Friday, December 14, 2007

"Do You Have a Christmas Tree?"

This was a weird and common question that was asked of my husband and me during our first Christmas season at Severn Covenant Church outside of Baltimore. We both found all of this to be very strange, and I wish that I knew then what I know now. I grew up in an area settled by Moravians, a pietistic religious group that used the Christmas story as a tool of evangelism. 

The Moravians were originally the disciples under the teachings of John Hus who was influential during the Reformation. The Moravians are also noted to have inspired John Wesley while on a rough boat ride across the Atlantic, praising God on the rough and wild sea. So to not celebrate Christmas seemed rather odd. (And although I was baptized in the Assemblies of God church as a young girl, I was also baptized Moravian on what was believed to be my infant deathbed. For those who know what an APGAR score is, mine was a 2 at both intervals. I’m a Moravian, in that sense, from day one!) 

All that is to say, Christmas comes naturally to me and to my husband who once played in the Moravian Trombone Choir at Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem, PA in the town where he grew up. I lived just over the top of South Mountain in Allentown where the City of Bethlehem displays a huge, illuminated star above the city during the Christmas season.

As Christmas approaches, I was reminded of some of the strange practices that arise in aberrant and legalistic churches, many of whom do not observe Christmas but will follow some of the Jewish holiday celebrations as a novelty or will observe Passover, for example. I’ve started an article that my editor has yet to finish and return to me, but I do have the Christmas portion of the article on my other website. Join me here over the next few days as I present the article here also.

I do hope that you take advantage of the season, putting aside the materialism and what the world has made of things and worship the Lord and His birth. Jesus emptied Himself of His fullness to become a mere man, and a helpless infant at that! What a miracle this is in itself, as he was born to be a sacrifice for us, wrapped in the same type of swaddling cloth that He would one day be wrapped in after his death. Stand still with the world for a moment this year and worship Him, rejoicing in His humble birth. Sing with the angels and rejoice.
Part I: Introduction

From my recent study of Doug Phillips and the doctrines propagated by his many, intertwined branches of ministry (Boerne Christian Assembly, Vision Forum, Vision Forum Ministries, National Council of Family Integrated Churches, National Center for Home Education under the Home School Legal Defense Association, and others), I note a trend of practices and philosophical similarities common to other legalistic Christian denominations and movements. Although, to my knowledge, these trends have not been documented by the counter-cult movement as diagnostic for cults and cultic groups, there are common “markers” and “red flag” symbols that tend to follow legalistic and cultic practices.

These aid in the identification of groups for whom legalism is a central doctrinal tenet. These are by no means suggested as criteria for determining either theological cults (groups denying the deity of Christ, per the “traditional Walter Martin definition”) or psychological cults (groups practicing techniques which dull critical thought through manipulation without the knowledge or consent of the subjects/followers). It has been my experience, however, that noting these trends in churches or Bible-based groups serve as a potential indicator of legalism and of cultic doctrine and/or behavior.

Preferences and traditions differ from expected standards within churches, however over the course of the histories of many religious groups, preferences and traditions can become requirements. Many groups follow this pattern as they respond to the pressures exerted by their church leaders by means of the legalistic focus on reasonable standards, subtly shifting them into essential doctrines on the same level as the fundamental, essential doctrines of the Christian faith. Cults, by nature and definition are also legalistic, but not all legalistic religious groups may be qualified as cults. There are also times and seasons in both the life of the individual and in the life of the church when the focus on specific doctrine(s), in response to particular pressures and events, does not constitute the type of legalism described above. Used properly, they preserve an acceptable trend and temporary means of sustaining vigilant contending for the faith. However, the continued employment or exploitation of such a sustained and narrowed focus on less essential concepts to the exclusion, addition or even replacement of the essential doctrines of the Christian Faith poses a potential threat to the healthy, balanced Christian life of both individuals as well as entire groups.

The criticism brought against the Kansas City Prophets presents a valuable example of such a sustained focus beyond reasonable and edifying use. Within this movement, the work and experience of (what was understood by that group as) the manifestation of the Holy Spirit supplanted the value and potency of Scripture. This aberrancy of the Kansas City Prophets demonstrated by views about the working of the Charismata within the lives of believers became a “theological innovation.” Vision Forum and the teachings of Doug Phillips represent a theological innovation very comparable to this Charismatic example. Promotion of family and legalistic interpretation of Biblical ideals of family displace and redefine the central, orthodox doctrine of grace and also the evangelism of the unbeliever through avenues outside of the life of the family. Standards of family become tantamount to the essential doctrine of Christian liberty through grace, serving as “markers” of salvation within Doug Phillips’ patriarchy doctrine.