Volume 47, Number 4
Several years ago during a conference for ministers in the Atlantic Northeast District, Dale Stoffer from the Ashland Brethren Seminary was one of the speakers. During the response time I asked him why, of all the groups that have descended from Alexander Mack, is it that the Church of the Brethren is the only group to embrace modern day liberalism. All other Brethren groups have remained strongly evangelical in theology and practice, some of which lean very strongly in the conservative direction.
Stoffer gave two reasons why liberalism became prominent in the life of the CoB. One was because the CoB joined in with the National and World Council of Churches movement in the mid-twentieth century, and those influences began to rub off. The other was that during this same time period young, bright Brethren scholars started attending very liberal schools such as Yale and Harvard, and came back to become leaders in CoB schools and institutions. From those positions they began to influence what became the “new thinking” in our denomination.
I recall that some people in the audience that day resisted these answers, but Stoffer stood firmly and did not back down from his assessment of the trends. Stoffer is a highly respected historian among the Ashland Brethren, as is Don Durnbaugh in the CoB. His extensive list of writing and teaching achievements attest to his depth of scholarship.
Our times are not the first in which the Christian church has felt the influence of various unbiblical isms and philosophies that lead people away from the truth of the gospel. Already in New Testament times, when the Apostle Paul was on Mars Hill in Acts 17, he encountered a number of such erroneous ideas. Paul noticed that some were searching for God with such desire that they even raised an altar with the inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. No god was to be left out! Paul tactfully used that expression to bear witness to the one true God (Acts 17:22-31).
We must ever be on the alert for the wrong influence of false teachers. Red flags should have gone up if you happened to read the writer’s comments in A Guide for Biblical Studies for the May 27, 2012 lesson (pages 95-96). The writer casts doubt on whether the words in John 14:6 can be taken literally—when Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through Me.” The writer of the lesson quarterly takes swipes at those who use John 14:6 to set the boundaries for those who are in the fold and those who are outside the fold.
You will benefit from reading the featured article in this BRF Witness where Harold Martin exposes the dangers associated with five major isms.
—James F. Myer
“ISMS” That Are Polarizing The Church
by Harold S. Martin
Concerns about developments in the Church of the Brethren during recent decades are not limited to the demands of glbt persons. The term pluralism can be used to describe what has happened. Pluralism means that there are many valid ways of understanding ultimate reality, and thus sentiments from a variety of schools of thought are accepted as being well founded. Pluralism implies that many viewpoints are to be tolerated, and even embraced and looked upon with favor. Pluralism is the policy by which many church decisions are being made.
“Theological Pluralism” is the term used to describe the attitude which says that one may believe practically anything (or nothing)—and still be a member of the church in good standing. It is used to designate the setting where there is room for any person, any idea, any concept, and any practice. It speaks of broad doctrinal and moral diversity.
Pluralism is used to describe a philosophical relativism in which one religious preference is not allowed to stand in judgment of others. Each moral lifestyle is seen as just one more acceptable way to live in the social smorgasbord–and all are equally acceptable. One of the ultimate concepts of pluralism is that there are actually many diverse paths to God. The blending of belief systems, which are viewed as multiple ways to God, is known as syncretism. The challenge for liberal theologians who embrace syncretism, is to honestly answer the question: “What’s so special about Jesus?” For syncretists Jesus Christ is not the only Mediator between God and man, but is merely one among other wise prophets.
The philosophy of pluralism says that religious discussions are fine, and dialogue is welcome—but decisions about truth—well, that’s going too far! The Bible’s clear teaching that Jesus is “the only way” is dismissed as anti- pluralistic and as being close-minded.
In this essay we look at some of the isms which are polarizing the church—that is, some of the belief systems which separate people into contrasting and conflicting positions.
The term “evolution” is generally used to describe the theoretical process by which (as some claim), all living things on earth descended from one single common organism. Darwin concluded that the fittest of all living things would survive in each generation, and that life would continually evolve upward into even higher forms of existence—and that even new species would arise in this manner. The evolutionary faith holds that, given heat and time, hydrogen can turn into snails, and stars, and coffee beans, and even human beings. Put more simply, anything whatever can morph into anything else. Evolutionary teaching destroys the Bible’s proclamation about the fall of man, by implying continual progress upward. The Bible describes humans (in their natural state) as being “dead in sin” and progressing in moral decline and corruption.
