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Dr. Jim Garlow has traveled the world imparting to global leaders the powerful truth that God’s Word provides instructions for every area of life, including government.

In a recent interview with My Faith Votes, Dr. Jim Garlow, Founder and CEO of Well Versed, provided some great takeaways for us to bring biblical change to our spheres of influence.

1. Is America headed in the right direction?

“According to a Barna study from 2013, 90% of pastors acknowledge that the Bible speaks to the cultural, political, and social issues of the day. But ask those same pastors if they have or would speak on those issues, 90% said no. Therein lies the problem.

“It’s really up to the church if the nation heads in the right direction. The problem is not the progressives and the liberals, it’s not the baby killers and it’s not the LGBTQ, the real problem is the pastors of America and the churches of America — will they rise to the occasion? So, I’m answering your question with an ‘if.’ That’s what will determine whether or not this nation can be saved or not.”

2. When you look at the culture and assess where things are headed, what concerns you the most?

“The absence of the understanding of the word of God and the lack of capacity to apply it. 92% of the people in the pew do not have a biblical worldview. What worldview do they have then? They have a secular worldview. If you go to millennials, you are down to only 4% having a biblical worldview.

“Those are really jolting numbers. Everyone is responsible to study the word and become a careful steward of the word, but where is the primary source of the word? It should be from the pulpit, from the church.”

3. We’ve come out of a hyper election season with a record number of dollars spent and record turnout. How can Christians continue to take bold steps to change culture?

“Number one, care. Care about the nation. Care about what’s happening in the community. We operate under this myth that the way things are are the way things are going to stay. That is not true.

“Cultures come and cultures go. Nations come and nations go. All the great nations that once existed never thought they would be done, but they ended, every one of them. America is not going to last forever. And we can bring it to a painstaking close by simply defaulting and not showing up for the game.

“For example, the reason we know the stories of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? They were bold!

“The reason we know the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer? He was bold! Everybody likes to preach about him, it’s time to start acting like him. April 9, 1945, Bonhoeffer was stripped of his clothes in the German cold air and hung by a piano wire — killed. Why do we remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Was it because he had the largest church? Was the most popular guy? No. Wrote a bestseller? No. Had a big radio and TV ministry? No. We remember him because he stood for truth.

Psychoneurologist and founding member of the Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA) organization, Denise Buchanan, right, and member Leona Huggins, second from right, participate in a protest outside the St. Anselm on the Aventine Benedictine complex in Rome on the second day of a summit called by Pope Francis at the Vatican on sex abuse in the Catholic Church on Feb. 22, 2019. Pope Francis has issued 21 proposals to stem the clergy sex abuse around the world, calling for specific protocols to handle accusations against bishops and for lay experts to be involved in abuse investigations. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)

These scandals stand alongside abuses by prominent male church officials that have occurred in independent Christian communities, such as Harvest Bible ChapelWillow Creek Community Churchand Mars Hill Church.

Such scandals have led to widespread doubts about church officials and institutions. And this is not for the first time. As a scholar of early Christianity, I know that in the fourth century, Christian churches in North Africa faced a similar crisis of trust in their leaders.

Known as the Donatist controversy, it caused a schism that lasted for centuries and offers a parallel for thinking about the impact of these crises on contemporary Christian communities today.

Traitors during Christian persecution

Christians in the Roman Empire occasionally experienced periods of imperial persecution. These periods were often memorialized in Christian tradition through stories of famous martyrdoms. The stories often portrayed Christians as courageous and virtuous in the face of imperial violence.

The most infamous period of persecution occurred in the early fourth century A.D. Spearheaded by the emperor Diocletian, it was also the final imperially sponsored persecution of Christian communities.

While persecutions were sporadic, local and rare, they often put difficult choices before Christian clergy and laity.

Some renounced Christianity. Others handed over sacred books or church property and outed fellow Christians to the authorities. Christians called the latter “traditores,” a Latin term meaning “those who handed over,” the root of the word “traitor.”

