Dissing Discernment


Fork aheadThree weeks ago in church, one of our elders quoted T.D. Jakes.

My head nearly exploded.

You see, T.D. Jakes is a cult leader. He’s not a Christian—at least by the standards of orthodoxy. As a leader in a Oneness Pentecostal church group, he denies the classical understanding of the Trinity. (See update below.) Yet Jakes shows up on numerous “approved” lists of Evangelicals that circulate on the Web and in print media. Just the other day, our YMCA (an organization championed by historic Christian evangelist Dwight Moody) held a book sale to raise money. One table included Christian materials. I suspect a quarter of the books had Jakes’s doughy, smiling face on the cover.

A few days later in one of our small groups, someone mentioned a book by another Oneness Pentecostal without understanding the theology. He’d never heard of them or their beliefs.

In my younger days, cults crawled out of the woodwork. Mo Berg, Victor Paul Weirwille, Herbert Armstrong—we knew these guys and knew to stay far away from their pernicious brands of deviancy. I used to spend hours reading up on Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons just so I could show them the truth.

Now you’ve got Mormon books showing up in Christian bookstores and Mitt Romney giving the commencement address at Pat Robertson’s Regent University.

Times were that the marks of a cult stood out like a sore thumb. Three doctrinal denials will usually reveal a cult:

  1. Denial of the Trinity
  2. Denial of the efficacy of Christ’s blood to cleanse from all sins
  3. Denial of the sufficiency of faith in Christ alone for salvation

Apply those three to any religious organization or leader and they’ll snare cultists with an efficiency close to 100 percent.

In most cases, you don’t have to go any further than looking for a group’s flawed view on the Trinity to unmask it as a cult. Nothing marks the uniqueness of orthodox Christianity than the belief that God exists in three full, unique persons in one essence. We believe the unity of the Godhead in essence, the Godhead’s diversity in persons. And we’ve believed that fundamental understanding of the nature of God since the founding of the Church by Christ Himself.

How fundamental? As I see it, every doctrine we hold dear in the Church must begin with the nature of God Himself. If we fumble that, everything that proceeds from it takes on a warped perspective. For instance, the very love of God cannot be properly understood from a Oneness perspective, for the love the members of the Trinity possess for each other expresses itself in God’s love for us and our love for each other. Our concept of what love means can only be fully understood if we acknowledge that God is Trinitarian in nature.

In fact, I can’t see how anyone can possible read the Bible and not see the Trinity on every page. Consider even Deuteronomy 6:4—Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one—the word “one” there is not the word for a single person (yahid), but a unified personna (ehad). We see the same word ehad in reference to husband and wife being one (ehad) flesh. How appropriate that the ecstatic love the Triune God experiences within His persons reflects in the joining of husband and wife, while also mirroring the unification of Christ and the Church in the imagery of Bridegroom and Bride. I’m also one who believes that Man is a tripartite being (body, soul, spirit) in the same way that God is triune, further reflecting the idea that we are made in the image of God.

Just inches away on my library shelf sits James White’s The Forgotten Trinity. Check it out. For more on the error of Oneness (historically known in several minor variants as Sebellianism, Patripassionism, or Modalism), check out Theopedia.

I spoke with the elder Sunday morning about his reference. He wasn’t familiar with Oneness Pentecostals, their beliefs, or the fact that T.D. Jakes is a non-Trinitarian. He expressed surprise about Jakes and he staunchly defended Trinitarianism. While I wasn’t happy about the Jakes quote, I absolutely understood the elder made the comment without knowing the truth about Jakes.

This brings us to the meat of this post.

So why do we diss discernment? The elder made a telling statement as we talked, “There are so many variants of Pentecostalism, it’s hard to know exactly what each believes.” That’s a legitimate comment on Pentecostalism—and Christianity in general. So much fracturing and splintering over a couple millennia have left us all a bit strung out. When the Lord speaks to the seven Churches in Asia in Revelation, it’s hard to miss the different flavors of practice and belief already evident.

I’ve made the Church my study, but I still can’t tell you what the Ukrainian Orthodox believe differently from the Russian Orthodox. Or Regular Baptists from Bible Baptists. I could give you generalities, but generalities won’t cut it when trying to discern truth from error.

The sheer mass of Christian (and pseudo-Christian) thought multiplied over thousands of belief statements is daunting. No wonder so many Christians appear baffled. Still, we can’t excuse our lack of diligence.