For many years, some of the published Church of the Brethren media has been presenting evolution as a fact. In a major article in the September, 1994, Messenger, for example, the writer says:
“A catastrophic extinction of species occurred 67 million years ago at the end of the Mesozoic Era…this ancient crisis of extinction was followed by a gracious renewal of life over millions of years, evolving many of the animals and plants with which we are familiar, and eventually, the first humans” (page 20, Richard Cartwright Austin).
Some of the sharpest attacks against the Bible have been leveled against the early chapters of Genesis. The devil knows that the quickest way to demolish a building is to strike at its foundation. If a person can be persuaded to pull out the first pages of the Bible, the last pages will fall out too, and soon the entire book will be of little value. The lie of evolution is so pointedly opposite to Christian truth, that it is hard to believe that a disciple of Jesus would ever compromise with the assumptions of the advocates of evolutionary theory.
Only creation explains the existence of matter. Evolution gives no evidence as to how what we see around us was brought into being out of nothing. And only creation explains the difference between humans and animals. One of the obvious facts of our existence is the gulf between the animal world and the world of human beings. Also, if the world is created, then it becomes necessary to follow the manufacturer’s instructions, and to be prepared for an audit when we are finished with life on earth. That, of course, goes a long way in explaining why many find the existence of a creator God to be inconvenient.
It is clear too that the debate over evolution and creation is at the heart of the “culture wars” we hear about today. The debate is about worldviews which govern all of life. If humans just gradually evolved from some primordial slime, then there is no higher Being to whom we must some day give an account for our conduct. Ethical ideals and standards then are not based on what God says, but instead, they are based on what human beings think.
Christians are not to be exploiters of the creation, but caretakers of it. The phrase “subdue the earth” (Genesis 1:28) must be understood in light of “take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). The charge in Genesis 2:15 informs readers what God means by the mandate in Genesis 1:28. Brethren over the years taught children to eat everything on their plates (including bread crusts). They practiced good care of the soil (by rotating crops). They stressed the importance of avoiding greedy consumption (and practiced simple living).
Today many of the activist environmental groups are hostile to the Christian faith, and hold an anti-Christian philosophy of life. Some groups argue that Christianity has encouraged man’s exploitation of nature because of the mandate in Genesis 1:28. They believe that nature is “shot through” with divinity—and that to cut trees in the Amazon rain forest is to scar the flesh of a god. Surely, we are to be good stewards of the earth, but our views must not be shaped by every environmental bandwagon that comes rolling along. The radical environmentalists believe that God and nature are one, and that to worship God is to worship nature.
The writer of the article (quoted in the previous section) from the September, 1994, Messenger, continues his dissertation by explaining that lovers of nature fear that pollution threatens to extinguish human civilization and other complex forms of life. Hopefully, if that happens, he says, millions of years of more evolution will produce “novel forms of life.” The writer then implies that New Age monism is a fact, when he says:
“Each congregation embraces not just the churches and the unchurched people, but also trees, streams, gardens, household pets, livestock, and wildlife. ..if all creatures can help each other obtain ‘freedom… of the children of God,’ then we will become brother and sister to one another” (page 24).
It seems that some Brethren feel guilty for not being in the forefront of the environmental movement, or perhaps some are even embarrassed by the theology that places people above animals. Many seem embarrassed because the Scripture authorizes mankind to subdue the earth. It is true that there are some real environmental problems troubling the earth today, but the issues are far more complex than is commonly thought. The models of global warming, for example, have never been able to explain past temperature patterns. Scientists so far failed to build strong and clear evidence that an environmental cataclysm is just around the corner. The earth’s climate results from the interplay of forces too complex and too poorly understood to make that kind of forecast with certainty.
There is also a form of pollution that is infinitely worse than environmental pollution. It is the rampant moral pollution, yet few people express outrage over that kind of contamination. Television viewing is one vice that seduces multitudes by corrupting the mind and staining the conscience of believers. Especially on many cable channels, it is becoming more and more normal for sodomites to flaunt their ways, for marriage and fidelity to be scorned, and for God’s name to be taken in vain. TV is a polluted fountain out of which proceed many abominations. Believers need to speak out boldly against those things which are polluting the minds, hearts, and spirits of men and women— and boys and girls.
