Sunday, January 24, 2010

Don't be Deluded by the Last Days

I Survived the Christian Right
Ten Lessons I Learned on My Journey Home

Lesson 4: Don't Be Deluded by the Last Days: As a brand-new believer in 1979 I tended to accept the pre-tribulation Rapture view that the Bible predicts Jesus would return a second time before a period of tribulation, to whisk believers up to heaven and leave unbelievers behind to face seven years of apocalyptic trials. After reading several critiques of this view,18 I realized it was farcical and unbiblical, not to mention highly manipulative the way preachers or authors—Hal Lindsey in the 70s and 80s and Tim LaHaye (Left Behind) today—use it to “persuade” people to come to Christ, or else. Despite this, like the majority of evangelicals, I still believed the return of Christ was in the future and possibly eminent, given the state of the world.

Then around 1999, the preterists 19 entered my life; the likes of R.C. Sproul, Gary DeMar, and Kenneth Gentry, ironically conservative evangelicals who introduced the notion that everything that Jesus predicted in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21) was fulfilled between 64 and 70 AD.20 They also viewed the speculation around the return of Christ as madness 21 and the book of Revelation as written prior to 70 AD;22 hence its predictions were not speaking about thousands of years in the future.

Their reasoning was refreshing. They cried Bible abuse by dispensationalists and the bulk of evangelicals in the widespread unreasonable belief that Jesus spoke of two events in the Olivet Discourse: a coming calamity on Jerusalem within a generation, and then in the next breath about his return to earth 2000 years in the future. After reading the preterists, I reread all those prophetic verses and suddenly they made perfect sense. 23

What I didn’t expect was to come to believe these preterists weren’t going far enough. Considered “partial preterists,” they still believe in a future return of Christ at the time of the resurrection. But for this position to stand, there must be two second comings of Christ, one in 70 AD in judgment on Jewish Temple worship and one at a future resurrection. But this view is problematic because the New Testament does not speak of two second comings at all, or more accurately, a third coming. I found myself agreeing with the “consistent preterists,”24 who say that all the prophecies about Jesus returning occurred at or before 70 AD based on a rational reading of the New Testament and first century historical evidence. 25

Imagine that for a moment. Jesus has already returned. The drama is over. There is no need to unmask the mystery or fear the Antichrist, let alone shape American foreign policy around the return of Christ and the end of the world.

Get on with the business of saving the planet and promoting social justice in the world without secretly believing it will all be for naught in the end.

18 DeMar, Gary, Last Days Madness: The Obsession of the Modern Church
19 Preterists believe biblical events were fulfilled in the past as opposed to futurists, who believe they will be fulfilled in the future.
20 Sproul, R.C., The Last Days According to Jesus, and Josephus, The Jewish Wars
21 DeMar, Gary, Op. cit.
22 Gentry, Kenneth, Jr., Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation
23 e.g. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this generation shall certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” Matthew 24:34 and “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.” Revelation 1:1
24 J. Stuart Russell, The Parousia, and
25 Josephus, Tacitus, and Eusebius. They cite occurrences of false prophets, famines, earthquakes, wars, and astronomical signs leading up to 70 AD that match what Jesus predicted.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Avoid Legalism Like the Plague - Lesson 3

I Survived the Christian Right
Ten Lessons I Learned on My Journey Home

Lesson 3: Avoid Legalism Like the Plague - One day I was enjoying a beer with a friend in a popular pub near my home when I noticed someone who went to my former evangelical church. After I picked myself off the floor due to shock from seeing him in a bar, we greeted each other and I asked if he still attended.

“I finally left last year,” the man said.
“Do you mind me asking why you left?” I asked.
“I got tired of jumping through hoops.”

What an apt way of describing what I also experienced in the majority of the six or seven evangelical churches I attended over the years. Why do some churches make our faith journey into an obstacle course on a field of required religious practices and doctrines? Could legalistic control have something to do with it? Again, there are some admirable exceptions, but as Brennan Manning once said, “the American church accepts grace in theory, but denies it in practice.”

