THERE IS DEATH IN THE POT!
A critical look at Today’s popular Gospel
The story is quite fascinating in II Kings 4:38-41. There is a famine in the land. Elisha asks the men to make some food for the prophets to eat. Some fellows go out and gather wild herbs and apparently bring with them poisonous leaves. When the food is ready, the Prophets taste of the food which was to be eaten by many and sense that in it there was death, at which point they ran to Elisha the prophet with this terrified cry “Man of God, there is death in the pot”.
I shall today use this text not so much for its theological teaching as for its illustrative value. Imagine for a moment what would happen had the people eaten from the poisoned pot? Mass destruction is what would have happened. However think of another issue, what was in the pot was food in the large part, the poison was a small percentage of it, yet the cry was “there is death in the pot”. A mere drop of poison would turn a whole barrel into a barrel of poison.
I suggest we have a similar problem today and someone had better cry out “there is death in the pot”. The pot in this context is the word of God, the Gospel ministry. It is the pot from which the world must eat the bread of heaven, the wells from which living waters must be served for the healing of the many. But there is death in that pot, poison in that well. These series of articles will be that cry of the children of the prophets “there is death in the pot”
WHATEVER IT IS, PLEASE DONT CALL IT GOSPEL
THE MESSENGER FORGOT THE MESSAGE!
In an age where messages were hand delivered by persons who ran fastest, a story is told of an ancient kingdom which had excellent messengers. They could carry the message of the king with the fastest speeds and bring back feedback in record time. One day the king sent one of his top runners to bring back a message from another king. The top gun, with characteristic speed sped off, and within no time came back to his sovereign, panting almost out of his breathe. Kneeling before his king, the Monarch looked expectantly at the messenger, eager to hear what his counterpart had said. There was a blank stare on the messenger’s face, he had forgotten the message he had been sent to deliver. He ran with speed, made good time, but appeared before his sovereign without a message. Preachers and preaching these days share this fate in large part. In the clutter of speed (Church growth, fame, modernization, adaptations and mutations), preachers and preaching have long lost the message of the King-The Gospel.
Preachers have long abdicated their primary mandate as proclaimers of the revealed word, and have wondered into vain jangling. The result? From the hallowed pulpits have ceased the declaration of that which is God’s “Power unto salvation”-the Gospel, and instead we are left with weak presentations that can be anything but the Gospel. The salt has lost its flavor and is good for nothing but to be trampled underfoot by men. Deterioration of religion and weakening of the Christian Church, and its prophetic voice in society is a direct result of this abdication. So what can we make of what passes for preaching and Christian ministry these days in many pulpits? I have a few thoughts in this regard, and I will present them in 3 parts. In this first part I shall attempt to explain that what we see is not gospel preaching but some other kind of speech.
PHILOSOPHERS AND WISE MEN
These types of preachers are excellent thinkers. They have uncanny abilities to figure out issues of life and can frame them in ways which appear incontrovertible. What they say has little if anything to do with the scriptures but they are sensible and quite practical. There was even an American television preacher who named his TV program “the common sense approach”. These would be more at home with Aristotle and Socrates than they would be with Paul and Isaiah. The trap in these sorts of preaching is that they base their philosophies on misinterpreted texts of scripture. Here is an example and the reader must be keen to discern the subtlety in these systems. T.D Jakes (once featured on the coveted cover of Times magazine which posed the question “is he the next Billy Graham? “) preached in a service attended and praised by the new age guru Oprah Winfrey. In his message Jakes was explaining why one’s past struggles and deficiencies are the drivers of one’s future greatness. He eloquently taught on how to harness your past experiences into a formidable force for your success. Now as far as that wisdom and eloquence of the message went, one could hardly resist the force of Jake’s logic. To some very great extent even what he was saying was very true and very much applicable in situations of life. Many have been known to extract greatness from places of pain. So one is asking, if it may be true and applicable, why find fault with it? And my answer is quite simple and to the point-It is not the Gospel, and as long as Jakes identifies himself as a gospel preacher we must charge him with abdication-with forgetting the message.
IT MAY NOT BE A BAD THING, ALL WE ARE SAYING IS THAT IT IS NOT THE GOSPEL
I had a conversation today with my theology class in which we were remarking just how solemn and fearful the Gospel ministry is. So solemn is the Gospel ministry that when Paul speaks to young Timothy about it, he literally brings him under oath with these words “I charge you before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who is coming to judge the living and the dead, at His appearing and His kingdom…preach the word”-2 Timothy 4:1-2.When the Judaizers came with a mongrel message to Galatia, Paul was as scathing as he was vehement “let them be accursed” and the reason is they preach “another Gospel”. The sanctity and solemnity of the Gospel is such that it can neither be substituted nor mixed with anything else-even what ordinarily appears good, when mixed with the Gospel becomes another gospel.
