Re-Enacting Yesterday’s Battles
Keeping a steady focus on the past keeps the listeners from discerning between good and evil in the present, and prevents a focus on the future.
Book of the Week:
– Idols for Destruction, Chapter 1, “Idols of History” by Herbert Schlossberg
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Welcome to Episode 21 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 20 minutes we will be talking about modern ministries. Or, rather, we will be talking about that very typically American system which I call by the name “ministry-industrial complex,” that is, a conglomerate of churchian celebrity figures, denominations, churches, Christian colleges, radio and TV shows, publishing houses, conferences, lawyers’ organizations, lobbyist organizations, mission boards, and others; the purpose of this ministry-industrial complex being to tap into the market of “donations,” that is, the market of millions of American Christians who are hungry and thirsty for qualified Biblical teaching and practical example for Christian action and victory, and are willing to pay for it, if it can be found in the American church. So, there’s a market, with money waiting to be donated, and the ministry-industrial complex is there to offer a product – a product, though, which doesn’t live up to the needs of the church, and certainly is not worth the money poured into it. In a previous episode, I covered the phenomenon of the Denethor ministries – ministries which absorb hundreds of millions of dollars every year only to preach defeat and, surprise, surprise, get defeat for the church in America. Many of these ministries – especially many lawyers’ guilds like NRA, HSLDA, ADF, and others – in fact thrive on maintaining problems unsolved, and in many cases their public initiatives are directed towards creating more legal problems so that the lawyers can keep solving them. (We will talk about this strategy in a future podcast.) Many of these ministries have nothing new to say, and nothing specific to offer, and for most of them it is unclear if the Church would lose anything if they were shut down.
Of course, there are a few churches and ministries that are legitimate, and there are a few out there that are doing really a good job of preaching and caring more for their flocks and for the church than they care for their leaders and celebrities. And indeed, the teaching ministry is a legitimate part of Christendom. But the Biblical standard for the New Testament is not that teachers would multiply but the other way around: that ordinary Christians will be more and more knowledgeable and understanding to the point where there would be no need for teachers. This is in fact the very definition of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:33-34:
But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD, I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them.
The same principle is repeated in the New Testament, by the author of Hebrews who criticizes his readers that they still need someone to teach them:
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food (Heb. 5:12).
We have the same situation today, with one significant and fundamental difference: In our day, it is the churches and the ministries who are deliberately keeping their listeners immature and ignorant – and that under the pretense that they are teaching them and ministering to them. It is only with an immature and ignorant audience that the modern ministry-industrial complex can continue tapping into the donations stream – after all, a wise and understanding people will be much more discerning and more critical of the quality of teaching and preaching, and would be less willing to spend their money on lousy preachers. And, a wise and understanding people do not fall for celebrity worship. Remember, in the days of the Reformers, Romanist theologians claimed that images in the churches were needed because the majority of church members were uneducated and ignorant. The Reformers replied that it was exactly the images in the churches that kept Christians uneducated and ignorant. In the same way, today, the ministry-industrial complex exists on the claim that Christians are uneducated and therefore we need all these ministries and churches and celebrities. The truth is, it is the ministry-industrial complex which keeps American Christians uneducated and ignorant. It is, in fact, our modern Protestant version of the idolatrous images in the Romanist churches.
The topic of the ministry-industrial complex can easily take a whole series of podcasts. Much of the way this complex operates is reminiscent of the way Communist propaganda operated: after all, when there is no real product of no real value provided, the only thing that can keep the machine running is propaganda. I have been told multiple times by people involved in different ministries that “perception is everything.” Some of them were simply cynical opportunists. But a few were well-meaning servants of God who had legitimate ministries and rendered real service to the body of Christ. This fact, that even well-meaning ministers considered perception to be “everything,” thus justifying the propaganda element of it, is indicative of how deep root such corrupt mentality has taken in the American Christian culture. To translate it into real terms, when American Christians concede that “perception is everything,” they are begging to be swindled and lied to. Such culture of gullibility and naïveté is the perfect fertile soil for a crop of scoundrels, and the American church has been reaping the fruit of it for decades now. And despite the proven failure of such culture to produce growth, it has continued watering it with billions of dollars.
