American Evangelicalism; An Essential Flaw?

Is It Actually Possible That Some Huge, Swaggering, Triumphalist, Tithe-Supported Ministries Are Not Even Preaching the Biblical Gospel?



Introduction:

I n the following article I make a sort of attack on the theological influences which have led to the present confusion in north American evangelicalism. I think my comments are highly justified but I want to make it plain than when I compare European theological influences favourably with those which have gone into north American evangelism, I am in no way being 'anti-American,' in fact, from a very young age I have always been very pro-American, therefore I would wish for nothing to be misunderstood. I am critical of Finneyism as a north American influence but I do not think the dangers amount to the dangers of a cult, though I think them regrettable, and they have ultimately led to some dreadful excesses. Yet without question, many have come to Christ through that path. The different path which Charles Finney (1792-1875) took western evangelicalism upon is not actually more evangelical (as some persist in believing) but actually less so; there were distinct liberal tendencies in his teaching, and he seemed to almost prefigure the later 'social gospel' of Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918).

I also retain a huge admiration for Dr Billy Graham (strictly-speaking, a 'Finneyite') whom I first heard speaking as a ten-year old child in 1954 on a BBC radio broadcast, and Dr Graham's 1954 Haringey, London campaign left a huge impression this side of the Atlantic. Please scroll down a little for my full article - I think you will find it very interesting.
Robin A. Brace, January, 2009.



European Protestant pastors had always believed that a pastor should live simply and modestly as an example to the flock, and never to seek wealth. Why? Well, carefully consult Scriptures such as Matthew 6:24; 13:22; 2 Corinthians 2:17; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18; James 4:4-6; 1 Timothy 6:6-11.

Here at UK Apologetics we recently received the following very interesting question:

"Although I am an American, I must confess that modern American evangelism frequently makes me squirm. Like yourselves, I am a Bible conservative but I start to feel that I must start avoiding my own home-grown evangelistic ministries altogether. Even the ones which are not 'prosperity gospel' people seem to feel that they have the right to ask you to generously support their ministries and if you don't, they will start throwing Scriptures at you. Where do they get this arrogance from?"

Hmmm... That is a very good question! There is no doubt that this is a real problem and many people are finding it hard to take some of these ministries seriously any longer. We did have a sort of admiration for David Jeremiah for a while but were very disappointed to recently hear him construct an entire sermon on 'grace giving,' only to finally realise that he was really making a plea for tithing. I had expected better of him. He went through all the New Testament 'Giving' Scriptures, including 2 Corinthians 9, and he handled them well but then suddenly got onto tithing. The impression given was that the New Testament supports tithing and that those Scriptures are really talking about tithing when, of course, it certainly does not support tithing and none of those quoted Scriptures are even discussing tithing! There is not a single word about tithing in 2 Corinthians 9 (where the preacher spent rather a lot of time), but a lot about giving generously where one is able. The naive, of course, will become ensnared. This sort of thing is very, very disappointing to observe.

We don't want any of our American friends and visitors to get offended but it is probably true to say to that modern American evangelicalism is not built on the greatest of foundations. Nancy Pearcey, herself an American evangelical Christian, has traced the anti-intellectual influences which she has noted within modern U.S. evangelicalism as far back as the American Revolutionary War, and, in her outstanding book, Total Truth, she has stated,

"...the cavalier rejection of the past stripped the church of the rich resources of centuries' worth of theological reflection, Scriptural meditation, and spiritual experience. It inculcated an attitude that there was nothing to be gained from grappling with the thought of the great minds of the past - Augustine and Tertullian, Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Calvin. It was an approach doomed, almost by definition, to anti-intellectualism and theological shallowness." (p 281,'Total Truth,' Nancy Pearcey, Crossway Books, 2008 paperback version).

Billy Graham

Billy Graham at Haringey Stadium, London, in 1954.

There is no question that the modern British evangelical movement enjoys stronger intellectual foundations; the influence of people like John Wesley, John Charles Ryle, F.F. Bruce (a truly prodigious scholar if ever there was one), Francis Schaeffer, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, John Stott and, yes, Billy Graham too, are strong. Schaeffer was, of course, an American who lived in Switzerland, yet the great Christian philosopher was truly a giant of Christianity and had a major impact on British evangelicalism. Chesterton was a Roman Catholic yet his valiant defence of Christianity, often through the medium of Apologetics, helped set a very distinctive style this side of the Atlantic. Billy Graham too can't be left out because, although an American, he - as an individual - has strongly influenced some aspects of modern British evangelicalism, this is largely because of the incredible and lasting affect of Graham's 1954 Haringey campaign.
The whole approach of British evangelicalism was always to unite over essentials and to refuse to argue over the peripherals. So particularism was avoided.

