From the November 2009 E-Block.
We now begin a series under the title of "Popular Pastors." Like the Prosperity Preachers series, the intent is to check out and comment on the big-name authors who are having so much influence on our Christian lives and worldview; but unlike that series, we’re not going in checking for the possibility of heresy, though we are on the lookout (as we usually are) for any problems.
For starters, we’ve picked "America's Pastor" as our subject – Charles Stanley, the head on In Touch Ministries and pastor of First Baptist Atlanta for nearly 40 years now. He’s also the author of dozens of books, but given the constraints of time, we’ve had a look at only five. We’ll list those shortly.
I’ll begin with a summation of positives. Stanley is certainly gifted at explaining points, especially through the use of analogy. His stress on obedience and faith in God is faultless – Stanley has well recognized that Christianity provides the only anchor for a consistent and sound worldview. I believe Stanley is a fairly earnest expositor who truly wants to help people become better Christians.
But…? Of course there’s a but, or else we’d end this right here.
In truth, up until now I had read very little of Stanley’s books, and seen less than an hour of his preaching over the past two decades. I came to these books expecting to be disappointed to some extent: I thought the teaching would be as thick as water, suitable indeed for young Christians before moving on to meat.
I ended up far, far more disappointed than that. I found not water, but what might be aptly described as Osteen-Meyer Kool-Aid.
No, Stanley does not teach anything that might be misconstrued for Word-Faith teaching. However, nearly everything else I found problematic in Osteen and Meyer was present also in Stanley, albeit in much milder forms in some cases. This was surprising, even shocking to me, though perhaps it should not have been – it would well explain Stanley’s appeal as a preacher and author.
Before we begin with the critique, let us note that it is of no moment that Stanley is the head of a major church and of a popular ministry. So likewise Osteen and Jakes head large churches, and Meyer a major ministry (which actually takes in more than In Touch, sad to say). Status of this sort is no barrier to error – and I discovered much the same critiques of Stanley (that I came up with on my own) elsewhere after my reading and analysis was done.
For those who have not subscribed until more recently, it will not be necessary to read our earlier articles on Osteen, Meyer and Jakes to understand what we offer here, although it will make our critique of Stanley more intelligible.
Our five books by Stanley for examination:
In Step With God [ISP]
Finding Peace [FP]
God Has a Plan for Your Life [GPL]
The Reason for My Hope [RMH]
Finding Peace [FP]
Problem #1: The Familiarity Factor
The most serious problem we find in Stanley’s teachings is not an uncommon one in today’s church, and it is something we have repeatedly noted in other teachers. Put simply, Stanley regards God in a very overfamiliar way – not quite to the extent of seeing Jesus as some sort of "fishing buddy" (as in The Shack) but badly enough.
Briefly, we have noted that this concept of "intimacy" and familiarity with God is rooted in modern, Western individualism. The whole paradigm of a "personal relationship" with Jesus, so likewise: People of the Biblical world did not "get to know" each other as people in such intimate ways, save on very rare occasions, and the view of God in the Bible is that of an ancient patron – not quite the remote disinterested deity of deism, but also not the subject of what we’d call a "personal relationship" in modern terms.
I could offer innumerable references in which Stanley speaks of an [ISG ix] "intimate and loving relationship with the Savior" or some other such far-too-personal language, but rather than belabor this point with repeated references, I’d like to note that Stanley seems to erroneously view the matter in terms of two great extremes. This is exemplified by ISG viii, where he says: "[Moses] wanted to know God on an intimate level – something much deeper than just realizing he exists."
So there is no possibility between "intimate level" and "just realizing he exists"? What of something more rational, less familiar – such as would be exemplified by God as an ancient suzerain (Old Testament) or patron (New Testament)? In the same way, at RMH 41, Stanley suggests that we must view God as either a harsh judge or as an object of modern, sentimental love and a source of security and emotional fulfillment. There is no in-between.
Stanley offers little to support his belief in God as an "intimate" relationship subject. At RMH 10, he records an experience in which he was told to envision his own father (a harsh person who had denigrated him) picking him up and holding him. As a result, he had an emotional epiphany in which he "felt emotionally that God loved me". Epistemically, we may as well accept Joseph Smith’s First Vision. At worst it appears that Stanley is imagining God to be the father he never had but wished for.
