During the week-or-so-long online conversation now affectionately known as McCoy-gate, and my attempt at a clarifying response here on the blog, I was impressed by the engagement from Danica Newton. Danica brought some calm, but strong, arguments and questions to the table, and did so with grace throughout. It’s my pleasure to present this guest post from her on the issue of online preachers like McCoy and the conversations that sometimes erupt. Danica shows some real vulnerability here as she shares her story, and I’m grateful. Enjoy!
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
In the age of the Internets, every preacher, teacher, and housewife suddenly has a platform upon which to stand and broadcast themselves to the world. Of course, this is not a novel observation. I think we’ve all had the occasional well intentioned ‘in real life’ friend whose activity we’ve hidden from our newsfeed so we wouldn’t have to scroll past fifty, ‘What You Don’t Know About Gluten!’ posts every day.
Social media has also become a platform for a plethora of fundamentalist-sounding voices who wish to evangelize and tout to their theology to the masses. Theo-blogging, ‘booking, and tweeting can be a very good thing, bringing many together to debate and theorize, as the rabbis did in Jesus’ time. But when it bends hyper-dogmatic, it can also be a very bad thing. I’ve seen preachers and teachers, evangelists and theologians, mommies and prophets, cause immeasurable hurt by their well-intentioned tweets and statuses. The thing is, talk to any one of these modern day street preachers, and you would realize that they are fully convinced that they are doing God’s will. They are speaking the truth! They are doing what’s right! They are called!! And who knows, maybe God is using them – after all, my own father, now pushing 25 years as a missionary, was saved in college by a street preacher at a Texas county fair. But what many can’t see, is that even if what they say is somewhat true, they are wielding the truth like a battle axe and leaving a kill count in their wake that would put many a Call of Duty player to shame.
I know this, because I have been there. Let me tell you a little of my story. Growing up a missionary kid, I was quite aware that if there were such thing as a Christian pedigree, I had it. I was saved at a young age. I grew up on a steady diet of Adventures in Odyssey, then graduated to Brio and the NIV Teen Study Bible. I was a member of the student leadership team in my high school youth group. I read Passion and Purity and resolved to “court” rather than “date.” In college, I was part of our church’s discipleship team, and did door-to-door evangelism in the dorms. After marrying, my husband and I led small groups together, and I had a little prayer group that met every Wednesday night at our church.
Up until this point, besides suffering from an over-inflated sense of self, I don’t think I did much harm to the Kingdom of God. Even the awkward experiences involving the Four Spiritual Laws and hung-over college students probably didn’t do much damage, because I could never bring myself to pull the trigger on the kill shot. But trouble walked into my prayer group one night, and set into motion a series of events that would change my life completely.
Trouble, in this case, came in the form of a self-proclaimed prophetess, who completely swept me off my feet with her fantastical visions, authoritative stance, and motherly attitude. I was enamored. I was in love. Seduced by her acceptance and striving for her approval, I began to take her lead in all things Holy Spirit. I honestly wasn’t that hard of a sell, because acting that way appealed to my pride in a major way. I liked the idea that I had an inside track, through prophesy, to the mind of God. I liked the feeling of superiority when we’d pray about the problems in the church. I liked being justified in ostracizing other members of the group who dissented, because we obviously heard from God better, and they had the Jezebel spirit. Or the anti-Christ spirit. Or probably both.
The dysfunction in the prayer group escalated slowly over a year and a half until my mentor came to me and told me, very gravely, that she had heard from God. The leadership in our church were not submitted to the real Apostles and Prophets. They were in rebellion, and had allowed an anti-Christ spirit into the church. If I didn’t leave the church immediately, I would also come under that spirit and miss out on the new season God was preparing for his true followers.
This was the point when my Father gave a little tug and began to reel me back in. I’ve always thought that the parable of the lost sheep was simply about apostasy. Now, I think it also describes every believer’s journey, how we walk and we wander down the road of life, intending to do well and serve our Master. But somehow, we end up straying to the left or the right. God lets us go to a point, then reaches his crook out and leads us back before we get too far into the thorny thicket, or too close to the cliff’s edge.
Like a boat whose anchor is deep on the lagoon’s floor, we drift however the stormy gale takes us … but there comes a point where we can’t drift further … the rope tautens … and the anchor, as the song goes, holds within the veil. In this instance, there was such an instinctive ‘no’ in my heart that I could not follow the woman who, by now, I saw as a mother, out of the church. I even wanted to. But I just couldn’t do it. Something in my spirit held me back. As a result of me not buying into her essentially fundamentalist and divisive moves, she left and completely cut me off. It was as if I no longer existed, and the love she had professed for me and my family (“I love you like my own! No, MORE than my own!”), became ashes and dust.
Devastated and betrayed, I was left to look at everything I had done, with her, in the name of God. And in looking at it, I was deeply ashamed. I had to confess and seek forgiveness from the people I had hurt, and from the pastor I had undermined. I was humiliated. My pride, nurtured over a lifetime, was finally brought low.
So going back to the Internet, to the religiously dogmatic preachers who stand at virtual street corners with microphones in hand, their proclamations don’t seem bold to me anymore, but abrasive. I’m sure they would say that they are standing their fundamentalist ground, that they are speaking the absolute truth, that they are giving a defense of the true Gospel, that they are fulfilling the Great Commission. They have Bible verses to back it all up, and grand theologies to defend. But what they can’t see, in their zeal, is that they, like Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, are jumping in front of Jesus and actually hindering His purposes. Their teachings are causing the little ones who believe in Him to stumble. In exercising their rights, as Paul puts it, they are becoming a stumbling block to the weak.
Like the teachers of the Law before them, they have confidence in being on the right side of the issues. But more and more, their words seem to perpetuate harm and injustice, even as they become defensively entrenched in the face of any questioning or critique. Really, they seem to be driven by power, privilege, and institutional protection instead of concern for those who are often most in need of good news – the powerless. Most of all, with grand claims to gospel truth on their lips, they seem to be devoid of the spirit of the gospel itself – humility, empathy, solidarity, and…love.
Their harsh one-liners seem to be nothing than clanging gongs and clashing cymbals. As I realized while staring my ugly pride in the face…there but by the grace of God go I.
I have set up a little test for myself, so that I don’t stray too far to the edge again. I ask myself, “Are my words producing love? Are they producing joy and peace in my hearers? Are my actions guided by patience and kindness? Can I see goodness coming from what I say and do? Am I doing this and speaking this with gentleness? Do I have self-control?” In short, I ask myself, “Is there fruit?”
Because, here’s the thing – often times, we do have something to say. There has to be freedom in the Body of Christ for its members (especially the mouthpieces), to speak what’s on their hearts and minds. The diversity of this Body that is the Church – men and women; black, white, brown, and beige; conservative and liberal; American, Arabic and Pacific Islander; introverts and extroverts; emotionally driven and stoic – this diversity is what makes us beautiful and it makes us strong. We have got to have the freedom and grace to listen to each other, especially when we are trying to communicate around a topic that elicits emotion or brings correction. The Church has got to be a place where all voices are actually heard.
So I’m not saying here that any one voice should be silenced or not listened to. Instead, I’m saying that, as every good little 90’s nerd knows, with the freedom and power that we have in Christ comes great responsibility. The fruit-test is a mirror we can hold our own words and actions up to, in order to keep ourselves in check. It is also a filter through which we can sift the words of others – if we see the love, if we see the fruit, then we can know that their voices are safe to engage in the conversation.
For by their fruit, you will know them.