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The changing face of Christianity

T

In 1900, 80% of people identifying as Christians worldwide were either

Europeans or North Americans. Today 60% are citizens of Africa, Asia or

Latin America. The implication of this shift was the subject of an article

in 'Newsweek' (16/4/01). Europe is seen as a 'post Christian' society, while

'the events which are shaping 21st century Christianity are taking place in

Africa and Asia.' 'Christianity is no longer a white man's religion,' says

Larry Eskridge of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals.

'It's been claimed by others.'

 

The article makes some interesting observations: 'To millions of Christians

in Africa and Asia words like 'Protestant' and 'Catholic' inspire little or

no sense of identification. According to David R Barrett, co-author of the

World Christian Encyclopaedia, there are now 33,800 different Christian

denominations. 'And the fastest growing are the independents, who have no

ties whatsoever to historic Christianity.'

 

The article shows how Christianity has been adapted to meet the spiritual

needs of different cultures. 'In India the growth is mainly amongst outcasts

who find in Christianity hope and dignity denied them by the rigid caste

system. In China Christianity answers the problems of meaning that Marxism

fails to address. … Africans are embracing Christianity in the face of

massive political, social and economic chaos. Plagued by corrupt regimes,

crushing poverty, pandemic AIDS and genocidal wars, Africans find the church

is the one place they can go to for healing, hope and material assistance

from more fortunate Christians in the West.'

 

The article paints a picture of Christianity, which is less concerned with

doctrine and more concerned with relating faith to the culture of the

countries it is being planted in. This often involves a mixture of

Christianity with the religions of those countries.

 

'In many Indian churches, priests have adopted the dress and rituals of the

Hindu majority. The mass may begin with 'Om,' the sacred sound of the

Vedas. … Vandana Mataji, a Catholic nun, sings bhajans (devotional songs) in

praise of Jesus and of Krishna four times a day, eats strictly vegetarian

and meditates in silence.'

 

'Africans have always recognised a spiritual world within the empirical, and

there is much in tribal religions that makes adaptation to Christianity

easy. But the traditional African worldview also includes witches and

spirits of every kind - especially those of tribal ancestors. All these

presences have power to work good or evil on the living and so must be

placated or warded off through fetishes.'

 

According to 'Newsweek' the fastest growing form of Christianity, especially

in Africa, is Pentecostal faith healing, imported directly from the West.

'When Africans read the Bible or hear it preached, they see that Jesus was a

healer and an exorcist, and controlling evil spirits has always been a

primary function of tribal shamans.' Nearly 6 million Nigerians jammed a

park in Lagos for a healing service conducted by German evangelist Reinhard

Bonkke. 'Every night in cities like Accra, Ghana, thousands of Africans seek

out evening Pentecostal 'prayer camps'. Most are women who can't find

husbands or wives suffering from infertility, but others come because

they've found no job. The diagnosis in every case is associated with tribal

witchcraft. One by one, victims are sent rolling on the floor as freelance

Pentecostal preachers 'deliver' them from evil spirits in the name of

Jesus.'

 

'Africans also embrace Pentecostalism because - again like tribal

religions - it promises material abundance in this life. The best attended

African churches are supported by relatively well off, educated Africans who

do not wish to lose their precarious prosperity.' Michael Okonkwo, founder

and self appointed bishop of the Redeemed Evangelical Mission in Lagos,

says, 'In Africa if I want a car I have to pray to God to give me the money

to pay cash.'

 

What are we to make of this?

 

Firstly to be positive we agree that Christianity is not a white man's

religion - in fact it originated in the Middle East through Jesus, the

Jewish Messiah, and his Jewish disciples. Also the spread of Christianity

world wide is in itself a major sign of fulfilled prophecy, since Jesus told

his disciples to 'go into all the world and preach the Gospel' and said that

the completion of this project would be a sign of his second coming (Matthew

24.14) (NB It needs to be stated that there are large parts of the world -

especially the Islamic countries - where the Christian message is unknown or

very little known).

 

On the other hand we note that Jesus told the parable of the wheat and the

tares (Matthew 13.24-43) in which the good seed sown by God grows alongside

the tares (weeds) sown by his enemy (Satan). Both grow together until the

harvest when they are separated with the wheat being gathered into barns and

the weeds thrown into the fire to be burnt. It is interesting that there is

a form of weed, which grows in Israel, and looks almost identical to wheat,

but contains no nourishment and so is useless for food. Jesus also warned

that 'false prophets and false Messiahs will appear and perform great signs

and miracles to deceive even the elect - if that were possible.' (Matthew

24.24 - see also Matthew 7.15-23).

 

There are three main aspects of this article, which are worth drawing

attention to.

 

1: History / doctrine does not matter

 

Christianity may not be a white man's religion, but it is a faith, which has

an important doctrinal content, based on the Bible. The major issues of that

doctrinal content were fought out in the European Reformation. Today it is

fashionable amongst Christians all over the world to say that the

Reformation does not matter or even was a mistake, because basically all

Christians believe the same thing. This is simply not true.