The question we need to deal with – in this episode and in future episodes – is this: How is it possible? We have a system that claims to rally the troops for battle and only delivers defeat; a system that claims to educate its listeners and yet never raises them above a certain level of basic elementary things. How is it possible that such system is still functioning? How is it possible that such system still has customers who spend their money on it – and we are talking about hundreds of thousands of people spending billions of dollars? What is there in the propaganda of that system that makes its customers return over and over again for nothing? Just simple basic common sense would be enough to make anyone take their business away from any vendor whose product doesn’t live up to the price. How did millions of Christians in the US end up so devoid of common sense as to see the failure of their beloved ministries to deliver on their promises and yet continue supporting them?
The general answer to this must return us to a previous episode of Axe to the Root podcast where we talked about covenantal thinking and maturity. Covenantal thinking and maturity, as we saw, have to do with the ability to judge everything, to discern between good and evil in every situation. Thus, the goal of propaganda is to destroy in its listeners the ability to judge, to discern between good and evil. To make the listeners uncritical to the real world around them. (The word “criticism” comes from the Greek word krino, meaning “to judge, separate.”) There are many tactical ways to achieve this strategic task of making the listeners uncritical – fragmented reality, false appeal to authority, relativistic ethics, group identity, scare tactics, and others – and all of them were used by Communist and Nazi propaganda in the last century; and I must say, they are all used by the ministry-industrial complex in the US today. We will talk in future episodes in more detail about each one of these, but in this episode I would like to focus on one specifically: Re-enacting old battles.
If there a characteristic of true Covenant Theology that separates it from all the other theologies – within or without orthodox Christianity – it is its focus on the future. I have written and spoken before about this characteristic, so to make it short here, true Covenant Theology sees the future in history as better than the past. Not just the future beyond history, but the future in history. And future not just in some spiritualized sense, but future as in the total of history, mankind and its societies, and its economic and intellectual and ethical and judicial and scientific and technological, and other development. And all this as the consequence, but also as an integral part of the growth of the Gospel. This optimism of the future in history is inherent in the very promise of the New Covenant (see, for example, Isaiah 9:7, “Of the increase of His government and peace there shall be no end.”); it is also inherent in the very nature of the Gospel and of Christ’s rule in the New Covenant (see, for example, 1 Cor. 15:20-28). A covenant Christian, then – when he is true to the Bible – believes Paul’s promise in 1 Cor. 3:22, that “the present and the future” belong to Christians, and therefore follows Paul’s prescription in Phil. 3:13 to “forget what lies behind.” Since the future in its comprehensive entirety – not just in a narrowly spiritualized sense – is expected to be brighter than the past, a covenant Christian pays really close attention to the present, and strives to be faithful to discern good and evil in the present reality. Naturally so, for his actions in the present are what will build that better future. Not that his salvation depends on it – salvation depends entirely on the grace of God – but that he is committed to strive for that prize Paul talks about in 1 Cor. 9:24. God will eventually build that better future in history, with or without any specific individual, it is our duty to strive to be those through whom He builds it. But we will leave the talk about how Christianity invented the concept of the future to another podcast.
Paganism, as well as the non-covenant theologies within the Christian camp, have no such promise for the future. (As a side note, this is the reason for the modern prevalence of pessimistic eschatologies: the loss of covenantal understanding.) Since the future, then, brings no hope to such ideologies, their only anchor of hope is in the past. The past becomes the center of attention, an object of study, emotional longing and nostalgic feelings, it even becomes an object of ritualized veneration. Even Communism, with it pretended atheism and rationalism, was highly liturgical about the past; it had its rituals, and don’t you dare not participate in those rituals, and don’t you dare fail to stand for the anthem, or for The Internationale, and don’t you dare fail to honor the memory of the heroes who shed their blood for the ideals of Marx and Engels and Lenin. Communism thus had a pantheon (or a pandemonium, rather) of heroes in the past, and where there were none, it made them up. It built their monuments, it made up stories about them, it indoctrinated schoolchildren to honor their memory. Any pagan religion, not having a Gospel message for the future, is forced to keep its followers by making myths about the past. When people talk to you about the “power of the myths,” this is it: the power to snatch present and future away from you and immerse you entirely in the past.