Whether and how to welcome such traditores back into Christian communities after the persecutions was a topic of intense debate among Christians.

Traditores were considered to have betrayed their communities to save themselves. This sense of betrayal was particularly felt with respect to clergy members who had become traditores.

The issue came to a head in A.D. 311 in North Africa when Caecilian, the bishop of Carthage, became embroiled in controversy after it was alleged that one or more of the bishops who presided at his consecration had been traditores.

In the eyes of many Christians in North Africa, Caecilian’s virtues did not matter. The presence of a traditor among those who ordained him invalidated his ordination.

The Donatist schism

Caecilian was supported politically and financially by the imperial administration. Caecilian’s opponents pressed their case in regional councils and before local magistrates.

They even appealed to the Emperor Constantine, who wrote in a letter to the Vicar of Africa in A.D. 314 that he had grown tired of receiving requests from Caecilian’s opponents.

They brought charges, which ultimately proved to be false, against Felix of Aptunga, one of the bishops that had ordained Caecilian. Charges against other bishops soon followed.

In A.D. 313, Donatus was consecrated bishop of Carthage and became the leading voice of Caecilian’s opponents. These “Donatists,” as they came to be called, created their own massive network of churches that stood in opposition to those allied with Caecilian and the Roman state.

Constantine soon grew fed up with the Donatists and the schism that they had created in the church. From A.D. 316-321, Constantine used the force of the state to coerce the Donatists back into the fold.

Constantine’s attempts to intervene led to violence that resulted in the deaths of Donatist Christians. His intervention did little to end the schism. Constantine soon gave up state-sponsored persecution of the Donatists.

In A.D. 346, the Emperor Constans, who succeeded Constantine, tried again to end the schism. His agents used imperial funds to woo clergy back, but also used violence. Macarius, one of Constans’s agents, led a campaign of suppression, in which Christians killed other fellow Christians.

Macarius became infamous among Donatist communities. The Donatists considered those who died to be martyrs. These martyrs and their memory were celebrated by Donatist communities.

Donatus was said to have questioned the very role of the emperor in the controversy, saying, “What has the emperor to do with the church?”

By the fifth century, Donatist churches were thriving and sparring with Catholics. And Donatist churches remained active in North Africa until the Islamic conquests of the seventh century.

Donatist beliefs

The Donatists believed the sins of traditores risked the salvation of individual members and the health of the community.

“How,” they asked, “could sacraments administered by an offending priest be recognized by a holy God?” And if those sacraments were not effective, the salvation of the individual and the community were at risk. For the Donatists, only sacraments performed by uncompromised clergy were effective.

In their attempts to respond to Donatist critique, the Catholic Church settled on a strategy developed by Augustine, an influential fifth-century Catholic bishop in North Africa.

Augustine, who describes the sparring between Donatists and Catholics in his writings, argued that the sacraments were effective regardless of the morality of the clergy involved – a church doctrine known as “ex opere operato.” He said that as the sacraments were the work of Christ, they did not depend on the moral character of the officiating priest.

What can be learned today

Today, in the face of the sex abuse crisis, contemporary Christian communities find themselves asking questions about institutions that condoned, hid and promoted abusive clergy.

This might be a moment to revisit the Donatist critique. They created their own churches because they feared not only for the efficacy of the sacraments but also for the character of a church that made it too easy for traditores to continue to remain leaders.

Widespread sexual abuse by Christian clergy represents a very different crisis from that faced by the betrayal of the traditores.

However, I believe the Donatists offer a lesson for Christian communities…

For the rest of the post…

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In our better moments of spiritual self-awareness, we Christians are forced to acknowledge our capacity for actions and ideas that shatter an individual and collective “witness” as followers of Jesus. It’s been like that from the start. Judas Iscariot betrayed him with a kiss. After declaring absolute loyalty, Simon Peter denied Jesus three times: “I never knew the man.” The brothers James and John, perhaps anticipating the Prosperity Gospel, demanded “the best seats” in the coming kingdom. In every era of its history, certain Christian individuals and institutions have compelled an “orthodoxy” from others they refused to require of themselves. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called that kind of gospel cheap grace.