 

The Reformers were not perfect, but we owe them an enormous debt of

gratitude, because they rediscovered the essential truths of the message

taught by Jesus and the Apostles, based on the teaching of the Bible, not

the traditions of men: that we are sinners who need to be saved from the

judgment of God by repentance and faith in the sacrificial death and

resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the one Mediator between God

and humanity and the blood he shed at the cross was sufficient to bring

forgiveness of sin and eternal life to all who turn in faith to him. This

basic message is denied by Roman Catholicism, which requires the continual

sacrifice of the Mass performed by priests who thereby mediate God to the

people.

 

2: Mixing Christianity with other cultures

 

Accepting that Christianity is not a white man's religion, it is obvious

that Christians from other backgrounds do not have to accept the culture of

white Europeans or Americans. At the same time the Bible clearly teaches

that culture is not a neutral thing spiritually, especially when it is

related to religion. Therefore it is dangerous for Christians to embrace

Hindu worship forms and combine them with Christian ones, or for to seek to

appease ancestral spirits through fetishes.

 

On this subject it needs also to be said that the spiritual decline of the

church in Europe came about through mixing Christianity with pagan religions

in order to make it attractive to the masses (for example the cult of the

Madonna in which Mary replaced the mother goddess of pagan religions as an

object of worship). Despite the gains made by the Reformers in rediscovering

biblical truths, referred to above, many of them failed to liberate the

faith from the shackles of Rome by preserving aspects of compromised

Christianity (for example infant baptism).

 

In the Old Testament the God of Israel constantly distances himself from the

gods of the nations, which are always described as a corrupting influence on

the people of God (see Psalm 115, Isaiah 45.18-25, Jeremiah 2). Jesus said

'I am the way and the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father

except by me' (John 14.6), thereby ruling out any possibility that the

salvation he came to bring could be mingled with other religions. The

Apostles confronted Roman paganism and called people to be separate from its

influences: 'What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are

the temple of the living God. As God has said, 'I will dwell in them and

walk among them. I will be their God and they shall be my people.' Therefore

'Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what

is unclean, and I will receive you.' (2 Corinthians 6.14-7.1. See also Acts

14.8-18, 19.23-41).

 

It can be shown from history and contemporary practice that wherever

Christianity is mixed with other religious influences, the other influence

will become stronger and eventually eliminate the Christian content. This is

not because the power behind the other influence is stronger than the power

behind Christianity, but because the God of the Bible is unique and says, 'I

am the Lord, that is my name; and my glory I will not give to another, nor

my praise to graven images.' (Isaiah 42.8). If there is an attempt to mingle

the worship of the Lord with the worship of other gods or to use other

religious practices (especially anything remotely connected to witchcraft),

the Holy Spirit simply departs and evil spirits take over.

 

The prophetic scriptures indicate that in the end times there will be a

coming together of world religions under the authority of the 'Whore of

Babylon' (Revelation 17.1-6), which will persecute true Christians. It is

most likely that Roman Catholicism allied to apostate Protestantism will

lead this union of world religions. The kind of 'touchy-feely' Christianity

which is being promoted worldwide today and which has little time for the

essential doctrines on which the faith is founded, is a push over in terms

of falling for the spiritual deception behind this movement.

 

It is interesting that the 'Newsweek' article draws attention to the

conflict within Roman Catholicism today between traditionalists who believe

'in the necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ' and those who believe that

'The church cannot disregard the Spirit of God working in other people in

all cultures and religions.' It is likely that the latter view will win out

in this conflict and that the next pope will be chosen because of his

willingness to work for the religious unity of the world.

 

3. The health and wealth bandwagon

 

Recently ITV screened a programme called 'A Question of Miracles' featuring

healing evangelists Benny Hinn and Reinhard Bonnke in action. The programme,

first made in USA and being shown in a number of countries around the world,

made disturbing viewing. I accept that the makers of the programme were

clearly prejudiced against the evangelists and selected their material to

give a negative image of them. However the fact is that despite making

massive claims for their healing powers, they could give no evidence for

verifiable or lasting miraculous cures taking place.

 

The programme showed a rally where Benny Hinn was rebuking cancers, tumours

and lameness in the name of Jesus. However, one woman was seen trying to get

out of her wheelchair for thirty minutes, only to join the rest of the wheel

chair bound who came to the rally and left in the same condition they came

in. 76 miracles were claimed on stage, but 13 weeks later, his team could

only provide 5 names of people who went forward for healing. When these

claims were investigated no medical evidence for healing was found. In fact

one woman died months later of cancer she was supposed to have been healed

from. A number of people who were proclaimed healed in the name of Jesus at

the rally stopped taking their medication and became very ill later. A poor

immigrant couple whose son was dying of a brain tumour gave thousands of

dollars they could not afford to the evangelist on the basis of his claim to

be able to bring healing to their son. The son died and Hinn kept the money.