In the charismatic and pentecostal ranks, you tend to see a lot of cult of personality issues. Folks get sidetracked by big name preachers and ministries. Prophets, apostles, deacons, elders, pastors—stick a title on someone (usually self-affixed by the Christian celebrity in question) and you’ll find people who immediately succumb to slavish devotion. Obviously, the chance for delusion runs high. Sadly, once a leader proves to have feet of clay, the defrauded simply move onto another hero. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Folks outside charismatic and pentecostal circles will, of course, laugh and mock any follower of Benny Hinn or Jack Van Impe, but those mockers aren’t immune to deception. My experience shows that rather than falling prey to dynamic individuals, the noncharismatics/Pentecostals fall for an even more insidious lie: power structures and systems. They get sucked into thinking governments, organizations (Christian or not), and even church hierarchies are the means by which the world revolves. The faithful tack a veneer of godliness over the top of power structures, but the core’s still ungodly. These folks end up perpetrating great injustices against the poor, disenfranchised, powerless, and even each other, as a result.

Don’t laugh at someone else, because I can promise that all of us have drunk (or are still drinking) from some soul-corroding teat. Even the best of us get off-track or stumble in little ways. Let’s all be humble here.

I talk about discernment quite a bit on Cerulean Sanctum. On the whole, I think it’s the greatest lack in the Church today. I think five reasons drive this:

  1. We’re too busy – Busy people nod their heads and unthinkingly accept whatever comes their way. That’s a recipe for disaster. While the sheer number of lies out there overwhelms the average person, God still holds us accountable for truth.
  2. We’re too apathetic – “Does discernment matter? Why should I care?” Paul warns that many have shipwrecked their faith by lack of discernment. Rank pragmatism within many Christian hearts pushes discernment into the background because its raison d’être doesn’t immediately leap out. We don’t understand that God’s people perish for lack of knowledge and that this knowledge is beneficial for own its sake—because God said we need to know it.
  3. We think we’ve arrived – We’re saved now, so what? But eternal security isn’t license for spiritual sloth. Too many Christians think they’re in, but then fail to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. That fear and trembling includes godly discernment.
  4. We’re naïvely optimistic – Jesus didn’t tempt God by taking a leap off the top of the Temple. The same Enemy that tempted the Lord tempts us. He’s a master at deceiving us into thinking we’re immune from the mess our neighbors made of their lives. It never dawns on us that we could go down in flames, too. So when the Enemy tells us to jump off, we do. That’s pride, and it’s from the pit of hell.
  5. We’re not drilled on discernment – People quote 1 John 1:4 (Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world), but it’s always for some other person in some other church at some other time. Our church leaders should have that 1 John 1:4 filter up at all times and show us how to keep it up as well.

As for me, I side with Jesus here:

Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.
—John 2:23-25

In this day and age, it’s foolish for any Christian to go blindly out into the world. Jesus had His filter on at all times. He knew the evil that lurked in the hearts of men, so He did not trust them.

That’s wisdom for us, folks. Begin at skepticism. Never assume someone is telling you the truth, no matter how trusted that teacher/leader/pastor/friend might be. Let God alone be true and every man a liar (Romans 3:4). The Scriptures are our source. The Holy Spirit is our interpreter. Run everything you hear past those two. Any human is capable of error, even this writer. Don’t take everything I say as gospel truth. Prove it against the Word of God. Correct me if I need it. I expect nothing less.

Thanks to all who contributed. I’ll unpack some of your comments from Friday’s post tomorrow.

 (Update: I made an error in currently assigning Jakes to the United Pentecostal Church. He was once affiliated with that Oneness church, was ordained a bishop in another Oneness denomination, and currently is a high-ranking leader within another Oneness church group. I regret the error.)

The Other Jesus


…but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.
—Luke 13:3b

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.
—John 15:9

Who is the other Jesus? He’s the one we’re not worshiping.

Consider the two verses above. To some, they appear to reflect two different Jesuses: the Drill Sergeant Jesus and the Flower Child Jesus. The first Jesus will return to slay His enemies with the sword that comes out of His mouth. The Other JesusThe second Jesus encounters a bruised reed and will not break it, a smoldering wick and will not quench it.

We find the follower of the Drill Sergeant Jesus out on the street corner with a bullhorn, preaching hellfire and damnation. Such a follower is the hardcore evangelist depicted in the classic joke that ends with the punchline, “So, what’s the bad news?”

