Steve Furtick, the founder and pastor of Elevation Church in Matthews, North Carolina, which, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, averages over 13,000 in weekly attendance, has received much unflattering attention of late.
First, Todd Pruitt applied a spotlight to Mr. Furtick while using the word "cult" in the title of a blog post featuring an image of a children's coloring book produced by his church extolling the vision given by God to the pastor, who therefore, it claimed, must be supported. Numerous other bloggers, both before and after the Pruitt post, have noted similar themes emanating from the church. The day following Rev. Pruitt's post, Stuart Watson, a reporter for the NBC affiliate in Charlotte, produced this excellently sourced report suggesting that Furtick had made use of manipulative methods in order to get people to come forward in a service to commit to baptism.
These things are bad. With a sermon entitled "I Know I am" by Mr. Furtick posted on the church's website, it gets worse.
The sermon is part of a series he is preaching in his church based on his just released book, Crash the Chatterbox: Hearing God's Voice Above All Others. Much of what he says is the sort of standard self-help fare common nowadays in evangelical pulpits, but the minister ultimately leaves orthodoxy in his rear view mirror on the way to his concluding thoughts.
Even in the initial part about self-help, however, he says some unusual things. Thus, he begins by reading from Psalm 139:14 -- "I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well." The "phrase fearfully and wonderfully made" clearly in context refers to the power and wisdom of God in making us, but Mr. Furtick argues that the phrase should inform our self-image. Saying that the first part of the phrase could be translated differently, he claims that we are expressing agreement with God if we tell ourselves and others that "I am awesome and wonderful."
Be that as it may, the sermon is mainly drawn from Exodus 3 and 4, where Moses encounters God in a bush that burns but is not consumed, and which Mr. Furtick finds to be primarily about Moses learning to deal with his insecurities. In fact, the minister claims near the end of the sermon that preachers, including himself in the past, err when they imagine that Moses struggles to believe in God's power. Rather, Moses fails to believe in himself. It doesn't seem to occur to Mr. Furtick that Moses would have realized his very real deficits were not relevant if he had faith in the power of God to fulfill His calling. Nonetheless, Mr. Furtick finds Moses' insecurity to be the ultimate matter of concern.
Mr. Furtick says that God finds a way to help Moses with his feelings of inadequacy, and his supposed solution takes one's breath away. The minister has looked at Moses' excuses and declared him to be making several statements of personal insecurity: I am dysfunctional. I am deficient. I am doubtful. I am.... fill in the blank.
At this point, Mr. Furtick has his listeners look back to chapter 3, where Moses asked God his name, and God responded with, "I AM." After claiming that he has "meticulously" studied the meaning of this phrase, the pastor ultimately claims that God is telling Moses, "I am the God who is whatever you need." God's "I AM" counters our negative, internal "I am deficient."
Thus, God is promising by his revelation to Moses to fill our psychic neediness.
One hardly knows where to start. It is difficult to avoid calling it blasphemy. It will take some time to explain the choice of this strong word.
One might begin by suggesting that this is an inexcusable error for someone trained for ministry (Mr. Furtick is an ordained minister who received an education from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary). For various reasons, this is a crucial passage in both Old Testament studies and in biblical and systematic theology. Any first year seminarian or Bible college student should know better than what has just been said.
God's revelation of himself as "I AM" and "I AM WHO I AM" is linguistically related to his covenant name of Yahweh, by which he reveals himself as the sovereign, self-existing, covenant making God. The name is so revered by some devout Jews that for centuries, and to this day, some refuse to pronounce the name orally. While that may reflect a level of superstition, it does point to the reverence that has been shown for the divine name. God will proceed to tell Moses (Ex. 6:3) that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had not known him by this name. This seems odd -- the patriarchs had, in fact, used that name -- until one realizes that God is saying that he is about to reveal himself as the covenant making, delivering, redeeming God in a way that he has never done before by delivering Israel from Egypt by his mighty power. Jesus also made use of this scene by telling a group of Pharisees that "before Abraham was, I am," (John 8:58), and showing himself to be the great covenant making, delivering, redeeming God by dying for our sins and being raised for our justification.
This is a whole lot different than promising to help us out with our insecurities.
The bizarre claims do not end here. Mr. Furtick correctly points out that Christians have been united with Christ, but then he becomes confused. After quoting the third commandment (prohibiting taking God's name in vain), he argues that because we have identified ourselves with Christ, that to say "I am" and to be insecure and to doubt ourselves is a violation of the third commandment. Let me repeat, he is claiming that by doubting ourselves, we are violating a commandment against taking God's name in vain. Thus, to take our own name in vain is equivalent to taking God's name in vain.
After listening to this sermon, I talked at length with my wife about it. She asked if there was nothing that his denomination (the Southern Baptist Convention) could do about it. The inability to deal in any formal way with men who are going off the rails is a weakness of non-connectional church bodies. Nonetheless, one hopes that Mr. Furtick has orthodox friends who will confront him about this sort of thing. This abuse of the biblical text, dimunition of our sovereign and self-existent LORD, and confusion of the creature with the Creator are not things that can happen in a pulpit that would call itself Christian.
Mr. Furtick has a lot of sheep, and they need a shepherd.