Recently I had a conversation with some friends about some very popular teachers in the evangelical world who we believe are teaching false doctrine, and we considered why these men are so popular. Why do people flock to hear these teachers who claim to represent classical Reformed Theology, and yet seem to undercut it with their applications, returning to a very works orientated type faith?
This post is not about those teachers so I’m not going to name names, but about us and why we find them compelling. Why do so many of us (and I say “us” because I know I’ve been guilty of this) like to follow and trust men who will teach us how to earn our way into God’s grace, when the Bible makes it clear that such a thing is impossible and that our works are of no value toward attaining salvation?
Personally, my suspicion is that it has everything to do with the American ethic of ego and rebelliousness. By that, I mean that that it is very much in the typical American D.N.A. that we want to one up each other and just prove how tough we are. We want to stand out among the crowd and be seen as rebels who fight the system, proving our importance; nothing serves such a spirit as well as a tough works-righteousness message: “Show me the hard rules, pastor, I can take it- and I’ll do it faster and better than anyone else”.
Wait a minute, how is following rules rebellious? Surely I picked the wrong world there? Legalistic certainly, but rebellious? Nah.
No, I mean rebellious, and I’ll illustrated with a true story from my past.
Several years ago I was involved in a very powerful youth ministry. My band led the music for the Sunday evening youth service at a small church, and the youth group absolutely exploded within months. The youth pastor had a radical vision for growing his ministry, and it worked! Fun games? Nope. Pandering to their tastes and cultural designs? Not that either. What then?
It was a simple plan: he preached the scripture expository style, we spent hours in prayer with the youth, and we focused on worshiping God. There was nothing else. The focus was pure and awesome. I was hooked, and so were the youth. This was not a typical youth group, and we all knew it. The youth pastor just kept on preaching and more and more youth came.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? It did seem that way at the time. It seemed like this was the recipe for success. How could anything so purely focused on God be wrong? And yet, there was a sleeping dragon; I never saw it coming. Disunity grew between the youth and the adults. The youth pastor grew increasingly dissatisfied with the church, “abandoning” everything except for his own ministry. He convinced many of the youth that their parents might not even be saved. In his mind, the adults certainly didn’t have authentic worship. And then one day, the youth pastor didn’t show up to church. His wife came instead, and said he wasn’t coming back. The youth group fell apart completely after that, many returning to (or adopting new) bad habits.
What happened? I was bewildered. We were doing all the right things. We would spend hours in prayer with these kids, preaching directly from the scripture, line by line (and make no mistake, they were good sermons- for all his faults, the youth pastor was a fantastic expositor), and we didn’t pander to “entertainment”. How could that have ended so wrong?
I posed this question to the Senior Pastor of the church, and his words will remain with me forever: “It turns out that it is no great trick to teach teenagers to be rebellious”.
And that’s when it clicked: I got it. There’s no doubt that we were doing all the right things: the prayer, the preaching, etc. I wouldn’t change a thing if I went back. But we were deceived about our “success”. We didn’t grow because of the attractiveness of these things (though undoubtedly there were some who genuinely saw the value in what we were doing), but because we were counter-culture. We were different. We were rebellious. And what attracts a teenager like rebellion? Whether it is rebellion against parents or rebellion against the norms of the world, in those angst ridden years nothing pulls in a teenager like the idea of doing something different and radical.
And so, the truth was, we attracted many who liked the idea of rebellion, and that it was rebellion in the name of Jesus probably didn’t matter than much. And as the group grew and the youth minister attributed our success to the righteousness our methods were cultivating, a feedback loop began because he started pitting youth against their parents. When that happens, boy then you really have an attractive ministry. As the youth grew, more contempt for the adults came right along with it. Of course it all fell apart, because the hearts of the youth weren’t grounded in Christ, they were grounded in rebellion.
Was this an indictment against our methods? Hardly- what we did was good. But where we erred was believing our success was due to our methods. A heart of humility would have gone a long way toward preventing the breakdown of the ministry. We shouldn’t have been so naive as to believe that the group “got it” and measured ourselves by such success. If we had been a little more humble, no divide between the youth pastor and the parents would have occurred; instead, the families could have grown together, with parents leading their teenagers while we added the meat of authentic worship and serious Bible study.
So what does this have to do with why popular teachers are able to mislead so many? It’s because for many of us, as much as we’d like to think we’ve left the rebellious years back in the past, rebellion is still attractive. We love to prove our worth through how counter-culture we are to the world. We can show that we are big and strong by the “hard teachings” we are willing to endure “for the sake of the Gospel”. And there’s no doubt that some of these teachings are good, but I can say from experience that often my motives stink.
When you add into the mix a false teacher who will provide even more rules and a higher standard in order to receive God’s grace, then our rebellious natures kick in to overdrive. We don’t want to settle for average or what everyone else does. We want to be the big bad Calvinists (or pick any other doctrine people argue about) who can proudly speak of how awful our sin is and how we don’t know anyone as bad as us. Our self images might as well be in leather jackets and eye patches as we growl at those who won’t live as righteous a life as we do. False teachers just egg this on, allowing us to be proud of how different we are and how much disunity we can sow between ourselves and the world. Because really, they are just teaching rebellious people to be rebellious, which is not so great a trick.
What is a great trick is to humbly teach people how to work out their salvation in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, not rebelling against the world in contempt, but lighting the way for those who do not yet have the truth. Yes, part of the Christian life is living counter culture, but not to add battle scars we can brag about, but rather to increase the light around us. We are not leather-wearing spiritual soldiers destroying everything in the culture that opposes us, but rather a redeemed people rising out of our rags with humility and loving the world as God does, so much that he sent his son to die for it.
Let’s be careful about allowing ourselves to be motivated by rebellion; even if the methods and cause is right; if our hearts are proud and ready to fight, we are missing the point. This is my own struggle and I’m a susceptible as anyone, but my prayer is to be a person of a different nature, transformed and operating to a new code, not one of rebellion, but of meekness and grace, finding strength and power in the giver of all life.