Many churches today are turning toward the ancient paths of the old mystics. In a certain church, l came across a particular form of this unbiblical mysticism (in combination with psych-speak) and I had a closer look. Based on my experiences in this particular church, I present you with my reasons as to why I believe many of what is being taught in churches today is not only theologically unsound, but is dangerous to the faith life of many believers. The main inspirations for this particular mysticism-psych-speak-church are Bill Hybels’ seeker-friendly gospel and two popular pseudo-Christian books, namely Celebration of Discipline (1998) by Richard Foster and Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (2006) by Peter Scazzero. (Another book by Richard Foster, namely Prayer (2002), proved to be a revealing read too.) I have listed seven main areas of concern, and then have expanded on them in more detail.
Seven main concerns regarding pseudo-Christianity teaching:
1. Contemplative Prayer
What’s wrong with Contemplative Prayer?
Foster-Scazzero’s version of contemplative prayer is not about meditating on God’s Word, but getting into an altered state of mind and receiving personal messages from God. However, Richard Foster, the best-known advocate of contemplative prayer, does warn us that:
(a) this kind of contemplative prayer brings the unsuspecting believers in contact with demons,
(b) only mature Christians should be allowed to do this, and
(c) prayers of protection should be prayed before going into this God-forbidden spiritual realm.
So does it really take a rocket scientist to understand that we should discard Foster-Scazzero’s version of contemplative prayer from our churches completely?
2. Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline
What’s wrong with Richard Foster’s “Celebration of Discipline?”
This book has sown the seeds of the ‘experience movement’ that is characterized by contemplative prayer, lectio divina and mysticism. Celebration of Discipline is an encyclopedia of unbiblical teaching that leads unsuspecting believers away from biblical Christianity and into unbiblical mysticism.
3. Peter Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality
What’s wrong with Peter Scazzero’s “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality?”
Just like Richard Foster, Scazzero relies heavily on alleged personal messages from God through contemplative prayer and other means, but outside biblical guidelines. Scazzero’s views are idolatrous because they lead us away from following Jesus Christ as our Lord (God-centered) and into focusing on our own feelings and void spirituality (man-centered).
4. Psychology as ‘Special Revelation’
What’s wrong with considering psychology as ‘special revelation’?
‘Special revelation’ refers to the idea that truth about God and about the spiritual realm can be obtained by other means than by God’s revelation in the Bible. Based on the belief that psychology qualifies as ‘special revelation’, this leads to a focus on psychotherapy rather than biblical guidelines when teaching and counseling. But the psychological view and the biblical view on who we are and how we should live are incompatible on a deep level. Psychology tells us that we should focus on ourselves and on reaching our full potential (man-centered), while Scripture tells us that we must submit to God, deny ourselves and that our ultimate purpose in life is to glorify God (God-centered). By following Scazzero’s concept of ancestral bondage, we are encouraged to search for actual or imagined psychological damage in the past, assuming that the alleged damage is the root cause of bad behavior. However, as Christians, we should accept the biblical view that sin is the root cause of bad behavior.
5. The Problem with “Love Yourself First”?
What’s wrong with the non-biblical command “Love yourself first?”
According to Richard Foster, we have to learn to love ourselves first. When we finally love ourselves enough, then we can start to love others. But this is not true: we do not have to learn to love ourselves first before we can love our neighbor. “Love your neighbor as yourself” boils down to take care of your neighbor consciously the way you take care of yourself automatically. “Love yourself first” encourages a primary focus on ourselves, our problems, our feelings, etc. If people wait until they feel that they love themselves enough, then they will never proceed to love others. This is wrong: it leads to the idolatry of worshiping ourselves.
6. Lectio Divina
What’s wrong with lectio divina?
The Bible reading method lectio divina highlights ‘illumination by the Holy Spirit’ as the sole means to understand the Bible text. Although there is a place for lectio divina in personal devotion, it runs the risk of opening the floodgates to all kinds of heresies and shutting the door to a real understanding of what the Christian faith is about. To keep church life on track, Scripture must first be understood in the sense “What does this Bible verse mean logically and theologically?” before it can be understood in the sense “What does this Bible verse mean to me personally?” This is especially necessary regarding discipleship. According to the New Covenant, the transition from saved sinner to active disciple must be made: deny yourself, take up your cross, follow Christ, be salt of the earth, and bring God’s kingdom to the world in order to fulfill the Great Commission. The gospel message in combination with discipleship dominates the theology and the application of the New Testament and it should therefore also dominate the teaching in our churches.
7. The Seeker-Friendly Gospel
What’s wrong with the seeker-friendly gospel?
Bill Hybels’ seeker-friendly gospel is routinely defended by saying “methods change, but the message stays the same.” But this is not the case. Hybels redefines sin and salvation. The biblical gospel portrays sin as rebellion against God and salvation as deliverance from God’s wrath. Hybels’ gospel portrays sin as a flawed strategy to gain fulfillment and salvation as a means to fulfill your felt-needs. Therefore, Hybels’ gospel is man-centered, not God-centered. This means that the transition from our felt-needs (man-centered) to the ‘way of the cross’ (God-centered discipleship) is difficult to make. The first temptation of Christ (Mt. 4:1-4, Lk. 4:1-4) shows that it’s wrong to exchange God’s commands for the felt-needs of man. In churches today, we should follow the example of Jesus’ seeker-friendliness (Mt. 4:23-25, 9:35-38).
