As abstract minded as I am, always living in my own head, the only evidence of the Gospel narrative that works for me is that which is experienced or practical. I know the apologetics and intellectual arguments, but none are able to bridge the gap or overcome the reasonable doubts.
This idea that we can find God by climbing a tower of human knowledge is very appealing and especially for those of us in this age of information. It is a feature of Protestantism, where the soteriology is centered around the text, an individual’s ability to comprehend and then accepting certain propositions, which ends up being very Gnostic.
The blog, a few weeks ago, that questions resurrection apologetics, left things hanging as far as an alternative. If we can’t prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus died and rose again, as an actual historical event, how can we believe anything in the Gospel? Of course, we can’t prove the resurrection or any past event, how could we?
But is truth really about the past tense or some kind of intellectual theorem? Or is it something we relate to personally, that we must experience for ourselves?
Truth in Narrative
The most compelling evidence for the Gospel is the truth of the narrative itself and by that I mean how the older I get the more I realize that people behave exactly as those in the parables Jesus told and the accounts of his ministry. No, it doesn’t absolutely prove the extraordinary claims, but the Bible as a window into human psychology and sociology is quite fascinating.
Jesus started his ministry with a broad appeal, people wanted change and he quickly developed a following. It is very easy to gather a crowd by proclaiming to be the source of hope and change. But, as his teaching progressed, and it became clearer that his kingdom was not about the political power the masses wanted, and he started to say some weird stuff as he got to what would be required, the crowd thinned.
People don’t want the truth, they want their truth, to be validated for what they already believe. But Jesus taught the way to truth was by partaking of his body and blood, to make the sacrifice play, relying on faith and God for their sustenance rather than their own human reasoning. That’s why it was impossible for the Rich Young Ruler to attain eternal life—he was relying on his own goodness to save him.
Truth in Symbolism
It is interesting what freaked out the crowd in Jesus day also is a bridge too far with many who profess to be Christian:
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
(John 6:35 NIV)
And he doubles down when the audience begins to grumble:
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.
(John 6:53-56 NIV)
This is what followed:
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.” From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
(John 6:60-66 NIV)
This was a rejection of materialism. He was pointing to something mystical, something that transcended their understanding of reality, their version of the universe and thus they fled from him. It is also very interesting that the coming betrayal of one of the twelve is mentioned by Jesus in this context, that perhaps this is where Judas Iscariot became disillusioned?
My own Anabaptist religious roots, given the Zwinglian influence, is very agnostic as far as the Mystical Supper. While being strict fundamentalists otherwise, like insistence on a ‘literal’ interpretation of the Creation narrative, in the book of Genesis, they will deny the substance of the words that Jesus said (above) that caused so many to fall away from Him. To them being a “follower of Jesus” takes a very practical turn and too practical in that it ignores the mystical in favor of the rational.
But, if one believes that Jesus actually walked on water or really turned water into wine, why would they ever question (or try to reinterpret) when he says “this is my body” and claim it means something other than what he said?
The thing is, yes, there is a practical, even a humanist, component to Christianity and yet it all must be in this context of Communion with God or it is only human effort. And, to go a step further, no, it is not all about barn raising practicality either, it is about truth in worship. We don’t do what we do in a spirit of utopian idealism, we do it because we believe their is a substance of bread, a bread of heaven, greater than what we can sense with our taste buds.
Truth in Action
There are many who are into the pageantry of religion, wearing the ‘right’ colors or cut according to their tradition, yet not willing to live out the actual substance of faith and Communion. Yes, the Orthodox understand that Christianity centers on the mystical, that there is no spiritual life outside of partaking of the body and blood of Christ. Still, it is a denial of Christ, and not true mysticism, when the rituals are not a reflection of real love of our family:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
(James 2:14-17 NIV)
The book of James was inconvenient for Martin Luther and also for all of those who would rather keep their religion between them, their own understanding of a book, and God.
But the truth is not about our own personal knowledge or judgment. Judas could quote the words of Jesus as good as any of the other disciples. And yet it takes more than our understanding a set of propositions or a mental exercise. As Jesus said, “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” That is where the truth is, in our coming together, in our loving each other as Christ first loved us:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
(1 John 4:7-12 NIV)
In the parables Jesus told, in the accounts of the ministry of Jesus, there is truth. Also, in our partaking in the mysteries of the Church, in our Communion together as the body of believers, there is truth. But the truth that us most significant, and the only real Christian apologetic there is, is the truth of our love for each other. That is the truth of Christ Jesus, who came in the flesh to demonstrate the love of God.
