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IS GOD IN THIS OR NOT?

by Mike Robinson


From the time that God birthed the Church fifty days after resurrecting His Son from the dead, there has been an almost endless succession of movements both from within and from outside that Church that have made all manner of claims as to their divine origin and purpose. Many have proven to be harmless but some have been downright dangerous! This ought not to surprise us because Jesus taught that such movements would come. Matthew 7/15-23 and Matthew 24/4-27 are classic passages in this regard. 1 John 4/1-4 is a well-known call for us to "test the spirits to see whether they are from God".

The Scriptures teach that false prophets and false teachings would be a feature of the Last Days (e.g. 1 Timothy 4/1). For those committed to knowing the truth, the questions have been, "How can we know what is of God and what is not? How can we distinguish or discern between the true and the false? What are the criteria by which we are to make such evaluations?" We do not want to simply accept and embrace anything and everything that claims to be of God. At the same time, we do not want to unwittingly reject that which may ultimately prove to be a genuine move of God. How can we be sure about truth in an arena where there is much that is counterfeit?

SETTING THE SCENE

As we seek to identify the ways by which we can discern the true from the false, there are a few preliminary observations we need to make.... [1] Given the history of the Church, it is safe to say that the future of the Church will continue to be impacted by movements of many shapes, sizes, flavours and colours. This means that we must continue to maturely discern between what is of God and what is not - maybe more so as the Lord's Coming draws closer. [2] There has never been a movement of God that has not become "flawed" to some degree once the human element was added. In other words, any movement of God is necessarily expressed through imperfect human beings.

This reality makes our task of discernment that much more difficult because we have to discern, first of all, if the movement in general is of God and, if it is, what components or aspects are from Him (allowing for that "human factor") and what parts are flawed or fake?. The simplistic approach that 100% accepts of any movement or claim as though it was perfect is not worthy of a mature Christian person or community. The only move of God that ever deserved that kind of whole-hearted acceptance was the one that began in Bethlehem 2000 years ago! Likewise, a 100% rejection of any movement or claim as though it was straight from hell is equally immature. [3] Speaking of maturity, it is important to realise that most moves of God through human agents begin immaturely because of the human agency. (Perhaps a case can be made that Acts 2 is a notable exception to this observation but, even then, it didn't take long before cracks began to appear).

Again, because of the human element, it takes time for the initial enthusiasm, imbalance and even excesses to settle down and break through to a mature expression. To judge any movement in its infancy is to respond prematurely and such judgement is, itself, immature. [4] We also need to honestly recognise that our attempts at evaluation are not exempt from the influence of our own human prejudice and bias. It is virtually impossible for any evaluation to begin without some prejudice in the heart and mind of the "evaluator". We are all conditioned in a variety of ways so that our starting point is rarely, if ever, pure in motivation, skill and intent. This is true of those who are "pro" any particular movement in question and those who are "anti" that movement.

All of the above observations have to be factored into the equation if we are going to be people of integrity and honesty as we seek to examine any movement, teaching or practice that claims to have its origins in the heart of God.


Absolutely indispensable to this whole process is the need to undertake such evaluations with humility, recognising our own fallibility and bias. To adopt a posture of a teachable and humble spirit has always been a vital pre-requisite for discovering the truth. This is not to suggest that we make a commitment to be gullible. However, it does mean that we approach the evaluation process with a humble, discerning openness.

A COMMON SCENARIO

Imagine that some of the people in your Church have been away to a Retreat, a Conference or a series of meetings for a few days. They have returned spiritually "pumped up" and are very excited about what they have seen, heard and experienced. They begin telling stories of events and activities that took place during those meetings; events and activities that are, to say the least, "different" from what you or your Church have previously known, experienced or practiced. They just cannot stop talking about some new teacher or movement in ways that are 'disturbing' to say the least.