Evangelical Christians largely conform to a performance-oriented approach to God: Regularly attend church to worship God our way, pray and read the Bible daily, go to a home group, adhere to a particular statement of faith, believe in the right doctrines and the future return of Christ, be pro-life, dress modestly, don’t drink (or if you do, please don’t do it in front of us), avoid questionable movies, don’t put swear words, sex scenes, or questionable doctrines in your books, refrain from producing music on a secular recording label, and whatever you do, don’t vote for a Democrat. And those are the more moderate rules! In summary, avoid contamination by the world, heretics, and liberals and insulate yourself in the squeaky-clean alternate evangelical world we created.

I saw many evangelicals forget that “we are no longer under the supervision of the law,” and “whoever loves his fellow human being has fulfilled the law.” The lesson? Evangelicalism is inundated with religious baggage and a host of man-made written and unwritten regulations that have nothing to do with authentic spirituality. Since “Christ is the end of the law” or a law-based approach to God, we are free to govern ourselves under Christ’s one overriding law of love.

Find ways to love God and love your neighbor and don’t worry about fitting into some legalistic evangelical mold. Or any kind of Christian mold, for that matter.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Leave Churchianity - Lesson 2

I Survived the Christian Right
Ten Lessons I Learned on My Journey Home

Lesson 2: Leave Churchianity - Surprise! Jesus didn’t found an institutional church. 9 For that matter, he didn’t found a religion either. He also didn’t expect his followers to set up a Christian version of the synagogue, let alone create a parallel Christian universe where microbrews are banned.

When I worked on a church planting team in Malawi, Africa in the 1990s, I studied the early church and began to realize how unbiblical our modern concept of church is. I came to see that professional salaried clergy, a clergy-laity distinction, meetings in buildings, church budgets, hierarchal leadership, and legalistic requirements were not present in early Christianity. Frank Viola and George Barna make the case that most of these elements of church were borrowed from pagan culture. 10 That doesn’t make them necessarily evil, just not based on the original, and not the model for Christian fellowship. The word translated “church” is the Greek ecclesia, which simply means “gathering” and does not denote an institution. The same word is used for a “mob” in the book of Acts. 11

Evangelical churches routinely espouse modern church membership and active involvement as God’s only way of building the Kingdom and creating mature believers. I recently heard a pastor describe his love for the institutional church in terms normally used for ascribing worship to God.

Undoubtedly, there are churches that are healthy places to grow spiritually, but my experience also reveals how prevalent spiritual abuse is found in fundamentalist and evangelical churches. One could argue that the doctrine of the institutional church is largely to blame for abuses. Why? It promotes churchianity—the practice of making belief in Jesus largely focused on the habits and demands of the institutional church (doctrinal purity, religious behavior), rather than on God’s love. Churchianity encourages authoritarian leadership, which is at the core of spiritual abuse. It also doesn’t encourage people to think for themselves. Blind compliance is sure to follow. “Evangelicals are enamored with power and control. That’s why numbers and measures are so important to evangelicals, and why compliance is next to godliness.” 12

Don’t put up with churchianity.

9 Wills, Garry, What Jesus Meant, page 78.
10 Viola, Frank and Barna, George, Pagan Christianity, page xix.
11 Wills, Garry, Op. cit., page 78.
12 Mike Yaconelli, in The Post Evangelical by Dave Tomlinson, page 28.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

I Survived the Christian Right: Beware of Bible Abuse

Ten Lessons I Learned on My Journey Home

OK, I confess. There are only nine lessons, but ten sounds better.

A quest for a reasoned faith based on reality. That was largely what my 27-year sojourn in evangelicalism was about. Although evangelicals are not a monolithic block comprised only of conservatives (progressive evangelicals are becoming more influential), I found the movement and my experience saturated with the mindset of the Christian Right.

