Friday, February 22, 2008

Are You Cultivating Liberalism and Killing Missions?

Mark Dever’s discussion of guidance and the subjective leading of the Spirit is worth a read. I agree with Dever’s theology, but I’m much more militantly opposed to the common sue of guidance and leading language than he appears to be in this post.

My opinion is that the language of leading—“God told/spoke/showed me” has been used appallingly often in a manner that has been spiritually manipulative and abusive. Even a statement that “God led me to” do something is dangerous since we have no objective way to know when God is leading us to do something that is not an act of obedience to God’s revealed moral will.

In no way do I want to deny that God actually does lead believers in a subjective manner. I do deny that we can know either objectively or infallibly when and how he is leading us (at least apart from some sort of vision or sign comparable to what we do see in Scripture). When we claim God’s leading, we are claiming divine revelation and authority that we have no right to claim. We risk dragging God into our fallible and perhaps even foolish decisions. It’s difficult for me to understand how this kind of language is not a serious risk of taking God’s name in vain at best and risking blasphemy at worst.

Instead, why not simply say, “As I considered the choices before me, it seemed most wise and prudent to” do whatever you did. Or if we just can’t excise the language of leading, shouldn’t we at least acknowledge some measure of uncertainty with the caveat, “I believe/it seems that God is leading me to . . .”?

As a brief aside, during the past week I read Paul Pressler’s A Hill on Which to Die, the account of this influential Southern Baptist’s pivotal role in the conservative resurgence in the SBC. One of the themes that struck me most was how often both the SBC reformers and the hard-core liberals claimed divine leading for the starkly divergent directions they intended to lead the SBC. Clearly it’s impossible for both to have been in the right on these points, and it’s entirely possible that both were wrong on some. I think the conclusion should be inescapable that cultivating the unqualified language of divine leading creates a seedbed for theological liberals (to say nothing of manipulative conservatives) to advance their personal interests.

After I wrote the rest of this post earlier today, I spent an hour in a van with a friend who’s done missions work in East Asia for the past nine years. He reminded me of a point I’d intended to make but forgot. We’re both convinced that the prevailing theology of leading has caused many sincere believers to wait for a subjective experience of leading or “calling” to pastoral ministry or missions, when the reality is that they have the 1 Timothy 3:1 desire already present in their hearts. But without this subjective experience they’re taught to expect , they never step outside the flow of the Christian culture around them, with all its conveniences and comforts. So a very real implication of our terminology and the theology behind it may be strangling the spread of the gospel to those who’ve never heard.


Don Johnson said...

hey Ben, I agree. I hope that doesn't ruin your reputation.

I have experienced certain events where it appears that God sovereignly led in my life or I have observed it in others. Certain circumstances seem to be only able to be explained by the leadership of God.

But.... note the words "appear" and "seem". Until we get to heaven, we won't have any revelation concerning these events, if then.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Brian said...


I couldn't agree more. I too was a bit surprised when I read Dever's critique. I saw an earlier link to it and was somewhat disappointed by the post.

Just a few of my own thoughts and observations:

Recently I've been immersed in studying and thinking through 1 Corinthians. A few weeks ago I was struck by how Paul dealt with the issue of "Christian liberty" so often associated with that epistle. He never instructed the church to "ask the Spirit to guide you" (granted, Paul was speaking as one inspired by the Spirit and with apotolic authority, but I think that only strenthens my point). Instead he consistently told them to use their freedom as an opportunity to serve one another in love (cf. Gal 5:13). If it was a woman married to an unbelieving husband, she was to consider the sancitification and possible salvation of her family and remain married. If it was a defrauded church member, he was to consider the effect of a lawsuit on the gospel. If it was Paul himself considering his fredom to receive money (an illustration of relinquishing rights for the sake of others and the gospel to be applied to the issue of idol meat), he did everything for the sake of his brother (8:13), for the sake of the gospel (9:19), and even for his own sake (9:27). In the end, Paul would tell the church debating an issue of idol meat to make their decision for the glory of God (10:31).

In other words, Paul consistently challenged his readers (in Corinth, and elsewhere) to take into account the multiple motivations listed above when making decisions. He did not encourage surrendering to a subjective revelation from the Spirit. I take it this was his practice whenever he did not "have a command from the Lord" (7:25; cf. 7:12). In fact, such careful deliberations when exercising Christian freedom are a demonstration of the wisdom which comes by the Spirit (7:40), not evidence of a failure to listen for his "voice".

Just one final comment: As someone "called" to be a missionary, again I agree. A call to ministry is sensed internally through the desire to serve and is verified externally through the church. Such a view can be difficult to explain to a mission board who wants to make sure that you really are "called". If you cannot produce a specific subjective leading of the Spirit, then you will not be accepted by many organizations.

This is a serious problem in the church, and one that is shared in evangelical and fundamentalist circles. Which is why I would have liked to have seen more force behind Dever's argument.

Ross Shannon said...

I feel led to agree. Thank you for the excellent post. Welcome back.

Paul said...

Good thoughts Ben. In addition to missions, another are I think that we can easily tend to wrongly wait for this "subjective" leading is marriage. Would you agree?

Chris Anderson said...

Good stuff, Ben.

Ben said...

I could only wish the spectrum of agreement on display in these comments were mirrored in a comparable spectrum of evangelicals and fundamentalists.


Thanks for your helpful analysis of Paul's approach. Mind if I reproduce that as a lead post?


I think you're right. But what do I know?

Brian said...


That's fine.


I would say, yes. It seems to me that depending on God's leading can produce pride (as in Ben's illustration of liberalism) which hides behind a false piety. But on the other hand, it can also result in passivity (as in the case of marriage and missions, and all other sorts of issues) which also disguises itself as spirituality.

However, the fundamental problem of the whole issue is probably a lack of confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture.

Charlotte Corday said...

i'm inclined to agree with these posts- waiting, or alternatively acting, on some nebulous conception of the Spirit's guiding can be detrimental. yet can we not also speak of God using our desires to lead us where he would have us be? so that giving a person a desire for a certain career, etc, could be considered being led by God to that interest?

Ben said...


I believe we can speak of God giving us desires that direct our lives. I think the biblical concept of the renewing of the mind is a close parallel to what I have in mind. But I think we need to be careful when we authoritatively declare what desires God has given us, since Scripture also speaks frequently about desires that arise from our sinful flesh and frequently deceive us.

So while even the desire for pastoral ministry is a desire for "a good work," that may not mean it's a good desire for every man to have. Some who are not gifted or biblically qualified might possess the desire for the office, or those who are gifted or qualified might desire it for all the wrong reasons. I don't think I could say that the desire is good in those cases, even though the work is good.

P.S. Assuming Charlotte Corday isn't your real name, that's a rather intriguing pseudonym. At least Wikipedia makes me think so. Must be a story there.

charlotte corday said...

yeah, i guess that makes sense. whatever trouble can come from an incorrect appraisal of the Spirit's guiding can also come from an incorrect appraisal of which desires are God-given and which are not.

p.s. i try not to give my real name out online because you never know who's out there. as for the story, you'll have to stay in the dark on that one.

G-Knee said...