David de Bruyn

Bubble Gum Followed by Steak

If you’re going to have bubble-gum for your songs, why not be consistent and have candy-floss for the sermon? No, rather, if you are going to have a meaty, expositional sermon, why not worship with hymns and poems that are poetically competent, accompanied by music for reverent, mature sensibilities?

Services at many evangelical churches are a strange experience of bubble gum for a starter, followed by sirloin steak for a main. That is, for twenty minutes or so, we mash our jaws on vapid clichés, juvenile imagery, hokey sentimentalisms, jangling rhymes, and musical nostalgia. It’s all made pleasant by the refined sugar of pop music with its predictable melodies, formulaic chords and overpowering percussion. This is the average musical fare in an evangelical church. Any objectors to the nutritional value of bubble-gum will be summarily silenced with a few ad-hominems (“legalist”, “elitist”, “traditionalist”, “Pharisee”) and then given the standard-form lecture on Romans 14, Scripture’s supposed silence on musical form and genre, and the narrowness of critiquing another’s musical preference. I think it’s bubble-gum, but that’s just my truth, you see.
In other words, when it comes to the first part of the service, form does not matter. It does not matter what poetry you use, what verbal images, what musical instruments, what melodies, or what rhythms. In the first part of the service, these forms are all neutral, amoral, and without significance. They serve as placeholders for Christians to fill in their own sincerity and love. It’s all sweet nothing: zero-calorie warming up of the jaws for the real meal.
In the second part of the service, everything changes. Suddenly, an intense seriousness takes over. The passive spectators, who were being amused and entertained by syrupy chords and manipulative modulations, are replaced by furrowed-brow students, pencil behind the ear, prepared to conscientiously record the outline of the coming expository sermon.
And make no mistake, this sermon will be the purest beef. No antics or histrionics will be used to gain or keep attention. Vacuous stories will be vigilantly avoided. Mere talking about or around the biblical text will be a fail. Too many testimonial illustrations will be frowned upon, as will clichés. An economy of words will be practised, even though the sermon itself may run to fifty minutes or more. From the merest ephemera we have just sung, we come to high-density, compressed truth.
In contrast to the vapid sentimentalisms we just sang, the sermon will be rigorously tied to the biblical text, explaining, persuading, illustrating and applying what the text says. In other words, the form of the expository sermon is shaped by the meaning of both the text itself and the Bible as a whole. The very shape of expositional preaching emerges from the belief in an inerrant, inspired Scripture. Not only the content of the sermon, but its very shape carries meaning. The form of the sermon communicates submission and reverence towards God’s Word. The form has a meaning: preachers must submit to God’s Word and transmit it accurately.
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Living With An Endemic – 2

To be counted as truth, facts should be tentative when new information is forthcoming. He who answers a matter before he hears it, It is folly and shame to him (Proverbs 18:13). A lot of information is coming out. Don’t tout as final what may be contradicted tomorrow. Medical findings and statistics, particularly, should be held only with the kind of certainty that belongs to very early data.

It is crucial for Christians to understand that underlying what seem like objective facts, there are some competing worldviews. Covid-19 has particularly revealed these competing worldviews. Let me sketch two opposing ones for you in broad detail.
One worldview is agnostic about whether there is a God, and so does not consider His hand in Covid’s existence, its prevention or its cure. It does not believe in Christ, nor in salvation, nor in the afterlife. Therefore, it believes that biological life must be preserved at all costs. For that reason, it is willing to give up, suspend, or prohibit the human aspects of life: worship, social interaction, eating together, and so forth. Put simply, its counsel is: wear a mask, stay home, don’t touch anyone, and wait till this crisis is over. On top of that, it believes that it can control this virus if everyone submits to a central authority. If everyone listens and does what they’re told, we can have the world we want. Driving this is a false view of man and sin. We can all have a utopian post-Covid world if we all toe the line. We must trust the interpretations of medical experts and politicians, because they will get us back to a normal society.  This is not very far from the ideas of the utopian leftists. They believe we can have a utopia on earth if everyone submits to a centralised power who will tell everyone what to do.
The second worldview believes there is a God, believes He is in control of this disease and has allowed it. It believes in Christ we are safe from Hell and can live life joyfully in the face of death. It believes life is always worth preserving, but not at all costs. Specifically, it believes worship and gathering is required, so is human friendship, relationship, and interaction. It believes that self-protectiveness can cross the line into sinfulness. It believes the human freedoms of movement, assembling and dignity of person can only be suspended for very temporary periods, when the threat to life is severe, such as in wartime, or an extremely deadly pandemic. It believes that the human heart is sinful, and that it is not unlikely that evil people can exploit a crisis for purposes other than the improvement of the health of the population. It also keeps a special eye on what can become tyrannical abuses of power.
What is important to understand is that both worldviews will hear the same facts, but will very likely arrive at different interpretations, and different responses. That is also what creates animosity between people who are hearing the same ‘facts’. People with different worldviews assume that different responses to Covid are the wrong responses.
What then does it mean to live by truth, and not by unfiltered facts? Make sure you have a Christian worldview to filter the facts and the recommendations of medical experts. Do you believe that God is the Lord of life? Do you believe that death has lost its sting, that to live is Christ, and to die is gain? Do you believe that the body is to be protected, but not at all costs? Do you believe that sickness and health are in God’s hands? Do you believe God calls us to face risks for His name?
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The Doctrine Most Under Fire: Anthropology

