A closer look at the Alpha Course and whether it is permissible to judge what other Christians teach

In this post: The responsibility of elders for sound doctrine; Do ordinary believers have the right to judge an elder’s doctrine?; Doesn’t Jesus tell us not to judge?; Doesn’t Paul tell us not to judge another’s servant?; Is the Alpha Course really that bad?; Is God not able to use Alpha, even if it imperfect?; In praise of discernment ministries

The Alpha Course is a widely used evangelistic tool designed to introduce people to the Christian faith. The Alpha website describes it this way:

Alpha is an opportunity for anyone to explore the Christian faith in a relaxed setting over ten thought-provoking weekly sessions, with a day or weekend away.

The same website gives an indication of its popularity:

The Alpha course spread during the 1990s, initially in the UK and then internationally, as more churches and groups found it a helpful way to answer questions about the Christian faith in an informal setting. There are now over 33,500 courses worldwide in 163 countries and it is supported by all the major denominations.

In the introduction to my article, Dangerous pragmatism – why a transformed life is not proof of salvation, I mentioned (mostly incidentally) the Alpha Course and its developer, Nicky Gumbel. I drew attention to the fact that many people found the course’s theology to be deeply problematic. And I quoted from an article documenting Nicky Gumbel’s apparent denial of the core Christian doctrine that Christ was punished in the place of sinners.

In his comments on my article, my father made these observations:

You also know that I tend to be reluctant to criticise others who seek to proclaim the gospel, even though they do not understand it quite as I do. God is able to use even the most misguided of putative followers to bring sinners to Jesus.

You may not feel it is a good example, but Cliff Richard was first led to think of his need of a saviour by Hank Marvin, a Jehovah’s Witness. You would be the first to say that salvation is solely the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing sinners to repentance and Faith in Jesus and God does frequently ‘work in mysterious ways’! I know that I have preached the gospel for the best part of fifty years and I have only been able to pass on what I understood it to be at that time in my walk with Jesus. That knowledge has developed and deepened over the years but my knowledge of God and the gospel is still imperfect and I can still only ask that he use whatever he can from what I say to enlighten others and draw a veil over my mistakes and imperfections. We are all on a pilgrimage and some are further along than others, some take a long time to learn lessons and others make unnecessary detours. I know little of Nicky Gumbel but it does seem that God does use him to communicate what he understands to be the gospel to many people through the Alpha course. If Gumbel gets them started on the road and they read the scriptures for themselves then their faith can grow and mature.

This is a topic worth considering: do we even have the right to critique someone’s teaching if we compare it to Scripture and find it problematic?

I certainly do not believe that we should be swift to criticize. Not one of us has doctrine that is perfect in every respect. And if we do venture to counter someone’s teaching, let us present our case with gentleness and humility. I think my father most definitely exhibits these traits. I still have a greater maturity to attain.

Does Nicky Gumbel have a responsibility to ensure that the materials he produces are sound?

It might seem obvious but, before we can legitimately critique someone, we have first to be sure that he has a responsibility for whatever it is that we perceive to be at fault.

A critical qualification for any elder of the Church is that he be ‘skilful in teaching’ (as a literal rendering of 1 Timothy 3:2 would have it). This enables him to ‘convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching’ (2 Timothy 4:2).

St. James gives this caution: ‘let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment’ (James 3:1).

To take up the office of elder is clearly a solemn thing.

Since elders must be ‘skilful in teaching’, it is a Biblical requirement that each should be able to explain Christian doctrine in a competent and sound way. This is the very nature of their calling.

Sin, repentance and the punishment of Christ upon the cross in our place are matters of the most basic Christian doctrine. They are the fundamentals of the faith. Err in them, and we do not have the historic orthodox Christian faith. May any elder be qualified for his position if he has not mastered such topics?

Nicky Gumbel is vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton Church, an Anglian church in London. He is therefore an elder of the Church and thus has a God-given responsibility to ensure that what he teaches concerning sin, repentance and the work of Christ accords with the historic orthodox Christian faith handed down from the Apostles and set out in Scripture.

Do ordinary believers have the right to judge an elder’s doctrine?

Let’s look at how the Jews of Berea responded to St. Paul’s teaching:

The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. (Acts 17:10–12, ESV)

Here we have a case, not merely of ordinary believers testing the teaching of an elder against Scripture, but of as-yet unbelievers testing the word of the Paul the Apostle! And far from being reprimanded, the Holy Spirit inspired Luke to commend these Jews for being ‘more noble than those in Thessalonica’.

The implication for us is that it commendable to subject teaching given in the name of God to the word of God. No teacher is above such examination, not even St. Paul, and everyone who claims to speak things about God should welcome it. (I do, even if correction sometimes stings for a time.)

Stephen McGarvey, editorial director of the Salem Web Network (which includes christianity.com and crosswalk.com) has a helpful article on this subject that is worth considering.

Doesn’t Jesus tell us not to judge?

It is important that we remember to place Jesus’ injunction into context:

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.

And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye?

Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7:1–5, NKJV

When we read the entire passage, it becomes clear that Jesus is warning against hypocritical judgement.

