The Changing Face of Christianity
By TONY PEARCE, Christian Witness Ministries


In 1900 eighty percent of people identifying as Christians worldwide were either Europeans or North Americans. Today 60 percent are citizens of Africa, Asia or Latin America. The implication of this shift was the subject of an article in Newsweek (16/4/01).  Europe is seen as a `post Christian' society, while "the events which are shaping 21st century Christianity are taking place in Africa and Asia". "Christianity is no longer a white man's religion," says Larry Eskridge of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals. "It's been claimed by others."

The article makes some interesting observations:

"To millions of Christians in Africa and Asia words like `Protestant' and `Catholic' inspire little or no sense of identification. According to David R Barrett, co-author of the World Christian Encyclopaedia, there are now 33,800 different Christian denominations. And the fastest growing are the independents, who have no ties whatsoever to historic Christianity." The article shows how Christianity has been adapted to meet the spiritual needs of different cultures. In India the growth is mainly amongst outcasts who find in Christianity hope and dignity denied them by the rigid caste system. In China, Christianity answers the problems of meaning that Marxism fails to address. Africans are embracing Christianity in the face of massive political, social and economic chaos. Plagued by corrupt regimes, crushing poverty, pandemic AIDS and genocidal wars, Africans find the church is the one place they can go to for healing, hope and material assistance from more fortunate Christians in the West."

The article paints a picture of Christianity, which is less concerned with doctrine and more concerned with relating faith to the culture of the countries it is being planted in. This often involves a mixture of Christianity with the religions of those countries.

"In many Indian churches, priests have adopted the dress and rituals of the Hindu majority. The mass may begin with `Om', the sacred sound of the Vedas. Vandana Mataji, a Catholic nun, sings bhajans (devotional songs) in praise of Jesus and of Krishna four times a day, eats strictly vegetarian and meditates in silence. Africans have always recognised a spiritual world within the empirical, and there is much in tribal religions that makes adaptation to Christianity easy. But the traditional African worldview also includes witches and spirits of every kind -- especially those of tribal ancestors. All these presences have power to work good or evil on the living and so must be placated or warded off through fetishes."

The fastest growing form of Christianity, especially in Africa, is Pentecostal faith healing, imported directly from the West.

"When Africans read the Bible or hear it preached, they see that Jesus was a healer and an exorcist, and controlling evil spirits has always been a primary function of tribal shamans."

Nearly 6 million Nigerians jammed a park in Lagos for a healing service conducted by German evangelist Reinhard Bonkke.

"Every night in cities like Accra, Ghana, thousands of Africans seek out evening Pentecostal `prayer camps'. Most are women who can't find husbands or wives suffering from infertility, but others come because they've no job. The diagnosis in every case is associated with tribal witchcraft. One by one, victims are sent rolling on the floor as freelance Pentecostal preachers `deliver' them from evil spirits in the name of Jesus. Africans also embrace Pentecostalism because -- again like tribal religions -- it promises material abundance in this life. The best attended African churches are supported by relatively well off, educated Africans who do not wish to lose their precarious prosperity." Michael Okonkwo, founder and self appointed bishop of the Redeemed Evangelical Mission in Lagos, says, "In Africa if I want a car I have to pray to God to give me the money to pay cash".

What are we to make of this?

Firstly to be positive we agree that Christianity is not a white man's religion in fact it originated in the Middle East through Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, and his Jewish disciples. Also the spread of Christianity world-wide is in itself a major sign of fulfilled prophecy, since Jesus told his disciples to "go into all the world and preach the gospel" and said that the completion of this project would be a sign of his second coming (Matthew 24:14)

(NB: It needs to be stated that there are large parts of the world especially the Islamic countries -- where the Christian message is unknown or very little known).

On the other hand we note that Jesus told the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-43) in which the good seed sown by God grows alongside the tares (weeds) sown by his enemy (Satan). Both grow together until the harvest when they are separated with the wheat being gathered into barns and the weeds thrown into the fire to be burnt. It is interesting that there is a form of weed, which grows in Israel, and looks almost identical to wheat, but contains no nourishment and so is useless for food. Jesus also warned that "false prophets and false Messiahs will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect -- if that were possible" (Matthew 24:24 -- see also Matthew 7:15-23).

There are three main aspects of this article, which are worth drawing attention to.

HISTORY / DOCTRINE DOES NOT MATTER

Christianity may not be a white man's religion, but it is a faith, which has an important doctrinal content, based on the Bible. The major issues of that doctrinal content were fought out in the European Reformation. Today it is fashionable amongst Christians all over the world to say that the Reformation does not matter or even was a mistake, because basically all Christians believe the same thing. This is simply not true. The Reformers were not perfect, but we owe them an enormous debt of gratitude, because they rediscovered the essential truths of the message taught by Jesus and the apostles, based on the teaching of the Bible, not the traditions of men: that we are sinners who need to be saved from the judgment of God by repentance and faith in the sacrificial death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the one Mediator between God and humanity and the blood he shed at the cross was sufficient to bring forgiveness of sin and eternal life to all who turn in faith to him. This basic message is denied by Roman Catholicism, which requires the continual sacrifice of the Mass performed by priests who thereby mediate God to the people.