Perhaps most neglected of all anthropological doctrines has been the idea of culture. Culture fits squarely into the doctrine of humanity (with overlaps into the doctrines of revelation and bibliology). It examines the question of how humans are shaped by religion, how meaning is transmitted and represented, and how God’s providence and revelation has used and interacted with cultures over the centuries. 

When Joab prepared for battle with Ammonites, he realised he was now to face conflict from behind and before: from the city walls of Rabbah, and from a hoard of arriving mercenaries (2 Sam 10:9-12). He told Abishai to be ready to run to wherever the battle was hottest. It did not make sense to simply divide their forces evenly, for they did not yet know from where the fiercest opposition would come. Furthermore, enemies attack more fiercely where they sense the defences are weakest.
Believers who earnestly contend for the faith must mimic that approach: run to where the battle is. Practising swift sword-strokes in the air while on the battlements facing south when you can hear a real battle raging to the north is wilful ignorance, and probably cowardice. The quote attributed to Luther (which is a very dynamic paraphrase of his original words) runs thus :”If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the Word of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Him. Where the battle rages there the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle front besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”
Similarly, the spiritual forces of wickedness are likely to assail that point of doctrine which has been neglected, poorly guarded, or merely taken for granted.
In our day, the theological battle is on many fronts, but none rages so hotly as the battle over anthropology. Anthropology – the doctrine of man or the doctrine of humanity – is one of those doctrines that usually gets short shrift in Systematic Theology 101. Along with hamartiology (sin) and angelology (fallen and unfallen spiritual beings), these doctrines have usually been seen as auxiliary to the grandly developed doctrines of Christology, soteriology, and even bibliology.
But today we see the painful consequence of neglecting any area of doctrine. For many of the false ideas of social justice, intersectionality, critical race theory and the LGBTQ+ are simply heretical ideas of the doctrine of man.
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Strange Lyre: Conclusion

Evangelical worship has, for the most part, embraced the “religious feelings” of Pentecostalism. Not surprisingly, charismatic doctrine has begun to capture the theological minds of those who were formerly cessationists. It remains to be seen how much longer those churches that claim to be non-charismatic in doctrine will remain that way, if they persist in embracing the passions and sentiments of Pentecostal worship.

A good theologian once drew me a diagram of the progress of Christian doctrine and Christian history from the apostles to our day. He drew a rather jagged line, with offshoots and branches coming off it. He explained, “The line from the apostles to us today is not a straight one. It includes many errors, corrections, over-corrections and responses to those over-corrections. The line of orthodoxy therefore is never a perfectly straight line of descent, it is as jagged as all the movements away from and back towards orthodoxy. Along the way, there are genuine departures from the faith: actual heresies that veer off far from the faith: those are the far-flung branches breaking off from the jagged line. It’s important to distinguish when something is a true departure from the faith, or when it is a reaction within orthodoxy needing its own correction.”
The same line could be drawn for worship. Christian worship over the centuries has been the same jagged line of errors, corrections, reactions, overreactions and so forth. These have included controversies such as the use of musical instruments, the singing of psalms only or hymns and psalms, the question of ministerial robes, the presence of images in the meeting place, and several other disputes. Sometimes there have been genuine worship heresies: the worship of Mary as an intercessor, or the Mass as the body and blood of Christ available for the expiation of sins.
Where does Pentecostalism fall on these jagged lines? On the theological side, Pentecostalism’s errors are serious, though not fatal. That is, erroneous teaching on the Holy Spirit and the charismatic gifts represent significant deviations in the whole body of orthodox Christian doctrine, but they do not constitute a denial of the gospel. (That is, unless a proponent articulates them so, as in the man who says you must speak in tongues to be saved, or experience a baptism of the Spirit to be truly regenerate.) As long as Pentecostals profess the gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, they remain brothers and sisters in Christ. However, errors are seldom stable things. They have trajectories, and the general trajectories of Pentecostal errors in the last century have been bad fruit: the Prosperity Gospel, the Toronto Blessing, and all the extremes that have accompanied those. A good tree brings forth good fruit, and so on.
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Wokeism: When the Cure is Worse Than the Disease