As this "new thing" begins to interact with "what has been", tensions begin to mount. Feelings of concern and defensiveness strengthen in both "camps". People begin to ask questions about the validity of some of these teachings and experiences that could have the potential to threaten the unity of the local Church. It soon becomes evident that people are polarising and, if something isn't done, the Church will be in danger of division. Murmurs of "I'll leave if they start doing that here" or "teaching that here" begin to be heard around the place. Those who are concerned about this turn of events begin to assert that, if this whole thing is of God, there would be unity and everyone would recognise it. The advocates of the new teaching and/or practice claim that the opponents are too set in their ways and closed to God. The Church is now beginning to hurt.

The above scenario is, tragically, not uncommon today. In the last 200 years particularly, a wide range of movements claiming to be Christian have come to life. Some we can recognise quickly as spurious and demonstrate that fact from Scripture (e.g. the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Moonies etc). It is more difficult to discern and evaluate those movements that seem to come from within the mainline Christian Churches and subscribe to the great fundamental truths of the Christian Faith. However, these new movements bring a different emphasis or expression to the one that has been part of our tradition, upbringing and training to this point in time. So, we return to our original question: how do we recognise the true and the false - that which is from God and that which is not? What criteria or basis do we have for such a judgement?

UNACCEPTABLE CRITERIA

Perhaps our starting point ought to be the identifying and rejecting of that criteria which should NOT to be used by us in examining that which claims to be of God. We will not get an accurate evaluation if the "ruler" or measuring standard we use is faulty. We need to be very cautious about.......

[1] SUBJECTIVE, PERSONAL PREFERENCES. We have to honestly recognise and compensate for our own subjective preferences. Any appeal to personal preferences as the sole basis for evaluating particular claims is immediately suspect. That does not mean that our inner response cannot be part of our overall evaluation or that we should ignore that "gut feeling". It does mean that, on its own, such criteria is quite unreliable, inadequate and has to be seen for what it is - a subjective, personal preference. To assume that our personal preference or response is necessarily always right and trustworthy is quite contrary to the spirit of humility that we spoke of earlier. Yet, despite the fact that we may agree with the above principle, it needs to be acknowledged that, in the heat of debate, there are still far too many Christians who base their judgement on personal feelings.

We are being less than authentic in our examination of a particular claim or movement if we accept it or reject for no other reason than personal preference and taste. Of course, our feelings of discomfort or caution may be the Holy Spirit warning us. We would be unwise to simply ignore them. Then again, those feelings may also be nothing more than the emergence of our own prejudice and rejection of something just because it is new and different to what we have known, believed and experienced thus far.

[2] IGNORANCE OR LIMITED KNOWLEDGE As people committed to the truth, we acknowledge that an evaluation of any movement that is based on ignorance or limited knowledge is fundamentally dishonest. Again, it is a sad commentary that there are Christians who make judgements with less than adequate information and their judgements are ignorant. We do have a responsibility to research the claims of any movement that professes to be from God but about which we have areas of concern or misgivings.

[3] INACCURATE INFORMATION Too often, the basis of our evaluation is inaccurate information gleaned from media presentations and/or the prejudiced writings or opinions of others - be they for the movement or against it. If we are to make a judgement of integrity, we have a responsibility to obtain as much factual information as possible. That will mean asking questions first-hand of the group or movement in question. We need to ask ourselves, "Have I read any books written by the "movement's" leaders or founders? Have I listened to any tapes by those same people? Have I placed these claims alongside the writings or responses of the movement's critics? Have I only listened to the critics? Have I only listened to the advocates?"

To make a judgement based upon second and third hand reports and opinions expressed by others in books, tapes or media reports is to become a victim of their bias - whether those reports be positive or negative towards the movement or claims being made. All of us know of situations that have been inaccurately reported - especially in the media - and the result has been inappropriate responses from Christians who should have had a greater commitment to seek out the true facts. Some of us have been the victims of such inaccurate reports and know the pain that results from the ignorant responses of people. "Make sure it is the truth" is mandatory for honest Christians.

ACCEPTABLE CRITERIA

If we reject the former criteria as being inappropriate for those committed to seeking truth, what criteria can we embrace that will enable us to make accurate assessments of the many claims that we will encounter as we journey on into the future [1] THE WORD OF GOD Evangelical Christians have always placed high value on the authority, integrity and trustworthiness of the Scriptures. The Bible is recognised as the infallible, inspired and objective revelation of God by which all claims are to measured. Every claim to be of God must first be brought to this highest court of all for examination. Our questions of any movement or claim as we bring it to the authority of Scripture need to be: "Do the claims of this movement contradict the clear teaching of the Word of God? Are they incompatible with the principles and teaching of Scripture?"