We find the follower of the Flower Child Jesus in a small group, hugging people and weeping, wondering aloud if it ever gets better than this. Because right now, right here, with these beautiful people, it’s heaven.

But no half-Jesus exists. Honestly, the Drill Sergeant Jesus follower and the Flower Child Jesus follower exist as caricatures of real Christians. Let’s get real, though; in many cases, American Christian theology and practice fall readily into one of those two camps.

You can explain nearly every deviant view of Christ in the American Church by how great a percentage we practice one idea of Jesus over the other. Unfortunately, if we’re not looking at the whole truth of who Jesus is, we’re missing the real Christ.

And it’s not just Jesus who suffers from our schizophrenic approach. We make God the Father out to be the Vengeful God of Law and Wrath vs. the Gentle God Who Desires We Call Him “Abba.” The Holy Spirit suffers even more. He’s the Giver of Gifts Like Administration or He’s the Giver of Gifts Like Tongues. Over there He’s the Inspirer of Scriptures set against the Inspirer of Contemporary Prophecy. And in that corner He’s…

All these divisions commit violence against the character of the Triune God, yet we witness these extremes daily within the modern American Church. We talk a great deal about worshiping the Lord in Spirit and in Truth, but it seems to me that these attempts at fracturing Him into whatever modality best serves us, rather than Him, mangles all attempts at truthful worshiping.

Remember, He is the Alpha AND Omega—and every letter in-between.

{Image: Top—Artist unknown. Bottom—Rembrandt, Christ Driving the Money Changers From the Temple, 1626}

Does God Help Those Who Help Themselves?


I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry.
—Psalms 40:1 ESV

Franklin said it, I believe it, that settles it!For more than a decade, I’ve been praying about an issue in my life. It’s not a sin issue, but a general guidance question troubling me. In some ways, it extends back to my youth.

The number of counselors who’ve added their advice to the problem increases over time, but the one similarity in all their counsel comes down to the old aphorism attributed to Ben Franklin, “God helps those who help themselves.”

I don’t know what it is about American Christianity that forces every Christian to abide by this rule. Our collective “doing” fervor spills over into the way we live out our faith, as if waiting isn’t just the hardest part—it’s simply stupid.

One of the most neglected verses in American Christendom states:

Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.
—Psalms 127:1 ESV

We bristle at the notion that we can’t do it ourselves. Yet look around at the expediency that passes for ministry in large swaths of the American Church and you’ll spy plenty of ministry projects in which the ministry built the house, God having little say in the construction. People will ooh and aah at the pretty thing that arose from nothing. Perhaps years later, the same folks will wonder why the pretty thing failed miserably.

Jesus said this:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.”
—John 5:19 ESV

An uncommon principle in American Christianity, that we should do nothing unless we see the Lord leading. I wonder what Christianity in this country would look like if we did nothing except what we saw the Father doing? Might this not transform every aspect of how we live the Faith?

I’ve talked out my own issue with some well-known ministries and their response always concerns me doing something, anything, so long as I’m doing. Doesn’t matter if the Lord’s building the house or not. Just do. Because it’s how they operate their own ministry.

Talk to leaders in Third World countries, though, and they wait until the Lord moves. This idea of “God can’t steer a parked car” doesn’t exist in their Christian playbook. They seek God until he makes a way where there is no way. They don’t go around trying to dynamite doorways out of granite just to be doing something.

Of course, my encounters with these do, do, doers of the word always leaves me wondering if I’m the one in the wrong. But then I read passages like this and I wonder:

“…apart from me you can do nothing.”
—John 15:5b ESV

Now I know that the LORD saves his anointed; he will answer him from his holy heaven with the saving might of his right hand. Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.
—Psalms 20:6-7 ESV

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.
—Proverbs 16:25 ESV

I also wonder if the doing zealots actually foul it up for those of us who wait—and vice versa. We’re the spanner in the works. Get us slothful waiters out of the way and maybe others could actually accomplish marvelous works for God the good, old-fashioned, American way.

I may be the nutjob here, but no way exists to avoid a verse like this:

Thus says the LORD: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the LORD.
—Jeremiah 17:5 ESV

Go the arm of flesh route one too many times and the inevitable falling away occurs. And perhaps that’s the problem with the Church today. Too much dependence on singing Old Blue Eyes’ classic tune, “My Way,” got us into this jam.

Or maybe it’s just me.