His closing instruction on that subject is not that we should quiet down and shut up, but that we should first deal with our own sin so that we will then be able to ‘see clearly to remove the speck from [our] brother’s eye’.

Doesn’t Paul tell us not to judge another’s servant?

My father makes these comments:

…and the teaching of Paul in Romans 14 [is that we] are required to discern between good and evil and Paul does suggest that the even least in the church might act as judges in some matters. (1 Cor 6) Paul was also quite ready to use his apostolic authority to judge sinful behaviour and enforce sound doctrine so it cannot be that we just allow anything to go unchallenged. That said, each individual servant of God is responsible to God so perhaps we have to take on board Romans 14: 4 ‘Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands of falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand.’ See also vv 10-13. God is indeed sovereign!

Amen to God’s being sovereign!

Now, let’s place Romans 14:4 into its proper context:

Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him.

Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand.

One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks.

For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written: “As I live, says the LORD, Every knee shall bow to Me, And every tongue shall confess to God.”

So then each of us shall give account of himself to God.

Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way. I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.

Romans 14:1–14, NKJV

Paul defines the context at the outset as concerning ‘doubtful things’, or ‘opinions’ as the ESV renders it. Paul is not talking about the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, but about adiaphora, things that are neither morally mandated nor forbidden.

And so, if one person wishes to eat certain foods, or refrain from eating them, he is free to do so and is not to be condemned for his decision. Likewise in whether he esteems one day above another, or treats them all alike.

Paul reminds us that we are responsible to Christ. Therefore, we have freedom in matters like these where Christ has given us no instruction. And we are not to ‘put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way’ (v. 13) by judging others who choose differently from us.

But in matters of fundamental doctrine, we do have clear direction through the Bible from Christ Himself – the very one to whom we are each responsible.

When we compare false teaching to Scripture and observe that what is claimed does not accord with God’s word, it is not therefore those who point out this fact who are judging, but Christ Himself through His written word.

Thus, we are to ‘avoid foolish disputes, genealogies, contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and useless’ (Titus 3:9). Yet Paul immediately goes on to tell us that we are to ‘reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned’ (Titus 3:10–11).

The word translated ‘divisive’ there refers to those who are causing divisions and factions. It is not those who call out false doctrine who are divisive, but those who teach it. Divisive false teachers stand condemned not by those who reject their doctrine, but by themselves, because they teach contrarily to the clear word of God. They thereby testify against themselves that they are false teachers.

Thus, we are commanded to ‘stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle’ (2 Thessalonians 2:15). We are to ‘Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.’ (2 Timothy 1:13) And we must ‘Test all things; hold fast what is good.’ (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

Is the Alpha Course really that bad?

Alpha is not a new phenomenon, and it would be astonishing if Nicky Gumbel were unaware of the criticisms that have been made of it. Yet Alpha apparently continues to perpetuate the same old serious errors, giving a dangerously flawed presentation of sin, repentance and the work of Christ.

Unless Michael J. Penfold is mistaken, it even risks inoculating many unsaved people against the true gospel by giving them a false assurance of salvation, based upon the fact that they’ve prayed a short prayer.

The Bible does not teach that we are saved by ‘saying a short prayer to receive Jesus’, although much of evangelicalism thinks that it does. The visible church is truly in a wretched state, as I have previously discussed.

The question here therefore concerns whether it is even the true Gospel that Alpha is proclaiming. At best, Alpha’s presentation appears to be perilously defective. Given that there are over 33,500 Alpha Courses now being run, the eternal destiny of many people would appear to be at stake.

Perhaps the problem with evangelicals is that we have grown up being told that what we see and hear is the historic orthodox Christian faith. But all too often, what is actually portrayed is at best a corruption of it. Much of the visible church today is outright semi-Pelagian, and Chris Rosebrough has performed a great service by reminding us that Semi-Pelagianism Was Declared a Heresy in 529 A.D. at the Second Council of Orange.

Here is what the IX Marks website says of Alpha in its Evangelism Course Comparison Guide:

A decision is asked for by the end of the third of fifteen sessions, even though neither faith nor repentance is discussed until the fourth. My concern is that the course seems to want to ease people into being a Christian almost before they know what’s happened. Repentance and faith are treated in passing under the heading “How can I be sure of my Faith,” which seems like a strange place to handle those. Even then, repentance gets one sentence, and faith gets about a page. Most of the other courses are much better at explaining clearly and up-front that you must repent and believe to be a Christian.

One sentence on repentance, and that after people have been asked to make a decision for Christ? Man-centered heretical semi-Pelagian decisionalism? A denial of penal substitution? In what way is this the Christianity of the Bible?

Why would an elder of any church choose to use such a course when there are better alternatives available? Because he is unable to discern its problems? Or possibly because he agrees with its theology? Both of those reasons would be deeply troubling. Or perhaps, simply, ‘because it works’? – but I wrote my original post to tackle that argument, and so will not repeat it here.

Penfold’s comments (toward the end of his article) are appropriate here:

It is a fearful and sorrowful fact that multitudes of Alpha attendees have said the sinner’s prayer and are now convinced they are Christians, who haven’t come within a mile of understanding their real condition as bankrupt sinners before a holy God.

