Many of you will know that by “Gandalf” I’m referring to myself. The label came about some years ago during an interview about how I view the believing Christian world (the Christianity that is rooted in the actual gospel) functions in three realms, one of which is “Christian Middle Earth.” The term refers to the “middle realm” that exists between the local church and the academy. It’s the destination for Christians who can’t penetrate the evangelical wing of the ivory tower (or don’t know it exists) and aren’t getting content. Rather than quitting church, they decide to teach themselves. I blogged about that here (“What is Christian Middle Earth? A Brief Explanation”; the post includes an audio file of the part of the interview where the metaphor of Christian Middle Earth was born).
I’ve been thinking a lot about the future. Some things seem pretty predictable to me, while others are uncertain. I’m no prophet, but I think I perceive some things taking shape and want you, my audience, to know about those perceptions and consider praying about them.
Those of you who have followed me over the years know the fundamentals about who I am and what God has called me to do. My role is to provide biblical content, especially to people who hunger for it and aren’t getting it in church, and who will never pursue a degree in biblical studies. For me, good content requires a couple of things. First, to really understand the Bible, we need to interpret it in light of its own contexts, not post-biblical contexts. The Bible was written for us, but not to us. It wasn’t written with modern questions and the modern worldview in mind. The right contexts for interpreting the Bible are the contexts in which it was produced. Second, I’m interested in interpretations that the biblical text can sustain when interpreted in its own contexts. That means I think it something of a waste of time to study Scripture to perpetuate Christian sub-cultures (e.g., denominational preferences and theological systems). None of those things are self-evident from the text. To say they are is to be dishonest (all the opposing viewpoints to your denomination or system will presume their conclusions are self-evident). Third, bringing “every thought captive” requires we embrace the supernatural worldview of the writers. This worldview is one of the ancient contexts of Scripture. I single it out because modern Bible believers frequently resist it. They do so because they are moderns and feel more comfortable filtering a number of biblical passages about the spiritual world (and that’s an important qualifier) through the rationalism of the Enlightenment and modern science. By definition, the spiritual world doesn’t conform, and is not subject to, such things. For more thoughts on this, see my FAQ (it’s the last question).
When it comes to the mission of the Church—which means my mission as a believer—my goal is to be useful to believers everywhere, recognizing their knowledge of Scripture may vary widely. It’s also to spread the gospel and give Jesus a good reputation. That means I am open to partnering with most (not all; see below) believers who clearly understand the gospel and whose lives, churches, and ministries present it without any dilution, amendment, or re-definition. This is a fundamental point of biblical authority. You can’t obey the Great Commission by preaching a pseudo-gospel.
The above is why I venture into all three “realms” of believing Christianity—the academy, the local church, and what I affectionately call Christian Middle Earth, the “between realm” where some strange (and wonderful) stuff is said, published, and done in the name of the Lord. My goal is to do something useful in all three realms at any given point that in some way gets people back to the text of Scripture and back to the Great Commission. And so I write journal articles, academic books, and popular books. I host podcasts about biblical studies (Naked Bible Podcast). I have a presence in Middle Earth via the “postmodern apologetics” YouTube Channel (FringePop321) and my Peeranormal podcast. I do lots of interviews on podcasts, TV shows, radio shows, etc., Christian or not, mainstream or fringe. I want to help Christians think more critically about the need to read the Bible in its own ancient contexts. I want to help unbelievers realize that they often don’t think critically about their beliefs, especially fringe ideas put forth on the internet. They need to think more carefully about primary sources, one of which is the Bible.
Consequently, I spend next to no time taking sides on things like eschatology, creation views, spiritual gifts, women in ministry, etc. I’ll tell anyone who asks where I’m at on such things and why, but I’ll leave it to other ministries to fight with Christians who don’t take their view! I not only refuse to engage in that sort of “ministry” because it’s a poor use of my time, but it’s a poor use of God’s time. Whether you think so or not, the believing Church is in crisis. It has bigger problems than these peripheral debates. They are not as important as those who promote fighting about them want their audiences to believe. The gospel is what’s important, as is seeing the believing Church thrive in a post-modern and (now) a post-Christian culture. The Great Commission isn’t about winning such debates. To be blunt, it’s about time the believing Church comes to grip with this.
