MacGREGOR, Man.—Several years ago, in order to enhance the missions program in our church, we began the process of “adopting” several missionaries in various fields and forms of ministry. By means of reports, Skype, and occasional visits, our praying became more focused.
A few weeks ago we had to pleasure of welcoming Dory and Debbie Richards into our church on a Sunday morning. Dory has served in administration and programming at Inner City Youth Alive in Winnipeg since 2012. He reported that ICYA ministries, such as drop-ins and wilderness camping, bring hope and a future through Christ for youth and their families in the inner city. He requested prayer for healing, retention and hope for the youth, particularly for those involved with the use of crystal meth.
Debbie, who grew up in MacGregor, has been mentoring “teen moms,” a ministry of Youth for Christ in Winnipeg. “These young mothers don’t fit in with the normal youth groups,” Debbie said, “so I show them the love of Christ, helping them to feel loved and valuable.” She helps them grow into their roles of motherhood, caring for and loving their infants. Since she is now moving into a full-time staff position with YFC, she will appreciate prayer and financial support.
Following the morning service, an abundant potluck lunch provided additional opportunities to interact with Dory and Debbie and their daughter Paige. And then a few weeks later a group from the church travelled to Winnipeg to tour the facilities of Inner City Youth Alive and Union Gospel Mission. These personal connections enhance our participation in following the Lord’s exhortation to pray for workers in the spiritual harvest fields.
Does printing a lead article, a news item, or a letter in The Messenger mean that the editors, the Board of Church Ministries, the General Board, or the wider EMC agree with it? Not necessarily.
There can be a misperception that everything printed in an EMC periodical has official EMC approval and agreement. This is not the case.
The Messenger, for instance, publishes lead items that are primarily teaching articles, and these uphold our Statement of Faith. We will not, for example, print articles that deny God’s act of creation, reject Christ’s physical resurrection, say a Christian is just a moral person, or advocate for some contemporary ethical positions.
Certainly editors dialogue as deemed necessary with writers about their lead articles, columns, letters, and news items. Some materials aren’t printed. At times publishing mistakes are made.
However, The Messenger does not print only what editors agree with. Why? It’s a place for community discussion and discernment. A disclaimer is printed in The Messenger: “Views and opinions of writers are their own and do not necessarily represent the position of the Conference or the editors.”
The BCM, which publishes the magazine, recently upheld the disclaimer; it wants the magazine to be a forum for discussion. So do most readers, it seems. When The Messenger was being redesigned, a committee conducted a survey. One result indicated that most respondents wanted The Messenger to deal with controversial matters.
If a reader sends a letter, a personal opinion, is it proper to publish it or not? The BCM has a policy that upholds the letters section as a place for grassroots feedback.
Discussion will happen within these pages. In doing so it’s helpful to move past quick assumptions.
Years ago The Messenger published a news item on a discussion of same-sex identity at CMU. It wasn’t a teaching article, yet a caller asked if the article reflected the EMC position. It did not.
Recently two leaders reported on a seminar at Providence where a person with same-sex attraction, but who upheld heterosexual marriage as the biblical standard, sought to help churches to respond with sensitivity. A reader, who did not carefully read the article, assumed the EMC was supporting same-sex unions and objected. It was not. When I wrote a reply, the reader apologized.
When a writer shared their testimony of moving to an old earth position, some readers thought it was being presented as the EMC position and that the author was advocating for theistic evolution. Not so on two counts. The EMC upholds creation, but does not have an official position on the age of the earth. The writer was a teacher trained to educate by asking questions.
Phillip Cary’s article on hearing from God was printed because its caution was, evidently, valued by SBC’s Leadership Conference planning committee. This did not require total agreement with Cary’s position from SBC, its committee, or the editors.
What is the EMC’s position on hearing from God? There’s an article on the Holy Spirit in our Statement of Faith; and our ministerial decades ago approved a statement on the work and gifts of the Holy Spirit that is neither fully charismatic nor cessationist. What do they say or not say?
