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July 2006

The Question of how we Critique

Brian McLaren is an influential opinion leader for many emergent and other postmodern Christians all over the world. He has recently released his latest book ‘A new kind of Christianity’ and, as a result, is attracting new salvo’s of criticism from across the evangelical church spectrum.

My purpose in writing this article is not to critique his work (for this see my review) but to raise the question of how we should evaluate a book such as this.

I have read most of the several reviews that have appeared on the internet and few are favourable. Some of the reviewers are perceptive, others are superficial, but others just can’t resist the temptation of casting aspersions on the man himself. Some label him a heretic, intending this as a personal slur rather than its true meaning of simply describing someone who holds an opinion that contradicts established religious teaching. Others claim that he is attempting to brainwash (or do they mean Brianwash) us poor gullible orthodox evangelicals. One reviewer accused Brian of being an apostate and of hating God. I find this unfortunate.

Where does this sort of criticism get us?

Firstly, it polarises opinion.

McLaren’s fans will tend to shut their minds to any quality critical observations when they come packaged with personal invective. The only people who get anything out of the critique are those who are already predisposed to agree with the reviewer. So what’s the point of the critique?

Secondly, it positions McLaren as a martyr.

He makes a point of describing himself as a gentle soul and writes ‘how did a mild-mannered guy like me get into so much trouble?’ Attacking him personally plays to this and distracts the reader from where the focus should be, on the ideas presented.

McLaren repeatedly claims to be simply asking questions, exploring alternatives, and seeking discourse (conversation). Actually, he goes a lot further than this in his latest book and comes close to stating, at last, just what he does believe.  However, his style is still more engaging than assertive.

Anyone who attempts to respond to his ideas with dogmatism will most likely alienate the very people who most need to hear the counter arguments.
A gentler, or to use a Mclaranism, more generous approach, is to engage with the questions he poses in a respectful yet honest manner.

Another way of effectively communicating a critique of a work such as this is to pose further questions that call for deeply reflective responses. For instance, Brian recasts the Genesis account as a ‘compassionate coming-of-age story’. He says that the biblical text (Gen 2:17) does not claim that eating fruit from the wrong tree would result in spiritual separation from God, condemnation, or original sin. Instead of pouncing on this with orthodox fervor it would probably be more effective to ask the question “What does this say about our need for a Savior?” or “In light of this, why did Jesus need to die on the cross of Calvary?” A reasoned response to such questions would open up the subjects of sin, atonement, salvation, and spiritual regeneration. Would this not cause even the most ardent McLarenite pause to think?

Some of Brian’s ten questions are well worth answering, but I don’t believe that they are, to quote his subtitle, ten questions that are transforming the faith. Actually, every generation has asked these questions, but the answers found have, in the main, yielded evangelical orthodoxy. For the record, I have serious problems with most of Brian’s major contentions and I have addressed these in my post entitled ‘A new kind of liberalism’ found HERE.

However, I don’t think it helpful to anyone to demonise the man or to publically doubt his motives or his spiritual status.
My best advice is to let his ideas stand the test of biblical evaluation using reasoned interpretational methods. In this way, the ideas and philosophies presented will be exposed for what they really are, we will come away having learned something from the process, and Brian will be left with his integrity intact and his martyrdom denied.


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Where have all the burnt stones gone…

…long time passing?

I was useless at mathematics when I was at school, but by the time I attended Business School I had warmed to statistics, graphs, and equations.  We all know the statement that “there are lies, then wopping lies, then statistics”.  There is some truth to that, yet statistics do alert us to trends and significant anomalies.

Here are some interesting statistics concerning the church:

  • George Barna estimated that in the United States 28% of the population is unchurched, and that 61% of these people described themselves as Christians.
  • Of these 18% stated that they are ‘born again’ and that their faith is of daily importance to them. To a reasonable extent the South African church statistics traditionally mirror those of the USA.
  • This means that there are roughly 8,000,000 people in South Africa who regard themselves as Christians yet do not attend church of any sort. Perhaps the majority of these folk are Christians by family history only. However, if the statistics are in any way reflective of reality, there are about 1,500,000 ‘born again’ believers who do not attend church.