In The Cost of Discipleship (1937), Bonhoeffer called us all to account, warning:

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting to-day for costly grace. . . . Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian “conception” of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to remission of sins. The Church which holds the correct doctrine of grace has, ipso facto, a part in that grace. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God (emphasis mine).

I returned to Bonhoeffer’s admonition after reading a heartrending series of articles recently published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram regarding years of sexual abuse perpetrated by various “Independent Fundamentalist Baptist” ministers, individuals often protected and “moved on” by their pastoral supervisors or church constituencies.

“Underneath it all is a powerful emphasis on ministerial authority, with pastor-figures as ‘God’s anointed’ whose leadership is not to be questioned.”

After months of research, a group of Star-Telegram investigative reporters documented “at least 412 allegations of sexual misconduct in 187 Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches and their affiliated institutions” based in 40 states and Canada. Their study suggests that some 168 “church leaders” were accused or convicted of sex crimes against children, with as many as 45 of them continuing in ministry after being identified. The articles detail occasions when women and children were sexually molested by pastoral figures who were then moved on to other churches or church-related ministries. The accusers, almost all females, were often ignored, doubted or blamed for enticing the men.

The Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) movement has its origins in the 1920s and the infamous “Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy” that divided American Protestants around issues of biblical authority, creationism, “new science” and the nature of Christian orthodoxy. By the 1950s, the movement claimed some of the country’s largest congregations, many begun as “church start-ups,” others through schism with older Baptist denominations. Although asserting their autonomy as free-standing congregations, most IFB churches participate in certain loose “fellowships,” Bible colleges and evangelism programs.

For the rest of the post…

Mar 08, 2019 by Alyssa Duvall
William McLeod (Photo: KSTU-TV)

A Catholic fourth grader in the Davis School District of Bountiful, Utah received a harsh lesson in tolerance and inclusivity in the public school environment this week, demonstrating the increasing hostility toward professing Christians in the public square.

In post-Christian America, even the smallest demonstration of faith becomes an act of microaggression and hate that must be sanitized and stamped out.

This is exactly the experience of William McLeod, a little boy who came to class this week with an apparently hideously offensive symbol smeared onto his forehead: an ashen cross, commemorating Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.

When McLeod got to school that day, he quickly realized that he was the only one of his class bearing the symbol, but the young man was happy to entertain his classmates’ questions about it.

“A lot of students asked me what it is. I said, ‘I’m Catholic. It’s the first day of Lent. It’s Ash Wednesday,’” William recounted to Fox 13.

While his interactions with his peers seemed to be going fine—in spite of committing the academic capital crime of standing out and being different—McLeod’s teacher abruptly marched over to the boy’s desk and demanded that he wipe off the cross.

McLeod attempted to explain the importance of wearing the ashes to his teacher, but to no avail. The fourth grader found out that day precisely how unwelcome even the most subtle public displays of Christian faith are in many public schools, including his own.

“She took me aside and she said, ‘You have to take it off,’” the boy described. “She gave me a disinfection wipe—whatever they are called—and she made me wipe it off.”

To be clear, the adversarial attitude toward Christianity belonged solely to that particular teacher, as the administration has been quick to clean up the incident and offer apologies and investigations. In fact, upon learning of the incident, the school’s principal made a call to William’s family to apologize.

“I was pretty upset,” said Karen Fisher, William’s grandmother, who says she also received a call from the teacher who forced him to remove the ashes.

“I asked [the teacher] if she read the Constitution with the First Amendment, and she said, no,” Fisher recalled in frustration. Had the teacher been aware of perhaps one of the greatest laws of the country in which she teaches children, she might have known that public institutions are prohibited from establishing or preventing the free exercise of anyone’s religion.

