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.

T.D. Jakes and the Elephant in the Room

I know that most readers of my blog don’t keep up with every theological controversy in contemporary evangelicalism. Lord knows we have enough of them! However, there is an important conversation going on right now, with the potential to have far-reaching consequences.

Here’s the CliffsNotes version:

Last year, a Chicago pastor named James McDonald hosted a conference called “The Elephant Room“, intended to model grace in disagreement by arranging a series of moderated discussions between influential pastors. These pastors (James McDonald, Mark Driscoll, David Platt, Matt Chandler, Greg Laurie, Perry Noble, and Steven Furtick) represented a wide spectrum of contemporary evangelicalism; while they largely were united on the essential doctrines of orthodox theology, they differed significantly in their methods and presentation of the Gospel. While there was some controversy involved, this conference was, by and large, seen as positive. Here is a good example of the type of discussions that took place:

The level of controversy was elevated for this year’s Elephant Room. When news broke that T.D. Jakes had been invited to participate, it stirred up a lot of criticism due to his association with Oneness Pentecostalism and his teaching of modalism (a heretical doctrine that denies the Trinity). Mark Dever, who had been announced as a speaker, backed out rather than participate in a conversation in which each man on stage would be assumed to be a brother. Pastors on all sides of the issue have weighed in over the last few months, ultimately leading to James McDonald’s resignation from the Gospel Coalition.

At the conference last week, T.D. Jakes gave at least a token affirmation of the orthodox understanding of the Trinity, but was not challenged on his “Word of Faith” preaching. Though McDonald and Driscoll embraced him as a brother, many were unconvinced.

Rather than adding my own thoughts to the fray (other than to simply concur with those who remain to be convinced that Jakes has repented from his false teaching), allow me to just point you to some of the responses which I feel are most measured, to save you the trouble of wading through much that has been published which is unhelpful. This ongoing discussion will be interesting to watch. Prosperity preaching is rampant in American churches, and I believe that Christians have a responsibility to be aware of the challenges to the Gospel and be able to address those challenges with Truth and grace.

  • Grace and Truth Beyond the Elephant Room — Trevin Wax attended and live-blogged the conference. All of his notes are worth reading, but this is his summary at the conclusion of the event. His conclusion is spot on: “We need charity and clarity. But civility is not a love-fest. We will disagree – strongly at times. Why? Because theology matters. The stakes are high. Bad theology hurts people.”
  • Bishop Jakes, 2nd Decisions, and Coming Home — James McDonald’s own wrap-up.
  • Reflections on James McDonald, TD Jakes, and the Trinity — Some of Mark Driscoll’s thoughts, including a lot of excellent teaching to help understand modalism and the doctrine of the Trinity.
  • The Elephant in the Room — An excellent article from Voddie Baucham, who turned down an invitation to ER2 because of Jakes, but planned to participate in a men’s conference at McDonald’s church scheduled for this past weekend. Because of  comments he made publicly criticizing Jakes and ER2, MacDonald challenged him upon his arrival in Chicago, and they agreed it was not a good idea to speak at the men’s conference.
  • Theological Sleight of Hand at the Elephant Room — Chris Rosebraugh (who was threatened with arrest upon his arrival at the ER2 conference) outlines exactly what Jakes said, and why many consider that an insufficient recantation of his previous positions.
  • The Problem With T.D. Jakes Goes Beyond Modalism — Here’s a local pastor’s take on the controversy. Jeff Wright is pastor of Midway Baptist Church in Cookeville.

Book Review: Sun Stand Still

 

“Sun Stand Still: What Happens When You Dare to Ask God for the Impossible” by Steven Furtick

On the front end, I feel it’s only fair to admit that when I first received this book, I was not a big fan of Steven Furtick. In my admittedly limited experience with the young megachurch pastor, I had found him to be brash, over-the-top, and borderline arrogant… not exactly qualities I look for in a preacher. Of course, I have generally found that it hasn’t been an issue with what he has said so much as how he has said it (this video is a good example).

Since my problems with Furtick have been primarily about his methods rather than his message, I was interested to see how he came across in his first book. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, and hoped this new medium would help me to understand what he’s really about.

The premise of the book is that most Christians fail to live life to the fullest, and never take advantage of the awesome power that is available to us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and access to the Father through prayer. Furtick’s main Scriptural text for the book is Joshua 10, where Joshua commands the sun to stand still. His assertion is that God wants to answer “Sun Stand Still” prayers for all his children, and stands ready to do so if only we will come boldly before the throne and ask God for the impossible. There are positives and negatives in the way the book works this out.

First, the bad: Unfortunately, much of Furtick’s bravado comes through in his writing, leading passages of this book to be almost maddeningly unreadable. From his overuse of the word “audacious” to his exhortation that people stop praying stupid, timid prayers, I found my eyes rolling several times. Also, at points this book sounded very much like the self-help pseudo-spiritual nonsense of prosperity preachers like Joel Osteen (whom Furtick has defended on multiple occasions). If I hadn’t been provided a free copy of the book for review purposes, I probably would not have continued.

Thankfully, I’m glad I did, because it turns out there is also a lot of good in this book. Once I got over my bias against Furtick’s writing style, I began to realize that there is some theological depth here where it is lacking in the type of guys who usually write books like this. Just because many books and sermons about praying for God’s miraculous intervention make claims beyond what Scripture supports doesn’t mean that the basic idea isn’t biblically sound. After all, we do worship a God who is capable of stopping the sun and “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20). Personally, I do have a tendency to pray safe, timid prayers rather than trust God to supply all my needs.

Where this book is at its best is in a chapter a little past the halfway mark called “When the Sun Goes Down”. It was here I felt the book hit a turning point, and I actually quite enjoyed the rest of it. In this chapter, Furtick balances out the “pray with bold expectation” sentiment with the reality that “sometimes — a lot of times, honestly — it goes the other way. Sometimes the sun doesn’t stand still. Sometimes the sun goes down… sometimes the sun keeps sinking down, down, down, and no amount of hoping, fasting, or right living seems to stop it.” This is where the prosperity theologians go badly wrong. Many times, our prayers are not answered (or the answer is no), no matter how fervently we trust in God. It can really shake one’s faith. What do we do then?

Furtick’s answer is right on: keep trusting God, and look for ways to glorify Him through your setback. The rest of the book includes many practical suggestions for improving one’s prayer life. These suggestions are good ones, and were personally challenging. Readers are directed to “reconcile your dreams with God’s desires”, using God’s Word as a measuring stick for whether our prayers are according to God’s will. We are also to “push while you pray”, meaning that often the answers to our prayer often require taking action even while praying that God would act.

As Furtick points out, there is a process between the promise and the payoff, and it is often during this process that God is seen and felt most powerfully. The type of prayers which require a miracle are frequently accompanied by uncertainty, anxiety, change, and sacrifice, but these are the very things that form our character and deepen our walk with the Lord.

My final analysis? While I still don’t like Furtick’s style, I recognize that there is plenty of room in God’s Kingdom for different methods. I still question some of his teaching, but finished this book encouraged that there is much more to Steven Furtick than I had previously given him credit for. I would not recommend this book for those whose discernment I do not trust, but there is much to be gleaned here. I look forward to seeing what comes of Furtick’s ministry, as he is still only 30, and has many years of preaching and (hopefully) growing ahead of him.

If this sounds like a book you’d like to check out, you can buy it here. Below is the video trailer for this book:

Thanks to Waterbrook Multnomah for providing a free review copy of this book. I was not obligated to write a positive review.