At LEL 48, Stanley provides the one and only exegetical argument for his ultra-intimate view of God: He notes that God being described as "Father" appears 245 times in New Testament, and supposes that this is meant to reveal God as "a loving, personal, heavenly Father who is profoundly interested in the details of our lives" (as opposed to the other extreme of God as a "transcendent force somewhere in the universe"). But this neglects the contextual facts that 1) ancient fathers were rarely "profoundly interested in the details" of their childrens’ lives – this is a modern conception of family; 2) the title "Father" was taken by secular leaders (such as the Caesars, and like George Washington as "father of our country") to indicate far less intimate and far more authoritarian relationships.
If I seem to be making too much of this, allow me to explain something. My concern in matters such as these is a simple one. I believe based on a contextual study of the Bible that Stanley’s idea of knowing God "intimately" is an anachronism – and that such teachings give young Christians a false assurance that God will be there to be a personal psychologist or discussion partner. Some (as I think is the case with Stanley himself) in order to maintain this belief, I would say are actually constructing a false image of God with which they maintain a fictitious relationship – in the manner of the so-called "imaginary friend" some atheists claim Christians believe in.
I wish to be clear that I do not believe such a belief endangers the salvation of someone like Stanley – though it is a recipe for cognitive dissonance, especially for those who are not able to maintain the illusion as well as Stanley can. I also wish to be clear that I am not saying God is incapable of the sort of "personal relationship" Stanley describes. Rather, the point is that this is simply an anachronistic template, designed to suit unique, modern psychological "needs" – and thus has no grounding in Scripture (which itself is wrongly interpreted at times to support this view).
On a related note, Stanley has also been criticized for having a too heavy emphasis on self-esteem. And indeed, I did find many statements like ISG 195, "I want to reassure you that from God's perspective, you are somebody." Statements like these would also be foreign to the social perspective of the Biblical world, in which people garnered their identity from the groups of which they were members. (See article here.)
Problem #2: Conversations with God
It is not for no reason that I have placed this article in this issue after the one on John Bevere’s tendency to have "conversations with God." In that and past issues, I have commented on the epistemic nightmare that accompanies such claims. Teachers like Bevere and Meyer claim to practically have ongoing dialogues with God, and do so without any greater validation than a Mormon might have from a "burning in the bosom." Stanley is not quite that extreme – he does not envision God speaking him as frequently as Meyer or Bevere, but the problem here is not quantity, but rather quality: He offers little more epistemic basis to think God speaks to him than Meyer or Bevere does – and would probably be no more willing to submit himself to a "Deuteronomic Test".
The key questions:
How do we know when God is speaking? Stanley regrettably offers less than even Meyer did in terms of figuring out whether one is hearing God’s voice, or one’s own imagination. We have noted elsewhere that unless one is a prophet, the most that ought to be expected of the Holy Spirit in these terms is a function much like that of a conscience. Stanley acknowledges this [ISG 43] as a function but goes farther, occasionally referring to God speaking to him as though in an audible voice, but more frequently speaking of the communication in terms of him "sensing" that the Spirit was telling him something.
In terms of an objective measure, Stanley offers nothing, and what little he offers is dangerous. At ISG 44 he says, "...there should be a warmth burning inside us that reminds us of His intimate care." The semblance to the Mormon "burning in the bosom" is frightening – and no more epistemically valid.
At ISG 98, Stanley responds to the skeptic who thinks he is imagining God communicating with him: "...I know this person is missing something absolutely awesome – a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ." In essence, Stanley doesn't answer the question: He circularly appeals to his experience as validation of his experience. While we are hardly sympathetic to skeptics here, as readers well know, the question deserves a better answer than, "I know because I know."
But that is indeed all we get. At ISG 130, Stanley speaks of discerning God's voice: "If you seek Him, the Lord will give you the wisdom to make the right decision." We might note that the same principle was followed by Joseph Smith when he considered James 1:5. To the person who may "question whether it is God or your own thoughts," Stanley does not counsel objective tests, but rather says, "let go and let Him guide you." Isn’t this exactly what the cults advise us to do?
