The Rise of a Parallel, Post-Biblical Christianity

Article
01.14.2014

Eighty percent of South Africa is Christian, said the 2001 census. It is, from a statistician’s vantage point, a “churched” nation. There have been missionaries for hundreds of years. My own denomination started services in Cape Town 1794.[1]

Yet numbers can be deceiving.

A churched nation is not the same thing as a “gospeled” nation, and the massive growth of the so-called prosperity gospel in South Africa suggests that my generation may be observing the rise of “parallel Christianity,” a Christianity that is effectively post-Bible.

“CHRISTIANS” WHO DON’T KNOW THE GOSPEL

This claim isn’t based on statistics. I haven’t gathered those. I have gathered people. I have human beings who have attended the well-known bigger churches for years, and then somehow found their way into the church where I serve. Then, after attending for a little while, they tell us they are surprised to regularly hear in the preaching and the liturgy that they are sinners. It’s a new thought for them.

They tell us—tragically—that in our church they feel like they are hearing the gospel for the first time. They become anxious for their friends in their former churches. Then they even get angry at those churches. I understand.

CHRISTIAN-LIKE

Why refer to the prosperity gospel phenomenon as a “parallel, post-biblical Christianity”? When you stop to look inside these churches, you hear Christian-like things and you see Christian-like activities.

So there is preaching.

But often the preaching is just motivational speaking, waterless clouds blown by the wind that offer inspiration without information (Jude 12). Sermons aren’t built on biblical theology, but employ an occasional verse to springboard toward the preacher’s pre-chosen point. They don’t point people to the biblical gospel of what Christ has done, but call them to the burdensome “gospel” of what they must do.

Surely, biblical preaching should be inspirational, but what I am speaking about here is the overplay of tugging the heart and a failure to engage the mind. People are confronted with suggestions and incentives, not the living Lord Jesus Christ through his ever-relevant word.

In such churches, there is talk of “sin,” “grace,” and “faith.”

But these words are no longer used according to their biblical categories and context. Instead, their meanings are vaguely assumed, or are informed not by theology but psychology. For example, “sin” might be described as the failure to achieve your goals, not as rebellion against an Almighty God.

Once you have redefined sin, it’s a short step to redefine salvation. Salvation is no longer the rescue from God’s wrath by the wrath-absorbing, vicarious death of Jesus for the forgiveness of sin; it is the rescue from the temporal effects of sin. Jesus will rescue you from poverty, depression, mediocrity, and so on.

In short—and using the nine marks—these churches offer motivational talks, not biblical sermons; proof-texts, not biblical theology; applications of the gospel, not the gospel; moral improvement, not conversion; calls to social justice and giving, not evangelism; status in the community, not accountability-affording membership; flattery, not discipline; lessons in getting busy, not discipleship; professionalism, not leadership.

All this produces nice people instead of godly people. They don’t come to read, mark, and learn the Scriptures, they come to learn self-help. They don’t encounter God in his Word, they encounter themselves. The Bible is seldom more than a stage prop, and atmosphere takes the place of a real redeemed community, grappling with the loving and wounding word of God.

These churches, as I say, are post-biblical. Their “Christianity” is a parallel one.

A THEOLOGICAL AND SOCIO-ECONOMIC SPECTRUM

Might these descriptions not fit any number of evangelical seeker-sensitive churches? In fact, that’s part of the problem.

Prosperity gospel churches vary considerably along the theological and socio-economic spectrum. My own city of Durban, like South Africa generally, offers three worlds in one. There are sophisticated middle class and wealthy suburban areas—historically white but with a growing Indian and African emerging middle class. There are high-density, high-crime peri-urban areas called “townships”—historically black, and far removed from the suburbs. And there are the abjectly poor, underserviced rural areas, where subsistence farming and unemployment dominate existence. As you move between these three worlds, you find different brands of prosperity gospel, ranging from a “lite” prosperity gospel in the seeker-sensitive business-driven churches in the middle class suburbs all the way over to a more blatantly heterodox Trinity Broadcasting Network and Benny Hinn prosperity in the poorer areas.

Prosperity-gospel lite offers fulfilling jobs and satisfying marriages for you and your children. Prosperity-gospel heavy promises that your cows will give milk and that your barren womb will open.

Whether in the lite or heavy versions, this parallel, post-biblical Christianity is spreading throughout South Africa. Superficially, it looks alive because it’s vibrant and growing.

But the gospel is assumed, personal godliness is optional, and theological education is held in suspicion. I know that nothing, not even the gates of Hades, will prevail against Jesus’ church in the end. But right now in South Africa, in my worst moments, I sometimes feel that the true church’s day is over.

ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM AND ANTI-AUTHORITARIANISM

The suburban church-scape in Durban City is perhaps the context I understand best, having ministered there for 17 years now. These middle class suburbs are marked by anti-intellectualism and anti-authoritarianism. People are functionally illiterate: they can read, but don’t. Maybe it’s our gorgeous weather?! Leisure, sport, and television have won the day in the city that positions itself for the domestic tourism market with the tag-line, “The playground of South Africa!”

Western South Africans have also learned to be suspicious of authority, establishment, and tradition. Under apartheid the Dutch Reformed Church was considered to be the theological lap dog of the apartheid government, providing the moral compass and theological justification for its policies. This brought massive shame on organized religion in the aftermath of apartheid, with the DRC all but falling apart. It is now far down the track of theological liberalism (at least in its training institutions).

The twin attitudes of anti-intellectualism and anti-authoritarianism in turn shape the kinds of churches that thrive in my city and around the nation. While some of the larger charismatic churches aren’t against formal training, they prefer to offer in-house classes, providing vague and historically unmoored home-branded theology.[2]

Others take the view that formal theological education is unnecessary, even harmful. Learning about God from books is essentially seen as unspiritual. A false distinction is made between the written word of God and the prophetic or uttered word of God—the Rhema. (Indeed, Rhema is the name of the country’s biggest church in Johannesburg. Its name is taken from links with Kenneth Hagin Ministries and boasts a membership of over 40,000. Sadly, it has sold out to the prosperity gospel.)

Combine this pervasive anti-intellectualism with rabid anti-authoritarianism, and you have a churchscape dominated by independent charismatic churches. Their leaders are exceptionally gifted, invariably young and powerful motivators and predictably trendy. Yet I cannot think of one that I know of who has had any formal theological training.

A REVIVAL OF THE ANCIENT HERESIES?

As I’ve observed these trends, I have wondered if we are seeing the ancient heresies revived. Others have argued that aspects of the modern charismatic movement are essentially Gnostic in the movement’s dualistic understanding of the world.[3]

Add to that a basic anthropology among prosperity gospel’s leaders that is semi-Pelagian, and one understands why the former members of their congregations find that the sermonic emphasis on their sin is a new idea.

Perhaps there is a new form of Docetism here, too? If first-century Docetism was a Platonic embarrassment of the incarnation of Christ, there seems to be a tacit embarrassment of the written word of God as pedestrian, unspiritual, and intellectual. Hence these churches neglect publically reading and preaching God’s Word.

GETTING THE DOCTRINE OF THE SON WRONG

It is my conviction that the greatest danger posed by these prosperity gospel churches is not only that they get the doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit wrong, which they almost always do; they get the doctrine of the work of the Son wrong.

On any given Sunday in Durban in many churches, you will be tempted to believe that you can draw close to God in intimate relationship through an experience during the singing, rather than through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. While I would be surprised if any of these leaders would explicitly say this, their gatherings create the impression that the cross is not the only way to friendship with God. Instead, you can be ushered into relationship with God by the worship leader who effectively acts as a priest—one qualified to lead you into the presence of Almighty God.

Surely this is an implicit denial of Hebrews 9:24: “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.”

TIME FOR A STATEMENT OF AFFIRMATIONS AND DENIALS?

At some point the evangelical churches in South Africa may need to state their credo in such a way that more clearly distances them from church leaders who deny the historic faith through these historic heresies.

Maybe that means calling together a council among reformed evangelical churches in South Africa in order to write a statement or a creed that doesn’t only affirm what we believe, but also denies what we don’t believe.

THE NEED FOR GOSPEL PREACHING CHURCHES

While a clear statement may help on a macro-level, it won’t much impact ordinary South Africans. As I said earlier, the fact that South Africa is a churched nation doesn’t mean it’s a gospeled nation.

Thankfully, the solution to that problem is revealed to us in the New Testament. It is not macro-organizations or reformed evangelical denominations, as helpful as those may be. It is gospel-preaching local churches.

Our prayer then must be that God would raise up more churches where the clear gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ remains front and center—come what may! May he do that in South Africa, and may he do that in the world—as he has always done, and will continue to do long after we are gone!

[1] REACH SA: Reformed Evangelical Anglican Church of South Africa—formerly The Church of England in SA. This is not to be confused with the larger liberal Anglican Church of SA.

[2] I am grateful for this observation made by my assistant, Graham Heslop.

[3] See for example Victor Kuligin Ten Things I Wish Jesus Never Said (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 22-23.

By:
Grant Retief

Grant Retief serves as rector of Christ Church Umhlanga just outside of Durban, South Africa.