True or false: The truth of the entire Gospel message depends on the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
I’m pretty certain that this is something that both Christians and non-Christians alike, after reading the Gospel accounts, would agree on. If Jesus remained in the grave, a dead man, then doesn’t that make the entire account of these books a lie?
Recently I was invited to watch a lecture by Gary Habermas, a professor, historian Christian apologist, and author of various books about Jesus. This after I had expressed a thought on how difficult this central claim of the Gospel would be to accept for a true skeptic. Presumably, this recommendation was to help me bridge the gap between the claims and reasons to doubt them.
It seems reasonable that Habermas, an expert who believes, would come out with his best argument. I mean, why waste an opportunity by holding the most solid proof of resurrection for a later date, right?
So, after watching, and taking notes, this is the outline of the arguments made along with my own counterpoints:
1) Most Contemporary Scholars Agree
Habermas spends considerable time talking about the changes in perspectives in the last 30-40 years in academic circles. Apparently, most theologians are conservative now and he cites a skeptic who has warmed to even the claims that the disciples saw Jesus after his death on the cross.
However, the first thing I see, when someone uses “experts agree,” is an appeal to authority, which can be a logical fallacy if being used as evidence of a claim. The fact that a majority of doctors had once believed that bloodletting was good therapy does not actually prove anything as far as the reliability of the practice.
So, to a critical thinker, this is a red flag. He is starting with an appeal that is not a true argument for his further claims or at least not any more than “a consensus of scientists believe” disproves the outliers who disagree with their conclusions.
But, more than that, the devil is always in the details and there is a bit of a bait and switch in his presentation. The acceptance of any empty tomb is not the same thing as the real issue at hand which is resurrection. It is possible that something else could explain the disappearance. An empty tomb is not itself proof of the miraculous.
So what about this shift in thinking?
Well, it is no secret that the Western world is falling into unbelief, Christianity is losing influence, and to the point that the ‘liberals’ may have long left the room. In other words, it could be polarization, where nobody in the moderate middle ground survived, and thus only ‘conservatives’ see theology as being a worthwhile pursuit.
When something falls out of popular favor, like eugenics or white supremacy, then it is not really a big surprise when the hardliners are all that remains.
As a young person, I remember an Evolution versus Creation debate at a local university campus. Such an event would not even be hosted by such an institution. The 2014 Ken Ham vs Bill Nye rhetorical battle was held at the Creation Museum for a reason. And it is not because either of these men are taken seriously or viewed as credible by the mainstream.
The point is most people may simply have moved on and the plurality of those remaining, the current theologians, are the fundamentalists. There is much talk about the collapse of the center and this change Habermas mentions could be a product of that rather than anything related to the evidence.
We also have a resurgence of flat earth theories (and the rise of Socialism on the other) which is certainly not an argument for those beliefs. I guarantee more than 350 pages have been written in defense of Marxism and yet that does not convince me in any way, shape, or form that this ideology is the right way forward. No, this does not prove or disprove anything as far as the resurrection, but why waste time on this kind of appeal if there’s better evidence?
2) Paul Is Generally Accepted, Even By Skeptics
Of all the writings in the New Testament those of Paul, the Apostle, are the most compelling and probably because this man (despite his own claims to the contrary) is so eloquent in his presentation. I do find his focus on spiritual transformation to be more inviting than Mathew, Mark, or Luke. And also his ability to be the odd one out as far as important matters of the faith.
He was a controversial figure, even in the early church, and often put on the defensive by those fighting to preserve the Jewish tradition from Gentile converts. The account of his Damascus road encounter obviously convinced the right people of his change of heart. And this acceptance is significant, it is at least an answer to those modern-day Pauline skeptics, namely feminists and contemporary Judaizers, who would have us believe he was in conflict with Jesus.
That said, both Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, and Muhammad claimed to have had dramatic encounters. Both were committed to these revelations they had received and able to convince a large body of people of these claims. It is always amazing to me how even a fundamentalist Christian can scoff at claims of angels delivering inerrant teachings or laugh off the flight to Medina on the Burāq, all the while accepting Biblical claims.
In short, I absolutely believe that Joseph Smith and Muhammad existed as real people. I also have no reason to doubt that they did not believe what they claim to believe or even that they had some sort of trip and conversion experience. But the truth of their existence and conviction does not mean their most extraordinary claims are actually reliable. It does not matter how many people recorded their lives or believed what they said.
