose at 6am to set up the band and audio equipment and then rehearse ahead of morning, afternoon and evening church services. He was too busy to notice he was failing as a husband and father. “We had to put our parenting on hold,” he says.

Bullock began to feel like a real estate agent selling a manufactured ideal of God rather than one he really believed in. “I think Hillsong’s still got it, this feeling that God smiles a bit more when we’re singing our songs, and we’ve got good hairdressers, dentists, cosmetic surgeons. I came to think that the patron saint of Hillsong was Gianni Versace.”

Christmas Eve 1994 was the end for Bullock. He had rehearsed the choir and band to play the standard church repertoire for three Christmas services. Just hours before the first service, Houston discovered Bullock had not rehearsed traditional Christmas carols. “He just tore me to shreds and then left me to do three services,” Bullock says. Houston got his Christmas carols that night, but it finished his partnership with Bullock.

Once Bullock departed, a campaign of whispering about his morality and sexuality filtered throughout the church. When he broke up with Janine a few months later, his subsequent relationship with a married woman (whom he later married) was, he says, twisted to become the reason he had been forced out. At the same time, Houston preached about dark forces intent on undermining the church. “They ran a huge campaign to discredit me,” fumes Bullock.

Janine says she changed her phone number to stop friends from the church calling to tell her Bullock’s departure and their marriage break-up was against God’s will. She once hid in the wardrobe when a woman visited her house a second time. “I couldn’t bear her preaching at me again, telling me that this wasn’t of God.”

Janine still goes to Hillsong once a month, but says she can’t help but be cynical about the facade of spirituality compared with the lack of compassion and understanding she experienced. But, she adds, “there’s some beautiful Christian people who attend there”.

GEOFF BULLOCK ISN’T THE ONLY FOUNDING member of Hillsong to question its methods and ethics. For a decade until 1991, Stephen Grant was paid $100 a week to preach at Hillsong and was dean of the church’s Bible college. He admits that, as an eccentric, he was a strange fit for a fundamentalist church.

Still, Grant came from a wealthy family - he now runs a successful art gallery in Sydney’s Redfern - and had pledged (but never paid) $150,000 to the church’s building fund. He had a beautiful wife and was entertaining at the pulpit. He wore loud, colourful suits and sometimes a red leotard. When he blew on the congregation, the entire room of people would fall over.

But he realised his views diverged from Houston’s when they travelled together to the US in 1988. “In the US, I saw the wholesale commercialisation of born-again Christianity. I went, ‘Nah, truth is becoming a commodity here. It’s not a question of internal search, it’s a question of external commodification.’” But Houston liked what he saw and soon Hillsong’s fundraising became increasingly glitzy.

“I started to question what the bloody hell I was doing,” Grant, 46, reflects. “I was preaching all over the world. But I was getting really depressed.” He had lost both his parents and his marriage was under pressure. Grant subsequently discovered that, in the inner sanctum of the church, his wife was being encouraged to recognise that he did not belong.

His clinical depression was seen by the church as a sign of faltering faith. “I knew there was nothing wrong with my faith, and yet I was told: ‘You are not believing in Jesus enough.’” The Hillsong website backs up Grant’s claim. “Depression,” it declares, “is a supernatural spirit straight from the devil.”

When Grant broke up with his wife and left the church, like Bullock, he had to start life all over again, outside the Hillsong fortress. “People find a lot of healing in the church. I don’t have a problem with that. But … if you are kicked out, you are f—ed.”

The Christian message of the shepherd seeking lambs lost from the flock doesn’t apply at Hillsong, says Grant. “It was forbidden for me to be visited by the members of the church. Damn the lost lambs.” His recovery took five years.

The sentiment is echoed by theology student Penny Davis, who took years to rebuild her self-esteem after a shattering experience at Hillsong, which began in 1995 when she was just 20. Women who don’t fit Bobbie Houston’s mould at Hillsong, or those brave enough to challenge the male hierarchy, are swiftly brought into line, she says. With ambitions to become a pastor, Davis quickly realised she needed to change her wardrobe. “To get anywhere, you had to become a clone,” she quips. “I grew my hair, started wearing make-up and doing all the nice girly things.”

Life became very full, and it was all about church. She moved into a share house with four other young women from Hillsong, volunteered two days a week at church and did paid work with the Hillsong community youth centre three days a week, earning a weekly income of $600, less the 10 per cent salary tithe. “The pressure at Hills to be glamorous and have everything as well - it’s quite difficult on a low income.”