An In-Depth Look at Teachings that Lead to Pseudo-Christianity
1. What’s wrong with Contemplative Prayer?
While regular attenders of a church, my wife and I realized for the first time that there was something wrong when we were confronted with contemplative prayer. My wife was introduced to contemplative prayer at a women’s retreat. The contemplative prayer session followed a time of worship during which the “songs directed our hearts towards God, to worship him.” After the last praise chorus, the leader asked the women to sit down, put both their feet on the ground, sit comfortably, close their eyes, breath regularly and she said something in the order of ‘letting go of things’. Suddenly, the spirit in the room appeared changed. The light was suddenly gone, and the atmosphere was uncomfortable. This was a very unpleasant and revealing experience for my wife. After the praise songs, she expected a time of (silent) prayer, praise and submission to Jesus Christ. Instead, the focus shifted to her body and herself. Two other women had exactly the same experience as her.
During her contemplative prayer session at the women’s retreat, the leader said things like: “Relax, clear your spirit, stay in the position you are in, relax, Jesus, I am your God, follow the light, there is a light follow it, imagine…, visualize…, etc. The leader talked with a monotone, ethereal voice, slow, and with many pauses. Some women started crying. The session ended with calling the women back with words like, “Now come back, you can open your eyes.” Anyone who wanted to be prayed for could stay behind. Apparently no one asked for prayer. Afterwards someone said “Oh, this looks like hypnotism”. Another one said “It looks like it [hypnotism]. If someone came in the church, they would not think this is a church.”
In the particular church we attended, this kind of contemplative prayer is inspired by the unbiblical teachings of Peter Scazzero. His book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality is the main inspiration of the leader of the women’s retreats and her technique is copied from Scazzero’s technique on p. 160-161.
Scazzero, in turn, refers to the teachings of Richard Foster as his main inspiration. Foster is the best-known advocate of contemplative spirituality. What is the goal of contemplative prayer? Union with God (Foster, Prayer, p. 169; Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, p. 45). First, you get into an altered state of mind in which you are unknowing and inactive, and subsequently you receive personal messages from God.
So the best way to hear from God is to hear from God personally, right?
At best we hear ourselves during contemplative prayer, but at worst we hear from deceiving spirits, demons or even from the devil himself. God speaks loud and clear to us through the Bible. Through the authority of the Bible text, we have clear guidance to authenticate his voice. If it’s in line with biblical teaching, it’s good, if it’s not in line with biblical teaching it’s wrong. Simple and straightforward.
Foster is well aware of the criticism that his contemplative spirituality is synonymous with pagan meditation in Eastern religions. Foster’s defense: “Eastern meditation is an attempt to empty the mind; Christian meditation is an attempt to fill the mind” (Celebration of Discipline, p. 20). But what Foster wishes us to fill our minds with are personal messages from the spiritual realm that we naively are to believe are the voice of God. Apparently, Foster doesn’t realize that the devil can masquerade as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14). Foster-Scazzero’s version of contemplative prayer is not meditating on (as in ‘ponder on’) God’s Word, but a dangerous technique to get in touch with the spiritual realm. In other words, it’s God-forbidden divination.
Oddly enough, Richard Foster is crystal clear about the fact that contemplative prayer is spiritually dangerous. Foster warns us (Prayer, p. 165-167) that “in the silent contemplation of God we are entering deeply into the spiritual realm, and there is such a thing as a supernatural guidance that is not divine guidance. While the Bible does not give us a lot of information on the nature of the spiritual world, we do know enough to recognize that there are various orders of spiritual beings, and some of them are definitely not in cooperation with God and his way! I say these things not to make you fearful but to make you knowledgeable. You need to know that ‘like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour’ (1 Pet. 5:8).”
Therefore, Foster warns us that “contemplative prayer is not for the novice” and he encourages us “to learn and practice prayers of protection.” I ask the same question again, does it really take a rocket scientist to understand that we should discard Foster-Scazzero’s version of contemplative prayer from our churches completely?
The Achilles heel of contemplative prayer is the lack of sound biblical support. Jesus never taught contemplative prayer and neither did any of the apostles. That should be reason enough to stay away from contemplative prayer. The personal messages that flow from Scazzero’s techniques are man-centered experiences. People who practice these techniques are prone to deception. Are we really going to believe that Foster-Scazzero’s version of contemplative prayer brings us closer to God? The only way to draw near to God is through Jesus Christ who died and rose again. If we really want to be closer to God, let’s follow the guidelines that Jesus Christ gave us in John 14:21,23. “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” Not Scazzero’s techniques but keeping Jesus’ commands (deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Him) will bring us closer to God. First we have to keep Jesus’ commands (New Covenant discipleship), then we will experience God (“I will show myself to them”).
By actively promoting contemplative prayer, people are being led into God-forbidden and even downright dangerous exploration of the spiritual realm. Rather than searching for the hidden mysteries of God and for the personal messages that God allegedly wants to convey to us, we should focus on what God has revealed to us in his Word. Remember Deuteronomy 29:29 “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”
2. What’s wrong with Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline?
Richard Foster, and especially his book Celebration of Discipline, is very influential in many churches. Celebration of Discipline has sown the seeds of the ‘experience movement’ that is characterized by contemplative prayer, lectio divina and mysticism. Pastors regularly quote Celebration of Discipline in their sermons, conveying the message to their members that Celebration of Discipline is a trustworthy source and recommendable reading. But this is not true: Gary Gilley is right in regarding Celebration of Discipline as an encyclopedia of unbiblical teaching that leads unsuspecting believers away from biblical Christianity and into unbiblical mysticism.
