New Post on Medium: On Snakes and Advent

For a while now I’ve been posting here first and then importing it to my publication on Medium. I’ve been posting about religious topics, which I love. But since this is my author blog, I think this site should be focused on writing and publishing. From now on, religious posts will be exclusively on my Medium page called Almost Ordained. However, I will post links to new posts starting with the one below. Medium is a paid subscription service. But as my subscribers, I will provide free links from this webpage. The latest post is for Advent. It is a reflection on this verse and how it foretold the coming of the Messiah.

And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel (Gen 3:15 KJV).

https://almostordained.medium.com/on-snakes-and-advent-e96197c50fb6?sk=72956a853f7c64d17a0449de83cd6ef7

Photo two faces obscured, eyes closed, text reads "Love your neighbor as Yourself"

Why Won’t God Speak to Me?

In my last post, I talked about why I believe there are no more apostles and prophets in the church. That was actually to lay the groundwork of a much bigger issue for me. Why won’t God speak to me? The answer appears to be the same as why God doesn’t call apostles and prophets anymore. God has already spoken, and the apostles and prophets of old wrote down God’s word in the Bible. Great. So they got to hear God speak to them directly, and we get a book that’s full of contradictions.

What? How can I say the Bible is full of contradictions? Because of passages like this.

Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.

Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.

(Prov 26:4-5).

See, one verse says don’t answer fools according to their folly, and the very next verse says answer fools according to their folly. Which is it? This is one of many examples where it says one thing and then later the opposite. And that is supposed to guide us every step of the way in God’s plan for our lives. Why can’t God just tell me what God wants from me?

I wanted to hear from God directly, and some televangelists convinced me I not only could but should hear God. Once I was saved, I had the Holy Spirit dwelling in me. Oh wait, I have to be filled with the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in other tongues. So I had someone pray over me and started speaking the way they told me. After a few weeks practice I got pretty comfortable with it. So I should have been able to hear God speak to me directly, a rhema word they called it. Almost ironic. If I pray in tongues, I will hear God in my own language. That was how it was supposed to work.

Regarding the rhema word, they made a distinction between the Greek words logos and rhema. I was taught that the logos is the written word, i.e., the Bible, and a rhema word is a word from God that speaks to your specific situation. For example, where does God want me to go to seminary? I can’t look that up in the Bible and see, “David, listen to your mother and go to Duke Divinity School.” That’s the kind of situation where I needed a rhema word. From what they told me, I should have heard it clearly. But it was like trying to tune in to a radio station at the edge of reception, where you only get static with a few words breaking through here and there. And just when you think you’ve got enough to go on, a few minutes later you hear the opposite.

The Word of Faith vs. the Word of God

The Word of Faith really raised that expectation in me. Some preachers would describe conversations with God like, “I said… and God said… and I said… and God said…” just like God was standing right in the room with them. Why can they hear God, but I can’t? When they say, “God told me this,” or “God said that,” how do they know it’s God and not their own imagination?

They gave a few guidelines that were somewhat helpful. For one, they said a rhema word would never contradict the logos, i.e., the Bible. I’ve already mentioned how that can be confusing. Even so, they made some pronouncements so unbiblical, even at my most confused I knew they could not be from God. And even when they are proven wrong, they do not repent. They keep on speaking for God. That seems to have been happening more and more in recent years. Some of them openly say a rhema word has more authority than the Bible. So if they say “Thus says the Lord,” or anything along those lines, you have to believe it, even if it contradicts the written word of God.

Despite my claims that the Bible confused me for some time, in one area it could not have been clearer: Identifying false prophets and the false words they speak. The Bible is helpful if you remember this. The Bible never says if they claim God is speaking through them, you must believe everything they say without question. Quite the opposite, it says do not believe every spirit but test the spirits to see if they are of God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world (1 Jn 4:1). The Bible gives two specific tests for this.

  1. If what they say in the name of the Lord does not come true, the Lord did not speak it (Deu 18:20-22).
  2. If what they say comes true, but they tell us to follow gods that neither we nor our ancestors have known, again, the Lord did not speak it (Deu 13:1-4).

That is how I knew what they were saying was not from God. Their prophecies did not come true, and they had God saying things that the God of my ancestors would never have said.

A God I and My Ancestors Have Never Known

The God I and my ancestors have known is indefinable, which is why I believe the Bible contradicts itself sometimes. There was not one author but many different authors, each trying to understand God the best they could. But at the end of the day, they were finite creatures trying to understand an infinite God. In a collection of writings like that, some apparent contradictions are inevitable.

That being said, when I think of the God of my ancestors, I have found the Apostle’s Creed to be helpful as a starting point. There is God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. There is Jesus Christ, his only son—only son—our Lord. There is the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit speaks and acts, it will glorify Jesus Christ, not another (Jn 16:14). If you are not a Christian, what I’m saying may or may not mean anything to you. But if you are a Christian, whenever someone claims to speak in the name of God, God not only expects us to test them before we believe. God commanded it. With that in mind, should we believe something like this?

“Nothing is going to stop me from putting my Son, Donald Trump, back in that White House … says your God!”

Say what???? My God would never say that. I don’t care what you think of Trump. Love him, hate him, indifferent to him, whatever. This fails both tests. It did not come true. Donald Trump is not in the white house. And it has God saying something our God and the God of our ancestors would never say. Again, if you are not a Christian, you can take this or leave it. But if you are a Christian, there is only one person we are allowed to call the Son of God, and it ain’t Trump. She can say, “Says your God” all day. I’m going to keep saying, “No. He. DON’T!”

Prophecy as Wish Fulfillment

In a way, I get it. We want God to speak to us, not just from a book but in an actual voice. When God spoke to people in the Bible, they seemed to have no problem knowing it was God. I don’t know how, but somehow they knew. We think if God spoke directly to people back then, God would continue to do it now. We might even start imagining we hear God speak. Maybe the philosophy of cessationism I explained in the last post applies here as well. If God does not speak in such direct fashion anymore, it must be because the Bible is already written. We are not supposed to write the Bible. God has already told us what God wants us to do in the Bible.

But you already said the Bible is full of contradictions. How can it tell us what to do?

A lot of the confusion I had earlier is clearing up for me. In that example I gave of answering or not answering a fool, it takes wisdom to know which to apply in any given situation.

You mean God doesn’t want us to just read the Bible and do what it says without thinking? We might have to use wisdom in applying it? Yes. If you are looking for a book that will just spoon-feed all the answers to you, the Bible is not it.

The Bible is God’s word, but we need wisdom in applying it, and we need context. That is why I will probably say this a thousand times if the Lord lets me live long enough. Just because they are quoting scripture, or they say “Thus says the Lord,” does not mean they are speaking the word of God. The Bible is only the word of God when it is rightly interpreted, rightly read, and rightly applied. And rightly doing all of that begins with three things: context, context, and context. And as for that “prophecy” I mentioned about Donald Trump, when you read the Bible in context, there is no way you can call anyone other than Jesus the Son of God.

What Has God Already Told Us?

If you are wondering what God wants you to do with your life, here are a couple of verses that have become anchors to my soul.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

(Mic 6:8)

Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God. Is that enough for you to do? How about this.

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

(Mat 22:37-40)

In Matthew’s Gospel, when they talk about the law and the prophets, they mean all of scripture. Remember, at the time the New Testament had not been written, so their Bible was the law and the prophets. Jesus said all of scripture comes down to two commandments: love God and love your neighbor. So that is another way to know whether what they say agrees with the word of God. Does it encourage loving your neighbor, or discourage it?

So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

(Mar 10:42-45)

In the world, people like Alexander and Caesar were called great because they conquered and lorded over many people. In God’s kingdom, greatness comes from serving others.

Do you want to know what God requires of you? God has already told you. Love God, and love your neighbor. Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Be the servant of everyone, just as Christ came not to be served but to serve. That was the foundation for the Christian community, and it still is. That does not answer questions like, “Where should I go to seminary?” But it does tell you where to focus your attention once you get there. So maybe you’re not hearing God because God is leaving that choice up to you.

How I Stopped Worrying about Missing God

But you say, “I want something more specific? Doesn’t God have a plan for my life? What if I miss it because I can’t find it in the Bible, and I can’t hear God’s rhema word for me?”

I know what you mean. I was anxious for many years because I thought God had a plan for my life, and I was missing it because I couldn’t hear God. I’ve decided to stop listening for rhema words, because more often than not, they led me astray. That tells me it was my imagination, not God. I haven’t prayed in tongues in years, and I haven’t missed it. That makes me think maybe what I spoke wasn’t tongues but gibberish. That’s what most of it amounts to when you look into it. And I feel much more within God’s plan now than I ever have, even though I don’t quite understand it.

I’m not saying you can’t pray for God to direct your paths. But the answers probably won’t come in a voice like you expect. And they definitely won’t come from false prophets and wolves in sheep’s clothing. I believe the best way to find your calling is first commit to what God has already shown you: Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God, love God and love your neighbor. Then pray for opportunities to use whatever gifts God has given you to serve others. Do that and see where it leads. Don’t worry that God is going to tell you something, and you’re going to miss it. You will never miss God by loving your neighbor.


Unless otherwise noted, Biblical quotes come from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Photo credit: Rich Anderson on Visualhunt.com
Heavy construction equipment digging a foundation

No More Apostles and Prophets

When I hear someone call themselves or someone else an apostle or prophet, I’m skeptical. I think we all should be. I accept that apostles and prophets were once part of the church. However, I don’t think God calls people to those roles anymore. God may call people to other roles—pastors, evangelists, teachers, deacons, or bishops, to name a few—but there are no more apostles and prophets today. I think this is best illustrated by comparing two passages from Ephesians.

 Some Apostles, Some Prophets?

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,

(Eph 4:11)

Five church offices are listed here, prophets and apostles being among them. I remember a demonstration from one of my former pastors. He used the fingers of his left hand to demonstrate. The thumb is like the apostles. They can touch each of the other fingers. The index finger is like the prophets. They point where to go. The middle finger (please do not make any jokes) is like the evangelists. They reach out farther than any other finger. The ring finger is like pastors. They are married to the church. And the pinky is like the teachers. They get in your ear. (Imagine putting your pinky finger in your ear to clear it out).

This would have been a good demonstration for the church at Ephesus in the first century. The problem I have is I can’t find any credible references to apostles and prophets in the church after the first century. Earlier in the same letter, we have this.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.

(Eph 2:19-20)

There are plenty of references to evangelists, pastors, and teachers throughout church history. They have been with us all along and are still with us today. Not so with apostles and prophets. And yet, the author of Ephesians says they are the foundation of the Christian community. Why then are there no references to apostles and prophets after the first century? How could the church have continued without its foundation?

I think I’ve found an answer for it. It was not the answer I wanted, but it’s the only one that makes sense to me. In Ephesians 4:11, the author is clearly referring to apostles and prophets as officers of the church. But 2:20 says the Christian community is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets. Maybe in 2:20, apostles and prophets do not refer to offices in the church.

Think about it. If God is still calling apostles and prophets and speaking to them, that means the Bible is still being written. We need to add what they are saying on behalf of God to the Bible. So far, we have the Old Testament and the New Testament. If God is adding to the Bible, what testament would that be? The Post-New Testament? The Bible is finished. The Old Testament tells about the promise of a Messiah. The New Testament tells about its fulfillment in Christ Jesus. That is why he is the cornerstone that joins the two together. The Bible, with Christ Jesus as our Messiah, is the foundation of the Christian community.

Heavy construction equipment digging a foundation
A solid foundation ensures the building will endure.
Photo credit: timn.eu on Visualhunt.com

The Church’s One Foundation

Here is another possibility to consider. Who gave us the Old Testament? The prophets. Who gave us the New Testament? The apostles. Our foundation is the Old and New Testaments, and Christ Jesus is the cornerstone that joins them together. Of the offices listed, they were the only ones directly involved in writing the Bible. Once the Bible was written, the apostles and prophets had served their purpose.

In the same way, the temple once served the purpose of atoning for sins and giving access to God. But after Christ, the temple was no longer necessary. The office of priests in the temple was no longer necessary. I believe the same thing happened with the offices of apostle and prophet. They served their purpose in writing the Bible. They received the word of God directly from the Holy Spirit. We receive it now in what they wrote.

I admit that answer does not satisfy me completely. It sounds so complicated. I mean, why can’t apostles and prophets just mean apostles and prophets, as in the people God calls to serve in those offices? But again, I have never seen any credible references to apostles and prophets after the first century. If this theory is correct, we still have our foundation, even if God is not calling apostles and prophets anymore. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized this is the way it had to be, because the canon is closed.

Who Is Writing the Bible?

