Saturday, October 31, 2009


So, what should we make of the Destiny phenomenon in the news this week? There is a lot of talk about them being a cult (see Garth George in The first thing we have to do is define "cult". According to Webster there are five meanings of cult: 1) Formal religious veneration: worship; 2) A system of religious beliefs and ritual; also : its body of adherents; 3) A religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also: its body of adherents; 4) A system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator; 5) A great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book); especially : such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad b: the object of such devotion c: a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion. Clearly, the one in in mind is meaning 3), a religion seen as unorthodox or spurious. The question is this then, is Tamaki's church drifting out of orthodox Christianity?

This is a difficult question for a brother to answer. I am always very wary of judging another Christian and their work. In 1 Corinthians Paul gets rather upset when the Corinthians break into factions and stand in judgement over he and others. The sin against the Holy Spirit in Matthew comes at the end of a dispute between Jesus and some of the Jewish leaders. They accuse Jesus of being an emissary of Satan. He retorts with the warning. My reading of that text then is, that to reject the works of the Spirit as Satan's work could see one sin against the Spirit. As such, my standing in judgement over Brian and his church is something we all as Christians should be very careful about. Having said that, history is replete with points at which God's people identifying a false teaching, teacher of movement (e.g. Paul and Judaisers in Galatians; Luther and the Reformation). So, what do we make of this phenomenon?

The first thing to say, is that the covenant signed by some of the men of Destiny is nothing new. It is a very visible expression of something that is common among some Pentecostal and other churches. That is, the people of the Church are to offer honour to their leader, to now question them. The verses "do not speak against the Lord's anointed" is often quoted in this regard (e.g. 2 Sam 19:21). It is also common to see this attitude in Polynesia and other cultures. Ministers are venerated and honoured. It is expected that they eat first at meals. Emma and I had this experience at a former church. We would be given a seat of honour and the people would wait for us to eat first. This is hard for westerners with their radical egalitarianism and especially to European Kiwi's who absolutely despite tall poppies. What has happened here, is that it has gone very public.

The second thought I have is on tithing. As Brian Tamaki said on TV, this is nothing new. Many churches call for the tithe.

Thirdly, we need to be very careful to view Destiny with balance and see the good they are doing. Many people are being reached and their lives turned around through the church. Many of these people would never be reached through other churches. I am delighted that people are being saved. Paul helps us with this in Phil 1:14-18. Paul is in prison in Rome (others say Ephesus). He is about to face Caesar Nero. Nero is in his peak of lunacy, killing off his enemies, ruthless and dangerous. Paul is delighted that some soldiers are being saved through his proclamation in the prison. Many of the Romans are getting into evangelism, inspired in the Lord by Paul's chains; they are full of courage. Some believe these people are false teachers, but they are not, they are all preaching "Christ" indicating that they are preaching the genuine gospel. However, they are differently motivated. Some are motivated out of goodwill, love and sincerity, knowing that Paul is appointed by God. Others however, are not so motivated; concerned for rivalry, envy and selfish ambition. Paul is not delighted with this. He might die as a result. The whole letter to the Philippians is seeking to stop them doing the same. So deep down he is hurt and upset. Yet he states, "what matters is that in every way, whether through pretense or truth, Christ is proclaimed." Despite flaws in the preachers, his passion is the gospel and he rejoices.

Now, contrast Paul's attitude with his attitude when he hits false teachers. Check out 2 Cor 11; Phil 3 and Galatians. He flips his lid when he hits those preaching a false gospel. He calls them emissaries of Satan, dogs, mutilators of the flesh; telling some of them to cut off their penises! Yet he never talks to Christians like this. Check out his letters. When he hits Christians who are out of balance like the Corinthians he repeatedly calls them brothers and sisters and addresses the whole letter to the "holy ones". In other words, he is careful to reinforce that they are God's people, then he critiques them. Through the letter he speaks as a father to his children, strongly challenging them, urging them to come back to the cross and its patterns of living.

That being the case, the question is, is Destiny a false expression of the faith? Is it a cult? Is it preaching heresy? Should Brian Tamaki be attacked as a false teacher and his church as a cult?