As simple as that may sound, even here we need to be aware of the human heart and its bias and prejudice. While we agree that the Bible is authoritative and infallible, we have to remember that our interpretation of it is not! Failure to do this invariably leads to the kind of arrogance that says, "My understanding and interpretation of Scripture is right and everyone else is, at best, different and, at worst, wrong"!

We need to hold on to convictions but avoid conclusions. Convictions are beliefs to which we hold strongly but they are open to maturing and strengthening as more light breaks from God's Word into our lives. Conclusions are beliefs into which no further light is permitted to come. People who hold to conclusions belong to a closed system that will only receive that which supports what is already in place. Most of the religious leaders of Jesus' day were of this latter kind. We also need to ask ourselves the question: "Is my understanding of this portion of Scripture the only legitimate understanding? Do other godly people understand this differently to me? If so, why?"

These last questions are healthy in that they prevent the emergence of arrogance in my heart and keep me with a humble, teachable spirit. Now, let us be very clear here. We are not raising questions about the great, foundational doctrines of the Christian faith. The nature of God, the divinity of Christ, the nature of salvation etc. are not being questioned. These are non-negotiable. Most of the movements and claims with which we will struggle will genuinely affirm these great truths. However, we are recognising that, on numerous secondary issues, Christians hold differing points of view. The Christians at Berea were said to be "of more noble character than the Thessalonians because they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true". (Acts 17/11). In our commitment to truth, we should do no less!

[2] THE FRUIT PRODUCED Jesus clearly taught in Matthew 7 that the fruit is the ultimate test of the legitimacy of any claim or movement. The "difficulty" with this test, as I see it, is that it takes time for fruit to mature and become evident....and who knows what damage might be done in the meantime! But there is no escaping the fact that this was the test that Jesus stated. Here again, however, the human factor can contaminate the effectiveness of this test. We can so want to prove the movement right or wrong that we become selective in what we see in the way of fruit. Again, prejudice (i.e. pre-judgement) can de-rail objective evaluation. We may only choose to receive that information which supports our pre-determined position.

In other words, if we are in favour of the movement or teaching, we may turn a blind to any "fruit" or evidence that might call the legitimacy of the movement into question. Equally, if we are opposed to this new teaching right from the outset, we might choose to ignore any fruit that could commend the movement. Such is the bias of the human heart. We need to be ruthlessly honest with our own bias if we are going to be as objective as possible.

SOME GOOD ADVICE

Here is a sobering thought to keep us from being too hasty in reaching our judgement in these issues. The greatest move of God ever in the history of the world was not recognised by the leaders and the people of God when it happened. Jesus Christ came into our world as the perfect reflection and image of the Father. All He said and did was willed by the Father. Every act, every word was at the initiative of the Father. The apostle John summed it up most succinctly when he wrote; "He was in the world, and though the world was made through Him, the world did not recognise Him. He came to that which was His own but His own did not receive Him" (John 1/10,11 NIV).


The people who should have recognised this as the move of God ascribed it to the work of the devil (Luke 11/14-40 NIV). Some things have been and are obviously the activity of Satan. But the "religious response" to Jesus ought to cause us to hasten slowly before we too easily write things of as "of the devil". Perhaps a good point with which to close is to focus our attention on the verses found at the end of Acts chapter 5 - verses 33-39. The wisdom of Gamaliel is timeless. He simply tells the opponents of the Christian faith to wait. "...if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God". His advice in some ways is very frustrating because we want to know now and we want to act now!

However, sometimes things have to run their course and produce their fruit. Then there is no argument. But once error has been clearly identified from the Scripture and/or by the fruit, we need to lovingly expose the error by declaring the truth. Truth has always been the best and only antidote for error. Equally, if the test of Scripture and fruit indicates that the movement or teaching is from God - albeit imperfectly expressed - then a humble and teachable spirit will acknowledge that and respond accordingly

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