By Spencer D Gear
I urge you to view what happens when the Scriptures are abandoned and chaos sets in. Take a read of My Experiences with the Toronto Vineyard (Rick Friedrich of Michigan)
Why wasn’t there pastoral leadership that stopped this lunacy and called it for what it was – an erroneous view of Christianity. Correcting false doctrine seems to be low on the agenda of many in the church today. What Toronto (and Pensacola) descended into was something abhorrent.
I pray for God’s leaders to become just that – men and women who are not afraid to correct and stop false doctrine. As a result, in some of these churches there is still a movement of existential nonsense when some churches gather. Sound doctrine goes out the window!
What is existentialism in religion?
Rudolf Bultmann (courtesy Wikipedia)
I use the term ‘religion’ because it is a far cry from the self-denial and commitment of Jesus Christ. Existentialist religion happens when experience is given a prominent place. We saw an example with German liberal, Rudolf Bultmann (AD 1884-1976), when he de-mythologised the Bible in the 20th century. In his chapter on ‘modern biblical interpretation and existential philosophy’, he wrote:
Over and over again I hear the objection that de-mythologizing transforms Christian faith into philosophy. This objection arises from the fact that I call de-mythologizing an interpretation, an existentialist interpretation, and that I make use of conceptions developed especially by Martin Heidegger in existentialist philosophy (1958:45).
See, ‘Rudolf Bultmann: A critique’, for an assessment of Bultmann’s theology.
But what is existentialism?
(courtesy www.wrs.vcu. edu)
Wikipedia has a lay-level article on existentialism that tries to help our understanding of what is happening in philosophy, psychology and counselling, and in the Christian churches. This philosophy, which is alive and well in many evangelical and Pentecostal churches around the world, is defined thus:
Existentialism is generally considered to be the philosophical and cultural movement which holds that the starting point of philosophical thinking must be the individual and the experiences of the individual, that moral thinking and scientific thinking together do not suffice to understand human existence, and, therefore, that a further set of categories, governed by the norm of authenticity, is necessary to understand human existence. (Authenticity, in the context of existentialism, is being true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.)…. Existentialists generally regard traditional systematic or academic philosophies, in both style and content, as too abstract and remote from concrete human experience.
When applied to the church, this means that your experience of Jesus is given primary importance. Where do biblical teaching and theology fit into existentialist Christianity? Existentialism is alive and well thanks to liberal Christianity and the Pentecostal-charismatic movement.
However, there is a supposed difference. Liberal Christianity denigrates the Scriptures and has a different view of God. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
1. One assessment of Bultmann’s view was, ‘One could not know much about God, only what God did for one. (When Macquarrie urged him to follow Tillich in using the philosophy of Being to reconstruct a purified theism, Bultmann could only confess: “I myself cannot conceive of an ontological basis.”) One could not do much for God, only gamble one’s life on his reality and on his power to uphold one. One could not say much to God, only give thanks and surrender’ (Edwards 1976). Bultmann himself wrote, ‘The invisibility of God excludes every myth which tries to make God and His action visible; God holds Himself from view and observation. We can believe in God only in spite of experience, just as we can accept justification [by faith] only in spite of conscience’ (Bultmann 1958:83-84). That description automatically excludes Jesus, the second person of the Trinity as God, and his visible actions in our world.
2. How about the Episcopalian, John Shelby Spong’s, view of God? He wrote, ‘I refer here to a deity who is “a being,” not even if we claim for God the status of the highest being. I speak rather of the God I experience as the Ground and Source of All Being and therefore the presence that calls me to step beyond every boundary…. I intend to demonstrate that probing this new God-possibility begins with a search for clues in our religious past…. The limits on the theistic definition of God have been present for centuries…. The theistic God of the past was created by us and in our own image? As I have suggested in a previous book, “If horses had gods would they not look like horses?’ (Spong 2001:60-61). See my analysis of this publication by Spong in, ‘Spong’s swan song – at last!’
3. Listen to Paul Tillich! ‘If God is called the living, if he is the ground of the creative processes of life, if history has significance for him, if there is no negative principle in addition to him which could account for evil and sin, how can one avoid positing a dialectical negativity in God himself?… The anticipation of nothingness at death gives human existence its existential character (Tillich 1968:I 210).
