Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Reformation Project: Analyzing my Visit to Gateway Church

In my previous post, I described my visit to Gateway Church. Readers that have not yet seen that post are encouraged to read it prior to proceeding with this one. Because this post is an analysis of my visit to the church, this post cannot be properly evaluated without reviewing the account of the visit.

At the time of my visit, Gateway was listed as the second largest church in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex by the Hartford Institute on Religion Research. Today it is the largest -- and the second largest in the state of Texas, trailing only Joel Osteen's Houston based megachurch. Gateway boasts an average attendance of 28,000 according to the Hartford Institute. In addition to its main campus in the affluent suburb of Southlake, the church has several satellite locations across the metroplex.

The cars of members can be seen driving around town with a bumper sticker proclaiming the church's slogan: "We're all about people." This blogger must confess that he has often wondered while driving behind such a vehicle: if they are all about people, what, then does God have to do with it? The church attempts to rescue the slogan on their website, explaining that they are all about people because 'God is all about people." Even recognizing the limitations of bumper sticker theology, this leaves much to be desired. If God is all about the people, then perhaps the people are God. It seems easier to see that God is about his own glory, an approach to theology that makes for poor sloganeering, but that provides a better starting point for thinking about what God is doing amidst people.

That being said, I should say that my visit was not in its entirety negative, though in the end there was a great deal to be concerned about. The music was the one part of the church gathering where the gospel could be recognized (as will be noted later, it was not found in the sermon), though one might fear that it was lost in the performance orientation of the music.

Like most other megachurches I visited -- and as noted about Fellowship Church last week -- most liturgical elements (even the sort usually present in low church worship) were missing, except for singing and a sermon. There was an invitation at the end, which is an element of revivalistic church culture that most megachurches have dropped. Nonetheless, very little attention was given to prayer, and the only Bible reading was the text for the sermon. There was no call to worship or benediction, and no sacraments were observed, though the church's website does highlight two ordinances that they observe, baptism and the Lord's Supper.

Special attention needs to be given to the sermon.

The sermon was the latest in a series of messages under the theme of “Free Indeed,” with this one entitled “Believers in Bondage.” He had bondage associated with demonic possession in mind.  Pastor Robert Morris began with John 8:32 (“you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”) and then worked back to verse 31 (“Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him,, 'If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples,….'”) to argue that the ones who needed to be set free were already believers. However, this interpretation does not hold up to careful scrutiny, as the people addressed in verse 31 are clearly a subset of the entire audience, and the people in verse 32 are the same unbelievers that Jesus says “seek to kill” him in verse 37 and are “of your father the devil” in verse 44.  Clearly, believers are not in view there, but Rev. Morris made similar simple interpretive errors in the other texts that he used.

The theological point that Morris was driving at was that believers might be in bondage because they have left doors open to Satanic influence through continued illness, continued iniquity, or continued occultic influences.  Two problems developed in the course of his sermon.  One, it is odd, in terms of orthodox Christianity, to separate deliverance from bondage from the redemptive work of Christ; yet, there was not a single mention of Christ’s death or resurrection in any part of Morris’ sermon.  Second, Morris seems to regard bondage as an absolute category, something that we are either in or not in.  While this reflects some emphases from Keswick and charismatic theology in the last 150 years, it differs in important ways from historic Christian teaching, and the impact of the theology on pastoral care is not unimportant. In fact, rather than regarding this as a minor disagreement between varying schools of thought, I regard this particular teaching as destructive of Christian faith.

Reflecting historic Protestant teaching, the Westminster Confession of Faith describes sanctification (that is, growth in the Christian life) as a process whereby we “are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.”  Note that from this description it can be inferred that our putting away sin and growing as believers is a gradual process that in fact is only completed in the life to come.  It is certainly true that some believers are enabled by the grace of God instantaneously to overcome some sin in their lives, and one can be grateful when that occurs. But to say that is the universal way that God deals with the power of indwelling sin is not consistent with, for example, Romans 7, and one can easily suggest from Scripture that it is not God’s ordinary pattern with most sins.

Additionally, while our Christian growth in sanctification is a matter that is different from our justification, the two cannot be entirely separated either.  Not only is the sinless life, vicarious death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus the ground of our justification, but it is also the basis for our sanctification, and one should not ignore the emphasis of Paul in Romans 6 in grounding the Christian’s growth in Christian graces in our union with Christ in his death and resurrection.  

Finally, grounding satanic oppression in ongoing illness, as Pastor Morris does, sets the believer up for skepticism and depression. After all, even the most devout among us will grow sick and die, barring the Lord's return first. The Apostle Paul prayed for -- and was declined -- deliverance from some physical malady (a "thorn of the flesh"), and all Christians from the first 1900 years of the New Covenant period have all died. Contra Pastor Morris's theology, many among us will fight illness from which God chooses, mysteriously to us, not to deliver us. That is part of the ordinary Christian life.

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