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The Spiritual and Practical Importance of Sound Theology

Interview With George O. Wood

Ministers face many challenges to the gospel in today’s secular society. New atheists are vocal in their attack on Christianity. Others are proclaiming a distorted view of the gospel. People in your church may be facing questions by their friends and coworkers. George Paul Wood, executive editor of Enrichment journal, and director of Ministerial Resourcing, interviewed George O. Wood, D.Th.P., general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, to get his thoughts about 21st-century challenges to the gospel and how Assemblies of God ministers can best prepare themselves and their congregations to meet those challenges.

What 21st-century challenges to the gospel do you see the Assemblies of God facing in the coming decade?

WOOD: One benefit of being older is realizing that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The challenges members of my generation faced when we started our ministries in the early 1960s are different from the challenges this generation faces. Back then, Time magazine asked, “Is God Dead?” Now, however, two editors at The Economist have written a book calledGod Is Back. My generation struggled with secularism and the notion that modern culture would banish religion from the public square. This generation struggles with pluralism, in which both religious and nonreligious voices compete for influence.

While the specific nature of the challenges the gospel faces changes from generation to generation, the fact there are challenges and the need for spiritual discernment stay the same. In the New Testament Jesus warned us about “false messiahs and false prophets” (Matthew 24:24). Paul warned us about “false believers” (Galatians 2:4) and “false apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:13), Peter warned us about “false teachers” (2 Peter 2:1), and John warned us about “false prophets” (1 John 4:1). In light of these warnings, every generation of Christians must learn to distinguish between “heterodox teaching” (Gr., heterodidskalei) and “sound instruction” or “godly teaching” (1 Timothy 6:3). John instructs: “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1).

What kinds of “spirits” must we test today?

Some challenges come from outside the church. I am thinking particularly of Islam, atheism, and pluralism. Islam respects Jesus as a virgin-born prophet who will return to earth, but denies that He is God incarnate or that He died and rose again to save us from our sins. Atheism denies that God exists and that we have any need of a Savior. Pluralism teaches that every religion is equally salvific.

Other challenges come from inside the church. In the last decade, there has been a remarkable resurgence of Calvinism among young Christians — the so-called “young, restless, and Reformed.” Calvinism denies that Christ died to save all. At the other end of the spectrum, Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, teaches a hopeful universalism, denying that Christ will leave anyone in hell. The gospel, as we understand it, teaches that Christ died to save all, but that some will go to hell through their own disobedience and lack of faith. Calvinism and universalism are both teachings that distort the gospel by limiting the scope of grace or denying the eternal consequences of unbelief.

Whether the challenges come from outside or inside, Christians have a duty to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3).

Why is it important for Assemblies of God ministers to be able to respond to the challenges posed by these ideas? Should their response be defensive or missional? What lessons can they learn from missionaries about how to effectively preach the gospel and disciple believers?

WOOD: Look at 1 Peter 3:15,16: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”

In this passage, Peter talks about “questions” and “slander.”

Some people have honest questions about Christ and the church. Maybe they were raised in a non-Christian home. Maybe they emigrated from a country where Christianity was not the majority religion. Maybe they were raised in a Christian home, but their education at a public university cast doubts on the faith of their childhood. Whatever the case, they have honest questions.

Peter tells us “to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Peter uses two Greek words in verse 15: apologian and logon. The NIV translates the first word as “answer.” We get the English word apologetics from it. The translation of the second word is reason; it’s the word from which we get logic.

In my pastoral experience, I have found that Christians with an interest in apologetics and logic are far too often more interested in winning arguments than winning people. This is why it is important that we answer questioners “with gentleness and respect.” Answer them with a good, logical apologetic to be sure, but answer them with in a kindly way too. Our posture should always be missional, never defensive.

We always need to have good answers to tough questions, but we also need to be the right kind of answer-givers. Both the content and the tone of our apologetic is very important. And our answers — both what we say and how we say it — need to be consistent. All too often Christians, especially some high profile ones, do not represent the gospel well in the American court of public opinion. And to a certain degree — to the degree that we do not deal with people gently or respectfully — we deserve it. But as we develop a logical, gentle, and respectful apologetic, our fellow citizens will take notice. They will see that we have good answers to their questions.

We stateside pastors can learn a lot from our colleagues who are missionaries in countries that either do not have a Christian heritage or are post-Christian. When missionaries enter countries that do not have a Christian heritage, they cannot assume anyone knows or cares about Jesus Christ. They must earn the right to be heard. How they act toward others earns them the platform from which they can share the gospel. Even though America has a Christian heritage, pastors would do themselves a lot of good if they thought of themselves as missionaries to a culture that neither knows nor cares about Jesus Christ.

What concerns you about the religious knowledge of Christians today? How does the Assemblies of God fit within that concern?

WOOD: On September 28, 2010, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released its “U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey.1” The survey asked 3,412 people “ 32 questions about various aspects of religion: the Bible, Christianity, Judaism, Mormonism, world religions, religion in public life, and atheism and agnosticism.”