The Pentecostal-charismatic movement, at least in theory, confirms the authority of Scripture and of the Lord God Almighty as revealed in the Bible. However, I have my questions after visiting the website of this leading Pentecostal church on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, Kings Christian Church (Buderim) and the outreach church that is now known as Noosa Hillsong. A friend of mine who visited this Buderim church called it an ‘ex-church’. The Brisbane Courier-Mail (April 22, 2007) described Kings Christian Church as ‘a new brand of church’ in which this could happen on women’s day:
IN A new building in the Sunshine Coast hinterland a woman spoons froth off a cappuccino. On her left, a teenager has her nails buffed while a silver-haired grandmother deliberates between shades of pearl and puce.
“I’ll take the pearl polish this week,” says the elderly woman. “And I’d love another coffee.”
It’s ladies’ day at the Kings Christian Church, west of Maroochydore, and groups of women are seated around “pampering stations”.
As Pastor Steve Penny dons a headset and prepares to take the stage, the women receive free manicures and premium coffee in the church’s new $4.5 million Champions Centre.
In this article, Pastor Penny ‘says young people expect the latest equipment’. The Courier-Mail goes on to report,
Officials expect to turn heads at the Champions Centre official opening and six-car giveaway next Sunday. The cars, which have been advertised on TV, will be handed out before free pizza and ice cream.
There will be jumping castles, buggy rides and fireworks at the “Event Spectacular”.
Pastor Penny said the giveaways were a means of expressing the church’s interest in the community. He said money spent on cars was donated by members and would ultimately come back to the church.
That sounds awfully like the advertising I wrote in my former days as a radio/TV announcer and copywriter. It is worldly thinking. How would it stack up against the emphases of Jesus’ instructions on being a Christian disciple?
There is some further information about Kings Christian Church, Buderim. The Sunshine Coast Daily reported problems with this church in 2010: ‘Residents fed up with church noise’ (20 January 2010). Part of the article read:
A MAJOR youth conference at a Tanawha church designed to instil community values in the young has instead led to a community backlash over the “deafening” live music at the event.
Unresolved, long-standing issues over the regular live music that blares from the massive Kings Christian Church, which has a congregation of about 1500 and hosts numerous events, reached flashpoint on Monday when the inaugural four-day Queensland Youth Alive Conference opened.
Fed-up nearby residents said years of complaints to the church, Sunshine Coast council and police over the “pounding bass” emanating from the church had landed on deaf ears.
Up to 600 people are attending this week’s youth conference, although it is believed the church’s huge hall can accommodate 1000 people.
“The music started at nine this morning,” one resident said yesterday.
“I feel traumatised. I’m tired … very traumatised.”
Police have been called to the Crosby Hill Road address an astonishing 17 times since 2007 – mainly because of excessive noise and traffic complaints – but said its hands were tied because council had issued the venue with a permit to stage church meetings.
Therefore, the provisions of the Police Powers and Responsibilities Act did not apply, a police spokeswoman said.
Police were last called to the church on Monday night, but once again residents were left frustrated.
“I would prefer a brothel over there,” another resident said.
“A legalised brothel that was quiet would be better than this. You don’t behave like this under normal Christianity.”
James Macpherson, who recently took over as the church’s senior pastor but is currently based in Townsville, plans to meet with residents when he arrives on the Coast soon.
Mr Macpherson said the church should be a “blessing to the community”.
“So I’m happy to sit down with people and talk things through,” he said.
Jesus gave this solemn warning about the cost of discipleship. This is not the cost of emotionalism and falling over at a meeting. It is more than Christianity in free fall. Discipleship involves a serious commitment:
“Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? (Matthew 16:24-26 ESV).
So existentialism and materialism are alive and well in this kind of Pentecostal-charismatic church. But also could it be catching on at Lifepointe Baptist Church, North Buderim?
Both the liberals and many Pentecostals emphasise an experience of God, but the experiences are radically different. Both can degenerate into existential encounters, one like Paul Tillich’s view and the other like the Toronto Blessing or Kings Christian Church.
Liberal Christianity and existentialism
Existentialists, in contrast to determinism and set rules or boundaries, want radical human freedom. German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, called any sort of determinism, ‘inauthenticity’. So, when human beings act freely rather than conforming to any church, conventional opinion, or the Scriptures, there is an unquestioned commitment to experience.
Erickson (1997:92) considers that experience is a presupposition, an unquestioned starting point. Erickson gave the example of Jean-Paul Sartre’s atheism: ‘There cannot be a god, for if there were, he would be a major encroachment on my freedom. I know, however, that I am free. Therefore, there is no God’.