Here is an illustration to help us grasp the point I am making. A scientist who after his laboratory tests concludes that the kind of mosquito who causes malaria is a female kind called Anopheles is truthful and even helpful, but such information cannot be classified as the ‘Gospel’. We are saying wisdom is good, and more information on many things is helpful, BUT NEVER THE GOSPEL. As such those things have no place on the sacred pulpit and do not form part of the Gospel preacher’s mandate.
NOTHING BUT THE GOSPEL
In II Corinthians 2:4 Paul contends that when he went to Corinth he determined to know nothing else save Jesus and Him Crucified. When he had preached on Christ and the resurrection in Athens (Acts 17), the Greek philosophers concluded Paul and Barnabas had simply brought newer wisdom. It is these Greeks we are told gathered at market places to hear some new teaching. Yet Paul was clear that he was not called to add on to the world’s knowledge about nature, and new ways of understanding. Paul was clear that he was called to preach that wisdom which is foolishness to those who perish but to those being saved God’s very power that saves-I Corinthians 1:18.
The reason I know men of our day have abdicated the Gospel, is people of the world like Oprah Winfrey, movie stars and athletes find these messages very sensible and quite relevant to their careers and pursuits. We are not saying that these sorts off messages are bad in and of themselves, rather what we are pointing out is that it is not the province of the Gospel preacher. So Paul in I Corinthians 9:15-16 declares the necessity which has been placed on him and cries “woe is me if I preach not the gospel”.
In Colossae Paul likely deals with this type of intrusion in Christian preaching, brought in by the Gnostics. Scholars are divided on exactly what brand of heresy this was, but that divergence of opinion is beside the point here. Paul’s charge at this heresy in 2:8-13 makes clear that at the very least this heresy sought to (1) deny that all of God dwelt bodily in Christ Jesus-2:9, (2) That the Christian was complete in Christ-2:10, as if he needed more than just Christ and (3) It tried to supplement the freedom in Christ by introducing ways of heightening Christian spirituality. A fourth thing we may surmise from Paul’s attack of this heresy is that it was making a very compelling case in the minds of the people, and was winning hearts at Colossae.
It is clear that this charge of heresy was predicated upon plausible wisdom and philosophy and hence Paul’s admonition;
“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.”,
It was an error which became known as the error of Colossae. It had suggested diverse wisdom and new knowledge which was super imposed on the Christian Gospel as a supplement. These Paul describes in 2:15-17 as philosophies and traditions which are not according to Christ. It may have worked for them outside off Christ but Paul was jealous that such wisdom is neither confused for the gospel nor mixed with it.
So the Gospel preacher is not a wise man according to this world, nor a philosopher and thinker who seeks to bring earthly solutions to earthly problems.
LIFE COACHES AND MOTIVATIONAL SPEAKERS
Most of the so called successful preachers who rule our airwaves and shape Christian thought fall in this category. Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, T.D Jakes, and the list is too long to put to paper. The rate at which social, medical and financial experts are invited on ‘gospel’ TV programs and now even on church pulpits says a lot about the view of preaching and gospel ministry in our days. I once went to a church which called itself “life skills ministries international”. When Mavuno Church took Kenya by storm, it trended with a new approach which turned home cell fellowships into career hubs. People congregated in the home churches not according to geographical locations but according to their careers so that those home cells would in effect be mentorship hubs for career development. This same Church hit national headlines when it boldly displayed billboards and TV adverts of near nudity in an effort to teach ‘sex education among youths’.
Our generation want fixes for this life’s problems, they have little thought if any for the afterlife, this is the demand and ‘smart fellows’ simply make the supply to complete the chain. It is the age of felt needs, utilitarianism and consumerism.
In the Gospel of John 6 after the feeding of the 5,000, the crowds go looking for Jesus. When they finally find him they remark how hard they have sought for Him. The Lord’s reply was telling: “You do not seek me because you saw a sign, but because you ate bread “. What the Lord was saying could very well be said about today’s felt needs as preaching. The focus is not God and the future of my soul but man and how he can do better in the here and now. That is when the Lord make the famous remark, “Do not work for the food which perishes”. The majority of popular preaching is aimed at helping people live more prosperous lives now, reach their potential, and manage their lives for greater productivity in the things of this world. The preacher is therefore a motivator and a life coach. Popular messages are those which drive this earthly agenda and the rich and famous preachers consequently are those who are on the cutting edge of this ‘technology’.
In Kenya there is a man whose fame is growing in equal measure as his fortune. Dr. Wale Akinyemi is a regular face on our TVs, helping people deal with life’s issues. In the last election he was contracted by the electoral commission to help them deal with internal problems and stress arising from the highly charged election. Now I wouldn’t make reference to Dr. Wale had he been just another banker, conflict management expert, a UN guy or some other professional. I mention him because he was a preacher I knew him back in Mombasa, and I saw him make the transition from the pulpit to what he would now call ‘ the market place’. It was as easy as fitting into a shoe, and that is my point-preaching and life coaching seem very similar. Now I say there is nothing wrong with helping people achieve their life’s goals or reaching their potential (whatever that means).My contention is three fold?
1) Such enterprises must not be confused with the Gospel because they are not.
2) Practitioners of these sorts of ministries must not be called Gospel preachers. Let’s find genuine names for them. In the secular world they are called life coaches, motivational speakers, financial advisers, relationships counsellors and so on. These names are not sinful, they are apt in describing in more accurate detail what these brothers truly do. But I feel to call them Gospel preachers is a devaluation, even a misuse of that appellation.
3) Such endeavors must not be practiced from the high pulpit. As there is a time and a place for every activity under the sun, there is a time and a place for God’s people to seek these other services, if they should feel they have need for them. We must insist that the pulpit is exclusively for the preaching of the gospel (2Corinthians 2:4), not imparting business skills and advice for life. Such can be dispensed in schools of economics and wellness centers.
I believe this obfuscation to be deadly for the integrity of the Gospel and quite harmful to the eternal souls of people.
ENTERTAINERS AND PERFORMERS
We are in the age of super star preachers and mega church era. Preachers are managing image and brands, and growing them. There are reliable reports that preachers and churches are now engaging professional brand managers and image consultants to manage their appearances and public profiles. Would Paul rise from the dead! Would Jeremiah stumble upon our times! The Gospel is a merchandize and Churches are franchises-like the Hill song franchise which comes complete with sets of equipment, trained pastors with manuals on how to grow that franchise; leveraging on the established brand. These preachers and these churches offer pretty much the same service Michael Jackson did and Kevin Hart offers-entertainment. They have mastered their stages and their Craft.
After a church service at the Potters house church in Dallas, Oprah Winfrey interviewing T.D Jakes remarked “You are certainly the master in that Church, no doubt who is in charge”. She was referring to absolute mastery of Jakes not just of the stage and its accessories like lighting, music and all, but also had the audience spell bound with his deep philosophical postulations, life lessons and the unparalleled oratory which makes him arguably one of the world’s finest speakers. When Jakes performs before the massive crowd of thousands who throng his Church, the applause and standing ovations leaves you in no doubt at all as to what exactly is happening-a stellar performance.
Entertainment typically aims at emotions and fears, desires and hopes. Subjective though they may be, these primal emotions are very powerful drivers of human thought and behavior. History is replete with evidence of leaders who exploited these same base instincts to cause wars, hatred and horrendous things. This brand of preachers in Christian stages have learned to harness this to very lucrative ends.
The basic weakness of this type of preaching is that it can never be faithful to the Gospel ministry. It tailor makes its message with an audience in mind and aims to please it rather than the Lord. Compounding this problem is a people Paul spoke about, who “gather for themselves teachers who will tell them what their itchy ears want to hear”.
MEDICINE MEN AND WITCHDOCTORS
In most African cultures, no one was revered and more sought after than the traditional medicine man, the healer and one who could see things others could not see and therefore divine the future and claim to be able to fix the curses of the present. This role has now been largely transferred to the preacher. He is in many ways just a civilized traditional healer.
Then there are those whose messages in the pulpit are filled with the visions they saw, the dreams they experienced and the little secrets the Lord told them. They are ‘seers’. David Owuor is one like this, Thomas Wahome is another and then there is the so called prophet T.B. Joshua in Nigeria who in the majority of his sermons is saying this or that which he saw.
In this group also is to be included those whose ministries consist largely in miracles, signs and wonders. They see their ministries primarily as alleviating people’s problems much like the traditional medicine man. We often call them word of faith preachers or faith healers. Pastor Conrad Mbewe of Kabwata Baptist Church in Zambia, preaching at John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference posed the question in his message title, “Are we pastors witchdoctors?”. The question may have seemed extreme but if you look closely, you will find it was not far-fetched after all.
At the core of their ministries is the offering of ‘spiritual solutions’ to ‘spiritual problems’, consequently their messages advertise relief and help for such as would join them and have faith. Again we must restate that within reasonable boundaries of scripture we can appreciate the job of the traditional medicine man in seeking to offer natural solutions by way of herbs, in as far as that goes we have no fight with it. Yet if such a medicine man would insist that what he is doing is Gospel ministry we would quickly repudiate him vehemently.
As we bring this first part to a close, I suggest that those descriptions we have offered hitherto largely obtain in today’s popular preaching. I end by saying, if it can be said in the context of an economics class, or a social therapy session, if an entertainer on a secular world stage can do the same with similar results, if the experience produced by it is not different from one conjured by a witchdoctor or some oriental mysticism-then IT IS NOT THE GOSPEL.
In the second part we shall examine what we believe to be the distinctive features of the Gospel and a true Gospel ministry.