 

All of this is a far cry from the miracles of the New Testament. When Jesus

and the Apostles performed miracles there was no question that the person

concerned was completely healed. This could not be denied even by their

opponents. After the healing of the lame man in the Temple in Acts 3, the

Apostles were arrested by the Temple guard, but the Sanhedrin were compelled

to let them go by the evidence of the miracle:

 

'Seeing the man who had been healed standing with them, they could say

nothing against it' (Acts 3.14).

 

Miraculous signs followed the preaching of Jesus and the Apostles (Mark

16.17-18), but they were not the point of attraction. In fact Jesus

discouraged crowds from following him to look for signs. Far from seeking a

mass of people who would tag along with his movement for what they could get

out of it, Jesus put off would be followers with a radical call to

commitment even to the point of being willing to lose their lives for his

sake: 'If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself and take up

his cross and follow me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it

and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it' (Matthew 16.24-5). (See

also Matthew 10.16-42, Luke 9.57-62, John 6.60-71). He told his disciples to

give freely as they had received freely (Matthew 10.8). Interestingly in the

Didache, an early Christian manual, it was considered a sign of a false

prophet to ask for money. Also it has to be said that Jesus' miracles

recorded in the New Testament were selective. He did not heal every sick

person in Israel (although everyone who came to him seeking healing was

completely healed). There was a multitude of sick people at the pool of

Bethesda, but Jesus only healed one lame man there (John 5.1-15).

 

Today's healing evangelists appeal to the needs of people offering the sick

a chance to get well through the miraculous powers which are supposed to be

present at their rallies, and promising wealth as a reward from God to those

who donate to their ministries. Since almost everyone in the world would

like to have better health and better living conditions, it is a powerful

appeal. The question however is whether they deliver on their promises.

Clearly something does happen at these rallies, as people respond to the

evangelists by falling on the floor and displaying a variety of physical

manifestations, some of which do appear to bring relief (mostly temporary)

from pains they have previously suffered.

 

The TV programme attributed this to hypnotic suggestion in the lives of

people who have been psychologically prepared to respond in this way before

attending the rallies. This may be so, but Jesus also spoke about wonders

being done in his name by people to whom he will say 'I never knew you;

depart from me, you who practise lawlessness' (Matthew 7.23). He said that

false prophets doing signs and wonders would be a feature of the last days

before his second coming (Matthew 24.24). This will prepare the way for the

man of sin or the Antichrist whose coming will be 'according to the working

of Satan with all power, signs and lying wonders, and with unrighteous

deception among those who perish because they did not receive the love of

the truth, that they might be saved' (2 Thessalonians 2.9-10).

 

What is certain is that all this brings Christianity into disrepute. The

lavish life style of Benny Hinn compared to the poverty of people who give

him money for healings, which do not take place, causes revulsion. Many of

those who are persuaded to part with their money end up disillusioned when

the miracles fail to occur and reject the whole Christian message. It is

also clear that anti Christian forces are using the abuses of these

preachers to attack Christianity in general and as an excuse to propose laws

restricting the freedom of all Christians. On a recent trip to Ukraine I met

a believing Christian from Minsk in Belarus who told me how the freedom of

religion, which had been won after the fall of the Soviet Union, is now

being gradually lost through new laws the government has brought in under

pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church. The main reason for these laws

coming in is a reaction against the multitude of Christian groups,

especially hyper charismatic groups from the USA, which flooded the country

after the restrictions of Communism were lifted. He told me how the police

attended a meeting held by a 'prosperity preacher', then called him to the

police station to tell him that what he was teaching was not in the Bible.

Apparently the successors of the KGB are more knowledgeable of the Christian

message than the preachers! (I have produced a tape about this subject

available for £3 including postage).

 

Conclusion

 

Jesus told his followers to 'Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate

and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in

by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way that leads to

life and there are few who find it' (Matthew 7.13-14). Despite all the

claims of worldwide revival and the statistics of huge growth in the

'Newsweek' article, the authentic message of Jesus is not much heard,

especially in the public places of our world. He is calling us to repentance

and faith in the one final sacrifice he made for our sins. To those who

respond he offers forgiveness of sins and eternal life, with difficulties

and persecutions along the way, but with the assurance of his presence and

help to guide us.

 

For the record I do accept that genuine miracles do happen today, generally

within the context of a believing congregation (James 5.13-18) and as a sign

following the preaching of the Gospel (Mark 16.15-18). However in my

experience they are much less frequent than most charismatic Christians

claim they are! Most Christians I know who have had serious illnesses do not

recover from them or if they do recover it is as a result of medical

treatment. In fact all of us are going to die one day unless the Lord comes

first. To say as some healing evangelists that sickness is the result of

unbelief is to add false guilt to the burden the sick carry because of their

illness. The obsession with healing and miracles in many Christian circles

today is in my opinion a diversion from the clear call in the Gospel to

preach the message of salvation and forgiveness of sin through the death and

resurrection of the Lord Jesus and to leave the results to God.

 

For further information on Benny Hinn, write in for the booklet 'Benny

Hinn - unmasked'.

T