Let me roll-out Paul Washer again, as I did in my article What are we to make of our good works?:

Is God not able to use Alpha, even if it imperfect?

Of course! Our God is both sovereign and exceedingly gracious. He will save whomsoever He wishes. As Jesus says:

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8, NKJV)

It is entirely possible that someone might be exposed to enough Scripture in an Alpha Course and their ensuing contact with Christians to be saved. But the fact that some people are saved despite being exposed to false teaching does not make that false teaching acceptable. And what kind of start is it to a new convert’s life to be confused with erroneous ideas about sin, repentance and the work of Christ on the cross?

The choice is not between evangelism-with-Alpha or no evangelism, but rather between presenting a defective gospel or proclaiming the One True Gospel: Jesus Christ crucified in the place of sinners, bearing their punishment and propitiating the wrath of a holy and just God toward them, and His being raised from the dead for their justification.

If we believe in the sovereignty of God in matters of salvation, we should believe Him when He tells us that ‘faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God’ (Romans 10:17). The implication of this is that we should strive to present God’s word accurately, not substitute our own ideas in its place. As Paul counsels Timothy:

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15, NKJV)

We preach ‘Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God’. It should be unthinkable for us to seek to lessen the offence of this message to make it more palatable to fleshy ears.

If everyone is going to subject preachers and teachers to such scrutiny, who would be willing to teach?

Remember again the words of James inspired by the Holy Spirit: ‘let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment’ (James 3:1).

Might it not be possible that the Church would be much healthier if many of the people currently teaching in her were to stop – at least until they had studied such that they are able rightly to divide the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15)?

My father writes:

I suppose it is partly in recognition of my own inadequacy in proclaiming the gospel that I am unwilling to be too hard on others to attempt the same task. I hope that if someone hears enough of my sermons they will be able fairly assess my teaching but I would hate to be judged on the content of one sermon where I may have skipped quickly over an important doctrine as my intention at that moment was to focus on something else. We all need to be led by the Spirit of God when we discharge the sacred trust of communicating the Good News of Salvation.

I should think that every Bible teacher has the same concerns. I’m just some random blogger, yet every time I post I do so with a non-trivial degree of fear and trembling, lest I inadvertently lead someone astray. (One of the reasons that I value comments is that it gives people an opportunity to correct me if I stray off-course.) How very heavy is the responsibility borne by an elder of the Church.

Nevertheless, the required standard is not perfect doctrine. If it were, then no preacher would ever dare open his mouth. (Of course, only a foolish man would attempt to teach on a matter for which he knew he was ill-equipped!) No, it is to be able to divide the word of truth rightly. (C.F.W. Walther’s book, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, might prove helpful.)

As we saw at the beginning, the qualification for an elder of the Church is that he be ‘skilful in teaching’ (1 Timothy 3:2) and thus able to ‘convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching’ (2 Timothy 4:2).

Perhaps we should therefore ask, ‘How should a generally qualified teacher respond to appropriate Biblical correction when he is shown to have erred?’

The obvious Scriptural pattern is Apollos, and he seems to be exemplary for this.

Apollos was ‘mighty in the Scriptures’ and ‘taught accurately the things of the Lord’, yet his teaching was not quite all that it could be, because he knew only of the baptism of John:

Now a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures, came to Ephesus. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John. So he began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. (Acts 18:24–26, NKJV)

We infer that he accepted the explanation that Aquila and Pricilla gave him, and he is mentioned eight times in Paul’s epistles – often in the same breath as Paul himself and Peter. The Acts 18 account itself goes on to tell us the benefit of his subsequent ministry:

And when he desired to cross to Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him; and when he arrived, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace; for he vigorously refuted the Jews publicly, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ. (Acts 18:27–28 NKJ)

And so we see that a true teacher, called to his ministry by God and suitably equipped by Him so that he is ‘mighty in the Scriptures’, takes upon himself correction when it is offered.

Concluding thoughts: in praise of discernment ministries

It is a noble for any believer to compare to the word of God whatever he or she is taught in the name of God.

There are those (I do not count myself among them) who have devoted themselves to warning the Church against false teachers and their doctrine. These watchmen mostly (I admit that there are some dishonourable exceptions) have done so because, like Pricilla and Aquila, they love the Truth who has set them free, and wish others to hear His Gospel accurately proclaimed.

I especially admire those who are able to correct false teaching and use it as an occasion to preach the Law lawfully (1 Timothy 1:8) and proclaim the true Gospel in all its sweetness. This, too, is a noble calling.

These brothers and sisters receive little honour for their work, but rather much criticism and abuse. I would that their ministry were not needed. But the Church should give thanks for them, for in these dangerous latter times they perform an essential function in the body of Christ. Let us therefore bear them up before the Lord in our prayers, seeking that He might encourage them and open their mouths boldly to make known the mystery of the Gospel (cf. Ephesians 6:19).

In the light of the mercies of Christ, let us therefore be speaking ‘the truth to one another in love, that we may grow up in all things into Him who is the head – Christ – from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.’ (Ephesians 4:15–16, NKJV)

And ‘Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you.’ (Ephesians 4:29-32, NKJ)

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Every Bible teacher and every Christian blogger has proclaimed some error. And every one of us, teacher or not, has some wrong idea about God, has shared that notion with another. Nicky Gumbel is thus no worse than any of us. Let us all repent of our errors as they are uncovered.

