Paul's Passing Thoughts

How and Why “Gospel-Driven” Sanctification / Sonship Theology Creates Cult-Like Churches

Posted in Uncategorized by Paul M. Dohse Sr. on January 31, 2011

In all of my writings on gospel-driven sanctification / gospel sanctification, and its apparent mother, Sonship Theology, I have primarily addressed the error, and not its ill effects on discipleship and people’s lives. Basically, refutation of false doctrine has prevention in mind, not theological debate for entertainment purposes.

My firsthand experience with a “gospel centered” church is applicable here because this same church and its leaders are well respected in Reformed circles, and especially among those who propagate gospel-driven sanctification. Paul David Tripp speaks at this particular church often, and others such as Stewart Scott and Robert Jones have recently participated in major events there as well. Therefore, it is fair to conclude that this particular church’s activities are not considered to be abnormal among “gospel centered” persuasions.

The church I am using as an example regarding the “what,” (I will write about the “how” last) would classify themselves as being a New Covenant Theology church. They consider “Theology of the Heart, redemptive-historical hermeneutics, gospel-driven sanctification, and Christian hedonism to be tenets of NCT. What does this church and many others look like as a result of this theology?

Foremost, the leadership is very controlling. Members must have permission from the elders to vacate membership status. Those who attempt to leave membership for “unbiblical reasons” can be placed under church discipline. I have personally counseled former parishioners of said church on how to “get out of there” with minimal stress, and how to leave without being placed under church discipline. At this particular church, leaving for doctrinal reasons is considered “unbiblical.” In one particular case where the elders deemed the reason for departure “biblical,” the parishioner informed me that the chairman of the elders told him, “We would never prevent you from leaving for that reason.”

These elders are also very controlling in the area of thought. In a sermon preached by one of its elders entitled, “How to Listen to a Sermon” the following idea was introduced: Christians are not able to grow spiritually from personal study, but must only learn from sitting under preaching; specifically, preaching by the elders at that church. Here is an excerpt from the manuscript:

“You think, perhaps, that [you] can fill up the other half of the plate with personal study, devotions, or quiet times, or a radio program. Beloved, you cannot. Scripture is relatively quiet on such practices. [Particularly on the issue of radios]. But on preaching, the case is clear and strong. Neglect preaching and neglect your soul. I know that some are kept from services for legitimate reasons which are out of their control, but I doubt that is the case for most. I beseech you, change your ways for the good of this people and for the good of your own selves. Give the Word its rightful place. As I have often said, there is no better place you could be than here, under the preaching of the Word.”

Of course, the first thing that would come to mind for any thinking Christian is the biblical account of the Bereans who studied the Scriptures on their own to determine the truthfulness of Paul’s teaching. But according to this elder, the account in Acts 17 wasn’t referring to that, but rather was illustrating the proper way to listen to a sermon:

“The text here implies that there was an interactive nature between three entities: The preacher, the hearers, and the Word. Note this cycle: Paul, from the Word, delivers words. The Bereans, from Paul’s words, go to the Word. The Word cycles from God, through the preacher, to the people, back to the Word, and this, verse 12 tells us, produced belief in the God of the Word.”

In other words, personal study alone cannot produce belief; preaching from an elder must be part of the “cycle” that produces belief (notice the emphasis on “belief” rather than increased knowledge per the progressive justification element of gospel sanctification). In fact, he said that personal study only “flavors” the preaching:

“ So a good preparation for the public preaching of the Word is the private consumption of the Word. It will be the seasoning that brings out the flavor – salt on your French fries, if you will”

So, personal Bible study isn’t the food, it’s just the flavoring. And, personal Bible study is for “flavoring,” not discernment. Buyer beware.

In another category under mind control, separate small groups that meet during the week under the supervision of individual elders in homes of members are instructed not to associate, or speak with members who have left for doctrinal reasons. Also, the primary purpose of the meetings is to get feedback from the parishioners on what was taught the previous Sunday, and fielding objections or concerns. In other “gospel centered” churches, these mid-week meetings are closed to outsiders, or non-members. These meetings have also been known to produce weird occurrences like the time an elder unexpectedly produced all of his financial records in plain view of the group for their inspection. A parishioner confided in me that he found the incident to be surreal, and more information than he cared to know about.

Unknown, for the most part, is the gospel-driven use of what’s called redemptive church discipline. It is a staple of these churches, and it is a very broad use of church discipline. Reformed Christians who join “gospel centered” churches assume it is a reference to traditional forms of church discipline. Parishioners can be placed in this process for any sin, and without any prior notice or inclination. It is not the normal process of inquisitive steps to determine a Christian’s willingness to repent, but more like a counseling process in which elders judge when the parishioner has actually repented. Verbal repentance on the part of the subject is not accepted. Members are not free to leave membership while in this process without being excommunicated for supposedly attempting to vacate membership while in the midst of an unresolved sin issue. Those who dispute gospel sanctification are often placed into the process to convert them to a “redemptive” view of sanctification. They either convert, or they’re excommunicated. Accounts of “gospel centered” churches using this process to control parishioners is vast.

However, the major complaint coming out of these churches is the ignoring of clear biblical mandates by their elders. Parishioners are often perplexed by this. But this is because the elders of these churches believe the Bible is solely for the purpose of showing forth redemptive principles (ie., the gospel) and not instruction. Per New Covenant Theology, they are only obligated to a “higher law of love” which replaced biblical imperatives. The idea is the following: all actions done with the motive of love are righteous. As Francis Chan wrote, “….because when we are loving, we can’t sin”(Crazy Love p.102). As in one case when an elder was caught counseling someone’s wife without the husband’s knowledge – his defense was that he did so “in love.” Therefore, just about anything goes in gospel-driven churches, and well published accounts include excommunicating hundreds of members at one time for non-attendance, which is a questionable act when Scripture is considered to say the least.

How does this happen? First, it begins with a niche doctrine. Propagators often admit that gospel sanctification is a “radical departure” from orthodox doctrine. Those are the words of the propagators, not mine. Any movement that begins with a niche doctrine is in danger of becoming a cult, that’s Cult Apologetics 101. My research has made the following evident: the doctrine was conceived by a man named Jack Miller in, or about 1980.

Secondly, the niche doctrine draws leaders who are more interested in being unique than being in the truth. Take note of what one of the elders of the aforementioned church said while introducing a Sunday school class teaching Christian hedonism: “This doctrine is what makes us unique.” Whenever the goal is to be unique, trouble is not far behind.

Thirdly, niche doctrines and a striving to be different leads to subjectivity and confusion because the leaders are constantly striving to make the doctrine fit with reality and orthodoxy. This results in the kind of events mentioned above.

Fourthly, these elements mixed with the fact that most Reformed churches are autonomous in their polity is an extremely dangerous combination. Basically, the leadership is not accountable and the congregation is on their own.

Niche doctrines, the control of members in thought and action, the ignoring of clear biblical mandates, misuse of unbiblical church discipline in order to control parishioners through fear, manipulation, and intimidation; this is how the “gospel centered” leaders of our day adorn their vile doctrine. Therefore, perhaps they should be named with the cult leaders of ages past accordingly.

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  1. paulspassingthoughts said, on February 25, 2014 at 5:54 AM

    Reblogged this on Paul's Passing Thoughts.

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