Tuesday, June 26, 2012

"Power Tends to Corrupt" - Why we Should Beware the Monarchical Episopate

When I was being interviewed by the leadership at Bethel with a view to my taking up the pastorate, someone asked me my views on Church leadership. I replied, a little facetiously, "I am not in favour of the monarchical episcopate." The immediate response from a group of ordinary men was, "What?" I then explained that the Monarchical Episcopate is the reign of one Bishop, one-man Church leadership, where the authority finally rests in one person at the top.

The historic episcopal denominations, such as the various national Episcopal churches, many Lutheran national churches and the United Methodist Church of the USA with the various Methodist Episcopal Churches planted by them have evolved a series of checks and balances; that and the fact that many local clergy just tell the Bishops where to go if they do not agree with them, a definition of "canonical obedience" which may be defined as, "I obey the Bishop when I think he is acting canonically". Behind and above the bishops lies the Canon law. Of late even the Roman Catholic Church has had priests who have done this.

But we have seen the rise within evangelicalism of what can only be described as one-man megachurches. Now, there have always been individuals possessing great charisma who have gathered Churches, or regenerated decayed churches and who have as a result had a great following. In these cases it has been hard to deal with such people when they go off the rails. But this is a new phenomenon, dating back to the decline of the old denominations after World War 1.

The old denominations had just that in their favour - they were old. They had a past, a heritage and a tradition. The Methodists had their Conference (British Methodism is not Episcopal), the Presbyterian system was well defined, Congregational Churches had the power to depose their pastor by a majority vote. What was more, they looked back on their heritage, and the Baptists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians could all say "our forefathers tore down episcopacy, we will not build it again." But the new Churches, the Pentecostals in particular, had initially very unclear ideas on the government of the Church. Where one man planted a Church, he could very easily become a monarch.

The modern megachurch does exactly that; the minister is a monarch, accountable to no-one but God. That Divine Right of Kings, so forcefully rejected by our Puritan forefathers, has been brought into the Church as the divine right of pastors. Brethren, this ought not to be so. It tramples on the rights of the Christian people, and it exalts a man to a very dangerous place.

Lord Acton famously wrote: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." It should be no surprise that churches where the power is concentrated in one man have so often ended up in spiritual abuse, as even elders cannot stop the 'Man of God' in his rampage, however delusional he may have become. The end result in far too many cases is a man who is a little local pope, whom none may question without facing his wrath and ultimately anathema if they persevere in criticism.

This is, I would contend, the necessary result of such a form of monarchical Church government. Make a man a king, and such is the nature of sinful humanity that he will be tempted to act like the worst sort of absolute monarch. Add to that the idea that he has a special personal revelation from God, and you have the sort of mentality that drives the cults. Is it any wonder that a refugee from one of these churches said to a friend of mine, "the Church has become a cult centered on the Pastor"?

I am one of four elders in a Church governed on Congregational lines. For all the criticism that has been made of that system, it has one great advantage; it does not concentrate power in one person, but shares it among the people, it recognises that God's temple is the people of God, and the Holy Spirit dwells in us all. And best of all, it recognises that as councils and synods may err, so too pastors and elders may err.

Friday, June 22, 2012

I See Adulterous People: Mark Driscoll and the Dangers of Supposed Revelations

Mark Driscoll, senior pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington State, is an odd figure. Originally identified with the Emergent Church movement, he distanced himself from that group a few years ago when it became clear that Brian McLaren, Rob Bell and others were leading the way into a new phase of Protestant liberalism and away from historic Evangelicalism. At the same time Driscoll began to identify himself as a Calvinist, one of the so-called "New Calvinists". Many saw this as a promising sign; while we found Driscoll's use of profanity in the pulpit offputting (and let's be honest, what is the point of that? It's to shock, it's to provoke a reaction), we recognised, and still recognise, that people mature and change. His affirmation of Calvinism was a step in the right direction.

