Archive | Denominations

Let this Strange Firestorm be a Lesson

Controversy is like a social hemorrhoid that will flare up on a regular basis & need to be cooled and soothed (I almost used the term strange anal fire but I thought better of it).  Some controversies are uglier than others. The worst kind of ugly controversy is the kind that might have been avoided because it wasn’t entirely necessary. Usually the culprit is misunderstanding, failure to define terms, or generally sloppy reactionism. When the internet was set ablaze with the anointing flame of controversy last week over the “Strange Fire” Conference in So-Cal, I had to wonder if this had the makings of one of those misunderstandings and failures to make responsible distinctions.

And in large measure I fear that this was just the case. As the smoke from the temple clears, I think there is a lesson to learn from this. The controversy was not just a quiet charismatic-cessationist stare-down. It was at times noisy and contentious. Names were dropped, reputations put on the line, and personal feelings bruised. Unfortunately there will likely remain some rifts between prominent persons and between prominent churches over the affair. And it may have been avoidable.

The biblical and theological debate about the gifts aside, wisdom demands something from us when it comes to a big public cyber-spat like this one. In this case I humbly submit that discernment requires distinctions. Some distinctions were not made that should have been made. Going forward, here are three things that must be clarified and made distinct on this subject.


1. The meaning of “charismatic”

Quick word association: I say “charismatic” you say …

Maybe you think of Robert Tilton with eyes shut tightly and hand raised, asking viewers who need a financial miracle to place their hands on their TV screens. Is that what we mean by that word? For some people it’s anyone who ever lifted a hand during worship. Maybe it’s belief in Holy Spirit baptism (aka “Second Blessing”). Or is it merely non-cessationism?

One thing is for sure, you’d better make clear the meaning you have in mind, and if you’re debating someone about it, you’d better agree between the two of you what precisely you both mean when you use the term. It has been painfully obvious to me in the brief eruption of attention on this issue that people are using the term differently. Some of them mean merely those whose theological position is not cessationism. Others seem to mean Todd Bentley, Kenneth Copeland, and people spending hours “Holy Ghost glued” to the floor.

Often usage determines meaning, and common or shared usage of a word can alter how we perceive it. Since this word is biblical, it seems most appropriate to recapture, as best we can, its early etymology as at least a starting place for defining it properly. As first year Greek students learn and as footnotes in your Bible may tell you, the word is essentially the word “grace” (“charis”) used in such a way (charisma or charismata) as to denote gracious acts or gifts. The specific use of the word to describe spiritual gifts (mostly in I Cor. 12 and Eph. 4) – and particularly the more extraordinary and supernatural gifts, like miracles, healings, tongues, prophetic words – is responsible for it being used to describe Christians who emphasize those kinds of supernatural gifts of the Spirit.

So far so good, but this still doesn’t help me know whether or not I should use the word only to describe those who believe that the supernatural gifts did not cease (as opposed to “cessationists” who believe that those gifts were for the messianic and apostolic eras and not normative for the church all-time), or whether I should use the word to include things like the prosperity movement, the strange semi-Eastern doctrines about how your words create spiritual realities (the so-called “Word of Faith” movement), and the outlandish “outpourings” that have people spending hours gyrating, fainting, laughing then growling, freezing and seizing.

Like many people, I have seen both the good and the utterly bizarre under this umbrella of “charismatic.” I have attended churches and have known ministers (even in my own family) who are charismatic by identification, of whom I would never say the sorts of things I say about certain televangelists. I’ve met old-school Southern Baptists overseas serving as missionaries who, though they were raised in a non-charismatic church setting, are convinced of supernatural spiritual activity based upon years of experience.

Then again, I’ve attended a charismatic service where the so-called preacher reads one verse from Isaiah (31:4 in case you need an idea for Sunday) about how God speaks as a “roaring lion” and then proceeds to lead the congregation in 45 minutes of “roaring in the Spirit.” A simplistic approach won’t do. There are charismatic Roman Catholics whose language and church life bears little resemblance to what you would find at the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church (as it used to be called). When debates on cessationism broke out in the seminary classes I attended long ago, the mostly Southern Baptist students were very much split on the issue.

It may well be that we cannot presume to know what another person hears in the word “charismatic”, which means that we have to make the minimal effort of finding out and negotiating a definition that we can all understand. Even if I and an opponent agree to define the word differently, each of us will at least know what the other person is meaning when he or she uses the word.

2. “Charismatic” vs. the Prosperity and/or Word-Faith & Otherwise Whack-job Televangelists

Continue Reading →

Great Chart on Denonminations

Jeff Young, a Reclaiming the Mind/Credo House Ministries board member created these as part of his research for our ministry. I thought they were too good not to share. I will share the one on Mega-Churches next.