So, of course, a man named Paul existed, and perhaps he did have an encounter with an apparition. I will accept that he was brought into the church. There is no reason to take issue with any of this. And I’m sure, if he was indeed out there killing Christians, this was a very welcomed development. And yet there are also those raised Christian who become Muslims or atheists. A conversion experience does not prove the extraordinary claims of a particular religion.
3) More Sources Than Alexander the Great
Habermas spends significant time in his lecture discussing the typical criteria for accepting a source. There is more proof of Jesus, according to what is acceptable by normal academic standards, than there is of Alexander the Great. Which is no surprise given that Jesus arrived on the scene later and spawned a religious movement through his teaching.
And yet while most everyone agrees that George Washington was a real person, that he crossed the Delaware river, this doesn’t mean that they must accept his ideological perspective or believe the mythology about the cherry tree. Historic texts, like reporting of events in our own time, can be almost entirely fact, yet also be embellished or just incorrect on details.
The biggest lies are always laced with facts. It is how so many people are snookered. A charlatan will make many credible claims to establish themselves. They may have credentials and compelling stories. The New York Times reporter, Walter Duranty, won a Pulitzer Prize for his glowing coverage of the Soviet Union. That he included many verified facts in his accounts does not mean his writing was not deceptive.
The reality is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If I were to list off my activities for the day, that I went to Dunkin for coffee, to the gym after that, and then broke Usain Bolt’s 100 meter sprint time, would finding independent verification of the first two claims bolster the last claim that I’m now the fastest man alive?
Most of the Bible being reliable does not mean every claim being made is true. Being correct on a million mundane facts does not prove any of the most extraordinary claims contained. No, it does not even suggest we should be less skeptical. Maybe this makes some of us uncomfortable, but this is a normal burden of proof that we place on those who are outside of our own belief system, why not use the same standard for ourselves?
The big difference between Jesus and other historical figures is that nobody is telling me to devote my life to Alexander the Great. It is one thing to believe that Abraham Lincoln existed as a real person and a significant figure, and quite another to say that he resurrected from the dead and ought to be worshipped as God.
4) We Can Trace the Narrative Back
Most of the New Testament was written down long after the events took place, this is something generally agreed on by all sides, and Habermas does have an interesting response for those who would use this as a basis for skepticism. This, I believe, is where a general consensus is good enough. It is silly to argue that Jesus did not exist or that the narrative was entirely fabricated well after the fact.
And yet, again, this tracing narrative back, using catchy phrases to suggest that these things had been established early and then were passed along made me think of modern memes or protest chants that are created in response to real events.
Michael Brown, for example, was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Soon a phase, “hands up, don’t shoot,” became the rallying cry and is a short version of this idea that Brown was gunned down while simply trying to surrender. However, both a St Louis County grand jury and a US Department of Justice investigation cleared the officer of wrongdoing, the actual evidence points to the teen being in a physical altercation with the officer, and the catchy chants, therefore, are not an accurate representation no matter how popular.
The thing is, if we can’t get things right even days after the actual event, does gap or no gap matter?
It really does not.
5) Why Die For A Lie?
Joan of Arc was an extraordinary young woman. She managed to inspire her people to fight and is a wonderful icon of faith and courage. But eventually, she fell into the hands of the English, who had every reason to hate her guts, and they put her on trial for ‘heretical’ exploits. There is every indication that she was cooperative to the point that there was no justification for her execution and had likely been forced to violate the terms so they could kill her.
The martyrdom of the disciples of Jesus is something many Christian apologists tout as being hard evidence of the resurrection. As in who would die for something that they know is a lie? And this is indeed is proof of the commitment that these men had made to the Gospel message.
But let’s consider what happened to the Millerite movement when their prophecies about the Second Coming proved to be false. Did they give up their delusion or even entirely reject the teachers that had misled them? Some did. But, as with Harold Camping, who spiritualized the prediction post hoc rather than admit being wrong, this is what is now the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.
So why do people remain committed to something despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary from an outsider’s perspective?
It is this little thing called confirmation bias, we become emotionally attached to the things we believe and to the point of being blind to the obvious. As the saying goes, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” And people who have had their belief system falsified will simply modify as much as necessary and then move on as if nothing happened. Why? Well maybe because it is too hard to start from square one, to admit being wrong, or perhaps because the community and values feel too important to give up?
