Victor Chininin Buele
This third installment of this series will focus on a certain counterfeit of Reformed teaching and preaching that creates and fosters cultures of shame and abuse, of self-protection and inward focus. And not just within the church but within the homes of those who sit under such teaching. In the first post of the series, I argued that the sleep of Jonah was in part the result of a hardened heart that was actually able to be sound asleep in the midst of a storm of unprecedented proportions. Abuse in the church is a storm that continues mostly undeterred. In the last post, preaching from the sleep of Jonah is what I described as the dangers of a certain counterfeit of Reformed teaching and preaching that lacks specificity and tangible application, that showcases brilliant application that is about somebody else, or about a group that is to be excluded, or it asks us to turn our eyes outwardly to others and away from our own need for Christ, or overemphasizes grace or law, or trivializes our sin (everybody sins, we are imperfect, all pastors fall short of 1 Timothy 3/Titus 1). And just in case you think this is about finger pointing, fully aware that when I do so, three fingers point at myself, the last post features the analysis of a critical sermon I preached. This is not only about somebody else.
The communication of such things, of course, is hardly ever explicit. That would be flat out heresy that nobody in these elderships, or boards of deacons, or congregations could ever affirm explicitly. It is all subtle. I have come more and more to appreciate the title of David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen’s book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.
This preaching is subtle. I do not know if the people preaching these sermons are that evil. They could be. And some must be. I do not know if they just believe their own tales. They just might. Or maybe they are that good at faking sincerity and transparency. Or something along in the spectrum. Diane Langberg’s writing has helped me break free from the intellectual desire to try to understand these preachers. If Satan is the father of lies, which is true, we cannot possibly expect to make complete and perfect sense out of a worldview of lies, built upon lies, and sustained by lies.
I cried when I heard one of my pastors preach late last year. It had been rainwater in a long walk through the desert. My daughter knew. She just knew. This was different. When a seven-year-old who does not profess Christ hears and knows and articulates the difference, that’s something that caught my spiritual and intellectual curiosity.
I’m going to make four points about this counterfeit of real, Reformed preaching, though far more could and must be said.
This kind of preaching: (1) breeds doubt in yourself and in everyone else but complete confidence in the mediator preaching, (2) teaches that silence is grace and that grace is silence, (3) demonizes doubt and challenge, and (4) praises and commends homes that reflect this culture.
This installment focuses on the first characteristic of this reprehensible counterfeit.
Counterfeit Preaching Breeds the Wrong Kinds of Doubt and Confidence
A key element of this preaching that sounds so biblical and commendable is the breeding of doubt. There is a Scripture for that: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9 ESV).
A frame of reference gets built upon this that grows and grows over time: I must doubt myself. If I’m thinking x, I must account for the fact that my heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick. And this line of thinking gets plenty of traction because that is precisely what we must do in Christ. In Reformed preaching, this is consistent cognitively with the doctrine of the radical depravity of humankind. We know experientially that we are not inherently good; otherwise, there would be no need for so much money and efforts and work spent in trying to persuade ourselves that we are good.
So, you get a group of people who are aware of their sinfulness and proclivity towards sin. And they may even be fully committed in an Owen-like sense to kill sin before it kills them. You add the admonition to not trust the heart. There is no “follow your heart” philosophies here. It sounds right.
But over time, doubt is planted: You are unreliable. Your reasoning is unreliable. Your interpretation of your reading is unreliable. Your understanding of Scripture is unreliable. Your emotions are unreliable. Your gut feelings are unreliable. Your motives are suspect. Your affections are unreliable.
And not just in particular circumstances but always. Your first instinct is going to be to assume you are wrong. And being wrong is taken to mean that you are sinning.
This completely ignores a critical point: while the Christian has not been fully glorified yet, the Holy Spirit indwells the believer already. Yes, the believer can sin, have sinful emotions, foul reasoning, sinful reactions. Absolutely. The heart must be tested. But is it always sinful? Not always! Not every thought, deed, impression, or emotion of the believer is to be considered unreliable. Radical depravity does not mean that everything I do is depraved. Even if I were not a believer. God restrains the worst of all of us through His common grace.