This first one shows denominations according to a breakdown.

click on image to enlarge

Will the Real Evangelical Please Stand Up? Part 1

I have always been a fan of Evangelicalism, although I have not always known how to define it. I remember having a discussion about this when I was in my early twenties. I was already well into what I felt was my calling to teach the Bible. It was at one of these studies (if I remember correctly) that someone asked me “What is an Evangelical?” I did not really know how to respond. All I knew was that the people I admired most—the people that I thought were the most committed to the Gospel—called themselves Evangelicals. Therefore, I was one (or, at least, wanted to be).

To this day the question “What is an Evangelical?” still gives me pause. Not so much because I don’t know how to define it, but because I don’t know who I am defining it to. You see, claiming to be an Evangelical can go a long way in molding someone’s thoughts about you, for good or ill. While most definitions of “Evangelical” that people assume have a bit of truth to them, they all have one characteristic over another as their primary point of reference. Some assume that “Evangelical” is a simple way to say “Christian fanatic.” There is some truth to that. Others believe that it means “far right-winged Republican” (the old “Republican-party-at-prayer” definition). In some cases, this is true too. I know some who would equate Evangelicalism with Bible worship. I understand where they get this.  Others believe it is merely a synonym for “fundamentalist.” In this, Evangelicals are judgmental. Again, a bit of truth has to be conceded. Still, on the other side of the conservative Christian fence, many think of Evangelicals as compromisers and ecumenicists who are one step away from full-blown liberalism. I think we do compromise in some areas (and this may be a good thing). So, check again. Many think that Evangelicals are simply out to convert them to their faith—to “evangelize” them. Rightly understood, this is fair. Finally, to many inside the Evangelical fold,  Evangelicalism has become nothing more than the skin of cooperate America over the bones of infant breeding Christian leadership (at best).

Associations abound not only with ideas, but with representative leaders and scholars. Put Billy Graham, George Bush, Joel Osteen, Francis Collins, Pat Robertson, Sean Hannity, Benny Hinn, Ken Ham, Jerry Farwell, Kirk Cameron, Mel Gibson, Roger Olson, Denzel Washington, The Fray, Daniel B. Wallace, John MacArthur, and William Lane Craig in a room together and you will have run the gamut on people’s thoughts of association. But try to assign a marriage counselor to this group and you will need to send him to a psychiatrist shortly after he pulls his hair out and recommends class-action divorce. The only thing many of them would have in common is the name “Evangelical.” Beyond that, their messages will represent an ever broadening rift of people’s thoughts on the mission and doctrine of the Church. With so many people claiming to be Evangelical, it makes one wonder whether Evangelicalism is beyond the possibility of defining. To put it another way: If Evangelicalism can mean so many things, doesn’t it cease to mean anything at all?

This difficulty in defining Evangelicalism should not surprise us. All movements are difficult to define, especially when their is no dictatorship which holds all the cards in their hands. Even when it comes to institutions such as the Roman Catholic church, one finds that there is hardly unanimity on what the Catholic church is and what it is supposed to be doing. If the Pope tries to clarify things, the church endlessly debates what the true meaning of what the Pope said! Try to define liberalism, conservatism, or the “idea” of America, and you will find the same issues. However, in each of these, like with Evangelicalism, history has narrowed the playing field to where some definite boundaries can be found. There is hope. Continue Reading →

Essentials and Non-Essentials: How to Choose Your Battles Carefully

We talk a lot about this: essentials and non-essentials. In fact, at the Credo House of Theology (our headquarters), right when you walk in the front door you will see written on the wall in Latin the words in necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas. Translated into English, this means, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” This phrase (often wrongly attributed to Augustine) comes from an otherwise obscure German Lutheran theologian of the early seventeenth century named Rupertus Meldenius. It has served as a place holder for a sort of Evangelical Credo (statement of faith). It expresses the idea of orthodoxy and grace. It reminds us that there are essential Christian beliefs and there are non-essentials.

I remember hearing a pastor once say concerning doctrine, “You are either one-hundred percent right or one-hundred percent wrong. There is no in-between and there are no gray areas. God is not confused or unsure. Why should we be?” While this might be true concerning God, for us things are different. For now, we see in a mirror dimly (1 Cor. 13:12).

As well, Paul spoke about those things that are “of first  importance [protois]” (emphasis mine). Christ spoke about straining out a gnat while swallowing a camel (Matt. 23:24) and the “weightier things of the law” (Matt. 23:23).

