One evening early in March–the first really nice day of the year, as I recall–my doorbell rang. My girlfriend was coming over that night, but I didn’t expect her for another 45 minutes or so. I looked out the window and saw two guys in their early 20s, wearing black dress pants, white shirts, ties, and engraved nametags.
I knew instantly who they were representing. I debated whether I should answer the door, but I figured it would be better for them to come in and talk to me than to go knock on my neighbor’s door. My neighbor already has a church and doesn’t need another one, and I really didn’t want these guys trying to convince him otherwise. (For the record, my neighbor’s church isn’t my church and it’s not the same denomination as mine. I just want you to know that.)
They came in and they told me who they were representing. Then they proceeded to tell me that everything I know is wrong. I’ve been told that before. I think the first time was at a U2 concert, but I don’t think they really meant it. At least they didn’t mean everything. I heard it again at college, but their main motivation was to teach me how to think.
They told me a story about a prophet. When this prophet was about their age, he didn’t know what church to go to. So God the Father–this is important–and Jesus Christ appeared to him. They told him a couple of things, and the result of this was the church that the two of them represent.
There’s only one problem with that story. There’s another prophet named Moses. You’ve probably heard of him. He’s the one God handed the Ten Commandments on stone tablets. He also wrote the first five books of the Bible. Among prophets, Moses is in an elite class. When Jesus was transfigured in front of three of his disciples, two prophets also showed up. Those prophets were Moses and Elijah. To those three disciples, who were Jewish, the presence of Moses and Elijah and their submission to him indicated that Jesus was something special.
Well, one of the big reasons that Moses is something special is because he saw God. Once. Only he didn’t get to see God the Father’s face, because it would have killed him. (See Exodus 33:19-23.)
St. Paul was in an elite class of apostles. (According to these two guys, St. Paul was sort of a prophet. Remember the “sort of.”) St. Paul was on his way to Damascus to kill some people (see Acts 9:1-22) when he got interrupted. He got blinded by a light, then he looked up in the sky and saw Jesus. Jesus gave him a talking-to, then Paul went and changed the world.
When God shows up visibly to people, things change. It doesn’t happen very often, so when someone comes along saying he’s seen God, people tend to follow.
But the problem with the story these two guys told me is that it doesn’t mesh up. Moses couldn’t see God’s face because it would have killed him. Paul’s story meshes up with Moses’, because Paul didn’t see God the Father. He saw Jesus. But their prophet saw God the Father.
I pointed out this discrepancy to them. When they left that night, one of them handed me a piece of paper with the verse Acts 7:55 written on it. That’s the story of Stephen, the first martyr. Stephen saw God the Father and Jesus Christ. It says so. So how does that mesh up with the story of Moses and Paul? Five verses later, Stephen was dead.
These two guys put a lot of emphasis on their prophet’s testimony and on their own experience and feelings. I resented their implication that I’d never had an experience with the Holy Ghost. I resented them coming right out and telling me my baptism was invalid. It annoyed me when they told me that neither one of them had read much of the Bible, and they continued to talk down to me even after I told them I had read the Bible in its entirety. On a subsequent visit, one of them told me he very rarely read the Bible because he didn’t like it, but this other book they wanted me to read… He loved that book. That made sense to me though. Americans are very do-it oriented. Give an American male a list of things to do to be successful, and he’ll probably do them. He’ll probably thank you for it. Even if the list is 613 items long. There’s a reason why the self-help section in American bookstores is so big. The book these guys wanted me to read is well-suited for an American audience. While the Bible likes to talk about the things God did for us, this book is full of ideas about things we can do for God.
But the most important thing about that book is the experience and feelings you get when you read it. Let me tell you a little bit about my experience and feelings reading the Bible.
When I was about the same age as these two guys, I began the process of reading the Bible cover to cover. I was questioning everything I knew and everything that had ever happened to me, and that book and what I perceived as the misuse of that book was at the center of those questions. So I read it, looking for answers. I prayed at the same time too. I asked God where I should be going to church, because I didn’t know. He told me where I should go. Not because it was where I wanted to go–I didn’t want to be Lutheran–and not because the LCMS is right about absolutely everything, because they aren’t. When it comes to understanding the needs of a guy in his 20s and resources to help them, the LCMS has a whole lot of nothing. But the LCMS’s specialty is its teachings on grace and forgiveness, which was what I needed more than anything. God knew it, and I know it now, and I needed that message so desperately that I would have listened to the pastor talk through an electric fan if that was what he wanted to do. I returned to the denomination of my youth about a month after I finished the Bible.
These guys talked a lot about feelings. Sure, it was an emotional time. And while you should pay attention to feelings, you also should remember that feelings aren’t infallible. Our emotions can be 100% wrong and totally detached from reality. There are plenty of moments in just about any relationship of a romantic nature can illustrate that vividly.
Four years after I returned to the church body of my youth, I went on a mission trip to a very impoverished part of Florida. I saw the life of one of the teenagers in my small group completely change over the course of a couple of days. If God the Holy Ghost didn’t have a hold on him, then I don’t know who it was. That same week, five or six of us had finished up our task for the afternoon, so we went walking. We came upon a church, and it had become our habit that week to pray for the churches in the area. The prayers were pretty simple and generic: That the area churches would reach out to the community, and that they would have the desire and the ability to meet the needs of the people around them. After we finished, our pastor looked up and saw an elderly woman standing on a second-floor balcony across the street from us. “Are you watching us?” he asked playfully. “Yes I am, sir,” she said, humbly but without any shame or nervousness or timidity in her voice. Pastor asked if he could send a few of us up to her to pray for her. “I’d like that very much, sir,” she said. So I grabbed three guys and we walked up to her apartment. We talked to her for a few minutes, prayed with her for a few more minutes, then talked for a while again. The last thing she said to us is probably something I’ll never forget: “I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit outside when your group walked up to that church, and I just had to step outside and see what was going on out there.”