This mindset often calls things “truth” when they are only half-truth, thus making falsehood hard to detect. I didn’t find my whole experience bogus—I was and still am enthralled with Jesus’ teaching, signs of God working in my life, and supportive of things evangelicals do right, like fighting poverty through organizations like World Vision. But what I increasingly found was a lack of authenticity and reasoned perspectives on faith.

I weathered the theological storm and made it home to a progressive Christianity, taking with me valuable insights derived from ten eye-opening discoveries. There I go again. I mean nine. The following are lessons readers open to new paradigms can learn.

Lesson 1: Beware of Bible Abuse – With some notable exceptions, most evangelicals I know primarily read the Bible devotionally, meaning they read it in a superficial way without regard to the conditions of history, culture, genre, or its own literary context. They also believe it is the infallible Word of God and expect God to speak to them personally through its message. I read the Bible this way for years. But I gradually learned a valuable lesson. Although harmless on occasion, a predominantly devotional approach to Bible study inevitably leads to Bible abuse—handling scripture in a way that the original author did not intend and the original audience would never recognize. Although it is mostly done unintentionally, I find people abuse the Bible in three ways.

Misinterpretation – The most common form is when people take verses or passages out of their literary context, for example, the practice of citing isolated verses to bolster a doctrine. In other words proof-texting. That’s why we should “read the Bible like drinking beer, not sipping wine.” 1

Another form of this is practicing poor exegesis and hermeneutics. Exegesis is ascertaining a passage’s original meaning through understanding its historical and cultural background. Hermeneutics is deciding how to apply a passage to our modern circumstances. Without doing the hard work of both of these, it’s easy to misinterpret what the Bible teaches. 2 Passages are applied with a wooden literalism, which causes a host of problems, including dogmatic teaching on divorce, tithing, the eminent return of Christ, and sexuality, to name only a few.

Applying Strict Authority – Despite the fact that the Bible does not claim to be inerrant, 3 fundamentalists and many evangelicals insist it is. When I visited L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland in 1984, I studied this doctrine and concluded there was little evidence to support it. Gradually, I came to believe that the Bible is not a set of timeless maxims to be obeyed to the letter. It never claims to be the Word of God, only that Jesus is the Word come down from God and the Jewish prophets spoke the word of the Lord. When every isolated verse or passage is applied with equal authority, the phenomenon of Bibliolatry results.4

Moreover, the evidence supports the notion that parts of our modern Bible were added by copyists and go beyond the original manuscripts, which we don’t have. 5 One example is the controversial passage in I Corinthians 14 often used to justify the suppression of women. It states women should not teach but be silent in church and in full subjection to men. Yet the evidence is strong that Paul did not write these verses but later copyists added them. 6 The Jesus Seminar makes this mistake in the opposite direction when it dogmatically concludes portions of Jesus’ sayings are not genuine based on subjective opinion, not on manuscript evidence. 7 These discoveries reveal how our modern Bible can still contain divine inspiration—and powerful lessons rooted in godly wisdom—without every part of it being the Word of God or wholly free from human error. 8

Mistranslation – There are several places in the New Testament where the English word chosen in most popular translations is almost assuredly not correct. I will cite several of them below. Our modern English translations are not as accurate as we think and should not always be taken at face value.

Read the Bible in its own historical, cultural, and literary context. Don’t worship it.

1 N.T. Wright
2 See Fee, Gordon,
How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth
3 Countryman, William,
Biblical Authority or Biblical Tyranny?
4 Bible worship; see Thatcher, Adrian,
The Savage Text: The Use and Abuse of the Bible, page 4.
5 Erdman, Bart D.,
Misquoting Jesus
6 Fee, Gordon,
The First Epistle to the Corinthians, and Erdman, Op. cit., page 183.
7 Wills, Gary,
What Jesus Meant, page xxv.
8 Wills, Gary, Op. cit. and Countryman, William, Op. cit.