I am not sure who first coined the term ‘burnt stones’ to describe these folk, but I think it was Ern Baxter.  Nehemiah describes how Sanballat ridiculed the Jews who were attempting to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He sneered, “Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble – burned as they are?” (Neh 4:1-2) Very few people become disciples of Jesus Christ and do not initially attend church.

So, the one and a half million believers who do not attend must have dropped out for some reason or another. The most common reason given is “we were burned”.
By this, they mean that they were hurt, disappointed, disillusioned, financially milked, or over-worked by the church they were attending. There are other reasons cited but they are no more flattering to the perception of ‘church’ – boring, irrelevant, legalistic, manipulative, unfriendly, money-grabbing… the list goes on.

I am one of those who believe in the church. I see her as a precious body of believers, the apple of God’s eye. As a pastor, I know that church leadership often gets things wrong. Sometimes they try to structure the church as a business and as a result tend to produce spiritually bankrupt adherents to the Christian Faith. Sometimes they structure the church as an army and leave many wounded souls lying in their wake as they march on to ‘victory’. But the fault doesn’t lie solely with church leadership.

In essence, the church is the household of God (Ephesians 2:19).  It is a family (1 Peter 4:17),  yet so many of its members do not seem to appreciate that they are part of a real spiritual family. From time to time I learn that someone who has been attending for years has suddenly left and joined another local church or are not attending church anywhere. No reasons given; no goodbye and God bless you; just … gone. Of course, we follow up and usually find out that someone in the church ticked them off, or their children’s friends attend another church, or whatever. The question remains, ‘why did they just up and leave their spiritual family?’ In truth, the answer probably is that either they don’t regard the church as a family, or they have a warped view of what a family is and how it functions.

For too long now, too many churches have been setting themselves up as spiritual entertainment centres, colleges, clubs, or hospitals.
If the church presents itself as a supplier then it is hardly surprising if its ‘members’ behave as typical consumers. If a consumer doesn’t get what it feels it needs then it goes somewhere else. If the other church ‘suppliers’ don’t meet the need then the consumer becomes an unchurched ‘burnt stone’. A consumer says, “What can I get from this church?” whilst a family member says, “How can I contribute to this church family?”

Alternatively, so many people come from dysfunctional families that they think it normal to behave as though the church too is a dysfunctional family, even when it isn’t. Fathers walk out on their children, children rebel and leave home, so why not just leave church for whatever reason seems good at the time?

One and a half million ‘burnt stones’ – just think of that! What can be done? Well, if you are one of these, then I appeal to you to consider again just how important the family of God is. Acts 20:28-29 describes the local church as ‘the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.’  Now that makes the church important and valuable!

You have a place within the church, as a living stone, not a burnt one.
If you know folk who are ‘burned’ then why not try to lovingly explain what church really is and then invite them to connect with it again.


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Restoring Truth to the Church

Recently I attended a wedding where the minister was a pleasant young man from a traditional denomination. He conducted the service well enough but he made no reference whatsoever to the Bible, and the name of Jesus came up just once in a casual aside.

WeddingA Christian marriage is based on the covenant between God and man as fulfilled in and through the Lord Jesus Christ, and it is described and prescribed in the Bible. How then can a minister of the church conduct a Christian wedding without reference to either the Lord Jesus or the Bible? This is by no means an isolated incident but is rather indicative of the sad lack of connection between Jesus and the Bible evidenced in much of the church of our day. This central ‘truth’ connection needs to be restored and I am committed to playing a meaningful role in the process.

This statement demands an answer to at least two questions; what do I mean by truth, and why does it need to be restored? To many the idea seems nonsensical.It is popular today to regard truth as relative and individually or group determined. If this is so, then truth isn’t an absolute that would ever need to be restored.

