Covid-19 and Beyond

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“Where do we go from here? Chaos or Community?” This was the fascinating title of a book written in 1967, by Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Earlier that year he had isolated himself from the demands of the civil rights movement, rented a house in Jamaica, and laboured over his final manuscript. It was to be the final year of his life before his assassination.

In his book, he laid out his thoughts, plans, and dreams for America’s future, the need for better jobs, higher wages, decent housing, and quality education. Dr King demanded an end to global suffering. He asserted that ‘Humankind’, for the first time, had the right resources and technology to eradicate its deepest problems, a bold statement.

Over 50 years later, it seems from afar that America is more divided, in terms of race and poverty, than at any time since the American Civil War. “Humankind” has so far been unable to solve its deepest problems. The sort of problems which led to the 1960’s uprising and has been seen again in recent months on the back of the “Black Lives Matter” or BLM movement.

But the same question Dr King asked in 1960’s America, can be asked in 2020’s UK. In the aftermath of its first wave, it is now evident that Covid-19 has also divided and exposed our society deeply.

The Aftermath

Few would argue that the UK, and the world as a whole, has been hit by the biggest crisis since the outbreak of the Second World War. No other crisis since 1939 has affected so many countries (188 currently) and had such a dramatic effect on society, our families, on individuals, and on the way we live.

Some 6 months since lockdown was first announced in the UK, we are seeing a regular flow of academic research and news items exposing many of the hidden impacts, above and beyond the illness itself and many consequential deaths. Impacts we heard anecdotally are now writ large.

As a Pastor in Bedford, I increasingly hear and see in our locality, the scale and breadth that the societal impacts of Covid-19 and lockdown have had upon our nation. There will likely be more to come.

The Heart of the Issue

It is a growing and sobering catalogue of issues that are coming to light. The UK government, relevant charities, businesses, and churches are seeing these issues first-hand.

Initially at least, lockdown disguised certain underlying problems. Some turned to gardening and home baking. Others spoke of the benefits of homeworking, time with the family, time-out, no commuting and lower pollution. But this was only papering over the cracks.

The Bible uniquely explains that ‘the issue of the heart is the heart of the issue’. This is the central issue facing all of humanity, and has been ever since our Fall into sin. It is also the problem that governments and civil rights movements won’t and can’t deal with.

The issues we face now are not new. But in our arrogance, as human beings just like Dr King, we proudly assume we will be able to overcome them.

The Issues

Here is a depressing summary of just 5 of the current issues, some old some new, that are now coming to light at scale, as we come through Covid-19:

1. Relationships – Lockdown forced people to live together, with limited freedoms, sometimes in the confinement of overcrowded homes. The result is a shocking growth of domestic abuse and a surge in relationship breakdowns.

2. Alcohol – With relationships at breaking point, as a nation it appears that we have turned again to alcohol to try to drown our sorrows. A recent Public Health England report states that 8.4m people are now drinking at high-risk levels up from 4.8m in February 2020. It concludes that “Soaring alcohol misuse could overwhelm public services”. Our own experience in Bedford is that the streets and park benches are testimony to the growing number of damaged lives, all no doubt with a story to tell.

3. Mental Health – Numerous reports tell us that anxiety levels and the mental health of the nation is at a very low ebb. This is not surprising as we are social beings; this is the way the Lord God made us. If we are cut off from God and then mostly cut-off from each other, or worse pent-up with each other, it is unsurprising that many are now fearful to go out, stressed and anxious about their lives.

4. Elderly/Care Homes – Perhaps one of the saddest impacts has been on those coming to the end of their earthly lives. Given the nature of Covid-19, our elderly have had to endure the longest and most restrictive of lockdowns. With limited contact outside, residents and staff have carried many burdens. Some we have spoken to, as we have given Bibles and gifts to residents and staff in nearly every Care Home in Bedford, are shattered and traumatised by the ordeal they have been through.  

5. Authority Ignored – Like the USA, in the UK we have long championed democracy as the panacea for all societal ills. It is somewhat ironic then that an issue the UK faces is a growing disrespect for authority of all kinds. A natural consequence perhaps of a largely post-Christian society, which has mostly rejected the ultimate authority, our Maker and the authority of His word, the Bible.

We are seeing a blatant disregard for  the Covid-19 rules and laws the government has asked us to follow. This seems to stem from i) a diminishing respect for politicians ii) the inevitable and inherent inconsistency in  the rules we are being asked to follow changing regularly and iii) a lack of neighbourly concern and awareness.