This focus on the past has a bonus feature as well, or rather, the main feature of it, which is that it dulls or even destroys the ability of men to make sounds judgments in the present in respect to their expectations of the future. A person who is romantically and nostalgically attached to the past and longs for the past, only belongs to a reality but doesn’t participate in it practically. He is passive, and he has no interest in proactively seeking justice or even learning how justice is applied to the present world. And it is this feature of the past-orientation that is used by the modern ministry-industrial complex.
The world of our modern churches and ministries in America is almost entirely dominated by re-enacting theological and intellectual battles of the past. Just look at the Reformed churches and ministries who today are a very insignificant portion of the American population. (Remember, just a hundred years ago the Presbyterian church was the dominant cultural influence in the America.) 99%+ of the efforts of pulpits, seminaries, ministries, preachers, conferences, are spent rehashing over and over again the same theological concepts that we have been perfecting for 400 years now. Any Reformed group on Facebook I go to, whether pubs or societies or study groups; any blog of a seminarian professor I read, any church sermon I listen to, repeat ad nauseam the same ideas about TULIP, soteriology, sovereign grace. Popular preachers and conference speakers all compete with each other who will come up with the fanciest of the fanciest verbal repetitions of the same obvious truths that we should have left behind long ago, according to Hebrews 6:1. One designs this beautiful rhetoric about how our salvation depends entirely on God. Then another one comes and aces him with some even more beautiful and impressive phrase about the same thing. Then another paints an even better picture of the same thing and trumps the first two, and even Calvin and Luther and Paul himself with his literary skills. The audience learns nothing new; it’s all the same truth that we should have learned from the Reformers, and should have moved on. Then we are told in one sermon that we are miserable sinners before God. Then a conference speaker says the same and more, that we need to go deep in ourselves to find where that sin is, in daily self-examination and navel-gazing. Then a seminary professor writes a blog article and even a book to tell us how we can’t even begin to consider ourselves saved unless we have completely lost our mind in total contemplation of our moral misery. And yet, it’s the same thing, over and over again, which we should have learned long ago and moved on from it.
And what about baptism, paedo vs. credo? You wouldn’t guess that half a dozen verses in the Bible on baptism would translate into about a fifth of all modern Christian discourse, on both sides of the debate. Everything seems to boil down to whether we baptize babies or only adults. I made an effort some time ago to put together as many sermons and articles on baptism I could find on the Internet. I tell you, there are thousands of them! Arguing about baptism has become such a habit to many people that some time ago, when I was raising a judicial issue about the Law of God, a Reformed Baptist apologist who tried to argue with me automatically switched to arguing with me about baptism. He was so disappointed when I told him I find the argument about baptism irrelevant to our discussion.
And what about the countless debates over the same issues, over and over again – apologetics, Calvinism vs. Arminianism, paedo vs. credo, Muslim vs. Christian, atheist vs. Christian. With a very few precious exceptions, nothing new really comes out of these debates; the arguments used on both sides have been used and reused for hundreds of years. We are repeating the same things, over and over again, the same things from previous generations, and we are addicted to hearing the same things over and over again, and chewing on the same food over and over again.
Unfortunately, otherwise legitimate ministries also fall victim to the same mentality. R.C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries, for example, started well back in the 1970s, when the Reformed doctrines of the Sovereignty of God were lost in the church and there was a need to restore their popularity. Ligonier did a good job in popularizing Calvinism, but then never developed above the original basic message from back in the 70s. It never developed its ethical and judicial applications to our modern society, it never brought its listeners to a higher level of maturity to judge everything and discern between good and evil in everything. A Ligonier conference some 40 years after its founding was titled, “Tough Questions Christians Face?” And what were these tough questions? ‘Did Jesus Have to die?” Or, “Do Our Unrepentant Loved Ones Go to Hell?” After 40 years of teaching Calvinism, Ligonier’s listeners still have these questions for “tough”? I wrote an article back then about it, the next year Ligonier had another conference, this time the real tough questions . . . and they were the same questions.
