Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Are there too many churches in Fiji?

from w
Though I am more comfortable with the older established Christian churches such as Methodist, Catholic, Anglican, there is much to learn from the newer Penticostal churches with their engagement with music, youth, and discipline. However some of the ideas in the fringe churches are peculiar and really lacking in what Jesus was on about. Father Kevin Barr wrote an article about the dangers of misreading and misleading which was published in the Fiji Times recently. It's long but worth reading. He starts off about the yelling!

Beware of false prophets
Kevin Barr, Sunday, September 13, 2009

Jesus did not shout at sinners. He treated them gently and with compassion. The belief that they are possessed by Satan or an evil spirit has led people to do unusual things. It shows how dangerous some of the twisted beliefs coming from some new religious groups can be. Serious questions have been raised about the nature of these groups and what they teach and how qualified their preachers may be. Extreme religious messages can easily push those who are already unbalanced to actions which have dangerous, even deadly, consequences.

Satan and evil spirits
The followers of some of the new Pentecostal/charismatic churches tend to give exaggerated explanatory value to supernatural powers of good (God) and evil (the Devil). They tend to deny or play down the human factors responsible for good and evil and discount scientific answers in favour of seeing supernatural forces at work.
The struggle between good and evil in the human person or in the world is personified as the constant clash of power between God and Satan or between good and evil spirits. There often seems to be an excessive fear of evil spirits and the power of the devil in the world. People are sometimes described as being "possessed" by a particular evil spirit e.g. a spirit of greed or lust. Sexual sins are regularly seen to be the worst form of evil. Evil spirits are often said to be the cause of various illnesses or forms of bad luck. In Fiji, the traditional dwelling places of evil spirits (e.g. the baka tree) are still designated as sources of evil by some Pentecostal "healing" pastors and Christians are told to cut them down so as not to be harmed by them.

Holiness as separation from evil
In many of these new charismatic churches, God is seen as the all Holy One who demands of us strict observance of religious regulations and avoidance of any evil contaminating influence. This leads to a strong tendency to see holiness as "separation from evil" and to demand angrily that any contaminating element be kept out of the Christian community. The notion that "true" Christians must remain "pure" and separate themselves from "sinners" is reminiscent of the code of holiness preached by the Pharisees in the New Testament. According to this "holiness code" those who did not strictly observe the law were to be excluded and avoided. Jesus spoke out strongly against this code of holiness.

He did not preach that God was the all Holy One but rather a father who was full of compassion and love and embodied the Old Testament statement: "The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, full of compassion and love". For this reason he mixed with those rejected by the Pharisees as sinners and sat down to eat with tax collectors.
In some evangelical/charismatic groups today, the preacher often seems to preach a message of a God of anger who punishes those who do not obey his commands. With a loud angry judgmental voice (often magnified by loudspeakers) he shouts and yells damnation upon sinners and sounds forth angrily against evil in the world and the all-pervading influence of Satan.

But Jesus did not shout angrily at sinners. He treated them gently and with compassion. In fact he was known to be the friend of tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners and he mixed with people of other religious traditions (Romans, Samaritans, etc). For him, the most notable characteristic of God, his Father, was not holiness (in the sense of separation from evil) but compassion. For him God was a loving father who understands and forgives.

Jesus reserved his anger for hypocritical religious leaders, the self-righteous, the legalistic Scribes and Pharisees and the selfish rich who refused to care for the poor. Some psychologists today say there is a close connection between religious fundamentalism, authoritarianism, prejudice and racial attitudes.
Moreover, some scholars speak of fundamentalism as a form of religious pathology. It can have dangerous consequences in the lives of those who are already unbalanced.

The dominant christian voices
Unfortunately the dominant public voices that say they speak in the name of Christianity today are voices from the fundamentalist Christian right. These legalistic and dogmatic public "Christian" voices are disturbing and very often damage the public perception of the Christian church. They alienate many good people and give others the impression that the church is no longer relevant. Their black-and-white judgment on complex moral issues are narrow-minded and offensive to those who see the message of Jesus as urging us to compassion, love and understanding. Many of the biblical texts they quote in support of their position come from the Old Testament legalistic tradition, not from the New Testament.