Where do we go from here?

The challenge we now face is that these problems are rearing up when the country is more indebted than ever before. Not helped by the historical fact that most governments, regardless of hue, tend to focus mostly on the effects of the problems not the underlying causes.

Looking forward it is clear that no amount of money will solve the issue of the human heart. What is needed is a permanent systemic and wholesale personal change in many lives. One that comes from the reality of knowing and experiencing new life in the Lord Jesus Christ, which is revealed in and through the Word of God.

In Defence of Christianity

Christianity is indestructible and needs no defence. CH Spurgeon, the 19th century Baptist preacher, once said “Defend the Bible! I would rather defend a lion!”

However, strangely a defence has started to mount from a most unlikely quarter . A number of recent books and articles have started to defend the merits of Christianity, philosophically speaking at least. Authors and commentators on society like Jordan Peterson, Tom Holland, Douglas Murray, and even Richard Dawkins (to an extent) are part of a growing lobby of what some are calling “Christian-Atheists”.

Their argument runs something like this:

You may not like Christianity, but i) when you look at all the alternatives it is so much better; and ii) when you look at what it has achieved over thousands of years it has some strong credentials, namely:

  1. Its Values – Christianity and the Bible put the highest possible value on human life and its preservation – who can argue with that?
  1. Its Laws – Unlike the changing Covid-19 rules “The law of the Lord is perfect (complete and consistent) converting the soul.” Psalm 19:7
  1. Its promotion of Human Rights – These were the creation of God. He enshrined hundreds of them in the Bible, to protect humanity from humanity.
  1. Anti-Slavery – Who abolished it? Wilberforce and other leading Christians were the ones that fought and succeeded in defeating this inhumane practice.
  1. Anti-Racism – Who first stood against it? The Bible teaches that God is “no respecter of persons” and that we should never make decisions and discriminate based on the appearance of the face.
  1. Healthy Loyal Marriages – Christianity put necessary constraints on men and women, defining marriage around commitment and faithfulness and prohibiting abuse or rape of any kind.

The Only Answer

The unchanging and timeless message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the salvation from sin it offers, through Christ’s perfect life and atonement, needs no defending.  It has transformed the lives of millions and continues to do so.

But perhaps some, in the aftermath of Covid-19, can be open-minded enough to see that it is the only answer to the underlying problems and deep questions of life. Governments, Civil Rights movements, technology, money will not sustainably solve the problem of the human heart.

The problems we now face in the aftermath of Covid-19, are in fact the same problems which have always been there and ever will be, until this earth is no more. They have just been exposed at the same time on a scale we have not seen for many decades.

The Essence of Divine Worship in a Post Lockdown World

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Forgive me for a personal reflection. At this present time I am in the rather unusual position of having been a Pastor for more days during Lockdown than before. As Lockdown now unwinds it is good to reflect on how these past months have affected our lives and particularly our worship.

Lockdown Commences

At the Induction service on 7th March we knew the Covid-19 Pandemic was rapidly taking hold, and just days later a gathering of over 500 would have been unlawful. Restrictions to normal life were imminent with Lockdown commencing on 23rd March. Quickly we had to adapt the way we worship, witness and fellowship as a Church.

At the time we did not know that the restrictions would mean 105 days would pass before a form of corporate public worship would be physically possible again (5th July 2020), and then only for some, and with ongoing restrictions.

The first few weeks of Lockdown were very challenging for everyone. So many decisions had to be taken, and in such a short period of time, with few precedents to draw on. Decisions such as whether to live stream or pre-record services, record at home or in a make-shift studio, whether to hold a virtual Lord’s Table or not; and how many prayer meetings to hold, just to name but a few.

More importantly, could we provide Pastoral care remotely. The very real danger to the elderly meant they were unavailable, and the vulnerable and socially isolated, would need more spiritual support and encouragement, not less.

With responsibilities shared, tasks taken up by many not by one, including young believers, the burdens lifted and we had the opportunity to “one-another”.

As we look back over these months, the Lord went before us, just as He did when the children of Israel entered the unknown way into Canaan under Joshua’s leadership. Problems that sleep deprived nights could not solve, were addressed and faith and prayer were strengthened, as we  saw the Lord provide.