Celebration of Discipline describes an inward journey “to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm” (p. 1) and promises that the path to spiritual growth will be found by practicing Foster’s spiritual disciplines. These disciplines are “merely the means” (p. 110) to obtain knowledge of a spiritual reality through direct personal messages. However, the spiritual realm that is not revealed in Scripture is occult (knowledge of the hidden) and God forbids us to go there. Foster’s spiritual disciplines are meant especially for recent converts (contrary to what Foster claims in one of his other books, namely Prayer!), and also for “people who have yet to turn their lives over to Jesus Christ” (p. 2). According to Foster, you don’t even have to be a believer to grow spiritually! Foster’s views are fundamentally unbiblical. Paul rebukes the Colossians who believe that their man-made rules, commands and teachings will lead to spiritual growth (Col. 2:20-23). Paul also rebukes the Galatians that “after beginning by means of the Spirit,” they are “now trying to finish by the means of the flesh” (Gal. 3:3). Richard Foster is making that same mistake all over again.
The two editions of Celebration of Discipline that my wife and I read (1978 and 1998) differ significantly from each other. In the original 1978-edition Foster describes an out-of-body-experience and a meeting-with-Jesus-Christ-in-the-flesh-experience, during which he received personal instructions. These two episodes are omitted in the subsequent editions of Celebration of Discipline. The foreword of the 1998-edition tells us that Celebration of Discipline has a large indebtedness to secular thinkers. This is weird: how can secular thinkers contribute to Christian spiritual growth? A few examples of Foster’s spiritual disciplines:
Foster’s discipline ‘meditation’ is very similar to Eastern meditation and the discipline ‘prayer’ refers to contemplative prayer (see the first topic in this summary). You might think that the discipline ‘study’ focuses on studying the Bible in order to get a real grip on the Christian faith, but nothing could be further from the truth. To the credit of Foster, he does say that “the first and most important book we are to study is the Bible” (p. 68), but he subsequently buries that remark under many other “verbal and nonverbal books” (p. 68) that we should study. Studying verbal and nonverbal books is all about getting an ‘eureka experience’, which leads us “to insight and discernment. It provides the basis for a true perception of reality.” (p. 66, emphasis mine) “Experience is the only way we can interpret and relate to what we read.” (p. 68, emphasis mine)
Let Foster’s quotes sink in for a moment. It’s not the diligent study of Scripture in the classic and systematic way (e.g. exegesis, hermeneutics, historical context) that provides insight in what the Christian faith really is about and that provides discernment regarding God’s will. On the contrary, it’s a highly subjective ‘eureka experience’ that provides true insight and true discernment. Foster presents this ‘eureka experience’ (or, as it is now commonly known, ‘illumination by the Holy Spirit’) as the sole means to understand the Bible text. This is lectio divina and while it opens the floodgates to all kinds of heresies, it shuts the door to a real and meaningful understanding of what the Christian faith is about. Even worse, non-verbal books are “the least recognized but perhaps the most important field of study: the observation of reality in things, events, and actions. The easiest place to begin is with nature” (p. 73, emphasis mine).
Foster leads us uncomfortably close into the worship of creation rather than the Creator (which is strictly forbidden in the Bible—see, for example, the second of the Ten Commandments and Rom. 1:18-32). Foster tells us that “the first step in the study of nature is reverent observation” (p. 73, emphasis mine). Then we have to “stretch out by a distinct act of loving will towards one of the myriad manifestations of life that surround you” as “the object of contemplation” (p. 73, emphasis mine). “The next step is to make friends with the flowers and the trees and the little creatures that creep upon the earth” (p. 74, emphasis mine).
Foster’s discipline ‘solitude’ is about “an inner immersion into the silence of God” (p. 108). “The fruit of solitude is increased sensitivity and compassion for others” (p. 108). It’s not easy to see how increased compassion for others can be obtained by keeping away from them. Matthew 9:35-36 says that Jesus had compassion on the crowds, when he “saw” them, when he “went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.” It seems far more likely that following Jesus’ example will stir up compassion for others in our heart, rather than following Foster’s suggestion to keep away from others.
Foster’s discipline ‘confession’ is blatantly unbiblical. By quoting John 20:23 out of context (p. 146) Foster suggests that we, the believers, decide who will be forgiven and who will not be forgiven. According to Foster we, the believers, become mediators between God and sinners. Foster’s idea spawned the profoundly false ‘little gods’ theology that portrays Christians as mediators (‘little gods’) between God and sinners. Apparently, Christians, instead of Christ (1 Tim. 2:5!), decide who receives forgiveness and blessings from God. Read the Bible verse in its context (Jn. 20:21-23) and it is clear that it’s not us, but the Holy Spirit (God) who forgives sins. Foster’s views on forgiveness are drawn from personal experiences. On p. 149, Foster describes a personal experience of forgiveness in which God is completely bypassed and forgiveness is based on an inner prompting from above and a fellow believer’s mediation.