So, since I have my skeptic hat on, and we already know that the disciples had been looking for a literal earthly kingdom, what is to say they did not pick up and run with an alternative rather than return to the lives they had before. I mean, even most agnostics will claim that Jesus was a good teacher, so this could be justification for building a mythology to sell this better way. For radicals the ends often justify the means, lying is not forbidden if for a righteous cause in Judaism.
Anyhow, if backed in a corner, if you’re likely killed even if you do recant, why not refuse to go along with what your persecutors want? I doubt Joseph Smith would have given his tormentors the satisfaction of admitting that he never had his angelic encounter. That doesn’t make Mormonism true. No, this is just how we are. Pathological liars are so convincing because they believe their own lies. What Jesus taught was revolutionary, people die for less all of the time.
Is That Really the Best We Have?
I know that I’m not going to win many fans amongst my Christian audience by giving an honest answer to the apologetics they offer. I’m sorry, it may work for many who already buy-in, it may be enough to convert a few, but I simply cannot be impressed.
That said, I do appreciate Habermas for his admitting that the Gospels do not always agree perfectly, and also admire those who can engage in the long form of argument too tedious for my own tastes.
Still, all said and done, these sorts of arguments can never span the gap between the extraordinary claims and the most capable skeptics. It is nibbling around the edges of proof and really only ever evidence that is convincing to those who come in with the right presuppositions—like those claims of the miraculous as an explanation to things not yet explainable.
In his questions and answers follow-up, Habermas mentions how many do not believe for emotional (rather than rational) reasons. He points to C.S. Lewis as someone who fell away from faith over the death of his mom before his eventual rise as a Christian thinker. However, the same is also true for why people believe. We want a world with purpose and meaning, and the Gospel narrative provides this. It is harder to give up a comprehensive belief system, even if it makes no truly testable claims.
It just feels like apologetics always relies on strawman versions of skepticism. Even if I fell totally into unbelief, I could never dismiss all of Scripture. But I also have seen, first hand, how incapable people are at getting the facts right, how they see what they want to see and delude themselves. I know because I’ve made the error of pursuing something, in sincere faith, that could be falsifiable and was forced to swallow the hard reality of my self-deception.
Most who profess belief in Jesus will never be so bold as to risk it all on something that can be disproven. They believe things that are written in a book, they attribute their good fortune to God’s goodness or try to accept the bad as being loving discipline, without ever putting it to the test as they would if they had actual faith. It is as if they hope if they never question then maybe the dream of eternal reward will come true and thus run from any chance of encountering a serious refutation.
The thing is if the resurrected Jesus needed to appear to Peter, James and Paul before they would believe, then why not appear to us all?
Is there an answer to this that doesn’t come off like an excuse?
It isn’t like the creator of the universe lacked the budget. And that the most important decision in our lives would come down to believing the eyewitness testimony of a handful of first-century men, this seems rather odd. Don’t get me wrong either, the Biblical narrative is quite fascinating, the miracles, angelic visits, and promise of life after death to those who believe, it is wonderful. The teachings of Jesus have led to a more compassionate era. Still, the claims like the virgin birth, walking on water, and raising the dead aren’t exactly things a rational person would accept without seeing these miraculous events for themselves.
The biggest problem with the apologetics of Habermas is that it relies on a false dichotomy. A reader doesn’t need to be able to accept that a source is perfectly reliable to believe some of it is true. There is a multitude of possibilities as to why the disciples would go with the resurrection narrative. First, it is much easier than saying they wasted their last few years. Second, it sells the teachings of Jesus better than anything else. And third, it can’t be falsified, how does anyone disprove what they claim to have seen?
This is not to say that the disciples were delusional or lying either. My point is that it is too easy to see an argument as being stronger than it is. It is annoying, perhaps, that we can’t rely on apologetics to do the heavy lifting of the Gospel, nevertheless, the only resurrection of Jesus many people will see is that which is embodied in us. What that means is self-sacrifice and bridging the gap of unbelief with the substance of love.
Talk is easy, actually taking up the cross is not…
The man had charisma. He wore a swanky grey sport coat and a shiny pair of quality brown dress shoes, that all went along with his well-manicured hair. He stood out in this crowd of mostly Amish gathered for the seminar.
I tend not to pay for such things. I have a knack for learning through non-conventional means, namely running into walls until I get to the correct answer, and have also learned quite a bit from observation. My own ticket had been provided by my company and I was there with the rest of the office staff to hear what this life coaching speaker had to say about customer service and listening.
