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Those Aren't the Words We Would Have Chosen...

posted May 4, 2017, 4:18 PM by Nathan Wheeler   [ updated Apr 11, 2018, 4:16 PM by Nathanael Wheeler ]
For the background on this article, read: Why I Walked Out of Hope Church This Morning
For a conversation after-the-fact with a member of Hope Church, read: Bad Churches Breed Bad Theology

Just over two months after my initial contact with Pastor Josh Thompson at Hope Church in Springfield, Missouri, I was finally granted an audience. Josh was joined by Pastor Gary for the meeting. After some idle chit-chat, we circled around to the discussion we had convened to have. I requested permission to record the meeting, but was denied. Thus, I hope and pray to as accurately as possible present what was discussed from memory. I was informed that there was a recording of the worship service that I had attended, but when I requested a copy of the recording, I was denied. I was informed that the pertinent pieces of the service could be played during the course of our meeting as we were discussing them. I was informed that what I had indicated as quotes from the service were not verbatim. I was told that my usage of Matthew 18:15-17 was in error - that making a public statement against a church could only happen where the error had occurred. That is, if an error occurs, it is to be escalated within that church (4 walls and a roof - the building), and can not be escalated beyond the elders of that church (building). Once it's been brought before the elders of the church (building), if there's no resolution, then the dissenting party is to be cast out.

So, what happens if the error is grown up within the whole church? Let it fester? Well, that's the proposed solution - there are plenty of other churches in the area, and apparently this church just isn't a good fit, so go find a different church. Apparently, within the walls of the church, there were other ways I could have approached the situation, other than blogging about it, and making the emails public between myself and the pastor. It was suggested that I could have reached out to the board of trustees or someone on the pastoral leadership team... I just pointed at Josh, and asked if he was on the pastoral leadership team. Oh, right... I did that. Gary explained that the passage in Matthew 18 isn't about who is right or wrong, it's about restoration of the relationship, and that my context is incorrect. Now, I want to be perfectly fair here - there was some recognition that I, as an outsider, could not have known how to do more or contact anyone higher or anyone else to talk about the issues. However, we could not seem to see eye to eye on this point, and finally moved on to the points I had outlined in my original email. I also received what I felt was a very heartfelt apology for the way that my communication had been handled so flippantly and dismissively.

They also were quick to point out that I had passed judgement on the church within 45 minutes, and walked out - that I hadn't even attended a full service before deciding that they were in error. My question in response was: Where do you draw the line? We could draw a line anywhere, from being an error related to salvation specifically, or a number of much smaller errors. The point is that we must absolutely have a point where we say that enough is enough. We have to have a line we will not cross, or anything in the world is permissible and right to us. I choose to draw that line at a place of three very unorthodox doctrines spoken by someone in authority, or a single point of error in the plan of salvation. It seems a little bit random to draw the line here, but I draw this guiding principle from a number of principles found in the Bible. The number three, where I draw my line, is decided from verses which refer to the mouths of three witnesses - these verses are both references to the Triune God, and also references to an appropriate number of witnesses to cause belief in a particular thing. These verses are: Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:5, Matthew 18:16, 2 Corinthians 13:1, 1 Timothy 5:19, and Hebrews 10:28. These specific verses refer to, respectively, legal evidence sufficient for judgement to death, legal evidence for sin, witnesses to sin to restore a fallen brother, a number of repeated times to bring something up, the number of witnesses to take against an elder, and another reference back to the legal evidence sufficient for judgement to death.

To my first point, where I had taken issue with a member of the praise team saying that they had had a revelation from God, and that God's love was a violent, aggressive love - I was told that my quote was not a direct quote, and that my understanding of what was said was very twisted. I was informed that the man who had said that was an outstanding and upright Christian, and within his context, what he said did not disagree with Scripture. The first argument attempted was that God's act of love in sending His Son to die for us was violent and aggressive. I refuted this position, pointing out that the violence and aggression of the cross was God's wrath being poured out on Christ for those who believe - the violence of the cross was not God's love, God's sacrifice was His love, but the violence was wrath. The next defense mounted was on the basis that it was like a man defending and fighting for his family, a much easier position for them to defend. I asked if God's revelations were confusing - clearly that was not the message that I got, nor was it the message that others would have naturally drawn. I asked if either of them would ever describe God's love as violent or aggressive. They were quick to answer that those were not the words they would have chosen.