For their part, the Davis School District is apologizing for the unacceptable incident and declaring that students of all faiths should feel welcomed there.

“Why that even came up, I have no idea,” said Chris Williams, a spokesperson for the district. “When a student comes in to school with ashes on their forehead, it’s not something we say ‘Please take off.'”

The district is reportedly “taking this incident seriously” and conducting an investigation.

For the rest of the post…

 

Pro-life and pro-gun? Evangelical minister talks faith and firearms in Charleston

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Standing in the spot where a German pastor was hanged decades ago for resisting the Nazi regime, the Rev. Robert Schenck experienced a conversion.

Schenck, an Evangelical minister and former anti-abortion activist who now considers the conservative Christian right as a “Ronald Reagan Republican religion,” drew inspiration years ago from European theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Nazi resister, who preached ethics and the responsible life and was ultimately executed by Adolf Hilter’s regime.

“As I stood there, it was as if the scales were shed from my eyes,” Schenck said, referring to his change of heart regarding some of the positions held by conservative evangelicals. “I saw something I had not seen in more than three decades of work. I had been part of a spiritual corruption of the Gospel.

It occurred around the same time the 2015 documentary “The Armor of Light” was released. Schenck is prominently featured in the short film about Evangelicals and gun culture. Today, he serves as president of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute in Washington, D.C., and travels the nation advocating for gun control, using Scripture and Bonhoeffer’s teachings to bolster his more moderate arguments.

On Tuesday, standing before several dozen pastors and parishioners from various denominations in Charleston, Schenck raised the question at a Lunch-and-Learn event held by local nonprofit Arm-in-Arm. The topic: Can a community be pro-life (anti-abortion) and pro-gun?

“For me, the gun question in our own culture is a gateway question on Christian ethics,” Schenk said at the event, held at All Saints Lutheran Church in Mount Pleasant.

Though mass shootings have impacted houses of worship, Evangelicals are among the most avid supporters of gun rights and most also are against abortion, the Pew Research Center reported.

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. encouraged students of the conservative Christian college some years ago to arm themselves, citing the need to protect against violent perpetrators.

But for others, the Evangelical view on abortion and gun rights represents a contradiction where the community calls for life preservation at one stage while life at later stages remains at risk.

“I see an inherent conflict,” Schenck said. “I’m not anti-gun. But I do believe whenever someone takes a weapon to himself or herself, they (raise) supreme ethical questions.”

Referencing abortion, Schenck said fictional narratives were drawn around ending pregnancies. For example, the claim that every woman seeking an abortion was either being bullied or was selfishly intending to save herself is false, he said.

“It took me some very painful encounters to realize that was not reality at all,” the minister said.

Spike Coleman, who pastors St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in West Ashley, said at the event that the anti-abortion and pro-gun views are “hard to fit together.”

He pointed to moral injury, the damage that can be done to a shooter’s conscience after they’ve taken a life.

For the rest of the post…

I replied to his post. Is Schenck pro-choice now? Can a follower of Jesus use a gun to protect his/her family. self and others? Dietrich Bonhoeffer said:

Elders Fire James MacDonald, Believe He Is ‘harmful’ to the Church

James MacDonald

The elders of Harvest Bible Chapel announced this morning that they are removing Senior Pastor James MacDonald from his position at the church he founded. While the elders have been reviewing MacDonald for a “lengthy” amount of time, their decision was “accelerated” after audio recordings surfaced in which MacDonald, it is believed, uses vulgar language to attack his opponents.

“Pastor MacDonald was removed as Senior Pastor and as an Elder of the church for engaging in conduct that the Elders believe is contrary and harmful to the best interests of the church,” the elders wrote in a statement.