Advice offered at GPL 116is little more useful:
"You may think about a certain job and decide that there is no way you can do it, but God has placed His dream within your heart. Over time, and as you pray about it, begin to imagine what it would be like to have that certain position. This is when you actually realize that God is leading, and if you will follow Him, you will experience a great blessing."
The epistemology here is a recipe for disaster as well: In essence, the validation that God is speaking is our own internal realization that God is speaking. How, again, is this any better than the Mormon "burning in the bosom"? Stanley may say that the "great blessing" we receive is a validation, but the problem there would be that he also (see below) adheres to a "parking space" theology that manages to find validation even in failure.
RMH 112-3 refers to a "sense of enthusiasm and eager desire" or a "sense of foreboding, danger, caution, or need for silence" as indications of what God wants us to do. LEL 12 says that God can use a "restless spirit" to move us – "something you sense but cannot quite identify." Once again, the measure is not objective and external, as was the test of prophets, but subjective and internal. Validation is accomplished by ourselves, and also under the circular assumption that we have already heard God’s voice [LEL 46]: "The more frequently you spend time with the Lord, the more familiar His voice becomes. It’s like a cloud clearing from your mind. You know God is speaking." But how does this avoid the trap of being a matter of us convincing ourselves that we are hearing God speaking? This, again, is why Deuteronomy recommended an objective test of prophecy – not an internal witness.
How often does God speak to us? As noted, Stanley doesn’t assert that we will have ongoing dialogues the way Bevere claims to; we will not hear God's voice "every waking moment," he says, but "when we need to hear what He has to say." [ISG 44] But how often is that?
It appears that Stanley finds himself "needing" to hear what God has to say not just in important matters, but in pedantic, trivial ones -- and so contradicts himself. The example that had me most shaking my head was GPL 86-8, in which Stanley says that God told him to eat chicken soup for a cold, then later told him to see a doctor. This advice helped him recover in time to preach. In this I am reminded of Joyce Meyer claiming that God told her to open her eyes during sexual intercourse with her husband, rather than keeping them closed. Is God really going to rhetorically ask us where we go to find a can of chicken soup? It is not, again, that He is incapable, or that He is the remote deity of deism. It is, rather, like supposing that the President of the United States has no dignity of office, such that we should feel free to call the White House to ask when we ought to put out our garbage. Stanley’s perception of God in such overfamiliar terms is inadvertantly insulting, and the product of little more than modern perceptions.
Despite his "not every waking moment" comment, however, in GPL 105, Stanley contradicts himself by saying that "at every turn in our lives, [God] is present, leading, guiding, and providing for us." At RMH 90 he says that God wants to communicate with us "on a daily basis," which is apparently "as often as we need to hear from Him," even several times a day. At RMH 112-3 he says, "You can never ask too many times of the Holy Spirit, ‘Should I do this? Yes or no.’"
It seems that on the balance, Stanley’s idea of when God will speak to us in some way is closer to Bevere’s model than it ought to be.
The inadequacies of Stanley’s approach to his "conversations with God" may be illustrated by how he made use of these "conversations" in decision-making. At 11-12 ISG, regarding the hiring of a person at his church, Stanley notes that this person was recommended by another pastor, and that the rest of Stanley’s staff agreed that the person was right for the job. But Stanley tells us: "...I sensed God's Spirit warning me not to move forward by hiring him." How? He had a "deep, inner rustling that I believed was from God..."
The semblance of this event to Bevere’s story of how his lead pastor told him to cancel cell groups is quite disturbing. The same sort of questions arise: Why was Stanley the only one to get this "deep, inner rustling" and why was it not given to the rest of his staff and to the one who recommended this worker? Why is it that the fact that it came only to Stanley did not raise questions in his mind about whether he indeed was hearing from God?