If an EMC official were to write in The Messenger on creation, on women in leadership, on same-sex matters, on pacifism (all of which have proven to be challenging topics), on Cary’s article or another matter, would that be “the conference position”? What if it were simply his or her personal opinion?
For an official position in The Messenger, wouldn’t the writer have to say that what is being presented is done so with the support of a board that seeks to reflect the view of the EMC?
Any board’s action in print can be scrutinized by the General Board, which “acts on behalf of the Conference between council meetings” (Constitution, 22). And the General Board is accountable to the Conference Council, the delegates of which come from local churches from B.C. to Southern Ont.
It’s easy to misunderstand. It’s hard to discuss. Let’s do the hard work.
In light of the controversy around Dr. Phillip Cary’s article Hearing From God (Jan. 2018), the Board of Church Ministries asked Kevin Wiebe to adapt his essay from Theodidaktos (July 2016); the full version is available online. This is not a direct response to Dr. Cary’s article, but, amid “many tense relationships and troubled hearts, I humbly offer some thoughts.” More discussion on hearing from God will occur in the next Theodidaktos.
By Pastor Kevin Wiebe
If we as Christians have a kind of spiritual experience, we may wonder whether it is a prompting from the Holy Spirit and how to process that experience. If it was God speaking to us, how do we know it was truly Him? Jesus figuratively describes his disciples as sheep who follow his voice (John 10).
For believers, the question is not whether or not God exists or still leads us today. That much is presupposed. The question is rather how. How does God speak to us today? Only in the Bible? Through the whims of our imagination? If we have some kind of spiritual experience, how do we know if we are hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd, or if we are simply fabricating our own spiritual experience based on subjective personal desires?
Two Sides of the Coin
I used to have a pastor named Peter Fehr that would rarely answer my polarized questions directly. Instead, he would often wisely answer me by offering “two sides of the coin” for me to consider. I would like to follow in footsteps of Pastor Fehr and offer you “two sides of the coin,” or two extremes that I believe are important to avoid as we contemplate this topic together.
One Extreme: Lifeless Religion
One extreme in responding to work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our world is to deny the Spirit’s work altogether. While this extreme will typically acknowledge the Bible as important, the work of the Spirit can be blatantly ignored or totally denied.
In the Bible we see that fear is a typical response to an encounter with God and in some cases this resulted in people distancing themselves from God. In Exodus 20:18-21 we see the Israelites responding to an encounter with God by demanding that Moses should talk to God on their behalf because they were afraid. They made human barriers to keep the Lord at arm’s length. Sometimes we likewise create rules and forms of lifeless religion to help us do the same thing, insulating us from God.
Confuses Relationships with Formulas
What this extreme does is confuse living relationships with concepts and formulas. Instead of worshipping the living God, we end up worshipping systems, rules, and a lifeless religion of our own making. While rituals and religious systems can be tremendously helpful for us in our worship of the Lord, utilizing them to worship God is much different than falling into a worship of the rituals themselves.
If we only know about God without actually knowing and experiencing God, our faith is essentially worthless. Jesus talks about the future day of judgment where people will come to him who only appear to be his disciples (Matt. 7:21-23). His response to these individuals is sobering. He will say, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”
These individuals apparently never had a relationship with Jesus. It seems that it takes more than religion or outward action; it takes a relationship with Jesus, which will require some sort of personal encounter with the Lord.
This Doesn’t Mean
This does not mean that if we become a bit legalistic that we are somehow no longer Christians. Nor does it mean that we are unsaved because we don’t dramatically “hear God’s voice” as claimed by other people.
What this passage does, however, is provide a stark warning against relying on our own religious systems to get us into heaven. It is a warning to people in both extremes to come back to Jesus. We must not settle for a religion that worships rules and formulas—keeping a true relationship with God at bay. But neither should we settle for a religion that worships subjective or even manufactured experiences. Encounters with Jesus are necessary for this relationship, but the nature of that encounter, and the extremes we may see around us, are the point of this discussion.