Alongside the challenges there were also new opportunities and encouragements. New technologies have been embraced. New people have been contacted as 600 free bibles have been given out. Local care homes have been supported with bibles for the residents’ rooms and day room and staff and residents encouraged to access our live stream services. Sunday School was moved online in just a week and many new and existing worshippers have been able to join us on our YouTube Channel. “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes.” Ps 118:23

Lockdown Lessons for Life

We have learned so much and re-learned old lessons. Members have given testimony to the Lord dealing with them in new ways, resulting in spiritual growth in a few months, that might have taken years without Lockdown.

We have been reminded that God is Sovereign and in supreme control. He rules the nations of the world. Many have been caused to think of their ‘never dying souls’ perhaps as never before. John Ryland puts it this way:      

Sovereign Ruler of the skies,
Ever gracious, ever wise!
All my times are in Thy hand,
All events at Thy command.

But perhaps most beneficial lesson of all, is the least obvious one. We have re-learned a ‘back-to-basics’ approach for life with many unhelpful things swept away. We have had more time to read, pray, appreciate, and give thanks to God and others.  

Many though have been shaken. No doubt in time we shall discover, even more have been traumatised as a result of Covid-19 and the loss of loved ones. Some have turned to worship who were non-worshippers. Others seem to have made the NHS their sole focus for praise or channelled their energies into new campaigns for justice.

However, it is remarkable that at a time when UK churches have been emptied, many more have heard the Word of God than perhaps since the 1950’s.

We have also seen, and are not surprised, that with more time, the sin of the human heart has erupted.  Domestic abuse has risen by 50%. There has been even less respect for Government, law and Civil Society.  God’s Word tells us these things would be so, especially in a country that has turned its back on God and His high and holy laws. That has rejected His totally consistent, timeless, and unchanging truth.

Worship in Lockdown and beyond

As Christians, one of the major impacts for us has been the sudden stripping back of our worship. Not being able to meet together physically, and then unable to sing in public worship, has made us think deeply about what true worship constitutes. Every believer has a desire to worship the great Creator, adoring Him and extolling His sublime attributes with praise, and to do this together.

After all, God has made us to be worshipping creatures, and if we do not worship a transcendent Almighty God, we will worship something or someone else. The Psalmist says “Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth’s sake.” Ps 115:1

The essence of true worship is to draw near to God. To come into His holy presence with thanksgiving and with joy. The way His people are to draw near is prescribed by God Himself.  Drawing near is not a right, but a tremendous privilege, the highest a human being can have.

Checklist of Questions for True Worship

Our forms of Worship have been challenged. This is a good thing. Public prayer meetings have been replaced with Zoom prayer meetings, sung worship with read worship. So it is right that we ask some vital questions:

  • What is the true essence of Divine worship?
  • Is my worship mostly vertical (for God) or horizontal (for me)?
  • Does my worship take me into the presence of a Holy God?
  • Is the test of right worship acceptability to God or me?
  • Does it give all glory to God or lift up the flesh?
  • Are the words based on real bible truth?

There has been such a fundamental shift of the worship practices in Evangelical Churches in the UK and beyond in the last 40-50 years, it could make us think that one of the reasons the Lord has allowed Covid-19 is to be a challenge to the way we worship. We remember He says: “I am the LORD: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images.” Isaiah 42:8

We sometimes hear comments on the worship of a particular church. We then hear how the choice of which church to attend, is based solely on personal preference, as though God’s instructions and what His Word says is an after-thought. Yet God’s Word is clear, “The hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” John 4:23-24

Biblical worship is never to be crafted or based on human artistry.  It can never be a performance requiring a paid-for ticket.

 

The children of Israel were warned in the strongest terms that when they made a new altar for worship, not even a tool was permitted to be used to craft the stones. They were to be natural stones, never the result of man’s effort or craft. “And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it.” Exodus 20:25

As we return to some form of public worship,  without singing for the time being, may our worship be examined by God. May He show us if it is honouring to Him, conforming to the instructions of His Word which should rightly regulate all our Worship. Then and only then will it be pleasing to Him and a blessing to each will follow.

False ‘Prosperity gospel’ in and around Bedford

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As a newly appointed Pastor in Bedford, several things have struck me, as I have started to get to know the area.

Firstly, the remarkable diversity of the Bedford population, with over 30% of knowing a language other than English. This was a major attraction for me and my family, having lived in London for the last 30 years.

Secondly, I have been struck by the sheer number and diversity of churches and chapels in the area. This is a testimony, perhaps to both the ethnic diversity and the legacy of the likes of our most famous son, John Bunyan.