Recently, however, a number of things have happened to cause deep concern for Driscoll. First of all, Mars Hill has become a multi-site megachurch. The idea of the Multisite is that in addition to the main location, you have a number of satellite campuses where the sermon from the main location is beamed in on big screens. This amazes me, because the Emergent Church began as a protest against the inauthenticity of the big-box megachurches, and an affirmation of community. Now, I can imagine few things as inauthentic as a church meeting where the sermon is beamed in rather than being live. Ironically, the musical portion of the service is live at these locations, perhaps a telling point. We put this down to an inadequate doctrine of the Church, recommend that Driscoll read P.T. Forsyth's The Church and the Sacraments and move on.

More worrying was Driscoll's participation in the mainstreaming of Word-of-Faith teacher T.D. Jakes at the Elephant Room 2 conference earlier this year. Despite having the doctrinal knowledge to pin Jakes down, Driscoll refused to do so. Many of us were left with the impression that Jakes was affirmed because he has a huge congregation, and so his false teaching on the Trinity, the nature of faith and the whole Prosperity issue was roughly papered over and another person was allowed to insinuate that opposition to Jakes was racist, a low blow if I ever heard one. And not a whisper of criticism from Driscoll. It seemed that he had been pulled off course. It happens sometimes, a man passes through orthodoxy on his journey from one form of heterodoxy to another. I pray that is not what has happened to Mark Driscoll.

And then there was Driscoll's very public claim that God gives him what can only be described as "pornographic visions". Well, this is the result. You may ask why I tend to believe the woman over Driscoll? Very simply puit, because I have come across such things before. I have counselled a woman whose pastor falsely accused of having an affair, and asked to leave the Church and go elsewhere. Thankfully in this case it was the pastor who left, though leaving the Church in a terrible state. But this man I refer to was not Driscoll, he did not think he was having direct revelations from God; he was just suffering from a mental complaint.

Leaving aside the question of Driscoll's sanity (though the parallel worries me), here is the problem: when a minister says, "I suspect that Mrs. Smith is having an affair", then his fellow-elders can ask, "Really, John, are you sure? What makes you think that?" (Names have been changed to protect the innocent and the recovered). But what if Pastor John says, "God has shown me that Mrs. Smith is having an affair"? What if he shares salacious details? Well, then to question Pastor John is to question God. This is the Achilles' heel of the Charismatic; when a popular and influential pastor claims visions about private lives, how can he be stopped? Well, you may say, what about Pastor Driscoll's story? Wasn't it accurate? We do not know. If a man is actually delusional, he may see things that are not there and reconstruct events in his memory. So the claim is unproven.

And it gets worse: Driscoll believes that he has a vision from God as to how Mars Hill ought to develop, and anyone who disagrees with that should be "thrown under the bus". Well, it happens to those who were in leadership roles at Mars Hill, as we see here. Now, call me an old-fashioned Congregationalist, and I will take it as a compliment, I am an old-fashioned Congregationalist. I am also a firm believer in a collective leadership and plurality of elders - in fact I am one of four elders at Bethel Evangelical Free Church, and we each have equal authority, but different roles. Mark Driscoll is over the elders at Mars Hill. That means that anyone who does not sign up and follow him 100% gets thrown under the bus, because Mark is certain that he has a special message from God.

Now, he is by no means alone in this: whenever a person or a group think that they have a special revelation of God's will, this tends to happen. It happened in the Ecumenical Movement in the 1960s and 70s, when the advocates of church union schemes so identified their schemes with the will of God that they were willing to ignore the proper procedures in their denominations in order to reach that union (see Ian Henderson, Power Without Glory [London, Hutchinson, 1967] for Scotland, and R.W. Cleaves, Congregationalism 1960-1976 [Swansea, John Penry Press, 1977] for the URC in the UK). The man or organization that believes it has a private revelation from God is liable to become a despotism. Worse, this supposed private Word will tend to overshadow the revealed Word. In a culture obsessed with modernity and the now, a word given yesterday is far more exciting than a ward given almost two millennia ago, or before. And so they will follow that word, even though it is, to quote the very worst of the Star Trek films, "A vision you created."