Another Extreme: Endless Subjectivity
The other extreme is one that has little regard for the truths found in the Bible, and attaches an authoritative, “Thus saith the Lord” to anything one wants. It conflates and confuses one’s individual thoughts or feelings with the very voice of God, leading to endless subjectivity about the will, word, and work of the Holy Spirit.
For people caught in this extreme, the truths of the Bible are often denied in favour of fanciful visions and dreams. Interestingly, this extreme is also prone to idolatry. Rather than worshipping systems and rules, it worships dramatic and emotional experiences in place of the Lord, exchanging objective truth for subjective interpretations of experience.
Consider an example from the world news of 2016 of a man who was touring a South African national park with his church group when they came upon a pride of lions feeding on an impala. He got out of the vehicle and attempted to use the Holy Spirit to miraculously control the wild animals.
He was attacked and was taken to hospital for emergency surgery. He said, “I do not know what came over me…I thought the Lord wanted to use me to show his power over animals.” Obviously he misunderstood, which led to a physical injury, though perhaps his ego may have been hurt more than his body.
In a book called Holy Hunches, Bruce Main writes, “Sincere, pious, churchgoing people have acted on hunches that have brought scores of people destruction and ill will. Hunches have burned innocent people at the stake, sparked crusades, and led to genocide—all justified by someone’s interpretation of God’s calling.”
Because of the great danger of us getting things wrong, but inspired by the possibility of us getting it right, Main refers to listening for nudges of God as a “holy hunch,” a term both hopeful and humble. Main is open to God’s leading but also desires people to be cognizant of the damage that is possible.
It can be dangerous to brazenly declare that we have heard a message from God. This is not a new phenomenon; it also occurred in ancient Israel. Jeremiah 23:38-40 addresses false prophets when it says, “Although you claim, ‘This is a message from the Lord,’ this is what the Lord says: You used the words, ‘This is a message from the Lord,’ even though I told you that you must not claim, ‘This is a message from the Lord.’”
Oracles of severe punishment follow this statement for these false prophets. Just because one thinks that something is from the Lord does not necessarily make it so. Given the danger of misunderstanding spiritual experiences, one would be wise to be careful about how or if we claim something was from God.
All Kinds of Ways
In our response to what we suspect to be an encounter with God, we have the capacity to follow God’s leading to become His hands and feet in the world. There are many examples in the Old and New Testaments of God somehow communicating things to people in all kinds of ways leading to powerful ministry. If we are not careful, however, we could also become conduits of destruction because we let our own ideas get in the way of God’s.
Possible Ways Forward
In an article from The Gospel Coalition, Andrew Wilson offers several practical suggestions for better discerning what is and is not the voice of the Lord. To summarize, Wilson says we must check these experiences against the teaching of the Scriptures, against the character of Jesus as revealed in the Bible, that we should consult with our own spiritual leaders, church communities and on top of that examine the fruit of the experience.
Each of those points could be elaborated upon greatly. Suffice it to say, however, that these measures help prevent believers from being entirely subjective, providing some helpful safeguards against misinterpreting the voice of the Lord, and discerning if something is or is not from God. These measures also encourage believers to actively listen for the voice of God, in our experiences, church tradition and community, and especially in the Scriptures.
Continue Seeking The Lord
So how do we respond to what seems to be an encounter with God? Ignoring it out of fear is not a helpful option. Neither is blindly assuming that all such experiences are actually from God. In reference to 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22, Francis Chan writes in Forgotten God, “Some conservatives may quench the Spirit by ignoring His working, but surely putting unbiblical words into the mouth of God is a form of quenching the Spirit as well.”
I believe that we must live in the tension created by these two extremes: refusing to ignore the authority of the Scripture on the one hand, and on the other hand refusing to ignore the voice of the Good Shepherd when he does, in fact, speak.
For some, moving forward might mean living more humbly, recognizing that God’s will is often drastically different from our own and submitting our experiences to the authority of the Bible. For others moving forward might mean to live more boldly, stepping out in faith when the Holy Spirit leads.
