Moving from the 1800s into the 1970s we see a return of disatisfaction with the Christian Faith as it was practiced. Some of that was understandable. Some problems include:
- A faith that reflected societal values (such as consumerism, violence, racism, and such).
- A faith that guided people’s practice one morning a week, but little beyond.
- A faith that seemed to promote justice when there should be mercy, and mercy when there should be justice.
That led to many groups forming that sought extreme or radical answers. Radical answers for some involved finding new answers in old alternative groups. Some syncretized Christianity with Hindu, Buddhist, or Taoist beliefs. Some African-Americans became interested in Islam (or the version of it in the “Nation of Islam” as it was marketed). For them, the hypocrisy of slavery and bigotry of White Christians was irreconcilable with truth. (Sadly, these new converts were fooled by religious exoticism– aware neither of the depth of involvement of Muslims in the history of the slave trade, nor the racial bigotry that continues to this day.)
But others did not seek to make a radical change of faith, but sought to be more extreme in certain aspects of it. This led to various Christian communes, authoritarian groups, the Discipleship movement, prophetic Christian cults, and so forth. A good example of one such group was Maranatha Christian Ministries. Ronald Enroth in his book “Churches that Abuse“ (click on the title to see a PDF version of this book) quotes at length one former member of MCM. I will rewrite the quote here. The bold portions were done by me, not the interviewee.
The most significant problems with Maranatha stem directly from its interwoven concepts of discipleship and submission to authority, which, I feel, have resulted in serious, destructive abuse.
In Maranatha the centrality of authority is a natural consequence of a military sef-perception. Greater emphasis is placed upon building the “Army of God” than nurturing and developing the “Family of God.” The leadership sees itself as setting up a new order on earth in the prospect of bringing in the kingdom of God, thereby establishing an external purified order in this age.
Preparation of leaders is obtained as quickly as is physically possible under the guise of ministry or spiritual expertise culminating in a sink-or-swim survival of the fittest environment. The often painful results in Maranatha include a lack of leaders with a mature understanding of the Bible. Because of this, unwarranted authority is attached to the contemporary spoken word, the rhema, going so far as to hold that it is equal to the written Word, the logos.
All too often the public revelation in the Bible is subordinated by the private revelations of the leadership of Maranatha, pointing not beyond themselves to Christ crucified and risen, but to the leadership’s own experience. Unfortunately, this can lead to setting goals to possess the life of God in exclusively ecstatic experience.
On the emotional or mental level, the Maranatha environment encourages spirituality and experientially oriented persons to allow phenomena to determine their faith instead of interpreting experience with reason in light of Scripture. The “swallow-follow” concept, the “mind idolatry” teaching and the overall dictatorial exercise of authority all combine to form a totalitarian attitude that behavior is determined solely by unfettered or thoughtless obedience and submission to authority. … Motivation becomes fear-oriented, not love-oriented.
Faith is transformed from an adventure into a duty as concern for righteousness through holiness and blind adherence to proscribed behavioral codes begin to envelop the individual’s identity. Holy living becomes a pretext for a new legalism; keeping “the law” tends to become an end in itself rather than a means of service to God.
While different groups are different, we see in Maranatha a common extreme change… a change toward a minimization of self, and promotion of a new form of legalism. Consider the following:
- The Wrong Metaphor. The guiding metaphor was “Army” rather than “Family.” While military terms do get used in the Bible for Christians, the dominant ones are warm and relational. The Army metaphor has problems because it encourages an “US” versus “THEM” mentality… that is repulsed by those who are not “US.” Additionally, it often promotes a certain blind obedience to authority. (Of course, this is based on a mistaken understanding of the military. Obedience is never blind but based on lawful orders. Lawful orders are ones that are consistent with highest authority. Thus, one’s superior officer is not to be obeyed if he gives an order that violates higher authority… and a church member should NEVER obey a religious leader who defies the will and revelation of God.)
- The Wrong Authority. Authority is given to the spoken word or “revelation” over the word of God. The Bible is described as “canon,” as a measure for which other word must be measured against. As such, the Bible is seen as the standard, but its interpretation is a human construct, a work of human reason. But when a present-day “prophet” gives a revelation, he also gives its interpretation, normally. So if the spoken word is seen as equal to the written word, the result is that the spoken word is given greater practical weight than the written word, since the interpretation is deemed higher than the interpretation of Scripture. Because of this, I recommend that when a person claims to have a direct revelation from God… it is HIGHLY WISE to be openly doubtful. Luke in Acts admired the Bereans for being openly doubtful of the words of Paul. I would like to think that Paul was likewise appreciative. A true man (or woman) of God seeks those who “come now and reason together” rather than “swallow and follow.”
- The Wrong Interpreter. We experience things, but then reason, and God’s word, help us to connect these experiences to truth. God has given each of us minds and reason… they are (general) revelations of God, to gain insight from the Word of God, special revelation.. But if these experiences are NOT supposed to be interpreted by reason, but by the interpretation of leaders… one has removed two important God-given sources of protection. God has given us His word to give us a central guide. God has also given us a mind that is in a better position to perceive and interpret our own experiences than any outside person.
- The Wrong Motivator. Fear replaces Love, and seeking Holiness is placed above Worship. The great commandment is built around love, not fear… and the concept of Grace is to remove fear, rather than to create new fears. Likewise, striving for holiness, making oneself “worthy” of God’s approval, is a trap, drawing us away from worshiping the holy one who accepts us although we are unholy.
Do we need to change? Yes, I suppose we do. Do we need to be radical? If radical means to challenge cultural norms by living out a life based on God’s love and unity through his Son, then YES we need radical change. But radical change is not good of itself, and is usually bad. Frankly, radical change is usually pretty bad because it is often too willing to throw out unpolished jewels of truth, for new shiny bits of plastic and glass.
Do we need extreme change? If extreme change means finding balance between love and justice, between loving God, loving man, and loving self…. if it means finding balance between being an agent of change and an agent of preservation, and balancing being embedded in culture and challenging culture… then YES we need extreme change. But balance does not sound very extreme, does it?
In the end, I believe we need a distinctly non-extreme, unradical faith. What does that look like? I would suggest reading my post on the Epistle to Diognetus. Click HERE. I believe that is exactly the type of non-extreme, unradical faith we need.