Stanley would likely note, as he does in ISG, that he ended up having to fire the man a year later. But he offers no specifics, which leads to the obvious question of whether Stanley biased the outcome: Did that "deep inner rustling" which he imagined he had cause him to somehow undermine or discourage the employee, or to overstate evidence that was used to terminate him? Is what he did really any better than what was done by Bevere’s lead pastor?
The one account that comes closest to being a "prophet test" from Stanley is one he repeats in several books, including RMH 67-9. As pastor at a smaller church in Florida, Stanley had received an impression that he was to move to a new position sometime soon. He asked when, and then, according to Stanley, "it seemed as if a movie screen appeared" and a word – the name of a month -- appeared on it "before my eyes". After this, recruiters from First Baptist Atlanta identified Stanley as the only person that was placed before them for an opening at their church, and Stanley ended up moving there – in September. True prophecy? Perhaps. Or perhaps it is self-fulfilling. As we note here here even Joseph Smith was capable of such predictions. It is simply not detailed enough, and not free enough of Stanley’s own ability to influence the outcome, to be validated as a true word from God.
One final telling indicator that Stanley is not really "having conversations with God" is that he recommends at RMH 112-3 that the believer direct questions to God which can be answered "yes" or "no" because it is "easier to receive the direction of the Holy Spirit" that way. Can the Spirit not speak in complete sentences? It is hard to escape the conclusion that Stanley recommends a restriction to "yes or no" because it lessens the chance that the believer will objectively question whether they are speaking to God or their own imagination. Stanley certainly should be more sensitive to this as a problem, as he admits that we can deceive ourselves readily (e.g., at GPL 44 he tells the story of woman convinced it was God’s will that’s she buy a car, who ended up in serious financial trouble because of the purchase).
Of course, it must also be asked: If Stanley has his ear to God’s mouth at any time, why isn’t Stanley being corrected for his erroneous exegesis of some Biblical passages? The question is a serious one: I have asked the same of Joseph Smith in another context. Stanley doesn’t make a great many exegetical errors (one is tempted to say, because he does so little exegesis in the first place!), but the ones he does make are hard to miss.
For example, at ISG 8, Stanley misreads Mark 8:27, in which Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" As we have noted in our article here, the purpose of this question was relevant to the collectivist society of the Biblical world. It can have nothing to do with modern psychological categories, but this is precisely the template that Stanley imposes:
"[Jesus] was focused on the fact that He had been with the disciples for nearly three years, and they still did not understand who He was...He wanted his closest companions to realize that He was the Son of God."
Far from Jesus "wanting his companions to realize He was the Son of God," Jesus’ question is predicated on the fact that someone in the pack would recognize who he was, and acknowledge it in a way that was honorable in a collectivist society. Stanley’s explanation is little more than a crude anachronism.
Problem #3: The Devil in the Details
Like Joyce Meyer, Stanley sees the devil at work everywhere – thankfully, he’s not so far into this that (like Meyer) he sees Satan stepping in to ruin barbeques, but he is still blaming Satan for things to a rather disturbing extent, even for someone who is not (as I am) a preterist (and believes Satan is now bound).
So what does Stanley blame Satan for?
ISG 25: Stanley blames Satan for causing discontentment, as well as false guilt (56 – "he will do anything to prevent you from experiencing the goodness of God."). Satan also whispers discouraging messages to us (210)
GPL 42: The goal of Satan is "to prevent every believer from reaching his or her full potential."
LEL 115: "Discouragement is one of Satan’s favorite forms of attack."
LEL 123 "Satan wants to help program your mind so that you will rationalize and conclude that what you want to do is okay."
LEL 153 "One of Satan’s most effective weapons is to cause you to have feelings of worthlessness before God."
LEL 155 "...many people do not recognize the work of Satan; they mistake his assault for the struggles of everyday life."
At LEL 160, Stanley issues one cautionary note: "We would be remiss to give Satan credit for everything that goes wrong in our lives." He doesn’t give Satan credit for every bad thing, but he seems to give Satan credit for about 60% of bad things, which is bad enough. I will say as I did regarding Meyer that it seems rather imaginative (and arbitrary) to blame Satan for such pedantic interferences when humans are more than capable of causing their own discontentment. While Stanley does not use Satan to abdicate from personal responsibility, it is hard to leave statements like the above with any other conclusion than that it is an easy matter to do so.