Related to this is a dawning realisation that, as in London, there are so many churches who could be characterised as “Prosperity gospel” in their teaching and practice. I am particularly concerned for those involved in such churches, especially in a Post-Covid world.

Origins

In the last 100 years in the US and 50 years in the UK, the Christian Church has been badly infected by a perversion of the true and timeless Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. A heresy which is commonly called “The Prosperity gospel” (“Pg”), also known as “The Word of Faith Movement”, has spread rapidly. The 2018 documentary “American Gospel : Christ alone” available on Netflix, has highlighted the impact.

The roots of Pg are in Pentecostalism in the US, with one of its early pioneers being a New York based Pastor called EW Kenyon at the turn of the last century. It was then quickly taken up by Kenneth E Hagin. The movement is now in its 2nd or 3rd generation of development and has become further and further divorced from the truth.

Current leading exponents include Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, Todd White and Joyce Meyer. It is noteworthy that these are all Americans. This is unsurprising, as in many ways the movement fits well with the much-vaunted American dream that “you can have it all”.

Perverted Teaching

The central teaching, as with all heresy, is skilfully designed to appeal to the sinful tastes of those who have not yet truly repented of sin.

Repentance is the first call in John the Baptist’s recorded message (Mark 1.4) as he prepared the way for the Lord Jesus Christ. When the Saviour started his public ministry, His first words in Mark are a command “to repent and believe” (Mark 1.15). However, the Prosperity gospel has no such requirement and so many of its followers have not been called to turn their back on the world and all it stands for.

Kenneth Copeland with his latest jet plane

This distorted gospel has a particularly cruel appeal among the poorest sections of society. It is a wicked heresy, exploiting those who often have the least.

The core belief is that Christians should aim to be as rich as possible in this world, and it teaches “You can serve God and the world (or mammon)”. Material things and as many possessions as you want can be relentlessly pursued at the same time as devotion to God. Indeed, “the more you have the more blessed you are.” The implication is clear, that a large part of a Christian’s happiness is to be derived from what we have, and what we have is a sign of God’s favour. Afterall, it is God’s will that His people are blessed materially as well as spiritually.

This is the very opposite of the teaching and numerous examples of the Word of God. We remember that the “Son of Man had nowhere to lay His head” Matthew 8.20. The Apostle Paul, as far as we are aware, never owned a home and supported himself through tent making. David in Psalm 37.16 says “a little that a righteous man hath is better than the riches of many wicked”.

Biblical teaching of the sin of covetousness, and specifically the 10th commandment which prohibits it, is dismissed by Pg teachers as being old fashioned and unnecessarily depriving believers of deserved happiness. This is exemplified by one of its leading exponents, Kenneth Copeland, who has an estimated personal net worth of US$300m (IB Times: “The Richest Pastor in America” – 20 April 2020). 

In addition to covetousness, there is an almost total denial of illness or a confident ability to heal those who suffer from it; during the pandemic of COVID-19 in early 2020, Copeland gained national attention for his comments in response to the outbreak. He repeatedly claimed that the pandemic had ended or would soon end, and that he could heal sufferers from its effects.

Unsurprisingly he also called for his followers to continue paying tithes if they lost their jobs in the economic crisis of the pandemic. He later made claims to have destroyed the virus and to have ended the still-ongoing pandemic (The Independent – 6 Apr 2020).

Pg does not recognise that a larger part of the history of the Christian Church, especially the New Testament Church, has been characterised by persecution and suffering. The Saviour suffered, Peter, Paul, and the other Apostles suffered, and most were also martyred. To Pg advocates we are not to suffer, instead we are to be positive and to triumph in everything we do in life.

In effect we can summarise this heretical teaching as ‘Christ plus’ (wealth, health and prosperity). Many of Pg teachings are quite simply outrageous, and yet in the UK and in around Bedford, there are many churches who have been drawn in by the empty promises.

Key NT Verse to Justify Pg Teaching

The key verse used by Pg teachers to justify its position is 3 John 2 “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy souls prosper”. Much is made of this verse, one of few in the New Testament which, on the surface at least, seems to encourage prosperity as the rightful pursuit of all true believers.

The Greek word translated as prosper means to follow a good path. What clearly delights John is not that Gaius is made rich, though evidently, he was able to give hospitality, but that “he walked in the truth”. It is a common feature of most heresies that they build whole beliefs and practices on one or very few verses, rather than “comparing spiritual things with spiritual” as Paul teaches us, comparing verse with verse and ensuring no inconsistency.