The content was good. It seemed worthwhile advice for those seeking to improve their customer experience and grow their business. However, I kept thinking about the Christian themes mixed into his message. This son of a missionary did not preach a sermon nor did he mention the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Still, there was definitely an attempt to relate to the audience at a level of their religious values.
This sort of thing, good or bad, seems like the latest development in Christian missions. In times past, the church was the church, those ordained and sent were more open about their underlying goals, urging repent and be baptized, and those personally profiting off the message were condemned:
“Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God.”
(2 Corinthians 2:17 NIV)
Now, the man before us, he represented a non-profit entity and was giving advice that pertained to sales and serving customers. Still, he did reference Scripture amongst his quotes of self-improvement gurus and even used the phrase “word of God” at one point in his presentation. He would use our familiarity with the “good book” to bolster his claims and even shared some theological perspective.
Again, I have no problem with this man nor the particular presentation. In the business world this kind of consulting and advice is likely key to reaching the next level of sales and I’m sure we will do many of the things that he recommended.
However, what did stand out, and is the reason for writing this blog, is this trend towards a mission of influence rather than open proclaiming of the Gospel and, in many ways, I was at the forefront of this evolution. My blogs, often a mix of theology, philosophy, and personal observation, is not openly declared as a Christian mission. Still, I have used this media, and my understanding of Scripture, to do pretty much the same thing (minus the monetization) of this life coach of Anabaptist background.
So here’s some thoughts…
Where Did It All Begin?
The church has always had influential men and inspiring women. Some rose in prominence, even have their writings and stories recorded in the canon of Scripture for our benefit. The Orthodox have many noteworthy figures, Early Church Fathers, including St John Chrysostom, the archbishop of Constantinople, a man who took on the abuses of ecclesiastical and political authorities of his own time, and whose Divine Liturgy we celebrate to this very day, his name means “golden-mouthed” in Greek and he definitely had a way with words to match the description.
However, those in Scripture, as well as St John Chrysostom, were themselves all under the authority and guidance of the other Christians. They were also very open about their mission. They were unabashed preachers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They weren’t your life coach using Christian themes to decorate a business oriented daylong consulting session for $150 a head. St Paul may have made tents to support himself and his ministry, yet I’m not sure that he sold them using Christian themes. Just saying. His ministry was ministry and business was business.
But there is a sort of murkiness to many modern day efforts, where they aren’t part of the church per se nor even announcing themselves as a ministry, and it is by design. So how did we get here?
The starting point of the current Western paradigm is obviously the Protestant schism with the leadership in Rome. The intention of Martin Luther, ordained by the Roman Catholic Church, was not to start a denomination. He wanted reforms and had good reason for his critiques. And yet his written protests quickly became a catalyst, many took things much further than he had ever intended and we have the multitude of denominations as his most significant accomplishment.
Still, despite this, the church, even or especially with those of the radical reformation, remained a collection of individuals with accountability to each other. Sure, the Anabaptists were more localized, led by shared statements of faith and collectively agreed upon congregational rules rather than by a hierarchical structure, but it was never every-man-for-himself or a free-for-all. Those who spoke were ordained by various means, not simply a man full of his own ideas and finding a following.
The turning point?
I think around the turn of the last century represents a shift. The whole tent revival circuit, where a dynamic speaker, an Evangelist, would get up in front of the crowd and wow the audience with his polished salvation message. Many were sold the Gospel in this manner, walked the sawdust trail, the circus would eventually leave town and life would go back to normal or the new normal, I suppose?
The next stage in development was the parachurch missionary organization. By parachurch, these organizations are run seperately from the denomination, are often subject only to their own board members, and seek funding for themselves. Basically, any ambitious person, with some natural musical or speaking talent, interested in travel, can start a prison ministry, missionary training institute or what have you, and only with as much ties to the existing church structure as they want. All one must do is set up their nonprofit, find investors, buy the bus and be on their way to preach the word as their adoring wife glows beside them.
Yet, as all things, the traveling Evangelist and other obvious Christian missionary efforts, including openly Christian contemporary artists, have become tired old tropes. The in your face presentation, the lack of follow-up or one-dimensionality of the presentation, the realization that the novelty had worn off of the original form, the scams and scandals, has led to a third wave of influencer and that’s the one that doesn’t even announce the Christian intentions at all.
Sometimes this lack of openly expressed intention is to avoid legal prohibition. For example, teaching English in Asian countries that would not otherwise invite Christian missionaries. Other times it is to add a practical element, after preaching and charities failed to help solve many underlying conditions, which gave rise to micro-lending groups. Sometimes this repackaging is to sell the mission itself as something exciting, an adventure rather than some kind of dull service opportunity, and part of an effort to make Christianity relevant to the next generation.