MIXING CHRISTIANITY WITH OTHER CULTURES

Accepting that Christianity is not a white man's religion, it is obvious that Christians from other backgrounds do not have to accept the culture of white Europeans or Americans. At the same time the Bible clearly teaches that culture is not a neutral thing spiritually, especially when it is related to religion. Therefore it is dangerous for Christians to embrace Hindu worship forms and combine them with Christian ones, or to seek to appease ancestral spirits through fetishes.On this subject it needs also to be said that the spiritual decline of the church in Europe came about through mixing Christianity with pagan religions in order to make it attractive to the masses (for example the cult of the Madonna in which Mary replaced the mother goddess of pagan religions as an object of worship). Despite the gains made by the Reformers in rediscovering biblical truths, referred to above, many of them failed to liberate the faith from the shackles of Rome by preserving aspects of compromised Christianity (for example infant baptism).

In the Old Testament the God of Israel constantly distances himself from the gods of the nations, which are always described as a corrupting influence on the people of God (see Psalm 115, Isaiah 45.18-25, Jeremiah 2). Jesus said "I am the way and the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father except by me" (John 14:6), thereby ruling out any possibility that the salvation he came to bring could be mingled with other religions. The apostles confronted Roman paganism and called people to be separate from its influences: "What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said, `I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God and they shall be my people.' Therefore `Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you" (2 Corinthians 6:14-7.1. See also Acts 14:8-18, 19:23-41).

It can be shown from history and contemporary practice that wherever Christianity is mixed with other religious influences, the other influence will become stronger and eventually eliminate the Christian content.

This is not because the power behind the other influences is stronger than the power behind Christianity, but because the God of the Bible is unique and says, "I am the Lord, that is my name; and my glory I will not give to another, nor my praise to graven images" (Isaiah 42:8). If there is an attempt to mingle the worship of the Lord with the worship of other gods or to use other religious practices (especially anything remotely connected to witchcraft), the Holy Spirit simply departs and evil spirits take over.
 
The prophetic scriptures indicate that in the end times there will be a coming together of world religions under the authority of the `Whore of Babylon' (Revelation 17:1-6), which will persecute true Christians. It is most likely that Roman Catholicism allied to apostate Protestantism will lead this union of world religions.

The kind of `touchy-feely' Christianity which is being promoted worldwide today and which has little time for the essential doctrines on which the faith is founded, is a pushover in terms of falling for the spiritual deception behind this movement. It is interesting that the Newsweek article draws attention to the conflict within Roman Catholicism today between traditionalists who believe "in the necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ" and those who believe that "The church cannot disregard the Spirit of God working in other people in all cultures and religions". It is likely that the latter view will win out in this conflict and that the next pope will be chosen because of his willingness to work for the religious unity of the world.

THE HEALTH AND WEALTH BANDWAGON

Recently ITV screened a programme called `A Question of Miracles' featuring healing evangelists Benny Hinn and Reinhard Bonnke in action. The programme, first made in USA and being shown in a number of countries around the world, made disturbing viewing. The most obvious feature was that despite the massive claims being made by the evangelists for their healing powers, no verifiable or lasting miraculous cures were taking place. The programme showed a rally where Benny Hinn was rebuking cancers, tumours and lameness in the name of Jesus. However, one woman was seen trying to get out of her wheelchair for thirty minutes, only to join the rest of the wheelchair bound who came to the rally and left in the same condition they came in. Seventy-six miracles were claimed on stage, but 13 weeks later, his team could only provide five names of people who went forward for healing. When these claims were investigated no medical evidence for healing was found. In fact one woman died months later of the cancer she was supposed to have been healed from.

A number of people who were proclaimed healed in the name of Jesus at the rally stopped taking their medication and became very ill later. A poor immigrant couple whose son was dying of a brain tumour gave thousands of dollars they could not afford to the evangelist on the basis of his claim to be able to bring healing to their son. The son died and Hinn kept the money.