Voice of James MacDonald Believed to Be Featured in Vulgar Comments

The audio recording that the elders reference was aired on popular Chicago radio personality Mancow Muller’s show. Muller, once a trusted friend and confidant of MacDonald and also a member of Harvest Bible Chapel, has used his platform recently to call the pastor out on his less-than-exemplary handling of his critics. Now he is using it to air clips of someone, who he doesn’t say explicitly is MacDonald, out of fear of litigation, but who many, including the elder board and journalist Julie Roys, believe is MacDonald. According to Muller, the clips he played are pulled from 50 minutes of audio he is planning to publish in its entirety.

The main focus of the verbal attack, at least in the clips heard on Mancow’s show, are a couple people in the leadership of the media outlet Christianity Today (CT). CT’s CEO Harold Smith and editor-in-chief Mark Galli are named specifically. Smith is called by a rather vulgar word. In one clip, the man believed to be MacDonald implies he had a plan to plant child pornography on Smith’s computer. At another point, he also implies Galli and Roys, the journalist who wrote the World Magazine article that exposed Harvest’s and MacDonald’s mishandling of funds, had an affair. Roys wrote about the audio clips in a recent blog post. Roys denies having an affair with Galli and writes “it’s repulsive that anyone—a pastor, no less—would make a joke about that.”

The criticism of CT didn’t stop there, however. During a particularly long clip, the voice believed to be MacDonald articulates a disparaging description of CT, calling it a “pipe-organ protecting, musty, mild smell of urine, blue hair Methodist loving, mainline dying, women preacher championing, emerging church adoring, almost good with all gays, and closet Palestine promoting Christianity.” The man goes on to say “so of course, they attacked me.

In response to the leaked audio, CT published an editor’s note, written by Galli, titled “On Mancow, MacDonald, and the Harvest Mess.” In it, Galli explains why he believes MacDonald is upset at CT, despite the fact that they published an op-ed piece written by MacDonald in which he defended his choice to sue his critics last year. Galli explains it is the tradition of CT to present multiple sides of a controversy as it is unfolding and also “to allow mainstream, otherwise orthodox evangelicals accused of being unbiblical a chance to defend their views.” In addition to MacDonald’s op-ed, CT also published four news articles in which the views of critics of MacDonald and Harvest were highlighted. Galli says while the slanderous statements against himself and Smith are “unfortunate,” they can be chalked up to a day in the life of journalism. “We know that we’re not exactly popular with people about whom we have to report bad news,” Galli concedes.

Moving Forward

Galli says CT is “not going to blast back at MacDonald or to demand a public apology” because he realizes everyone says things in anger that they later regret. It appears CT is trying to give MacDonald the benefit of the doubt.

For the rest of the post…

Sexual abuse (and problematic responses to it when uncovered) is a plague wreaking havoc across our country, not only in the Catholic Church or in the independent fundamentalist congregations across the country, but also in Southern Baptist congregations. The Houston Chronicle’s three-part report (the first part was released on Sunday, February 10) found more than 700 victims in just the past 20 years, with some of the accused church leaders still serving in SBC churches even today.

Read the report. Reread it. Don’t look away. Ask yourself, How can this evil flourish in churches that name the name of Jesus? Moving forward, we cannot excuse inaction due to of our Convention’s structure (“What can we do? Every church is autonomous!”) or because of our denominational bureaucracy (“It takes too long to get anything done”) or because we are not personally involved (“I’ve never fielded an accusation”).

What kind of Great Commission people are we if we move heaven and earth to send out missionaries to spread the gospel abroad, but cannot muster the will to stop predators from “slaughtering the faith” of people at home?

We can no longer accept the reality that we are “a porous sieve of a denomination” that makes it easy for perpetrators to move from church to church and for more innocent victims to be preyed upon. This is not a problem out there. If we are in this together when we celebrate God’s work among and through us, we must be in this together when the work of the evil one is exposed and our failures are so glaringly put on display before a watching world.