One cure remains for that form of sinful human pride known as racism. The gospel of Jesus Christ strips us of all boasts, collapsing our ethnic claims of superiority, forcing us to accept the absolutely level ground at the foot of the cross.

Africa receives some American errors that are quite beneficial. For example, before the NBA finals, the Super Bowl or the World Series, sports merchandisers produce memorabilia of both finalists winning, so as to be able to immediately sell when the final is over. Unfortunately, half of that merchandise represents an alternate universe: where the team that lost actually won. What happens to the champions-that-never-were T-shirts and caps? Much of it is donated to third-world countries, where needy folks wear shirts displaying an event that never happened. Hey, we’re not complaining. Another shirt on a poor man’s back is a good thing, even if it celebrates what never occurred. Error is sometimes beneficial.
Some imported errors are profoundly destructive, though. The worst of them are theological errors, for what touches Scripture touches ultimate realities. Two such errors that originated in America are particularly devastating for a country like mine: the Prosperity gospel and Woke theology. Both errors share the distinction of claiming to be a cure, but worsening the disease.
The Prosperity gospel claims to cure the pains of grinding poverty. According to this “gospel”, poverty is the prison operated by Satan who came to steal and destroy our birthrights; humans need only to actualise a reality of prosperity and health through the spoken word of faith, and God will be allowed to bring about blessings previously held back by our negative thought and speech. This slightly Christianised theology of 19th-century New Thought has taken Africa by storm. People suffering in dire poverty through a combination of misunderstanding the modern economy, a lack of marketable skills, laziness, governmental destruction of opportunity, or other providential circumstances are led to believe that poverty can cured by giving what little money they have to the slick preacher up-front. A ‘seed-offering’ will come back hundredfold. After all, look at the car that Apostle Shazam is driving: it’s working for him, right?
Christians rightly feel revulsion at the shameless exploitation of the poor by unscrupulous merchants of financial magic. We feel grief that naïveté and gambling greed pull and push the poor to part with their last coins. But one thing is for sure: if there was one place where the Prosperity gospel is particularly wretched, it is in countries already suffering from extraordinary levels of unemployment and economic stagnation. This is a “cure” that accelerates the disease.
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Cessmaticism: The Strange Hybrid of Contemporary Christian Worship

The more these Dionysian-dominant songs are sung, the more they tend to choke out older and classical hymnody. Unless the pastors have a strong sense of what music communicates, they will be led by the same appetitive pull that passion-centred music has on all. They will see how much the congregants enjoy such songs; they will interpret this enjoyment as “connecting meaningfully” with the music, and notice how the visceral response is absent in some of the more Apollonian classic hymns.

