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At Watermark Community Church in Dallas, where I’m privileged to serve as pastor, there’s a sign in a back room that I made when teaching through 2 Peter:

Divine Physician’s General Warning:

Ingesting false teaching will complicate your life, possibly eternally. Examine the Scriptures to see if the things you hear are true.

Here’s the obvious message: Evaluate everything against God’s Word, which includes both the teaching we hear and also the lyrics we sing in corporate worship.

This discipline is especially relevant today, given the popularity of songs from Bethel Music and the increasing concerns over Bethel’s theology, practices, leadership, teachings, and school of “supernatural ministry.” Given that we should “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good (1 Thess. 5:21), it’s worth asking whether churches concerned with orthodoxy should sing songs associated with individuals or organizations with a history of errant beliefs or practices.

Not a New Issue

For generations Christians have embraced truth-filled hymns composed by authors who have held to unsupportable beliefs or who have fallen away from the faith. Here are just three examples.

  • “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” penned by reformer Martin Luther, who wrote the 95 Theses that rightly protested corruption in the Roman Catholic Church and set off the Protestant Reformation, but who also wrote The Jews and Their Lies and On the Ineffable Name, which were rooted in hostility and horrific views toward Jews. (See Bernard Howard’s article, “Luther’s Jewish Problem.”)
  • “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” written in 1757 by Methodist preacher Robert Robinson, who later fulfilled the “prone to wander” line by drifting away from the faith.
  • “It Is Well with My Soul,” written by Horatio Gates Spafford after he lost his four children in the sinking of the SS Ville du Havre in November 1873. While his most famous work is this anthem to the truth of God’s sovereignty, his teachings on eternal punishment and the Holy Spirit were at best ill-informed, and at worst heretical.

So, should songs that strongly proclaim the truth of God’s Word no longer be used in corporate worship given other errant beliefs or practices by the authors or associated churches?

Here are four questions that might help when assessing whether a song, book, or any form of communication should be used.

1. Are you examining everything you consume (sermons, books, music, movies) through the lens of God’s Word?

It’s important that all believers are equipped with Scripture so they may accurately discern (1 John 4:1–3) whether a sermon, song, book, website, or other media aligns with Scripture and the Spirit. Every believer should be equipped to discern truth from error and live in fellowship with mature believers who hold them accountable in their discerning (Prov. 15:22).

Just because something feels right doesn’t mean it stands the test of God’s Word.

2. Does the song stand on its own, proclaiming the truth of God’s Word without explanation?

Every song a church sings should be grounded in Scripture and sound doctrine and should edify the body of Christ (Eph. 4:29). Right worship is a form of equipping, and if the song is communicating unbiblical ideas, then it shouldn’t be welcomed in the church. Every song is the responsibility of the shepherds, and shepherds are to be on guard so that savage wolves (Acts 20:28) with snappy melodies don’t come into the flock.

Over the years at Watermark we have examined countless songs for clarity, from “Away in a Manger” to “Reckless Love.” We constantly ask ourselves questions like, “Is it accurate to describe God’s love as ‘overwhelming, never-ending, and reckless?”—as the chorus of “Reckless Love” says? It’s the responsibility of the spiritual leaders in every church to make these calls. It’s not an overstatement to say that their protection of their people (Acts 20:28–30) and their own future judgment (Heb. 13:17) depend on it.

3. Is it possible to separate the truth being sung from the error of its associations?

A church is never in more danger than when a false teacher communicates under the guise of proclaiming truth (2 Cor. 11:14; Acts 16:16–18). In addition to false teachers, we must be aware of directing others toward ministries of well-meaning individuals consistently associated with false or errant theology and practices.

The leadership of Bethel and the teachings and practices embraced by its members, students, and ministry partners would, at a minimum, fall into this category. Promoting their songs—even though the songs themselves are theologically accurate—could open others to additional messages and ideas that are errant in practice and theology.

Historically, there is at least one significant example of music and lyrics being a means through which heresy was propagated. Arius (AD 250–336) was a capable songwriter and a theologian who denied Christ’s deity. He wrongly asserted that Jesus was a finite, created being with some divine attributes—not the eternal God. The popularity of his melodies and songs led to the rapid spread of his heretical ideas.

We must acknowledge that a well-written song can quickly lead others to a truth-forsaken place. While it’s unlikely that many today will dig up Horatio Spafford sermons if they sing “It Is Well,” many people will want to know more about Bethel’s “supernatural school of ministry” because of their excellent music.

4. Would using the song cause us to actively support an errant ministry?

Perhaps the most unavoidable implication is that using songs from these ministries and artists supports them financially. Even if you protect your flock from future influence, you unavoidably will be strengthening the ministries. The cost-benefit of the truths should be weighed in your ultimate decision.

Examine Everything

For the rest of the post…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his brother Klaus visited Tripoli in 1924. His thoughts on Islam…

In Islam everyday life and religion are not kept separate, as they are in the whole of the church, including the Catholic Church. With us one goes to church and when one comes back an entirely different kind of life begins again…Islamic and Jewish piety must naturally be marked religions of law, when the national and ritual elements are so intermingled or actually identical. Only in this way can they achieve such a strict demarcation from other races and religions…  

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter Two: Student Years: 1923-1927, 58.

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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