From the November 2009 E-Block. Yep, we finally stared Vol. 2. Kind of ironic, too, because John Bevere will be speaking at a church near me sometime this week. What a shame.
The text for this article is John Bevere's Under Cover, a book that is about issues of authority. However, authority is not our main subject this time. Rather, the main subject here relates to that Bevere is one of these persons of the persuasion that God talks to them, and indeed carries on full-fledged conversations with them.
In our study of Joyce Meyer some time back, we noted that Meyer gave very little that could be called useful in terms of deciding when God was actually speaking to someone. There were a few good points for knowing when God was not speaking (eg, the voice contradicts the Bible) but nothing at all to discern God's voice once past those few gateways. Bevere offers no more guidelines in this regard than Meyer, though to be fair, given the subject of this book, we would not necessarily expert a diversion into the epistemology of hearing God's voice.
Nevertheless, to the end of discussing the dangers of this sort of epistemology, we will be using Under Cover as an example of the problems inherent in thinking one is having "conversations with God." Sadly, Bevere often lapses to these "conversations" any time some critical point cannot be supported by logic, argument, or Scripture. It is, so to speak, argument from unverified or, dare we say, imagined authority -- which makes it particularly dangerous. We'll have a look at two "cases" from Bevere that are the most detailed and exemplary.
Again, we will not look at Bevere's case for being "under cover" or how he thinks "authority" is to be respected. However, it ought to be noted briefly that his teachings on that subject are also not without serious problems, and we will pursue that in the next issue of the E-Block.
Case #1: The Spirit Denies Home Cell Groups
Bevere tells a story of how, as a youth minister, he worked to set up a new aspect of youth ministry at his church. [12ff] As a new hire, he visited a highly successful youth program with about 1500 attendants, where the teaching was solid and sound. One of the factors in the program's success was the use of "home cell groups" (or, as might be said, parties for the youth). Bevere attended several functions, talked to several church leaders, and got the enthusiastic approval of his senior pastor. Then he spent eight months planning to implement the program.
It should be noted that Bevere indicates that throughout this process, "the Lord spoke" to his "heart" and gave him plans. He even indicates that God specifically told him to choose twenty-four leaders for the program and train them.
Three weeks before launch, however, Bevere's senior pastor called a meeting of all pastors and said: "Gentlemen, the Holy Spirit has shown me that the direction of the church is not to have home cell groups. So I want you to cancel any smell groups meetings you are having in members' homes."  Bevere, stunned, asked if this included the youth, and the pastor simply repeated what he said. Bevere reminded him also of the success of the program he visited, and again, the pastor repeated the same words -- and did so again and again to Bevere's continued objections.
I will begin with a frank assessment of this situation, which leads to our issue of supposed "conversations with God": I see no reason to think that Bevere's pastor was anything but deluded in thinking that the "Spirit" had told him anything. It would have been interesting to see if the pastor would have been willing to subject himself to a "Deuteronomic challenge" and have his supposed communications verified by a test of prophecy like this one:
But if a prophet presumes to speak in my name an oracle that I have not commanded him to speak, or speaks in the name of other gods, he shall die.' "If you say to yourselves, 'How can we recognize an oracle which the LORD has spoken?', know that, even though a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if his oracle is not fulfilled or verified, it is an oracle which the LORD did not speak. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously, and you shall have no fear of him.One wonders: Would those who so easily say "God told me this" or "the Spirit told me that" be as eager to speak if their own lives were at risk for speaking wrongly?
The pastor's constant repetition signalled a man with no answers, no arguments, no logic, and above all, no Scripture to back his position. Just as sad, however, is the way in which Bevere resolved the matter in his own mind: The "Holy Spirit" -- the same Holy Spirit, we are to suppose, who told him to appoint 24 people and gave him other specific plans, began to "speak to his heart" -- in detailed, complete sentences -- about how Bevere was sent to serve the senior pastor of that church, and said further that he would be judged according to how well he served that pastor -- irrespective of how effective the youth ministry would have been had it proceeded.
Bevere so convinced himself of the Spirit's involvement in this affair that when telling his 24 appointees of the cancellations, he "spun" it into a positive by saying "God has spared us from birthing and building something that is not from Him."  In a different instance later, God says to him of information also not previously shared: "...I will show [a certain authority figure] things I don't need to show you, and many times I will keep the wisdom of his decision from you on purpose, to see if you will follow him as he follows Me." [146-7] Then concerning the youth program situation again he says, "I didn't know it was a test, and often God's tests are never recognized until after the fact since they always expose our hearts." 
