“Bad Theology debilitates
a proper proclamation of Christ in the world.”
--Dr. John Warwick Montegomery
A powerful truth said to me by Dr. Montgomery as we discussed my thesis as it will focus on some pretty serious errors going on in the Pentecostal movement I had grown up in through to this day. In my research I’ve come across incorrect theology quite a lot. There are misinterpretations of the Scripture galore along with some behaviors that simply shocked me. Over the past few weeks I’ve struggled about how to deal with this in my thesis and view the fellowship I grew up in.
When I was a Calvinist I was told that I was not truly saved until I came to believe the Reformed confessions. How could that be? What about those who never believe the Calvinist system? Are only Calvinists saved? What about those who came before Calvin and the continental reformers like Wyclyf, Hus, Ireanaus, Augustine, Chrysostrom or even Luther? Not one of those believed all that Calvin and his friend Bucer (who really pushed Calvin’s teachings further than Calvin did himself) wrote and taught. This leads to the question: Is one saved by knowledge? That could and does lead to a Reformed Gnosticism (salvation by all your theological ducks in a row). This actually discounts a gifted faith which Scripture speaks of “saved by grace not of works lest any man boast.” The conclusion is this cannot be right. In fact, it leads to doubt and confusion because even within the Reformed circle of churches, they don’t all agree with Calvin on everything and have differing confessions of faith that don’t always agree either.
Back to Bad Theology. I grew up in a church that fostered the teaching of the “inner light” and the “deeper life”. The inner light was about hearing God within, experiencing God within. Popular authors were Br. Lawrence, Madam Guyon and Martha Wing Robinson. Each taught that we could hear God in our own heart apart from the Scriptures. In Robinson’s book, Radiant Glory, she recounts times God would tell her things just before leaving her home. In both Br. Lawrence’s book, Practicing the Presence of God, he too often recounts visions and personal messages from God to him regarding every day life. In Madam Guyon’s writings we have the same inner light that guides her. Much of this inner light, though, does not match the Word of God, you know, the written Word. Instead, it is emotional and subject to the person as to whether or not it is true.
Prayer Meetings at the church I grew up in were about “waiting on God”. Rarely did someone lead in prayer and when they did it was about going “deeper” and “surrendering all”…again. Mostly, you knelt at the pew and listened for God, waiting…waiting…waiting for something, some voice, some inner movement in your heart for direction, guidance, things to be told to you to surrender so that God could move more in your life. Often the prayer meeting would last 2 or more hours and then it would close. These extended times of waiting on God yielded only more questions in my own heart but that meant I didn’t have enough faith and should just “let go and let God…”
So, in both systems I struggled and doubted wondering how I had gotten into this marshy mess that was my Christian life. There were a few things I knew because of what God’s Word promised:
·Jesus died for me
· I did not make a choice to believe but God’s Spirit did that within me through His Word (using a specific verse used I’d memorized at summer camp when I was about 5 or 6 years old 1 John 1:9)
· My sins are forgiven.
Bad Theology debilitates a proper proclamation of the Gospel to the world…and to me. Bad Theology led to me doubting God’s Written Word. It led to confusion about God’s Word. It led to misinterpreting the Written Word. It eventually led to adding to God’s Word by telling others of visions, dreams, prophecy and tongues and interpretations from my own heart and mind, which were all false. None of that came from God but grew out of bad theology.
When I think of that word “theology” I laugh because in many Pentecostal churches theology is not emphasized. Why, you can interpret on your own because you have the Spirit. Or, to attend seminary is really to attend a cemetery because that’s where you go for your faith to die. Yet, they have bad theology and it hurts those in the pew.
I am grateful for a very wise sister and friend, our pastor’s wife, who let me kind of unload what I am struggling over, with her in her office. I was at church today to set up the Holy Sacrament and when finished I shared my struggles with this thesis. There has been a lot of bad theology in my life. Both, that is Calvinism and Reformed theology and Pentecostal/Charismatic theology led to doubting God and His promises in His Word. Both led to being frustrated in my Christian life. Let me say this, I still struggle about the lack I see in my own Christian walk of faith but I no longer doubt whether I am forgiven. After all, I just set up the Sacrament which on Sunday, the Pastor and elders will distribute the Body and Blood for me for the forgiveness of sins. Hallelujah! Mary Jane sat and listened and let me talk through the struggle about bad theology. Her encouragement was what I needed. She reminded me that this thesis is for the one in the pew (not for the leaders) who are hurting because of this bad theology. I left church today realizing, again, that my focus needs to be for the lamb in the pew who is battered and bruised by bad theology and to help them to read the precious promises in God’s Written Word which tells them their sins are forgiven.