3. Modern Paganism
Carmen Fowler describes the first charge of paganism she had heard in the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly (The Layman, August, 2010). It “came from the lips of an Iowa farmer who serves as a commissioned lay pastor in his small town church. His tear-streaked cheeks quivering, he stood in the exhibit hall following the assembly’s opening worship service and grieved, ‘Paganism, that’s all I can say. Sheer paganism.” This was a man, who stood for the faith once delivered to the saints and was shocked by the open discussions of homosexuality, the idea of wanting to approve same- sex marriage, and all the evidences of a new morality.
A number of Brethren representatives attended some Re-imagining Conferences in the 1990s which were part of the “World Council of Churches Decade of Solidarity with Women.” At the conferences many of the key tenets of the Christian faith were assaulted and trampled under foot. One speaker at the 1993 Re-imagining Conference in Minneapolis said,
“I don’t think we need a theory of atonement at all… atonement has to do so much with death…I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses, and blood dripping, and weird stuff… we just need to listen to the god within.”
The entire conference was an assault on the gospel, with speakers charging that Christian teachings about Jesus Christ constitute the chief source of women’s oppression, human violence, racism, sexism, classism, and the abuse of the earth.
One of the disturbing aspects of such gatherings has been the worship and adoration paid to Sophia. The Greek word for wisdom is “Sophia,” which is a feminine name. As each speaker took the podium, she received a chanted blessing from the entire assembly. The women chanted, “Bless Sophia, dream the vision, share the wisdom dwelling deep within.” Along with the pantheism, there was a celebration of lesbianism. One speaker declared that the biblical Mary and Martha were not actual sisters, but lesbian lovers!
A Church of the Brethren pastor in Kansas finished the TRIM (Training in Ministry Program) at McPherson College for the Bethany Extension School, and the orientation at Bethany Theological Seminary. He wrote to describe his experience: “I was totally dismayed at the lack of biblical teaching and the general lack of any deep spiritual emphasis during the entire two weeks…I found an almost total disregard for the Scriptures, and for God’s holiness, and for our call to be holy…One of the main reasons for the apostasy with which I was confronted, was the subtle (yet very forceful) allowing of what I understand to be Eastern Oriental religious philosophy. Staring at a red candle and pretending that we are rocks and trees have nothing to do with my relationship with Jesus Christ.”
4. Secular Humanism
Humanism is the philosophy which says that humans have the potential within themselves for solving their own problems if they are given enough time and enough education. One humanist writer says, “No deity will save us. We must save ourselves.” This is the heart of humanism.
Spending some time with textbooks used by the early American schools is an exciting discovery. In every subject the Bible was the reliable authority for the right answers and the right way to live. Many present-day textbooks are riddled with sex, vulgarity, and anti free enterprise concepts. They are crude and filled with inaccuracies—the result of a strange religion known as secular humanism. The core philosophy of humanism is that “no deity will save us; human beings must save themselves.”
Humanism is a non-theistic, rationalist movement which holds that man is capable of solving his problems through his own accomplishments, and without recourse to supernaturalism. The “Humanist Manifesto” drawn up in 1933 says that the goal of humanism is a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good. For the humanist, the function of guiding history (which has previously been accepted as belonging to God), is now unequivocally the responsibility of humanity.
The New Testament writers warn about the infiltration of humanism. The Bible says, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition…and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:8/ESV). The word “philosophy” refers to man’s explanation of the origin and purpose and destiny of the universe. It is the effort of the human mind to solve the mysteries of life—but it is really a frustrating study, because apart from God’s revelation in the Bible, man has no real answers.
Christians are supernaturalists. They believe there is more to the universe than what can be seen and handled and analyzed. To committed Christians, God is real and heaven is real and angels are real—and the Bible is true. The loyal disciple of Christ believes there is much in life that he will never understand, and that in the Bible, God has revealed all that needs to be known about life here on earth, and life hereafter in the eternal world.
One of the tragic results of humanism’s penetration into the church is that the church has largely turned from preaching salvation through the substitutionary atonement of Christ, to a man-centered program of secular involvement. Even “the peace stand” has be-. come generally humanistic in its basic outlook. Much of what is called “pacifism” aims at reform through human effort, rather than regeneration through the grace and power of God. Many teachers in the church prefer to place their hopes in the work of the United Nations, a World Court, and sophisticated diplomacy. The method of changing individual hearts (which then become “the salt of the earth”) is considered an antiquated approach.