What has happened here is little different from the sort of rationalization we first detected in Joel Osteen back in the November 2008 issue -- and found also again in Meyer:
There are three disturbing aspects to Osteen's epistemological system.
First, his system has an unsatisfactory accounting for failures which makes it non-disprovable. Osteen seems to want to say as little as possible about what to do when you follow the principles he lays down and still do not achieve a result. In BBY (359), to the question, "What if nothing happens?" he says:
What if you do this and it does happen? Even if it doesn't turn out the way you had hoped, you'll still be better off to live your life positively and hopeful.Similarly, in YBL (16) he says:
What if you do that and it does work? Whom are we kidding here? What do you have to lose by keeping your hopes alive?In short, Osteen really does not answer for failures. To that extent, his system for success is no more verifiable than a Mormon internal witness.
Second, his 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."There is good reason for this methodology to disturb us. Atheist Dan Barker, in his original book Losing Faith in Faith (and now also in Godless, a book reviewed in this very issue), 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.
Note well: The pastor's only proof that this was not the time for home cell groups: The "Spirit". Bevere's only proof that God prevented a disaster from happening when the program was introduced: The "Spirit". The whole idea is hard to see as anything but Bevere's rationalization for a highly irrational situation: Rather than even consider the option that the senior pastor was in error, and not even trying to resolve in a rational way the question of why the same "Spirit" told him to radically alter the lives of 24 potential leaders for months at a time for a program the "Spirit" knew He would urge the senior pastor to cancel 8 months later, Bevere rationalizes the whole thing as an experience he and the others "grew"  because of and a "test" he was put through.
Deuteronomy prescribed the testing of prophets precisely to prevent situations just like these. Would Bevere or his former pastor have the temerity to make such pronouncements if their proclamations had to be accompanied by a detailed prophecy -- and they would be killed if it did not come true? Would anyone, indeed, feel so free to claim the authority of the Spirit and to claim to have had detailed conversations with Him?
Of course, there are issues here beyond these, concerning what might have been and the epistemology of such cases. Perhaps indeed the youth program would have failed miserably had Bevere defied his senior pastor, but perhaps it would have failed because either the senior pastor undermined it because he was insulted by Bevere's defiance; or it would have failed because Bevere, lacking a sound epistemology, was not sure enough of himself to support the program. Thus we cannot say that if the program had failed, this would have proved that the senior pastor really had the Spirit speaking in his ear. This, again, is why the test of the prophet was necessary in Deuteronomy.
Here's a second, briefer example.
Case #2: Bevere's Sickness
Bevere writes of a time when, we are told, "the Lord gave us a clear directive not to accept an opportunity for the ministry just because it looked good until we first knew His will." Years later, Bevere says, God spoke to him again regarding a particular opportunity and said "no". Bevere took the opportunity anyway, and "on the day I moved forward with this opportunity, I became sick and couldn't shake it."  He had caught a virus, which was cured with antibiotics three weeks later. Then he caught a cold; later he injured his knee, and so on: Multiple health disasters which he interpreted as God putting him under a "curse" for his disobedience. 
Bevere admits the obvious point that even obedient people get sick. However, what is his proof that this particular bout with health problems was connected to his disobedience? Again, note well: Bevere's only proof that he was supposed to "seek the Lord's will" on such issue: The "Spirit". Bevere's only proof that God put a curse on him for disobedience: His supposition that God spoke to him in the former instance.
These two cases are enough of a prelude to have illustrated the dangers of the "God spoke to me" paradigm. I believe we are well advised to start "testing the prophets" when people like Bevere claim to be speaking for God. They need to be challenged to produce a prophecy that can be tested -- and be willing to pay a price if they fail: Not death, since we are not under the Deuteronomic covenant, but some loss of reputation, privilege, or status.
Of course, none of this will likely ever happen. Teachers like Bevere will accuse those who seek verification of "testing God" or come up with some other rationalization, and will refuse to produce a prophecy. Nevertheless, there is a way to test such people even if they do not wish to be tested, and how to do so relates to an item I wrote on Joseph Smith: Smith was a proven failure in terms of "restoring" certain original elements of the Gospel message. So likewise, we will see in the next issue, Bevere fails quite obviously as an interpreter of the Biblical text -- leading to the conclusion that he can by no means be having "conversations with God."
In close, let me indicate that I am by no means saying God cannot speak to people in the way described. However, I believe that "God spoke to me" is being overused as an epistemological basis by people who resort to it when more rational avenues fail them, and that they are overpersonalizing God beyond what can be contextually supported by Scripture. We shall speak more of this in the article in this issue on Charles Stanley.