This is one of the things that (should) distinguish us as Evangelicals. We are those who unite around those things that we believe are the weightiest, the things that are the most important, the essentials, while we (should) give liberty in the non-essentials. I often tell people that there are some things that I believe that I would die for; there are some things that I believe that I would lose an arm for; there are some things that I believe that I would lose a finger for; and then there are some things that I believe that I would not even get a manicure for.

Like in all areas of life, we need to learn to choose our battles carefully. But in order to do this, we must first come to know the difference between essentials and non-essentials.

But (as the criticism goes) it is not that easy to distinguish between essentials and non-essentials. I have written on this before. More importantly for now, many Evangelicals have simply never been exposed to this and therefore practice their theology in a much more legalistic way, believing every conviction that they have to be representative of a hill upon which they should die.

Here I want to elaborate upon and expand the discussion a little bit. While we need to distinguish between essentials and non-essentials, we also need to recognize that there are different types of essentials. Along with this goes my belief that there are different ways to “break fellowship” based on our beliefs. In other words, not all essentials are equal. Some are essential to the very foundation of Christianity, but some are only essential to a particular denomination or expression. This will require different types of breaks in fellowship.

Let me start with a chart, then I will briefly break it down:

click on chart to enlarge

Essential for salvation: These are the most essential doctrines of all essentials. This includes what every Christian should always be willing to die for. In essence, if someone does not believe the doctrines that are “essential for salvation,” they are not saved. Continue Reading →

Why I am Proud to be a Protestant

See updated version here.

Protestantism is not perfect. No informed Protestant would claim such. Evangelicalism has major problems. This is nothing new. But Protestants have always thought the strengths of Protestantism outweigh the weaknesses. Otherwise, we would not be Protestant!

While I often write about the weaknesses of our system, sometimes complaining about Evangelical shames, I want to do something different here. I am going to give a short list of what I believe to be the major strengths of Protestantism:

1. Celebration of diversity: Protestants can appreciate and celebrate the diversity in the Christian faith unlike any other tradition. Whether it be in worship style or liturgy, house churches or mega churches, Protestant recognize that all people are not alike in their subjective preferences. Protestantism, as a movement, cannot dogmatize the way people should be in areas that are based in non-essential personal preferences. We can recognize that God has created people differently—and this was intentionally. If people have a personality that does not respond well to one style of worship, they are free to celebrate their diversity without feeling the obligation of adapting their style to some traditional norm. Therefore, to be Protestant is to be able to celebrate diversity. Continue Reading →

In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part Eight – What about all the divisions?

The fifth argument against sola Scriptura:

Without the infallible authority of the Church, the Church would be hopelessly divided on matters of doctrine and morals. This would not be the Church that Christ started.

The idea here is that when doctrine is left to the “private interpretation” of the individual, this leads to doctrinal anarchy. Catholics and Orthodox alike often appeal to the thousands of Protestant denominations as a witness against the doctrine sola Scriptura.


There are a few problems that I see with this argument. I will deal with the first to in brief and spend more time on the last one in the post that follows.

Problem 1: We don’t advocate “private interpretation”

This argument often assumes that sola Scriptura promotes an unbridled “private interpretation” that gives no authority to tradition. This is not the confession of sola Scriptura, but of nuda Scriptura, which I have spoken about previously. Advocates of sola Scriptura do not believe in this sort of private interpretation. We must interpret the Scriptures along with those who have gone before us, even if we might have warrant to question or disagree with their theology from time to time. Those who read the Scripture, as Alexander Campbell once advocated, “As if no one has read them before” are not following in the tradition of the Reformed view of sola Scriptura. Those must be judged on their own merit without association to the doctrine of sola Scriptura.

Problem 2: Everyone has divisions.

Protestants disagree about what the Scriptures say, Catholics disagree about what the Church says, and (as the saying goes) the Orthodox don’t say enough to disagree! Simply because one is put under a more definite designative umbrella does not make true unity. I, for example, have witnessed just as many disagreements among Catholics about what the Church means by “outside the Church there is no salvation” as I have among Protestants about any issue. All one has to do is to go spend some time on the Catholic Answers forum and see that they don’t function with much more unity than a Protestant forum. There would seem to be just as many disagreements, differing interpretations, and needless anathmatizing among Catholics as among Protestaants. The point is that simply because one functions under a unified name or confession does not mean that you have a unified belief.

It is agreed, however, that Protestants tend to have more divisions, but I would not say that this is the case with Evangelicals to the same degree as other Protestant traditions.

See this article for more on the overstatement of Protestant divisions.

Problem 3: Division is not always a bad thing

I will save this for a post tomorrow as it will take a little time.