A Second Opinion on that ‘Justification by Tithing’ Sermon

This is the final post in a series responding to a sermon given by a local Purpose Driven pastor. The first examined the astonishing claim that ‘Faith is giving when I don’t have it’. The second corrected a gross misinterpretation of Hebrews 11:4 that taught works righteousness and justification by tithing. The third highlighted from the Gen. 4 account of Cain and Abel’s offerings the contrast between works-righteousness and grace through faith.

Astute readers may have noticed that my previous three posts have all focused on one very small portion of a sermon preached at Living Hope Community Church, here in the sunny* Isle of Man. Could so many fundamental errors really have arisen in such a short segment? Have I been unfair in claiming that the 44 minutes of this alleged sermon on faith ‘achieved the remarkable feat of avoiding any mention of the proper object of Christian faith: Christ, and His life, death and resurrection for sinners’?

Well, my wife of 19 years and partner in crime suggested to me that this sermon was sufficiently notable that it might even be of interest to Chris Rosebrough of the Fighting for the Faith programme on Pirate Christian Radio. His on-air verdict? Well, you’ll have to listen to find out…

The general idea of Fighting for the Faith is to teach people to compare for themselves what’s going on in their churches with Scripture. Think of the Bereans in Acts 17:10–15, who were commended for searching the Scriptures daily to see whether the things that Paul and Silas taught were so.

Each episode of Fighting for the Faith typically concludes with a sermon review. Some of the sermons are good, and some of them bad. Many of the good ones are truly outstanding. As for the less commendable, I think Rosebrough is at his best when he uses them as a foil for teaching sound doctrine, and especially for proclaiming the Gospel (what Christ has done for us) in contradistinction to the Law (what we ought to do).

During four years of Fighting for the Faith, Rosebrough has reviewed many hundreds of sermons. Obviously, he listens to many more than he reviews, picking only those he thinks are especially illustrative of a point he wishes to highlight. To have someone outside your church review your sermon in this way and give an independent biblical analysis is a tremendous opportunity for any preacher, regardless of whether or not the sermon is considered good. To hear commendation is encouraging; to hear a critique, however uncomfortable it might at first seem, enables one to face up to any doctrinal weaknesses and take the appropriate corrective action.

Now, as I’ve already hinted, Chris was kind enough to listen to the sermon on faith that I have been addressing. That sermon was preached on 23 January 2011 by Euan MacRae, a pastor at Living Hope Community Church. Although Rosebrough has heard many similar messages, he said that ‘what’s unique about this one is its lucidity and succinctness’. I agree – MacRae is undoubtedly a very effective communicator. He holds one’s attention, tells entertaining stories, makes his points clearly, and overall comes across as very likeable. What’s problematic is not his manner, but his message.

Rosebrough listened to some other material from Living Hope in his preparation for reviewing MacRae’s sermon. He also decided to review a sermon on the topic of community given on 16 January 2011 by Living Hope’s ‘Lead Pastor’, Jonathan Stanfield.

I believe that Rosebrough has given all the elders of Living Hope a great opportunity to take a step back and objectively evaluate what they are teaching. I pray that they will each embrace that wholeheartedly. Even if the Living Hope elders find that they disagree with some aspects of Rosebrough’s (or my) analysis, it must surely still be beneficial to know how their teaching is being heard and understood by independent outsiders. Such feedback, if cogent, can be a valuable corrective to one’s own blindspots.

Rosebrough’s characterization of Stanfield’s message as ‘salvation through community’ (or words to that effect) might on first hearing seem extreme. But when listening to sermons like these, one has to place oneself in the shoes of someone who has no meaningful knowledge of sound Christian doctrine (clearly the intended audience) and who is therefore going to take away an understanding solely based on the particular message as it is delivered. It is very easy for us to interpret what we think is being meant when we listen to a sermon, hearing everything filtered through our own understanding of what the Bible teaches. But, of course, that is not how someone new to Christianity or without a knowledge of good doctrine hears a sermon. And, all too often, the intended meaning is not the orthodox interpretation that we think we hear, but exactly what has been stated. We must endeavour not to let our orthodoxy and charitable disposition colour our evaluation of what is being taught.

Naturally, I suggest that readers read my three prior articles before listening to Rosebrough’s review of MacRae’s sermon. (There is intentionally very little overlap between what I have written and that review.) Reading Pastor Todd Wilken’s A Listener’s Guide to the Pulpit would also be helpful preparation for both reviews. (Pastor Wilken is the host of the Issues, Etc. radio programme.)

Rosebrough’s review of MacRae’s sermon can be found here:

The review starts at 55 minutes in, but the earlier part of the show establishes a pertinent context and is probably worth your time.

I would suggest listening to the review of MacRae’s sermon before that of Stanfield’s. The latter review assumes much more background and familiarity with Rosebrough’s prior work. In particular, he has been studying the seeker-sensitive movement for many years, and more recently for his PhD. It is Rosebrough’s contention that the philosophical underpinning of that movement is fundamentally fascist – that is, it embraces irrationalism and communitarianism, and is predicated upon the necessity of there being a strong Leader.

‘Fascist’ is obviously (as Rosebrough himself admits) an extremely loaded word – one that absolutely needs explanation so that people do not misunderstand what he is claiming. I therefore very strongly recommend listening to Rosebrough’s lecture on this topic before listening to his review of Stanfield’s sermon. You can find that lecture here:

The lecture rewards the attentive listener who persists through to the end. The first two-thirds to three-quarters might at first seem a little abstract, but the payoff does then come as Rosebrough draws all the elements together.

Once you have heard that lecture, Rosebrough’s review of Stanfield’s sermon will make much more sense. The Stanfield review is available here:

If you are short of time, you can start at about an hour into that episode to jump directly to the review.

* For ‘sunny’, read ‘not at all sunny, but raining all the time’.