What is lacking is a practical concern with justice and righteousness in our own era, and focus on the specific will of God for our own generation. What is lacking is a comprehensive practical ideology for action in the public arena. When churches, ministries, or lobbyist organizations sometimes get active about some issues of public policy, it is almost exclusively something related to sexual matters: like sex education in schools, or legalization of sodomy, or the use of bathrooms. And even there, they always seek solution within the existing pagan political paradigms, not in the Bible. On the vast world of problems of perverted justice, pagan state policies, government theft, indoctrination, foreign wars, the ministry-industrial complex has little to nothing to say.
This lack of comprehensive message even creates psychological problems among young and active people. Recently, a fundamentalist radio celebrity who passes for “Reformed” in some fundamentalist circles ranted on his show about “cage-stage Calvinists.” Listening to his rants I couldn’t help but notice that he was protesting a wee too much. He himself is part of that same ministry-industrial complex that has created the problem in the very beginning – by preaching the powerful message of the Sovereignty of God while neglecting its powerful practical applications to justice and righteousness. The man has spent 30+ years of his life repeating the same old stuff, giving to his listeners the same old milk. The only application of Calvinism his listeners know is that fundamentalist, hyper-spiritualized talk about pure theology, some apologetics, and abstract moralisms. When they apply their energy to such a small and abstract field of application, the result is exactly cage-stage Calvinism, against which he protests. I have never seen a cage-stage Calvinist on the mission field in Bulgaria. The reason is obvious: we never preached Calvinism without also preaching the ethical/judicial applications of the Sovereignty of God to every area of life, in our present situation, and we never had a pessimistic (amillennial or premillennial) eschatology. Our mission is theonomic and postmillennial, and theonomy and postmillennialism give a broad enough field for activity in the world around us, so energy is not wasted on petty arguments within the church. That cage-stage Calvinism is endemic to certain circles in the US is only a symptom of the broader problem with the ministry-industrial complex we are talking about here.
Although, I must say, the same problem is beginning to appear in theonomic and postmillennial circles in the US as well. Now that Christian Reconstruction has some history behind it, I can see the temptation among many young people to recreate the battles and the debates of 40 years ago – especially in the field of apologetics. And I had to tell many young people who aspired to become as great of apologists as Greg Bahnsen was that our job is to step on his shoulders and apply the Law of God to our own times, not recreate his wit in debates.
Pure theology and apologetics, of course, are a good thing, and useful to a Biblical student . . . but only when used as a tool to apply them to the ethical and judicial battles of today. But the product that comes out of the modern ministries and churches is rarely concerned with the ethical and judicial battles of today. They are not even concerned with the ethical and judicial battles of times past – in fact, many of the modern ministries discard them completely. Michael Horton and others of Westminster West, for example, like to repeat Calvin’s theological statements, but consider Calvin’s legal efforts in changing the laws of Geneva irrelevant to his Reformed faith. Joel Beeke of Banner of Truth publishes the abstract theological writings of the Puritans but never mentions their political struggles against tyranny, and for building a Christian Commonwealth. And these are not alone; there are many more such examples of ministers who ignore historical examples of application. Somehow the theology of times past is so important, but the practical applications of it are not worth mentioning.
Modern ministries are concerned only with the intellectual and theological battles of times past. But on these battles nothing new can be said. No new arguments can be brought about them. All the books that could be written on issues like the sacraments or salvation or the deep symbolic meaning of the preacher’s collar have already been published. But modern ministries keep repeating them. Because keeping a steady focus on the past keeps the listeners from discerning between good and evil in the present, and prevents a focus on the future. And this is what keeps the checks coming.
And the solution to it is obvious: defund them. Quit sending your checks to ministries who only babble on abstract theological issues and re-enact battles from the past. Re-direct your giving to ministries who have and preach and teach a comprehensive Biblical worldview, with ethical and judicial applications to the present, and an optimistic view of the future in history.
The book I will assign this week is again Herbert Schlossberg’s Idols for Destruction. If you haven’t read it yet, read it. If you have read it, read it again, with special attention on the first chapter, “Idols of History.”
And visit BulgarianReformation.com. Our mission in Bulgaria doesn’t re-enact battles from the past, and doesn’t rely on repeating abstract theological truths. We have been focused from the very beginning on addressing the culture, and on providing real Biblical answers to real problems – in every area of life. Go to Bulgarian Reformation.com, subscribe to our newsletter, and donate. It’s a true ministry, deserving of your support.