Foster’s discipline ‘worship’ is also blatantly unbiblical. Worship God (in the sense of ‘submit to God’) is the most important commandment in the Bible (love God above all), but Foster defines worship as “to experience Reality, to touch Life. It is to know, to feel, to experience the resurrected Christ in the midst of the gathered community” (p. 158). Foster defines worship in terms of man-centered experiences. Foster completely ignores the biblical, God-centered definition of worship as submission to God and giving glory to God. This is troubling, because Christian life starts with worshiping God (submitting to God). Everything else flows from it.
The main problem with the teachings of Richard Foster is that they are predominantly based on subjective, man-centered experiences rather than biblical, God-centered guidelines. Our opinion of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline can be found in Foster’s own words: “Worse yet, many have been brought into the most cruel bondage by false teaching.” (p. 84) Therefore, we should discard Foster’s unbiblical teachings from our churches.
3. What’s wrong with Peter Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality?
Peter Scazzero, and especially his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (2006), is very influential in churches. Scazzero’s book is a main inspiration to many church leaders who consider it “a very good book.” Just like Richard Foster, Scazzero relies heavily on alleged personal messages from God through contemplative prayer and other means, but outside biblical guidelines. “Write down how God speaks to you. When I read an edifying book where God is coming to me, I write inside the back cover a few sentences about each insight along with the page number. This way I can go back later and easily review what God said to me.” (p. 2, emphasis mine). Claiming divine revelation should be a red flag in any non-biblical book. Pseudo-Christian authors often claim divine revelation while advocating highly questionable theology in order to duck valid criticism – nobody dares to criticise God, right? On a more serious note: falsely claiming divine revelation in order to push your own agenda is a grave form of blasphemy.
For example, regarding the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) Scazzero introduces the unbiblical concept of experiencing the fruit (“experience the beautiful life”) as a factor separate from bearing the fruit of the Spirit. Scazzero claims that 90 percent of our personality (our deep, underlying layers where emotional life resides) is blocked and that’s why we don’t experience the fruit of the Spirit, even though we do bear it. According to Scazzero, this 90 percent has to be healed by God, resulting in emotional health. However, Scripture says something different. The Bible completely ignores Scazzero’s alleged deep layers (the 90 percent) where, again allegedly, emotional life resides, suggesting that Scazzero’s 90-percent-concept is irrelevant to experience the fruit of the Spirit. According to Scripture, the fruit of the Spirit is the result of ‘remaining in the vine,’ the product of a life rooted in Jesus Christ (Jn. 15:1-8). Only if we remain in the vine, do we bear fruit. If we don’t experience the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, Scripture does not suggest that we are emotionally unhealthy. Instead, Scripture suggests that we are not rooted in the vine Jesus Christ. Scripture ignores the experience of the fruit as a factor separate from bearing the fruit of the Spirit. Scazzero’s emotional health is therefore irrelevant in this equation. This means that Scazzero is wrong in identifying emotional health as crucially important to experience the fruit of the Spirit. Even worse, Scazzero’s views are idolatrous because they lead us away from a life rooted in the vine Jesus Christ (God-centered) and into a focus on ourselves and our own feelings (man-centered).
Scazzero claims that “emotional health and contemplative spirituality are indispensable to bringing transformation in Christ to the deep places of our lives” (p. 2-3, emphasis mine). Scazzero believes that the combination of these two “addresses…the missing piece in contemporary Christianity. Together they unleash the Holy Spirit inside us” (p. 46, emphasis mine). Scazzero even says that “both are necessary to loving God, loving ourselves, and loving others” (p. 46, emphasis mine). Again, Scripture says something different. Scripture completely ignores emotional health and contemplative spirituality as necessary factors to love God above all and our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:34-40). This means that Scazzero’s emotional health and contemplative spirituality are irrelevant and superfluous to comply with Jesus’ two commands. Even worse, Scazzero’s views are idolatrous because they lead us away from following Jesus Christ as our Lord (God-centered) and into focusing on our own feelings and void spirituality (man-centered).
Some of Scazzero’s views are blatantly unbiblical. “No other religion in the world reveals a personal God who loves us for who we are, not what we do. His approval is without conditions” (p. 108, emphasis mine). A core doctrine of the Christian faith is that God offers redemption from God’s wrath under the condition that the repentant sinners accept, by faith, Jesus Christ as their Savior and their Lord. That’s conditional approval, however you look at it. According to Scazzero the essential first step toward emotionally healthy spirituality is to “know yourself that you may know God—becoming your authentic self” (p. 65, emphasis mine). But according to Scripture it’s the other way around!
Scazzero starts from a pagan viewpoint (Socrates’ know yourself) and sets out on a man-made journey to know God, but Scazzero’s approach will end up in making idols, in making gods in our own image. According to Scripture, God revealed to us that we are sinners under God’s wrath, that we rebelled against our Maker and that we are in need of a Redeemer. According to Scazzero we should develop a “new, more biblical self-understanding…I hold myself in high regard despite my imperfections and limits…I am worthy to assert my God-given power in the world. I am entitled to exist. It is good that I exist…I am worthy of being valued and paid attention to. I am entitled to joy and pleasure…” (p. 54, emphasis mine).