We began this series by making the claim that Pentecostalism has quietly (or not so quietly) colonised Protestant worship, even in those churches and groups that explicitly reject Pentecostal theology. We have described the distinctives of Pentecostal worship, not in terms of its views regarding the operation of the charismatic gifts, but in terms of its focus on intensity, spontaneity, and its distinctive “praise-and-worship” theology of worship. It now remains to make the case that these approaches are widely shared and practiced in non-charismatic, or cessationist circles.
In the first place, there is little doubt that what is prized as “intensity” in Pentecostal circles is fairly well accepted as a laudable goal in cessationist evangelical circles. The move towards intensity is seen in many a non-charismatic church’s method of singing one song after another, in rapid succession, only the occasional musician’s deejay vocals over the bridge intro. The practice of singing five, six, or more songs one after the other, apart from causing some of the elderly to just eventually sit down during the songs out of sheer pain and frustration, is closer to the “flow-like” worship of Praise and Worship theology than like a thoughtful response to God’s Word. The choice of songs also appears suspiciously like the Praise and Worship, Five-Stage theology of the charismatics. Beginning with upbeat, thanksgiving songs, reaching a crescendo of triumphalism, and then gliding down into the zone of breathy, ‘deep’ songs of intimacy just before the offering or sermon.
A second mark of the takeover of worship by charismatics is that non-charismatic evangelicals are drawn to rather uncritically embrace the music of charismatic songwriters. Of course, several of the modern hymns written by those in openly charismatic circles (such as Sovereign Grace) or “cautious-but-open” circles qualify as decent or even good hymns, having both theologically sturdy lyrics and readily likeable and singable melodies. There is little wonder that many of our churches sing them, for their lyrics are often without cliches, and their music answers to 21st-century musical sensibilities.The problem is not the contemporary nature of these songs. It does not matter if a song was written in 221, 1021, or 2021, as long as it is true, good, and beautiful. The problem is not even the charismatic commitments or associations of the songwriters. Enough beautiful hymns were written by people whose theology we do not all share, for example Charles Wesley, Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, Paul Gerhardt, or Frederick Faber.
The problem is far more that that on the spectrum of Apollonian to Dionysian sentiment, they probably lean closer to the Dionysian side, at least musically.
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Strange Lyre: Nothing But Feelings

The worship of the true God is persuasive, not manipulative. God persuades us to admire, by revealing His beauty in His Word. False gods manipulate by placing audio-visual candy canes in front of our noses and ears. Persuasive worship is by nature, then, “slower”, requiring more time, concentration, and focus, for no one can be persuaded without some rational thought. Those addicted to manipulative worship instinctively call persuasive worship “boring”.

Pentecostal worship places great emphasis on intensity. By intensity, they mean a strongly felt experience of emotion, intimacy, joy, wonder, or happiness. Indeed, this is a close cousin of the ecstasy in ecstatic utterances. The experience sought is one where active seeking gives way to a passive experience of overwhelming pleasure or emotion.
Critically examining emotional experiences like this has all the fun of ruining someone’s birthday surprise or spoiling a joke by blabbing the punchline before the narrator has finished. We don’t like people like that, who appear to find joy in lessening the joy of others. Not surprisingly, when a critique of someone’s spiritual experiences begins, the response is often an impatient sentiment along the lines of “Can’t you just let people have their fun?”, or, “What’s it to you if someone has a different worship experience to you?”
But in matters of Christian worship, we cannot be content if worshippers merely make the claim to an ecstatic experience. That’s precisely because the experience of worship is not the goal of worship. Worship is not successful simply because the worshippers enjoyed their worship. Christian worship is rooted in truth, and therefore everything that claims to be Christian worship must be a truthful response to a truthful revelation of the true God. In other words, you can get worship wrong, even if it felt right. Many people feel good about an exam they wrote, and find out they failed; some feel terrible and find out they passed with flying colours. The indispensable necessity of Christian worship is a true revelation of God from the Scriptures, and a truthful – that is, appropriate and corresponding – response to that revelation. The First Commandment restricts worship to the true God. The Second Commandment restricts the responses of worship to those He has commanded, which correspond to His being. The true God worshipped the true way constitutes biblical worship.
This brings us to a rather dispassionate discussion of felt emotions in worship, one that is sure to annoy all fans of scrunchy-face worship. Philosophers and thinkers have written much on how human emotions differ: their categories, their manifestations, and how they are evoked. Dating back to classical Greece, philosophers have often placed emotions into two categories: those evoked by reason, and those evoked by physical sensation. Different nomenclature has been used, but a similar idea prevailed for centuries. Pre-modern theologians spoke of the affections and the passions.
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Strange Lyre: The Idols of Intensity and Extemporaneity

Errors are only compelling to the degree that they contain some vital truth, now heavily distorted. The truth is that both extemporaneity and some form of intense spiritual experience are part of true, living Christianity. The problem is when the experience of intensity is sought for its own sake, and when the method of extemporaneity becomes a tool to manipulate the Spirit.

A polarised debate goes on between different stripes of Christians over the place of experience in Christianity. One side asserts that experiential faith (what the Puritans used to call “experimental religion”) is fundamental to a living, supernaturally-empowered relationship with Christ. The other side asserts that experiential religion is of passing interest, for spiritual experiences range from the genuinely God-given to the wildly false and even demonic, and vary widely among different personality-types. Ultimately, say these Christians, what matters is allegiance to truth, both in belief and behaviour.
In moments of clarity, we agree with both sides, because we are aware of what each side is against: dead formalism (“a straight as a gun barrel theologically, and as empty as one spiritually”, said one) and untethered spiritual adventures (“glandular religion”, as coined by another). Pentecostalism’s strongest selling point has been the supposed vividness of its promised supernatural experiences, both in corporate and private worship. The idea of direct revelation, ecstatic utterances, and marvellous deliverances present a kind of Christianity that appears enviably immediate, sensorily overpowering, and almost irrefutably persuasive. Particularly for Christians coming from a religious background of set forms, liturgical routines, and even unregenerate leadership, the contrast appears to be one of old and false versus new and true.
Sadly, many true believers within Pentecostalism find out within a short space that the promise of overwhelming spiritual experiences begins to lack lustre after a time, and the corporate worship in pursuit of spontaneous spiritual highs can become as tedious and predictable as a service read verbatim from a prayer book. Pentecostalism’s pursuit of intensity and spontaneity in worship turns out to be an idol that both cheats and forsakes its worshippers.
Deeply embedded in the Pentecostal psyche is the idea that the Spirit of God is wedded to spontaneity and freedom of form. It is the very “openness” to His movements, unrestricted by an order of service or set forms of prayer, that supposedly invites His unpredictable arrival, manifested in intense, even ecstatic, spiritual experience. Being spontaneous and extemporaneous demonstrates “openness” and “receptivity”, whereas insisting upon our own forms quenches what the Spirit may wish to do.
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Pentecostal “Praise and Worship”: A Radical Departure from Historic Worship

Biblically and historically, a worship service is where God’s people respond corporately to what God has revealed about Himself. Yes, this response ought to be heartfelt, sincere, meaningful and unfeigned. In charismatic worship theology, one is not so much in pursuit of a response, as one is in pursuit of an experience: an experience of the presence of God that is intense, sensorily tangible, and emotionally or physically ecstatic. 

Christian worship has often had a remarkably similar shape across traditions. Bryan Chapell showed in his work Christ-Centered Worship that corporate worship (sans communion) in Roman, Lutheran, Reformed and Evangelical traditions had a very similar form: a Call to worship, a Kyrie or Confession, followed by Thanksgiving, an Old Testament reading, a New Testament reading, a prayer for Illumination, a Sermon, followed by a Benediction or dismissal, with hymns or psalms interspersed. Communion services also followed a similar pattern: An Invitation, Preparatory hymn, a Consecration of elements, an Exhortation of preparation, the Words of Institution, Breaking of bread, Communion, a psalm or hymn, thanksgiving prayer and Benediction.
Friends and proponents of Pentecostal worship often do not realise how radically different charismatic worship is from this historic pattern. Pentecostal authors have written that praise is a kind of ‘path’ into the presence of God. That is, worship is not a series of gracious revelations from God’s Word with faith-responses from His people. Worship becomes a series of steps or stages, growing in intimacy and intensity. Charismatic worship writers speak of the importance of “flow”: a technique of uninterrupted, continual music, designed to emotionally transport the worshippers into the climactic experience of “worship”, which they deem to be more intense and focused than “praise”.
Charismatic theologians do not base this on any Old or New Testament narratives of worship, such as Exodus 19-24 or Isaiah 6. Instead, an entirely new model of worship, known as the “Tabernacle Model” or “Five Phase Model” is used, using fragments of phrases from the Psalms. First, there is Invitation, “songs of personal testimony in the camp”. This is followed by Engagement, “through the gates with thanksgiving”. Third comes Exaltation, “into His courts with praise”. Fourth is Adoration, “solemn worship inside the Holy Place”. Finally, there is Intimacy, “in the Holy of Holies”. Of course, this is a technique in search of a text, not any serious attempt to mimic biblical forms. Nothing that Israel did in corporate worship even vaguely corresponds to the pursuit of a heightening climactic worship.
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