The primary mistake of the new peacemakers lies in the fact that many believe in the innate goodness of man. One pacifist group told John F. Kennedy (back in the early 1960s): “We believe there is a divine power in man that can save the world from war and destruction.” That reasoning contradicts the teaching of Jesus, who said that murders and wickedness come “from within, out of the heart of man” (Mark 7:20/ESV).
One question that often surfaces in religious discussions is this: What is the ultimate destiny of the unbeliever?” Could it be that Christ works anonymously in all religions ensuring salvation for persons of every religious persuasion? Does the loving purpose of God demand an eventual restoration of every creature, perhaps even of the devil himself?
The basic error of universalism is the teaching that all human beings will finally be saved,and that in the end none will be lost. There are those who teach that because Christ died for all, He will sovereignly (and out of love) bring all persons eventually to salvation. The universalist believes that humans cannot be eternally lost— and that being true, the work of the evangelist is not so much to win others to faith in Christ, but to inform them that they are redeemed, and that they should start living accordingly. Those who advocate universalism are manifesting a one-sided emphasis on the love and goodness of God, and tend to ignore His judgment and justice.
Universalism teaches the ultimate well-being of every person. Some believe that all persons will ultimately be happy, because all are by nature the children of God. Others believe that a good God will restore humans to a position of well-being after some kind of future punishment. But the Bible repeatedly distinguishes between the two roads, the two gates, and the two destinies (Heaven and Hell). We may not like the concept that some are God’s children (through faith in His Son), while others are children of the devil (through disobedience and unbelief)—but this is the plain teaching of the Scriptures. We may find it hard to accept the teaching of eternal torment for those who reject Jesus Christ, but the Bible states it at several places.
The May, 2005 Church of the Brethren Messenger contains a letter questioning the value of reviewing (in an earlier Messenger) the book “If Grace is True” by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland. This is a book that answers “Yes” to the question, “Does God save every person?” The writer of the review in Messenger, quotes further from the book: “At the great banquet…we will see a humbled Hitler washing the feet of a Jewish Holocaust victim with his tears.” The reviewer concluded that some Brethren “will find [the book] reassuring.”
Not only among Brethren, but in many of today’s mainline churches, belief in universal salvation, as the fruit and measure of Christ’s redemptive work, has become the standard view.
The philosophy of universalism cuts the nerve of missions, takes the fire out of evangelism, and saps the urgency out of preaching.
Human responsibility to choose obedience to God is foiled. Whenever universalism has appeared, it has by its errors, weakened the church and destroyed the effectiveness of the gospel. If it is true that all human beings will ultimately be saved, there is no reason why we should inconvenience ourselves by trying to bring the gospel to those who do not believe. Yet the Christian church has always been evangelistic because the Lord Jesus commanded God’s people to seek the lost and bring them to the Savior.
The repeated message of humanism is that there is no “right” answer to anything. Everyone has a right to his own opinion, and each opinion carries as much authority as any other. The very idea that all beliefs are relative (and that none is absolutely true) is simply illogical. Such reasoning is the same as saying that there are absolutely no absolutes!
Yet, to say that, is to make an absolute statement in order to assert that there can be no absolute statements!
One thing is sure. Many Brethren are convinced that there are two religions in our denomination, and that everything Brethren is not necessarily Christian! Most certainly there must be limits to diversity in the church. BRF is grateful for the privilege of letting its testimony be heard in the Church of the Brethren. What BRF teaches is in keeping with the lofty Christian doctrines fostered by Brethren during the early centuries.
BRF is sometimes accused of starting trouble and division in the Church of the Brethren. But we are not starting trouble, we are only reporting it! In our judgment, it is the radical feminists and the unorthodox executives and the hedging pastors who are promoting the concepts that are leading to the divisiveness which is becoming more evident in the Church. It is not the conservatives who stand firmly for the historic orthodox teachings of the Christian faith as understood by the Brethren—that are dividing the church. Brethren who are more conservative are seeking to uphold those beliefs and moral values which Brethren have historically held. Those who are adopting many of the new theological ideas are the offenders who provoke division.