Just months after joining, she slept with a woman from the church - one who later confided about the liaison to a youth leader. Davis was immediately counselled that homosexuality was a sin. “I was just so vulnerable,” Davis says simply. She was assigned a mentor, who claimed she had successfully corrected her own “dysfunctional” sexuality. They spoke at least once a week, when Davis had to confess any lesbian fantasies. The mentor also read Davis’s diaries. After the “problem” persisted, she was put into an 18-week “ex-gay” program called Living Waters, then conducted at Hillsong. Once a week she attended the Living Waters group sessions, where she was told to focus on problems in her past which may have triggered her sexual “dysfunction”. “I was committed to getting these things fixed,” Davis says.

Three years of counselling, sessions with a psychiatrist and group therapies failed, however. Davis resorted to grabbing joyful glances at a video of Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras while her flatmates were out, she laughs. “I started to subconsciously realise that this was not going to change … the shame and guilt were eating me up inside.”

Davis decided her sexuality and spirituality could never be reconciled at Hillsong and made the momentous decision to leave. In response, her Hillsong friends sent a barrage of text messages quoting the Bible on the “sin” of homosexuality. She was kicked out of her house and then her friends froze her out, ignoring her emails and phone calls. “She’s gone, we have restructured, there’s no need to continue communicating with her” was the message sent to her Hillsong friends by church leaders, claims Davis.

Social worker Tanya Levin, who spent her teenage years at Hillsong, says that those who question church policy are first shouted down and later ostracised if they persist. Levin has been commissioned to write a book about growing up in an evangelical church. For research, Levin attended the annual Hillsong women’s conference Colour Your World last March and took offence when poor children in Africa were being marketed for sponsors in the audience on the basis of being cute. “They are actually for life, not just for Christmas,” Levin shouted before walking out of the auditorium.

When she wrote an email the next month to the Houstons asking to meet them on a regular basis in order to gather material for her book, she got this curt response from the general manager, George Aghajanian: “We are aware that during your attendance at our recent Colour Your World Women’s Conference you caused a significant disruption. It is for this reason that we ask you to refrain from attending any future Hillsong church services or events; including accessing Hillsong’s land and premises at any time.” Aghajanian closed by saying the church’s leadership and staff were unable to provide assistance for the book.

When Levin subsequently attended a Sunday evening service, a pastor asked to speak to her outside. When she attempted to get back in to retrieve her bag, two security guards blocked her path, picked her up by the elbows and escorted her off the premises.

Brian Houston refused numerous opportunities to comment for this story, except to say: “More than 19,000 people come to Hillsong Church every weekend and I know that the overwhelming majority of them would testify to a healthy experience for both themselves and their families. They would also speak of the constant positive impact they see on others who are being helped through Hillsong Church and its many community programs.”

There is no doubt that Hillsong - or, closer to the mark, its loyal parishioners - perform many good deeds. The church has a number of charitable arms, including Mercy Ministries, a residence for girls dealing with unplanned pregnancies and eating disorders established five years ago by Hillsong’s Darlene Zschech, the country’s most popular and successful Christian singer. Although recently mired in controversy, the church’s main benevolent arm, Hillsong Emerge, has helped people find jobs and recover from addictions. Hillsong attendees sponsor about 2600 children in Uganda, and generously gave $500,000 to victims of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

But the criticism seems likely to persist as long as Hillsong makes $50 million in revenue, pays no tax and yet spends just $2.67 million on “welfare services”. It is not clear how much Mercy Ministries gets from Hillsong, but its total donations were just $304,840 in 2004. And Hillsong Emerge’s 2004 accounts show it got only $646,666 from the Hillsong Foundation Trust and about that again in government grants.

And Houston has been less than transparent about his own income. Until last year he had failed to declare that he and Bobbie had sold their own personal property holdings to a Hillsong-related entity of which he is a director, Leadership Ministries Incorporated. Bobbie sold a Bondi beachfront apartment on the same block as Jamie Packer’s pad to the not-for-profit LMI for $650,000 in February 2002. The couple also sold a waterfront property on the Hawkesbury River in October 2004 to LMI for $780,000, making $535,000 on their 1998 purchase price. They continue to use both these properties.

