I like listening to bad Christian radio like some people like watching bad American Idol auditions. There’s something strangely compelling about listening to people read and interpret the Bible in bizarre ways. As a minister of the gospel, there are times when listening leaves me merely mystified; on other occasions I am angered at how the Scriptures are twisted to say things they clearly don’t. But what is stranger to me even than these goofy interpreters is the ways that the listeners seem to be deeply blessed by what they hear. Letters and emails are regularly read on the air about how “blessed I am to have your teaching, Reverend So-and-So;” about how spiritual lives grow and flourish under these instructors. I doubt neither the sincerity of the listeners nor the speakers, but the whole scenario begs me to ask the question, “What’s going on here?”
Not long ago the Evangelical world was embroiled in the kerfuffle raised by Rob Bell’s book on Heaven and Hell. And without engaging in any of the debate, I suspect that certain followings (those of a strongly Reformed inclination) looked with mystification at a congregation like Bell’s. “How can those people be growing spiritually under such fluffy and unbiblical teaching?” they accuse. The coin, of course, has two sides, and congregations like Bell’s are equally mystified by the draconian and ungracious responses from these Reformed personalities—they can ask the same question. And we can watch both groups and ask, “What’s going on here?”
Then there’s the experience I had as an undergraduate that I’ll never forget. I was making a disparaging remark about the ministry of Benny Hinn to one of my professors. Hinn is, to put it gently, a very odd character, and his antics provide ready critical fodder for both Christian insiders and non-Christian outsiders. But my professor responded to my criticism with a remark that is now burned on my brain. He said, “I have a friend who was saved through the ministry of Benny Hinn.” That little phrase has placed a check on my hasty judgment of any movement since. “Who am I,” I ask myself, “to judge where the Spirit of God is working in someone’s life?” And, in a real way, I take comfort from the fact that God is, thankfully, always more gracious than we are. But the scenario begs the question all the more: Why is it that individuals grow spiritually even in overtly unorthodox environments?
In a real way, spiritual success among average people seems to be oddly unhooked from the orthodoxy of the minister or ministry. And this is a truly troubling phenomenon. Isn’t it a terrible contradiction that people can grow in Christ under false teachers? Under wrong teachers? Under sinful teachers? Doesn’t it seem like a bizarre irregularity that utterly eccentric shades of Christianity generate successful followings? Shouldn’t the truth win out? Why is it that the most orthodox churches are not always the most successful?
Proverbs 27:7 offers a partial, but incomplete answer to this question: “to the starving man even what is bitter tastes sweet.” There are masses of spiritually starving people in our world who are desperate for teaching—any teaching—that they can get. The gift of that teaching, though bitter (i.e., unorthodox), tastes sweet to their souls and they grow. To the people who are hungry for God, even the slivers of the True God that they get at the tables of goofy ministers and ministries are better than nothing. This, I suspect, is part of the answer.
But I also have come to believe that there is a deeper dynamic at work that is part of our human spiritual makeup. In short, I believe that there is real spiritual value in submission, even to unworthy authorities.
What do I mean by that? Well, I believe that there is something in the fabric of the human soul that requires, craves, and is only right when it is submitting to something or someone else. At our core identity, I believe that we, the human species, are created for submission to authority. The Authority, of course, to Whom we are created to submit is God Himself, and the account of the Fall of mankind is the story of humans rejecting the authority of God and seizing that authority for ourselves. Another way of stating this is to say that there is a fundamental hierarchy ingrained into the fabric of our universe: God is supreme, mankind is below God, and the creation is placed below mankind. When we stepped out of our place—when we broke the hierarchy of the universe by our rebellion—we caused disorder at every level of creation. With this in mind, submission to the supreme and absolute headship of Christ in our lives is how we get reconnected with the way things are supposed to be. It is a death to self (the authority called ‘me’), and new life with God.