And let us hear those wonderful, comforting words from the end of that last passage, proclaimed to all who believe: ‘God in Christ forgave you’ (v. 32).

S.D.G.

Postscript: further reading

15 thoughts on “A closer look at the Alpha Course and whether it is permissible to judge what other Christians teach

  1. Your comments are most helpful and your blog excellent, thoughtful, challenging and strengthening. I am most usually convicted of the flippancy of my own handling of people lives and the things I say to them.

    Here’s my problem and I invite your counsel. The gospel, it’s faithful and full proclamation, it’s power and it’s import to the saving of a soul is an urgent matter. I am beginning to understand why some so ferociously defend it. I have deferred, out of my own weakness, to my fellow brothers and his weakness. I appreciate what your father said in regards to taking a sermon and critiquing it. I too have said that if all twenty years of my sermons were to be examined I would surely be found to be a heretic. I of course am grieved that I have led people astray by wrong teaching and have been open to correction and immediately implemented it, some times with tears, to the saints who look to me for sound instruction. Having said that…

    The New Testament was written in the context of the church as a closed unit. That is the apostles had authority over what was being taught and exercised it. The council of Jerusalem is a perfect example of how a doctrinal drift is to be addressed and the correction was surely made throughout the whole church. The letters which corrected doctrinal errors were written to the ‘city church’ or the ‘regional church’ and had the effect of correcting regional error, like for instance an error in the church in United States or at the Isle of Man.

    Historically the great councils of old corrected doctrine. The council of Trent and Dort and Nicea etc. corrected errors in the church. Leaders from around the ‘world’ assembled and defended with vigor their views of important doctrines to the benefit of all the church.

    Post reformation when the church became horribly and finally divided, we solved doctrinal problems a different way. Instead of with Paul pleading “with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. (1 Cor 1:10 NKJV) and realizing the corporate import of staying so perfectly joined, we solved our doctrinal problems by further division so that now, some 500 years later, we have over 25,000 versions of our faith (denominations) mostly divided doctrinally. God help us.

    Enter the “watchmen”. For all the positive things you say about them which I agree with there is a startling error that I believe you neglect and this may have to do as well with the Alpha, et al discussions. It is the error of context. That is, does ‘any saint’ have Biblical, spiritual jurisdiction over ‘any saint’? This has been a question which has haunted me. I’ll give you an example, suppose some ‘famous’ brother falls into sin. The ‘watchmen” alerts his following to this saints sin. The ‘watchman’ demands full accounting etc. Here’s the question: Does the watchman have jurisdiction according to the scriptures? What if the fallen ‘famous’ brother is corrected by his elders and he repents his sin and is restored by his elders? Isn’t his the Biblical way? Now consider doctrine: Suppose a group believes something which I believe is surely ‘no gospel at all’. Do I have a responsibility to correct them. That is should I be going to all 25,000 groups and setting them straight like we do with our pet projects (like Warren in your case). And surely wouldn’t you think this is a serious dilemma?

    It’s hard to know what to do and how to do it. If you asked me what a reformation would look like, it would be to reunite the church, to submit to one another, to our Lord Jesus and to his precious word. Bring back the councils! :-)

    Thanks again…
    Bobby

    • Dear Bobby,
      As one of those dreaded ‘watchmen’, are you referring to the ‘Council of Trent’ [1545-1564], where Rome restated all its heresies and anathematised any who might disagree, in your citing of “the great councils of old (that) corrected doctrine” or had you some other Council of Trent in mind?
      With all good wishes in Christ
      Cecil Andrews
      ‘Take Heed’ Ministries
      Northern Ireland
      http://www.takeheed.net

      • There is no question that some councils resulted in errors that it took other councils to correct. They surely did. And today, if councils were held, we would emerge with error also. And clarity. And truth. And we would have done it together as a body. And that was my point.

        • Dear Bobby,
          My question to you about the Council of Trent was designed really to indicate that that council didn’t ‘result’ in error but rather ‘enthroned’ error, namely the false gospel that is at the heart of the cult of Roman Catholicism, a system that as Ken rightly said placed Rome’s anathema upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
          In many cases where watchmen such as myself and Ken ‘sound the trumpet’ it is not so much that we are warning about ‘errant brothers’ but rather we are warning of ‘wolves in sheeps clothing’ that the Lord tells us twice in Matthew 7:15-20 we shall “know”.
          Overall we are seeking to protect ‘the sheep’ from such predatory ‘wolves’ who are not ‘saints’, rather than in any way attemtping to usurp the duty of the oversight of a local assembly or fellowship to call to account members who have fallen into personal sin. Personal sin is I believe a very different issue from the spreading of and infecting of people with false teaching which is the main area that ‘watchmen’ seek to address.
          I hope this helps to in some way clarify the role of ‘watchmen’ as we see it.

    • Here’s my problem and I invite your counsel. The gospel, it’s faithful and full proclamation, it’s power and it’s import to the saving of a soul is an urgent matter. I am beginning to understand why some so ferociously defend it. I have deferred, out of my own weakness, to my fellow brothers and his weakness. I appreciate what your father said in regards to taking a sermon and critiquing it. I too have said that if all twenty years of my sermons were to be examined I would surely be found to be a heretic.

