Is It Okay to Criticize Pastors?

In the last couple weeks, there have been several stories in the news and in the Christian blogosphere about Steven Furtick, pastor of Elevation Church in Matthews, NC. He’s certainly no stranger to criticism, for everything from his unorthodox ecclesiology to his association with prominent “Word-Faith” pastors to his 16,000 sq. ft. mega-mansion. For a run-down on the most recent brouhaha—involving the methods used by Elevation Church to engineer mass baptisms—check out this post by Jeff Wright, pastor of Midway Baptist Church here in Cookeville.

As I’ve seen Jeff’s post and many others like it appear on social media in recent days, there has been one response that seems to insert itself into every comment thread. It goes something like this:

Paul wrote in Philippians 1:18 that we should rejoice whenever the gospel is preached, no matter the motive, so what gives you the right to criticize any Christian pastor?

First of all, let me applaud those who have asked this question. I appreciate arguments made from Scriptural authority, even when I may disagree with someone’s conclusions from that Scripture. But the question for today is, does Philippians 1:18 mean that we are never to call out pastors who we believe to be in error?

Let’s turn to J. Gresham Machen, who addressed this very question in his book Christianity and Liberalism (my review) way back in 1923:

In short, the rival preachers made of the preaching of the gospel a means to the gratification of low personal ambition; it seems to have been about as mean a piece of business as could well be conceived. But Paul was not disturbed. “Whether in pretence, or in truth,” he said, “Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, ye, and will rejoice” (Phil. i. 18). The way in which the preaching was being carried on was wrong, but the message itself was true; and Paul was far more interested in the content of the message than in the manner of its presentation. It is impossible to conceive a finer piece of broad-minded tolerance.

But the tolerance of Paul was not indiscriminate. He displayed no tolerance, for example, in Galatia. There, too, there were rival preachers. But Paul had no tolerance for them. “But though we,” he said, “or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Gal. i. 8). What is the reason for the difference in the apostle’s attitude in the two cases? What is the reason for the broad tolerance in Rome, and the fierce anathemas in Galatia? The answer is perfectly plain. In Rome, Paul was tolerant, because there the content of the message that was being proclaimed by the rival teachers was true; in Galatia he was intolerant, because there the content of the rival message was false. In neither case did personalities have anything to do with Paul’s attitude. (p. 22, emphasis mine)

So whether it’s Furtick or any other pastor, the real question is whether the Jesus he preaches is the real one. If so, then our task is to correct with gentleness whatever errors may be present in his teaching. If not, our task is to warn sheep about the wolf in the fold.

Bottom-Up Leadership

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Ron Paul’s latest book, The School Revolution: A New Answer for Our Broken Education System. Last night I particularly appreciated a passage where Dr. Paul wrote about the process of becoming a good leader:

Successful leadership begins with self-government. It is extended through successful followership. A person learns the basics of leadership by working closely with a competent leader who serves as a model. He gains access to the leader through his willingness to submit to leadership. This is the principle of bottom-up leadership. It begins at the bottom. Then, over a period of time, the follower advances in his level of responsibility. Maybe he attends a meeting on a regular basis; he shows up. This is basic and absolutely necessary to success in life, because a lot of people do not show up. Maybe he gets there early. He helps to set up the chairs. He learns how to make the coffee. He offers himself as a servant to whoever is running the meeting. He becomes useful to somebody else.

The themes of responsibility and servant leadership are recurring ones as Paul outlines his methodology for producing educated citizens who are ready to succeed in whatever course they choose to pursue, and to lead with humility:

So few people are faithful servants that those people inevitably rise in the chain of command, even if there is no official chain of command. So few people are reliable followers that leaders reach out to them, train them, disciple them, and put them in positions of leadership.

The discipleship model of servant leadership is prevalent in the Bible, so it should come as no surprise that Dr. Paul frequently credits his study of Scripture in forming his own style of leadership. Yet another reason to love the good Doctor!  I hope you’ll check out his book. You won’t regret it!

Book Review: A Case for Amillennialism (Expanded Edition)

“A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times” by Kim Riddlebarger

Like many Christians in the last century, I grew up hearing about the secret rapture that would remove the Church just prior to the start of the Great Tribulation. I read the Left Behind books in high school, and felt sure I would be able to recognize the Antichrist as he rose to power in the European Union. I was a Dispensationalist; I didn’t know a Christian could be anything else.

Then, as I got more serious about studying my Bible, I began to have questions about the events surrounding Christ’s return to which my prior understanding could not provide satisfactory answers. I poured over Dispensational texts: first popular works like Chuck Missler’s Learn the Bible in 24 Hours and then more scholarly works like Dwight Pentecost’s Things to Come. While they did have answers to every one of my questions, something about those answers still didn’t sit right with me… though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

It was then that I began to search out eschatological writings from outside the Dispensational viewpoint. At first, I was “tossed by the wind” because I did not ask for Godly wisdom, but relied instead on the wisdom of the authors I was reading. As a result, my “convictions” evolved quickly, from “pre-wrath” to historic premillennial to amillennial, partial preterist, and right back to confused.