Think about it. If God is still calling apostles and prophets and speaking to them, that means the Bible is still being written. We need to add what they are saying on behalf of God to the Bible. So far, we have the Old Testament and the New Testament. If God is adding to the Bible, what testament would that be? The Post-New Testament? The Bible is finished. The Old Testament tells about the promise of a Messiah. The New Testament tells about its fulfillment in Christ Jesus. That is why he is the cornerstone that joins the two together. The Bible, with Christ Jesus as our Messiah, is the foundation of the Christian community.

Sometime around the end of the first century, God determined that the foundation was finished. After you finish a foundation, do you keep building it? No, you build your structure on top of the foundation. How many times do you lay a foundation? Once. When a foundation is finished, it is finished. Time to start building your structure. The author of Ephesians says the Christian community is that structure. Everything we have built since then has been on that foundation. If we remember Jesus’ commands to love one another, that foundation will be “Solid” as a rock.

Cessationism vs. Continuationism

This is a prime example of a debate between two philosophies, cessationism and continuationism. Cessationism is the belief that some things we read about in the Bible were for that time only. They have ceased, hence the term cessationism. Continuationism believes that everything in the Bible is or should have continued from the beginnings of the church on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) to the still-awaited return of Christ. This has mainly to do with supernatural gifts and activities mentioned in the Bible, e.g., miracles, healings, prophecies, speaking in tongues and such. The argument extends also to whether or not we should expect God to call people to be apostles and prophets anymore. You can probably guess I am on the cessationist side. However, that is a recent development.

The Word of Faith folks are among the continuationists. When I was in that movement, I was definitely a continuationist. Even after I left, I still expected to be able to perform at least some of the miracles I read about in the Bible. I expected God to speak to me directly, even if I wasn’t a prophet or apostle. I expected some people would flow in the gift of prophecy. I thought every believer was supposed to speak in tongues to give evidence that the Holy Spirit dwelt in them. After decades of disappointment, I finally had to admit that cessationism made a whole lot more sense.

Continuationists or Restorationists?

Even continuationists admit the church went without apostles and prophets after the first century. They claim those offices are being restored in this generation, because we are in the last days. If you ask them when the restoration began, they might point to the Azusa Street revivals of 1906, or maybe one the Great Awakenings in America. But that still begs the question, why is there such a big gap in our history with no apostles or prophets? I never heard them give a satisfactory answer to that.

So they actually admit the offices of apostle and prophet were discontinued. If they believe apostles and prophets are being restored now, that means they ceased at some point. Instead of continuationists, they should call themselves restorationists. But putting that inaccuracy aside, I suppose it is possible. If God wants to restore living apostles and prophets to the church, who am I to tell God, “You can’t do that”? But by the same token, if God has decided the apostles and prophets have fulfilled their purpose and are no longer needed, you can’t tell God to bring them back.

In the Bible, you will find when God called apostles and prophets, God did not expect people to believe them just because they said so. God gave signs to prove what they spoke really was the word of God. The prophets prophesied in the name of the Lord, and their prophecies came true. The apostles performed miracles and healings that only God could do. Do we see that from so-called apostles and prophets today? All I’ve seen are prophecies that don’t come true, false signs, lying wonders, healings that are nothing more than the placebo effect, and parlor tricks they claim are miracles, but even they have to know they are not. Has any one of them healed one case of Covid-19? Of course not. That should tell you everything you need to know.

Their whole shtick is getting back to the Bible. “Forget about your dead traditions. Forget about history. Just read the Bible and do it. You don’t have your proof, because you don’t believe the Bible.”

Well, the Bible says real prophets and apostles showed proof they were sent from God. The Bible says,

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.

(1 Jn 4:1)

It does not tell us, “If they say, ‘Thus says the Lord,’ believe every word they say and don’t ask for any proof.” Test the spirits to see whether they are from God. Why do we need to test them? Because many false prophets have gone out into the world. Even when there were legitimate prophets, there were also many false prophets. How much more do we need to test them today? If they claim to speak for God, you are not being unfaithful by asking for proof. You are just doing what the Bible says.

concept money trap dollar sign attached to a lying nose, a group of business people jumping off a cliff trying to grab the dollar

It Only Works if You Believe in It. And That Is the Problem.

The Prosperity Gospel makes big promises of health, wealth, great relationships, and success in all your endeavors. The promises often don’t come true. When they don’t come true, the most common answer to why is you didn’t have enough faith. But the good news is you can exercise your faith and make it stronger. How do you build your faith? Romans 10:17 says, “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (KJV). What you hear over and over again, you will eventually believe. They combine this with a belief that what you believe and speak will come to pass (Mar 11:23-24). So don’t give up. Keep listening to positive, faith building messages. Stay away from negative, “It will never happen” messages. Keep believing you received your blessings, keep speaking as if they have already come, and they will come. So if I keep listening to and believing the promises of prosperity in the Bible, I will become prosperous. I will get that book deal. I will write that bestseller. In the meantime, I will have a day job that pays the bills, leaves enough leftover the give to my church and the poor, and includes full benefits. All of that can be mine if I believe and do not doubt.

After several years of believing and (not) receiving, I realized the problem with this is it only works if you believe in it. No matter how many messages I listened to that God promised to both meet all my needs according to God’s riches in glory, and give me all the desires of my heart, when month after month, year after year, it came time to pay the bills, and I had nothing leftover, how was I supposed to keep believing? I tried. I kept meditating on the scriptures that promised health, wealth, and success. I kept listening to them on tapes, CDs, and TV. I kept confessing prosperity, not poverty. But it was like this guy I heard of who showed up to work one day with his hand in a cast.

“I was in my karate class and about to break bricks for the first time. I meditated to get my ki going. I knew I could break those bricks. I raised my hand up. I knew I could break those bricks. I brought my hand down with all my might. I knew I could break those bricks. My hand was about to make contact. I wasn’t sure I could break those bricks.”

That is what “believing and receiving” all those promises of health, wealth, and success year after year did to me. Much as I wanted to, I could not force myself to believe I had money that I didn’t have. The only way this could ever work for me was if I could found some promise in the Bible that did not depend on my belief, and my doubt could not stop. It could not be like a placebo, where it only works if you believe in it. It had to be like gravity, where it works whether you believe in it or not.

Just Obey. No Belief Required.

Well, I found it. There is a scripture on tithing that appears to promise prosperity whether you believe in it or not.

Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it. And I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes, and he shall not destroy the fruits of your ground; neither shall your vine cast her fruit before the time in the field, saith the Lord of hosts.

(Mal 3:10-11 KJV)

God is saying, prove me. See if I will not open the windows of heaven for you. See if I will not pour you out a blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it. See if I will not rebuke the devourer for your sake. None of that “first believe, then you’ll see” nonsense. God told the nation of Israel here, just obey, and you will see. So if I give at least 10% of my income, no matter how small, to a “Bible preaching, Bible believing church,” I should see more money roll in for me than I have room to receive.

So here is a promise in the Bible that does not require you to believe, only obey.

Now in case you’re thinking this verse did not promise money, it promised “a blessing,” there are many ways God can bless you, money is only one way, and the blessing might come in a different form, that is not the way the Prosperity Gospel reads it. The Prosperity Gospel says this promises wealth to those who tithe. For the Israelites, wealth was in land and crops. God promised to make their land produce crops in abundance if they tithe their harvests. Wealth for us today is in money. Therefore, God will bless you with an abundance of money if you tithe 10% to a “Bible preaching, Bible believing church or ministry.” By that, they mean it has to be a church or ministry that preaches the Prosperity Gospel.

It makes perfect sense. It serves God’s interests as well as yours. You give God 10% of your income, and God will grow your income so that the 90% you keep is greater than the 100% you would have made without God’s blessing. 10% of more means your tithes will get bigger as your income gets bigger. As your tithes get bigger, God will bless you with more money. 10% of more means your tithes will get even bigger. And that cycle will just keep repeating until you don’t have to be concerned about money anymore.

How will the money come? It’s not going to just fall out of the sky or magically appear in your bank account. It might come through raises or promotions at work, that big contract that seemed out of reach before, the book you write that becomes a bestseller, or people might just give money to you. Why? Because God told them to. Prosperity preachers say that last one happens to them all the time. I wonder why people do that? Maybe because they tell people by giving to them, you are giving to God, so God will give to them in return. After all, their books become bestsellers by telling you how to get rich by giving to them. Isn’t that wonderful? God is so good.

Smiley face emoji with dollar signs in eyes
God will bless you if you give me your money.

My Tithe Check Bounced

There’s the punchline of the joke of the Prosperity Gospel. My tithe check bounced. I don’t mean when I was just starting out, and there had not been time for money to reach me. I had been diligently setting aside 10% of any income I made, no matter how small. Even if it was $10, I would set aside $1 for the tithe. Thirty years I had been tithing faithfully, and finally there was not enough money to cover it.

And it wasn’t a faith check. You know what a faith check is? That’s when you write a check and believe God for the money to cover it before it gets cashed, because you don’t have the money in your account at the moment. Very bad idea, and even Prosperity preachers will discourage it. I never did that, or at least I thought I didn’t. When I wrote that check, I honestly thought I had the money in my account to cover it. But this was one of those instances where I had missed my payment the month before, so I put two month’s tithe on that one check. You know how much it was? $200. After thirty years of tithing, I did not have enough money to cover a $200 check. How much was I making? 10% = $100. Do the math, and you’ll see I was not even close to “a blessing for which you do not have room to receive.” And again, the Prosperity Gospel is clear. The blessing in this verse is supposed to be money. It’s been thirty years. Where is my money?

It didn’t work for you because you don’t have enough faith.

Oh no! You don’t get off the hook with that excuse this time. This verse says it will work whether you believe in it or not. “Prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.” God said, “Prove me now,” not “It only works if you believe in it.” The only thing required was obedience, not belief. I gave God thirty years to prove himself. What happened?

Context, Context, Context

If you read my last post, you know what happened. The Prosperity Gospel takes that verse completely out of context. I listened to people who told me that God promised me things that God never promised me—or you. In that post, I give a detailed explanation of why this Malachi scripture has nothing to do with making us rich. I won’t rehash the whole thing here, but here are the main points.

  1. The promise was made to the nation of Israel, not to the church, not to any other nation, and not to you and me as individual believers.
  2. The tithes in Israel were taxes, not the voluntary offerings we give to the church.
  3. The tithes were food, not income. The purpose was to ensure there was food for everyone, even the poor and those who had no land.
  4. God was telling people who were already rich to pay their tithes, i.e., taxes, not telling people who were poor how to get rich.
  5. God did not tell the rich they will be richer if they tithe. The metaphors of opening the windows of heaven, and a blessing that they will not have room to receive only meant that they would have more than enough for themselves and their families. It was not an investment with guaranteed positive ROI (Return on Investment).

So if you are tithing because you think God will give you back more than you give, just remember God never promised that. That was the trap I fell into, believing God promised me things that God never promised me. And how did I fall into that trap? By listening to people who profited by reading the Bible out of context. Think about it. If your preacher says, “Look how rich I am. It’s because God blessed me. God blessed me because I tithe. And God will bless you if you tithe,” who receives those tithes you pay? Who receives those tithes everyone pays?

They might say, “It doesn’t go to me. It goes to the church.” But who controls the purse-strings of that church? Do they tell you how they spend all that money they receive? My church shows the budget to all the members, and we vote to approve it. So we know how much our pastor makes. If he showed up to church driving a Mercedes or a Lambo, you’d better believe we would ask him where he got the money for it.

Where Do We Go from Here?

It may sound funny to say this, but I am grateful for that bounced check (with apologies for whatever inconvenience it caused my church). Because any time my prayers for healing, income, a job, protection, or building a career as a writer were not answered, prosperity preachers could it was my fault for doubting too much or not having enough faith. But when it came to this scripture, they could not say that. The deal here is, if I obey this one commandment, God will bless me financially. There is no other requirement. I obeyed. How can it possibly be my fault? What should I conclude from that?

One thing I love about Jesus is when his enemies would try to trap him by presenting him with two options, both of which were bad, he would catch them in their own trap. For example, should we pay taxes to Caesar or not? If he says yes, he will be discredited to those who believe he is the Messiah. If he says no, he will be in trouble with Rome. Which is it, A or B? In situations like this, he would choose C. He held up a coin and said, “Whose image is on this?”

“Caesar’s.”

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mat 22:21 NRS).

They gave him two choices, thinking “Heads we win, tails he loses,” and he chose a third option they had never even considered.

So back to the question of why God wasn’t filling his end of the bargain when I tithed, it seems we only have two choices here. A., the Bible is wrong. Or B., God wants to bless me financially, but somehow I keep screwing it up. It can’t be A, so it must be B, right? That’s why I fell into the trap of always trying to get more faith. But I never seemed to have “enough faith” to make it happen. But this promise specifically says it does not depend on my faith. God was practically daring Israel to tithe and see if they receive more wealth as a result. Could it be that there is a C that I had never considered?

