March 6

In Praise of Two Local Pastors: Fisher and Osborne

Say what you might about Pastors Brian Fisher of Grace Bible Church and Chris Osborne of Central Baptist Church, there is one area in which they are above criticism and thus deserving of both respect and praise.

It may be that you do not particularly like this or that about one or the other – maybe it’s their personality, preaching style, leadership, governance, or whatever (all of which say as much about the critic as the pastor).  These two men, although quite different from one another, stand shoulder to shoulder on at least one issue.

I’ve been re-reading Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics and find myself drawing to the end of his chapter “Accommodation.”  This chapter (and “Resistance,” the one that follows it) describes the response of many denominations and churches to the cultural changes and challenges of the past several decades.

Accommodation, according to Douthat, seeks “to forge a new Christianity more consonant with the spirit of the age, one better adapted to the trends that [are] undercutting orthodoxy.”

Led by men such as Teilhard de Chardin (albeit posthumously), Harvey Cox (The Secular City), and John Shelby Spong, the movement sought to present a diluted, denuded, and deluded Christianity that would appeal to a more cultured, modern audience.  The idea that powered these changes was inclusion and tolerance.

In following chapters Douthat goes on to identify a number of false gospels that are becoming culturally acceptable in our day.  Among these heresies are those that seek to weaken the authority of the Bible by undermining the texts of the New Testament and by bringing in alternative, so-called “lost” accounts of the life – and the meaning thereof – of Jesus Christ.  The strategy is simple: destroy the backbone of the New Testament and it is easy to change the heart of Christianity.

A second heresy is found in Douthat’s chapter “Pray and Grow Rich,” the most popular purveyor of the view being Joel Osteen.  Comparing Osteen to Billy Graham, he writes,

Graham’s persona was warm and inclusive, but theologically he preached a stark, stripped-down gospel – a series of altar calls, with eternity hanging in the balance and Christianity distilled to a yes or no for Christ. Osteen’s message is considerably more upbeat. His God gives without demanding, forgives without  threatening to judge, and hands out His rewards in this life rather than in the next.

This heresy is not new with Osteen, of course.  “Already in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville noted the difficulty of ascertaining from American sermons ‘whether the principal object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the other world or prosperity in this.'”  It was adopted by Mary Baker Eddy (Church of Christ, Scientist), Kenneth Hagin, Paul Crouch, Benny Hinn, and others.

Evangelicals like Bruce Wilkinson (The Prayer of Jabez), Rick Warren (The Purpose Driven Life), and financial guru Larry Burkett also drift into Douthat’s crosshairs.  Though their message have different emphases than those previously mentioned, some of the strategies and goals are nevertheless similar to the prosperity heresy.

A third heretical gospel is the God Within movement, reflected in books such as Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia and in Oprah’s incessant preaching through her media empire.  The essence of the God Within gospel is captured by Gilbert: “God dwells within you as you yourself, exactly the way you are.”  Oprah, not to be bettered, says,

Our mission is to use television to transform people’s live . . . I am talking about each individual coming to the awareness that, ‘I am Creation’s son, I am Creation’s daughter . . . ultimately I am Spirit come from the greatest Spirit. I am Spirit.’

Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and veritably every atheist subscribes to this notion, although they would certainly deny anything divine about any of it.  Still, the center of the universe and the source of everything is found in the self.

Sadly, the typical Evangelical church has been infiltrated by this belief to some extent.  Philip Rieff, in his 1966 (!) book The Triumph of the Therapeutic: The Uses of Faith After Freud, saw it coming.  In referring to the book, Douthat writes,

Religious man was giving way to ‘psychological man,’ not ideological man.  In place of a secularized Christianity building the kingdom of God on earth, Rieff foresaw an age of therapy, in which the pursuit of well-being would replace the quest for either justice or salvation.

‘Religious man was born to be saved,’ he wrote, but ‘psychological man is born to be pleased.’

The final heresy to be called out in Douthat’s work is what he labels “the heresy of American nationalism.”  It rests upon the false belief that corporately the United States is now God’s Chosen People.  A few quotes will suffice to describe what he means by it:

[I]f the lack of a blood-and-soil tradition has weakened the temptation toward imagining one’s own tribe as God’s real Chosen People, the obvious resemblance between America and the Christian Church – both pan-ethnic, universalizing bodies that promise to create a new man out of the old one, and redeem a fallen and corrupted world – has tempted many Americans to regard the United States as a whole as a new Israel, a holy nation, a people set apart . . .

In 2010, a survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 60 percent of Americans believed that ‘God has granted America a special role in human history.’ The view was strongest among white Evangelicals, upwards of 80 percent of whom agreed with the exceptionalist credo.’

“In the right hands,” Douthat says, “the idea of American exceptionalism can reflect a healthy union of patriotism and piety. But in the wrong hands, it can be a source of dangerous theological temptations.

One such temptation is messianism. Not content with the possibility that God has particularly favored the United States, the messianic view holds that American democracy call actually fulfill God’s purposes on earth – whether by building a New Jerusalem at home, or by spreading the blessings of liberty to every race and people overseas . . . messianic Americanism turns liberal democracy into a religion unto itself, capable of carrying out the kind of redemptive work that orthodoxy reserves for Christ and his Church . . .

The other heresy of nationalsim, messianism’s mirror image, is doom-laden and apocalyptic . . . the apocalyptic view suggests that the American founding was literally a covenanted event, akin to the biblical establishment of Israel . . .

As messianism inspires an unwarranted optimism about human perfectability, apocalyptism inspires an unwarranted paranoia about foes abroad and enemies within, and invents vast anti-American conspiracies – Catholic in the nineteenth century, Jewish and then Communist in the twentieth, and nowadays a dark combination of the United Nations and the global Caliphate – to explain whatever ills beset the United States.

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By now – assuming that you’re still there – you might be wondering what all this information from Douthat has to do with two local pastors, i.e., Chris Osborne and Brian Fisher.  Well, it has a lot to do with them

In the face of forces that tempt even the most pious to succumb to this or that heresy, these two men (and undoubtedly others in the community) have not sold out.  They have remained true to their individual visions of what is truth, who Jesus Christ is, and what the mission of the church is to be.

More importantly, their respective visions are drawn from a careful and correct reading of the Bible.  They have resisted the sirens of the spirit of the age.  This is no small thing for, as Anglican Ralph Inge observed, “He who marries the spirit of the age is soon left a widower.”

Neither has played to crowd for the purposes of church growth or financial well-being.  They have consistently preached the truth of the gospel and what they believe to be true about how the Christian life is to be lived.  You may disagree with them on some things regarding the latter – they are not fallible, as both would be quick to admit – but not the former.  At their churches you will hear the gospel as defined and described in the twenty-seven canonical books of the Christian New Testament.

In our fault-finding and discontent, it is sometimes easy to overlook so critical a fact.  Again, they may be wrong about some peripheral matters but, when it comes to the gospel of Jesus Christ, they have remained true to the words of truth as revealed by God.

For that steadfastness they should and must be applauded.  If you are fortunate to be in either of their churches – or in any church where the pastor has done the same – you would do well to tell them that you have noticed it.  Like all of us, they need affirmation; unlike most of us, they don’t always get as much as they deserve.