Problem #4: Parking Space Theology
The final issue for discussion will require me to again quote from our earlier article on Osteen, particularly for readers who have not seen that issue.
[Osteen’s] system too easily redefines problems out of existence. Thus in YBL (41-2) he gives the example of searching for a parking spot in a crowded lot. Osteen thanks God for a good space when he finds one, but what if you do not find one? Then, he says, "....you get out and walk, and with every step, you thank God that you are strong and healthy and have the ability to walk." And he explains further of a time when he didn't find a parking space close by (43): "...God has my best interests at heart...He is working for my good. A delay may spare me from an accident. Or a delay may cause me to bump into somebody that needs to be encouraged, somebody that needs to see a smile."I found similar ideas in Meyer as well, and have now found them in Stanley too:
There is good reason for this methodology to disturb us. Atheist Dan Barker, in his original book Losing Faith in Faith tells much the same story of his quests for parking spaces - even having used the same Scripture that Osteen does, Romans 8:28: "All things work together for good to them that love the Lord." Before long, the logical strain becomes apparent: What of the person whose delay in finding a space caused them to get into an accident? To be sure, we are counseled to always be thankful to God, and we should be. Nevertheless, if we persist in a vision of God as a micromanager to this extent, then inevitably, we are compelled to rationalization as Barker was, ending up as he did, driving in random directions under the prompting of an inner voice, and ending up in the middle of a vacant lot thinking it was a test of our faith.
I am not saying of course that God cannot by His power arrange for a good parking space! However, I do find it presumptuous to think that He does such things on the microscopic scale that Osteen envisions. To claim this is to leave the system open to rationalization at the crux point of failures.
ISG 50: There is no shortage of invention when Stanley needs it; to illustrate that a man who felt need to quit his job found a better one, and so was blessed for his obedience, Stanley argues that Paul spent so much time in jail so he'd have time to write several of his letters! "Paul's schedule was full" otherwise, Stanley tells us. Really? How does Stanley know this? How does he know Paul could not have written more letters? Indeed, given that the letters we have were likely selected from a larger pool of letters by Paul himself, Stanley’s argument bears every hallmark of an inventive contrivance.
GPL 22-3: Stanley needed money for college, and mentioned it to a friend who in turn mentioned it to his pastor who had come up to them during the conversation. As a result, the pastor set up scholarship. Stanley says: "There was nothing coincidental about it. God set up the circumstances in my life, and He provided the answer I needed exactly when I needed it most."
Did He? Perhaps He did. Perhaps also it was not "coincidence" but a matter of Stanley using his contacts well. Here again, Stanley posits two extremes: Either it had to be "coincidence" or it had to be God actively "setting it up." Why no alternative in between?
Stanley tells several stories like this, of people who happened to be in the right place at the right time. But apart from an objective test of the sort proposed in Deuteronomy, these are merely anecdotes that tell us nothing substantive. Are we only hearing the "success stories" and not being told of the failures, where people thought God was speaking to them, but He was not?
The philosophical problems raised here, by each of these four problems, are well illustrated in LEL 75. According to Stanley, after his family moved to Atlanta, God was telling him to wait to find the right house to buy, but they became impatient, and bought another house which was not ideal.
The next day, however, they found a house that did fit their ideal, and Stanley says, "I realized the results of my lack of trust." But the story didn’t end there: A storm flooded the basement of the house they purchased, thus invalidating the sale and allowing them to purchase their ideal home.
The problems are manifest: It seems insulting to suppose that God does so little to assist suffering Christians in places like Sudan and China – people equal to Stanley in the body of Christ – while helping Stanley out of a personal mistake that does little to seriously affect his welfare. Is it not arrogant (apart from direct, tested revelation) to reduce God to one’s personal cleaner-up of messes? Doesn’t it seem a little much to suppose that God flooded someone’s property, thereby causing them exceptional expense and distress – or else timed matters that way – for Stanley’s sake? (Not unless they were being judged, perhaps, but we have no information on that.) Wouldn’t it make better sense to suppose that Stanley would have to just live with a house that didn’t suit his ideal – and frankly, not be so spoiled about it?
