Abiding Mike Wells

The Critic

polemic (noun)

  1. A controversial argument, especially one refuting or attacking a specific opinion or doctrine.
  2. A person engaged in or inclined to controversy, argument, or refutation.

I suspect it says something uncomplimentary about my character that the writing I most enjoy is polemic in nature. I like a good argument; not strictly (as you might be pardoned for suspecting) because I like showing others the error of their ways, but simply out of enjoyment for the rough-and-tumble of intellectual combat. As I look back at the writing I've done on topics of faith and Christianity, I notice that my writing here displays the same tendency. I wrote a review of a book by Steve Brown (parts I and II here) primarily because I disagreed with its premise. In a less noble vein, I have a cheap shot at a Christian ministry buried on this site - although I intend to write extensively about this group at some point in a hopefully more substantial way.

As a polemicist, I'm aware of the dangers of becoming a Christian Vandal but I still see value in the role of the Christian Critic. I am aware, then, of this question every time I lift a critical pen: How do I provide value as a critic without merely tearing down?

Both madvbdog and the InternetMonk note that the motivation and posture of the critic has a lot to do with whether the criticism is useful or merely destructive. I don't want to go into too much defensive detail in this forum, but suffice it to say that I continue to pursue a more committed relationship to the Church I am attending and have striven to play a positive role in the lives of my friends by hosting the series of Discipleship/Bible Study sessions we have been enjoying. I see myself as criticizing now from within rather from the outside - my motives are to help the group which is becoming an us to me rather than attacking a them.

Warning: Theology Ahead

Without any more foot-dragging, then, I'd like to get to the heart of what I have to say: Mike Well's theology as expressed in his sermon last Sunday morning struck me as at odds with the Bible in ways that seem very obvious. Further, while I am not amazed that some Christians have bad theology, I am amazed that my fellow believers are apparently untroubled and even enthusiastic about the ideas that he promotes. Most seriously I am amazed by the apparent unawareness of contradiction that I see evidenced to the degree that I question whether the implications of theology are considered at all.

Mike Wells is the director of Abiding Life Ministries. He's written at least two books, teaches seminars, and does personal counseling. His ministry is active internationally. I've not had any prior experience with his ideas: I've never read his books, attended his seminar or really talked in explicit terms about the content of his teaching. Last Sunday morning, then, was an eye-opening experience for me. I took my new PDA to Church to take notes on the sermon and the following is my (very rough) transcript. Exact quotes are in quotation marks, everything else is my own synopsis of his major points.

If you've explored this site at all, you can imagine that the comment about The Cost of Discipleship caught my attention. To be honest, however, that wasn't the most startling thing Mike Wells said. The two things that stood out to me the most was the claim that we are not to try to imitate Jesus (with the necessary the corollary that we are not meant to pay too much attention to the Gospels) and the constant insistence that effort is the antithesis of the Christian life.

That second point would be my own summation of Mike Well's ideas based almost solely on this sermon. (I have now talked to a few people about his teachings and have started to work my way through his essays on www.abidinglife.com.) The opposition of effort and grace or effort and "abiding" seemed to me to be, perhaps, his single most consistent idea. I think he said "God does all the work and God gets all the glory" at least a half dozen times.

Effortless Christianity

The idea that the Christian Life is properly characterized by a lack of effort seems to me to be simply contrary to the thrust of the New Testament. For now I will skip the Gospels (more on that later) but consider the metaphors for the Christian life used in the epistles. A boxer, an athlete training, a runner running a race, a farmer tending his crops... Turning almost at random to passages within the Epistles will bring exhortations to the necessity for Christians to strive, to hold fast, to endure, to work, in short: to put forth effort! A few of my favorite passages along these lines (all from the NKJV):

Hebrews 12:1-4

1 Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.4 You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin.

Galatians 6:4-10

4 But let each one examine his own work, and then he will have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another. 5 For each one shall bear his own load. 6 Let him who is taught the word share in all good things with him who teaches. 7 Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. 8 For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life. 9 And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.

I Corinthians 15:54-58

54 So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory." 55 "O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?" 56 The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 58 Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.

I could keep on going. I Corinthians 9:24-27, or (if the non-Pauline Epistles are acceptable) pretty much all of I and II Peter and large swathes of James. I think here that one of my favorite sayings by Dallas Willard captures the situation perfectly: "Grace is not opposed to effort, just to earning." Christians believe that we cannot be saved by our own righteousness, that humans (because we have a sinful nature) are utterly incapable of living up to the standards that God demands of us. We believe, however, that because Jesus sacrificed himself for us we can be acceptable to God. This acceptance is based upon Jesus' work and not ours. From that point of view, of course, to be a Christian does not require effort because my position with God is not dependent upon my effort.