My plea to all who think so is that of Cromwell to the Scots Presbyterians: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Paranoid Eisegesis: Or, Antichrist Spotting for Dummies

Today on Facebook, a friend whose political views are well known shared a link to a certain video, which claims that in Luke 10:18, Jesus may be giving the name of the Antichrist. The video caption claims that "This video simply reveals what is written in the Bible's original language without the translations." To which I have to reply, having watched the video, "Rot."

Yes, Rot. For, rather than dealing with the text in Greek, the original language of Luke's Gospel, the video goes on at once to say "Jesus spoke Aramaic." You can see at once where this is going; appeal to a supposed original version, to "what Jesus really said." This is a common ploy by those who are trying to insert their own ideas into the Bible; rather than dealing with the actual text, they posit a lost Aramaic original, or just back-translate the words into Aramaic (most amusingly if they go from English into Aramaic, which is not unknown). Actually what this video does is considerably more daft - it announces that "Aramaic is the oldest form of Hebrew", which it is not (it is a different, though related language), and then renders the text into Hebrew, despite having just said that Jesus spoke Aramaic and would have spoken the text in that language, not Hebrew. Actually it does not even do that, because the person behind the video does not actually know Hebrew; but just looks in Strong's Concordance for the translation of two key words, 'Lightning' and 'Heaven'. And he doesn't really do that either, because rather than the familiar Hebrew word Shammayim, which means 'heavens', he goes with Bamah, which means 'Height' or 'High Place'. This is of course because Bamah fits what he wants the text to say, rather than the other way around.

What makes this all the more ridiculous is that the name Barak is of course Arabic, which is also related to Hebrew. It means 'Blessed', and while it sounds like Baraq, it is a completely different and unrelated word. The name Barak is also found in the Bible - in Judges 4 and 5 as the name of a hero of Israel.

We are then treated to a discussion of Isaiah 14, at which point my own particular views come into play, as I would argue that the text is not referring to Satan under the figure of the King of Tyre, but to the King of Tyre. One could argue that until the cows come home, so I will not do so; I will merely point out that the appeal to Isaiah 14 as the context explaining Luke 10:18 is a stretch to put it mildly. To put it less mildly, it's the tactic the cults use when they want you to accept their false interpretation of the Bible.

The end result of all of this solemn mockery is that we are gravely informed that if a modern Jewish Rabbi wanted to say "I saw Satan as lightning fall from heaven", he would say , "I saw Satan as Barak Obama." This is of course complete nonsense, and I am certainly not going to accept it on the say so of a person who has given abundant evidence that they know even less Hebrew than I do (although I have studied the language, I do not claim to be very good at it).

Why does this matter? Because it is a supreme example of the abuse of the Bible. Rather than the Word being treated with respect and investigated in an effort to bring out its true meaning, it it being pressed into the service of an agenda. Antichrist spotting is a long-lived hobby, but historically it has always taken its cues from actual prophetic texts. In this case we have someone who is so intent on claiming the current President of the United States as Antichrist that they are willing to treat the Word of God with the utmost contempt. Any Christian who approves of this video cannot consistently disapprove of any of the Bible twisting of the cults, it is really that bad.

Do we care enough about the Bible? The person who produced this video cares deeply about politics - and as a result is willing to treat the Bible as a wax nose. Jesus was not talking about the identity of the Antichrist in Luke 10:18, and it is dishonest to claim that he was. Saying that to get the true meaning of the text we have to translate two key words into Hebrew - one of them poorly - is a reversal of the Reformation principles of exegesis. Instead of the perspicuity of Scripture, we have the Bible treated as a code (rather ineptly as well). Everyone should care that such a video exists, and that conservative Evangelicals are circulating it.

God has given us his Word; if the Bible matters at all, it matters because of that. If the Bible has any relevance today, it is because it is the Word of God. So, as far as this video is concerned, every Christian who really respects and values the Bible should denounce it. It is merely trifling with holy things. To say "Oh, I don't believe it, but isn't it interesting, makes you think" is equivocal nonsense. That is not an option for us!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Teh LOL Cat Bibl: Reflections Called Forth by a Spoof

It appeared on Facebook, where all manner of stuff does, in a discussion about a particularly inane edition of the NIV featuring pictures of puppies, apparently because the Bible is not that exciting without images of cute juvenile dogs. Then someone posted a link to it on its own. It was This.