C. They are reading the Bible out of context.

You think what they say has to be true because it comes from the Bible. I will say this a thousand times if the Lord lets me live long enough. Just because they are quoting scripture does not mean they are speaking the Word of God. The Bible is only the Word of God when it is rightly read, rightly interpreted, and rightly applied. And rightly doing all of that begins with three things: Context, context, and context.

By now, I think I have shown that in context, this is not a promise of positive ROI if you give 10% of your income to your church. It is not a way for the poor to get rich, and the rich to get richer. It was a message to the rich that if they paid the tithes God commanded, they would still have plenty for themselves and their families. Not more than before, but more than enough. If you still don’t see that, again I will refer you to my previous article where I explain in depth the tithe Malachi was referring to. The tithes were meant to help the poor, not bring more hardship to them.

And in the New Testament, there is no minimum amount we are required to give to the church. Not 10%, not even 0.1%. We give not under compulsion, not under the threat of a curse if we don’t, or expecting a return as if we are investing in stocks or cryptocurrency. If you have a heart to give to your church, then by all means give. The church needs money to operate, just like any other organization. Give as you are able, and give with a willing heart, because God loves a cheerful giver. And remember, money is not the only thing you have to offer. You can give of your time by volunteering, serving on a committee, visiting sick church members, teaching Sunday school, singing in the choir, or ask your pastor where they need help. And never let them bully you into giving more than you can afford.

The lesson I learned was much bigger than the purpose of tithing or even the right way to give to the church. It taught me something about the true nature of faith. Faith is not something to manipulate God into giving you what you want. It is a relationship with God based on trust. You can ask God for what you want, and whether God gives it to you or not, you trust that God always loves you and will work whatever happens for good. When understood like that, faith is not something you use as a means to an end. It is an end in itself.


Thank you for reading. Feel free to leave a question or comment below. No trolling, but I am happy to engage in honest discussion and debate. As always, remember these words from Matthew 7:12.

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

(NRSV)

Grace and peace to you.

blond woman hiding face behind money

The Tithe of Malachi 3:8-11 Was a Tax

Word of Faith, a.k.a., Prosperity Gospel, preachers love to talk about tithing. That refers to a traditional practice of giving 10% of your income to your church. If you listen to them, most likely you will hear the same things I heard.

  • “Tithing is the door that opens up the blessings of God.”
  • “If you tithe, you will be blessed. If you don’t tithe, you will be cursed. It’s that simple.”
  • “10% of your income belongs to God. Therefore, if you don’t tithe, you are robbing God.”
  • “Every sinner I know who got saved started by tithing. Then they saw how God blessed them and gave their lives to Christ.”
  • “God can’t bless that which is cursed. That’s why God isn’t answering your prayers. You’re not tithing; therefore, you are cursed.”

If you don’t mind my giving away the ending, all of that is crap. But I don’t expect you to take my word for it, so I’ll show you where that doctrine came from, and why it is both unbiblical and unchristian.

But first I want to make it clear I am not against tithing per se. Many people have given 10% of their income to the church their whole lives, and it has never been a hardship for them. It can be a good exercise in discipline and stewardship of the resources God gives you. I am certainly not against giving to your church. The church needs money to function, just like any other organization. What I am against is the message that every Christian is required to give 10% of their income to the church, even when it is a genuine hardship to do so.

Giving to the church should be done voluntarily and not under compulsion (2 Cor 9:7). It should carry neither the threat that God will curse you if you don’t, nor some false promise that God will give back to you more money than you gave. God loves a cheerful giver. Give because you believe in the work your church is doing and want to contribute to it, not because some preacher told you to pay your protection money. And if you think tithing carries a supernatural guarantee of positive ROI, stick around, because you need some truth.

What Do the Scriptures Say?

There are several scriptures that explain tithing. I believe the one most abused by prophets of greed to line their own pockets is Malachi 3:8-11.

8 Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings.

 9 Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation.  

10 Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.

11 And I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes, and he shall not destroy the fruits of your ground; neither shall your vine cast her fruit before the time in the field, saith the LORD of hosts.

(Mal 3:8-11 KJV)

I can hear your thoughts now. How can you say this is unbiblical? There it is from the Bible, plain as day.

  1. If you don’t tithe, you’re robbing God (verse 8).
  2. You’ll be cursed if you don’t bring all your tithes to God (verse 9).
  3. If you tithe, God will pour you out a blessing for which there is not room to receive, and God will rebuke “the devourer” for your sakes (verses 10-11). I don’t know what “the devourer” is, but I want God to rebuke him.

I will probably say this a thousand times if the LORD lets me live long enough. Just because they are quoting scripture doesn’t mean they are speaking the word of God. The Bible is only the Word of God when it is rightly read, rightly interpreted, and rightly applied. And rightly doing all that begins with three things: Context, context, and context. This reading and the doctrines that derive from it are out of context. Therefore, it is not the Word of God. I’ll show you why.

How Do You Read?

Reading it rightly includes reading the whole passage. How do I know it’s out of context? Because I read the whole book of Malachi, not just the verses cherry-picked by prosperity preachers. Reading it rightly also includes asking the right questions, for example, who is this for? What is it really about? What did it mean to the people it was written for? So let’s see what a difference context makes.

Who Is This For?

If you read the whole book, right away you should see this is not for America or the church today, nor for you as an individual believer.

An oracle. The word of the LORD to Israel by Malachi.

(Mal 1:1 NRS)

The very first verse Malachi writes tells us his whole message was for Israel. Contrary to what you may have been taught, America is not Israel. They were a theocracy. America is a democracy. And the church is not Israel. Israel was a nation. The church is not tied to any particular nation. Even though tithing was a requirement for Israel while the Temple stood, that doesn’t mean it is required for us today. Because Israel was a theocracy, the tithe could be considered a tax. Giving to God is voluntary, but taxes are not voluntary. And again, America is not a theocracy. It is a democracy. In a democracy, the church cannot impose a tax on people. Therefore, giving to the church is voluntary.

What Is It Really About?

To answer this, we have to ask another question: What is the tithe? Contrary to what you have been taught, the tithe is not 10% of your income, and it never was required of everyone, even in ancient Israel.

There are three parts to the Biblical tithe.

  1. 10% was given to the sanctuary in Jerusalem (the temple tithe).
  2. 10% was given to the Levites (the Levites’ tithe).
  3. 10% every three years was given to the poor (the poor tithe).

Add that up: 10 + 10 + 10/3 = 23.33. Why don’t they tell you you must pay 23.33%? Maybe because they know people would balk at that, especially if they claim that’s gross, not net. Many churchgoers can accept 10% of their income as reasonable, but 23.33%? On top of taxes that you already said are not voluntary? A lot more people would be challenging that.

That being said, prosperity preachers don’t claim all of these tithes. They tell you about the first part, claiming that the church has taken the place of the temple in Jerusalem. Therefore, they are entitled to 10% of your income. And as Malachi says, if you don’t pay them your tithe, you are “robbing God.” But if we must pay that, then we must pay not only the temple tithe, but the Levites’ tithe and the poor tithe. They never tell us who should receive those. And they certainly don’t connect those with any blessing or curse.

Here is where context is important. The tithe Malachi refers to in the passage above is not the first tithe to the temple, but the second tithe to the Levites. Malachi was chastising Israel for not supporting the Levites. It had nothing to do with the tithe to the temple in Jerusalem.

A Tithe for the Levites

Who were the Levites, you ask? Levi was one of the twelve sons of Jacob whose descendants became the twelve tribes of Israel. While the other tribes were each given a plot of land, the Levites did not have any land of their own. That’s because God set them apart to serve as priests and ministers to all the tribes, with the provision that they would be supported by a tithe of all food produced in the land of Israel. You had to be from the tribe of Levi to be a priest, but not all Levites were priests. The majority of them served administrative roles in either the Temple or the government, as we see here.

 2 David assembled all the leaders of Israel and the priests and the Levites. 3 The Levites, thirty years old and upward, were counted, and the total was thirty-eight thousand. 4 “Twenty-four thousand of these,” David said, “shall have charge of the work in the house of the LORD, six thousand shall be officers and judges, 5 four thousand gatekeepers, and four thousand shall offer praises to the LORD with the instruments that I have made for praise.”

 (1Ch 23:2-5 NRS)

The Temple had not been built yet, but God had already told David that his son Solomon would build the Temple in Jerusalem. In this scene, David knows he is about to die, and he wants Solomon to know the assignments of the Levites. You see they administered not only the work of the house of the LORD. They were also officers, judges, and gatekeepers, i.e., civil officials. That is how we know tithes were taxes. At least some of them went to the people who were responsible for the administration of the government.

The claim some preachers make today is you are robbing God because the church is entitled to the Temple tithe. But when Malachi talks about robbing God, he means the Levites’ tithe. Therefore, there is no chance he is saying you must give 10% to your church. Why didn’t Malachi make that clear, you might ask? Because the people he wrote this for would have understood that. They didn’t need to have that explained to them. This is what happens when you read the Bible and “just do what it says,” but don’t take into account the fact that it was not written to us today. The book of Malachi was written to Israel in approximately 400 BC, not the church in the 21st century.

Food, Not Income

Furthermore, the tithes were not taken in money. Every tithe came from food that was produced in the land of Israel. That means only farmers and herders tithed. They gave tithes from the crops they grew and the livestock they raised. It was only food from the land, so fishermen did not have to tithe. It was only from the land of Israel, so Jewish farmers outside Israel did not have to tithe. And it was not money or income, so merchants and craftsmen did not have to tithe. If you think about Jesus and his apostles, four of them were fishermen. They did not tithe. Matthew was a tax collector, so he did not tithe. That did not stop them from following Jesus. Heck, Jesus himself was a carpenter. He did not tithe.

Nowhere in the New Testament does it say you have to give 10% of your income to your local church. In the time of the New Testament, there were no local churches. Believers gathered in people’s houses to worship. Even in the Old Testament era, they did not even say you had to give 10% of your income. They tithed food, not income.

What Did It Mean to The People It Was Written For?

The storehouses Malachi refers to collected food, not money. And as I already mentioned, this tithe was to feed the Levites. Since the Levites had no land of their own, they could not grow food themselves. God commanded those Israelites who were blessed with their own land and produced food off that land to set aside a portion of it to feed people who by the nature of their calling could not produce food for themselves and their families.

Since the tithe was food and not money or income, what does it mean that God would “open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it”? Opening the windows of heaven meant that God would send the rains in their season to make their crops grow. There would “not be room enough to receive it” meant their land would produce plenty of food for the tithers, more than enough to fill the Levites’ storehouses and their own personal storehouses.

What is “the devourer”? The word in Hebrew is ha-’ochel. KJV and ESV call it “the devourer,” while NRSV calls it “the locust.” NIV is the most explicit, saying “I will prevent pests from devouring your crops” (Mal 3:11). I think in context, NRSV and NIV get it right (see Translation Notes below). Even if the farmer is diligent in plowing, planting, and keeping wild animals away, and the right amount of rain comes at the right time, there is always the threat the locust will come in and devour all the work of their hands.

This was answering the objection that the tithes were too much of a burden for them. God is telling the landowners, “Obey me concerning the tithes, and I will make sure you have plenty of food left for yourselves and your families.”

When God chides them for not bringing the tithes to the storehouses, they understood that was the Levites’ tithe, not the temple tithe. God is chastising them specifically for not supporting the Levites. Of course, they still had to bring the temple tithe and the poor tithe as well. But that’s not what this verse is talking about. Notice how there are tithes not only designated to the Temple and its administrators but also to the administrators of the government, the judicial system, and the poor. Also notice the tithe is food, not money. I’m stressing that point, because that was part of the purpose of the tithe: to be sure everyone in the land of Israel could eat, even those who could not produce food themselves.

This was especially important during the religious festivals. Holidays like the Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles were supposed to give them a foretaste of the coming Kingdom of God on earth.

In the Kingdom of God, no one goes hungry. There is plenty for everyone, rich or poor.

It doesn’t matter if you are a wealthy landowner with full barns, a craftsman getting by on your trade, a tenant farmer, a fisherman, a day laborer living hand to mouth, citizen or alien, Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, widow or orphan, too poor or disabled to work, can’t afford it–none of that matters. You can eat your fill. God has blessed our land with plenty of meat, bread, grain, fruit, olive oil, and wine for everyone. It also shows why they collected food, not income, as tithes. It wasn’t because they didn’t have money then. They did (Gen 23:12-16; 2 Sam 24:23-24). It was because you can’t eat money.

