So easily we lose the childlike simplicity of prayer; a child speaking to his/her father. We start to think more about the people around us that we can see than the God above whom we cannot. We pile up stock phrases or mumble our way to an amen as we prematurely reach for our fork. Even when we are trying it can be hard.
One night at the supper table our kids were taking turns praying before we started the meal. Moments earlier our second youngest daughter had been kicking and screaming because she didn’t get to sit beside her sister. Consequently, she didn’t feel like praying so I attempted to convince her that God still wanted to hear from her even if she was angry. Through sniffles and snobs she prayed: “Father Heaven, I’m sad. Amen.”
The essence of prayer is communication with God and that was what my daughter was doing; telling God how she felt. A significant portion of the Psalms do the same thing – the author pours out his heart and bares his soul to a God who listens. Consider the following from the pen of king David:
I am weary from my groaning;
with my tears I dampen my bed
and drench my couch every night.
What is David doing in these lines? He’s letting God know how he feels. David is doing what we all do each and every day: communicating.
Prayer, when understood as communication with God, is a simple act, yet it becomes complicated by at least two factors. First, we cannot see the One to whom we are speaking.
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By Scott D. MacDonald — 3 months ago
Written by Scott D. MacDonald |
Friday, August 19, 2022
People in the church who dabble with witchdoctors and occultism are ultimately deceived; they find no true, lasting solution. “To believe ‘Ukwimba kati kusansha na Lesa’ is to believe a lie. We must choose to trust and wait on God in every circumstance, and His Word must be our final authority as we encounter conflict with our African traditional proverbs and beliefs.”40 Jesus alone is our savior, and as Paul demonstrates in Philippi, the Christ did not come to work with the ng’anga. He came to set us free.
Syncretism—the blending of two or more religious paradigms—threatens Christian witness around the world. And the church in Africa continues to struggle with the popularity of local religious practices. In many locales, the ng’anga (an African religious diviner) prominently features in the lives of many church-going people. In response, Paul’s mission to Philippi, recounted in Acts 16:16–18, provides needed clarity concerning Christianity’s relationship to other religious powers and to syncretism. This article outlines the religious backdrop of Philippi, Paul’s missionary method in the Greek religious context, and the consequences that arise from Paul’s exorcism of the πύθων. In sum, Paul’s reaction to the divining spirit of Philippi leaves no room for syncretistic behavior among Christians today. Accommodation and any reliance upon other religious powers compromises the quality of the gospel and the reputation of the savior.
As servants of Christ deliver the good news of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection both near and far, ancient spiritual actors and religious competitors abound. In sub-Saharan Africa, every other urban street corner bears a sign promoting the abilities of some traditional power man from a rural or distant location, a place with charms difficult to undo by an average local witchdoctor.1 Even in supposedly secular cities in other parts of the world, vestiges of ancient paganism remain as astrologers and diviners offer their services in the public sphere without shame. Spiritual power is seemingly never beyond a human’s reach.
Depending on our cultural upbringing, such spiritual resources are our first or last resource in a time of need—an accepted and trusted form of support or a desperation-induced “last ditch” option. Occult practitioners claim to provide the knowledge we need, repair the relationships we crave, hinder the people we hate, and empower the economic endeavors on which we rely. They are the so-called “way-makers” and “problem-solvers” of the spiritually attuned.
How should the Christian relate to the ng’anga (i.e., the sangoma, the witchdoctor)?2 Sadly, the testimony from too many Christians in many places is mixed. In a moment of need, one might recite the Bemba proverb “Ukwimba kati kusansha na Lesa,” meaning “Charms are mixed with God for them to work.”3 Believers may easily justify a quick visit to the witchdoctor or use charms if they believe that God works in and through them!
Martin Mwamba, a pastor and talk show host with Faith Radio in Kitwe, Zambia, recounts an experience:
One day a woman texted me during the program. She said she had been working, and after retiring she had gotten her pension money, and now when going back home she was robbed. She continued, “I will take off my church uniform as a Christian and go kuli shi in’anga (‘to the witchdoctor’) and bewitch them.” Then her question was, “Is it right for a Christian to visit the witchdoctor?” The phone response from other listeners was interesting and shocking. Some suggested that she should go because God takes too much time to respond, and others said it was fine because witchdoctors give fast solutions, adding that they (witchdoctors) are also used by the same God.4
Hearing this kind of urgency-based decision making, Mwamba’s assertion is reasonable: “Even people in churches today in Africa would prefer to consult diviners and witchdoctors … to receive a quick solution to their daily problems.”5 After all, no one wants to wait for God!6
Occultists easily capture Christian customers. Surprisingly enough, many “witchdoctor shrines” are veritable havens of Christian objects like Bibles and practices like singing praise songs.7 And witchdoctors readily play along with the cultural idea that God empowers their work, offering to pray to God for effectiveness with charms and reciting a Scripture verse or two.8 Confusion abounds, and Christians readily step into the confusion by seeking their desired results despite the syncretism.