In the name of "family values" the churches of the new religious right speak about the necessity of a return to moral values in society but they lack balance in the moral values they promote. Whereas the fundamentalist Christian right loves to quote a few legalistic passages from the Old Testament about homosexuality, they pay little attention to the many stern warnings of the Old Testament prophets about injustice and the strong words of Jesus in the New Testament about the danger of riches and need for his followers to show deep concern for the poor. They speak out against abortion but wars which kill thousands of innocent people are justified in the name of fighting terrorism and promoting democracy.

US biblical scholar Marcus Borg, in his book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (1995:59) has this to say: "In parts of the church today there are groups that emphasise holiness and purity as the Christian way of life, and they draw their own sharp social boundaries between the righteous and sinners.

It is a sad irony that these groups, many of which are seeking very earnestly to be faithful to the Scriptures, end up emphasising those parts of the Scriptures that Jesus challenged and opposed. An interpretation of the Scriptures faithful to Jesus and the early Christian movement sees the Bible through the lens of compassion, not purity." Like the Pharisees in Jesus' day, it seems that many fervent, Bible-reading, judgmental Christians end up self-righteous, mean-spirited and uncompassionate people rather than Christian men and women who strive to follow in the footsteps of Jesus in the gospels.

Unfortunately the Christian right demands to speak with the loudest voice today and wants to drown the voices of other Christians.

Alternative authentic Christian voices need to make themselves heard in our society today. They should speak out and represent the compassionate concern and priorities of Jesus. They need to dispute the legalism and dogmatism of the new religious right and bring the voice of the gospels to bear on the religious and moral concerns of our society in Fiji today.

The need for controls
In view of the potential damage that religious preachers can do in the lives of individuals and communities there would seem to be a compelling reason for some standards and controls to be established. In order to protect people doctors have to be registered before they can practise, lawyers are required to be registered and teachers have to be registered and show their qualifications. So why not the clergy?
Many of those who set up new churches in Fiji today seem to have very little training and may be misleading their unsuspecting flock.

It would seem advisable that those who are leaders and preachers in churches should have to provide their qualifications and the source of those qualifications. It should not be a free-for-all where anyone who "feels the call" or wants to be a leader in a church should be able to set up his or her own church and preach his or her own interpretation of the Bible. They should be properly qualified people from recognised institutions.

This may not prevent every problem as the registration of doctors does not prevent every case of malpractice. But it should provide some basic safeguards which currently are absent.

Freedom of religion surely does not mean that any Tom, Dick or Harry, or Mary, Margaret or Alice can start their own church and impose their doctrine on their unsuspecting congregation, no matter how many biblical quotations they can provide. These days, our society demands accountability, transparency and professionalism. Therefore we must demand that controls be set in place for preachers of religion to ensure that they are not false and dangerous prophets.


Andrew Thornley said...

A timely article from Father Barr.
During my recent two weeks in Fiji I witnessed this shouting mentality at Ratu Sukuna Park, where,in one amusing incident,Council workers cut off the loud speaker connection after complaints from nearby shopkeepers.
Again, in the Davuilevu precinct the Assembles of God held their annual convention and the members were yelled at by a visiting American preacher whose southern accent even I found hard to understand - yet not even a translation offered.
In the final analysis, all these Christian groups are different trees planted in the same soil. However, they are sect-like in their behaviour and have little interest in ecumenical dialogue, So the Body of Christ is grievously split. Furthermore there is no encouragement of inter-faith dialogue which Fiji needs for a mature religious future. Dear Talatala Niukula was saying this twenty years ago but it fell on deaf ears, even among the Methodist clergy.
Relating to the other faiths does not mean that you have to compromise your own declaration of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. This can be gently proclaimed while listening respectfully to the views of others.

Peceli and Wendy's Blog said...

Hello Andrew,
Bula vinaka. Sorry I didn't meet you in Suva though we were there at the same time. Regarding Rev Paula Niukula, he was a lone prophet in peace-making and dialogue but he did put issues on the agenda until the day he died. His wife Sainimere Niukula was with us in our Cuvu program for Indian outreach and it was very good to meet up with her again.
I'm having a quiet week now after the trip to Hobart to attend Rev Aminiasi's funeral which was done very well. They took me up to the top of Mount Wellington to view Hobart and there was plenty of snow and a freezing wind.

Anonymous said...

Demons are far more common than most people think.Normal everyday people do have demons working inside, this is why we have so many churches and denominations.I have personally witnessed exorcisms and all the people seemed normal beforehand.