The findings left me ambivalent. According to the report, “the three groups that perform best in this survey are atheists and agnostics (who get an average of 20.9 out of 32 questions right), Jews (20.5 questions right on average), and Mormons (20.3 questions right).” On the other hand, “[w]hite evangelical Protestants answer an average of 17.6 religious knowledge questions correctly. Though white evangelicals have lower scores than Jews and atheists/agnostics overall, they do significantly better on questions about the Bible. White evangelicals correctly answer an average of 5.1 out of seven Bible questions.”

The Assemblies of God is nearly 40 percent ethnic minority, so how “white evangelical Protestants” answered the questions is not representative. But from what I can tell, the scores for “black” and “Hispanic” evangelical Protestants were not any better. And while we may answer 5.1 out of seven Bible questions correctly, that means we receive a grade of C- (approximately 72 percent) in our own religion. And our knowledge of other religions and nonreligious ideas gets a grade of D or F.

Here is how I interpret the results of this survey: We Christians know our Bible, but we do not know our culture. We need to become better exegetes not only of Scripture but also of culture. If we want to make a spiritual impact on America, we need to do a better job of equipping those in our churches with biblical answers to pressing cultural questions. Too often we mine the Bible for answers to questions no one is asking. No wonder the culture often thinks Christianity is irrelevant.

In your tenure as pastor of Newport-Mesa Christian Center, you developed a reputation as an outstanding expository preacher. What are your concerns about the dearth of expositional preaching in the contemporary church? How does expositional preaching form people spiritually?

WOOD: I quoted the Pew study in my previous answer. In terms of biblical literacy, evangelical Protestants score a C-. That is a passing grade, but it is nothing to brag about. And based on what I see and hear as I travel around the country, I worry that our grade may slip into D or F territory due to the lack of solid biblical exposition in the pulpit.

Now, please do not misunderstand me. I preached topical sermon series too. You cannot answer your culture’s pressing questions without preaching topically. By the same token, you cannot form people spiritually without a regular diet of expositional preaching and Bible study.

Several years ago I wrote about expository preaching for Enrichment.2 Here are some of the benefits of expository preaching that I wrote about in that article:

First, expository preaching exposes your congregation to the totality of God’s Word. Pastors who only preach topically ride their hobbyhorses into the ground. Think of our focus on the healthy church as modeled in Acts 2:42–47: connect, grow, serve, go, worship. Some pastors love to preach about worship, others enjoy preaching on fellowship, while others preach on discipleship, evangelism, or service. When you listen to those pastors, their topical sermons almost always come back to just one of those purposes. A healthy church needs to hear about all those purposes in a balanced way. The beauty of expository preaching is that Scripture addresses all those purposes. If we preach Scripture systematically, we will preach the purposes systematically.

Such preaching leads to the second benefit of expository preaching: it builds spiritual maturity in your congregation. Spiritual maturity is especially important because Pentecostals and charismatics are prone to promoting faddish doctrines and practices: the prosperity gospel, for example, or top-down authoritarian leadership masking as a recovery of the titles of apostle and prophet. A solid diet of expository preaching helps members of your congregation discern that these fads are “cotton candy” at best and “poison” at worst, neither of which promote nutrition. The Bible is “solid food for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14).

A third benefit of expository preaching is that it deals with issues God wants to deal with, but in His timing. Here is what I wrote in my Enrichment article: “Preaching expositorily gave me great liberty to deal with sensitive matters — the congregation knew I was not personally picking on them when I came to a text that was uncomfortable to them. This was not the preacher’s opinion — it was God’s. The preacher had not singled them out; the passage simply fell open to them that day because that is where the pastor was in his journey through that book in the Bible.”

Let me reiterate: Culturally relevant preaching will include topical preaching. By the same token, the spiritual formation needs of your congregation demand that you preach and teach systematically from the Bible. You and your congregation cannot provide biblical answers to cultural questions if you are not solidly rooted in the Bible itself.

What resources are available that can prepare pastors and congregations to respond to these challenges with biblical theology and apologetics?

WOOD: We live in a time when we “suffer” from a glut of good resources. Seriously, has there ever been a generation of Christians with greater access to schools, books, websites, conferences, magazines, podcasts, digital reference works, and social networks? Absolutely not. The average Christian pastor today has access to more biblical, theological, and apologetic resources than did the apostle Paul, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, or John Wesley. The real challenge is discerning which resources are better than others. Let me offer some suggestions for discerning good from bad.

First, use the resources that the Assemblies of God has developed. The national office vets its resources to make sure they are orthodox, mainstream, and helpful. Our curricular resources strive to be biblically faithful, culturally relevant, and easy to use. Do you read the Pentecostal Evangel? Do you read Enrichment journal? Enrichment is the finest, most respected resource available today for the continuing education of Pentecostal ministers. Do you use AG Healthy Church products? Are you aware of the new books from Influence Resources? Have you checked out the AG.org website, AGTV.ag.org, MinistryDirect.com, and other departmental sites? These resources are chock-full of good stuff. Use it.