Let me illustrate how this works with an issue-example. I’m not a charismatic. I’m also not a traditional cessationist. I’m in the academic category of “cautious but open” when it comes to supernatural (“miraculous”) gifts and acts of God today. That doesn’t mean I’m cautiously open to the modern charismatic movement. I’m not. Lest I be misunderstood on that point, I realize that “charismatic” is a very broad term, and that it is not completely synonymous with Pentecostalism and is not intended to wipe supernatural works of the Spirit today off the table. My concern really isn’t a movement at all, but teachings and practices that simply don’t align with Scripture. It seems quite evident to me that the overwhelming majority of what happens today in churches that promote the miraculous gifts is self-induced or contrived nonsense (with, tragically, outright deception at times being in play). I’ve read the New Testament, and I can’t find things like maniacal laughter, barking like a dog, or clucking like a chicken to be manifestations of the Holy Spirit. I can’t find any biblical endorsement of the idea that all believers should manifest miraculous gifts as a means of validating salvation, or that we should seek angel guides, or that I (or anyone else) can teach people how to prophesy. Gold dust and feathers cannot be found in accounts of the Spirit’s power in the book of Acts (and angels don’t have wings anyway, at least according to the Bible). Frankly, what we are told is a a wave of Holy Spirit power today looks more like Harry Potter at Hogwarts than the New Testament.
But such outlandish abuses do not compel the conclusion that God cannot and has not acted in miraculous ways all around the world today. I know people who were supernaturally enabled to speak in other languages on the mission field in some tight circumstances (not the gibberish many call “tongues” today). The number of conversions in Muslim countries today, prompted by dreams and visions, where many of those converts literally risk (or give) their lives in response, are demonstrably real when judged by the sort of spiritual fruit the New Testament puts forth as the basis for such judgment. I don’t think for a minute God is prohibited by cessationist theology from acting, or that cessationist theology has a good case for God not being free to do these things. I know the data used to support such ideas. They aren’t persuasive, and I’m not a newbie to the biblical text. But what passes today for the movement of the Spirit is frequently nothing more than a show or can’t be distinguished from manifestations of the same “giftings” seen in transparently non-Christian religions.
I land where I do because I choose to stop where the text stops and let the ambiguities be what they are. Sure, I’m going to lean one way or the other, but I’ll tell people (and often do) why I can’t say some other view is totally wrong. I’d rather focus on the core meta-narrative of salvation history. I truly believe if God cared more about such things he was perfectly capable of providing more detail on them to resolve those issues. But he didn’t. That tells me they are peripheral to God’s goals in providing Scripture and directing the mission of the Church.
The peripheries are interesting and fun. God expects us to wrestle with them. He doesn’t expect us to be fragmented over them. That’s basically the state of the believing Church. And right now that’s a luxury in the West. Unless you’ve been living in a cloister, the Church is headed for some dark times. The culture isn’t moving toward paganism; it’s decidedly already at home there. The day is fast approaching when we’ll be glad to find others who believe regardless of their views on the things Christians fight over. Believers will need each other more and more as the culture gives way to limiting individual liberty and to intolerance for Christianity.
In case you’re wondering, my thinking here applies even to positions I take in Unseen Realm. I’ve provided peer-reviewed literature in abundance in the footnotes to demonstrate that they’re all quite defensible. I’ve also shown how the positions I take connect to each other. The Word of God ought to make sense. All that said, I don’t care if everyone agrees with all my positions. I care far more that people start engaging the text in its own contexts instead of filtering it through a tradition whose distinctives become rationales for fragmentation. We’ll find out none of us were omniscient soon enough. I’m good with that. So let’s try and focus on getting people back into the text, not a tradition, and then remind them Jesus actually gave us a mission that ought to define us—and keep us from defining our purpose in some other way.
Already Happening and Yet To Come
Over the past several years my books have sold well. The podcasts and channels have grown. Producing content has been a blessing, not only to me but to people all over the world. Part of why I left a wonderful job with Logos Bible Software to join Celebration Church was the very obvious opportunity there to grow exposure to my content globally (you can listen to the story here). God’s providence has been in it all in many ways. The success of the content isn’t hard to assess: it’s been useful, it meets a need (for many believers it’s their first exposure to studying Scripture in its own original contexts), doesn’t focus on the peripheral items Christians are taught to fight about, and isn’t personality driven (if you’ve seen or heard me, that’s sort of obvious).
The amazing success of The Unseen Realm and its “lite” version, Supernatural, have created an interesting circumstance: my content is being absorbed, liked, and re-purposed by a great many people. That’s great news. But some of those people are already using it to try and articulate ideas that are unbiblical and build their own kingdoms in the process.
The most obvious region of Christian Middle Earth in which this is beginning to occur and might continue to occur are the charismatic or Pentecostal wings of the Church. That’s no surprise given my academic focus on the supernatural worldview of the biblical writers. Writing about the wide variety of biblical figures and terms that are part of the its densely-populated spiritual world inevitably draws questions (or invites mis-applying my content) related to spiritual warfare, spiritual gifts, demonization, etc.