Syncretism is the “blending of one idea, practice, or attitude with another. Traditionally among Christians it has been used of the replacement or dilution of the essential truths of the gospel through the incorporation of non-Christian elements.”9 The ng’anga has played a central role in the African’s religious life throughout Africans’ collective memories. Despite Christianity’s inroads throughout Africa over the past century, the role and importance of the ng’anga has not evaporated. Many Christians sadly still find a need for them, and witchdoctors adjust and modify their practices to suit the Christian environment. Syncretism, the blending of African and Christian religious concepts, persists.
The irony is that many pulpits resound with sermons against syncretism. Preachers unflinchingly expound Jesus’s statement from John 14:6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” “Jesus alone” is declared, yet the cultural norm remains firm: witchdoctors have a place in the life of Christians.
Many an African Christian still feels the draw of the ng’anga. The appeal of animism is not unique to Africa. While the African Christian visits the ng’anga, a European Christian convert dabbles in astrology, and an American teenager consults a Ouija board. The pull of spiritual knowledge and power is strong in Africa, but do not think that the rest of the world is immune! Thus, syncretism arises in every culture where Christianity enters, and “church history is filled with the struggle against syncretism from political, social, religious, and economic sources.”10 And the best response to our syncretistic attachments is a fidelity to Scripture, which both rebukes and affirms aspects of our church traditions and cultural norms.
One underutilized text in countering syncretism is Acts 16:16–18. Luke records the following account from the second missionary journey:
As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.11
While we could look to other missional encounters with spiritual power persons throughout Acts (e.g., Simon the Sorcerer, Elymus, the Sons of Sceva), the Philippian confrontation serves as an example to Christians throughout the world today. We must reject all forms of syncretism. Our missional testimony to non-Christians only heightens this necessity.
1. The Background of Acts 16:16–18
As we consider Acts 16:16–18, let us first locate where this episode occurs in Paul’s missional endeavors. Between leaving Antioch in Acts 15:36 and returning in 18:22, Paul’s work broke considerable new ground as the Lord turned the missionary team toward Greece.12 “Following his vision at Troas (Acts 16:8–10), the apostle Paul started the first church in ancient Greece at Philippi (c. AD 49–50, Acts 16:11–40).”13 Like Paul’s earlier ministry, which led to a confrontation with the sorcerer Elymus on the island of Cyprus (Acts 13:6–12), this journey involves another spiritual challenge in the city of Philippi.
Lest we mistakenly brand Paul as a troublemaker, Paul’s missionary method does not call for the immediate confrontation of any religious figures in a particular region. On Cyprus, Barnabas and Paul are not looking for Elymus. Instead, they proclaim the word of God to those who wish to hear it, such as Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:7). In Philippi, again, Paul’s priority is preaching, even after his initial meeting with the slave girl (Acts 16:16–18)! Creating religious conflict (which would ultimately result in his imprisonment) and exorcising a πύθων are not Paul’s primary objectives. Only when the situation proves intolerable, hindering his proclamation ministry in a new mission field, does Paul confront the slave girl and the spirit within her.
The Greek religious context is evident upon Paul and Silas’s entry into Philippi. As the slave girl attaches herself to their ministry, it is as if the current religious powers greet Paul at the gate and refuse to let go. While a casual reader of an English translation (e.g., “a spirit of divination” in the ESV, “a spirit by which she predicted the future” in the CSB) might mentally divorce this spirit-inhabited girl from the broader religious climate, the Greek text πνεῦμα πύθωνα at least indirectly ties the girl and her owners to the Greek oracular system.14 Keener explains that this spirit is “the same sort of spirit that stood behind the most famous of all Greek oracles, the Delphic oracle of Apollo whose priestess was called a pythoness.”15 And Herodotus confirms that oracles, inspired by a πύθων, were not limited to Delphi.16
By Marcia Montenegro — 2 months ago
Although the Holy Spirit indwells believers in Christ, nothing in God’s word teaches that within is a Divine Center or a Speaking Voice. The Holy Spirit is not comingled with the believer’s nature but is distinct from it. God’s voice is found in the Bible, a precious source of truth for all who seek guidance from it. Barton’s view is more akin to a Gnostic or New Age outlook, which seeks and values what arises during an inner experience. Does this fan the flames of spiritual elitism?