      I shudder to think of some of the things I have taught in the past. Nevertheless, Christ died even for those sins of mine. And even for the errors I am still making. May He in His mercy keep me from leading any of His flock astray.

      On the topic of being a heretic, I read Harold O.J. Brown’s book on Heresies quite some years back. (It’s a superb book, and I highly recommend it.)

      I came away from the experience severely chastened at the woeful extent of my ignorance, and how easily I might have fallen into so many grave Christological errors.

      I of course am grieved that I have led people astray by wrong teaching and have been open to correction and immediately implemented it, some times with tears, to the saints who look to me for sound instruction. Having said that…

      And He died for those sins too…

      Historically the great councils of old corrected doctrine.

      I find it helpful to think of the Ecumenical Councils (so called because they represented the entire church) of the early church as codifying unambiguously what the historic orthodox church everywhere had always believed.

      This codification was undertaken, as you observe, in response to various errors that arose from time to time. (This is shown very clearly in Brown’s book on Heresies. He enables you to begin to see how Christ uses even heresy to benefit the Church, by helping her better to define and understand orthodoxy.)

      I think it is true to say that every Christological error arose (and was ultimately rebutted) during the first few hundred years of the Church’s life. The various cults of Christianity merely repeat those same errors, albeit often dressed up in fresh clothes.

      Thus, the Councils were extremely valuable at a time when there was confusion about what the Bible really taught.

      Their decrees were not authoritative because they resulted from the whole gathered church, but because they codified the clear and incontrovertible teaching of Scripture. Any who rejected the doctrines of Scripture thus proclaimed were not sheep, for they neither knew the voice of the Shepherd, nor did they follow Him (John 10:4).

      Thus, we disregard any teaching of a council or synod if it contravenes the teaching of Scripture. For we hold to sola scriptura, a doctrine which is, of course, taught by Scripture itself.

      The council of Trent and Dort and Nicea etc. corrected errors in the church. Leaders from around the ‘world’ assembled and defended with vigor their views of important doctrines to the benefit of all the church.

      I see that my friends have already reacted to your mention of the Council of Trent in conjunction with the phrase ‘corrected errors’ :-)

      As Ken mentioned, this council is where the Church of Rome anathematized the Gospel, thereby declaring itself outside the bounds of the historic orthodox Christian faith.

      As examples of its errors, here are two of its canons:

      CANON XI.-If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema.

      CANON XII.-If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema.

      The Council of Trent

      As Cecil said, Rome condemned herself by ‘enthroning error’ that was diametrically opposed to the true Gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ’s righteousness alone.

      Trent taught doctrine that was contrary to the revealed Word of God, and thus we disregard it.

      Post reformation when the church became horribly and finally divided, we solved doctrinal problems a different way. Instead of with Paul pleading “with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. (1 Cor 1:10 NKJV) and realizing the corporate import of staying so perfectly joined, we solved our doctrinal problems by further division so that now, some 500 years later, we have over 25,000 versions of our faith (denominations) mostly divided doctrinally. God help us.

      The early Councils enabled the Church to state unambiguously what it had always understood the Scriptures to teach with regard to the fundamentals of the faith.

      Much (not all) of the error in today’s visible church arises not because these fundamentals are unknown, nor because Scripture is unclear concerning them, but because they are rejected by many who nevertheless claim to be of Christ.

      A new council could not correct this problem, because it arises not from confusion or uncertainty over the teaching of Scripture, but from unbelief. Men refuse to receive the clear teaching of the Bible because they do not like what it says.

      Now, the visible church has always been an admixture of unbeliever and believer, error and truth – as indeed Christ taught that she would be (Matthew 13:24–30; 24:24–25). She is as He foretold, and His foreknowledge reassures us that He is sovereign over her. Those hostile to the Word of God (the ‘birds of the air’ – Mark 4:4) have always nested under the shade of the Mustard Tree (Mark 4:30–32), although perhaps many are frightened away when the refining fire of persecution (Isaiah 48:10) presses in hard.

      And so what is manifest now is nothing new. We thus have no cause for despair, even if today’s manifestation of unbelief (25,000 denominations, as you put it) bears a form different from that of times past.

      The whole creation nevertheless groans in pain, and we ourselves with it. As Paul says:

      ‘Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance. (Romans 8:23–25)

      We share in the pain. But we eagerly await deliverance. We long together that true brothers and sisters in the Lord might be one. And, one day, we shall see this accomplished in glory.

      Yet it is a present distress to us that there are many factions in the Church even over matters not of fundamental doctrine. It is not good that we have ceased to be kind to one another, tenderhearted, and ready to forgive.

      How much better it would be if we, who hold steadfastly to the Faith Once Delivered, were to continue to dialog amicably about our distinctives, vigorously seeking to persuade one another of the soundness of our claims from Scripture – all the while listening carefully and with all humility to each other’s exposition, with the expectation that there might be some nuance or understanding uncovered that we had as yet missed.

