Bad theology exposed in the tabloids

A story in the Daily Mail today caught my attention. Essentially the piece is in the genre “human interest hit job on religious cult,” the cult in this case being “Bigoted Fundamentalist Christianity.” But I noticed it because the strapline included “Guildford County School for Girls,” in my hometown, so I wondered if the youth club that changed her life for the worse might be the one I went to.

It wasn’t, in fact. It was the one at the very vibrant Baptist church down the road. But the local interest did make me read on. To be candid, there is little in the story that indicates that cultism, rather than individual factors, was to blame for her prolonged delay in finding a marriage partner. Although she has put her life in the public domain, I don’t intend to analyse it, but rather to look at how valid her criticism of the particular Evangelical institutions she blames is, since I’m personally familiar with them.

As it happens, all three of the girlfriends of my teenage years (before meeting my future wife at College, through both the University Folk Club and our mutual involvement in – wait for it – the Christian Union) were from the County School. I met all three of those girlfriends through Christian activities, and one of them was a member of the selfsame church named in the article. She eventually married another Christian and became a senior physiotherapist locally. One of the others became the music arranger for Donald Swann (and died, sadly, too young). The third I lost touch with, but have no doubt she would have found another half somewhere before too long – thanks, Linda, for introducing me to Jethro Tull. So there was nothing wrong with the school, apart from the red pill-box hats the girls hated.

Because it was so near, I had many friends in the Baptist church and youth club. I toured in an acoustic duo with one of them, who married another Guildford Bappo, a singer, and is still playing music professionally today. Another was a pioneer of British contemporary Christian Music, becoming the lead guitarist with After the Fire, which had a US hit single in the 1980s. Others were more normal mortals, and I still hear from a few who have pretty normal family lives.

The writer of the article also singles out the Christian Union at her alma mater Durham University for criticism… having blamed God for sending her there rather than to Oxbridge. How unjust can he be? Durham, though, is a pretty good school, and it happens that one of my oldest friend studied there in the 1960s, married a member of the Christian Union, and still sends me awful jokes by e-mail. He was a contemporary of Garth Hewitt, who became a singing clergyman on the gospel circuit, where I met him a few times, sometimes bringing his wife with him.

So far, then, so little evidence that the Millmead Baptist Cult or the Durham University Sect made a normal love life impossible. In fact all the article says about that is that the writer was advised not to yoke herself together with unbelievers. This hasn’t stopped many Christian women I know marrying non-believers, sometimes successfully, sometimes disastrously, but always with an element of tension over differing worldviews. Sometimes the disasters are what has led errant victims back to Christ. The Mail doesn’t seem to carry stories like that.

Where I can more readily sympathise with the author, and to an extent identify with her, is in the matter of pastoral failures which, sad to say, largely stem from the Charismatic Theology that certainly effervesced in the Guildford Baptist Youth Group when I knew it, into which doctrinal stream she seems to have plunged initially. Many readers will already know that this theology is seldom “cultic” in the sectarian sense, but what I consider to be its errors can lead to very poor pastoral care.

The question of love and marriage is weakly involved in this, in that if one teaches the desirability of Christian-Christian marriage from 1 Corinthians, one should also teach positively on its handling of celibacy both voluntary and involuntary, and recognise the individual issues these matters raise. But to be fair, I’ve never found any shortage of such teaching in Charismatic churches more than in any other.

More significant, to me, are the issues of true conversion, and of miraculous healing, which reveal significant shortcomings in the theology not so much of the writer, but of the Christians who discipled her. From the Daily Mail article, we can with some confidence deduce that she was never, truly, a Christian. Yet she had a conversion “experience” when she went to a service in Millmead, and subsequently had prayer for the prescribed “baptism with the Spirit” and even spoke in tongues (or so she and her associates believed at the time).

Now, bear in mind that, although few mainstream churches, and certainly not Guildford Baptists, maintain the Pentecostal doctrine that glossolalia is necessary for salvation, it is still frequently implied that a post-conversion experience of Spirit-baptism is the real deal of faith (see David Pawson, former Pastor of Millmead Church, in his book The Normal Christian Birth.) Furthermore, despite the caveat that “Not all speak in tongues,” it is often pretty much implied that anybody can, once they are prayed for and start gabbling in their own prayer language, as did this girl.

Not many Charismatics teach that such a practice may be entirely psychological in an unconverted person, as it clearly was here, though sometimes the fear of Satan may be planted in vulnerable minds by speaking about “demonic tongues.” At the “Holy Spirit” session of Holy Trinity Brompton’s Alpha Course (another church of which I was once a member), participants in the evangelistic course are encouraged to expect the Holy Spirit to fill them, just as the author of this article was. She thought he had filled her, as evidenced in tongues, which actually added fuel to her later disillusion with Christianity. But the indwelling of the Spirit never leads to atheism.

Nobody, you see, had even thought to ensure that she was truly converted before they blithely expected her to exhibit gifts of the Holy Spirit. Nobody had (according to her testimony) checked if she had been convicted of sin and repented, nor whether she had at a deep level vowed to commit her life to Jesus as her crucified and risen Lord, come what may. It was enough, it seems, for her to have had a positive emotional response to a service. But if the whole Spirit Baptism thing is not grounds for assurance of salvation, but in many cases leads people to total disillusion, then something is theologically wrong. The Holy Spirit is given as a guarantee of our position in Christ (Ephesians 1:14), and therefore the true marks of the indwelling Spirit are not what the Charismatics say they are, but something they are missing.

It is, at least in part, because she was never truly converted that the unfortunate, and all-too-common bad experience of failed healing prayer left our author so bitter against God. The first event I was involved in at Millmead confirms her (actually poorly documented) claims about the Youth Group having inadequate adult supervision, though whether adult Charismatic believers would have improved things is questionable. The event was an evangelistic concert, prior to which a prayer meeting had generated a prophecy that 1,000 people would be converted. There were actually several prophecies from young and inexperienced teenagers, but most were of the vanilla “I am with you” variety. The main prophecy was taken as a divine promise (as, indeed, true prophecies should be after testing, which “testing” does not mean, “Seems OK to me”).

In the event there were only a handful of conversions on the day. In the post mortem, the leaders among the youth toyed with the possibility that that handful of conversions would, in time, lead to a thousand others, but that reasoning was too convoluted even for that group. The eventual “canonical” explanation was that we were “overconfident,” so that God had cancelled the prediction. This is self-evidently tosh, in that the ostensible point of the prophecy was to instill confidence – aka faith in the outcome. Nobody was willing to say, “Sorry, Phil [or whatever his name was], you’re obviously not a prophet, so I’d keep quiet in future.” Belief in one’s prophetic ministry was, it seems, as incontrovertible then as belief in your chosen gender is nowadays, and just as reliable.

The Charismatic assumption is, in practice, that if you think you’re speaking by the Spirit (like the writer speaking in tongues) then you are. The biblical tests for prophets are routinely subordinated to psychological experience and wishful thinking. The teaching becomes (this is John Wimber) “Even true prophets are wrong about 30% of the time.” Whereas the Bible says that a prophecy that doesn’t come true is the sure sign of a false prophet:

The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not fear him. (Deuteronomy 18:22)

The same attitude attends healing prayer. One way or another, the belief in “sign gifts” has, over the 120 year history of the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement, repeatedly turned into the belief that with enough faith, you will be healed. The shysters (and too many ordinary Charismatics) attribute lack of healing to the victim’s lack of faith, unconfessed sin, leftover demons either in the sufferer or, sometimes, their ancestors, and so on. To many more, the person praying generously, but equally uselessly, lays the same accusations at their own door.

What very few do is ask themselves whether, maybe, they’ve got their theology of healing wrong in some way. But because they don’t ask these questions, the pastoral result is often what this girl experienced with her disfiguring skin condition – repeated ineffective prayer, and being then left in limbo. She doesn’t even appear to have tried a doctor. I don’t say this is sufficient reason to abandon God – I’ve been the recipient of ineffective healing prayer, and it hasn’t harmed me spiritually, but only because I already had a strong doctrine of divine sovereignty and the role of suffering in the Christian life. But it’s certainly not conducive to faith.

One of my favourite musicians, I read in his biography, lost his faith because the apparent success of healing prayer for his suffering (and unbelieving) father turned out to be a temporary placebo effect. Nobody should be let loose on healing prayer without knowing how to counsel those whom God does not heal… which, if the Charismatics were only honest enough to admit it, is the majority of those prayed for. Now, that is not to deny the value of prayer for the sick, nor how it is often appreciated by unbelievers, nor to deny that spectacular healings can occur through prayer, as I have experienced myself. But it ought to change how you unite confidence in God’s faithfulness with common experience theologically.

Belief in God’s immanent power and love does not entail holding to a theology that a warm feeling after a sermon is conversion, that a warm feeling after subsequent prayer is the reception of God’s Holy Spirit, that glossolalia encouraged by getting a group to try it is evidence of that same Spirit’s indwelling, or that truly Spirit-indwelt Christians will, most of the time, speak God’s messages at will and heal all diseases. It is high time that disappointment in any of these things should be taken as a sign of profoundly misconceived theology, rather than the inexplicable failure of actually unconverted people to obey the rules.

None of these conclusions would, necessarily, have made the author of the Daily Mail hit-piece a Christian. But she might have avoided living under the illusion that she was for a good portion of her life. And that might, just possibly, have made her aware of her need for God as a sinner, rather than regarding him as the direct source of all her problems.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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