Sunday, June 20, 2010

Altar calls and scary heretics: The excesses of perfectionism

Following up on his report on the embarrassing "evangelism" service which closed out the Southern Baptist Convention's annual gathering in Orlando last week, Wade Burleson addresses the more general question of the invitation system, the "altar call," used by many evangelists to bring persons to "come forward" and make a "decision" to accept Jesus Christ as Savior. The late D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was a critic of this practice, and Burleson excerpts a portion of a question-and-answer session with the famous Welsh preacher.
The history of this invitation system is one with which you people ought to be more familiar than anyone else, because it began in America. It began in the 1820s; the real originator of it was Charles G. Finney. It led to a great controversy. Asahel Nettleton, a great Calvinist and successful evangelist, never issued an “altar call” nor asked people to come to the “anxious seat.” These new methods in the 182Os and were condemned for many reasons by all who took the Reformed position.

One reason is that there is no evidence that this was done in New Testament times, because then they trusted to the power of the Spirit. Peter preaching on the Day of Pentecost under the power of the Spirit, for instance, had no need to call people forward in decision because, as you remember, the people were so moved and affected by the power of the Word and Spirit that they actually interrupted the preacher, crying out, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” That has been the traditional Reformed attitude towards this particular matter.

The moment you begin to introduce this other element, you are bringing a psychological element. The invitation should be in the message. We believe the Spirit applies the message, so we trust in the power of the Spirit. I personally agree with what has been said in the question.

I have never called people forward at the end for this reason; there is a grave danger of people coming forward before they are ready to come forward. We do believe in the work of the Spirit, that He convicts and converts, and He will do His work. There is a danger in bringing people to a “birth,” as it were, before they are ready for it.The Puritans in particular were afraid of what they would call “a temporary faith” or “a false profession.”
Finney has long been considered a heretic by Calvinists. Wesleyan Arminians have been a little more charitable, but are well advised to steer clear of his unapologetically Pelagian tendencies. Joel Martin, who calls Finney "scary" for reasons of both theology and appearance, reminds us of the bitter fruit borne of the excesses of the perfectionist leaven which infected the revivalist movement in the mid-1800's through the teachings of Finney, Sylvester Graham, and others.
But out of all this perfectionist fervor came Prohibition, amongst other weird things like Quaker Oats and Graham Crackers. Graham was another perfectionist with bizarre dietary theories that are probably right at home with out modern practitioners of magnets and needles. Susan Cayleff writes in Wash and Be Healed, “Graham admonished his listeners against culinary gluttony, [believed] that the stomach was the center of the system, and advocated the use of only whole grain bread, unbolted. This belief eventually produced the “graham cracker,” which was a dietary mainstay in hygenic households.”

The Wikipedia entry on Graham says, “Graham was also inspired by the temperance movement and preached that a vegetarian diet was a cure for alcoholism, and, more importantly,sexual urges. The main thrust of his teachings was to curb lust. While alcohol had useful medicinal qualities, it should never be abused by social drinking. For Graham, an unhealthy diet stimulated excessive sexual desire which irritated the body and caused disease. While Graham developed a significant following known as Grahamites, he was also ridiculed by the media and the public for his unwavering zealotry. According to newspaper records, many women fainted at his lectures when he aired opinions both on sexual relations and the wearing of corsets…In 1850 he helped found the American Vegetarian Society modeled on a similar organization established in Great Britain.”

Vegetarianism, socialism, sinless perfectionism, prohibition, it’s all there. These folks figured that your diet produced sinful lust in you, so it must be regulated. Alcohol was evil, so it must be eliminated. They placed the source of sin in the object outside of you, rather than your own failure of self-control. Due to these fine folks, most churches today disobey Jesus and use grape juice in Communion.

I once attended a workshop with the late Robert Webber in which he commented at length on the continuing influence of revivalism on the basic pattern of Sunday morning worship in many congregations. The fourfold pattern of Gathering/Proclamation/Thanksgiving/Sending Forth has been largely abandoned in favor of a monological format in which the sermon is the main emphasis and the invitation (a somewhat less manipulative form of the "altar call") is the climax. I readily confess that I followed this pattern for most of the thirteen years I served as a Methodist pastor. It was during the last few years, when I began appreciating the more historical (and biblical) pattern of worship that I found myself drawn toward a more liturgical tradition in general and Anglicanism in particular.

Of course, I did not check my heritage at the door (Methodism, after all, grew out of renewal movement within Anglicanism), but I did have to find a larger context in which to fit its distinctive emphases, one of which is holiness, often referred to as Christian perfection. But even before my transition, I had come to see firsthand the dangers of excessive perfectionism, which inevitably leads to Pelagianism and a legalistic emphasis on mere moral excellence, which fallen human beings simply cannot achieve.

More than once, I have had to remind myself of the subtle, yet profound, alteration John Wesley made to a famous hymn by his brother Charles. The hymn's original words were . . .
Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and sinless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in Heav’n we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.
. . . but after John's astute editing became:
Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in Heav’n we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.
Yes, he only changed one word. But that one word may very well have been the key factor in making "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" a beloved hymn rather than a dangerous slide toward a very "scary" heresy.