In this first installment of a two-part series, we will look at two of Ruth Haley Barton’s books, Invitation to Silence and Solitude (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Books; 2nd ed, 2010) and Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Books, 2006). They are two key books in the burgeoning movement of contemplative practices in the church.
The extent of the issues in these two books is substantial, even for a two-part series. As a result, for the sake of time and space, almost as much will be left out as will be covered. The issues are addressed under four categories: Misuse of the Biblical Text, Reliance on Experience; Elitism; and Buddhist Influence. Many examples for the categories necessarily overlap. Quotes will be referenced by page number followed by the initials SR for Sacred Rhythms and SS for Invitation to Silence and Solitude. All Scripture is from the New American Standard 1995 unless otherwise stated.
Misuse of the Biblical Text
Invariably, the slide to false teaching begins with a misuse of the word of God. It also paves the way to introduce new, equally authoritative ways of knowing God.
Throughout Invitation to Silence and Solitude, Barton continuously cites the account of Elijah in First Kings chapter 19 as an illustration to support her points. In the preface, Barton writes that we are starved for quiet, to hear the sound of sheer silence that is the presence of God himself (19, SS).
The sheer silence is a reference to verse 12 in First Kings chapter 19, a phrase rendered in the New American Standard (1995) as a gentle blowing, in the KJV and NKJV as a still small voice, in the ESV a low whisper, while the CSB has a soft whisper.
In most languages, words have a range of meanings, and it is no different in Hebrew. Since there are different uses of this word, it cannot be established that Elijah heard an actual voice. A voice speaks words, and this does not appear to be a use of words. But immediately following this gentle blowing, there is a voice: a voice came to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (verse 13b).
This event is the third in a series for Elijah after he flees Jezebel. He first goes to a Juniper tree, where he asks God to let him die (verse 14). But the angel of the Lord brings food and urges him to eat (many believe the angel of the Lord is the pre-incarnate Christ). He then travels forty days to Mt. Horeb, where Elijah again laments that Israel has abandoned God and God directs him to stand on the mountain. That is where Elijah witnesses a wind, earthquake, and a fire before the gentle blowing/stirring. When God speaks to Elijah, Elijah repeats that Israel has broken the covenant with God and killed God’s prophets. After this, God instructs Elijah to anoint two kings and a prophet, Elisha, who will be the successor to Elijah.
This is a narrative passage, not a prescriptive text. Although one learns about God in this passage and can draw important principles from it, it has nothing to do with, nor is it prescribing the practices Barton promotes.
Barton bases a number of her teachings on this account of Elijah, including entering a time of solitude (136, SS, and numerous other places) where Elijah acknowledged the truth about himself. Barton discusses Elijah as though he deliberately set out on a personal journey seeking silence and solitude as a way to hear from God, saying that he was hungry for an experience of divine Presence (87, SS), something found nowhere in the text. Elijah was a prophet and did not need to do anything to hear from God. God communicated with him often and directly, as God did with all his prophets. It appears that Barton was reading her own ideas into the text.
Barton has a section, “Moving from Head to Heart,” where she commits the logical fallacy of the false dilemma by making a distinction between head and heart. This distinction is a modern one, not a biblical one. She misuses Luke 10:27, where Jesus tells the lawyer to love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind. That Jesus says heart before mind, according to Barton, means that the mind comes a little further down the road in Jesus’ list (52, SR).
There is no evidence that Jesus listed these things in order of priority. In fact, the use of these terms together indicates an emphasis on loving God with one’s whole being, not with separate parts of the self. One cannot divide one’s mind from one’s heart or one’s will. They interact, work together, and overlap. I cannot say now I will love God with my heart, and later I will love God with my soul and later with my mind. In order to love God, one must know God, and one must use the mind to know and understand who God is. Loving God is not an emotion; it is an act of will and mind resulting from recognition of who God is and knowing God’s love through faith in Jesus Christ.
