Reflections on Tony Campolo’s visit to Sarnia
REFLECTIONS ON TONY CAMPOLO’S VISIT TO SARNIA
Sovereign Grace Community Church, Sarnia, Ontario
by Kirk Wellum
One Saturday I attended a gathering at the Sarnia Sports and Entertainment Centre billed as "Fire Up Your Faith: An Evening With Tony Campolo". This was an event put on by a number of Sarnia and Area churches and sponsored by WNFA, a local Christian radio station in Port Huron, Michigan. There were at least three thousand people in attendance from a variety of different Christian denominations. In addition to Dr. Campolo there was a lot of music and singing, a dramatic presentation of the Prodigal Son, and words of greeting from a number of dignitaries including Sarnia’s mayor Mike Bradley, Pastor Richard Salt from Trinity Anglican Church one of the key organizers of the event, and Tom Wynne a morning host from WNFA.
According to most reports this event was a fantastic success. It was great to see so many people gathered in one place to sing and pray and worship God. Personally, I felt that the music and the drama were well done by today’s standards. But as a pastor of a Sarnia area church I was disappointed and troubled by the ecumenical tone of the event and especially the content of Dr. Campolo’s message. While denominations can get in the way of the kingdom of God and be a hindrance to Christian unity, too many well-meaning Christians often forget that denominations often exist because down through the years Christian people have felt it necessary to make a stand for various aspects of the truth of God’s Word that have been in danger of being distorted or forgotten. Genuine Christian unity is always based on a common understanding and commitment to the truth of God’s Word. Unity that only pays lip-service to the truth once for all entrusted to the saints is superficial at best, and at worst, a hindrance to the gospel Jesus Christ.
In his message, Dr. Campolo spoke about the prayer life of the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He told us that he had recently grown in his understanding of prayer along the lines of Mother Teresa. According to Dr. Campolo, when Mother Teresa was questioned about prayer by a reporter she told him that often she did not speak to God nor did God speak to her, she just remained silent in his presence. Dr. Campolo went on to tell us that he now does the same thing. He awakens a half hour before he has to get up and he lies quietly in bed in the presence of God. During this time he allows Jesus to soak up all of his sinfulness and depravity and then to fill him with the presence of Holy Spirit. Dr. Campolo waits until he ‘vibrates’ with the Spirit and in this way he prepares himself for the day ahead. All of this is fine, I suppose, except for number of serious questions raised by his new and improved perspective on silent prayer.
There is absolutely no evidence that Mother Teresa ever came under the saving authority of the Jesus Christ revealed so clearly in the Bible. While Mother Teresa was a great humanitarian there is no evidence that she was a biblical Christian let alone a great Christian whose prayer life we should emulate. To the end of her days she believed that a person should be a good person. If a Roman Catholic, then they should be a good Roman Catholic. If a Buddhist, then a good Buddhist. If a Hindu, then a good Hindu. If an atheist, then a good atheist. She never tried to convert anyone, much to the dismay of the present Pope who felt that she had a responsibility as a Roman Catholic to seek to convert others to Catholicism. She worshipped Mary and the saints and held to other Roman Catholic dogmas that seriously distort the very essence of the gospel message.
Then there is Dr. Campolo’s amazing assertion that Jesus is able to soak up his sins while he lies in bed in the early morning hours because Jesus is about to travel at the speed of light. Jesus is able to do this because he is the Son of God and according to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity when one travels at the speed of light time stands still. This means that Jesus is still absorbing sin and suffering on the cross back in the first century and touching Dr. Campolo in his bed in Philadelphia twenty centuries later. I sincerely hope that Dr. Campolo has merely been ensnared by a bad illustration and therefore forced to say things that he does not really mean. But I have my doubts because he went on to specifically mention ‘the eternal sufferings of Christ’ and then made a passing reference to Hebrews 6. This is incredibly ironic because as well-taught Sunday School children know, if there is one thing the letter to the Hebrews teaches it is the finished work of Christ. Jesus does not continue to suffer on the cross. Hebrews 10:12 tells us that as our Great High Priest Jesus offered for all time one sacrifice for sin, and he has sat down at the right hand of God. This work of sin bearing was finished, as he himself said, when he died on the cross and by so doing secured the salvation of all who put their faith in him. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity has nothing to do with it. Einstein’s theory as applied by Dr. Campolo to the work of Jesus, actually brings Dr. Campolo into direct contradiction with God’s Word at a very critical and non-negotiable point.