That, however, is not the end of the story. The message of salvation in the Bible is not (or at least does not end with) "Accept Jesus and you'll go to heaven when you die." Jesus also promises to enter our life now and Christians are to work in concert with Him to serve God. Philipians 2:12-13 captures this dialectic "12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure." I would argue, in fact, that the chief topic of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) is "the Kingdom of Heaven" and this Kingdom of Heaven is primarily about the ways salvation is breaking into human history and life now. Salvation in the Bible is not limited to a future but also deals with our lives in the here and now.

WWJD, and do I care?

This of course brings us to the larger problem. The most distressing thing to me in Mike Well's presentation was the implication that the Gospels are not for our application and use. As Christians, we regard the Bible as God's word. On what basis can we disregard Jesus' teachings? Mike indicated that the Gospels are a "transition period", that Jesus' teachings and example are to really show us how high God's standards are and how impossible it is for us to live up to them. Therefore, attempting to follow Jesus' example is absurd and silly. Worse than that, it is a sure path to guilt and condemnation.

This is a far cry from the attitude of Scripture itself. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) Jesus tells a parable about two men who built houses: one on a rock and one on sand. A storm came up and the house built on sand was destroyed while the house on the rock still stood firm. The meaning of this parable, Jesus explains, is that a person who hears Jesus' words and does not do them is like the foolish man who built his house on sand, while a person who hears Jesus' words and does them is like the wise man with a house "founded on the rock". I have difficulty imagining that Jesus was talking about anything other than following the sayings he gave us in the preceding sermon.

Other Scripure, of course, gives us additional confirmation that Jesus is in fact to be imitated. God said at the beginning of Jesus' ministry that we should pay attention "This is My Beloved Son. Hear him!" and Jesus says of himself that we should learn from him (Matt 11:29). Jesus tells his disciples in the Great Commission (Matt 28:19) that they should "make disciples" (disciples of course being "students" or "learners") and "teach them to do everything I have commanded you". Paul tells us that believers are "predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son" (Rom 8:29) and claims that we should imitate Paul as He imitated Christ (I Cor 11:1).

To be fair, there has been confusion among Christians at times as to what exactly it might mean to imitate Christ: Mark Galli (the Editor at Christianity Today) writes that he doesn't imitate Christ in the sense that some people use the word. Fair enough: I don't think that the imitation of Christ is necessarily meant to be an attempt to live Jesus' life (single itinerant Preacher with a retinue who went around Israel making the Jewish religious leaders mad) as much as it is an attempt to live my life as if Jesus were living it for me. I don't think, however, that this distinction is what Mike had in mind - he emphasized the impossibility of obeying Jesus commands and the futility of our trying to do so. To me, however, this raises the question: What exactly might it mean to follow Jesus if we don't believe what he said? How can we claim to love Him, Jesus asks, if we don't keep his commandments? John 14 (and 15!)

Theology Matters

I notice I'm quoting a lot of Scripture here. This is, at least in part, because I feel the Bible is at heart of my disagreement with Mike Well's view of the Christian life. You may have noticed that there wasn't a lot of Scripture in my sermon notes. While Mike quoted some verses, his only real attempt at exegesis came in his (incorrect) explanation of the phrase "Get thee behind me Satan" from Mark 8 and Matt 16. This was troubling because theology, it seems to me, must be our attempt to internalize the Bible. We aren't free to create our own ways of thinking about God and then cherry pick scriptures to support them. Instead we have to learn to be formed by Scripture. Brethren theologian Vernard Eller has my favorite comment on this theme. "The Biblical Christian", he says, "is not so much the one who can use the Bible, as it is the one who is willing to let the Bible use him."

This lack of Biblicism on the part of Mike Wells is very troubling to me in light of the audience to which he was preaching. I noted as I started this essay that one of the things that troubled me was the apparent lack of awareness about the inherent contradictions that Mike Wells' theology poses to Brethren/Anabaptist theology. The Church I attend has roots in the Brethren movement. The Brethren started as a pietist group founded in the early 1700's whose theology was influenced by (and resembles to some degree) the earlier Anabaptist movement. Both of these movements are characterized by a strong Biblicism and a resultant understanding of the Church that emphasizes Discipleship and Community. This theological understanding has had concrete expression in the lives of those influenced by it. (Parenthetically, I would argue that this influence exists now mostly as theological momentum; most people in my community do not see themselves as Anabaptist or Brethren in any meaningful theological sense. They have, however, inherited the traditions and sensibilities of their Brethren forebears in many ways.) Brethren Churches have continued to emphasize community and fellowship. They still practice Church discipline in formal and informal ways. They continue to base their understanding of the Christian life upon the Bible and uphold its authority over any doctrinal formulation, famously having "no creed but the New Testament". While these depictions of Brethren people ring less true today then they used to, Brethren have inherited many of the benefits that flow from a theology they no longer explicitly hold.

