The Harold Camping episode of this past weekend–he predicted the world would come to an end on Saturday and bet millions of dollars he knew what he was talking about–demonstrates two disturbing facts of the church in these latter days: The overwhelming pride of many who call themselves leaders of the church and the mind-numbing gullibility of millions who call themselves disciples of Jesus.
Lord, help your church please.
Help us to know a Godly leader when we see one and to learn how to tell when he’s not one.
Help us to check the teachings of our leaders by the Word and to have the courage to say “Not so fast.”
It’s easy for the fellow in the pew to blame this kind of fiasco on false leaders. And that’s what Camping is, let me hasten to say. The Bible clearly says that if a man makes a prophecy that does not come to pass, he is a false prophet. That’s Deuteronomy 18:22, and it’s still in God’s Word.
But if people like Camping found no one to follow them, they would get tired of hearing themselves speak and shut up.
After his prophecy about May 21 failed, I said to some friends, “Okay, watch now. He’ll come back and say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I misfigured,’ and give out a new date. That’s what false prophets do.”
According to the daily papers (I live in New Orleans, so it’s The Times-Picayune), that is precisely what he did. Well, he did two things actually. He did say that the real date is something like October 21. And he said, “Well, the Lord did actually come back on May 21 in a spiritual way. The processes have been set in place beginning on that day.”
Uh huh. And I’ve got some Louisiana swamp land to sell you.
People who study these things will recall that the Jehovah’s Witnesses did this very thing nearly a hundred years ago.
I’m going by memory here. (Better explain that. I wasn’t alive in 1914. But I’ve read plenty of accounts of what happened.)
In the early 20th century, members of the JW sect or cult or religious movement, whatever you choose to call it, announced that the Lord Jesus was returning to earth in 1914. They promoted that date, publicized it, and convinced millions that it would be so. The date, of course, came and went without any thing happening other than a World War getting kicked off in Serbia.
For decades, the JW printed materials used to claim that the Lord really did come back in 1914 but “in a (ahem) spiritual way.” That is, they would explain, things began happening on a heavenly plane that prepared for the earthly return of Jesus. And this was supposed to make their false predictions all right.
Eventually, they abandoned that kind of malarkey. Why? Because, being a false cult, they had a new date to start promoting! This time, they said, they had it right. The Lord was returning in 1975.
But, alas, the Lord did not cooperate. The year 1975 came and went without anything much happening of a prophetic character.
A decade later, when I pastored in North Carolina, I sometimes encountered disaffected JWs who had quit their church as a result of another failed prophecy, but because their religion had so poisoned them against all Christian churches, they weren’t going to church anywhere. From time to time, some of them would drop by my office to visit and talk and counsel. But to my knowledge, none ever made it to any of the services.
That’s the sadness of this kind of false prophesying. It holds the church up to ridicule, it burns the energies of God’s people which could be better directed toward faithful works, it diverts untold amounts of the Lord’s money into false advertisements, and it disillusions everyone who fell for that line in the first place.
Christian people do not like to use their heads.
Can I say that and get by with it? I hate saying it, and hate like crazy to admit that it’s so.
Let a pastor preach a sermon on some deeper point of doctrine and watch the congregation sleep through it.
Hold a study on Luther’s commentary on Romans and see how many sign up.
Urge people to memorize the 8th chapter of Romans and then preach a series of sermons from it, and see what kind of participation you get.
Set up your own blog in which you urge Christians to ask their theological questions and be amazed at the shallowness of the queries thrown your way.
Why do we who call ourselves followers of Jesus dislike asking questions and seeking answers so intensely?
1) The enemy convinces us that “it’s all a matter of faith,” and that there are no real answers. So we don’t ask the questions.
2) Our world convinces us that to ask is tantamount to doubting, and doubting is the cardinal sin today.
3) Thinking is hard work. It’s easier to go on facebook and see what your friends are up to today, or check the TV listings, or check your email.
4) These things are better left to the professionals. Yes, millions of believers subscribe to this one. Let a cult member unsettle them with questions about God at the front door and they want to arrange a meeting of the preacher and those visitors. Let them hash this out and settle it. Just let me know the verdict.
5) And, finally, I don’t know why. This is to say that the first four answers cannot be the full explanation of God’s people refusing to ask hard questions and to seek difficult answers for truth. Anyone with additional insights is invited to leave them in the comments at the end.
In the late 1980s when the Jim/Tammy Bakker fiasco was coming to light and the PTL empire began crumbling around their heads, no sooner had the scandal become public knowledge than faithful, gullible supporters kicked in their money to erect billboards all over the Charlotte NC area. “Forgiven!” they shouted to the world.
Get that. Even before they learned what the Bakkers had done, they were so unthinking, so completely trusting of these untrustworthy people, that they were ready to reinstall them atop the pedestals where they had lived much of their adult lives.
When (Paul and Silas) arrived (in Berea), they went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. (Acts 17:10-11)
As countless pastors have preached down through the centuries, that is how it’s done. Let the men and women in the pews listen to the sermons with open Bibles. Let them check what is being preached by the Word. And let them then decide “whether these things are so.”
Want to see gullibility in action? And in Lystra, a certain man without strength in his feet was sitting, a cripple from his mother’s womb, who had never walked. This man heard Paul speaking. Paul, observing him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, said with a loud voice, “Stand up straight on your feet!” And he leaped up and walked. Now, when the people saw what Paul had done, they raised their voices, saying in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!”….Then the priest of Zeus, whose temple was in front of their city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, intending to sacrifice with the multitudes. (Acts 14:8-13)
Paul began trying to reason with the people, to make them enlarge their concepts of God, and to quit this foolishness. And with these sayings they could scarcely restrain the multitudes from sacrificing to them. (vs 18)
Ah, that would be great, wouldn’t it–to be so adored by the multitudes!
No. Not in the least. Here’s why:
Then Jews from Antioch and Iconium came there, and having persuaded the multitudes, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead. (vs 19)
The same crowd that worshiped them one minute was stoning them in the next.
If we require another example, we need look no further than the crowd that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and then called for His crucifixion a few days later that same week.
No pastor should be offended when a hearer asks him to defend a statement he has just made in a sermon.
No teacher should mind when someone asks for the scriptural reference for some point.
They are using their minds.
If they will keep it up, the outcome will be one way and one way only: all good.