Tithing and Taxes

So when Malachi talks about tithes in this passage, he’s really talking about taxes, not the voluntary giving we do in church. For those who didn’t meet the requirements to tithe, there were other taxes. But since we’re focused on the Levites’ tithe, I find it interesting that God commanded a tax that was only for the wealthy (landowners) and for the purpose of paying government officials and feeding the poor. When the wealthy complained about paying taxes and feeding the poor, God told them, “You have two choices. You can set aside the 23 1/3% I commanded for the priests, Levites, and the poor, because they can’t produce food for themselves, and keep 76 2/3% of what I provide. Or you can keep 100%, let people who serve Me and the public go hungry, and take your chances that the rain and the locusts will be favorable.”

When people wax nostalgic about the 1950’s and the old Leave It to Beaver suburban lifestyle, do they ever stop and think in the 1950’s, the wealthiest people were taxed 90%? They still lived well. Warren Buffet gives away 99% of his income to charity, and you don’t see him in line at the soup kitchen. When you deny government services and public assistance to the people, you rob the nation (verse 9). That is the real meaning of Malachi’s message on tithing.

Why Not Theocracy?

We are a democracy, not a theocracy. Our constitution is set up to allow everyone to follow whatever religion seems good to them, even if that’s no religion. Therefore, the government cannot be seen as favoring any religion over the others. Personally, I think that’s a good thing.

Just because Israel was a theocracy does not mean we have to be. God does not have any kind of fetish for theocracy or any particular government. There is no authority except from God, so God can work with any form of government (Rom 13:1; Joh 19:11). The only thing God requires from those in authority is justice and righteousness (Isa 1:17; 3:14).

If we want God’s favor, we need to do what ancient Israel failed to do: execute justice and righteousness, defend the rights of the widow, the orphan, and the alien, protect the poor from exploitation by the rich and powerful, accept the results of our democratic elections because there is no authority except from God, and see that no one lacks basic necessities, no matter what race, religion, or nationality they are (Jer 7:4-6; 22:3). That is what I think a real Christian nation would look like.

Summing It Up

If your preacher is telling you that if you don’t give at least 10% of your income, you are robbing God, and that is the root of all your problems, they do not know how to read the Bible in context. Don’t be afraid. God is not going to sick “the devourer” on you. Tithing or not tithing has nothing to do with whether God answers your prayers or whether you are saved or not.

The blessing and curse described in Malachi 3:8-11 had nothing to do with giving to the Temple then or to the church today.

In the New Testament, it’s possible some people tithed voluntarily, but no one in the church was required to tithe. Jesus never connected his healing and ministry to people tithing to him.

But he had to get money somehow. Yes, people gave to him voluntarily but never as a quid pro quo. And no, tithing does not guarantee God will give you more money than you had before. If they promise positive ROI for giving to them, don’t be surprised when it doesn’t materialize.

On the other hand, if you go to a church where no one feels obligated to give 10% or any minimum amount, where some give more than 10% and are happy to do it, some give 10% because that’s what they have done their whole lives, some struggle to give 1% but give what they can, and some really can’t afford to give anything but come because they want to worship God in spirit and in truth, chances are good there is a place for you there.

Thank you for reading. Feel free to leave a comment or question below. No trolling, but I am happy to engage in honest discussion and debate. As always, remember these words from Matthew 7:12.

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

(NRSV)

Translation Notes

Ha-‘ochel (Mal 3:11 WTT): Verb qal participle, masculine singular absolute with definite article.

The most common meaning for this verb (’achal) is eat, consume, or devour. As a participle (’ochel), it often refers to some kind of destruction or the means of destruction itself, such as fire, wild beasts, the sword, famine, or pestilence. Sometimes it is the locust (Joe 1:4; 2:25; 2 Chr 7:13; Amo 4:9) or more broadly of pests that devour crops (NIV). Since in this context Malachi is talking to farmers concerned about locusts devouring their crops, this seems most likely.

Two mackeral and a loaf on a board

On the Art of the Sermon

I am late with this. My pastor retired at the end of June. My televangelists of the past mocked the idea of pastors retiring. I don’t think any of them really retire from ministry. Their ministry just takes on a different kind of practice, so I don’t begrudge them their retirement. I have been in churches all my life, but I think this was the first time I was there to see a pastor give his or her final message before retirement.

What I’m doing here, though, he might question. He said he sent all his old sermons to the recycling bin. Though he meant every word of those sermons at the time he preached them, he said, “something goes out of them after their preached, and … they’re done.”

I was a little sad to hear that. I had often wondered if he would ever collect his sermons into a book. Apparently not. I would have bought that book. If you’ll forgive me Dr. Bailey, I don’t think this last sermon is done, so I’m going to share for those who weren’t there some highlights. He said a number of interesting things about the art of ministry and preaching sermons. For anyone who has ever wondered how pastors feel about the enormous task of proclaiming the word of God, I think you’ll appreciate his insights.

He said he gave his first sermon on July 4, 1982, called “New Beginnings.” This one, the last before retirement, he called “A Couple of Thousand Sermons Later.” That alone says a lot about why he is qualified to give advice on how to write and deliver a sermon. He thanked not only us but his former congregations for having “open minds, a sense of humor, and forgiving hearts.” No pastor can last long without that.

He believed pastoring a congregation was based on two foundations.

  1. Relationships of trust built by being a faithful friend and pastor.
  2. A willingness to continually go through the process of wrestling with scripture, prayerfully seeking from it what is God’s message for today, and delivering that message in a way that makes sense and makes a difference.

I’m not the only member who will attest he did very well on both counts. I think that’s why when at times he said some things I knew a lot of the congregation did not agree with, they did not push back too hard or try to get him fired. They already considered him a faithful friend and pastor, and they knew he would not say anything from the pulpit without honestly wrestling with the scripture and prayerfully seeking from it God’s message for us. That is where the ability to speak the truth in love served him well. He could let you know where he stood without being confrontational about it.

I Am a “Dinosaur”

Looking back to when he was interviewing for this position, he told the nominating committee that he was “a dinosaur.” It seemed the megachurches had brought a new style of worship that included rock bands, short film segments, multi-media presentations, light shows, and stadium seating. That was not his style, and he hoped that there were some people who still found the traditional style of worship appealing.

Though sometimes I feel like I’m a dying breed, I am among those who still find the traditional style of worship appealing when it’s done well. In fact, a few years ago, I watched video of a megachurch service with all the bells and whistles that usually come with that. When I was younger, that would have appealed to me. But now it seems I’m at a point in my life where I want church to be church. That includes corporate and responsive prayers, singing of hymns, music from a choir (traditional or contemporary), reading of scripture, reading of the Apostles’ Creed or something similar, and a sermon that explains the scripture well.

Pastors Work More than One Hour

Most of the sermon was focused on the art of preaching itself. It is not the only part of pastoring, just the most visible. The pastor actually does work more than one hour per week. I remember in seminary, I heard a professor say you should plan on one hour of preparation per minute of your sermon. So if your sermon is 15-20 minutes, that means about 15-20 hours of preparation. And that does not include other duties like committee meetings, hospital and home visits, weddings, funerals, counseling, et al, and I was blessed to experience his wisdom and grace in all those capacities.

In an age when we are bombarded with media of different kinds competing for our attention, preaching is challenging today. It requires sustained attention from both the preacher and the listeners, and while megachurches have many tools to keep your attention, the traditional preacher only has words.

As a writer, I think that is what I appreciate about the art of a traditional sermon. I know what it’s like to have to determine not only what I want to say but what are the right words to say it. As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is … the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” So I appreciate pastors who know how to capture the lightning. Pastoring requires regular writing on a deadline that has to communicate the word of God to the listeners, which is why I don’t understand why more pastors don’t collect their best sermons into a book, Dr. Bailey’s comments about them being “done” notwithstanding.

Complete Honesty

He realized early in his career that effective preaching required complete honesty. And so he would confess some things about himself in sermons that he would rather not tell us in private conversation. Because of that, it was always a challenge when he had to preach more than once on the same day, as when we did multiple services to accommodate Covid restrictions. I never heard him complain about it, though perhaps he did in private. But throughout the Covid crisis, his first concern was our safety. So if that meant preaching multiple sermons to keep social distancing or putting more effort into directing people to the church’s YouTube channel, or just doing things that were uncomfortable, he was willing to do it. And I agree that honesty is truly necessary for effective preaching.

Some Sundays, he felt like he had completely failed to get the most important points across. But then as he greeted people at the end of the service, someone would enthusiastically tell him that something he had said really made a difference for them. Then there were other Sundays where he felt great about both the sermon and delivery, but afterwards someone would ask, “Are you okay?” I imagine anyone who speaks in public regularly can relate to that.

How to Stay Encouraged with Low Turnout

On Sundays when people commented there was a low turnout, it never discouraged him. He said he was always amazed that anyone showed up. He knew most of the reasons people show up had nothing to do with him. But even so, he said, “I hope you will allow me to say that your presence here … is and has been the most wonderful affirmation for me that you believe God has called us into partnership to be a community of faith together.”

Lightning. The pastor is the leader of the congregation, but he is not the whole show. I don’t trust pastors who take an authoritarian approach, a model that is sometimes called shepherding, where the pastor’s word is law. As Dr. Bailey said, church should be a partnership, not only between pastor and parishoners, but within the congregation as well. I joined the church because I liked the pastor and his sermons, but also because there were people there who made me feel welcome from the beginning, especially in my Sunday School class. Going there feels like a family reunion, where there are families with multiple generations represented, and you know you are already loved even before you walk into the building. That is what I think being a community of faith together means.

The Privilege of Focusing on God’s Word

“It’s an amazing privilege in one’s job to be able to study and pray over God’s word at length and then attempt to bring that word to others, and to have people show up to engage you in that enterprise with you.”

Lightning again. Though I am not ordained, I feel most alive when I am able to study and pray over God’s word at length and then attempt to bring that word to others. That is why I started this blog. It’s a sign of his humility and grace that he recognizes that is a privilege, one that no preacher should take for granted, to be able to do that, and have others around who believe in you enough to pay you to do that, not for them but with them.

Hope, Joy, Good News, and Challenge

“My hope and prayer is that in the long run, the sermons have brought mostly hope and joy and good news to people as well as the challenge to live the way God calls us to live in Jesus Christ.”

Lightning again. I’ve heard some preachers say they only want to bring hope, joy, and good news to people. I’ve heard others who complain about them, saying speaking the truth of God’s word needs to challenge people and convict them of their sin, but they don’t have much to say that is encouraging. The way he described it strikes the right balance. He hoped that his sermons brought mostly hope, joy, and good news, while also recognizing living the way God calls us to live in Jesus Christ is a challenge, and preachers need to be honest about that. Again, speaking the truth in love goes a long way to earning your parishioners’ trust.

Truth-telling and Ambiguity

He quoted a line from Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite authors. Buechner called the sermon “… a creative type of truth-telling that is willing to live with ambiguity, willing to live with unanswered questions rather than presuming to have all the answers.”

I wish more preachers today would take that to heart. Too many of them presume to have all the answers, maybe because they never learned to live with unanswered questions. You’re human. It’s okay to admit you don’t have all the answers. But they have to make you think they know everything, so they quote a Bible verse or two, usually out of context, and say, “This is the word of God,” meaning there is no more room for discussion, no possibility that they might not see the whole picture.

I heard one Jewish woman say, “Jews open the scriptures to begin a conversation. Christians open the scriptures to end a conversation.” Like most statements of this nature, that is true–to an extent. But I agree Jewish tradition is much open to conversation than Christian tradition. Opening the scriptures, and hence sermons, should be an invitation to further thought and discussion. Yes, there are some things I think are the Truth (with a capital T), and I try not to compromise them. But even then, I have room in my thinking for honest and thoughtful debate. On most of my posts I make my opinions clear. But I take the time to explain why I think or believe the way I do, and I’m always hopeful that people will use the comments section to share why they agree or disagree. Most of the time, I am looking to begin a conversation, not end it.

New Beginnings

His final prayer for us: “I pray that God who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ. And I pray that you will continue to open your hearts and your ears and your mind to those who will stand here in the pulpit in the future, attempting to the best of their ability to tell the truth.”

In other words, he hopes we will treat the next pastor the same way we treated him. And he hopes we will continue our partnership of being a community of faith together with whoever is next to occupy our pulpit.

Presbyterians don’t usually applaud, but we gave him a standing ovation. Even the “frozen chosen” have moments when we must show our appreciation. I said in an earlier post I think the next pastor will have big shoes to fill. But if he/she (yes, women can be pastors, at least in PCUSA) honestly wrestles with the scriptures to give us the truth to the best of their ability, is a faithful pastor and friend who invites us to join in their work of carefully studying God’s word and trying to draw from it God’s message for us, whose preaching invites conversation rather than shutting it down, and who offers hope, joy, and encouragement in the challenging work of living as God in Jesus Christ calls us to live, I for one will accept them with an open mind, a sense of humor, and a forgiving heart.