Brethren Churches still enjoy a strong community life relative to most people's Church experiences. Despite visible discomfort with the idea of Church discipline, most Brethren people do not divorce, and remarriage is nearly nonexistent. Families tend to stay intact and keep relationships across generational lines to degrees that only seem unexceptional to those who have never known anything different. Despite having abandoned (for the most part) traditional conceptions of simplicity and modesty in dress and lifestyle, Brethren people still tend to refrain from the worst excesses of provocative dress and (to a lesser degree) conspicous consumption. All of these tendencies amount to a culture that, despite rejecting or de-emphasizing the theological underpinnings that enable it, many Brethren people still cherish and wish to maintain.

Mike Well's theology, on the other hand, is in many ways the absolute antithesis of Anabaptist/Brethren theology and ideas. If effort is wrong then the idea of discipleship (striving to follow Jesus) is not only eliminated but looked upon as wrong. I can't imagine that in a theology that sees attention to lifestyle as judging and condemning, there is any room for Church discipline or a community of faith that actively seeks to fulfill Hebrews 10:24 (consider how to stir one another up to love and good works). Most of all, I don't understand how a group that promotes a strong respect for the whole Bible as the Word of God can agree with theology that seems very ambivalent about its relationship to the overall themes of the New Testament. While modern Brethren may not hear their theology being challenged, they should be able to see that the results of the theology being expressed, its concrete outworking, is likely to be detrimental and even destructive to the life and cultural expression of Christiantity that they appreciate. Theology matters.

In conclusion

As I am writing this, I have asked myself questions: Am I being too definite? Doesn't Mike Wells' theology have some good points? Aren't there some people who need to hear his message? Maybe I'm just over-reacting to a message that isn't really meant for me.

There is some truth to those questions. Some of what Mike Wells has to say is absolutely true. God's forgiveness and mercy and grace are infinitely greater than I can imagine and he does welcome back the prodigal again and again. Further I am aware that God's ultimate love for me is not conditioned upon my "performance" (and a good thing it is too!) Finally I gladly concede that the Bible's depiction of effort in the Christian life is dialectic: while we do have to accept Christ's yoke, He promises that his yoke is easy and His burden light. We are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling but we are promised that God will work in us both to will and to do.

Mike Well's message, in fact, is probably based upon his own experience and speaks most strongly to those who experience life in the same way. Abiding Life Ministries mission, as noted on their website, is "helping defeated believers find victory". I'm not sure how they define "defeated believers". I suspect, however, that Christians who wrestle with guilt and feel constant condemnation, who view themselves as failures or unlovable because of sin in their life, who see God as conditioning his love for them based on their ability to "please" Him are the "defeated believers" Abiding Life Ministries have in mind. Even to a believer who wrestled with issues like that, I would never say "don't try to imitate Christ". But I probably would emphasize the unconditional love of God, the grace with which God desires to fill our lives, and the importance of trusting Jesus rather than focusing on obedience.

The problem, however, is that a message that may be necessary to some people at some points in their life, is being taught as the lens through which the whole of Christian life is seen. Consider the predominant audience: most American evangelical Christians seem to have no problem believing God loves us despite our failures. In fact, it sometimes seems to me that a large proportion of American evangelicaldom is a subcriber to a sort of "Mr. Rogers" Christianity: God loves you just the way you are. Far from being wracked with guilt over the sin in our lives, we stop believing in it or excuse it or explain it away (cf Barna's study of divorce among Christians.) As a counter-balance to legalism (and absent the exegetical errors) Mike's message might serve a useful purpose. As a primary teaching to mature Christians, however, I suspect that Mike's message is likely to be mostly counterproductive to the goal of growing in the Grace and Knowledge of Jesus Christ.

I'll end with a quote from a book Mike Wells considers "absurd" and "silly". The Cost of Discipleship was written, in part, as a response to a theology that shares a certain orientation with the Abiding Life message. I recognise that the ideas of Abiding Life are not the same thing as the "cheap grace" Bonhoeffer opposed. Mike Wells is not against our sanctification, he is just against our having any part to play in it. Bonhoeffer's critique of this theological outlook, however, seems to me to be trenchant rather than silly. He compares cheap grace, the idea that "We have been justified, therefore everything can remain as it is", with Costly Grace by sarcastically saying

Let the Christian rest content with his worldliness and with this renunciation of any higher standard than the world. He is living for the sake of the world rather than for the sake of grace. Let him be comforted and rest assured in his possession of this grace - for grace alone does everything. Instead of following Christ, let the Christian enjoy the consolations of his grace! That is what we mean by cheap grace, the grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sins departs. Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Cheap grace, Bonhoeffer would argue, is no grace at all. Costly grace, on the other hand, is the grace which Jesus describes:

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must the asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: "ye were bought at a price", and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us.

Bonhoeffer's reading of the New Testament with its complimentary emphasis on grace and obedience seems much more sound and much closer to the actual themes and emphases of the New Testament than the Abiding Life message does.