Liberal theologian, Paul Tillich (AD 1886-1965), has tried to synthesise Protestant Christian theology with existentialist philosophy. See his Systematic Theology (1968) in which he stated:
The personal encounter with God and the reunion with him are the heart of all genuine religion. It presupposes the presence of a transforming power and the turn toward the ultimate from all preliminary concerns. Yet, in its distorted form, “piety” becomes a tool with which to achieve a transformation within one’s self (1968:II 99).
But who is his God/god? He stated that ‘”God has become man” is not a paradoxical but a nonsensical statement. It is a combination of words which makes sense only if it is not meant to mean what the words say’ (1968:II 109). He explains further,
Ground of Being http://www.doxa.ws/Being/Ground_Being.html
What liberalism does to missions
Take a read of this assessment of liberalism and missionary activities:
The relativistic scientific world view which underlies mainline liberalism finds it hard to be completely comfortable with the exclusiveness of the evangelical claim. Because of its respect for other religions, it is at best ambivalent about evangelization of non-Christians. Its witness is necessarily unaggressive witness, and it is far more comfortable with social witness (Hutcheson 1981).
Now look at the impact on missions when theological liberals are compared with conservative, evangelical organisations (in Erickson 1997:13):
|Number of foreign missionaries under appointment
Group A: Liberal in theology
1. American Baptist Churches
2. Episcopal Church
3. United Church of Christ
4. United Methodist Church
5. United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.
Group B: Conservative Christian organisations
1. Evangelical Foreign Missions Association
2. Interdenominational Foreign Missions Association
3. Wycliffe Bible Translators
4. Southern Baptist Convention
Where are the sound doctrine and discernment promoted by these church leaders?
I’m saddened to speak like this, but we are called upon to uphold sound doctrine which comes from Scripture itself and not some existential experience. It is certainly true that those who repent of their sins and turn in faith to Jesus Christ alone for salvation, experience new life in Christ. See, ‘The content of the Gospel’.
The promotion of sound doctrine means that false teaching and ungodly manifestations will be stopped by church leaders.
What happened in that video above (Toronto ‘Blessing’) and what is happening in liberal and Pentecostal churches causes me to be ashamed to identify with a Christianity that will allow that kind of manifestation.
Where are the people of discernment in these ‘churches’? This is biblical Christianity:
“He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound [healthy] doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9 ESV)
“Teach what accords with sound [healthy] doctrine” (Titus 2:1 ESV).
In the midst of Paul’s teaching on the gifts of the Spirit, he stated:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom 12:2 ESV).
Then in 1 Corinthians we have this need when the gifts are manifested:
So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church (1 Cor. 14:12 ESV)
Let the others weigh what is said (1 Cor 14:29 ESV)…. For God is not a God of confusion but peace (14:33)…. But all things should be done decently and in order (14:40).
When Toronto descended into what we saw on the video, we have the Word of God being violated because the people (especially the leaders) refused to implement what was taught in 1 Corinthians 14 and Romans 12.
Are we seeing here the fulfilment of 2 Timothy 4:3 and the movement away from sound or healthy teaching to accommodate people with itching ears? Could ‘itching ears’ include hair cuts, nail manicures, swimming pools and gyms?
I pray that Christian leaders will take the Scriptures seriously and stop this chaotic existentialism that happens in far too many churches. It is still going on around the world. I am a supporter of the continuing gifts of the Spirit, but I cannot promote this unbiblical chaos and movement away from sound teaching to existentialism and/or materialism – all in the name of the church.
Bultmann, R 1958. Jesus Christ and Mythology. London: SCM Press Ltd.
Edwards, D L 1976. Rudolf Bultmann: Scholar of faith (online). Christian Century, September 1-8, 728-730. Available at: http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1827 (Accessed 13 June 2012).
Erickson, M J 1997. The evangelical left: Encountering postconservative evangelical theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books.
Hutcheson Jr., R G 1981. Crisis in overseas mission: Shall we leave it to the independents? (online) Christian Century, March 18, 290-296. Available at: http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1740 (Accessed 12 June 2012).
Spong, J S 2001. A new Christianity for a new world: Why traditional faith is dying and how a new faith is being born. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco.
Tillich, P 1968. Systematic theology (combined volume of 3 vols). Digswell Place, Welwyn, Herts [UK]: James Nisbet & Co Ltd.
 Erickson (1997:13, n. 1) gained this information from two mission handbooks: Missions Handbook: North American Protestant Ministries Overseas (1973) and Missions Handbook: USA/Canada Protestant Ministries Overseas (1989).
Copyright © 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 24 November 2015.