Finally, I did what I ought to have done in the first place. I asked the Lord for wisdom, and searched the Scriptures with renewed vigor. The one positive result of my earlier reading was that it had at least served to reveal to me the hermeneutical presuppositions with which Dispensationalists view Scripture. Now free to study the Word without this interpretive lens, my questions gradually began to find their answers. I became more and more convinced that the Biblical authors seemed to be pointing ahead to a single climactic event in which Christ will return, the dead will rise and face judgment, and believers will enter their eternal rest. 

The Bible itself convinced me of the truth of amillennialism.

When I now went to leading amillennialist scholars, their books simply confirmed in my mind what I had already come to believe. And this, after the lengthy auto-biographical prelude, brings us (finally) to Kim Riddlebarger’s book.

Though, as the title suggests, this book builds a case for amillennialism, it is likely not sufficient on its own to fully persuade anyone who is not already an amillennialist to become one. Nor should it. Our theological positions should be built from Scripture itself.

Thankfully, A Case for Amillennialism forces the reader to interact heavily with Scripture. Riddlebarger writes with the expectation that the reader will either be extremely familiar with the relevant biblical texts, or, like me, have a Bible handy for frequent referencing. His goal is to let Scripture speak for itself, rather than reading his eschatology into the text.

The book is helpfully divided into four sections. The first clearly defines the terms used frequently in the book, and gives an overview of the major eschatological views. The second section addresses several biblical and theological concerns topically, contrasting the amillennial position with opposing views. Riddlebarger then goes into a lengthy exposition of four key texts (Daniel’s 70 Weeks, the Olivet Discourse, Romans 11, and Revelation 20:1-10) before a closing section on the signs of the end and some questions Bible students should ask when evaluating millennial options.

Of the many books on the “End Times” I’ve read over the years, this has been the most helpful, and will be the one I am most likely to recommend to others. I found Riddlebarger’s writing to be more accessible than Anthony Hoekema’s The Bible and the Future and less intimidating than Sam Storms’ massive Kingdom Come, though each of those is also worthwhile. His clarity and brevity are skills honed as the long-time co-host of the White Horse Inn radio broadcast; he is an excellent communicator.

A Case for Amillennialism is particularly helpful for those like me who come from a Dispensational background, as he spends much more time addressing that interpretation than he does preterism, post-mil, or historical pre-mil. He is gracious toward those with whom he disagrees, but firm in his opposition to their views.

Throughout the book Riddlebarger relies heavily on references to Hoekema’s classic work, though they do disagree at times. Their most notable point of difference is on whether or not there is a distinct future role in redemptive history for ethnic Jews. Hoekema says no (because “all Israel” in Romans 11 refers to the total number of believers rather than to ethnic Israel), but Riddlebarger believes that Paul teaches that there will be a large-scale conversion of Jews to faith in Christ just prior to the Lord’s second coming. On this point I side with Riddlebarger.

The “Expanded Edition” adds a chapter on the Antichrist (with content taken largely from his book The Man of Sin) and a chapter on the signs of the end. If you don’t own a copy, I’d recommend that you purchase the new edition, but there’s probably not enough new material to warrant an upgrade if you already have the earlier version.

Whether you’re a convinced amillennialist, a proponent of another eschatology looking to fairly represent your opponents, or simply someone with questions that need answering, you can’t go wrong reading this book. Buy it here.

Where Can I Hide From God?

I love this passage from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, in which the great Reformation theologian expounds upon the sensus divinitatis — the “sense of the divine” — which exists within every human mind. Calvin argues that even those who most despise God are unable to escape the awareness of divinity which is “engraved upon men’s minds”:

If, indeed, there were some in the past, and today not a few appear, who deny that God exists, yet willy-nilly they from time to time feel an inkling of what they desire not to believe. One reads of no one who burst forth into bolder or more unbridled contempt of deity than Gaius Caligula; yet no one trembled more miserably when any sign of God’s wrath manifested itself; thus — albeit unwillingly — he shuddered at the God whom he professedly sought to despise. You may see now and again how this also happens to those like him; how he who is the boldest despiser of God is of all men the most startled at the rustle of a falling leaf.

Whence does this arise but from the vengeance of divine majesty, which strikes their consciences all the more violently the more they try to flee from it? Indeed, they seek out every subterfuge to hide themselves from the Lord’s presence, and to efface it again from their minds. But in spite of themselves they are always entrapped. Although it may sometimes seem to vanish for a moment, it returns at once and rushes in with new force. If for these there is any respite from anxiety of conscience, it is not much different from the sleep of drunken or frenzied persons, who do not rest peacefully even while sleeping because they are continually troubled with dire and dreadful dreams. The imious themselves therefore exemplify the fact that some conception of God is ever alive in all men’s minds.

A Preacher’s Best Kindness

Why Jonathan Edwards preached the doctrine of hell:

“If there be really a hell of such dreadful, and never-ending torments, as is generally supposed, that multitudes are in great danger of, and that the bigger part of men in Christian countries do actually from generation to generation fall into, for want of a sense of the terribleness of it, and their danger of it, and so for want of taking due care to avoid it; then why is it not proper for those that have the care of souls, to take great pains to make men sensible of it? Why should not they be told as much of the truth as can be? If I am in danger of going to hell, I should be glad to know as much as possibly I can of the dreadfulness of it: if I am very prone to neglect due care to avoid it, he does me the best kindness, that does most to represent to me the truth of the case, that sets forth my misery and danger in the liveliest manner.”

~ Jonathan Edwards, Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God