But our American cousins have an evangelical movement with very different foundations.


Those foundations are:

1. Dispensationalism.
J.N. Darby imposed a concept of seven dispensations upon the Bible. He was enthusiastic, he was sincere but very few now consider that he was entirely correct. Frankly, most of us do not find these 'seven dispensations' in the Bible at all, certainly not in the shape or form which Darby outlined. Even modern dispensationalism, as taught at places like Dallas Theological Seminary, is now radically revised from what Darby once taught. Dispensationalism is a particularistic point of view, it insists on a particular approach to Bible prophecy, a particular approach to a thing called a 'rapture' (a word which never occurs in Scripture), and a particular approach to a 'millenium' (another word which will not be found anywhere in Holy Scripture). Being so particularistic in areas outside of the great essentials of our Faith also tends to make this a divisive approach. Europeans who occasionally watch US evangelists and TV ministries are constantly surprised that dispensational concepts (such as the 'rapture') are always unquestioningly assumed by just about all of them! In contrast, these Darbyist conceptions and prophetic scenarios are not widely accepted among European evangelicals at all.

2. Finneyism.
As Dr Michael Horton says of Charles Finney,

"He is the tallest marker in the shift from Reformation orthodoxy, evident in the Great Awakening (under Edwards and Whitefield) to Arminian (indeed, even Pelagian) revivalism, evident from the Second Great Awakening to the present." (source: http://www.mtio.com/articles/aissar81.htm)

...Are some preachers actually denying the gospel by the glossy, wealthy, glitzy, self-satisfied, triumphalist and present world focused package which they enclose it in?

This influence, sad to say, lies at the very heart of all the worst excesses of behaviour in modern western evangelicalism. Charles Finney certainly was not all bad, there was much good in the man, but he did encourage an emotional and frankly anthropocentric (man-based) approach to getting converts. Suddenly conversion became all about the begging, pleading, cajoling and sheer persuasive qualities of the evangelist, rather than about the moving of the Holy Spirit. Very soon this led to the concept that the evangelist needed to be a slick and sharp super gospel-salesman. Preachers as varied as Jerry Fallwell and Billy Graham have been great admirers of Finney and willingly followed his general path.
At length, Finney also challenged certain of the great Christian doctrines embracing not only Arminianism, but also Perfectionism, and being very close to being a Pelagian (see The Disturbing Legacy of Charles Finney).

It has been said that Finneyism led to the placing of the evangelist centre-stage with all focus on him, rather than on Christ and on the moving of the Holy Spirit. If people could be persuaded by this super salesman-type pastor/evangelist they would "give their lives to the Lord." Suddenly it was all about "getting a decision" and winning people's commitment to the Lord, with the whole thing often getting 'staged' in a highly showbizzy manner! Whereas the older Lutheran evangelicalism had placed great stress on doctrinal appreciation and understanding, the Finney approach was all about 'getting decisions' with the so-called 'sawdust trail' or 'altar call' strategy becoming paramount. This is what Ranald Macaulay, of Christian Heritage UK, has called, "one-legged evangelism," referring to a concern for proclamation but the neglect of intellectual engagement. When modern preachers suggest that any unconverted people who might be present who have not yet "given their hearts to the Lord," might wish to "say this prayer in your heart," they are using a Finneyite tool to make quick converts! Thus genuine repentance (often not a quick process) is avoided. The 'prayer of repentance' comes from the preacher - not the heart of the sinner! So this approach only seemed interested in engaging with human emotions - it showed little interest in engaging with the human intellect. I have read somewhere that even Billy Graham (a man, make no mistake, that I genuinely admire), has admitted some misgivings and doubts about some of these things which he once employed.

This necessarily soon got to the stage where ministers were put under real pressure to "win souls for Christ," and to increase financially-contributing church-members. Eventually, the bigger the congregation, the more 'successful' the pastor was considered.
Today if Paul the Apostle could come back and witness the average high-profile U.S. TV evangelist, he would not recognise them as having any serious connection with the Gospel of Jesus Christ which he himself had been so passionate about, and been so willing to die for.
Of course, here in the UK we have now inherited some of these influences. The 'Alpha' system, for example, is strongly based on these principles (especially on Finneyism and Arminianism).

3. Big Business Assumptions.
Of course this point does not apply in every single case, nevertheless, it is a frequently-occurring north American phenomenon. It's strange really but most Europeans do not consider that the gospel of Jesus Christ has anything to do with 'big business tactics.' Yet many of our transatlantic friends (thankfully, not all of them!), seem to immediately make a connection! I have read the New Testament through many times and I find nothing in the words of Jesus, or of Paul, or of John or of Peter to make such an association. Now, of course, we all understand the principles of being able to pay our way and of wise stewardship, but the assumption that the words of Jesus can be employed to give one a very high standard of living with a luxury home (or, homes), luxury automobiles and such like, all built around a very high-profile stage-striding, silk suit-attired pastor/evangelist with a magnetic personality is somehow anathema to the average European Christian - it makes us shudder! I really hope that our American friends will not mind this observation, but it is how we often see it from this side of the Atlantic.

Now all of these huge and high-profile ministries will insist that the best way to preach the gospel is indeed to employ the tactics of successful businesses; they willingly mix the gospel and mammon, and the wealth of certain of these ministries can be staggering, but the question really has to be asked:

Where is the New Testament authority and justification for employing a tactic which appears so outrageous?

Must it always be better to have a huge multi-million dollar congregation with many hundreds of members? There may be hundreds of members but how deeply convicted are they? How much do they really understand? Will all of these people remain steadfast when times get hard? Is 'entertainment' too important in certain churches? Sure, it's always better for people to know the name of Jesus and to be aware of the message of the gospel, but in going all-out for huge numbers is something vital being lost?

Worryingly, it seems that most of the really big ministries, especially of the tele-evangelism-type, seem to have huge compromises and even very serious errors in their doctrinal teaching! The 'numbers is all' approach will always avoid less popular and more confusing doctrinal issues. The most blatant 'prosperity gospel' people have even brought New Age teachings into their preaching mix. If one should point such things out to the 'super-pastors' who lead them, the usual reaction is often something like: "Hey, can you argue with our figures?" Immediately they seem to appeal to their success and size. They will say, "Look how we are sending the gospel around the world!"
But surely there is something very wrong there. Is size and success more important than being utterly consistent with the Word of God? And do many of these ministries truly preach the biblical gospel? Or are some of them actually denying the gospel by the glossy, wealthy, glitzy, self-satisfied, triumphalist and present world focused package which they enclose it in? This whole prosperity and affluence thing was a new approach in evangelism in the twentieth century. In stark contrast, European Protestant pastors had always believed that a pastor should live simply and modestly as an example to the flock, and never to seek wealth. Why? Well, carefully consult Scriptures such as Matthew 6:24; 13:22; 2 Corinthians 2:17; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18; James 4:4-6; 1 Timothy 6:6-11. Now, of course, we all realise that we must employ modern tools (such as the printing press and the internet) to advance the cause of the gospel. Those things are neutral in themselves but well-employed by modern Christian writers and ministers, but the overt and ostentatious seeking of prosperity and fame by some of these 'super-pastors' seems so inherently unbiblical that they surely must be challenged.

The schema of wealthy, high-profile super-pastors finds no New Testament support whatsoever - I mean, it is just not there, rather, it appears to simply be the twentieth century product of a wealthy and secure society! Finding no New Testament support for their preferred lifestyle, these people go into the Old Testament and start talking about how the wealth of Abraham should be an example to us all, and they start making claims for tithing which the Bible never makes, although recognising that the practise did exist. Very often the "blessings of Abraham" are turned into a promise of prosperity, when in actual fact, those blessings and promises are totally unconcerned with prosperity (it is advisable to read The Promises of Abraham). When challenged for some New Testament authority, these people oftentimes pick on very simple verses, such as the very common greeting of 3 John 2 and start to abuse that in order to attempt to establish their heresies.

One does not wish to offend, but is it not time that we challenged these three main assumptions of modern American evangelism? After all, one finds no biblical authority for a single one of them. Where the gospel of Jesus Christ is concerned, should not the Word of God alone be our final authority?
Robin A. Brace, January, 2009.

It is also essential to read:

The Shame of the Gospel Money-men

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