As I noted earlier, I’m open to supernatural gifting being in God’s toolbox today but put almost no stock in the modern movements that focus on those gifts. In a nutshell, I’m skeptical of everything and willing to believe anything—when it survives critical thinking and doesn’t violate what the biblical text can sustain. Scripture itself commands us to judge such things critically:
- For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream. (Jer 29:8)
- Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1)
- Test everything; hold fast what is good. (1 Thess 5:21)
The Lord naturally never tells us to do something he didn’t do. In that regard, Rev 2:2 rarely gets referenced in claims of alleged apostolic gifting and authority. The Lord reminded the church at Ephesus that people who claim to be apostles—even in the apostolic era—could be false teachers:
“ ‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. (Rev 2:2)
God never expects us to reflexively disengage our brains and just believe. We were created as God’s imagers. One of the tools to enable us to represent our Creator, to image him, is rationality. That quality and faith are not incompatible and shouldn’t be treated as such.
When a fellow Christian tells me they experienced something I’m therefore willing to believe, but I’m always evaluating what’s said, whether I tell them that or not. God can do amazing things today, but I’m looking for any claim to align with scriptural patterns and purposes. Dropping “Holy Spirit” to justify some reported experience doesn’t move me. The same Holy Spirit whom someone credits with some experience or event operated in conjunction with God’s providence to produce the Bible—and so what’s reported must and will align with Scripture.
Biblical conformity is absolutely essential to evaluating any claim of “Holy Spirit” activity for another reason: most of what passes for miraculous gifting or activity today can be (and has historically been) self-induced or imitated and reproduced in cults, occult groups, and eastern religions. Most Christians aren’t going to be aware of this since they don’t do research on these things. I do. Any “manifestation” of the “Holy Spirit” needs to be judged by Scripture to see whether it aligns with biblical patterning, bears legitimate spiritual fruit, and doesn’t lead to spiritual abuse. Then there’s also the fact that Deuteronomy 13 is still in the Bible. Take a look at the first five verses:
1 “If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, 2 and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ 3 you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 4 You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him. 5 But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, to make you leave the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
This passage is routinely ignored by Christians and ministries who mistakenly define the faith by signs and wonders. Basically, they saw it or experienced it, or know someone who did, so whatever the claim is, it must be true and of the Spirit of God. Not according to Deuteronomy 13:1-5. The passage very clearly puts forth the idea that someone—even a prophet—can actually do a sign or wonder, or have some revelation that actually comes to pass, and not be God’s messenger. The point of the passage is unmistakable: The message must match the manifestation. A sign or wonder in and of itself is not proof that the Spirit of God is behind that sign or wonder. And so claims of supernatural acts of the Spirit that produce or involve unbiblical theology are not from God. The penalty meted out to such individuals in Israel’s theocractic context was severe—so we can be sure God cared about his people being led astray by such people, even though the offender’s sign or revelation was not fake.
But to return to an earlier point, I don’t think most of what happens today in traditional charismatic and Pentecostal churches is for real. We don’t even get to Deuteronomy 13. At best what passes as a visitation of the Holy Spirit is nothing more than emotionalism, sensationalism, and contrived nonsense that pressures people to “have an experience” or “work the gifts” so that people around them will think they’re spiritual. At worst it’s outright deception or the presence of spiritual evil.
Putting My Cards on the Table
The reader who is familiar with why I approach things the way I do and, the breadth and variety of my work, will discern some implications already. That’s why I’m blogging this today. I want to put my cards on the table. You may see my name and my work referenced in favor of things I don’t believe, and which my content (which explicates biblical theology) doesn’t support, by people I would not endorse. So let’s be clear. What follows is written in regard to public ministry figures, but it applies to any pastor or lay person who wants to legitimize some point they want to teach using my content. I want readers to know precisely where I’m at.
To begin, I reject any attempt to alter or redefine the gospel. If some “spiritual teacher” drops the ball here, I want nothing to do with their ministry, no matter how many people are following him or her. I care about the gospel, not popularity. The former impresses me; the latter does not.
How do I define “gospel”? Paul defines his message, the gospel, as follows:
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God . . . concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith. . . . (Rom 1:1-5)
The content of the gospel emerges clearly in these passages. Here are the elements:
- God sent his Son . . .
- Who was born in the line of David . . .
- As the man Jesus Christ . . .
- Who died for our sins . . .
- Who was buried . . .
- And who rose from the dead . . .
I’ve shared my thoughts about what the gospel (the “good news”) is, and is not, in my book, What Does God Want? Here’s a sampling:
. . . If this is the good news, why is it good? Lots of reasons. It’s good because our salvation doesn’t depend on our own performance. You don’t see anything about your amazing track record or having a clean rap sheet in those verses. The content of the gospel is not about what you’ve done, or might do, or need to do. It’s about what someone else did for you. That’s good news for all of us, because none of us is perfect. None of us pleases God all the time. None of us is fit to live in his family and be called by his name on our own. We have to be made acceptable to God. The content of the gospel tells us how that happens.