For all believers, this means responding to God’s voice when He calls, however he calls—responding and discerning not just as individuals, but as parts of a larger Christian community. So, by all means, listen for the voice of God both in the Bible and through the “holy hunches” given by the Spirit of God. Be bold, but also be humble that our lives may be truly obedient to the Lord and avoid the idolatry of both extremes.
Kevin Wiebe, BA, is the pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship (Tilbury/Stevenson, Ont.), a member of the BCM, and assistant editor of Theodidaktos, Journal for EMC theology and education.
MACGREGOR, Man.—Want to talk about mental health or how to help struggling young people? Then a workshop on Sat., April 28, co-sponsored by the MacGregor EMC and the EMC Mental Health Initiative 2018, will interest you.
A Mental Health Workshop: Promoting Wellness and Helping Youthwill be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the MacGregor EMC, in MacGregor, Man., 90 minutes west of Winnipeg. The cost for the event is $20 (lunch included). No pre-registration is required.
The morning sessions, to which everyone is welcome, focus on Mental Health For All Ages. Dan Dacombe will speak on Youth and Mental Health Issues, and Peter and Irene Ascough will lead on Soul Care and Your Mental Health. The afternoon sessions, restricted to adults, will focus on Mental Health and Youth. Heidi Dirks will lead a session on Non-Suicidal Self-Injury in Youth and a group discussion will be held on Strategies to Talk to Youth.
This workshop is part of a year-long Mental Health Initiative (MHI) within the Evangelical Mennonite Conference that is focused on promoting mental health. The MHI Committee consists of Peter and Irene Ascough, Irma Janzen, Dan Dacombe, and Heidi Dirks. All are involved in counselling, pastoral, or nursing ministries.
People from no church and all denominations are welcome to attend. For information, call MacGregor EMC at 204-685-2293 or the EMC National Office at 204-326-6401 or see www.macgregoremc.com/events
Note for Church Bulletins
A Mental Health Workshop: Promoting Wellness and Helping Youth will be held on Saturday, April 28, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the MacGregor EMC, in MacGregor, Man., west of Winnipeg. $20 (lunch included). No pre-registration required. Topics include Youth and Mental Health Issues (open to all), Soul Care and Your Mental Health (open to all), Non-Suicidal Self-Injury in Youth (adults only) and a discussion on Strategies to Talk to Youth (adults only). It’s part of a year-long EMC Mental Health Initiative. Everyone welcome. For info, 204-685-2293, 204-326-6401,www.macgregoremc.com/events
A few years ago, advertisements on buses in London, Toronto, and other major cities stated this: THERE’S PROBABLY NO GOD. NOW STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE. I respectfully disagree with the atheist view about God, not the bits about worry and enjoyment. In a two-part series I’ll set out why.
I’ll make some clarifications, then sketch a cumulative case for God based on science, history, and philosophy. Often these get intermingled.
Ways of Knowing
Through intuition—direct awareness—we know some truths without arguments. I simply know (intuit) that I exist, I’m not dreaming, and that my ordinary perceptions are connected to reality (there is a tree outside my window).
We also know by inference. We gather evidence and then use reason. By seeing the empty cookie jar on the counter and cookie crumbs on my son’s shirt, I infer it’s probably true that he ate the cookies! Sherlock Holmes and scientists do this much more carefully.
Special and General Revelation
The God described in the Bible makes Himself known by special revelation and general revelation.
Special revelation includes Scriptures, the Holy Spirit’s personal witness, and the fact of God stepping into physical-space-time history as a human being—Jesus. He confirmed His claims to be God by not staying dead after being killed.
General revelation consists of clues God leaves of Himself in His creation. These clues can be discerned by looking at the world’s awesomeness: gazing at a sunset, enjoying a flower, or using scientific instruments to examine living cells and distant stars.
Proof Versus Evidence
Proofs are limited to formal logic and mathematics. Here we’re concerned with evidence, as in a court of law. Evidence may not provide 100% proof, but can provide a powerful case—enough for reasonable belief.