Thank you for reading. Feel free to leave a comment or question below. No trolling, but I am happy to engage in honest discussion and debate. As always, remember these words from Matthew 7:12.

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

(NRSV)
hand grasping golden apple

The Mind of Christ

In my last post, I talked about the claim from some preachers that if you are born again, you are a “little god.” I argued that is not true, first by pointing out that when the Bible says we were made in the image and likeness of God, that is not the same as being a god.

I’m sure some of them will say, “Well, what about Philippians 2:5-6?”

5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:

(KJV)

See? It says we should have the mind of Christ Jesus and think it is not robbery to be equal with God.

Problem is that reading is out of context. Context is so important to understanding the Bible, so let me explain what that means. Reading in context is about trying to figure out what the author meant when he wrote it, and what it meant to the audience it was originally written for. When I say something is being read out of context, I’m saying that is not what the author meant when he wrote it, and/or that is not what it would have meant to the original audience. When the author of Genesis 1:26-27 said the first man and woman were made in God’s image and likeness, he did not mean they were equal to God. The original audience would have thought of an image or likeness in the same way they would have thought of a statue, drawing, or painting of a person. It can look just like the person, but it is not the person. Therefore, reading image and likeness as equality is out of context.

With that in mind, does Philippians 2:5-6 say we should think of ourselves as equal to God? What does it say in context? That’s what I am about to examine.

Context: What does the verse really say?

To answer that, we have to dive into the Greek a little bit. If you didn’t know, the Old Testament was written in Hebrew—except for a few chapters of Daniel that were in Aramaic—and the New Testament was written in Greek. Or maybe they thought Paul wrote in King James English. If so, you need to know he wrote in Greek, because that was the language of the people of his congregations. And because King James English was over a thousand years and hundreds of miles removed from even one person speaking it, but I digress. For us trying to understand today what any of the Biblical authors wrote, it is inevitable that some things will get lost in translation.

In Greek the word translated robbery in the KJV is harpagmos, which could mean “robbery” but also could mean something taken, plunder, a prize, or a thing to be taken or held onto forcibly. Most other translations say “a thing to be grasped.” So should we consider it not robbery to be equal with God, or should we consider equality with God not a thing to be grasped? More context is needed.

Context: What does it mean within this particular section?

In this case the section we are looking at is Phil 2:5-11. Here is the World English Bible’s translation, which I am using because it is not copyrighted.

5 Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, yes, the death of the cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave to him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

(WEB)

The Mind of Christ

So Paul starts with “Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus” (v. 5). I prefer the NRSV, which says , “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phi 2:5 NRSV). What does it mean to have the same mind as was in Christ Jesus? That is what Paul explains in the rest of the passage. We believe verses 6-11 were a hymn. If so, it could be the oldest Christian hymn we have record of. They didn’t know how to write music then, so we can only guess how it was sung. But the Christians in Philippi would have known and probably sung along in their minds as it was read to them.

Having the mind of Christ means humility and love that is willing to sacrifice oneself for others, even if it means suffering and death.

The hymn starts by describing Jesus as “existing in the form of God,” but then goes on to say in verse 7, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men.” So the hymn begins by contrasting his existence before he became a man with the human form he took as a man called Jesus of Nazareth. And when he was “in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, [even] the death of the cross.”

In between his being in the form of God and in human form, verse 6b says he “didn’t consider equality with God” harpagmos. In that context, which is more likely, that he did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, or did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped? Considering how verses 7-8 stress how in his human form, he humbled himself, taking the form of servant, becoming obedient to the point of death, that does not sound like someone going around saying, “I don’t consider it robbery to call myself equal with God.” That sounds like someone who did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped. Unlike us, he already existed in the form of God. He had the right to claim equality with God. But instead, he humbled himself, taking the form of a servant. Paul is saying that is the mind of Christ that you should have.

Context: What else does the Bible say about this?

I’ve already talked about Genesis 1:26-27, where it says human beings were created not equal to God but in God’s image and likeness. This passage from Philippians makes the point more powerfully by saying even Jesus did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped. That particular phrase also connects this passage with the Creation story in Genesis.

First, God placed them in a Paradise and gave only one restriction.

15 Yahweh God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate and keep it. 16 Yahweh God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but you shall not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; for in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.”

(WEB).

They can eat from every tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They should consider that poison, because “in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.” They were fine with that until a serpent told them,

4 … “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

(Gen 3:4-5 NRSV)

They probably never thought about being like God before. But now that the serpent put that idea in their head, they thought, “That would be awesome.” So at a tree on a hill, they considered equality with God a thing to be grasped, and they grasped it. Because of that, they were banished from the Garden. God would still be with them, but it would never be the same.

hand grasping golden apple
Photo by Alan Cabello from Pexels;

The Second Adam

In Romans 5:12-21, Paul describes Christ as a second Adam. When he was brought to a tree on a hill, he did NOT consider equality with God a thing to be grasped but humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross—the perfect act of faithful obedience to God and loving self-sacrifice for us. And in so doing, he reversed the curse and restored our broken relationship with God.

Having the mind of Christ means humility and love that is willing to sacrifice oneself for others, even if it means suffering and death. He had a right to claim to claim equality with God, but instead he submitted himself to God’s plan to redeem humanity. How much more then should we stop grasping for equality with God and show God’s love through service and humility?

God Highly Exalted Him

That was the first half of the hymn. The second half describes how God highly exalted Jesus in response to his perfect obedience. He gave Jesus a name that is above every other name, confirming his status as Christ and Lord. Because God glorified him, he can be called equal with God. We cannot expect to be glorified in the same way. But Paul said in the book of Romans we are children of God and heirs with Christ “if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:17 NRSV). If we share in his suffering to redeem the world, we will also share in his glory.

Furthermore, he said, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18 NRSV). We still won’t be equal to God. But whatever we are, it will be awesome.

Jesus is not a model for us to claim equality with God. He is the model of a servant who submits to God’s will, even when it means suffering unjustly at the hands of others. God’s will was for the redemption of humanity, even those who persecuted him. God’s will was to show the extent of God’s love in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Only after Jesus’s death and resurrection did the disciples understand what it meant for him to be the Messiah. It meant suffering and death, not for its own sake, but to save others.

A Suffering Messiah

It was foreshadowed in one of Isaiah’s songs of the suffering servant. God prophecies of someone called “My servant,” who is beaten so much that he does not even look human anymore. People see his suffering and think it must be the wrath of God on him. The servant does not demand justice, because he understands they do not know what they are doing. They are like lost sheep who have gone astray. Somehow they see God glorify him, and their conscience is pricked. They seek the one whom they once despised and rejected and want him to teach them the ways of justice and righteousness (Isa 52:13-53:12).

And the irony was he could have rescued himself. He could have grasped the equality with God that was already his. Before he came to us in human form, he was in the form of God. But he willingly surrendered that status as Son of God to become the suffering servant. If you want the mind of Christ, meditate on that for a while.

So if you think this verse is about how you can become equal with God, you have missed the point entirely.

Thanks for reading. I hope you’ll come back next time. Until then, remember these words from Matthew 7:12.

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

(NRSV)

Grace and Peace to you.

Aaron and Israelites worshipping a golden calf raised on a platform with smoke from an altar and trumpets

Are You a God?

This is an argument I hear a lot from Prosperity preachers. When the Bible says that God made man in his own image, that meant Adam was made equal to God but lost it in the Fall. That thinking gives rise to something I call the “little gods” doctrine. This says humans were first created not just human but little gods. They lost their god-status in the Fall, but Jesus came to restore that to us. When you are born again (give your life to Christ), you are born again out of the human class into the god-class of beings. Like in the movie Groundhog Day, “I am a god. I am not the God.”

You are a god (with a little G). They were not the first to come up with this, but it really sounds strange coming from people who call themselves Christian ministers. Most traditional preachers would say God is God, and we are not. What makes them think they are gods? It all starts with the story of creation in Genesis, and this verse in particular.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”  

(Gen 1:26 NRSV)

If you were expecting it to say, Let us make man in our image, that is how many translations read. However, the Hebrew word ’adam is better translated humankind. People will say, “Why do you insist on saying humankind or humanity? Everyone knows when you say ‘man’ here, it means mankind.”

Does everyone know that? I have heard several people say, “The Bible says, ‘God made man in his image,’ not woman.” But notice verse 27:

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

(NRSV, emphasis mine)

Women were just as much made in the image of God as men. So I don’t want to hear anymore about how women are somehow a lesser image of God than men. Now that we’ve established that, the next question is what does it mean to be made in the image of God? Prosperity preachers say it means we are equal to God—or at least we were before that first male and female messed it up. But even so, Jesus will give it back to us if we accept him as our Lord and Savior.

One preacher said,

“Dogs get together. What do they make?”

“Dogs.”

“Horses get together. What do they make?”

“Horses.”

“Men and women get together. What do they make?”

“People.”

“God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit get together. What do they make?”

Boom! Take that, you religious fuddy-duddies who won’t believe the Word of God!

Doctrine, Tradition, and the Word of God

When I say this does not agree with traditional church doctrine, they would say something like, “We don’t care about the dead traditions and dead doctrines of your dead church. We only believe the living Word of God.”

Here’s why I think church tradition matters. In the nearly 2,000 years we have had the Bible, why didn’t anyone see this before? After nearly 2,000 years since the last parts of the Bible were written, and millions of people all over the world from 50 generations diligently copying it, translating it, and studying it nearly that whole time, how did no one see that we are little gods? I’m not saying it’s impossible that we missed something, but how likely is it really to miss something this big?

And I might be more ready to accept this kind of argument from them if it were only a few verses here and there that they raise questions about. You know, like, “Why does it appear to say this? I never heard anyone from traditional churches teach it.” But the Prosperity preachers on TV and YouTube find something like this every episode they do. And when someone like me questions them about it, they say, “It’s in the Bible.” Oh, yeah. Silly me. I didn’t know the Bible said we are made in the image and likeness of God.

And they don’t even bother to ask, “Why hasn’t the church taught this in almost 2,000 years?” Actually, they do ask but not as an invitation to discussion. Rather, they say it as an accusation that the church has been hiding the truth of God’s Word for 2,000 years. Good thing the Prosperity preachers came along, or the truth might have been hidden for another 2,000 years. How did God ever get along without them?

If you ever sit down to read the Bible, you will come across some verses that make you wonder how it can be reconciled with church tradition. It’s okay to ask about it. You might find out there was a very good reason for not teaching something you never heard of, as we will see when we examine this “little gods” doctrine. I call it a doctrine, because that is how they teach it. It is the Word of God. Therefore, it is the truth. We are gods. One even went as far as to say, “Whenever it says in the Bible ‘I am,’ I just smile and say, ‘I am, too.’” If you don’t know, “I am,” as he is using it, refers to the divine name of God, which we think was pronounced Yahweh. Jews consider that name so holy they can’t even say it out loud. Not this guy. He’s equal to God, so he can say “I am too.” So unlike Bill Murray, he went from being a god to the God.

I will probably say this a thousand times if God lets me live long enough. Just because they are quoting scripture does not mean they are speaking the Word of God. The Bible is only the Word of God when it is rightly read, rightly interpreted, and rightly applied. And rightly doing all of that begins with three things: Context, context, and context. Here are three questions to help you get to the context.

  • What does this verse really say?
  • What does it mean within this story?
  • How does it compare to the rest of the Bible?

Let’s take these one by one.

Context: What does this verse really say?

What they are claiming amounts to this: Image of God = God.

Is that true?

Before we go making strange new doctrines out of something the Bible might or might not have said, let’s ask, what does it mean to be made in the image of God?

Going back to Genesis 1:26 there are two words God uses to describe the creation of humankind as a reflection of God’s self: image and likeness. Those words translate the Hebrew words tselem and damut, respectively. The two words are used as synonyms, so we should consider them equivalent. They are used together again in Genesis 5:3.

When Adam had lived one hundred thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth.

(Gen 5:3 NRSV)

Again the words for image and likeness are tselem and damut. The son is the image and likeness of the father. That business about God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit getting together and making gods sounds more likely now, I have to admit. Seth was the son of Adam, and Adam was the son of God. In each case, “image” and “likeness” are used to describe the connection between the son and father. But again, whether that means they were equal to each other or resembled each other is not clear. Image and likeness usually describe statues or drawings of something, not the thing itself.

Since in both these cases, the son is said to be the image and likeness of the father, maybe it would help to examine how the phrase son of God is used in the Bible.