According to Scripture “there is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:10-12,23). Scazzero’s views are idolatrous because they encourage the mindset of a confident customer who selfishly focuses on personal fulfillment (man-centered), while Scripture demands the mindset of a repentant sinner who humbly focuses on God’s gracious gift of redemption (God-centered). Therefore, we should discard Scazzero’s unbiblical teachings from our churches.
4. What’s wrong with considering psychology as ‘special revelation’?
Based on their belief in ‘special revelation’, some church leaders focus on psychology (or, more precisely, on psychotherapy) rather than biblical guidelines when they are teaching and counseling. In their teachings and counseling, it is psych-speak that reigns, and not the sovereign Word of God. ‘Special revelation’ refers to the idea that truth about God and about the spiritual realm can be obtained by other means than by God’s revelation in the Bible. The claim that ‘special revelation’ has the same authority as God’s revelation in the Bible is based on the abused concept that ‘all truth is God’s truth.’ Unfortunately, for a growing number of church leaders the obvious source of ‘special revelation’ is psychology.
Many view psychology as just another scientific endeavor such as medicine, physics, chemistry, or biology. Some areas of psychology that observe people and study aspects of people such as cognition, intelligence, and brain functions are outside of the biblical scope and therefore do not contradict Scripture. However, for most of us psychology is connected to therapy, mental health, and the main source of solving problems. In other words, psychology claims insights into human nature and tells us how we should deal with our problems in life. Both Scripture and psychology claim to be experts on who we are and how we should live and this is where psychology and Scripture collide. The teachings of psychology and of Scripture are fundamentally different and they cannot go hand-in-hand.
Psychology teaches that humans are basically good (or at least neutral), Scripture teaches that humans are basically bad (we are sinners). Psychology teaches that people misbehave because of outside forces, Scripture teaches that people misbehave because we are rotten at the core and rebel against God. Psychology focuses on analyzing the past to find out how, when and where people are damaged (assuming that the actual or imagined psychological damage is the root cause of bad behavior). Scripture focuses on the present and tells us to take personal responsibility for our own sins in the here and now, while ignoring psychological damage (implying that this actual or imagined damage is not the root cause of bad behavior). Psychology tells us that we should focus on ourselves and on reaching our full potential (embracing psychological concepts such as healing our actual or imagined inner wounds, loving ourselves, being happy, self-fulfillment, self-actualization, etc.). Scripture tells us that we must submit to God (worship God), deny ourselves, and that our ultimate purpose in life is to glorify God (live our lives in gratitude toward God and please him in all we do). In other words, psychology is man-centered, Scripture is God-centered. Psychology tells us that we can be healed by a professional counselor, Scripture teaches that only the Word of God can transform us. Psychology is just over a hundred years old and has already overtaken our society and also many churches. Just a thought: if psychology is really crucially important to understand who we are, what’s wrong with us and how we should deal with that, then why did the Lord of the Church, Jesus Christ, leave his church in the dark for 1900 years before he gave us psychology as a ‘special revelation’ on how to keep His commands?
It’s important to realize that scientific discoveries (including psychological discoveries) are never absolutely true. What is true today may be proven wrong tomorrow. What we call ‘scientific truth’ cannot compete at all with biblical truth. That’s why ‘all truth is God’s truth’ cannot be used as an argument for special revelation. Psychological truths will never be absolute truths with the same authority as biblical truth. Jesus claimed to be the truth (Jn. 14:6). This biblical truth is not only absolutely true, it is also supremely relevant and cannot be discovered by human beings on their own. That’s why God revealed it to us through his Word. Therefore, it’s wrong to replace biblical guidelines by psychotherapy when teaching and counseling.
But does psychotherapy work? Yes, it does. However, for us Christians it is not a matter of “does it work?” The real question is “does it follow biblical guidelines or not?” Bruce Wampold’s The Great Psychotherapy Debate (2001) showed that (1) the alliance between the patient and the therapist is the key factor, (2) the personality of the therapist is a significant factor, and (3) the therapist’s strength of belief in the efficacy of the technique is also a factor for successful treatment, but that (4) the type of treatment, (5) the theoretical bases of the techniques used, and (6) the strictness of adherence to those techniques are not factors for successful treatment. Bruce Wampold’s conclusions reveal some core biblical principles. First, it’s all about the relationship between the counselor and the client: is there a click between the two? Second, the personality of the counselor is of significance: does the counselor have a talent or gift for counseling? Third, the belief system of the counselor: does he or she really believe in his/her own methods? It helps tremendously if the counselor and the client share the same worldview. Therefore, it’s very important that Christians are supported and counseled by mature Christian friends who are grounded in the Word of God in order to direct them to God and only to God.
Because the teachings of psychology and of Scripture are fundamentally different, they cannot go hand-in-hand. The biblical view and the psychological view on who we are and how we should live are incompatible on a deep level. Therefore, churches should discard the psychological view and adhere to the biblical view.
By following Scazzero’s psychological concept of ancestral bondage, church leaders encourage the members of their congregation to search for actual or imagined psychological damage in the past, assuming that the alleged damage is the root cause of bad behavior. Scazzero’s ancestral bondage tells us that our ancestral family—going back three to four generations (this is to the mid-1800s)—significantly impacts our lives: “unfortunately, it is not possible to erase the negative effects of our history” (p. 96). Scazzero also states that these family-bound behavioral patterns are “hardwired into our brains” and “deeply imbedded in our DNA” (p. 99, 100). Scazzero seems to believe that there is a spiritual ancestral bondage that determines present behavior and requires special action in order to be broken. However, according to Scripture there is no such thing as an ongoing bondage for those who love God and keep His commands. Ezekiel 18 makes it very clear that, although our parents influence us, they do not determine if God’s grace is on our lives or not. Neither did Jesus teach that difficulties arise from the sins of our parents (Jn. 9:1-12). The apostle Paul teaches us that anyone who is in Christ is a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17, Gal. 6:12-15). According to Scripture, there is no determinism of our past. In our churches, we should accept the biblical view that sin is the root cause of bad behavior.
5. What’s wrong with the non-biblical command, “Love yourself first”?
Richard Foster (and those who embrace his views) teach the non-biblical command “love yourself first”. We have to learn to love ourselves first. When we finally love ourselves enough, then we can start to love others. But this is not true: we do not have to learn to love ourselves first before we can love our neighbor. This non-biblical command contradicts the biblical view on human nature and it leads to idolatry. Jesus taught that “all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments [love God above all and love your neighbor as yourself]” (Matt. 22:34-40). “Love God above all” is the most important commandment in the Bible and it boils down to worship God, submit to God, give glory to God. “Love your neighbor as yourself” boils down to take care of your neighbor consciously the way you take care of yourself automatically.
But this is not what Foster and many church leaders are teaching. Richard Foster claims (Celebration of Discipline, p. 114, emphasis mine) that “Jesus made the ability to love ourselves the prerequisite for our reaching out to others (Matt. 22:39)”. Church leaders who promote Foster’s views, defend his idea with arguments such as “you can’t love another until you love yourself first” and “you can’t give to others what you haven’t received yourself first”. However, in the greatest-commandment-discussion Jesus does not command that we have to love ourselves first. Jesus presupposes an automatic self-love. Apparently, there is no need to say to us that we have to love ourselves first since it’s deeply ingrained in our human nature. We are selfish by nature. Nobody has to teach us that. The ‘love’ Jesus is talking about in “love your neighbor as yourself” has nothing to do with having warm, mushy feelings about ourselves or developing a high self-esteem. It’s far more down-to-earth. It’s selfishly and automatically taking care of our own interests. With this kind of automatic self-love in mind, Jesus says that we have to take care of our neighbor consciously the way we take care of ourselves automatically. Three Bible texts to illustrate this:
In Galatians 5:13-14 Paul says “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” This shows that loving your neighbor means taking care of your neighbor, not having warm, mushy feelings about your neighbor.
In Ephesians 5:28-29 Paul says “… husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body …” When the husband is hungry or thirsty, he will automatically look for something to eat or to drink. Taking care of your neighbor’s needs the way you take care of your own is what loving your neighbor is all about.
In Philippians 2:3-5 Paul says “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus”. Again, it tells us that you have to take care of your neighbor’s interests consciously the way you take care of your own interests automatically.
The non-biblical command “love yourself first” may seem rather innocent, but it leads to idolatry. We are called to submit to God (love God) as our first priority. To teach that you have to love yourself first before you can love God or your neighbor is therefore teaching idolatry. The false command “love yourself first” encourages a primary focus on ourselves, our problems, our feelings, etc. Even drug addicts or people suffering from depression, who may not take care of themselves, are still primarily focused on themselves, not on their neighbors. Depressed people may struggle with self-hatred, but they do not struggle with selfishness. None of us does. This selfishness is biblically regarded as loving yourself. We don’t have to teach people to do that. Everybody is automatically selfish. If people wait until they feel they love themselves enough, they will never proceed to love others. This is wrong: the non-biblical command “love yourself first” leads to the idolatry of worshiping ourselves.
6. What’s wrong with lectio divina?
I was at a worship service where the pastor preached on a well-known Bible passage regarding ‘illumination by the Holy Spirit’. In 1 Corinthians 1:17–2:16, Paul contrasts God’s wisdom with human wisdom, both in the content of the gospel message and in the power of the gospel message. The content of God’s wisdom (the message of the cross, submission to a crucified Christ, humbleness, serve one another as the expression of loving one another, etc.) was foolishness to the human wisdom of that age (and, indeed, of our age). Greco-Roman philosophers of those days had messages along the lines of ‘how to become a successful citizen’ and focused on how to blow your own trumpet, how to make people work for your benefit, how to defeat your enemies, etc. The Greco-Roman philosophers used elaborate rhetoric, an eloquence of words and gestures, to get that message across. What Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 1:17–2:16 is the exact opposite of that.
But this is not what the preacher explained in his sermon. He only focused on the latter part of 1 Corinthians 2, which talks about ‘illumination by the Holy Spirit’ as the power of God to convey the gospel message. He did not mention the gospel message at all. By explaining only half of this Bible passage (only the power, but not the content of the gospel) the message of the Bible text was significantly altered. The preacher’s explanation highlighted the lectio divina method (without mentioning the name lectio divina). By separating the content of the gospel from the deliverance of the gospel and subsequently discarding the content of the gospel message, the lectio divina method opens the floodgates to all kinds of heresies.
Because by claiming ‘illumination by the Holy Spirit’ and ignoring the authority of the Bible text itself, you can pick and choose whatever Bible text you like and you can make it say whatever you want. In his corresponding sermon questions for the home groups, the pastor connected ‘illumination by the Holy Spirit’ to an inward-focused reflection on Psalm 23.
According to the ‘experience movement’, the most important question to ask when reading the Bible is “What does this Bible verse mean to me personally?” The preferred Bible reading method to answer that question is lectio divina, because it highlights ‘illumination by the Holy Spirit.’ This focus on ‘illumination by the Holy Spirit’ is born out of Richard Foster’s ‘eureka experience’ (see the second topic in this critic). Although there is room for lectio divina in the Christian way of life, it’s proper place should be limited to personal devotion. The message preached from the pulpit should be embedded in a solid biblical explanation of the Bible text, because the authority of the Bible text itself is crucially important to keep church life on track and avoid all kinds of heresies. First, the meaning of the Bible text must be understood in the sense “What does this Bible verse mean logically and theologically?”, before it can be understood in the sense “What does this Bible verse mean to me personally?” The Bible text itself carries meaning that can and must be understood in the context of the Bible passage, the Bible chapter, the Bible book, and even in the context of the entire Bible. The diligent study of Scripture in the classic and systematic way (e.g. exegesis, hermeneutics, historical context) provides insight regarding what the Christian faith really is about and discernment regarding God’s will.
Unfortunately, the pastor paid little attention to systematic biblical theology. He singled out ‘illumination by the Holy Spirit’ in his sermon. This approach is especially detrimental to New Covenant discipleship. The New Covenant spells out the consequences of accepting Jesus Christ as your Savior and your Lord. Covenants are a kind of contractual arrangements and the New Covenant lists the contractual consequences of accepting Jesus Christ as your Savior: deny yourself, take up your cross, follow Christ, be salt of the earth, and bring God’s kingdom to the world in order to fulfill the Great Commission. In short: submit to Jesus Christ as your Lord. Discipleship is not an optional add-on to the gospel. According to the New Covenant, the transition from saved sinner to active disciple must be made. It’s an obligation, not just an option. Discipleship is a mandatory part of the complete package of the Christian faith. The gospel message in combination with New Covenant discipleship dominates the theology and the application of the 27 books of the New Testament and it should therefore also dominate the teaching in our churches.
7. What’s wrong with the seeker-friendly gospel?
At a service my wife and I attended, the pastor ended with the question “What do you need from the Holy Spirit today?” Although the congregation reacted enthusiastically, we were alarmed, because this is unbiblical teaching on at least two levels. First, we don’t really know what we lack, so we can’t decide on what we need. Naturally, we will always tend toward the goodies and never toward the discipline. If we (rather than God) can decide on what we need, we will become self-righteous consumers wallowing in our lukewarm bath and we will never follow the ‘way of the cross’ (Mk. 8:34-38), because we will never ask for suffering to become more Christ-like. Second and far more worrying, it puts God in the position of our divine butler or genie in a bottle ready to fulfill all our needs. This is idolatry.
Obviously, the pastor didn’t intend to teach such heresy, but it didn’t seem to be an innocent slip of the tongue either. Why not? Because it’s the inevitable consequence of preaching Bill Hybels’ seeker-friendly gospel. Bill Hybels of Willow Creek (Chicago) is the major example-to-follow of many pastors. The message that Hybels preaches is commonly known as the seeker-friendly gospel or the felt-needs gospel. Because the biblical gospel is considered unattractive to ‘unchurched Harry’ (Hybels’ target audience), Hybels preaches a message that addresses the felt-needs of Harry. Based on psychological polls and sociological surveys, we know that Harry is after personal fulfillment and experiencing God, so that is what Bill Hybels offers. Hybels’ seeker-friendly gospel portrays sin as a flawed strategy to gain fulfillment and salvation as a means to fulfill your felt-needs. Harry asks “How can I be happy?” Hybels answers “Accept Jesus.” This connects the seeker-friendly gospel seamlessly to Harry’s felt-needs. It’s this seamless connection that makes the felt-needs gospel so effective in reaching out to Harry. The enormous size of the seeker-friendly megachurches (thousands of members) is irrefutable evidence for the success of Hybels’ felt-needs approach.
Bill Hybels’ view on seeker-friendliness can be summarized as follows. If you want to reach unchurched Harry, you have to be seeker-friendly, otherwise Harry will stay out of reach forever. So even if the felt-needs gospel is theologically questionable, from an outreach point of view it’s pragmatic, effective and necessary. At first sight Bill Hybels’ view seems reasonable, so what’s wrong with it?
Unfortunately, quite a lot.
In essence, the seeker-friendly gospel merges the role of ‘salt and light’ with the role of the gospel message itself. The role of ‘salt and light’ is to address Harry’s felt-needs, to show how God’s kingdom looks like and to attract Harry to the gospel message (Matt. 5:13-16). Therefore, ‘salt and light’ pave the road to the gospel, which itself must stay unchanged. The fatal flaw in Hybels’ seeker-friendly gospel is to incorporate the role of ‘salt and light’ into the gospel message, thereby changing the gospel message. This results in a serious corruption of the gospel message. The true grit of the biblical gospel message is lost.
