There is not any real courage at all in attacking hoary or antiquated things, any more than in offering to fight one’s grandmother. The really courageous man is he who defies tyrannies young as the morning and superstitions fresh as the first flowers. G. K. Chesteron
He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. Titus 1:9
A few months ago my wife and I were looking for a good church to attend, one that had solid biblical exposition and meaningful worship. So, we decided to try out a church not far away that was located on the campus of a religious university. I thought we had a good chance of success because the denomination in the past maintained a strong commitment to historic Christianity.
We attended the second service which was described as being “contemporary.” We were not surprised that “contemporary” meant it met in the fellowship hall, no hymns were sung and the instruments were loud! What did surprise us was the table of candles in one corner of the hall. Later on the pastor explained that if we had a prayer request we could make our way over to the table and light a candle. Hmm.
Well, the next week we decided to attend the early offering, what they called the “classical” service. We were not surprised to find that scriptures were read, the organ played, the hymns were sung, and there were a lot of old people like us. So far, so good. The pastor had not spoken the previous week, so I looked forward to hearing what this academic theologian would say. Surely his training in the Word and his ability to exegete the text and his conservative perspective would serve us a meal we so desperately desired. Not! His text was found in Luke 17. He started by humbly admitting that he was not sure how the different incidents reported by Luke fit together. It seemed to him that they were unrelated and just a random selection. This bugged me. I had taught this passage many times. For me, it was one fabric, woven together, each episode bringing greater light to what Jesus taught at the beginning. But, hey, the guy may have had a bad week or maybe he was just being honest, even humble, so give him a break.
However, my uneasiness intensified as he repeated phrases like, “I am not sure of this” or, “This could mean;” or, “I just don’t understand” At least fifteen times in forty-five minutes he expressed his ignorance and lack of confidence. I wanted to shout, “What are you up there for?” I could have stayed home and watched TV and heard bad doctrine by people who at the very least believed that the Word of God was truth. Now, I was agitated.
But, the real stinger happened during communion. He explained that their kind of communion was “open.” Now, I knew what other churches meant by that. If you were not a member or a subscriber to their particular confession, you could still participate if you were a believer in Jesus Christ. But, that is not what he meant. An “open” communion for him was an invitation for you to participate, if you “felt the need of God” or “had religious feelings.”
At that moment, everything fell in place. I had slipped into an emergent church. To define this church is not easy, for as their leaders like to say, “It is not a denomination. It is a movement.” You might be a part of one and not even know it. It has core values, but the expressions of those values are seen in diverse ways across a large spectrum of independent and denominational churches. What you will see is an emphasis; less upon believing and more upon belonging; less upon holiness and more upon friendliness; less upon doctrine and more upon experience; less about preaching and more about dialogue. One emergent guru describes the movement like this:
The various parts of the faith community are like mercury. At times we will roll together; at times we’ll roll apart. Try to touch the liquid or constrain it, and the substance will resist. Rather than force people to fall into line, an oozy community tolerates and treats people who hold opposing views with great dignity. To me, that’s the essence of the emerging church.
In response, let me offer two starting points. First, one of the things you should learn is that there are no new heresies, only new ways of expressing them. Second, the greatest threat to the vitality of our faith comes not from atheistic forces. They are easy to spot and resist. No, the real danger comes when evil is welcomed into the church because it has the appearance of an angel of light and looks and sounds a lot like us, but under the sheep skin hides a devouring wolf.
J. Gresham Machen battled a similar enemy in the early 1900’s. Like the emergent church, it was an attempt to adjust to the changing culture. The liberals of his day were attempting to accommodate Christianity with modernism. They felt threatened by a scientific world that seemed to invalidate historic Christianity. German higher criticism was threatening the reliability of the Bible. Darwinism was removing the need of a supernatural view of life. Doctrinal staples like the virgin birth, atonement, and resurrection of Jesus just seemed out of step with the sophistication of the modern mind.
So, they postulated a more acceptable faith, one that still claimed the “spirit” of Christianity but without the “offensive” doctrines of the past. Christianity was an “experience,” a frame of mind. It was about the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. God in essence was love, not holiness. The cross, the empty tomb, the resurrection were not historical facts but religious symbols. Jesus was the great example, not the Divine Savior. The crucial question was not, “is it true?’ but, “does it work?”; and “does it make you feel good?”
What made this movement so dangerous, according to Machen, was that the liberals remained in the church and adopted the same language as the historic church, but gave the words and terms new definitions. They sounded warm and fuzzy and drew away many to their perspective. But, according to Machen, the religion they promoted was not Christianity. What was needed at that time was not unity but a separation.
Gresham reminded his readers that to understand Christianity, you had to return to its birth. Christianity was birthed in history. It is based on historical facts. Jesus Christ made clear and exclusive claims. He offended most and attracted few. In the end, what he claimed and what he did cost him his life. Christianity was not just an experience. Things were believed and confessed and Christians were willing to stand and die for the truth. Machen explained,
If any fact is clear, on the basis of this evidence, it is that the Christian movement at its inception was not just a way of life in the modern sense, but a way of life founded upon a message. It was based, not upon mere feeling, not upon mere program at work, but upon an account of facts. In other words it was based upon doctrine.
How can you tell if you are in a New Testament church? First, Jesus Christ will be preached as the Son of God, the Savior and the only way to the Father. Second, it will be clearly taught that all men are rebellious and in need of their sins being covered by the blood of Christ or they are destined to suffer everlasting judgment. Third, you will hear the Bible affirmed as God authoritative and inerrant Word, whose words would be received as literal and obeyed. Fourth, you will hear the Gospel proclaimed without qualifications or hesitation. Fifth, you will sense an inward boldness in the believers that is founded not only on the truth of their beliefs, but upon the powerful presence of the Spirit of Christ living within. Finally, you will see a people, standing firm, united in doctrine, not moved by the winds of culture, knowing that what their culture needs more than anything else is not an echo of worldly wisdom, but the sharp edge of God’s redeeming Truth. It divides and dissects. It also heals our hurts.
Have I made a mountain out of mole hill? Is holding fast to the truth all that important? Can’t we cut these people some slack? Last week I heard a reliable report coming from that campus. The spiritual life director of the university testified before a group of 200 students assembled in the church sanctuary, that he was a homosexual. What was the response of the students, two pastors and professors that were in attendance? His openness was celebrated and his sin received and accepted. And what about the scriptures that offer this young man the power and promise of forgiveness and cleansing? They were ignored. He “belonged” even though he did not “believe.” It always ends this way. When the truth of Scripture is discarded, we no longer have anything to offer our needy world. We are facing a clever and subtle enemy. We must prepare our minds for action by filling it with God's truth.