Collections of Arguments
Cumulative case arguments are collections of arguments that individually may not provide decisive support for a conclusion, but together do. Think of legal arguments. One line of evidence isn’t enough to convict, but several lines can be enough because they accumulate and converge onto the conclusion: guilty! Just as prosecutors and defence lawyers argue for and against a verdict, cumulative case arguments consider pros and cons.
Our cumulative case argument attempts to discern the objective truth (reality) concerning God through evidence and our best ways of knowing. We’ll examine some objections along the way, and we’ll see how the positive reasons for our faith outweigh the objections.
At this point radical post-modernists might object: Reason is socially constructed, so cumulative case arguing is a dead end. My reply: The careful use of reason leads to knowledge of truth. Even critics of reason must assume it to reasonably persuade us of their view!
A Compelling Case
Our cumulative case argument for the existence of the Christian God consists of several arguments. Each argument isn’t 100% conclusive, though some are stronger than others. But, significantly, together they provide a compelling case. As mentioned, this is a sketch. For further investigation, check the recommended reading list.
A Transcendent Cause
This is known as the cosmological argument. Contemporary science (big bang cosmology) tells us the universe began to exist. All matter, energy, space, and time began a finite time ago. Philosophy tells us whatever begins to exist has a cause. It follows logically that the universe has a cause for its beginning.
This implies the cause of the universe is powerful. It caused the universe! It is nonphysical—it caused all physical matter and energy to come into being. And it’s eternal; it’s beyond time because it caused time to begin. Therefore the universe has a powerful, transcendent cause. This clue points, like a partial fingerprint, to God.
Stephen Hawking objects that laws of nature, not God, caused the beginning of the universe. But Hawking is mistaken. Laws of nature describe or base predictions on nature. So if there is no universe—no nature—there would be no laws. Laws can’t be a cause.
The Universe is Dependent
The contingency (dependency) argument goes like this: Everything in the universe is dependent. It can not-be. Infinite contingency isn’t possible. Otherwise there could be nothing. But out of nothing, nothing comes. Therefore something must-be: a ground of being. If this ground of being is personal, it would appropriately be called I AM. Yes, think of the burning bush and Moses.
Objection: This mistakenly thinks the property of a part transfers to the whole. From everything in the universe is contingent, it doesn’t follow the whole universe is contingent.
Reply: This error occurs in some cases, but not all. It depends on the property in question. “Seeing better” doesn’t transfer from one person standing up to better see the football game to all spectators standing up. This would be an error. But here the property of contingency is additive; it transfers from parts to whole. If each cubic centimeter of space in my gas tank is full of gas, then my whole tank is full of gas. If each part of the universe is dependent, then so is the universe.
The universe has features that point to an intelligent designer. The universe’s initial conditions are exquisitely fine-tuned for life. That’s true whether life emerges through some sort of evolutionary process or is subsequently created more directly. This fine-tuning suggests that the previously mentioned powerful and transcendent cause of the universe’s beginning is highly intelligent.
Also, living cells smack of intelligent causation because of their complex machinery. Also, life’s blueprint—DNA’s code—smacks of an intelligent cause. Bill Gates of Microsoft says, “DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software we’ve ever created.” It’s of interest to note that the famous atheist Antony Flew came to believe that a creator God exists because of DNA.
Objection: Some people say there are a near-infinite number of universes, so by chance, not design, we ended up with one that looks designed. Roll the dice long enough, we’ll get by chance a series of, say, 100,000 pairs of sixes. The dice look weighted (designed to get the pairs), but in fact aren’t.
Reply: The multi-verse view hasn’t got much, if any, evidence for it. It also lacks simplicity. It’s simpler to suggest one designing mind than a gazillion universes that also would have intelligent minds.
To be continued. In the meantime, some of you might check out the recommended readings.
Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is the associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College, Otterburne, Man.
Paul Copan, Loving Wisdom
William Lane Craig, On Guard
William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed.
Antony Flew, There is a God
Nabeel Qureshi, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus
Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity
A publication of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference