‘Every wind of doctrine’

“As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of people, by craftiness in deceitful scheming.” (Ephesians 4:14 NASB)

“You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.” (Isaiah 26:3)

For sheer variety, probably nothing surpasses the American church of the late 20th and 21st centuries. The combination of freedom, a “can-do,” innovative mindset and the material resources to make things happen has spawned churches, ministries and new denominations like no other time in church history.

It’s also spawned a casual, fluid attitude toward committing oneself to a local church that some people see as superficiality. But others seem to echo the refrain of the U2 song, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Many modern takes on an ancient faith seem to strike the right note—until time reveals them to be inadequate and disillusionment sets in.

But whatever the underlying attitude, I think we have to be honest enough to acknowledge that many American Christians are susceptible to “every wind of doctrine.” Metaphorically, this means that suspect teaching is a force strong enough to dislodge us from our current beliefs and move us in a new direction–and we may not realize it’s happening.

I think most of us know at least one or two persons who have completely left the faith or have made radical changes in allegiance. But it shouldn’t be assumed that this only happens when some new, fresh or strange teaching captures everyone’s attention. Contrary winds can blow in many directions, from the traditional to the innovative or the exact opposite, from the new to the comfortably traditional.

Why does this happen? And to what “winds” are we susceptible?

The wind of popularity. Joshua Harris, former pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD, and now, in his own words, a former Christian, published I Kissed Dating Goodbye when he was 23. It sold more than a million copies worldwide. It’s credited with being a major influence on so-called “purity culture” among Christian millennials in its approach to dating and relationships.

Though he had no theological training, Harris became the senior pastor of Covenant Life when he was 30. That was the second red flag for me, the first being regarded as an “expert” on dating when he was in his 20s. There are exceptions—the evangelist George Whitefield was ordained and began preaching in his early 20s—but the concept of elder has strong practical and theological roots that we ignore at our peril.

But celebrity, conferred through impressive book or concert ticket sales, preempts that and promotes you anyway. There’s such a vibe about books or songs or conferences everyone’s talking about that it’s an easy jump to believing this is a genuine move of God you can’t afford to miss (Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts). Celebrity is such a powerful influence today that we have celebrities who are famous just for being celebrities and no other recognized accomplishments.

You probably know that there have been many casualties of the “purity culture” that swept across the land, enough for Harris himself to have second thoughts about what he had written and espoused, and then, in 2018, to discontinue publishing the book.

More recently, he disavowed his faith, saying he had “excommunicated” himself. When Peter disavowed his Lord, he later wept bitterly. But Harris maintained that informal, “let me tell you about what I’m doing these days” celebrity persona right out the church door. What do his followers think of him now, having been blown off course by the wind of popularity?

[Related: The counterfeit calling of celebrity]

The wind of vulnerability. A couple of mornings ago, while I was reading the news online and drinking my coffee, I came across one of those two-line links at the end of news stories enticing you to do this or that. In this case it had to do with nerve pain from neuropathy, something I am very familiar with.

When I say vulnerable, I don’t mean just being attracted to something because it piques my natural curiosity. I’m talking about something that has had a noticeable effect on your life, wounded or damaged you or left you frustrated or depressed because you can’t seem to resolve it or get around it.

That describes my recent struggles with chronic pain in my left foot in particular. So I clicked on the link, which led to a promotional video. The narrator had developed a product for knocking out neuropathic pain after his wife was in a car accident due to numbness and pain in her feet that was slowly destroying her quality of life.

I thought it was supposed to be a 12-minute presentation, but it became a shaggy dog story that must have dragged on for twice that amount of time as the narrator described his tortuous progress toward finding an answer for his wife’s condition and developing an OTC product after much research and trial-and-error.

I have a built-in skepticism for these kinds of things, but I kept listening anyway. I kept waiting for the sales pitch, the countdown to lock in special pricing (if you order in the next ten minutes . . ), etc. But I couldn’t stop listening–because I was vulnerable. I wanted to believe as much as I knew I shouldn’t believe.

I finally clicked out of the video, looked at the notes I had taken on the “essential ingredients” in this formulation and then did a little research. Turns out that compounds he was using, found under more common names, were things I was already taking as supplements. But I couldn’t deny that the wind was at my back and I was being moved.

The wind of pride. When I talk about pride, I am talking about the independent spirit that distances itself from or resists God and his ways. I’m not talking about the feeling you get when you finish that solid cherry blanket chest you made or the satisfaction of a job promotion after much hard work.

Pride works in concert with your imagination to generate an unwillingness to do or embrace something that appears unpleasant, embarrassing or humiliating. But it is just as likely to sublimate that unwillingness and generate a rationalization to get around the appearance of disobedience to God.

You could say the fig leaf coverings in the Garden were a form of rationalization. Adam and Eve realized they were uncovered and that made them uncomfortable, so they covered themselves with something of their own design to deal with this sense of being exposed.

There are lots of theological “coverings” of our own making that serve as substitutes for the will of God. A classic example would be the cessationist rationale for saying the gifts of the Holy Spirit ceased with the end of the apostles’ ministry and the formation of the biblical canon.

There are variations of this, of course, but the story goes something like this: to validate the ministry of the apostles as they launched this new faith, there were miracles, tongues, prophecies, etc., that became obsolete and therefore disappeared because they were no longer needed.

One of the proof-texts for this view comes from 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 (NASB): “Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away with; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away with. For we know in part and prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away with.

Part of the interpretation is self-evident: these things will cease “when the perfect comes.”  The perfect is interpreted as the completed biblical canon, the New Testament we read and study that makes tongues and prophecies a thing of the past (although knowledge . . . done away with presents a problem).

If you read this view with an open mind, you have to admit it’s internally logical and plausible. But where pride becomes a factor is when someone resists the evidence of the continuation of the Spirit’s ministry in these forms and it becomes associated with present-day adulteration of the gifts of the Spirit (and I’ll be the first to admit that there’s a boatload of them).

Like it or not, some are simply reacting to a caricature that lives only in their imagination, reinforced by the comments, opinions, anecdotal evidence or even taunts of their church elders or friends. Can you imagine me with those people?

If necessity is the mother of invention, then pride can be the fabricator of theological fig leaf clothing in all sizes, shapes and styles. But, as Samuel told King Saul, “To obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam 15:22).

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