Image, Likeness, and Son of God

There are several possible meanings for “son of God.” There was only one person for whom that meant equality with God, and that was Jesus. That is attested by God at his baptism (Mar 1:11), and by the Caiaphas the high priest, the man who sent him to Pilate to be executed. At one point in the trial, Caiaphas says to Jesus, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mat 26:63 NRS).

When Jesus answers affirmatively, it is obvious from their reaction Son of God in that context meant he was claiming to be equal to God. But “son of God” does not always have that meaning. Sometimes the angels are called “sons of God,” because somehow they share a divine nature with God. A king was called a son of God at his coronation (Psa 2:7). Jesus taught that we can become children of God by reflecting God’s character (Mat 5:9, 44-45). In none of these cases does it mean equality with God. Adam and Eve were God’s children, but were they in the god-class of beings? We still don’t know.

Context: What does it mean within this story?

You can read the whole story in Genesis 1-3. I’m going to pick out one moment that I think is most relevant to this question. You probably know that after God created the male and female Adam, God placed them in the Garden of Eden and charged them to keep the Garden. It was a paradise, with weather so perfect they did not need clothes. All the animals were their friends, and there were all kinds of delicious fruits ready for the picking (literally). And God commanded them to be fruitful and multiply. In other words, start making babies. Life was perfect in every way you can imagine. God only gave them one rule: don’t eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. If you do, you will die.

Then a serpent tempted them. He told them in effect, “No, you won’t die! You will become wise, knowing both good and evil, just like God.” Again, does “like God” mean similar to God, equal to God, or little gods? They were already made in God’s image and likeness, so they were similar to God. That tells me they must not have been equal to God or little gods.

Another reason to think so is the serpent tempted them by saying they would be “like God.” How could they be tempted with something they already had? If you say, “Do this for me, and I will make your eyes green,” that is no temptation for me. I already have green eyes. But if you say, “Do this for me, and I’ll give you this brand new Tesla,” now I’m tempted. If they were already little gods, how could that be a temptation for them?

And isn’t it interesting that preachers of the Prosperity Gospel are using the exact same temptation? “Join us, give us 10% of your income, and we will show you how to reach your full potential as little gods.”

Context: How does it compare with the rest of the Bible?

They ate the fruit, traditionally believed to be an apple. They knew they were naked. Their innocence was gone, they were banished from the Garden, and they eventually died. According to the Prosperity Gospel, this is when they lost their status as gods. But Good News! Jesus won it back for us. So when you receive him as your Lord and Savior, you are born again into the god-class of beings. I should say I don’t know that all Prosperity preachers teach this, but a significant number teach either that or something in its image and likeness. To me, a doctrine like this could only come from the Prosperity Gospel.

There is little if anything to suggest that Adam and Eve were created as little gods but lost that status in the Fall. You can’t lose something you never had. So the next question is, what does the rest of the Bible say about equality with God? First of all, I have never encountered the phrase “god-class of beings” anywhere in the Bible. I can’t think of anyone in the Bible who was ever called equal to God except Jesus. But in thinking about the Bible as a whole, there are several stories in the Bible of people who tried to claim god-like status. Aside from Jesus, how did that work out for them? Not very well.

Pharaoh thought of himself as a god on earth, a little god in Prosperity Gospel terms. He went ten rounds with God and got hit with every plague known to humanity at the time. When he couldn’t win the fight in the ring, he tried to win it in the parking lot and got his whole army drowned in the Red Sea (Exo 1-15).

Herod Agrippa once made a public appearance that prompted some people to shout, “It is the voice of a god, and not of a man” (Act 12:22 KJV). He did not correct them and died a few days later.

I think it is safe to say that the Biblical authors universally take a very dim view of people claiming God-status for themselves.

When Paul healed a crippled man, the people of the city saw the miracle and thought he and his companion Barnabas were gods. I’ll let you read the story.

In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And the man sprang up and began to walk. 

When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates; he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifice.

When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, “Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. 

(Act 14:8-15 NRSV)

The people think they are gods, and their response is not to say, “Listen, folks. We’re not Zeus and Hermes. They are false gods. But listen to us, and we will teach you how to be gods like us.” No, they tore their clothes. Jews did this as a sign of grief or great emotional duress. They were grieved that people were calling them gods and quickly moved to correct them. We are mortals just like you, they said, and implored them to turn from worthless things to the living God. If they were here today and heard people speaking in Jesus’ name that “you are little gods,” I can only think they would rend their clothes again and tell us the same.

Images of God

I hope I have shown you enough to make it clear when the Bible says we are made in the image and likeness of God, it does not mean we are equal to God or little gods. If you have accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior, you do well. But you are still not a little god. You are not in the god-class of beings. You are every bit as human and mortal as you were before.

Now I want to share one more thought with you. You may have heard the Bible forbids making any images of God. Have you ever wondered why? I have. I’m not saying I have the answer, but I’ll tell you the best answer I have come across. Remember we started with the verse in Genesis that says God created the first human, male and female, in God’s image. Could it be that God does not want us making images of God because God has already made the definitive image of God? That is you and me.

Historically, Christians have been good witnesses when we remember that every person we encounter is made in the image of God. It is easier to love my neighbor and myself if I see the image of God in both of us. We do not do well when we try to be God, whether that means a god or the God. Thinking we are gods makes us elitist, because clearly if you are not one of us, you are not a god. It makes us arrogant rather than humble, privileged rather than compassionate, domineering rather than cooperative. If I am a god and you are a mere mortal, how can I love you as myself? Since God is inerrant and infallible, it makes you think you are inerrant and infallible. And trust me, if you believe that it’s possible for you to become a little god, you are setting yourself up for a huge disappointment when you find out you are not. Ask Pharaoh and Herod Agrippa.

If you have read this far, thank you very much. I hope you’ll consider it worth sharing with someone else. The first three chapters of Genesis introduce several themes that keep reappearing throughout the Bible. This theme of seeking equality with God, for example, is key to understanding one famous line from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. That will be in my next post. Until then, remember these words from Matthew 7:12

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you.

concept money trap dollar sign attached to a lying nose, a group of business people jumping off a cliff trying to grab the dollar

Depression and the Prosperity Gospel: A Toxic Mix

I was involved in a movement called by different names. Word of Faith is what we liked to call ourselves. Today it is more likely to be called the Prosperity Gospel. Looking back, I think going in with undiagnosed clinical depression added a whole other dimension to just how tormented I was. I’ll try to explain what I mean.

Vulture hoarding dollars and gold.
Give me your money, and God will bless you with health, wealth, abundance, and victory.

For one thing, I expected to get healed of a number of pre-existing conditions I had. They told me the healings we read about Jesus and the Apostles doing in the New Testament were for believers today. And any church that didn’t preach that and believe that was dead, because they didn’t believe the Bible. That’s the way they describe traditional churches, dead because they believe their “dead traditions” over the Bible, which is the Word of God. And here’s a quick public service announcement. If the idea ever occurs to you to tell your mother her church is a dead church, DON’T. Nothing good can come of it. Trust me.

They had me convinced for years if I’m not getting healed, I didn’t have “enough faith.” I had to get “more faith.” I would spend more time in prayer, more time meditating on the right Bible verses, until I believed and did not doubt. And I would get to a place where I’d think, “Surely, I have enough faith now.” Still, it didn’t work.

They could never answer the question, “How do I know I have ‘enough faith’?” And if I ask why it’s not working, or what am I missing, is that a negative confession? Because if you make a negative confession, that will undo all the prayers you made before. It will cancel all the prayers you made in faith. Just one negative confession, and Phft! It’s like you never prayed or believed at all. Everything you confessed before, believing and receiving, it’s just gone. You have to start over.

They would say, “Don’t believe your circumstances. Don’t believe your symptoms. Believe only the word of God that says ‘By his stripes you were healed.’ You are not the sick trying to get healed. You are the healed that the Devil is trying to put sickness on. Don’t let him. Keep believing you have it, and you will have it.”

Okay, I believe it. I won’t surrender to the Devil. But I can’t stop myself from thinking, “How long do I have to believe I have it before I have it?” To put it another way, How long do I have to fake it before I make it? I could never get “enough faith” to make it happen. I believed all that for years, even though no one could give me a definitive answer on what “enough faith” meant. Did it mean having no doubt? How can I have no doubt when I’m doubled over from the pain of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?

But I stayed true to the faith. I prayed and believed and received my healing the way they taught. I confessed healing scriptures like Isaiah 53:5 the way they taught me, and I wasn’t getting healed. Either I or the Bible was wrong. It couldn’t be the Bible, so it had to be me, right? So I doubled down, listened to more tapes to build up my faith, because “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God,” Romans 10:17. What you keep hearing over and over again, you will believe. So if I hear over and over again that I’m healed, God promised healing, and claim verses like Isaiah 53:5 and1 Peter 2:24, and I keep hearing that over and over again, maybe eventually, I will believe it and not doubt anymore. I continued to confess only healing, never sickness, and if I did, I would repent and get back to confessing healing.

It only works if you believe in it, and this is the “it” you have to believe. Anything you say, positive or negative, if you believe it, it will come to pass. That is why it was called the Word of Faith. You must speak (word) and believe (faith). You have to believe you already have it, and thank God as if you already have it, and then you will have it. So I believed I already had it, and I really tried to keep believing I already had it, and I was careful to only confess positive things and thank God as if God had already answered my prayers, but doubts wouldn’t go away.

After I turned away from the Word of Faith (aka, Prosperity Gospel), I could finally admit I was never healed. But I couldn’t admit that before, because they taught me that if I speak as if I am sick, that would cancel out all my prayers. This is why when you hear testimonials from people saying, “I had this heart condition (or whatever they claim to be healed of). I was taking medication for it, but I’m healed now by the power of God. I don’t need medication anymore,” you don’t know if that’s real or if they are saying it “by faith.” And that’s the danger of it too. They have a heart condition that requires medication, but they are “believing for their healing.”

“I believe I am healed. I receive my healing. I am confessing I am healed. I am healed. Therefore, I don’t need medicine anymore.” The vast majority of people who do that end up dying. Or if the condition is not life-threatening, they keep saying they are healed, even though there is no difference in their condition. That is how it was for me. I couldn’t bring myself to say I wasn’t healed, because I was taught if I did, I was giving up on God, and I would lose whatever progress I had made toward having my healing manifest in my body.

Now, if you can, imagine on top of that I was living with clinical depression. That means my brain chemistry was out of balance, which made my brain naturally predisposed to depression. I can’t remember anything more depressing than thinking God had made all this perfect health and abundant wealth available to me, and I couldn’t get it. My prayers were not being answered, because I didn’t have “enough faith.”

I know now part of the problem was my clinical depression was undiagnosed. I didn’t know my brain was predisposed to magnify all the depressing thoughts I was getting from trying to live according to Word of Faith doctrine. They didn’t cause clinical depression in me, but they definitely made it worse.

Declaring Healing Is Not Healing

In one of the conventions or revival meetings I went to, the preacher onstage declared the entire body of Christ was healed of depression. I wasn’t sure how to receive it. On one hand, it felt great to hear it. In fact, it was awesome. I didn’t know I had clinical depression, but I had struggled with depression at times. I didn’t have to worry about depression anymore. Or did I?

I tried really hard to believe it, because I knew it wouldn’t work unless I believed it. It only works if you believe in it. Not believe in God. Believe in it. Believe whatever you say will come to pass. If you don’t believe it will come to pass, it won’t work.

So I tried really hard to believe it. But at the same time, I wondered if he could really do that. Can he just declare an end to depression for every Christian on the planet? Of course, he did not mean every Christian when he said “the body of Christ.” He only meant the “real” Christians, the ones who were born again and read the Bible exactly the same way he did. But that is still a lot of people, tens or even hundreds of millions worldwide. How could he just declare an end to depression for all of us? We were healed of depression for the rest of our lives. Every Christian on the planet. Really? Maybe it was just every Christian who believes in Word of Faith doctrine. But still, really?

By their own doctrine, it only works if you believe in it. Faith comes by hearing. The only people who heard it were those of us in the building. So how could the entire body of Christ believe it if they never heard it? Even as I was trying to believe it, it made no sense.

What gave him that idea? He probably heard something. He says he hears the voice of God from his solar plexus, so I’m guessing he heard, “Declare an end to depression for the body of Christ.” So he did. He claims we are seated in heavenly realms with Christ, and all authority in heaven and earth has been given to Christ. Therefore, we as the body of Christ have all authority in heaven and earth. We have authority over depression. And he is only speaking what he hears from God, so I’d better believe it, or God will be disappointed in me. Again.