      Whenever I find frustration arising within myself at the disunity and error that I see, I remind myself that the Church belongs to Christ, and that He is sovereign over her. She is in her present distress because He permits it. And He does so for her good (Romans 8:28).

      I therefore content myself with the realization that these problems are not mine to solve, but the Lord’s. Though I am answerable to Him, and it is incumbent upon me to hear His voice and – with all humility, diligence and longsuffering – to play the part commissioned of me.

      With this reminder that Christ loves His bride, I begin to look around me with new eyes. No longer in despair, but out of wonder that our God is so great that He can bring good even from this chaos. But then, this is the same God who, when the ‘earth was formless and void’ (Genesis 1:2), had but to speak His decrees to usher into existence a creation that He Himself called ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31).

      And now, having begun to walk by faith and not by sight, and thereby beginning to see truly for the first time, I perceive faintly that yes, good can come even out of our present divisions.

      For I see the sovereignty of God proclaimed boldly by one group, and the precious distinction between Law and Gospel treasured publicly by another. While yet a third highly esteems the practical service that we should render to our brethren and neighbours. And thus, though I discern only dimly, seeing ‘men as trees, walking’ (Mark 8:24), I am confident of this very thing: that He who has begun a good work in all the Church will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6). On that day, my sight shall be restored, and I shall see clearly. (Mark 8:25). ‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.’ (1 Corinthins 13:12)

      As I contemplate this present distress, I turn time and again to Ephesians 4. There is the unity of the Spirit, which we are given by virtue of us being of one body and one Spirit in Jesus Christ. This unity we are exhorted to endeavour to keep:

      I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

      There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.

      Ephesians 4:1–6, NKJV

      And then there is the unity of the faith, which arises as the servants of the Word fulfil their appointed ministries:

      And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head – Christ – from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:11–16)

      Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you. (Eph 4:29–32 NKJ)

      I notice that the particular offices mentioned in v. 11 are all connected directly with the Word of God. We have been given the completed Scriptures through the apostles and the prophets. The evangelists and pastors and teachers continue to proclaim them.

      These ministers, and their ministry, are the gift of God. Thus, both the unity of the Spirit and the unity of the faith are gracious gifts from Him.

      The result of the Word of God going forth through his appointed ministers will eventually be that ‘we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God’. The Ministry of the Word is designed and given by God to bring that about, to protect us from ‘every wind of doctrine’ and the ‘trickery of men’.

      I observe also that the result of the proclamation of the true Word of God (which speaks of the One who is Truth) is that we should be ‘speaking the truth in love’ to one another, that we ‘may grow up in all things into Him who is the head’.

      When we compare what is going on in the visible church with this picture of the centrality of the ministry of the Word, the cause for the present disarray becomes plain. We are disunited, fractious and ineffective because we have abandoned the means God has given by which unity comes: we have forsaken the proper teaching and exposition of the Word to the flock.

      Starving sheep are not being fed by the appointed ministers of the Word: evangelists, pastors and teachers. The sheep are thus easy prey for deception, and every wind of doctrine blows them about. Since they are not being fed the truth, neither are they able to speak it to one another in love. And thus, the Body does not grow into her Head.

      When we understand this, the remedy is clear. We need evangelists and elders and teachers who are ‘skilful in teaching’ (1 Timothy 3:2) and who will rightly divide the Word of Truth. We need those who are able to ‘convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching’ (2 Timothy 4:2). We need those who will shepherd the flock and serve as examples to it (1 Peter 5:2–3).

      Let us pray the Lord, that He may have mercy upon His Church and raise up many such as these.

      When these ministers of the Word fulfil their commission and feed the flock, the sheep will be equipped to ‘withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand’ (Ephesians 6:13). They shall know the One who is Truth, and they shall speak the truth to one another in love.

      The need of the Church is manifest: faithful evangelists and elders, qualified according to Scripture and who proclaim the Word of God ‘in season and out of season’, convincing, rebuking, exhorting, with all longsuffering and teaching. Yet the Church would sooner conform herself to the world than turn to her Bridegroom and His Word, being thus transformed by the renewing of her mind, that she may prove His good and acceptable and perfect will.

      Oh how tragically blind and pathetic she looks, this forlorn and hungry bride! Yet her Groom says to her:

      Ho! Everyone who thirsts,
      Come to the waters;
      And you who have no money,
      Come, buy and eat.
      Yes, come, buy wine and milk
      Without money and without price.

      Why do you spend money for what is not bread,
      And your wages for what does not satisfy?
      Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good,
      And let your soul delight itself in abundance.
      Incline your ear, and come to Me.
      Hear, and your soul shall live;
      And I will make an everlasting covenant with you –
      The sure mercies of David.

      Isaiah 55:1–3

      Let we the Church repent and turn again to her Lord and Master, even He who loves her and gave His life for her! Let her look to Him and His Word, for she is His pearl-without-price. He says of her, ‘I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.’ (Matthew 16:18) He shall most surely ‘sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.’ (Ephesians 5:26–27).

      And so, we are reminded that the true Church is the Lord’s. He is sovereign over her, as indeed He is over all things. He is working all things together for her good, for she loves God and is called according to His purpose.