Second, have you availed yourself of the educational resources of Assemblies of God colleges, universities, and seminary? Both our national and regional schools, as well as Global University, have ministry programs at the undergraduate and graduate level that can increase your understanding of sound biblical theology and effective, culturally relevant ministry. Some of our schools offer distance-learning options, degree-completion programs, or learning modules that do not require you to sit on campus in a classroom fulltime. These programs are not free, of course, but they are relatively inexpensive. I want to encourage all of our pastors with a Berean level of education to invest in your ministry through ongoing education.

Third, many of our national departments and districts/ministry networks offer conferences or consultant services that will add sharp tools to your ministry toolbox. I am thinking particularly of the Healthy Church Network’s Acts 2 Initiative, the Church Multiplication Network’s church-planting boot camps, Discipleship Ministry’s teacher training program, and annual conferences sponsored by Youth and Children’s ministries. Many of our districts/ministry networks are adding schools of ministry and learning components to their annual district councils, just as the General Council now begins with the Influence Conference. Are you plugged in?

Obviously, the broader Christian community offers excellent resources too. But if you are looking for help in offering solid biblical answers to culturally relevant questions, why not start by availing yourselves of the many resources provided by your own Fellowship?

Rupertus Meldenius, an early 17th-century Lutheran theologian, coined the phrase, “In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, and in all things charity.” How can we tell the difference between essential doctrines and doctrines that show denominational distinctives? And how can we argue lovingly, that is, disagree without being disagreeable?

WOOD: When I was pastor at Newport-Mesa Christian Center, I quoted Meldenius in the New Members Class. I reminded prospective members that there are certain doctrines that draw a line between belief and unbelief. Hebrews 11:6 says, for example: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who diligently seek him.” People who do not believe God exists, or who believe God exists but is indifferent to their spiritual longings, simply cannot be Christian. Some doctrines define and unite all Christians and distinguish them from nonbelievers. The inspiration and authority of the Bible, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, and the Resurrection — these are examples of essential doctrines about which all orthodox Christians agree. They are what C.S. Lewis referred to as “mere Christianity.”

Other doctrines, by contrast, distinguish one Christian denomination from another. For example, like all classical Pentecostal groups, the Assemblies of God believes that baptism in the Holy Spirit is separate from and subsequent to conversion. We also believe that speaking in tongues is the initial physical evidence of Spirit baptism. These two doctrines are Articles 7 and 8 in our Statement of Faith. Now, obviously, we believe these doctrines are true and biblically rooted. We believe Spirit baptism is available to all Christians. And we believe that, among other purposes — such as evangelism, discipleship, and compassion — God has raised up the Assemblies of God to be a worshipping community that reminds the broader Christian community that it is “ ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Zechariah 4:6).

By the same token, however, we are fully aware that Bible-believing orthodox Christians disagree with us on these important doctrines. We may not credential such people for ministry in our Fellowship, but we certainly do not run them out of Christianity altogether. Indeed, through our long-time cooperation with the National Association of Evangelicals and other strategic groups, we help advance the kingdom of God and not just the Assemblies of God. Do we wish these other groups would see things our way? Yes. Of course. Are we going to stop cooperating with them until they come around to our point of view? Absolutely not. We live in a crucial time where the distinction between belief and unbelief is becoming clearer and clearer, and we need to make allies, not enemies, of fellow believers.

You asked about disagreeing without being disagreeable. I long to see that applied within our own Fellowship. I am extremely troubled by some of the online critiques I see where Assemblies of God ministers critique other Assemblies of God ministers. Leading up to this past General Council, I saw personal attacks, sarcasm, and the questioning of sincerity and motivation on both sides of the debate about certain resolutions. I have seen some friends labeled “Pharisees” and others called “liberals” because of the methods they use in their ministries.

Brothers and sisters, this is not the way to love one another or satisfy the heart of Jesus in His prayer request of John 17:21–23. Assemblies of God ministers have been vetted at the district council and General Council levels. Each year they reaffirm their commitment to Pentecostal doctrine and practice. We should not question one another’s sincerity or purity of motivation. We should assume it. And when we find ourselves troubled by what others in our Movement are saying or doing, we should contact them privately, understand what motivates them, offer counsel where we can, cut them slack, and leave the rest to God. If a minister’s doctrine or behaviors do not align with our requirements, then there is an official way of dealing with that minister as provided for in Article X of the General Council Bylaws.

Paul was remarkably flexible about ministry methodology and more concerned with public truth than personal motives. In 1 Corinthians 9:22 he wrote: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” If someone uses a different ministry methodology than you do, ask whether it is working, and if it is, leave that person alone. In Philippians 1:15,18, Paul wrote: “It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. … But what does it matter? The most important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”

We live in tough times. The gospel faces challenges on all sides. We need to keep in-house disagreements in perspective and focus our best efforts on winning the lost rather than beating up other Christians.

In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, and in all things charity. That is good advice for all Christians in every generation.

Note

1. Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, “U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey” Available from: http://pewforum.org/Other-Beliefs-and-Practices/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx. Accessed 27 October 2011.

2. George O. Wood, “How Expository Preaching Helps the Church,” Enrichment 1, no. 3 (1996): 26. Available at: http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/Tools_of_the_Trade/20070928_03_Expo_preaching.cfm. Accessed 27 October 2011.

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