However, I believe that truth is a person rather than simply personal, and eternally established rather than relative and transient.
What do I mean by truth being a person? Well Jesus claimed to be truth itself when he declared, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). On many occasions he used the phrase “I tell you the truth”, but here he went beyond that to proclaim that he was the embodiment of truth. This was a central idea in early Christianity. The first century disciples were more followers than learners. They witnessed to a relationship with the Son of God and sought to emulate him rather than just study his teachings. But then things started to change.

By the middle ages, Christian maturity was gauged by knowledge of doctrine and church protocol instead of the quality of a living relationship with Jesus Christ. And things haven’t changed much since then. In traditional churches the priest, pastor, minister is required to hold a bachelor of theology degree. This is good in itself but surely a mature relationship with Jesus is of greater importance? The answer to that question is often negative because the criterion for ministerial success has become what you know rather than who you know.

Ask an average gathering of Christians if they are currently discipling anyone and a typical positive response would be one in a hundred. Jesus commissioned his followers to go into all the world and make disciples but so few of us do. Why is this? Again, ask a typical congregation this question and one of the most common responses is, “I don’t know enough”. What they mean by this is that they don’t have in-depth knowledge of the doctrines of the Christian Faith and nor do they have answers to the many objections they imagine others will raise. But Christianity is not a knowledge-based religion; it is a word that describes a relationship with Jesus and with other disciples. It is not a system to be sold, but a life of relationship to be offered.

A central truth that needs to be restored to the church is this; Jesus is the truth and Christianity is about a relationship with him and his followers. Paul captures this central idea when he writes about ‘God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.’ (1 Tim 3:15). Then, in the next verses he writes; ‘Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.’ The truth… He (Jesus) appeared in a body. Jesus is the truth the church is to uphold.

Of course we only know of Jesus through the Holy Spirit’s illumination of the scriptures.
If Jesus is the incarnate Word of Truth, as He is, then the Bible is the written Word of Truth. But here is another central concept; we can only really understand the Bible with reference to Jesus. The written word is not so much a collection of propositions as it is a revelation of the person, nature, purpose, and teachings of God the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, because of the misconception that Christianity is a knowledge-based religion, the Bible is regarded by many as a sort of theological dictionary. Of course it does contain commands, concepts, and principles. It also contains guidance for daily living, but it is first and foremost a revelation of Jesus (Revelation 1:1). This too needs to be restored to the church.
Doctrine is important, but it needs to be Christ-centred doctrine. Holy living is important but this too must be Christ-motivated and Christ-pleasing. Healthy church practice is important but here again the focus needs to be on Jesus, not on protocol, ritual, or tradition.
Would we see the sort of maniacal antics on display at many of the so-called ‘revivals’ of our day if we were centred on Jesus and His ways? I don’t think so, and in any event we would not flock to these displays like confused sheep if we knew the real shepherd! And how could the great divides between Calvinists and Arminians, cessasionists and charismatics, and so on, continue to exist if both sides were thoroughly Christ-centred in doctrine and practice? Perhaps I am naïve, but I am convinced that we won’t even  make real progress in these areas until we embrace the restoration of the centrality of Jesus.

So, when I hear the Lord’s voice calling for the restoration of truth to his church, I don’t think of a particular doctrine or tradition, I think of Jesus, for Jesus is The Truth.


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Religion vs. Relationship

I hate being called ‘religious’.

I regard myself as a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, not as a religious person.

I guess the reason I don’t like being called religious is that I associate the word with things like traditions, rituals, and rites that seem more man-made than God-given. Some speak approvingly of ‘true religion’, or ‘pure religion’, but to me the word, other than in the sense of James 1:26-27, is entirely negative.

I define religion as any human attempt to find a way, on his or her terms, to God.
The Tower of Babel was an early example of this (Genesis 11:4). The people of that day wanted a way to relate to God that suited and served them. So they built a stepped pyramid, a ziggurat ‘tower’ so they could climb up to the heavens. They constructed a temple on the top of the pyramid filled with representations of the sun, moon, and stars. Then they developed a religious system of worship to these celestial objects, these ‘gods’.  This is typical of religion.

Things haven’t changed much since then. There are many religions in the world, ranging from Islam to New Age spiritualism with all of them claiming some sort of divine origin. Islam professes that an angel revealed the contents of the Koran (Quràn) to Mohammed, and New Age practitioners would like us to believe that disembodied higher beings channel wisdom through them. However, when we get right down to the basic issue of validation, only Mohammed heard the angel and only the New Agers personally experience the ‘channelling’. It is all very subjective.

Religion originates on Earth in the minds of men and women, while Christianity originates in Heaven in the trinity of God.
Jesus did not appear only to one prophetic figure, but to tens of thousands of ordinary people. He himself did not claim to have received divine revelation; he claimed to be the very source of divine revelation. He didn’t say “I have come to teach you the truth”. Instead, he said “I am the truth” (John 14:6). Joseph Smith, of Mormon fame, sat in a tent transcribing what he claimed to be the oracles of God written in hieroglyphics on gold plates delivered to him by the angel Moroni. When he emerged from the tent the angel and the gold plates had conveniently disappeared. Jesus, on the other hand, dwelt in the ‘tent’ of humanity (John 1:14) from birth to the age of over thirty. He taught in full sight, died before witnesses, rose from the dead and was then seen by hundreds, and finally ascended bodily into heaven in full view of his disciples.

I don’t regard Christianity as a religion at all, at least not as I have defined ‘religion’. However, with sadness I have to concede that religion has infiltrated Christianity. I bailed out of the church when I was thirteen years old because I saw only tradition, rite and ritual, and not Jesus. Now, five decades later, I am hopelessly committed to the church because I see it as the household of God, the family of Jesus Christ, and not as a temple to tradition.

Jesus was patient most of the time and compassionate all of the time, but the people who really angered Him were the religious ones.
He told them that they were hypocrites, white-washed tombs, and that their traditions nullified the Word of God.  He saw the Pharisees as standing between the people and God, as offering not life but religion. Would He say the same to the religious people of our day? I believe He would.

I have no criticism of the church. The church, the Body of Christ, in all its local expressions, is a wonderful and precious thing. I just can’t stand the religiosity that creeps into her thinking and practices. Things like the special classes of ‘priests’ who wear archaic costumes and conduct their religious practices behind a separating rail; or expensively suited ‘Pastors’ who sit on special chairs on a raised platform. Things like the muttered formula prayers spoken in Elizabethan English, or Latin; or the exhortations to “Give the Lord an applause offering” as the preacher bounds up to the Perspex pulpit.

If you are a church leader then you can influence these things. If you are not you can still abstain, pray, and speak when the time is right. Anything that seeks to express the truth that Jesus embodied brings life. All that expresses religious tradition might bring nostalgia but will not impart life-changing truth.


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The Liberal ‘gevaar’

In many evangelical circles, and certainly among most fundamentalists, the world ‘liberal’ carries with it a definite emotional and theological charge.

Liberals are seen as threatening the Faith and undermining true Christian theology. Liberals have a nefarious agenda; they are wolves in sheep’s clothing, and so on. Liberal theologians, on the other hand, are concerned at what they observe as a lack of love and compassion for the human condition among fundamentalists. They also take exception to what they perceive as the naïve and uncritical spiritualisation of evangelicals. Some, like bishop Spong for instance, even contend that unless they save Christianity from unscientific supernaturalism it will become first irrelevant and then extinct.

So what is theological liberalism?  I would describe liberals as people who hold the following theological beliefs:  Concerning the Bible, they generally believe that the scriptures are no more inspired than other important literary works. As a result, they subject the Bible to rigorous ‘higher’ criticism and discount much of its historic reliability and factual accuracy. Concerning salvation, they understand regeneration as a reprogramming of the individual mind and the transformation of the structures of society. Liberal theology is both humanistic and anti-supernatural. On the positive side, this results in a focus on compassion for people and consideration for the human habitat. On the negative side, it strips Christianity and the Bible of everything that cannot be logically explained. Angels have never been scientifically evaluated therefore they cannot exist. A miracle is merely the mythological name given to a natural process we do not yet fully understand. Rebirth is actually just a way of describing the process of intellectual and moral transformation. The virgin birth is superfluous… and so on. I need to note though that there is a continuum from old fashioned liberalism on the one end, through neo-liberalism, evangelical orthodoxy, to fundamentalism on the other end. Some fundamentalists regard the average evangelical as somewhat liberal, and many liberals see little difference between evangelicals and fundamentalists.

As an evangelical, I have very real problems with most that goes under the heading of theological liberalism. I accept that the Bible has a human aspect to it, but I do not accept that it is anything other than divinely inspired and authoritative. If, as many liberals contend, most of the New Testament is simply a record of the philosophy of Paul of Tarsus, then it provides only limited help in the 21st century and no certainty for an eternal future.

If the Gospels record the embellished mythology of overzealous first century Christ-followers, then perhaps Jesus did not do what they say He did and His teaching is no more definitive than that of any other wise man of His day.
If man is essentially good, then sin is just a religious word for social dysfunction. If right and wrong, morality and immorality are genetically or culturally determined, then homosexuality is just a matter of personal preference or predisposition, and abortion on demand a societal convenience. If science stands above scripture as the yardstick of truth, then tomorrow’s truth will not be the same as today’s truth and both will be uncertain. If God is an archaic name for cosmic group consciousness, then the possibility of a personal relationship with him, her, or it is an absurd idea. If Jesus was just a radical Jewish teacher and activist then I am without a Savior and my only hope for the future is my own effort, the success of my particular race or society, and a lot of luck. If this is what the Christian Faith truly is then it isn’t worth saving.

I see no point to a liberal Faith of the kind I have described. However, a note of sober caution is in order. Liberalism is not the only aberration within the greater body of the Church. In my opinion, extreme fundamentalism, on the other side of the continuum, with its harsh separatism and exclusive definitions of biblical inerrancy, creationism and so on, is an ill-conceived over-reaction to liberalism. In its own way it does just as much damage to the credibility and vitality of the Christian Faith.  Naive and slavish literalism denigrates the rational aspect of biblical faith; fixation on non-fundamental doctrines fragments the church; separatist pride and lovelessness opens the chasm between church and world even wider than it already is.

Another caution is that we should recognise the liberalism in our own views and practices. When we focus on societal change as the Faith priority, then we are comfortably in line with the liberal agenda. When we practice our Faith as an essentially private matter, largely unconfined by the demands and restraints of church life and doctrine, then we are being distinctly liberal. When we respond accommodatingly to unbiblical societal norms with the mantra, ‘different strokes for different folks’, then we are surely liberals at heart. So perhaps, rather than being as concerned as we often appear to be with only  the liberalism we identify in the institutions of the church, we ought also to examine the insidious incursion of it into our own lives and thinking.

I can’t speak for you, but I actually don’t want religion of any type, liberal or other; I want a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible and as illuminated by the Holy Spirit … so help me Father God.


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About Me

My name is Christopher Peppler and I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1947. While working in the financial sector I achieved a number of business qualifications from the Institute of Bankers, Damelin Management School, and The University of the Witwatersrand Business School. After over 20 years as a banker, I followed God’s calling and joined the ministry full time. After becoming a pastor of what is now a quite considerable church, I  earned an undergraduate theological qualification from the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa and post-graduate degrees from two United States institutions. I was also awarded the Doctor of Theology in Systematic Theology from the University of Zululand in 2000.

Four years before that I established the South African Theological Seminary (SATS), which today is represented in over 70 countries and has more than 2 500 active students enrolled with it. I presently play an role supervising Masters and Doctoral students.

I am a passionate champion of the Christocentric or Christ-centred Principle, an approach to biblical interpretation and theological construction that emphasises the centrality of Jesus

I have been happily married to Patricia since the age of 20, have two children, Lance and Karen, a daughter-in-law Tracey, and granddaughters Jessica and Kirsten. I have now retired from both church and seminary leadership and devote my time to writing, discipling, and the classical guitar.

If you would like to read my testimony to Jesus then click HERE.