To me the answer is emphatically, no. The evidence is that they preach Christ for salvation. They urge people to give their lives to Jesus. They call for faith. They lay hands on the sick. They urge people to live their whole lives for Jesus. They are open to the public. You can attend their meetings. His preaching is there for all to see and hear on public TV.

So is everything perfect in the church? No. Neither is everything perfect in my church? I have been a Baptist pastor and a Presbyterian minister. Let me tell you, all is not well in any church and in every denomination. In fact, I could tell you things that would make your hair curl!

I would however say, that my years of study in the NT do give me concerns about many modern churches. I am not going to single out Brian Tamaki and his church. My concerns are these:
1) I get worried when any person, pastor, leader, lecturer, teacher etc, becomes a really strong focus of people's focus. What happens is that Jesus can get obscured. The teacher's view becomes dominant over the Scriptures. This happens at Laidlaw College where I teach. This is something we can all slip into. The Corinthians did this big time. Chloe tells Paul that the church is divided over those who follow Paul, Apollos and Cephas (Peter). The church was split in adulation of different teachers and leaders. Some believe there was also a Christ-group, "I follow Christ" (see 1 Cor 1:10-11). However, I believe "I follow Christ" is Paul's answer. I love John the Baptist who says, "He must increase, I must decrease" (Jn 3:30). He then lays out four chapters to tell them to stop. Whether it is Brian T or any leader, we must always divert people's attention to Christ. This concerns me in the contemporary charismatic and Pentecostal church.

2) I am worried about money in the contemporary charismatic and Pentecostal church. There are a number of issues here. First, having studied very closely tithing in the Bible, it is debatable that tithing is to be practised by NT Christians. I have blogged on this Suffice to say here, tithing is mentioned 4x in the NT. Three times Jesus challenges false understandings of tithing. He exhorts Christians to go beyond the tithe. It is also mentioned in Heb 7 not to tell people to do so, but to prove Jesus is a superior high priest. The tithe is not mentioned in Acts, Paul's letters, Peter's letters or the writings of John, James and Jude. Rather, the Christian is to give all they have. They are to care for their family and basic needs, and the rest is to be invested in the work of the kingdom from the church, to mission, to the poor.

Secondly, I am concerned about the way we appeal for money in the church. We often ask people to give so that they can be blessed. It is true that the NT endorses that those who give to God will be blessed (see 2 Cor 9 for example). However, this must not be used as a motivation. As a motivation, it means we give to gain. This is the antithesis of Christian giving. Christian giving is "no strings attached." It is a response to God who has given us everything from creation, to provision and salvation. Check out 1 Cor 13:3 where Paul says giving all we possess to the poor without love profits us nothing. Check out Luke's Gospel e.g. Luke 12:32-33. Yes, God will bless, but this is not our motivation.

Thirdly, I freak out at the idea that if we give we will be prosperous. Jesus gave his all; becoming poor that we might become rich; and he died a poor man without even a robe (2 Cor 8:9). Paul knew what it was to give, he worked himself to the bone, knowing poverty sometimes, knowing plenty. There is no formula to prosperity (see Phil 4:10-14; 2 Cor 11:23-28). Ultimately we will all be loaded. When we reach eternity we will experience glorious plenty. That is our hope and prize, that is what we run for (Phil 3:12-14). In the present, we are called to take up our crosses and live as Christ did. This will involve sacrifice, suffering, service. I call this the pattern of the cross. Paul in 1 and 2 Corinthians is arguing against a bunch of Christians who effectively had a prosperity teaching view believing a true apostle would not suffer, would do miracles, would be wealthy and prosperous. He hammers it into touch. Read the letters, he hammers them going on and on about present suffering. Christian life in the present is the life of suffering. It is the life of experiencing Friday.

Fourthly, I am concerned that what is happening about money in these churches is really a form of syncretism. Syncretism is when the gospel gets distorted or imbalanced by accommodating it to culture. Prosperity teaching is very popular in the west because it feeds our greatest sin, greed and materialism. It uses the culture to win the culture. In my view however, it is a selling out of one portion of the gospel. It is not a heresy, but an imbalance.