      We little sheep need not therefore fret, but rather be comforted. For our glorious Saviour is working His purposes through even the great distresses of our latter times – and that for our own good.

      Let us therefore ‘hold fast our confession’ (Hebrews 4:14). Let us be speaking the truth to one another in love. ‘For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.’ (Hebrews 4:15–16)

      One body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism! One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all!

      Enter the “watchmen”. For all the positive things you say about them which I agree with there is a startling error that I believe you neglect and this may have to do as well with the Alpha, et al discussions. It is the error of context. That is, does ‘any saint’ have Biblical, spiritual jurisdiction over ‘any saint’? This has been a question which has haunted me.

      I have am in no position of authority over any other believer, save for my wife.

      But I have been charged with loving my brothers and sisters, as we saw together from 1 John 3. How could I shut up my heart to them?

      And I have been called to ‘speak the truth in love’. And I have the hope that I might by so doing even ‘save a soul from death’:

      Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19–20)

      Given the love that has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, how could I hold from speaking loving truth to brother when I see him err? For a timid and cowardly silence would demonstrate my cold-hearted disregard for him.

      No! I shall speak boldly, even if it pains him for a time, for I would see him saved from death.

      And I have a further duty of love: to alert my brothers and sisters to dangerous false teachers who might otherwise deceive them. This is primarily the responsibility of the elders, of course. But where elders fail, shall we who perceive the danger stand idly by while the wolves plunder the flock? Unthinkable!

      I’ll give you an example, suppose some ‘famous’ brother falls into sin. The ‘watchmen” alerts his following to this saints sin. The ‘watchman’ demands full accounting etc.

      Rather than demand full accounting, the watchman should instead proclaim to him repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Christ.

      Here’s the question: Does the watchman have jurisdiction according to the scriptures?

      The watchman is not his judge, but his loving brother who would see him declared righteous in Christ on that final day when we shall all stand before the Great White Throne.

      What if the fallen ‘famous’ brother is corrected by his elders and he repents his sin and is restored by his elders? Isn’t his the Biblical way?

      Yes, the elders to whom he submits have primary responsibility for his welfare. If only they would do their appointed work!

      Now consider doctrine: Suppose a group believes something which I believe is surely ‘no gospel at all’. Do I have a responsibility to correct them. That is should I be going to all 25,000 groups and setting them straight like we do with our pet projects (like Warren in your case). And surely wouldn’t you think this is a serious dilemma?

      I am reminded of another question: ‘Who is my neighbour?’

      Whom is the Lord giving me the opportunity to love? I shall serve them!

      It’s hard to know what to do and how to do it. If you asked me what a reformation would look like, it would be to reunite the church, to submit to one another, to our Lord Jesus and to his precious word. Bring back the councils!

      I think I have probably covered this ground above :-)

      Pax.

  2. Bobby,
    My friend Cecil is likely trying to help you understand that the Council of Trent placed its anathema upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
    And remember, you said yourself: “The gospel, it’s faithful and full proclamation, it’s power and it’s import to the saving of a soul is an urgent matter.”

    • Ken, Thanks.

      I think I get you guys’ point (some councils blow it, big). Is your implied point though that the current method is valid or Biblical or faithful to koinonia and ecclesia?

      My larger question was: How, in light of a divided church, can we faithfully bring one another to account, especially concerning doctrine? And my concern is that in judging from afar (through long distance shouts blogs, books, magazines, or worse, preaching) we avoid the very thing that the council of Jerusalem (hard to critique that one) did, which is to confront, in relationship and in the context of the church the errant brother in the hopes of their restoration… correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. 2 Tim 2:25-26 (ESV)

      Bobby Capps

  3. Dear Daniel,
    Reposting my ALPHA comments herewith as suggested.
    Readers might be interested to know that in my book ‘Test the Spirits: Volume 1′ 1 of the 3 topics addressed is ‘The Alpha Course’. The following are a few snippets of what I wrote –

    “As we continue to assess Alpha the question must be asked: ‘Does Alpha declare all the counsel of God?’ Are all the vital and crucial elements that make up ‘all the counsel of God’ included in it?… Tim Chapman (an Anglican curate) wrote a helpful article entitled ‘The Alpha Course Examined’… Tim Chapman, in his article, wrote:

    “the penal substitutionary nature of Christ’s atonement is given very little weight – that Christ died not simply in our place but took upon himself the wrath of God against sin. It is skimmed over in the course. This is hardly surprising given that there is an incorrect view of the disease of sin in Alpha; the cure of the cross is similarly misrepresented. We are left with a hollow view of why Jesus had to die at all. Thus the cross ends up being little more than a visual aid, which proves that God is self-sacrificial and loving. The death of Jesus is presented as being an act of love yet without any connection with the reality of God’s holy anger. This is a far cry from the biblical teaching on the atonement.”