I don’t know all that we can or will do in the months ahead, but I trust that the feelings of grief and anger among many of us today will lead to renewed efforts to partner together in ways that uncover abusers and protect the vulnerable. Southern Baptists must do more, and it must start with us. God give us wisdom and determination.

Below are excerpts from several of the responses from Southern Baptist leaders:

J.D. Greear:

I am broken over what was revealed today. The abuses described in this article are pure evil. I join with countless others who are currently “weeping with those who weep.” The voices in this article should be heard as a warning sent from God, calling the church to repent. As Christians, we are called to expose everything sinful to the light. The survivors in this article have done that—at a personal cost few of us can fathom. We must admit that our failures, as churches, put these survivors in a position where they were forced to stand alone and speak, when we should have been fighting for them. Their courage is exemplary and prophetic. But I grieve that their courage was necessary. We—leaders in the SBC—should have listened to the warnings of those who tried to call attention to this. I am committed to doing everything possible to ensure we never make these mistakes again.

It’s time for pervasive change. God demands it. Survivors deserve it. We must change how we prepare before abuse (prevention), respond during disclosure (full cooperation with legal authorities), and act after instances of abuse (holistic care). I will pursue every possible avenue to bring the vast spiritual, financial, and organizational resources of the Southern Baptist Convention to bear on stopping predators in our midst. There can simply be no ambiguity about the church’s responsibility to protect the abused and be a safe place for the vulnerable. The safety of the victims matters more than the reputation of Southern Baptists. The Baptist doctrine of church autonomy should never be a religious cover for passivity towards abuse.

Church autonomy is about freeing the church to do the right thing—to obey Christ—in every situation. It is a heinous error to apply autonomy in a way that enables abuse. As a denomination, now is a time to mourn and repent. Changes are coming. They must. We cannot just promise to “do better” and expect that to be enough. But today, change begins with feeling the full weight of the problem.

Russell Moore:

Our approach is seeking to encourage policies and practices that protect children and the vulnerable from sexual abuse in autonomous but cooperating churches, all the while promoting compliance with laws and providing compassionate care for those who have survived trauma. True, we have no bishops. But we have a priesthood of believers. And a key task of that priesthood is maintaining the witness of Christ in the holiness and safety of his church.

For the rest of the post…

It is shocking, to me, that high profile sports events are environments for sex-trafficking. Can’t we just watch the game and the commercials? Pray that this diabolical trade will end!

~ Omaha World Herald, 1/31/19, 4A.


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‘American Gospel’ Blows a Hole in the Prosperity Gospel

The new documentary American Gospel: Christ Alone, directed by Brandon Kimber, takes aim at this scourge. America has always been a pragmatic, can-do kind of country, and the film argues that the material focus of the prosperity “gospel” suits American culture.

In offering this searing critique, which applies not merely to “them” out there but to us (for many of us love money and ease more than we might be comfortable admitting), Kimber first establishes what the true gospel is: good news centered in the finished work of Christ. Standing in the place of sinners like us, Jesus has absorbed the perfect wrath of the Father and made a way out of hell and into heaven. When we trust Christ as our Lord and Savior by God-given faith, we are instantly justified and counted righteous in God’s sight, the very merit of Christ’s now being our own (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 5:1–2; Eph. 2:8–9). Numerous evangelical theologians and pastors comment on this truth in the film, together building a clear and potent case for faith in Christ.

True Stories of True Faith

American Gospel traces the stories of real Christians whose lives have intersected with prosperity teaching in some way. One woman sobs as she recounts how health-and-wealth teaching ripped her life apart, piece by piece, until she had nothing. The film also introduces us to Katherine Berger, a woman suffering from numerous dreaded illnesses—one after another, it seems—who nonetheless radiates bright faith in God.

Also prominent in the film is Costi Hinn, nephew of faith-healer Benny Hinn. Costi served on his uncle’s team as a “catcher” who witnessed apparent miracles around the clock. His testimony—soon to release as a book—takes us into the seamy experience of the faith-healer, an enterprise that preys on the poor and suffering to enrich the flush and covetous.