This was actually the most that I was expecting from this meeting - that they would back it down to a point they could defend, and then hold that position. Gary finally said that he did frequently worry what the perception of those without insight and context into the individual lives of the people of the church might be upon first encountering the church - that a new convert or member would need a lot of context explained to them about things that might be said or done in the church. However, they staunchly vouched for the speaker, and reiterated again and again that he clearly didn't mean it the way it was perceived, but meant it in a way that was in line with Scripture, despite the actual words that were said. They additionally said that they did not hold God's revelation to believers to be on the same level as Scripture, that God's revelation to individuals was personal and contextually relevant. I argued that it should be validated against Scripture, and failing that validation it should not be considered to be God's revelation. While they agreed with my position, they continued to defend the statements made in the name of revelation by God - that what was vocalized wasn't what was meant, and that they would have certainly worded it differently.

On my second point from my original email to Josh, they said that this was, again, a poor choice of words (which I had, again, not quoted verbatim), and could have easily been taken improperly by someone outside of their own congregation. I didn't hear the recording, but they claimed that the speaker in this instance had referred to the heart of God or the heart of the Father, and not the Spirit. They defended the position, however, and said that the speaker had been a younger believer who probably didn't understand the alternate implications of what he was saying. Again, they agreed that they would have certainly worded it differently, but disagreed that it represented doctrinal error, because what was said wasn't actually what was meant.

On the third point, the misguided representation of the parable of the lost sheep, they didn't have a whole lot to say. They said that the recording of that portion had, for some reason, been very quiet and garbled, as though the microphone the speaker was using wasn't being recorded, and was only recorded through the other microphones on the platform. They attempted to defend this from the position that sometimes parables in the Bible had a lot more layers of meaning than was apparent from first glance. I agreed with this position, but added that while this was true, if I were the first and only person to interpret something a particular way, outside of the orthodox position of the Church, then I would seriously question my interpretation. They agreed, but stepped back one more step and claimed that we couldn't prove if a person was the first or not - someone may have taken it that way, but it was never recorded. This is the sort of argument that is used by Catholics defending the perpetual virginity and bodily assumption of Mary - that the belief was simply held commonly true until it was written down, at which point we can clearly see that other people had held that belief. This sort of circular reasoning could be used to defend an indescribable number of heretical teachings, but it's a circular argument to say that the first time something was written down was to defend against a contrary teaching, rather than the thing being written down being the contrary teaching - we simply cannot defend this argument logically.

After we had gone over all the points in the initial email, we talked a little bit about our various backgrounds, during which time I was told that I had a prophet's heart - that my high view of Scripture and strong stance for Scriptural authority both over the church and for teaching my family was to be highly commended. I was told, however, that this led to a very black and white view of things, while a pastor had to be more concerned with getting people from the side of wrong to the side of right. I could have asked some interesting questions around this, but I decided not to. Finally, I brought up three of the other issues that had been concerning to me during the service - all the private conversations going on around the church during worship, the tai chi lady, and the woman who had been apparently screaming in the Spirit. I explained that I understood that the actions of individuals could not always be controlled, but that they often indicated a systemic problem in the leadership of the church. 

They seemed a little surprised by the fact that there had been so many people standing around having private conversations around the church during worship. They understood my (much more mild) reaction to the tai chi dancing, but explained that the lady was (or is?) a professional dancer, and that is how she chooses to express herself in worship. On the screaming lady, they simply agreed that you can't control the actions of individuals, and additionally agreed that this sort of "movement of the Spirit" was almost definitely not in existence at all prior to the 1900's (Azusa Street) if we took a historical look. They agreed that our only Biblical examples of such behavior was under the oppression and influence of demons, and not of God.

Overall, we had a very nice and civil conversation. In the end, I explained to them that, despite whatever they could offer as explanation for these events and the things that people had said, it was a serious problem if a person who just walked into a service for the first time, whether a new convert or a transplant, would be so confused by the things that were said. I also explained that, while I do not invite people to church as a primary mode of witnessing, I would never be able to attend a church where I would feel uncomfortable telling a new convert to attend, due to the potential for confusion that it could lead to - congregational teaching must, by necessity, contain far more milk, and far less meat, and if what was said was so out of place that it was offensive to me, it would very likely also be misunderstood by a completely new believer. If someone could walk in and be confused, then what is happening in the church is not from God, because God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33). We must be able to verify what is said against Scripture. We simply cannot assume that someone meant something different than what they said - especially if they say that it is a revelation from God.

I still have major trepidation about this church. I'm concerned for new believers who might find it, and existing members who might not actually understand the difference between what's said and what's meant - especially when the standard appears to be to judge what is meant, and not what is said. Now, they claim that they've had people cross lines and they've had to correct people - cited as telling someone that their baby is ugly, that what they're doing is wrong even though they may be doing it in sincerity. In light of our conversation, I feel like the leadership means well, but has set the bar for truth and doctrine in light of the Scripture far too low. I hope and pray that my words today in this meeting had weight with them, that my warnings did not fall on deaf ears.