I know now that whatever he said did not come from God. Whatever he heard, it was not the Holy Spirit. And no, he did not have authority to declare an end to depression for every Christian worldwide. He did not have authority to do that even for everyone who was in the building. Yes, Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Mat 28:18 NRSV). But what does that mean for us? Continuing in verses 19–20.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

(Mat 28:19–20 NRSV)

You see? He said he has all authority. He did not say we have all authority. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations …. None of his instructions there have anything to do with declaring an end to depression or any other mental illness. It does not give us any authority to heal anyone of anything, whether the illness is physical or mental. Why did God wait nearly 2,000 years to whisper it in some preacher’s ear, “Declare an end to depression for all true believers”? If it were that easy, God could have done that as soon as Jesus rose from the dead. God could have had one of the Twelve Disciples declare an end to depression for all true believers, and I never would have been born with clinical depression.

Do I have to tell you I got depressed again? In fact, more than a decade later, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. So much for the end of all depression. Did that mean I wasn’t really part of the body of Christ? That I wasn’t really a true believer? That I didn’t have enough faith to please God? Should I have believed in my healing despite my feelings or in spite of my symptoms? I did for as long as I could. But with disappointment after disappointment, unanswered prayer after unanswered prayer, at some point I couldn’t keep faking it. I couldn’t keep believing things that all the evidence said were not true. Especially when a specialist told me, “You tested high for depression in every possible way.”

“High in every possible way.” And the funny thing is I only felt mildly depressed at the time. Should I have just rebuked that in the name of Jesus and said, “I don’t receive that”? Should I have continued living in denial? That is what the Prosperity Gospel would say, but I just could not pretend anymore.

Hearing God: Blessing and Curse

I thought the best thing about coming into the Word of Faith movement was they taught me how to hear God speaking to me. They would relay conversations they had with God and said I could have conversations just like that. They would even claim to be speaking directly the word of God live from the pulpit, with “says the Lord,” or “says the Spirit of God.” And they said I could hear God in the same way.

At first, it was thrilling, the idea that I could actually hear God speak to me. Prayer wasn’t just a one way conversation anymore. I would be in the middle of prayer, and in the midst of it, I would hear a still small voice inside me say, “I love you.” I didn’t just read it in the Bible, or hear it in a sermon or song at church. I heard God say it to me personally. And love, joy, and peace would permeate every cell of my body.

But after giving me that gift, they ruined it. Because that voice of love became a voice of judgment and condemnation. As month after month, year after year passed with prayers only being answered no, or at best not yet, their message that it was because I did not have enough faith took over.

Imagine thinking your prayers are not being answered because you don’t have enough faith, and then coming across a verse like Hebrews 11:6, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” So God is not hearing my prayers because I don’t have enough faith. If I don’t have enough faith, it’s impossible to please God. I’m a disappointment to God. How can that be?

“I’m doing the best I can. I’m trying to believe the way you told me to, or the way I’m supposed to, or the way that pleases you. I really am. But I need help. Like the man said to Jesus, ‘I believe. Help my unbelief.’”

I could hear the voice of the Holy Spirit saying, “Why don’t you believe My word? I promised in Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24 ‘By his stripes you were healed.’ I gave you My word. Do you think I’m a liar?”

“No.”

“Then why don’t you believe?”

“I do believe!”

“I see what’s really in your heart and mind. You still doubt.”

“Because I’m still having these horrible attacks of stomach pain and diarrhea.” (I didn’t know at the time the name for my chronic abdominal pain and diarrhea was Irritable Bowel Syndrome. But even if I did, I couldn’t have named it, because that would have confirmed I believed in the Devil more than God).

“So you believe your symptoms over My word? After all these years, your faith has not grown at all.”

“No, I believe your word.”

“You can’t hide from Me. I am inside you. I see the doubt in your heart and mind.”

“Okay, maybe I still have some doubts. But I’m fighting them the best I can. I can’t make them go away, but I’m not making any negative confessions. I’m confessing health, not sickness. What else am I supposed to do? What am I missing?”

Silence.

A brain that was chemically tilted toward depression, and conversations like that going on in my head. On top of that, I had an uncle, a great uncle, and a great aunt, all with terminal conditions. I prayed and confessed the Word of God as I prayed, so that should have forced God to heal them.

“… he sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction.”

(Psa 107:20 NRSV)

There’s the promise. As I pray for them, God is sending out his word, healing them, and delivering them from destruction. If I believe it and do not doubt, that is. I was standing on the promises of the Bible, which meant God had to answer. God had no choice, because God promised it “in His Word.” I didn’t know at the time these so-called promises in the Bible were all taken out of context.

But I was careful and diligent to follow their instructions, because if you don’t follow their instructions, you can’t blame them or God when it doesn’t work. It didn’t work.

Is it possible I missed something? Of course. I’m not perfect. It’s always possible I missed “something.” It’s always possible you missed “something.” But what exactly did I miss? I got all kinds of different answers. They could raise some possibilities of what a lot of people miss. But once I eliminated those, it should have worked. It didn’t work. Why not? They could never give me a definitive answer. But they seemed to be good at implying that it was somehow my fault.

Here’s the Reason It’s Not Working

If you’re in that situation now, let me tell you something. If you believe it has to be your fault that God is not healing you or someone you’re praying for, you will find a reason. Even if it’s not true, you will find “a reason.” After years of finding reasons to blame myself and eventually blame God, I found the real reason for it. You want to know what it is?

They claimed God promised you things that God never promised you. That’s it. Here I was beating myself up for not believing God’s “promises” that God never really promised.

But the Bible says…

I’m gonna stop you right there, because they quoted the Bible out of context. That was their mistake and still is. Your mistake, just as it was mine, was that you believed them. The reason God didn’t give you the healing you asked for had nothing to do with your faith or a lack thereof. When people came to Jesus for healing, they didn’t all have perfect faith. But they all got healed. Sometimes he commended them for their faith, but sometimes their faith clearly had nothing to do with it. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all say Jesus would go into towns and healed every sick or injured person who was brought to him. Do you really think they all got healed because they had perfect faith? The kind of faith that would keep believing for their healing, even if their symptoms did not go away?

It’s possible that a handful of them had that kind of faith. But every one of them? Not a chance. Everyone did not have perfect faith, but everyone got healed. So no, anyone who tells you that whether or not you get what you ask for when you pray is all about your faith and whether you have “enough faith,” they are either lying, or they are deceived. I don’t care how many Bible verses they can quote. It’s like when the Devil quoted scripture to Jesus. The Devil was not speaking the word of God. It is not Biblical, and it is not Christian.

You simply believed the wrong people. That’s all. That was your only mistake. If you learn to read the Bible in context, that will all become clear. Just because they’re quoting scripture doesn’t mean they are speaking the Word of God. The Bible is only the Word of God when it is rightly read, rightly interpreted, and rightly applied. And rightly doing all that begins with three things: Context, context, and context. I’m telling you, no matter how many scriptures they quote to tell you God “promised” healing and prosperity to you in the Bible “if you believe and receive the promise,” their reading takes the Bible out of context. Therefore, it is not the Word of God.

My not getting healed, my great aunt, great uncle, and uncle who didn’t get healed, none of it had anything to do with my faith or any lack thereof. Yes there are a lot of promises in the Bible, but they are usually given to the community as a whole, to the nation of Israel or the church. They’re not to you and me as individual believers.

What Are We Promised?

Here are the only two things I feel quite confident the Bible promises you and me as individual believers: Forgiveness for our sins, and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. That’s it. That’s all you and I are promised as individuals. No promises of health, wealth, and success in everything you do. I’m not saying you’re going to be poor, sick, and a failure. I’m not saying you can’t pray for healing or success. I’m saying God never promised that to you or me. As John says,

And this is the confidence that we have toward [God], that if we ask anything according to [God’s] will[, God] hears us. And if we know that [God] hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.

(1Jo 5:14–15 ESV)

Well, there it says, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of [God]. But did you notice it says, if we ask anything according to his will, [God] hears us? There’s the rub. God answers according to God’s will.

It can be tough to understand why God wouldn’t heal you or your loved one. Maybe that’s why I stayed in the Word of Faith longer than I should have. I did not want to believe that it was not God’s will to heal me or anyone I prayed for. I’m not saying God won’t heal you. You can always ask, and maybe it will be God’s will for you. But when you go into it thinking that you can determine the outcome by believing and not doubting and quoting the right scripture, and even if it is not God’s will, God has no choice but to give you what you pray for, because you are claiming a “promise” from the Bible, and then it doesn’t happen, it’s at least twice as bad, especially for someone who is already prone to depression. Trust me, you do not want to go down that road.

God hasn’t healed me of my pre-existing conditions, so apparently that wasn’t God’s will. God didn’t heal my uncle, great uncle, or great aunt I was praying for. Why not? I don’t know, because I am not God. I can’t say I’m happy about that. But I can accept it. I am not God. Can you accept that you are not God? If so, congratulations, because that is the beginning of true faith. God is God, and we are not.

When you read the Bible in context, you see people who were both faithful (loyal to God) and full of faith (trusted God) were often poor. Some of them got sick. Some of them were persecuted and died young because of their faith, not in spite of it. And yes, sometimes God delivered them out of their afflictions. But in the end, Jesus and all of his Apostles died as martyrs. Do you think they were complaining, “God, you promised me long life in Psalm 91:16. I can’t die now. I can’t be crucified. You promised you would deliver me from my enemies”?

And God would have said, like Lynn Anderson, “I beg your pardon. I never promised you a rose garden.” Anyone remember that song?

I’m not being flippant. I’m saying don’t blame God for not keeping promises God never made. And don’t let anyone tell you it was because you did not have enough faith.

They tell us if we have this expectation that if we obey the commandments, and believe all the right doctrines, and pray the right prayers, and quote the right scriptures, and believe we received what we prayed for in spite of the cold, hard facts staring us right in the face, God will have no choice but to answer our prayers. It took me forty years of wandering in the Wilderness before I saw there is no way you can read the Bible in context and come to that conclusion.

Faith is not believing something that clearly is not real. It is not denying the facts. It is not believing you are well when you are clearly sick or broken. Faith that denies the facts is not faith. It’s denial. Faith is seeing the facts as they are and trusting that God loves you, no matter how crappy the facts are.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(Rom 8:35-39 NRSV)

It doesn’t say a life of faith will be free of hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword. It only says none of that ever has or ever will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Salvation

As I neared the end of my sojourn with the Word of Faith, I was a wreck: spiritually, psychologically, emotionally, and mentally. It’s a wonder I have any faith at all today. But I do. I love God and love Jesus as much if not more than back then. My relationship with Christ back then was like being in an abusive marriage, where at times I knew and felt His love, and it was awesome. But other times He beat the crap out of me psychologically for not having “enough faith.”

My relationship with Christ now is what it was meant to be all along. He is a loving father and brother, mother and sister to me. And neither COVID-19, quarantines, masks, social distancing, nor anything else in all of creation can separate me from the love of God in Christ.

And that is how I started to recover from both the Prosperity Gospel and depression. It begins with the truth. It begins when you face the facts as they are, even if they contradict your most cherished beliefs. You may have believed them so deeply it never even occurred to you to question them, until recently.

This pandemic may have you questioning things you never questioned before. Maybe you think you will grieve the Holy Spirit if you ask about something that you are supposed to believe. Or maybe you never really believed but have been afraid to admit it. Maybe you are afraid that if you stop believing this or that, you will go to Hell. And why do you believe that? Because it’s the truth, or because that’s what you’ve been taught? Because that’s the word of God, or because of some Bible verses taken out of context?

You know something is wrong. You will have to ask questions about God and about the Bible you never dared to ask before. Some people won’t understand why you need to ask these questions. You may not understand why you need to ask these questions. But God does. The only reason I’m still here is God stayed with me when I asked those unthinkable questions.

So going back to hearing the voice of God and what that was like, one of the toughest moments you can go through on your faith journey is when you realize you’ve been hearing a voice you thought was God, but it wasn’t really God.

The Abusive God Wasn’t God

Eventually, I realized the abusive voice wasn’t God. On the one hand, that was a relief. On the other hand, it was very disorienting. If I thought for years that was the voice of God, what does that mean? How could I have been so wrong for so many years? It caused me to question everything I thought I knew about what the Word of God really is, what faith really is, and what the truth really is. I felt confused and uncertain about everything. I figured if people in that church I belonged to at the time knew what was going on inside me, they would say, “Oh, David went to that cemetery — I mean, seminary — and they taught him not to believe the Bible.”

