Wednesday, September 3, 2014
Be Happy that Gospel Truth is True Anywhere
Although we're on the same page regarding a lot of topics, I'm not a big fan of Dr. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a frequent commentator on current events.
Still, I'm more than happy to acknowledge those times when I really like something he says. Like, for example, the way he sums up his perspective of Victoria Osteen's heretical exhortation that we need to "do good for our own self... because God wants you to be happy."
Mohler challenges Osteen - and anybody who claims the name of Christ - to evaluate our testimony with this simple rule of thumb: "If our message cannot be preached with credibility in Mosul, it should not be preached in Houston."
Pretty good, huh?
Mosul, of course, is one of the cities in Iraq where ethnic Christianity is being obliterated by ISIS. Houston, Texas, is the base of operations for the Osteen's media and marketing empire. The two cities couldn't be more opposite, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the same for the residents of both Mosul and Houston. And everyplace in between.
So, what is preached from any Christ-focused pulpit - and any Christ-focused Christian - in Houston should be exactly what is preached from any Christ-focused pulpit - and any Christ-focused Christian - in Mosul. Granted, the ancillary bric-a-brac of analogies, expressions, and cultural protocols will vary in a sermon, depending on where it is being given, but you get the point: the Osteens should be able to tell Bible-believing Iraqis that God wants them to be happy with the same gleeful smiles they have when telling their Houston audience the same thing.
Except... being happy isn't the Gospel, and being happy doesn't save anybody. Especially not people being threatened with their lives by ISIS.
Now, maybe the Osteens, of all people, would at least be willing to try and pull off the same exhortation about self-centered happiness in Iraq, but it would likely be more because of their own warped sense of entitlement and flaky theology than anything else. Meanwhile, the rest of us can appreciate that for evangelicals in Iraq - and anybody else whose heart God may be drawing to Himself there - such an exhortation about happiness is not only inappropriate, considering their mortal predicament at this moment in time, but utterly false.
Yes, God desires that we are content in what He provides for us, and the Fruit of the Spirit includes joy and peace, two components of the concept of happiness. But our happiness is not His greatest joy, and we do not participate in corporate worship to make ourselves happy. Shucks, corporate worship isn't about us; it's about Him. We derive the Fruit of the Spirit from Him, not anything that we do. God isn't frustrated or sad because you and I may not be "happy, happy, happy!"
What the Osteens teach is appealing to lots of people because human beings can be quite selfish. Not that Iraqis can't be selfish, but we Americans have a lot more to be selfish of than they do. Nevertheless, the Osteens can't teach this happiness schtick of theirs in Mosul, can they? Just because it works in Houston - and across much of the Western world - doesn't make it truth. Truth is universal. The Bible is universal, cross-cultural, and broader than time and place.
Of course, as one of my evangelical friends has said, complaining about Osteen theology is very easy. What's not so easy is looking at what else the rest of us say, model, and teach - either with our words, our blogs, our lives, how we vote, etc. - and whether it can be said, modeled, and taught both in Mosul, as well as wherever we may live here in North America.
In other words, how ethnocentric is your version of Christ's Gospel?
For example, when many evangelicals harp about things like limited government, and even democracy, are these topics that can be effectively preached in a way that glorifies God both in Mosul and Houston? You may think one style of government may be better than another one, and since before the American Revolution, people have tried to claim God as their political standard-bearer, but God is and works despite whomever is in office. He ordained Hitler, Stalin, Putin, Xerxes, and Hatshepsut as national rulers. He has granted us Americans the privilege of participating in a democratic republic, and we should take the responsibilities of that privilege seriously, but look at what preaching an American political gospel in Iraq has already destroyed in that ancient country.
What about the way some evangelicals - like Dr. Mohler - want to provide amnesty for illegal immigrants in the Unites States? Is that a Gospel message that carries the same implications for Iraqis as it does Americans? What is the central theme of amnesty? That crossing borders illegally doesn't really matter, right? And how has ISIS become such a threat in Iraq, if not by many of its adherents lawlessly invading Iraq? What about Ukraine, which is struggling to fend off lawless Russian invaders, some of whom reportedly have entered Ukraine under the guise of humanitarian work? Treating illegal immigrants in a humane fashion is something that honors God, but ignoring illegal activity isn't exactly a Gospel theme, is it? Unless you want to die for somebody else's transgressions? Except that wouldn't be Christ's Gospel, would it?
What about wealth, and how we Americans evangelicals like to give deference to people with lots of money and influence in our society? We like to ignore the ways in which some people groups earn their income, and whether that wealth comes at the expense of other people groups. How would sermons celebrating the rich and belittling the poor go over in Sierra Leone, or Mozambique, or Venezuela? Could we justify our beliefs about wealth and money if we had to present God's view of them to residents of a country far less wealthy or capitalistic than ours? Or countries where the few who have wealth haves acquired it by evil means?
Considering how global our economy has become, and how diverse many American communities are becoming, it seems that being careful about our treatment of Christ's Gospel will only become more and more important. Unfortunately, Christian personalities like the Osteens will continue to enjoy a considerable amount of popularity, but that will only be because they're pandering to the faults and misconceptions of their audience. People like the Osteens aren't really interested in teaching truth; they mostly want to exploit the faults they have in common with their followers.
For the rest of us, however, who value authentic truth, and seek to honor God in all that we say and do, being careful to present His Gospel, and not ours, let's remember this helpful metric:
Is what we believe, say, write, and act upon as true where we live in North America as it is in someplace like Iraq? Or North Korea? Or Sudan? Or the French Riviera?
Not that we can't talk about anything other than orthodox Biblical theology. But our worldview needs to be shaped by the Gospel, not the particular culture in which we live, or towards which we aspire.