So how do we go about asking for money. I have no problem with church's asking for money. As Brian says on TV we need money. I suggest we encourage people to give freely, according to their means and radically (check out the principles in 1 Cor 16:1-4; 2 Cor 8-9). We tell them God will bless them but urge them to give not to be rich or get yet more, we ask them to give to bless God and further the mission. We ask them to give as they can to see God's great mission furthered, the poor fed, injustice removed. It is a subtle but important difference.

My final issue with such churches is leadership. The model of leadership in the NT is one of servanthood (see Mark 10:39-45). In Mark 10:39-45 James and John have just come asking for the primary leadership positions in the Kingdom to come. Jesus responds telling them to renounce the leadership methods of the world, and serve. He tells them  that he came not to be served but to serve. He tells them the greatest in the Kingdom are the greatest servants. Specifically, they are to renounce autocratic leadership. They are to renounce the use of power and domination of any sort. This runs through the whole NT. When Jesus is recognised as Messiah by Peter the first thing Jesus says to him is that he will suffer and die. He then tells them that they must do the same, take up their crosses and follow him (Mark 8:27-38). This is an appeal to serve. We are to die serving God, the church and the world. Philippians 2:5-11 lays out the Christ pattern, whereby Christ though God, came in self-emptying, humility, as a slave. The whole of Philippians lays out examples to the Philippians to make the same point. Read Philippians and note the examples, note the use of service, sacrifice and suffering language. The pattern of the cross is to live in service, sacrifice, suffering even to the point of death! Leaders are to be the greatest servants. This will cost them wealth. It will cost them prestige. It will cost them glory in the present. It will hurt. They will sometimes be destroyed by churches.

In the world of Paul leadership was enforced with status through social class, through military and political power. Ceasar is the number one example. Jesus and Paul offer a different model completely. It is this: take up your cross and your towel and follow me. Renounce autocracy and dominance. Power is found not in the power of charisma, brilliant speech and intelligence; it is found in love and service.

This is the same today. We love the talented, the articulate. We seek prestige and honour through wealth and power. Christianity turns this upside down. Read through 1 Corinthians. It is about wealthy strong leaders lording it, divided, putting others down. 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 speak of spiritual gifts and talents. 1 Corinthians 13 sits in between, the centrepiece of the letter and section. It declares, all that matters is love. Spiritual fruit and Christian attitudes are more important than worldly power, talent and charisma.

So, to me, churches that venerate the leaders like this and emphasise charisma make an error. it is not a cult or a heresy, but it is an imbalance. It is a syncretism to contemporary models of power and culture. However, this is not a new mistake or phenomenon. It gets things done actually. I am concerned, but we must take care not to go too far and fall into the same trap ourselves, of standing in judgement over our brother, writing them off and over-reacting.

In conclusion, to me Destiny has some weaknesses (as do all churches). They are not alone but part of a movement which to me has these weaknesses. I write from the Presbyterian church and Brian Tamaki and others would have plenty to criticise in our churches. Fair enough, we deserve it. We are nominal, liberal and lack the sort of passion for mission that they have. We are so egalitarian that hardly anything ever gets done. Our people don't tithe, many don't give at all. We have terrible weaknesses.

I was deeply upset by the Cult Watch speaker on TV One Close Up the other night. He likened Destiny to a suicide cult, that was most unwise. He went too far. I felt that Brian Tamaki and Richard Lewis handled themselves with grace.

What I am saying is this, people in glass houses should not throw stones. We need to take the logs out of our own eyes. We need to be very careful what we say. I love Brian Tamaki, he is a brother. I pray for his church that it continues to see people won to Christ. I pray that they continue to pursue Christ in the Scriptures and God brings correction in these areas (I say this humbly because this is my view). I pray they never lose their passion and edge. I pray that many come to Christ through the movement. I pray that they remain open to fellowship with others, not standing in judgement over them, not allowing the criticism to isolate them. God, pour out your Spirit on them and on all of us.

A final thought. The church in NZ cannot afford to be divided over differences. We have a huge challenge to reach this nation. Let's do it in unity!