The fall of church leaders and people hurt in the fallout has made headline news in recent years, but now more than ever we must ask the question: how do we wisely evaluate spiritual communities?
For any of you holding your breath, Kanye West’s Sunday Service events appear unlikely to return in the wake of his divorce from his reality star wife, Kim Kardashian. Regardless of whether or not the strange pseudo-church performances resume, Kanye’s church highlights a growing mentality and malaise in the Christian community.
“There’s no praying,” Kardashian West explained on the Jimmy Kimmel Live show. “There’s no sermon. There’s no word. It’s just music, and it’s just a feeling.”
Jia Tolentino, staff writer at The New Yorker, reflected on the self-absorption but also ineffable yearning for eternal meaning that perhaps both find their ultimate expression in Kanye West’s ‘church’ services.
She writes, “Like West, I grew up in a community where Christianity was presented as a mandate. I spent years, when I was younger, wishing that church could be wordless and strange; I felt the presence of God more profoundly when I was in a crowd of people listening to music—rap, in particular—than I did while listening to a pastor speak.
“I also saw, after a decade inside an evangelical megachurch, how quickly a genuine hunger for salvation and community could be converted into cash and self-aggrandizement. West’s audience—his curated guests, his festival acolytes—has been primed by our cultural moment to overlook the deep bleakness of invite-only worship, of a two-hundred-and-twenty-five-dollar bleach-stained sweatshirt that’s supposed to promote God and Kanye at the same time. But, even worse, many of them are surely drawn to Sunday Service out of some sort of meaningful longing…”
Knowingly or not, Tolentino has put her finger on one of the biggest issues haunting many churches across the world, particularly in the United States.
Evangelicals may easily dismiss ‘that sort’ of people who would attend a church service run by a famous rapper and reality star, but the issues present in Kanye’s Sunday concerts are sadly not absent from far less flamboyant churches.
An ‘Innovative’ Church Experience
In 1980, David Wilkerson had become disturbed by some of the trends that he was witnessing in churches toward entertainment and frivolity or even hyperbolic ‘spiritual’ experiences. In a sermon, he stated, “There's a solemn charge from God's word that every single charismatic Christian must hear and now. Never before was this charge so needed in the church as it is right now.”
He went on to explain. “We are clearly warned by the word of God of significant problems that would come along and threaten the integrity and the reality of a true Holy Ghost experience. A time is coming the Bible said when men and women will flock after teachers who introduce innovative strains and unsound doctrine.
“Secondly, they would develop an itch for stories, fables, but at the same time, become bored with sound doctrine and sound Bible methods.
“Thirdly, others will appear who put on a front of superficial godliness, but who will deny the power, the witnessing power of the gospel.”
He pointed believers to the letters that Paul gave his student and church leader Timothy, as the young man faced major issues within the early church. Paul wrote, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:1-5, ESV).
In this passage particularly, David noted that Paul addressed the issues Timothy was facing not by naming every single offender or trying to come up with an exhaustive list of which offenses were causing the most upset in the church at that time. In every age, people have had ‘innovative truths’ they have wanted to introduce into the church.
“Paul warns Timothy and all of us in the church, ‘Resist these new trends with the simple truth of God's holy Word.’” David explained. “Those who teach these innovative truths, these ‘new mysteries’ of the gospel, as they call them, are often corrupt men trying to excuse their own sin. They preach to hide their own folly.”
This is why the Bible charges believers to be cautious before trusting any spiritual leader. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). Jesus plainly told his own disciples, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
How precisely do we recognize churches or spiritual leaders who may be, well-intentioned or not, leading us incorrectly?
When the Truth Is Varnished
In the book of Acts, a group of believers in Berea receives noteworthy praise from the writers of scripture. “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
The quickest way to determine whether a church or leader is unreliable is to see if unbiblical doctrine is taught from the pulpit, sidling in beside correct soundbites of theology.