At Bonnke's rally in Nigeria, 78 miracles were claimed on stage, but no evidence was found afterwards. Bonnke cursed cancers in the name of Jesus and claimed that those who were blind could now see. The programme then panned to the area below the stage where people from the crowd were being selected as to who could go on stage to testify to healing. There was clear evidence of fakery as most would be participants were barred from the stage. One person who was selected to testify claimed that he was blind and could now see, but it was then shown that he could actually see in the first place. Fifteen people were crushed to death at the rally. The parents of a child who was killed tried to get her body to Bonnke hoping he would raise her from the dead, but were barred from the stage. The family did the next best thing and laid the body on Bonkke's Mercedes Benz in the hope of the child coming back to life. All of this is a far cry from the miracles of the New Testament. When Jesus and the apostles performed miracles there was no question that the person concerned was completely healed. This could not be denied even by their opponents. After the healing of the lame man in the Temple in Acts 3, the apostles were arrested by the Temple guard, but the Sanhedrin were compelled to let them go by the evidence of the miracle: "Seeing the man who had been healed standing with them, they could say nothing against it" (Acts 4:14).

Miraculous signs followed the preaching of Jesus and the apostles (Mark 16:17-18), but they were not the point of attraction. In fact Jesus discouraged crowds from following him to look for signs. Far from seeking a mass of people who would tag along with his movement for what they could get out of it, Jesus put off would-be followers with a radical call to commitment even to the point of being willing to lose their lives for his sake: "If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 16:24-5 see also Matthew 10:16-42, Luke 9:57-62, John 6:60-71). He told his disciples to give freely as they had received freely (Matthew 10:8). Interestingly in the Didache, an early Christian manual, it was considered a sign of a false prophet to ask for money. Also it has to be said that Jesus' miracles recorded in the New Testament were selective. He did not heal every sick person in Israel (although everyone who came to him seeking healing was completely healed). There was a multitude of sick people at the pool of Bethesda, but Jesus only healed one lame man there (John 5:1-15).

Today's healing evangelists appeal to the needs of people offering the sick a chance to get well through the miraculous powers  which are supposed to be present at their rallies, and promising wealth as a reward from God to those who donate to their ministries. Since almost everyone in the world would like to have better health and better living conditions, it is a powerful appeal. The question however is whether they deliver on their promises.  Clearly something does happen at these rallies, as people respond to the evangelists by falling on the floor and a variety of physical manifestations, some of which do appear to bring relief (mostly temporary) from pains they have previously suffered. The TV programme attributed this to hypnotic suggestion in the lives of people who have been psychologically prepared to respond in this way before attending the rallies.

This may be so, but Jesus also spoke about wonders being done in his name by people to whom he will say "I never knew you; depart from me, you who practise lawlessness" (Matthew 7:23). He also said that false prophets doing signs and wonders would be a feature of the last days before his second coming (Matthew 24:24). This will prepare the way for the man of sin or the Antichrist whose coming will be "according to the working of Satan with all power, signs and lying wonders, and with unrighteous deception among those who perish because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved" (2 Thessalonians 2:9-10). What is certain is that all this brings Christianity into disrepute. The lavish life style of Benny Hinn compared to the poverty of people who give him money for healings, which do not take place, causes revulsion. Many of those who are persuaded to part with their money end up disillusioned when the miracles fail to occur and reject the whole Christian message. It is also clear that anti Christian forces are using the abuses of these preachers to attack Christianity in general and as an excuse to propose laws restricting the freedom of all Christians. On a recent trip to Ukraine I met a believing Christian from Minsk in Belarus who told me how the freedom of religion, which had been won after the fall of the Soviet Union, is now being gradually lost through new laws the government has brought in under pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church. The main reason for these laws coming in is a reaction against the multitude of Christian groups, especially hyper charismatic groups from the USA, which flooded the country after the restrictions of Communism were lifted. He told me how the police attended a meeting held by a `prosperity preacher', then called him to the police station to tell him that what he was teaching was not in the Bible. Apparently the successors of the KGB are more knowledgeable of the Christian message than the preachers! (I have produced a tape about this subject available from the CWM office).

Conclusion

Jesus told his followers to "Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and  there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way that leads to life and there are few who find  it" (Matthew 7:13-14). Despite all the claims of worldwide revival and the statistics of huge growth in the Newsweek article,  the authentic message of Jesus is not much heard, especially in the public places of our world. He is calling us to repentance  and faith in the one final sacrifice he made for our sins. To those who respond he offers forgiveness of sins and eternal life, with  difficulties and persecutions along the way, but with the assurance of his presence and help to guide us. For the record I do  accept that genuine miracles do happen today, generally within the context of a believing congregation (James 5:13-18) and as  a sign following the preaching of the gospel (Mark 16:15-18). However in my experience they are much less frequent than  most charismatic Christians claim they are! Most Christians I know who have serious illnesses do not recover from them or if  they do recover it is as a result of medical treatment. In fact all of us are going to die one day unless the Lord comes first. To  say as some healing evangelists that sickness is the result of unbelief is to add false guilt to the burden the sick carry because of  their illness.


For further information on Benny Hinn, write in for the booklet Benny Hinn: Unmasked or contact the website:

christian-witness.org/archives/arcdex.html

Appeared in Issue CETF 7.1 June 2001
© Copyright 2002 Christian-Witness Ministries, except where noted. All rights reserved