I didn’t care what they thought. I knew I had to get out. But strangely, I did not feel depressed. Because somehow I knew God was with me. Not an abusive God, not the one who condemned me for not having “enough faith” (whatever that means), but a God who understood what was happening inside me much better than I did. A God who showed me the offramp to my freedom. Somehow, I knew that in moving away from the false God I had been following, I was moving toward the truth. They may have thought I had taken the offramp to Hell. But Jesus did not say knowing the truth will send you to Hell. He said it will set you free. And so it did.

Grace and peace to you.

Vulture hoarding dollars and gold.

Word of Faith and a Cult Checklist

How do you know if a religion, sect, or organization is a cult? I posted earlier about the time my sister thought I was in a cult. This was in reference to the Word of Faith (aka, Prosperity Gospel), which I believed in for several years. I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t fully a cult, but it wasn’t healthy either.

An organization called International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) has an article on their website called “Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups” that lists a number of patterns that are consistent throughout all cults. Some groups may check several boxes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is a cult.

I will go through this list, using my experience with the Word of Faith. You might want to consider answering for whatever group you are thinking of.

If you want a primer on the Word of Faith, I did a video about it.

Number 1: The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.

As a group, Word of Faith (WoF) believers are devoted to their pastor, sometimes even referring to him/her as an apostle or prophet. They also have celebrity preachers that they follow closely. I became disenchanted with one of my churches when the pastor quoted a particular televangelist more than Jesus. It seems at times they take what their leaders say as just as much the Word of God as the Bible, even more so in extreme cases.

The lines between commitment to God and commitment to your leader can get blurred sometimes.

I will say yes to this.

Number 2: Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

They are not punished but definitely discouraged. They encourage you to question and dissent outsiders, traditional churches, seminaries, “the fake news media,” experts, scientists, doctors, evidence, and anything that does not agree with their narrow interpretation of the Bible. But if you question, doubt, or disagree with them, you are automatically wrong, because their leaders are appointed and anointed by God. They might even tell you this is the reason your prayers aren’t being answered, because in questioning them, you think you are smarter than God.

I’ll say yes to this.

Number 3: Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

The only one on that list they practice is speaking in tongues, and it’s not done as a mind-altering exercise. It is to fulfill what they believe is a restoration of the gifts of the Spirit listed in 1 Cor 12:7-10.

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.

(NRSV)

I don’t remember it as altering my mind, except on a few occasions, and there was no one to witness it. I did not do it in the church, because later in that same letter, Paul says only speak in tongues in public if there is someone to interpret it (1 Cor 14:28). They do believe in meditating on God’s word, but chanting is too new-agey or Buddhist-like for them.

But I’m not sure I can say no to this. The ones who invite people up for healing have gotten good at using the placebo effect. That requires some mind-alteration for people to believe they are healed when they aren’t. I was in my church choir for several years, so music is a big part of the worship experience for me. The way they use music, however, is to make you more suggestible or induce a sense of euphoria, so you will be easier to manipulate.

I will say yes, they do use some mind-altering methods, even if not the ones listed specifically.

Number 4: The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).

In my own experience, they would express opinions on some of these issues, but they would not command or forbid one way or the other. They did not tell you what job to take, who to marry, what clothes to wear, where to live, etc. However, they did tell you how you should think, act, and feel in other ways.

If you prayed for healing, they would tell you things like, “Don’t consider your body. Don’t consider your feelings. Don’t consider your symptoms. Consider only the Word of God that says, ‘By his stripes you were healed.’” In other words, ignore the obvious signs that you were not really healed. They would not forbid but strongly discourage seeing a doctor, taking a prescription, getting vaccinated, or doing anything for your illness that did not come from the Bible or the Holy Spirit.

They would tell you that if you have Jesus, you can’t be depressed. For someone with undiagnosed clinical depression, I’ll let you guess how well that worked for me.

This is a tough call, but I’m going to say yes to this.

Number 5: The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and its members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).

They did not have a specific leader they considered to be the Messiah, although as I said earlier, there were a few preachers they exalted to a level that felt equal to Jesus. That was when I really had problems with it. They also were somewhat elitist in thinking they were the only ones who believe the Bible, the only ones who stood for the word of God, and the only ones totally devoted to God. Traditional churches were dead as far as they were concerned.

You didn’t have to be part of their church or movement specifically to be saved, but you were considered a lesser version of Christianity. They were not happy with Billy Graham, because he would encourage those who came forward to give their lives to Christ at his crusades to join a local church. They wanted him to tell them to join a “Bible preaching, Bible believing church.” In other words, you have to join a church like ours, because we are the only ones who believe the Bible and teach it correctly.

I will say yes to this.

Number 6: The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

They believe they are persecuted, which fosters an us-versus-them mentality. And to them, that is confirmation that God is on their side, because Jesus said those who were faithful to him would be persecuted.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  

(Mat 5:10-12 NRS)

When they do and say crazy things, and people say they are crazy, it means they are blessed. They are righteous. The more they are reviled and ridiculed, the more they think that is proof that they are right. But not all persecution is for righteousness’s sake. When a minister drives Mercedes S-Class or Bentley, or has a private jet, or is known to pull in tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars, and people ask how they can afford that, they complain. “Tom Cruise makes $20 million per movie. No one asks him how he makes so much. No one asks about the pastor who drives a Toyota. Why do they ask me about my Rolls Royce?”

Here’s why. Maybe Tom Cruise does make too much money, but we know where his money comes from. He doesn’t require people to give him 10% of their income to buy a ticket to his latest movie. My pastor drives a Toyota. We don’t ask him how he got it because we know how much he gets paid. The members of the church saw the budget proposal and approved it. We know his car is what he could reasonably afford. We don’t begrudge him any of his salary or benefits because being a pastor of a church our size will keep you pretty busy. We don’t want him to have to work another job just to make ends meet and take care of his family. But if he drove up one Sunday in a Mercedes, Rolls Royce, or Bentley, you’d better believe we would be asking him how he got it. And if he told us it was none of our business, we’d probably fire him.

Number 7: The leader is not accountable to any authorities.

Yes, and this is a big problem. The pastor or leader of the church is considered to be “the man of God” and accountable only to God. When I left my WoF faith for the Presbyterian church, one of the first things I noticed was they have an annual congregational meeting where they propose a budget for the next year. Everything the church spends money on, including compensation for the clergy and staff, is laid out for everyone to see. We vote on it and approve it. We can propose changes if we like, but usually everyone is satisfied with it. Any leader of a church or ministry who is not willing to do that should not receive your money. They should never tell you it’s none of your business how they spend your donations.

Some won’t even accept accountability to the government or law enforcement. One who was investigated by the Senate for possible fraud said the IRS has the right to audit their finances, but the Senate does not. He used to say Christians should obey the governing authorities according to Romans 13:1. Why does everyone else have to answer when the Senate comes knocking, but he doesn’t? Is he a Constitutional lawyer? Freedom of religion does not include the right to commit fraud. The church I’m in now would have no problem showing their financials if that happened. We have nothing to hide.

blond woman hiding face behind money
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Number 8: The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before they joined the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).

The ends justify the means. Defending the indefensible. It does happen, though I can’t think of many examples from my own time in WoF. I’ve seen it a lot more looking from the outside now. Even as hospitalizations and deaths mounted, they kept telling people not to wear masks and not to get the vaccine. Too many of them are not doctors but they play one in the pulpit.

When they said God will make you healthy, wealthy, and successful in all your endeavors if you send money to them—be it tithes, offerings, or “seeds”—at first I did not consider it reprehensible. I thought they were preaching “the Word of God.” It was silly dead church traditions that hid God’s promises of reaping a harvest from the seed–i.e., money–you sowed into God’s ministries. That changed when I saw the only people receiving the promised “harvest” were the preachers who received all those “seed offerings” and tithes. I went to one convention with my favorite televangelist at the time. I had been so looking forward to it, because I thought he was the most Spirit-anointed man walking the face of the earth. The first night, he told the story of how someone promised to give him a plane, didn’t do it, and died. That happened to three people, according to him.

I was horrified. He’s claiming God killed three people, because they lied about giving him a plane? Before I was really in the WoF camp, that would have been a stone-cold deal breaker for me. This guy was not only a heretic. He was dangerous. But I rationalized it by saying Jesus said and did things that offended a lot of people too. If I want to be anointed like this guy, I need to listen and not question. If God has anointed him, maybe I’m wrong. That thinking kept me in the WoF much longer than I should have been. Thank God I figured out he’s not really anointed. He’s just good at mind control.

I will say yes to this.

Number 9: The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.

There were times I felt shame and guilt, but it’s hard to judge how much of it was self-inflicted. The fact that I didn’t know I was living with clinical depression did not help. They tell a lot of stories of people who stood steadfast in their belief for answer to prayer. It did not matter what the doctors said. It did not matter what the experts said. They kept believing for a miracle, and they got it. So if you don’t see the answer to your prayers, you have to keep believing. Keep praising God as if your prayers have already been answered, and you will get what you pray for. But if you doubt at all, that will cancel out your prayers. So there is pressure to believe things they say, even when you know they are not true.

They had me believing it was my fault that all those promises in the Bible were not coming true for me. That would make me feel guilty and ashamed, so I would double down. Read the Bible more, pray more, sow more seed offerings, and listen to more tapes of WoF stars to build up my faith, because “… faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom 10:17 KJV). Keep listening to WoF teaching, and your faith will grow. As your faith grows, your prayers will be answered. That’s how it works, according to WoF doctrine. Except no matter how deeply I immersed myself in their way of reading the Bible, it never worked for me. After I figured out this was a different Gospel, and what they spoke was not of the Holy Spirit, then I was able to walk away from them and their shame and guilt.

I will say yes to this.

Number 10: Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and to radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before they joined the group.

They are more likely to say pray for your family and friends than cut ties with them. Unless the family member or friend is LGBTQ, or “living in sin,” however they define that. Then they will tell you to cut ties with them until they “obey the Word of God.” With that one caveat, I will say no to this.

Number 11: The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

I think any church wants to bring in new members. But generally, they are more concerned with saving souls whether or not they join our church. I will say no to this.

Number 12: The group is preoccupied with making money.

Many of them claim that God will not answer any of your prayers if you’re not tithing. So 10% of your income (gross, not net) is the cover charge for even getting in God’s presence to pray and be heard. The preachers brag about how rich they are and claim God will make you rich too if you give them money. Here are a few sound bites I’ve heard recently.

  • “You want your loved ones saved? Get yo’ money! You want peace of mind? Get yo’ money! You want respect? Get yo’ money!”
  • “Mone-e-e-e-e-e-e-y cometh! To me! Now!”
  • “Tithing is the door that opens up the door to all the blessings.”
  • “Every sinner I know who got saved started by tithing.”
  • “Why are you coming to church if you’re not tithing? You’re not going to get anything from it.”
  • “I’d like to take all the non-tithers outside, hand out uzis to the ushers, and shoot ‘em all dead.”

Yes, they are preoccupied with making money.

Number 13: Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

They would have Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night services. That is more than the Presbyterian church I’m in now, but I don’t consider that inordinate.

Number 14: Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

No. Generally, they recognize you have work, school, and a life outside the church. You should act morally in all aspects of life, but they are not complete separatists. There is no compound where everyone lives.

Number 15: The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.

I’m not sure what this looks like. I didn’t fear reprisals from the group, but they would speculate about whether you were still saved or not. “Why would anyone leave us? We have the truth,” was a common attitude. Parents who see their children leave “the faith” often feel shame, wondering where they went wrong. But I wouldn’t say they feel there can be no life outside the context of the group, at least in my experience.

I will say no to this.

Conclusion

There were fifteen items on the list. I said yes to ten and no to five. Some of them I couldn’t answer definitively yes or no. For about a third of them it was difficult to give a definite yes or no, which is why some of my explanations were long. I can think of some cults where I would say yes to all of these. If I were more generous, I might have answered seven or eight yes instead of ten. Just out of curiosity, I ran my PCUSA church and pastor through this checklist and answered everything no.

So back to the original question, is WoF a cult? You could say it’s relative. Compared to Scientology, no. Compared to most traditional churches, yes. However, having been in it and now out of it, I can say there is enough mind control, authoritarianism, and manipulation to be concerned. And knowing my current church checks none of these boxes, even one yes is a red flag for me now.

It’s no fun to think you were in a cult or even a half-cult. Whether it’s a cult or not, Word of Faith is something I am never going back to.

If you are interested in in learning more about the checklist and the dangers of cults in general, you can follow this link to the ICSA website.

Have you had experience with cults? Do you wonder if you or someone you know is in a cult now? Did this questionnaire provide any clarity for you? Let me know in the comments.

Links

Michael D. Langone. Characteristics Associated with Cult Groups—Revised. ICSA Today, Vol. 6, No. 3, 2015, 10

ICSA – Founded 1979 – About Us (icsahome.com)

Is the Word of Faith movement biblical? | GotQuestions.org