The core problem of Hybels’ seeker-friendly gospel is the redefinition of sin and salvation. The biblical gospel portrays sin as rebellion against God and salvation as deliverance from God’s wrath. Hybels’ gospel portrays sin as a flawed strategy to gain fulfillment and salvation as a means to fulfill your felt-needs. The biblical gospel is “foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18), Hybels’ gospel is attractive to those in pursuit of experiencing God. Hybels’ gospel is routinely defended by saying “methods change, but the message stays the same.” But this is not the case. Hybels’ gospel has gutted the true gospel. Hybels’ gospel is man-centered, not God-centered. By telling Harry that Christ will meet his felt-needs and will lead him to personal fulfillment, Hybels has shifted the focus from the truth and the eternal to the pragmatic and the temporal. Harry is not interested in truth and eternal destiny, but in feeling better about himself in the here and now.
Focusing on human usefulness instead of biblical truth is the fatal flaw in Hybels’ seeker-friendly approach. If accepting Christ is nothing more than a means to an end (namely, reaching personal fulfillment), then what happens if Harry finds a more convenient way to reach personal fulfillment? Then Christ can be discarded, because he is no longer useful. If Harry (rather than God) can decide on what he needs, the result will be an unrepentant Harry being fulfilled in his sinful needs and feeling better about himself, completely ignoring the radical challenge that Harry stands condemned before God and that he must repent and submit to God in order to get saved. God does not exist to meet Harry’s needs. The biblical gospel is not about Harry’s pursuit of happiness, it’s about Harry’s rebellion against God who will ultimately condemn him to hell if he doesn’t repent and submit to Christ.
The mindset with which Harry was attracted to Christ is very different from the mindset needed for the ‘way of the cross.’ (Mk. 8:34-38) Hybels’ felt-needs gospel requires the mindset of a confident customer who selfishly focuses on personal fulfillment to feel good about himself. The biblical gospel requires the mindset of a repentant sinner who humbly focuses on God’s gift of redemption and who is willing to follow Jesus Christ as his Lord no matter what the costs. Why would Harry stick around if the focus shifts from the pursuit of Harry’s happiness to Christ’s demand “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”? It’s no coincidence that Bill Hybels (or for that matter other seeker-friendly pastors) rarely preaches on New Covenant discipleship, because the transition from a seeker-friendly gospel to the ‘way of the cross’ is difficult to make. However, according to the New Covenant the transition from saved sinner to active disciple must be made. It’s an obligation, not just an option. Discipleship is a mandatory part of the complete package of the Christian faith. Therefore, New Covenant discipleship must dominate churches’ teachings.
In order to illustrate the gravity of exchanging a message from God for the felt-needs of man, let’s have a look at the first temptation of Christ (Mt. 4:1-4, Lk. 4:1-4). The first temptation focuses on human needs instead of God’s commands: “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” The devil is appealing to Jesus’ felt-needs because Jesus “ate nothing during those [forty] days, and at the end of them he was hungry.” In fact, Jesus’ answer reveals that it is wrong to exchange God’s commands for human needs. In his answer Jesus refers to Deuteronomy 8:2-3:
Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.
Just like the people of Israel, Jesus was humbled and tested for forty days (years) in the wilderness in order to know what was in His heart, whether or not Jesus would keep God’s commands. It’s significant that Jesus was tempted to focus on His own felt-needs, but that He answered that we should focus on God’s commands instead.
A better way to be seeker-friendly in order to reach out to unchurched Harry is to follow the example of Jesus Christ who was seeker-friendly in a good way. Jesus reaches out to the people to address their felt-needs, to show God’s kingdom to them and to preach the gospel to them. Matthew 9:35-38 shows Jesus’ seeker-friendly approach:
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
Jesus’ seeker-friendly approach does not corrupt the gospel message in any sense. Jesus went actively after the lost sheep and he actively relieved their pain and sorrow, while preaching and teaching the Good News of God’s kingdom to them. It’s highly significant that Jesus was motivated by compassion for the lost sheep.
What lessons can be learned from Jesus’ seeker-friendly approach? First of all, Jesus was motivated by compassion for the lost sheep. Second, He went actively into the world (out of the church building!) to reach out to the lost sheep. Third, by relieving their pain and sorrow He addressed their felt-needs and showed them how God’s kingdom looks like. Fourth, by combining practical help with preaching about God’s kingdom Jesus taught the lost sheep what their non-felt, but true and fundamental need was (the need to be saved from sin). Fifth, Jesus did not merge the role of ‘salt and light’ with the role of the gospel message in any sense (and we shouldn’t do that either).
 For example, 1 Corinthians 1:17 “to preach the gospel … the cross of Christ”, 1 Corinthians 1:18 “the message of the cross”, 1 Corinthians 1:23 “we preach Christ crucified”, 1 Corinthians 2:2 “nothing … except Jesus Christ and him crucified”, and 1 Corinthians 2:6-7 “not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, [but] … God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began”.
 For example, 1 Corinthians 1:17 “not with [our] wisdom and eloquence”, 1 Corinthians 1:18 “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”, 1 Corinthians 1:21 “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe”, 1 Corinthians 1:25 “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength”, 1 Corinthians 1:27 “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong”, 1 Corinthians 2:1 “I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God”, 1 Corinthians 2:4-5 “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power”, 1 Corinthians 2:10 “these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit”, and 1 Corinthians 2:13-14 “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.”