The Fall, however, did not remove our need for submission; it only corrupted it. We still invariably submit to other things, and our submission is always a profoundly religious experience. In fact, I suspect that the essence of religion itself is this inner need of mankind to submit to a power outside of itself. We are made to submit. And this function of our souls is so prevalent that Bob Dylan even wrote a song about it, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. Now it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” We will submit; the only remaining question is, “To whom?”
Submission is part of the religious fabric of our souls—we are made to submit. And when we submit to something other—irrespective of the inherent worth of the object to which we are submitting—we answer within our souls a need that stems from the centre of human identity. There is real spiritual value in our submission, independent from the worth of the object to which we submit.
And I believe that this principle is what makes sense of how Christians grow spiritually under goofy, or false, or sinful teachers (*ahem, insert your own name here if you teach). In these scenarios, by allowing themselves to be taught, these believers are, in the very act of submitting, performing an action which has real spiritual value for their souls. They grow spiritually. The authority may be Bob, the local radio pastor broadcasting out of his basement; it may be your local minister; it may be Rob Bell, or John Piper, or even Benny Hinn. And in the end, it appears that spiritual growth is hooked into submission more than it is to orthodoxy.
But if the need for submission is common to all humanity, and is, at heart, a religious need, then shouldn’t we see it in other religions? Indeed we do. And I believe that this principle can help us to explain some phenomena in world religions as well. For example, the strange circumstances under which a woman, born and raised in the free West, will willingly convert to Islam and don the burqa, seems rooted in this need for submission. In submitting to Islam she is answering (albeit misguidedly) a need of her soul. The entire focus of Islam, in fact, is on submission, and that focus may explain a measure of that religion’s ascendency in our world today. Perhaps it is meeting a need that Christianity is not.
Does the truth, then, have no value? Does right teaching and orthodox faith play no role in spiritual growth? Of course it does! And it is surely in the testing of our faith that its value is determined—the dross is consumed and that which is pure remains. Faith that is built on orthodoxy should—no will—be better equipped to survive the challenges of reality. The judgment of God always exposes our foundations.
Still, an important question remains, and that is to ask what one’s role should be when one comes into contact with believers whose faith is unorthodox or strange. How do you speak to someone who has given themselves over to the teachings of the Health/Wealth Gospel? How do members of Bell’s congregation talk to members of Driscoll’s? How do Protestants talk with Catholics? Surely, since no church holds the premium on orthodoxy, it is evident that all of these believers need the Gospel’s correction in their lives! Yet to approach our fellow believers equipped with the best arguments is, I believe, an error. And this is because, due to the dynamic of submission, argument is useless. Let me say that again because of the dynamic of submission, argument is useless. When you engage a person who has submitted to an ‘unworthy’ authority with argument, you are not arguing with the person or the ideas he or she espouses, but with the authority they have trusted in. You may think you are having a discussion about the Gospel, but you will be heard as if you are attacking someone they love. And the result is that your arguments, in attacking the heart of their faith, will have one of two foreseeable results: the person will stop listening to you altogether, or you will succeed in demolishing their faith entirely.
In the end, I believe that the only reliable way to bring genuine Gospel truth to others is to out-submit them. They have submitted to one, incorrect authority, you have to show them what genuine submission to God looks like. And this, we find, is exactly what Jesus did with his disciples. He took his basin and towel and washed their feet. He shattered their preconceptions of what religion, and God, and power, and authority, looked like. He who was highest laid down his life for others and subverted everything else they had submitted to in their lives. And following His pattern, we must convict others about the truth of the Gospel by our complete submission to Christ. We must practice, if you will, a discipline of submission, and become slaves to Jesus, always pursuing him, and not our teachers; pursuing Christ, and not our particular sects or schools. And the discipline of submission, as practiced by ministers and teachers like myself, will mean that in all our teaching we must—imperatively, essentially, desperately must—get out of the way and allow Christ to shine through. He must become greater, we must become less, because the goal of all our ministry is not that people would be awed by our ministerial prowess, but that they would have met Jesus Christ, the King. And it is in this way that we must demolish the strongholds of false Christianity, not primarily with arguments, but with lives of submission that cast a bright, revealing, and challenging light on all others.