Notice that Paul described his ministry of telling people the good news as “bringing about the obedience of faith.” He wanted those who heard his message to “hold fast” to what he said. How do you “obey” the gospel? Get baptized? Give money? Behave well? Don’t be a jerk? Help the poor? Those are all worthwhile things, but No. God wants “the obedience of faith.” You obey the gospel by believing it.
Did you also notice that Paul didn’t say “the obedience of comprehension”? We may not completely understand things like God becoming a man in Jesus, or how the resurrection could happen. That’s okay. God doesn’t demand we figure it all out and then get back to him to take a final exam. He wants belief. Understanding why these things are rational can wait.
The content of the gospel is God’s offer to forgive you and give you a permanent place in his family. His offer shows his love and kindness. The Bible sometimes uses the word “grace” in the place of those terms. Since there is no greater power, God wasn’t coerced into the offer. No one is twisting his arm. He offers you salvation because he wants you. All he asks is that you believe.
That is the good news of the gospel.
Consequently, if you tinge the gospel with performance—whether legalistic works or “necessary” manifestations of the Spirit to ensure a person is really saved—you preach another gospel that is to be rejected. The gospel doesn’t need tweaking to be culturally palatable or align with new wave spirituality. The gospel is not to be held hostage to your experience or ministry success. It also doesn’t need to be supplemented by Torah observance (see Acts 15:10-11 especially in that regard).
Second, if you want power over people and try to disguise it as Spirit-endorsed, I’ll oppose you and your “ministry”. Scripture is clear. We are all believer priests (1 Pet 2:5, 9). We are to be shepherded by leaders who think and behave like Jesus did, through sacrificial love for the flock (1 Pet 5:2; Eph 4:1-3). Believers are not fodder for your programs and goals. We are not numbers to be tallied. We are not resources to be tapped. We are to be encouraged to discern God’s providence in our own lives as to how we can contribute to the larger goal of accomplishing the Great Commission. Your ministry isn’t the end goal for our lives; instead, it should be a means for us to contribute to God’s kingdom and experience the sort of community / family God has always wanted for us.
Third, if you lie to people and tell them God’s purpose for their lives is prosperity, you make a mockery of the life of Jesus, the apostles, the entire first century Church, and millions of believers today who willingly suffer and die for Christ—as he told them many would do. You preach another gospel, one that is rightly rejected.
Fourth, if you conflate the kingdom of God with State power, or hand over good works for your neighbor (next door and everywhere) to State authority, you don’t understand the kingdom of God. If you marry that belief to your own (or general) new apostolic ministry for conquering the earth, you don’t grasp the Great Commission or other teachings from the One who gave it, like “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). The mission of the Church is not converting culture; it’s exposing people to the gospel and discipling them in their believing loyalty to Jesus. State power and cultural clean up isn’t part of the gospel, nor does the gospel need those things to accomplish what God wants. God cares about changing the hearts of people, not using power to change the culture. God cares far more about the culture within the Church, where his children aren’t fragmented and encouraged in their dysfunctions but are instead nurtured, loved, encouraged, and cared for. Instead of looking to the State to meet the needs of people, the Church ought to be playing that role. Instead, many churches not only hand that task over to the State but conflate their surrender with the gospel itself.
Fifth, if you dismiss the need to evaluate spiritual manifestation claims by Scripture, this shows either apathy or fear. Neither will earn my endorsement. And if you think proof-texting a Bible verse for your belief settles anything, you’re wrong. Careful analysis of Scripture for both our doctrine and practice has biblical, apostolic approval (Acts 17:10; 2 Tim 3:17). Your teaching or claim needs to align with what the Scriptures, taken in their ancient contexts, can sustain. I judge my own work and positions by that standard, so I have no qualms about judging yours by the same standard.
What I’m Hoping For
To wrap this up, I hope that my audience will be mindful of the concerns I’ve expressed in this post. My content can be abused. To be real, any biblical scholar knows that’s the case, but I’m very intentional about getting content to the lay person, so I suppose I feel a bit more vulnerable than other scholars. But that won’t curb my enthusiasm for being useful to the Church. I also hope people who have taken an interest in what I produce will also see the opportunity in all this. I’m going to continue to try and find ways to be useful to all sorts of Christians without having my content filtered, distorted, or manipulated. Pray that what I’ve been able to produce to this point, and will produce, will have the desired effect of prompting Christians to think more carefully about Scripture and stay focused on the Great Commission.