“How terrible” the poster said. “Is this for real or a joke?” a comment asked. But really, that does not represent the issue here. Yes, it is “for real” in the sense that (unlike the 'Gay Bible' article from 'Dead Serious News'), this is a real thing, it can be purchased (always a sign that a product exists). But no, it is not 'for real' in the sense that anyone actually believes that it represents the actual meaning or text of the original Biblical manuscripts. Yes, it is a joke; it is not meant to be taken seriously. But it actually exists, having been created in a Wikipedia-style manner, meaning that no one person had to do very much work.

So what are we to make of Teh LOL Cat Bible? First of all, with the greatest possible respect, it is not a “legitimate translation” by any means, quite simply because it is not a translation at all, unless you hold the 'LOL speak' that it is in to be a language, in which case it would be a secondary translation (there being no evidence at all that the original languages were used). No, it is a paraphrase that renders the English Bible (probably from a variety of translations) into a humorous idiomatic English. In that respect it would be no different from 'TheWord on the Street' except that unlike that book it does not actually take itself seriously. Cockney Rhyming Slang Bible? We have one of them. Good as New was a project that sank without trace, but actually produced books (I have seen and handled one, so I know it was not just a joke) in which 'Peter' became 'Rocky'.

Which raises the question (this is the proper idiom); how far is it proper to 'contextualize' the Bible text? Teh (I have just tried to type that three times, each time my brain auto-correcting to 'The', isn't the human brain amazing) LOL Cat Bible is just a bit of fun; it is certainly trivializing the Bible, but it is not meant to be taken seriously. Good as New was meant to be taken seriously. That worries me far more than a silly joke; by throwing the canon open again (Good As New did just this), the Bible is far more trivialized than by any LOL Cat fanatics, or Spike Milligan (The Bible According to Spike Milligan) being silly.

More seriously, translations are not paraphrases; they do not involve anachronisms. The Welsh New Testament scholar C.H. Dodd said that in his opinion Romans 12:2 could be rendered “Don't try to be with it”, but he would never dare render the text that way. Now, I disagree completely with Dodd on his refusal to use the word 'Propitiation' in the Bible, but that is a theological matter. Until very recently we were all agreed that the phrase “with it” had no place in the Bible, and not just because ministers by virtue of their office can never be “with it”, nor should they try to be (You may watch 'Iron Man', but do not try to talk to the Kid's club about the movie). No, it is because the Bible was not written yesterday, and to put it into modern slang is just wrong on a number of levels.

Teh LOL Cat Bible is, when all is said and done, a little piece of humour. But it raises questions that it never meant to raise. We live in an age when there are far too many books in the English language claiming to be, either implicitly or explicitly, versions of the Bible. They range from the Revised English Bible, a wonderful British effort that because it does not belong to any American Evangelical publishing house is doomed to obscurity (I received my copy from the hands of Hugo, Bishop of Thetford, and so I have an affection for it that it really does not warrant), to the New NIV, owned by the mighty Zondervan (subsidiary of the Murdoch Empire), to the Holman Christian Standard Bible, owned by the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention who have no business producing Bible Versions at all, however good the end product may be.

What Teh LOL Cat Bible does is point out the inherent ridiculousness of the project to produce a niche Bible translation for every group. The people behind it no doubt did not intend it, but Teh LOL Cat Bible is a perfect satire of our over-saturated Bible market. In a world where professing Christians of all stripes are modifying the Bible the way some people modify their cars, Teh LOL Cat Bible challenges us to think about what we are doing.

It's a funny world, and sometimes it takes the court Jester to tell the king that he is behaving like a fool himself. The Evangelical World needs Teh LOL Cat Bible to get it to wake up and see what it has been doing to the Word of God that it so professes to value. The inerrancy controversy gave us the NIV; will the final legacy of the NIV be a veritable Babel of Bibles, in which the voice of God is drowned out by the conflicting voices of those claiming to be its interpreters?