When my two visitors told me the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost is beyond description, I had to agree with them. And I’m sure that the Holy Ghost is working on them, trying to show them the way to truth, and I’m sure they feel that work in their lives. But they have it backwards. To them, the Holy Ghost is their reward for doing the right thing once. To use a baseball analogy, the Holy Ghost is a World Series trophy to them. That’s wrong. Yes, the Holy Ghost is there after you’ve gotten right with God, but only because He was already there. The Holy Ghost isn’t a World Series trophy. The Holy Ghost is the leadoff batter on opening day, and His work never ends until our final breath and the final beat of our heart.
These guys have a lot of things backwards, but I could never convince them to even think about any of that stuff. They’re constantly talking about proving things to God. The only thing we can ever prove to God is our inadequacy, but even that isn’t really proving anything. How can you prove anything to an all-knowing being? Of course, I’m not sure that their god is an all-knowing being.
They never encouraged me to read the Bible. They wanted me to read their book and pray about it. But they wanted a very specific prayer: Pray to know that their book is true. The problem is that when you pray a prayer like that, God may say no, but since you prayed for a yes answer, if some other being comes along posing as God and says yes, that’s the one you’ll listen to.
Truth be told, the ethics of their book aren’t bad. Their book reads much like the books Protestants call the Apocrypha: the books between the Old Testament and New Testament that Catholics and Episcopals accept but Calvinist and Lutheran denominations don’t. If the church these guys represent only believed and taught what was in the Bible and this other book, they’d still be a fringe group but mainline Christianity would have far fewer problems with them.
On the Saturday before Easter, they paid me a visit again. My friend Matt, who’s working on his Master’s of Divinity, happened to be over. They talked to me some more about why my baptism was invalid and theirs is valid: The authority to baptize died with the apostles and wasn’t restored until the 19th century, they said. After a half hour or so of miscommunication, Matt asked me if he could ask a question. I said certainly.
He had them turn to a second book they use–one that I was aware of but didn’t have a copy of–and read a passage from it. That passage stated that the Apostle John never died. (Matt later told me that that belief is a misinterpretation of John 21:20-22. Interestingly, John 21:23 specifically warns against just this interpretation.) But Matt went with their interpretation. Is it true that John never died? Yes, they said. Then the authority to baptize, which disappeared with the death of all the disciples, never left this earth.
The younger of the two was visibly taken aback. The older of the two struggled for a minute, then regained his composure somewhat and changed the subject.
The discussion quickly turned to the Nicene Creed and never veered back to this contradiction. But that very neatly illustrates a problem.
Whenever the Bible appears to contradict itself, it’s due to misinterpretation. Since English is a terribly imprecise language, often the problem comes down to word choice, and reading the verses in question in more than one translation (if you can’t read Biblical Greek and Hebrew) will resolve the issue. Or, often the problem is due to taking verses out of context. Re-read the offending verses in context and in light of similar verses, and the conflict resolves. Biblical prophets do not contradict themselves or one another because they were repeating the words of God, who doesn’t contradict Himself.
Statements such as “The Apostle John never died” are not the words of a prophet. They are the words of someone who didn’t read John 21:23. (Church tradition states that John died in Ephesus around the year 100 AD, at the age of about 94.)
In an early conversation, they told me that God used prophets in the Old Testament to bring people back after they became wicked. They then asked if it doesn’t make sense for there to be a living prophet today. I said no. They were taken aback; I’m certain that usually they get the opposite answer.
I held up my well-worn NIV Bible, then I said something like this: This is a book about relationships and sin. It took several centuries to write. There isn’t a single relationship problem that exists now that didn’t exist then and isn’t mentioned somewhere in here. And sin hasn’t changed. We’d mastered sin by the time this was written. Our need for God hasn’t changed, and what we have to do to be right with God hasn’t changed. The only thing that’s changed since this book was finished is our technology. God’s given us our answers; He doesn’t need to add anything else to it.
I’ve read books written by people who claim to have the gift of prophecy. But their revelations from God mostly affect them and the people directly around them, and they make no other claims about the messages they receive. They’re also incredibly short. And, most importantly, they don’t contradict scripture. In fact, many of them are simply restatements of scripture.
But when I’ve run across someone claiming infallibility, it usually hasn’t taken long for them to say things that do contradict scripture, such as that statement about the Apostle John. Verses such as Deuteronomy 18:20-22 and 2 Peter 3:16 have harsh words about these kinds of people.
Before they left angrily, one of them asked Matt what his motive was. Their motive, they said, was the truth. Matt said his motive was the truth. Have you read it?, one of them asked, holding up his secondary book. Matt said he had, and he was in the process of reading it cover to cover now. They each agreed that the other needed to find the truth (the less experienced of the two visitors didn’t say much and left looking shellshocked)and that was the end of it.
I see two major problems. The first is the assertion that the Bible isn’t enough. That opens the door to all sorts of crazy things. The second problem, just as bad, is the overemphasis on self and de-emphasis of God. Virtually every sentence they said began with the words, “You need to” or “We need to.” But it’s God working in us that enables us to do things. And in my experience, often when God’s working in us, we don’t know why we’re doing what we’re doing, and it’s only after the fact that it makes sense. That doesn’t happen when your motive is to prove something to God though.
It’s been a couple of weeks now, and they haven’t called me or stopped by. I hope some of the truth has sunk in. But it usually takes a while.