This also ignores another critical point, equally important: the believer has Spirit-empowered understanding of God’s clear, true, unchanging, unimpeachable Word. We can check our thoughts, emotions, reasoning, impressions, or gut feelings against the Scriptures. If I have a suspicion that something is not right, I must go to the Scriptures, in prayer, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to my community, check with my fellow brothers and sisters, ask questions, keep asking, keep going back to the Word.
This preaching thrives because we are golden calf makers. We will make an idol out of anything. God’s good blessings turn into our counterfeit gods all the time. Gifted communicators are no exception.
At some point, cultures where I am always assumed to be wrong and sinful will need to have one way to discern the voice of God. And the gifted communicator becomes our man, our north, our hope, our ruler, our mediator, our golden calf. We want it easy: We want to know what God says about this or that. And we doubt our ability to come up with God’s answers on our own. Should I move? Should I marry this girl? Should I buy this house or rent? Should I move to a country in the 10/40 window? Should I eat at KC Joe’s? Should I shop at Target or not? Should I wear a mask or not? Should I vote for Trump or for Biden?
And when the gifted communicator seems to be right most of the time, we make a beeline past the Scriptures and straight to him. Because he is almost always right, I will just go ask him.
And our doubt becomes full confidence in the mediator.
In my former denomination there is a practice of congregational participation, and there is a microphone open for it during the service. Because the denomination is continuationist (it believes in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in our day), it is assumed that from time to time, the Holy Spirit will impress upon somebody in the congregation the gift of a word of encouragement (or prophecy since this was once called the prophecy mic and still may be in some local churches). The catch is that somehow there has to be a sifting of what’s from the Spirit and what’s not from the Spirit. And the senior pastor is usually the one who hears the impression/prophecy first and then allows or disallows the participation. Since we are golden calf makers, it becomes very easy to equate this gatekeeper with the mediator. And we start assuming that because this person said something was right, it is. Or worse yet, it is from God.
I say that to illustrate the extreme example of something that happens far more subtly in other local churches. You may not have a participation mic, or you may believe certain gifts ceased with the apostles, but pastors get questions all the time–people come and present “theoretical” scenarios or sometimes will even own up that it is from them sometimes. People come and ask us how far is too far in a relationship before marriage, or about a certain ethical dilemma, or if they should move in together (after they’ve done it), or about their addictions and secrets, or about the morality of their choices or purchases. They know that their choice was/is sinful, but what they want (what we want, I should say) is to get the “man of God” to tell us that we are in the up and up. That we are accepted. That we are justified. Even if we won’t stop doing what we want to do.
To tidy up: this first mark, so to speak, of the counterfeit preaching that leads to abuse is this:
We end up mistrusting everything that comes from us but trusting completely everything that comes from the gifted communicator. We end up doubting the work of the Holy Spirit of God in our life, but trusting it completely and unquestionably in the life of somebody who may not be indwelled by the Spirit at all.
Does this sound to you like a straw man argument? I’m sure it could. Especially if you are deep in the middle of it. And if in your situation it is not extreme (yet) but are just somewhere along the spectrum, it still doesn’t make it right. This is not to caricaturize anyone, but this is to help the church see these areas where we are vulnerable. We try to uphold right doctrine, but wolves can thrive inside precisely because of this commitment to the doctrine of the radical depravity of man.
That is, yes, our hearts can lead us astray and our thoughts are not only not always right but can be sinful. We must be aware of that. Jeremiah 17:6 is true. I must be aware of my propensity to sin. I must be aware of the part of my nature that is still prone to wander to sin. But this does not mean I must doubt everything: every thought, every emotion, every impression, every gut feeling, every concern, every joy, every affirmation I want to give to somebody.
For that we have the Holy Spirit. Trust in God, pray boldly, search the Scriptures, dialog with your church family inside and outside of the local church. Remember that the Spirit dwells in you and is transforming you daily. Remember that you have a Spirit-empowered understanding of God’s Word that is actually renewing your mind daily. And you are not alone. He placed you in a family with other brothers and sisters in Christ, and your family transcends the four walls of a church building or a given neighborhood or city.