This raises another serious question. How can a man who vibrates with the Holy Spirit be so profoundly ignorant of some of the most basic truths in the Spirit’s book? The Spirit never leads someone into gospel truths that are not found in the Bible. Perhaps more time needs to be spent talking to God as Jesus taught us in the so-called ‘Lord’s Prayer’ when he was here on earth. While there is nothing wrong with times of silence this is not the essence of Christian prayer. Jesus told us to pray with our minds and hearts engaged and to come to our Father in heaven with some specific requests framed by the pattern he laid down for us. Mindless babbling prayer is pagan. So is prayer that puts the mind into some kind of mystical trance-like state. The prayers that we have preserved for us in both the Old and New Testaments need to be studied, taught and practised not the prayers of spiritual musings of Mother Teresa or Dr. Campolo.
Then there was the matter of what Dr. Campolo called ‘sacramentally encountering Jesus in the poor’. He based this notion on a misunderstanding of Matthew 25:40. In the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus talks about a final separation taking place on the basis of how people have responded to ‘the least of these brothers of mine’. Dr. Campolo understands Jesus to be referring to the materially poor when he speaks of ‘these brothers.’ In context, this is impossible. While Christians are to be concerned about the poor and seek to help them, as we are able, the Bible never puts a spiritual premium on the poor or poverty per se. In fact, a careful reading of the biblical text reveals that it is the righteous poor that are considered ‘God’s people’, or in the context of Matthew, ‘brothers of Jesus’. Some have argued that Jesus is speaking about Jewish people when he talks about ‘these brothers of mine’, but this is just as unlikely given the content and flow of Matthew 24-25. Jesus is not present in a sacramental way in the poor and downtrodden if such people have not turned from their sins and put their faith in him. Jesus is concerned about them and we should be too. We should seek to win them to Christ and work to alleviate their poverty. But that is a far cry from sacramentally encountering Jesus in the poor, a notion which has no support in the Scriptures.
But more disturbing than anything else is apparent willingness of so many evangelical Christians to let all of this go unchallenged. Behind their glowing reports of great blessing is a terrible shortsightedness and naiveté that threatens to undermine historical Christianity in this part of the world. The sad truth is that many evangelicals had no problems with what was said. They had no problems because they have been so poorly taught in so-called Bible-believing churches here in Sarnia that they can no longer discern biblical truth from outright error. More than anything else this gathering reveals the appalling ignorance that exists in both the pulpit and the pew when it comes to the basics of the Christian faith. Instead of devoting themselves to the ministry of the Word and prayer too many pastors are tripping over themselves in an attempt to be contemporary and user friendly. The focus is on music and drama and often downright silly sermons that neither inform, motivate, nor communicate the unchanging message of Jesus Christ to a generation that needs and wants real answers to very real problems. Everyone claims to want to reach unchurched Harry and Mary but the reality is that these would-be church growth practitioners are merely dividing and carving up the body of Christ as never before. It is one thing to form new churches in the interests of articulating and defending biblical truth, it is another to split and divide based on superficialities such as musical style, whether or not to serve bagels and coffee, and the degree to which the gospel can be dumbed down for the masses. Feeding the people of God the milk as well as the meat of the Word is hard work. It is much easier to spend ones time organizing than it is praying and wrestling with the Bible and its application. Most pastors in this area are hard pressed to come up with one decent twenty to thirty minute ‘talk’ a week. This is a far cry from the workload of faithful, Spirit-called and anointed preachers of the Word in days gone by and in other parts of the world. Little wonder the people of God are not being nourished and why for all the user-friendly, cool, with-it talk, Christianity has little impact on people’s lives. An evangelist that I used to travel with when I was a boy often said: ‘The church began with holy men of God in the upper room agonizing; it will end with educated men in the supper room organizing!’
Dr. Tony Campolo’s visit to Sarnia revealed the need for reformation and revival in this part of the world. Our faith needs to be fired up. But it needs the firing of the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven that cannot be orchestrated or planned. Sarnia and area churches need to return to the Scriptures and discover afresh the Lord Jesus Christ. We need men who will labor in the Word and in doctrine. We need church leaders who like the men of Issachar in the time of King David, understand the times and know what the church, the Israel of God should do. We need to work together based on a common allegiance to the gospel as set forth in the Scriptures and the Scriptures alone. There is much to be done in this part of the world for Jesus but it will never be done if we are not prepared to lovingly and boldly set forth the truth that sets men free.
Sovereign Grace Journal, Voume 4, Issue 1. firstname.lastname@example.org
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