A Sickness Unto Death?

Posted on 27 March 2008

Evangel 15:3 (Autumn 1997)

A Sickness Unto Death?

Evangel 15:3 (Autumn 1997)

A recent visit to a number of church leaders in France prompted me to look back across the Channel and look at the state of British evangelicalism. From that distance the concerns that several of them expressed seemed worryingly valid. It certainly gave me pause for thought.

The ‘I’ Generation

One English missionary commented to me that when cross-cultural ministry is presented in the British Christian press, emphasis lies on short-term and exciting programmes and when the call to mission is extended it is no longer in terms of sacrificial going but ‘what it can do for you’. This highlights a feature of the British church that has increasingly troubled a colleague; that we live in what appears to be an ‘I’ generation. Self-realization, the great idol of western society has apparently supplanted Christ on the throne of (much of?) the British church. If the apostle Paul were with us today we might expect him to denounce this as a false gospel.

The Question of Authority

Another striking feature is the current biblical illiteracy of the church in Britain. As a Bible College tutor I have been struck, during my ten years of teaching, by the decline in both the knowledge of the Bible and the ability of students to know how to interpret it accurately and apply it. What is more, few seem concerned by this ignorance and appear convinced that a Bible-centred faith is pass‚.

  Lying back of this is a (sometimes explicit) rejection of biblical authority and sufficiency or a failure to be rigorous in the application of these truths to the Christian life. Certain symptoms of this pathological condition are very apparent. Subjectivism (sometimes illegitimately seen as a synonym of ‘spirituality’) has swamped the church and authority is now based on the insecure foundation of personal ‘mystical’ experience. Even those who seek to give a ‘nod’ in the direction of Scripture tend to end up arguing from the experiential to the Bible; happy to find some Scripture which, with a sometimes blythe disregard for the probable original meaning, seems to offer them support for the increasingly bizarre.

Other consequences follow. An increasing number of ‘ministries’ of a semi-professional or ‘charismatic’ nature have filled the void left by an unwillingness to listen to Scripture. We have been flooded by counsellors offering this, that and the other advice. ‘Discernment’ ministries have become essential to a church which has lost its ability to hear God in the only place where he speaks without mediation; in Scripture!

The Sufficiency of Christ

In the midst of all this, the glory of the gospel: the sufficiency of Christ is also denied. The awesome knowledge that I have been raised from the pit and exalted to heaven itself by the work of Christ on the cross is obscured. Evangelicalism is increasingly beset by the neo-legalisms of a gospel plus (which, in reality, is the gospel of an emaciated Christ and a truncated cross). The key to a faithful and fruitful Christian life is no longer found in ‘a look at the crucified one’ but in a variety of ‘experiences’ and ‘blessings’ which are needed to supplement humble trust in the Lord of glory. Christ is no longer enough.

This is no more evident than in the burgeoning of occult-style practices among church congregations. A converted witch once approached me, troubled by the fact that some evangelical churches engaged in practices indistinguishable from those encountered when a spiritist. The expulsion of ‘demons’ from Spirit-filled Christians is lauded as evidence of the power of God. Yet in so doing the power of the cross is denied, the victory of Christ limited and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit re-interpreted into a lower key.

All this is supported by claims of the need to rediscover the supernatural, when, in reality, it is a re-immersion in pagan superstition. A wonderfully converted lady, living in a town rife with sorcery, in France said, ‘We were so dirty, God had to save us. We couldn’t have done it ourselves.‘ No-one who has truly grasped the nature of their salvation can possibly doubt that God is a supernatural God. There can be no greater miracle than a sinner saved by Christ.

The Power of God

Failing to grasp the power of God where it is most evident, evidences for the power of God must, of course, be sought elsewhere. Failing to grasp that the power of God is supremely revealed through weakness, world-valued ‘success’ has become the supreme goal. Evidence of ‘power’ is far more likely to arouse interest than holiness (an almost forgotten word); the greatest possible demonstration of God’s power. What a far cry from the evangelicalism of an earlier part of the century which looked for the power of God in transformed lives sold-out for Jesus and ready to risk all for him. Would Jim Elliott even warrant a passing reference in the Christian press today?

The Pursuit of the Novel

But broken cisterns fail! Thus the British evangelical, recognizing that the last ‘phenomenon’ has not lived up to the much-predicted end, naively looks around for the next ground for hope; . . . slaying in the Spirit . . . the Toronto blessing . . . Pensacola . . . what next?

Interestingly, I have noticed that evangelicals seem increasingly to describe the Holy Spirit as ‘it’ rather than ‘he’. He is not a person with whom we relate but a force we experience (and, when not ‘in action’, is assumed to be largely absent). So we must have the next ‘power encounter’ to reassure us that ‘it’ is still with us.

What a travesty all this is of the Bible witness! And what a contrast to France where lives sacrificed to the Lord’s service, steady sowing, steadfast endurance, consignment to the provincial unknown and holy lives manifested in the midst of a highly secularized society hint that it is perhaps not the French church (in all its weakness) that is sick and powerless . . . but us!