After watching the presentation the other day, I suggested to a left-leaning Mennonite friend that we go on tour together for sake of racial reconciliation and healing. Why not? I think I could probably work the crowd, with a little practice, and definitely believe in the cause, could leading faith-related seminars be my calling too?
In theory this cause-oriented Christian influencer thing seems great. We can have sportsman’s banquets, business seminars, and TED Talk the unsuspecting heathens (or even the more traditional religious types) with a flashy Powerpoint presentation, funny stories and down to earthiness. And yet, this does seem to get things out of order, it puts values first and repentance second.
More troubling, from the Evangelist of the past century, to parachurch missionary organization of the past decades, to the influencers of the present, the distance between the activity and actual purpose has grown. The Evangelist preached without providing adequately in discipleship. The missionary went without being sent or accountable to the church. And the motivational speaker, while referencing the Bible, never announced a Christian intention. And it makes me wonder, how far can we detach values or ministries from the Church, and cause of Christ, before it becomes entirely self-interested and divorced from Christ?
At what point is it all just a moneymaking scheme, devoid of actual spiritual substance?
I mean, we’ve all seen it, the shyster, the con man, the ministry with a board of directors full of families and “yes man” friends, the Televangelist, the guy selling a product, an ideology, a Ponzi scheme. There is sometimes a very fine line between the less scrupulous, eyebrow raising efforts, and the more accepted manifestations. Are we some day going to have Christian pornography, subtle Christian themes, maybe an actor pick up a Bible and read a passage before the main event, to hopefully plant that seed of influence?
Where does it end?
The Rise and Fall of the Christian Influencer
David Ramsey, James Dobson, Ravi Zacharias, Ken Ham, and Bill Gothard are familiar names in conservative Mennonite circles. Ramsey with his financial advice, Dobson with his focus on the culture war, Zacharias with his appeals to reason, Ham for his fundamentalist theme park and Gothard an earlier version of life coaching seminars. The point of all of these men, at least as expressed, was to advise, consult and influence. They are all men who took aspects of their religious values and turned it into an enterprise.
None of the men above represent a church denomination. They rely on selling merch, the loyal support of people like you and donations to expand their reach. They have built ministry campuses, a literal ark in the state of Kentucky, a few massage parlors here and there, and are only accountable to their own ministry boards. Usually the focus, at least initially, is around one illustrious character, a strong personality, who is too often surrounded by the cult he has created rather than those who will challenge.
There now seems like a parachurch organization for every niche. The list of bloggers, authors, evangelists, producers of all sorts, continues to grow and especially now in the age of social media. It costs me nothing but time to set up my account on WordPress and start spewing out my perspectives. Perhaps, if I were a bit more ambitious, I would write a book, do a book tour, and eventually be at your Lady’s Tea event sharing what I learned about life and love from the book of Ecclesiastes. Book your reservations now as available slots are filling fast!
But the parachurch is the downfall of the church. Too often these ‘ministries’ have come at the expense of the local body of believers, submitting and serving each other in love. Too often it is something guided more by the spirit of Diotrephes, wanting things our own way and seeking those who agree, rather than by Christ. That is why we have seen a growing number of scandals come to light, of leaders forced to resign by outside pressure or disgraced after death for their hidden sinful deeds. I know, speaking for myself, it is too easy for me to shun deeper involvement in the actual church because it is difficult, not determined by my feelings of inspiration, and this is something that must be repented.
Jesus was willing to serve, but he didn’t determine the cross he was required to carry and, instead, submitted to the will of the Father. The disciples, and St Paul, likewise, were not Lone Rangers, doing it their own way, without accountability or oversight. Those with gifts aren’t to use those gifts to serve themselves or build their own empires. They were sent and commissioned by the church, under the umbrella of those ordained to lead, and not independent contractors pursuing their own pet causes.
The Christian life is not about values, certainly not about self-promotion or having the right program either, but is about our Communion together with other believers, both past and present, and with Christ. From that, the Holy Spirit, from our accountability to each other, our true obedience, transformation will come from inside out and love will flow out to change the world. The values and culture coming from that rather than taught at seminars, religious institutions or Bible schools.
We don’t need more influencers. We don’t need more parachurch organizations or a return to tent revival meetings either. Many of these things are mere human efforts that will ultimately fail. What we really need is the body of Christ, to partake and participate together in the life of the one true Church.