Not only does bad theology debilitate the Gospel message it crushes the believer. It leaves the believer under a burden of doubt which Christ never meant for any to carry. Bad theology weakens, encumbers and hampers the glorious truth and precious promises that God forgives us all our sins. Bad theology leads to bad practice, incorrect interpretations of God’s Word which makes us miss the incredible blessings He does give. Bad theology destroys the testimony of the Church in the world and sometimes, as Rev. Arthur J Clement stated in his work The Pentecostals and Charismatics: A Confessional Lutheran Evaluation, it works a “scorched earth” effect which makes it ever more difficult for the true Gospel to come it. However, God’s promise is that even the “gates of Hell will NOT prevail against her…” (Matthew 16:18) and we can trust the promises of Christ.
Yes, sometimes we doubt and we ourselves, the devil and the world come against us but the Word of God reminds us of the promises of God in His Word (Gospel) and the Sacraments that we are forgiven and stand righteous before Him…even when we don’t feel like it…And…There is the rub! Feel like it. I don’t feel saved. I don’t feel like God hears me. I don’t feel like I’m a Christian. Feelings. Feelings. Feelings. It becomes all about what we feel rather than what God has promised us: The Forgiveness of all our sins. Bad theology leads our feelings like a noose around our necks and drags us over to the muck and mire of doubt, depression and distrust in the Promises of the Written Word of God. Bad theology breaks us and crushes us so that we cannot serve God with gladness because we are forgiven.
Last Sunday (8/18) we sang, Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word. Oh how this immediately worked to encourage and move my eyes back where they need to be, on the promises of God in His Word. The first stanza, which I look at as a prayer is this:
Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word;
Curb those who by deceit or sword
Would wrest the kingdom from Your Son
And bring to naught all He has done. (LSB 655)
The prayer is that God would curb those who through deceit (or sword) would damage the kingdom, would steal sheep and cause them to doubt the promises of God. The enemy wants to do that; steal anything and everything from you. Bad theology is one of his tools and weapons to cripple the believer, to thwart the advancing of Christ’s Kingdom, to crush the precious promise of the forgiveness of sins through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for us; for you, for me.
Bad theology is bad for us. Bad theology will debilitate us. Yet, bad theology does not have to keep us in its clutches chained to walls of despair and doubt. That is because the Gospel still is there. I remember many times at the Pentecostal church the lead minister reminding us that our sins have been forgiven because of what Jesus did on the Cross. Was there a lot of theological stuff trying to drown out that message? Yes, but, the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes…for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. (Rom 1:16-17). The Word of God is still a powerful sword that divides bone from marrow and truth from error. The Word of God is still a powerful hammer that breaks the stony heart and creates the heart of flesh. The Word of God and the means through which it works, the Sacraments, still raises sinners up in Christ and feeds their faith strengthening them to love God and serve our neighbor.
You don’t have to have all your theological ducks in some nice systematic row. We believe Jesus died and rose again according to the Scriptures and is coming again.
Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be baptized for the forgiveness of all your sins. THAT, my friends, is the Gospel
“Worthy is the Lamb, whose death makes me His own.”
That’s how simple the Gospel really is. Bad Theology on either side, Pentecostalisms Enthusiasm and looking for God on the inside of our heart OR Calvinism’s Reformed Gnosticsm where you have to have everything in your head correct and all your theological ducks in a row, are bad theology and debilitate both the proclamation and the living out of the truth of God’s Word: Jesus Christ died to save sinners.
I don’t know where you are right now, whether in a bad theological place or not, but this I know: Christ promised that the gates of hell itself would never prevail over His Church (Matt 16:18). Should you stay where you’re fed bad theology? I would encourage you not to because just like you wouldn’t visit a restaurant that you knows doesn’t care about E Coli and the damage it can do, so too, you should be in a church we rightly preaches Law & Gospel and discerns the Lord’s True Body and Blood in with and under the Bread and Wine. Don’t doubt your salvation, as I did so many times, but trust that God can use “a crooked stick” (Thomas Watson) just as much as a straight one to proclaim His Promise to you and everyone who believes in Christ Jesus: Your sins are forgiven you, go in peace!