    The ‘Jesus’ of Alpha is portrayed more as a ‘Solver of human problems’ rather than as a ‘Saviour from sin’. He comes across like a spiritual ‘Jim’ll fix it’ character rather than ‘The Good Shepherd who gave His life for His sheep’. He is presented as One who rescues people from the consequences of their ‘wrongdoings’ rather than as One who redeems people from the condemnation of their ‘sins’. I think Alpha’s Jesus would appeal to former soccer idol, George Best, with all his alcohol problems, but the Biblical Jesus would not – unless of course the Spirit of God did a dealing with him… – the missing link in Alpha is its failure to address the seriousness of sin. They do not adequately explain the Father’s view of sin. They do not adequately explain the Son’s redemption from sin. They do not adequately explain the Holy Spirit’s conviction of sin… If ‘teaching’ is false then any resultant fruit from that ‘false teaching’ cannot, according to this passage [Matthew 7:15-18] be ‘good’… From the ‘Tree of Alpha’ one can pick a large basket of ‘questionable testimonies’.

    If any of your readers are interested the book can be obtained via the publisher on http://www.twoedgedswordpublications.co.uk/Books/Books.htm and click to download their book catalogue – alternatively I still have some copies available and I can be emailed on takeheed@aol.com By way of interest the other 2 topics addressed in the book relate to C S Lewis and Philip Yancey.

    I also have a number of ALPHA-related articles on my ministry web site on these links http://www.takeheed.net/Index_for_NFTF_articles.htm and http://www.takeheed.net/Index_for_ASSORTED_ARTICLES.htm and there you will find an ALPHA category with links to various articles .

    Finally I also have a DVD of a talk I gave on ALPHA and that too is available from myself through contact on takeheed@aol.com I feel this talk best explains my concerns and it also has a section of video at the end that shows sadly how ALPHA comforts and cocoons sincere Roman Catholics in their false religious system – a real heartbreaking tragedy.

  4. For me , the Alpha publicity video of some years ago (don’t know if it’s still used) sums the Course up with two of the graduates going on the stage to give Christ-less testimonies, devoid of any mention of the Cross or Christ and his soul-cleansing blood. It was all about them and how wonderful they have become to work with. Yuck! Also, I’ve always seen understood becoming a Christian as going on a journey (to the Cross) and not going on a course. Don’t get me started on this one! I can already feel my heartbeat rising and blood beginning to boil already! Oops am I being judgemental?

    • Hi Glenn,

      Good to read your ‘discerning’ post and this identifying of ‘Christ-less’ Alpha testimonies is something that both Tim Chapman in his article and myself in my book and video also draw attention to. Perhaps I could quote a relevant portion from my book –

      ‘Tim Chapman wrote:
      ‘The lack of focus on Jesus is seen very clearly in the testimonies people give – testimonies which Alpha quotes with approval in its literature.’
      Referring to various ‘testimonies’ Tim Chapman continues:
      ‘This is deeply troubling… The focus of his attention is specifically identified as being not the Lord Jesus, not the Cross but the third session “How can I be filled with the Spirit?” Sadly such a testimony is repeated again and again. This is hardly surprising, as guests are made expectant of variously; “physical heat sometimes accompanies the filling of the Spirit and people experience it in their hands or some other part of their bodies”. The experience is described as “glowing all over, liquid heat, burning in my arms when I was not hot”. Still another said “I didn’t want to come to the weekend and I did. But I would call myself a Christian now. I would say that I felt the Holy Spirit. I was feeling I was loved. It was really a tremendous overwhelming feeling of love”. Again what is conspicuous by its absence in so many of these testimonies is any mention of Jesus and his atoning sacrifice on the Cross, which is the heart of the Biblical gospel.’

      When I spoke publicly on Alpha in 2000, I made exactly this same point and I cited several examples. I mentioned the TV presenter Diane Louise Jordan. In the March – July 2000 Alpha News there were three pages devoted to her ‘testimony’. In those three pages there was not one reference to sin, Christ or Calvary. The major influences in her ‘claimed conversion’ were her emotional reaction to a visit to Lourdes and an encounter with an apparition of her dead sister in a hotel room in Argentina.

      Since then, in the March – June 2003 Alpha News in two pages of ‘testimony’ by former female spiritualist Sam Ryan, yet again there was no reference to either sin or Calvary. In the July – October 2003 Alpha News in two pages of ‘testimony’ Leila Bagnall makes no reference to Calvary.

      Disgraced MP, Jonathan Aitken refers to his ‘conversion’ in these terms, as apparently someone was praying for the Holy Spirit to descend on him:
      ‘I obeyed his instructions to stand with hands outstretched at waist height, palms upwards, praying that the Holy Spirit would come… At this point my palms suddenly began to tingle with a strange physical sensation which strengthened until my hands and wrists became hot and uncomfortable as though they were being charged with an electric current. Then I began to cry.’

      Other apparent claimed Alpha converts would include former spice-girl Gerri Halliwell and page three topless model Samantha Fox. The life-styles of these two ladies since their claimed ‘conversions’ would place lots of questions marks over the validity of Alpha’s claim that they ‘came to faith’.

      A ‘convert’ in the TV series – when asked what he had been ‘saved’ from – answered by saying ‘from the way he used to live’. He had embraced a ‘new life-style’ – but had he received ‘eternal life’?

      From the ‘Tree of Alpha’ one can pick a large basket of ‘questionable testimonies’.

  5. Pingback: Repost critiquing the heretical Alpha Course: “ALPHA: New Life or New Lifestyle?”, by Elizabeth McDonald « Christians United Against Apostasy

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