The moment that crystallizes the shameful nature of faith-healing comes when Costi discusses how Benny Hinn would (and does) “heal” people with minor ailments. When it came to terminally ill children and other sufferers facing profound challenges, the “healer” refused. This was the first jarring note in Costi’s young life that eventually led him out of prosperity religion (and that’s what it is—a different religion than biblical Christianity).

American Gospel does not hold back; the camera pans back to the outer boundaries of auditoriums at Hinn crusades, where desperate parents cradle diseased children, ignored, unwanted, and unhealed. We watch this, and we hear Justin Peters testify to this experience personally, and we cannot help but feel both sadness and righteous anger—Christ’s own anger. The money-changers are still in the temple, still making God’s name a mockery.

This is an exact parallel of what Jesus did not do. He did not enter the ministry to make money. He did not work in the name of God to be popular and liked. He did not heal those who could do anything for him. Rather, he came to the physically and spiritually poor and made eucatastrophes of them all—not only addressing their bodies but, in many cases, saving their souls. He was not in it for himself; he was in it for the Father’s greater glory and the sinner’s true salvation. “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (John 17:4). Sadly, Christ’s name is invoked by “faith healers” like Hinn and others whose ministries don’t reflect him.

Call Your Skeptical Friends

American Gospel succeeds in its mission. It shows the spiritual and even eternal stakes of prosperity religion. It reveals the danger of allowing any endeavor, however virtuous on the surface, to seep into the preaching and application of the biblical gospel. The movie champions the true, saving gospel, and it unpacks this message with clarity and conviction. Here’s hoping many viewers will come across American Gospel on various streaming platforms (iTunes, Amazon, Vimeo), and that Christians will find opportunities to watch the film with unbelieving neighbors and friends. The prosperity “gospel” is a great foil by which to evangelize, for it is patently a sham to many outside of the church. A film like this could be a great apologetic for those with a skeptical bent, for example.

Though nicely shot and edited, the film could be a bit tighter, and the summation of the gospel message takes some time to unfold. So many voices speaking to different issues can begin to send the brain whirling, though I did appreciate how Kimber mixes in Christian leaders both well known and also lesser known. As is not uncommon today, American Gospel presents the gospel message primarily in terms of justification, which is the heart of the euangelion but not the doctrinal sum. The film references the local church but could say more about its importance. Similarly, the moral implications of the gospel are somewhat muted in American Gospel. If we must not make the moral dimension of Scripture the point of every passage, neither should we lose sight of it. But these are small critiques, not major ones.

High Stakes

The prosperity gospel comes with a terrific cost, as all false teaching does; it does not merely ruin intellectual systems, it ruins individual lives. We see this firsthand in the film.

American Gospel does not merely “destroy arguments” of the prosperity kind in keeping with apostolic aims (2 Cor. 10:4–5). It also shows us that the natural man craves miracles: healing, wealth, favor, better “benefits” and sales “commissions” (this is literally what a Bethel pastor leads a congregation to ask God for), a life stripped free of suffering and challenge. But the miracles God brings in most of our lives are often quite different: quieter, less showy, but powered by the saving gospel.

Instead of immediate healing, Christians may well be called to persevere in suffering. Instead of wealth, we may be called to learn contentment in our situation. Instead of coming back from the dead as in “heaven tourism” books, we must all face death and square with mortality. Instead of the cessation of trials upon the exercise of faith, we may be called to endure trials over the long haul. Instead of undimmed favor with power-brokers, we may be called to anonymity and unappreciated toil. Instead of a life of globe-hopping circuit-riding, we may be called to tuck in with our families (especially our children) and love them well, normal day by normal day. Instead of experiencing an unbroken string of personal triumphs, we may take many hits as we await the ultimate cosmic triumph of our warrior-savior, Christ Jesus. These are “ordinary miracles,” the very work of God in us.

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