Nowhere does the Bible link true Godliness with poverty or wealth. In fact, the Bible teaches that it is not money, but our lust for and desire for money or “the love of money” which is “the root of all evil”. As true believers, we are to seek to avoid all covetousness. Like Abraham, and the Levites (Joshua 13.33), our riches and our inheritance is spiritual and eternal not earthly, physical, and passing.

The New Testament gives a strong warning about pursuing riches, “but they that be rich fall into temptation and a trap” 1 Timothy 6.9.

A New Authority

What is the source and authority for this new set of teachings, which is a total departure from the teaching of the church over the centuries?

The answer is “New Revelation”. The Bible gives solemn warnings (e.g. Revelation 22 – the Bible’s final chapter) to any that attempt to add to or take away from the Word of God. But as we know from history, as soon as the idea of modern-day prophets or revelation is introduced a flood of errors come in. To the Pg movement, it matters not that their teaching contradicts the Bible or indeed their own teachers.

Misunderstanding of the Fall

One of the major doctrinal errors of the Pg movement is a complete misunderstanding of the fall in the Garden of Eden. As a result of Adam’s sin, and ours sin in Adam, the blessings of creation were  significantly reduced. Our relationship and communion with God, the most precious gift of all, was removed. Now, our heart’s desires are for those things that do not ultimately satisfy us. 

As a result, the promise that we are to have “dominion over the earth and enjoy its richness” can now only be fulfilled in Christ when we are converted by Him, and then ultimately in its fullest respect only in heaven, when full communion will be restored.

Until then, as believers we have communion with God in Christ, through the means of grace, but this will be partial at best. However, Pg teaching totally ignores the consequences of the fall, or that ever since we fell, we have been vulnerable to idolatry and materialism.

Costi Hinn

We have been greatly helped to understand the inner workings of the Pg movement by the nephew of Benny Hinn, one of its leading and most wealthy exponents. Costi Hinn parted ways with his Uncle several years ago, having worked for his Uncle in a gap year as a ‘Catcher’ of those supposedly slain in the Spirit. He has since professed Christ.

Costi Hinn

He says, in a revealing article in Christianity Today entitled ‘Benny Hinn Is My Uncle, but Prosperity Preaching Isn’t for Me’ – “Growing up in the Hinn family empire was like belonging to some hybrid of the royal family and the mafia. Though Jesus Christ was still a part of our gospel, he was more of a magic genie than the King of Kings. Rubbing him the right way, by giving money and having enough faith, would unlock your spiritual inheritance. God’s goal was not his glory but our gain. His grace was not to set us free from sin but to make us rich. The abundant life he offered wasn’t eternal, it was now. We lived the prosperity gospel.” (Christianity Today September 2017)

Providence Baptist Chapel (PBCB)

In the letter of Jude, we are urged to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” When we see a significant perversion of the true Gospel and its teaching, which has once been delivered, our duty is to stand up and speak out. This article in a small way seeks to do this.

In my former church in London, over the years we had the great joy of many joining us who came out of Pg teaching churches, having seen through the practices as shallow and being no gospel at all.

At PBCB we would dearly love to help any who are confused with the teaching of this movement. We believe that whilst the leaders are clearly culpable, and many have become very wealthy, most of the followers have never heard the consistent teaching of the Word of God, which has been taught since the time of Christ, and has not changed. Teaching which calls us to repent from our personal sins and turn to Christ, as the only Saviour, and as the primary source of our ongoing peace and joy. We are called to live a life, as Christ did of holiness, in pursuit of heavenly treasures which are to be laid up for Him.

Conclusion

We believe there are many already caught up in the Prosperity gospel or Word of Faith Movement in churches in and around Bedford.

 

With the likely consequences of the Covid-19 crisis on the economy and on people’s incomes and lives, the appeal of a gospel which offers riches and perfect health could accelerate its penetration of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. The way this false gospel has and continues to exploit the poorest in the UK, US, Africa and Asia is beyond cruel. Our desire is to help all who are open to hearing the Word of God and understanding what it teaches. 

 

Pastor Oliver Wyncoll

June 2020

pastor@providencechapel.org.uk

www.providencechapel.org.uk

www.providencechapel.org.uk/youtube     

NB – for a more in depth look at this subject we recommend “God or Mammon – The Snare of the Prosperity Gospel” by Robin Compston