For example, one famous evangelical preacher actually wrote, “Appealing to post-Christian people on the basis of the authority of scripture has essentially the same effect as a Muslim imam appealing to you on the basis of the authority of the Quran. You may or may not already know what it says. But it doesn’t matter. The Quran doesn’t carry any weight with you. You don’t view the Quran as authoritative.” Woven throughout otherwise sound-seeming preaching is an underlying idea that the Bible has about as much authority as any other religious book we might find, including the Quran.
This runs directly counter to the power of scripture as God’s Word. “All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Besides, if we believe that the influence of God’s Word is neutered for nonbelievers, why on earth should we submit to it if we find something we don’t like in scripture?
Perhaps less noticeable and more nefarious is when biblical doctrine is largely absent from preaching. Funny stories or vaguely scriptural sounding adages fill the airtime rather than scripture. The Bible is referenced in the same way that allusions can be made to Homer’s Odyssey or Austin’s Pride and Prejudice. A verse is plucked out to perfectly fit the sermon’s overarching point, but what was actually said in the chapter that this verse came from? How does it fit into the larger framework of scripture? No one’s quite sure.
One pastor talkedin a sermon about how he had courted his wife, how they didn’t have sex before marriage, their conjugal enjoyment in marriage, how good his relationship is with his wife, how they’ve stayed out of debt, how many kids they’ve had together and how important it is for Christians to follow a ‘weird’ style of life.
“Normal is not working,” he stated.
“Weird people don’t think like normal people think.” After having his congregation repeat this after him, he added, “When you see something you want, don’t just go copy what other people do…. What you want to do is learn how other people think.”
He discussed how much he dislikes people approaching his church for the formula for success, then he said, “Here’s what scripture says. Romans 12:2, ‘Do not live any longer the way this world lives.’ Don’t live like normal people! That’s stupid. ‘Let your way of thinking be completely changed. Then you’ll be able to test what God wants for you, not what the crowd, not what everybody else, but what God wants.’”
Not only is this verse broadly paraphrased, but it’s also yanked out of context — it comes from a section that discusses being a living sacrifice, not a success machine — and this use of the verse largely ignores the 11 chapters that come before it in which Paul carefully lays the groundwork for salvation and sanctification by grace alone, through faith alone, granted by Jesus alone. Romans chapter 12 is the transition where Paul turns to how the integrated truths of scripture and life as a servant to God should play out for believers.
Without a reliable foundation of scripture or knowledge of who God is, many believers who are led along by these types of teaching find themselves in tough times or critical life moments without anything substantial to guide their lives.
The Deep Flaw in the Foundation
The damage done to believers who are shepherded by these types of leaders cannot be underestimated, and it is too often the cause for people choosing to leave the faith.
“So many charismatic groups today invite any Johnny-Come-Lately to share in their Bible teaching, and they have no other credentials often than a glib tongue and an ability to turn people on,” David bemoaned in his sermon. “The visiting teacher or preacher could be living in adultery, practicing homosexuality and — I've seen that many times is the case — running from the law. But too often now he's allowed to gather around him a large following before he's exposed, and then the damage is already done.”
David pointed out that Paul did not hesitate to tell believers to check out his track record before they accepted the gospel he was preaching. “You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me” (2 Timothy 3:10).
Even if such church leaders don’t fall into scandals, their threadbare teachings still leave believers woefully unprepared to pursue a genuine, life-changing relationship with Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith. They are led to believe that the Bible makes promises and statements about God that are actually nowhere to be found between the pages of scripture.
David added, “Paul further warns, stay away from those who come along who do not rightly divide the Word…. Avoid these foolish teachings that only create strife and more questions.”
No matter how popular or engaging a speaker may be, no matter how inclusive and caring a church may seem, if sound doctrine doesn’t ungird it, then a fundamental crack is in the foundation. That flaw will make itself known sooner or later, sadly most often in the damaged lives of those earnestly seeking to know and experience God.