Our answer to these questions has been that it is better to understand God in terms of an ancient patron – one not obliged to enter into a "personal relationship" of the modern sort with us, nor obliged to run interference for us on each smidgen. Stanley’s ultrafamiliar ideology of God causes far more problems than it solves, for it exacerbates the problem of evil, creates manifest, unjustifiable inequalities in the way God treats those who are equal members in the body of Christ, and invites tortuous rationalizations (eg, "maybe you’re suffering because God is testing you"). Again, our point is not that God eg, never tests people with suffering, but that we are far from being in a position to decide such things – and it is for that reason that prophets were subject to tests. The idea that we are now all prophets with an ear to God’s mouth is what has forced teachers like Stanley into a vicious circle of rationalizations coupled with imaginations.
One final point that must be addressed, anticipating an objection: Don't we see examples in the Bible of God doing what might be called "trivial" miracles for people? For example, one might argue that making an axehead float as Elisha did is far less important than helping Stanley make sure he got the house he wanted. But to use this as a case example: In an age and place when iron was a scarce commodity, and an axe was an essential tool for survival, this was the equivalent not of making sure someone had a better house, but that they had a house to begin with -- or actually, something even greater than that. We should not make the mistake of scaling Biblical miracles by modern presuppositions. In addition, unless Stanley is conducting a ministry as critical as Elisha's was in Israel -- something we would very much tend to doubt, despite his widespread influence -- there is little cause to suppose that God would extend Stanley the sort of credibility needed to run that kind of interference.
So are the main problems; what remains?
Stanley also has an unfortunate (but infrequent) habit of inserting psychoanalysis of the motives of Biblical characters into the text. For example, at 19 ISG, Stanley comments on the interaction of Jesus and Martha: "Jesus did not want to discourage Martha because He understood her desire to prepare a wonderful meal for those present." Indeed? How does Stanley know this was what Jesus’ intent was? If anything, in that social world, Martha’s concern to "prepare a wonderful meal" would have been related to gaining honor in the eyes of others, or else showing normal hospitality as part of the principles of corporate mutual aid and survival. An ancient person would hardly have the mentality of a Martha Stewart in such circumstances. At ISG 193, Stanley says Zaccheus "longed to know love and acceptance" and "who he was as a person." This, too, is anachronistic; Zaccheus would want to belong to an ingroup, but this is not "love" as we know it, and knowing "who you are as a person" is a modern fancy; as a collectivist personality, Zaccheus would not have such problems of self-identity.
RMH 59 says: "...I still have new insights into God’s Word every time I sit down to read it....Often I find that God leads me to read a particular passage just when I need it most...he wonder of God’s Word is that you can never understand it fully. God’s Word holds countless layers of insight and meaning, and it is applicable in unique ways to an infinite number of situations. The more you grow in your relationship with God, the more insight you have into His character and into the way in which God operates."
The arrangement here is circular and epistemically dangerous: How does Stanley knows about these "countless layers on insight"? How do we know that these "layers" are not products of his exegetical imaginations? Unfortunately, since he gives no examples of how this works in practice (in other words, perhaps he could name at least three "layers" in Romans 8:15 or 2 Kings 9:8?), and resorts to the nebulous understanding of God in an overfamiliar way, there is no way to evaluate this statement.
Finally, we can see a result of this in Stanley’s view of how we arrive at faith. At LEL 167, Stanley says that it is essential to know what we believe and why, even cites 1 Peter 3:15-16 (168). So far, so good. But the "why" amounts to fideism: The reason we believe is "because the Bible says so". Not because of evidence, but because of the authority of the Bible – which we accept because of the Bible’s own authority.
It is on this last point that we close – appropriately. Fideism lies at the heart of Stanley’s methodology: An assumption that God speaks because we know He does, and we know He does because He does. I would have hoped that "America’s Pastor" – and a man who was once head of the Southern Baptist Convention – would provide a sounder basis for faith. As it is, it speaks to the crisis in the modern church that this is best that can be found from one of our greatest leaders.