The mind is not inferior to what Barton calls the heart, nor is the mind the enemy. But in contemplative, New Age, and Eastern spiritual teachings, the mind is a barrier or sometimes an enemy. Nothing in Scripture teaches that the mind needs to be silenced or put aside. Being vain about knowledge, and allowing the mind to follow worldly philosophies or false beliefs is condemned, but those are related to pride and truth issues, not with the mind itself.
By Larry Ball — 12 months ago
The most salient reason for the Dissent was that basically the SJC created a new Record of the Case (ROC). Generally, the ROC consists only of the documents generated by the both parties in a case during the time of the original investigation and proceedings. In this case, an additional investigation was commenced by the SJC long after the original case was documented. This appeared to be for the purpose of identifying any changes in Mr. Johnson’s present views as compared to his previous views. This may be a laudable goal, but it is irrelevant to this case.
The Dissenting Opinion on the Case that was before the PCA Standing Judicial Commission (SJC) regarding the Missouri Presbytery and Greg Johnson has been published (The Aquila Report, 12/13/21). I want to publicly thank this group of men for making known the reasons for their Dissent. Actually, even though many of us consider the decision of the SJC to be a loss, yet this public statement representing the minority vote is an encouragement for countless numbers in the PCA. I personally appreciate the position these men took in opposition to the majority of the Commission. A few remarks may be in order.
First, I hold a minority position in the PCA. I believe that anyone who identifies himself publicly as a homosexual is automatically disqualified from holding office in the PCA. I therefore have my qualms about part of the process in the Case.
The Dissent asserts that there is good reason to believe that Mr. Johnson’s self-identity as a homosexual “compromises and dishonors” his identity in Christ. This demonstrates my problem with the proposed changes to the Book of Church Order. Rather than having a clear line of demarcation regarding the ordination of homosexuals, it creates a purity of thought test where no one can score 100, but no one can define what a passing score is. The Dissent argues that Mr. Johnson’s score is not high enough to pass. The majority of the SJC concluded that he did pass. This is highly subjective. It will be highly subjective if the BOCO changes are adopted.
Secondly, the most salient reason for the Dissent was that basically the SJC created a new Record of the Case (ROC). Generally, the ROC consists only of the documents generated by the both parties in a case during the time of the original investigation and proceedings. In this case, an additional investigation was commenced by the SJC long after the original case was documented. This appeared to be for the purpose of identifying any changes in Mr. Johnson’s present views as compared to his previous views. This may be a laudable goal, but it is irrelevant to this case. If there have been changes in his views, then there are other ways to handle it. According to the Dissent, “The SJC supplemental work produced 67% of the citations used by it in support of Presbytery’s conclusions…” The SJC in essence created a new ROC, and thus, in a real sense, became the court of original jurisdiction.
By creating a new ROC, the SJC allowed Mr. Johnson to nuance his previous statements which happen to reflect the PCA Study Committee on Human Sexuality. This was unfair to the Complainant. He was not challenging the discovery statements that resulted from the later investigation of the SJC; he was challenging the original decision of Missouri Presbytery based on the statements made by Mr. Johnson nearly two years ago. (The Complainant’s framing of the original Statement of the Issue: “Did Missouri Presbytery err when it failed to find a strong presumption of guilt and institute process against TE Johnson regarding his stated views on human sexuality that appear to be significantly out of accord with and not in conformity with the Scriptures and the Westminster Standards?”)
Thirdly, the final vote on the SJC shows how important it is to know in more detail about the nominees for the Standing Judicial Commission at each General Assembly. A difference in one single vote would have changed the outcome of this decision.
The PCA has a Standing Theological Examinations Committee which approves the orthodoxy of the nominees for positions at the General Assembly level, and declares them eligible to hold office. The election of men to hold this important office has become rather perfunctory. No doubt, the National Partnership (NP) has had a major influence on who gets elected.
Maybe it’s time to make public for the GA Commissioners a more thorough examination of these men, as is done with candidates for the United States Supreme Court. In some way we need to know the particular theological camp they represent in the PCA. Judgment of the law is not always neutral. Commissioners at the General Assembly need to be better informed about nominees.
Lastly, if the proposed BCO changes do not pass, then this will make two proximate losses for the conservative confessionalists in the PCA. We might expect that some leaders in the PCA will begin to contemplate an exit plan in order to create a new denomination.
Some will plead for a continual fight, pointing out the victories at the previous General Assembly, and believing that they have the grassroots numbers to eventually gain back control of the PCA. Others will not be so optimistic. It is sad that it has all come down to this.
Larry E. Ball is a retired minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is now a CPA. He lives in Kingsport, Tenn.