LMI is the tax-free entity Hillsong set up as a vehicle to pay the couple’s income. In breach of Office of Fair Trading reporting rules, no financial statements had been lodged since its inception in October 2001. Only after the property deals were uncovered by The Australian were the accounts filed in August last year. When the numbers came in they revealed the golden couple got a measly net income, after donations, of just $21,658 in the year to December 2002, $12,739 in 2003 and $69,041 in 2004.

If this is all there is, then how do the couple and two of their three children pull off a property buying spree worth $1.738 million over 12 months in exclusive beachside Bondi? On August 26, 2003, son Joel, who is a lead singer in the Hillsong band and earns song-writing royalties, bought a $676,000 apartment a few minutes’ walk from the LMI-owned apartment, paying $276,000 up front. That same day Brian and Bobbie paid $650,000 with a collateral mortgage for the apartment next door to Joel’s. Exactly a year later, son Ben borrowed just $90,000 to buy a $412,000 apartment a few streets from the other family holdings.

And questions persist about why it took 30 years for Brian Houston’s father, Frank, to be exposed over a complaint of sexual abuse of a boy in his homeland of New Zealand. Houston says his father was banned from preaching in 2000, when he confessed. But Frank continued to live on the Hillsong account, in church digs, until his death in November 2004.

Houston has hiring and firing rights over the board, and has appointed some influential and rich men to control the church’s empire (there are no women, he says, because one of the board members won’t allow it). The general manager of Hillsong - psychologist George Aghajanian - now oversees a $100 million property portfolio. And Hillsong has its sights on lucrative new markets in Europe - it opened a church in Paris last year and already has churches in London and Kiev.

Geoff Bullock says he can’t help but admire Houston. “He works hard and is gifted. He deserves to be a wealthy man.” But when told how little Houston is claiming as net income Bullock is incredulous - especially knowing the charismatic pastor’s fondness for Valentino suits and first-class plane tickets. And then there are the thousands of dollars in “love offerings” Houston regularly personally pockets for every talk he gives on the international Pentecostal speaking circuit. “Why not just be open about it?” Bullock asks.

As Bullock watches the church lurch from one controversy to the next, he has a sense of foreboding. He muses there is a valid expectation that the church should pour more money into helping others and less into promoting itself and amassing wealth. “In the end, it’s just sad,” he says, looking into his coffee cup. “It does look like it’s approaching a train wreck.”

Jennifer Sexton is a senior writer on The Australian.


Monday, May 08, 2006

Highly Questionable Methods by Robert Reymond

The problem in our day, which gives rise to highly questionable church growth methods, is twofold:

On the one hand, we are seeing a waning confidence in the message of the gospel. Even the evangelical church shows signs of losing confidence in the convincing and converting power of the gospel message. That is why increasing numbers of churches prefer sermons on family life and psychological health. We are being overtaken by what Os Guinness calls the managerial and therapeutic revolutions. The winning message, it seems, is the one that helps people to solve their temporal problems, improves their self-esteem and makes them feel good about themselves. In such a cultural climate, preaching on the law, sin and repentance, and the cross has all but disappeared, even in evangelical churches. The church has become "user friendly," "consumer oriented," and as a result evangelical churches are being inundated with "cheap grace" (Bonhoeffer). Today's "gospel" is all too often a gospel without cost, without repentance, without commitment, without discipleship, and thus "another gospel" and accordingly no gospel at all, all traceable to the fact that this is how too many people today have come to believe that the church must be grown.

On the other hand, we are seeing a waning confidence in preaching as the means by which the gospel is to be spread. As a result, preaching is giving way in evangelical churches to multimedia presentations, drama, dance, "sharing times," sermonettes, and "how to" devotionals. Preaching is being viewed increasingly as outdated and ineffective. Business techniques like telemarketing are now popular with the church growth movement. Churches so infected also look to the multiplication of programs to effect their growth. They sponsor conferences and seminars on every conceivable topic under the sun; they subdivide their congregations down into marrieds and singles, single parents and divorced, "thirty-something" and "twenty-something," teens, unemployed, the child-abused and the chemically dependent, attempting to arrange programs for them all. And once a person joins such a church, conventional wisdom has it, the church and the minister must meet his every felt need. Accordingly, ministers have become managers, facilitators, and motivators — everything but heralds of the whole counsel of God—and this all because they have lost confidence in the preaching of God's Word as the primary means for the growth of the church and the individual Christian.

What is the answer? A restored confidence in the Reformed doctrine of the sovereignty of God in salvation!
— Robert L. Reymond, in A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith