A CLOSER LOOK AT THE ALPHA COURSE AND WHETHER IT IS PERMISSIBLE TO JUDGE WHAT OTHER CHRISTIANS TEACH
In this post: The responsibility of elders for sound doctrine; Do ordinary believers have the right to judge an elder’s doctrine?; Doesn’t Jesus tell us not to judge?; Doesn’t Paul tell us not to judge another’s servant?; Is the Alpha Course really that bad?; Is God not able to use Alpha, even if it imperfect?; In praise of discernment ministries
The Alpha Course is a widely used evangelistic tool designed to introduce people to the Christian faith. The Alpha website describes it this way:
Alpha is an opportunity for anyone to explore the Christian faith in a relaxed setting over ten thought-provoking weekly sessions, with a day or weekend away.
The same website gives an indication of its popularity:
The Alpha course spread during the 1990s, initially in the UK and then internationally, as more churches and groups found it a helpful way to answer questions about the Christian faith in an informal setting. There are now over 33,500 courses worldwide in 163 countries and it is supported by all the major denominations.
In the introduction to my article, Dangerous pragmatism – why a transformed life is not proof of salvation, I mentioned (mostly incidentally) the Alpha Course and its developer, Nicky Gumbel. I drew attention to the fact that many people found the course’s theology to be deeply problematic. And I quoted from an article documenting Nicky Gumbel’s apparent denial of the core Christian doctrine that Christ was punishedin the place of sinners.
In his comments on my article, my father made these observations:
You also know that I tend to be reluctant to criticise others who seek to proclaim the gospel, even though they do not understand it quite as I do. God is able to use even the most misguided of putative followers to bring sinners to Jesus.
You may not feel it is a good example, but Cliff Richard was first led to think of his need of a saviour by Hank Marvin, a Jehovah’s Witness. You would be the first to say that salvation is solely the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing sinners to repentance and Faith in Jesus and God does frequently ‘work in mysterious ways’! I know that I have preached the gospel for the best part of fifty years and I have only been able to pass on what I understood it to be at that time in my walk with Jesus. That knowledge has developed and deepened over the years but my knowledge of God and the gospel is still imperfect and I can still only ask that he use whatever he can from what I say to enlighten others and draw a veil over my mistakes and imperfections. We are all on a pilgrimage and some are further along than others, some take a long time to learn lessons and others make unnecessary detours. I know little of Nicky Gumbel but it does seem that God does use him to communicate what he understands to be the gospel to many people through the Alpha course. If Gumbel gets them started on the road and they read the scriptures for themselves then their faith can grow and mature.
This is a topic worth considering: do we even have the right to critique someone’s teaching if we compare it to Scripture and find it problematic?
I certainly do not believe that we should be swift to criticize. Not one of us has doctrine that is perfect in every respect. And if we do venture to counter someone’s teaching, let us present our case with gentleness and humility. I think my father most definitely exhibits these traits. I still have a greater maturity to attain.
DOES NICKY GUMBEL HAVE A RESPONSIBILITY TO ENSURE THAT THE MATERIALS HE PRODUCES ARE SOUND?
It might seem obvious but, before we can legitimately critique someone, we have first to be sure that he has a responsibility for whatever it is that we perceive to be at fault.
A critical qualification for any elder of the Church is that he be ‘skilful in teaching’ (as a literal rendering of 1 Timothy 3:2 would have it). This enables him to ‘convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching’ (2 Timothy 4:2).
St. James gives this caution: ‘let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment’ (James 3:1).
To take up the office of elder is clearly a solemn thing.
Since elders must be ‘skilful in teaching’, it is a Biblical requirement that each should be able to explain Christian doctrine in a competent and sound way. This is the very nature of their calling.
Sin, repentance and the punishment of Christ upon the cross in our place are matters of the most basic Christian doctrine. They are the fundamentals of the faith. Err in them, and we do not have the historic orthodox Christian faith. May any elder be qualified for his position if he has not mastered such topics?
Nicky Gumbel is vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton Church, an Anglian church in London. He is therefore an elder of the Church and thus has a God-given responsibility to ensure that what he teaches concerning sin, repentance and the work of Christ accords with the historic orthodox Christian faith handed down from the Apostles and set out in Scripture.
DO ORDINARY BELIEVERS HAVE THE RIGHT TO JUDGE AN ELDER’S DOCTRINE?
Let’s look at how the Jews of Berea responded to St. Paul’s teaching:
The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. (Acts 17:10–12, ESV)
Here we have a case, not merely of ordinary believers testing the teaching of an elder against Scripture, but of as-yet unbelievers testing the word of the Paul the Apostle! And far from being reprimanded, the Holy Spirit inspired Luke to commend these Jews for being ‘more noble than those in Thessalonica’.
The implication for us is that it commendable to subject teaching given in the name of God to the word of God. No teacher is above such examination, not even St. Paul, and everyone who claims to speak things about God should welcome it. (I do, even if correction sometimes stings for a time.)
DOESN’T JESUS TELL US NOT TO JUDGE?
It is important that we remember to place Jesus’ injunction into context:
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.
And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye?
Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
Matthew 7:1–5, NKJV
When we read the entire passage, it becomes clear that Jesus is warning againsthypocritical judgement.
His closing instruction on that subject is not that we should quiet down and shut up, but that we should first deal with our own sin so that we will then be able to ‘see clearly to remove the speck from [our] brother’s eye’.
DOESN’T PAUL TELL US NOT TO JUDGE ANOTHER’S SERVANT?
My father makes these comments:
…and the teaching of Paul in Romans 14 [is that we] are required to discern between good and evil and Paul does suggest that the even least in the church might act as judges in some matters. (1 Cor 6) Paul was also quite ready to use his apostolic authority to judge sinful behaviour and enforce sound doctrine so it cannot be that we just allow anything to go unchallenged. That said, each individual servant of God is responsible to God so perhaps we have to take on board Romans 14: 4 ‘Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands of falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand.’ See also vv 10-13. God is indeed sovereign!
Amen to God’s being sovereign!
Now, let’s place Romans 14:4 into its proper context:
Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him.
Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand.
One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks.
For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written: “As I live, says the LORD, Every knee shall bow to Me, And every tongue shall confess to God.”
So then each of us shall give account of himself to God.
Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way. I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.
Romans 14:1–14, NKJV
Paul defines the context at the outset as concerning ‘doubtful things’, or ‘opinions’ as the ESV renders it. Paul is not talking about the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, but about adiaphora, things that are neither morally mandated nor forbidden.
And so, if one person wishes to eat certain foods, or refrain from eating them, he is free to do so and is not to be condemned for his decision. Likewise in whether he esteems one day above another, or treats them all alike.
Paul reminds us that we are responsible to Christ. Therefore, we have freedom in matters like these where Christ has given us no instruction. And we are not to ‘put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way’ (v. 13) by judging others who choose differently from us.
But in matters of fundamental doctrine, we do have clear direction through the Bible from Christ Himself – the very one to whom we are each responsible.
When we compare false teaching to Scripture and observe that what is claimed does not accord with God’s word, it is not therefore those who point out this fact who are judging, but Christ Himself through His written word.
Thus, we are to ‘avoid foolish disputes, genealogies, contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and useless’ (Titus 3:9). Yet Paul immediately goes on to tell us that we are to ‘reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned’ (Titus 3:10–11).
The word translated ‘divisive’ there refers to those who are causing divisions and factions. It is not those who call out false doctrine who are divisive, but those who teach it. Divisive false teachers stand condemned not by those who reject their doctrine, but by themselves, because they teach contrarily to the clear word of God. They thereby testify against themselves that they are false teachers.
Thus, we are commanded to ‘stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle’ (2 Thessalonians 2:15). We are to ‘Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.’ (2 Timothy 1:13) And we must ‘Test all things; hold fast what is good.’ (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
IS THE ALPHA COURSE REALLY THAT BAD?
Alpha is not a new phenomenon, and it would be astonishing if Nicky Gumbel were unaware of the criticisms that have been made of it. Yet Alpha apparently continues to perpetuate the same old serious errors, giving a dangerously flawed presentation of sin, repentance and the work of Christ.
Unless Michael J. Penfold is mistaken, it even risks inoculating many unsaved people against the true gospel by giving them a false assurance of salvation, based upon the fact that they’ve prayed a short prayer.
The Bible does not teach that we are saved by ‘saying a short prayer to receive Jesus’, although much of evangelicalism thinks that it does. The visible church is truly in a wretched state, as I have previously discussed.
The question here therefore concerns whether it is even the true Gospel that Alpha is proclaiming. At best, Alpha’s presentation appears to be perilously defective. Given that there are over 33,500 Alpha Courses now being run, the eternal destiny of many people would appear to be at stake.
Perhaps the problem with evangelicals is that we have grown up being told that what we see and hear is the historic orthodox Christian faith. But all too often, what is actually portrayed is at best a corruption of it. Much of the visible church today is outright semi-Pelagian, and Chris Rosebrough has performed a great service by reminding us thatSemi-Pelagianism Was Declared a Heresy in 529 A.D. at the Second Council of Orange.
Here is what the IX Marks website says of Alpha in its Evangelism Course Comparison Guide:
A decision is asked for by the end of the third of fifteen sessions, even though neither faith nor repentance is discussed until the fourth. My concern is that the course seems to want to ease people into being a Christian almost before they know what’s happened. Repentance and faith are treated in passing under the heading “How can I be sure of my Faith,” which seems like a strange place to handle those. Even then, repentance gets one sentence, and faith gets about a page. Most of the other courses are much better at explaining clearly and up-front that you must repent and believe to be a Christian.
One sentence on repentance, and that after people have been asked to make a decision for Christ? Man-centered heretical semi-Pelagian decisionalism? A denial of penal substitution? In what way is this the Christianity of the Bible?
Why would an elder of any church choose to use such a course when there are better alternatives available? Because he is unable to discern its problems? Or possibly because he agrees with its theology? Both of those reasons would be deeply troubling. Or perhaps, simply, ‘because it works’? – but I wrote my original post to tackle that argument, and so will not repeat it here.
Penfold’s comments (toward the end of his article) are appropriate here:
It is a fearful and sorrowful fact that multitudes of Alpha attendees have said the sinner’s prayer and are now convinced they are Christians, who haven’t come within a mile of understanding their real condition as bankrupt sinners before a holy God.
Let me roll-out Paul Washer again, as I did in my article What are we to make of our good works?:
IS GOD NOT ABLE TO USE ALPHA, EVEN IF IT IMPERFECT?
Of course! Our God is both sovereign and exceedingly gracious. He will save whomsoever He wishes. As Jesus says:
The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8, NKJV)
It is entirely possible that someone might be exposed to enough Scripture in an Alpha Course and their ensuing contact with Christians to be saved. But the fact that some people are saved despite being exposed to false teaching does not make that false teaching acceptable. And what kind of start is it to a new convert’s life to be confused with erroneous ideas about sin, repentance and the work of Christ on the cross?
The choice is not between evangelism-with-Alpha or no evangelism, but rather between presenting a defective gospel or proclaiming the One True Gospel: Jesus Christ crucified in the place of sinners, bearing their punishment and propitiating the wrath of a holy and just God toward them, and His being raised from the dead for their justification.
If we believe in the sovereignty of God in matters of salvation, we should believe Him when He tells us that ‘faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God’ (Romans 10:17). The implication of this is that we should strive to present God’s wordaccurately, not substitute our own ideas in its place. As Paul counsels Timothy:
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15, NKJV)
We preach ‘Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God’. It should be unthinkable for us to seek to lessen the offence of this message to make it more palatable to fleshy ears.
IF EVERYONE IS GOING TO SUBJECT PREACHERS AND TEACHERS TO SUCH SCRUTINY, WHO WOULD BE WILLING TO TEACH?
Remember again the words of James inspired by the Holy Spirit: ‘let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment’ (James 3:1).
Might it not be possible that the Church would be much healthier if many of the people currently teaching in her were to stop – at least until they had studied such that they are able rightly to divide the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15)?
My father writes:
I suppose it is partly in recognition of my own inadequacy in proclaiming the gospel that I am unwilling to be too hard on others to attempt the same task. I hope that if someone hears enough of my sermons they will be able fairly assess my teaching but I would hate to be judged on the content of one sermon where I may have skipped quickly over an important doctrine as my intention at that moment was to focus on something else. We all need to be led by the Spirit of God when we discharge the sacred trust of communicating the Good News of Salvation.
I should think that every Bible teacher has the same concerns. I’m just some random blogger, yet every time I post I do so with a non-trivial degree of fear and trembling, lest I inadvertently lead someone astray. (One of the reasons that I value comments is that it gives people an opportunity to correct me if I stray off-course.) How very heavy is the responsibility borne by an elder of the Church.
Nevertheless, the required standard is not perfect doctrine. If it were, then no preacher would ever dare open his mouth. (Of course, only a foolish man would attempt to teach on a matter for which he knew he was ill-equipped!) No, it is to be able to divide the word of truth rightly. (C.F.W. Walther’s book, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, might prove helpful.)
As we saw at the beginning, the qualification for an elder of the Church is that he be ‘skilful in teaching’ (1 Timothy 3:2) and thus able to ‘convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching’ (2 Timothy 4:2).
Perhaps we should therefore ask, ‘How should a generally qualified teacher respond to appropriate Biblical correction when he is shown to have erred?’
The obvious Scriptural pattern is Apollos, and he seems to be exemplary for this.
Apollos was ‘mighty in the Scriptures’ and ‘taught accurately the things of the Lord’, yet his teaching was not quite all that it could be, because he knew only of the baptism of John:
Now a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures, came to Ephesus. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John. So he began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. (Acts 18:24–26, NKJV)
We infer that he accepted the explanation that Aquila and Pricilla gave him, and he is mentioned eight times in Paul’s epistles – often in the same breath as Paul himself and Peter. The Acts 18 account itself goes on to tell us the benefit of his subsequent ministry:
And when he desired to cross to Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him; and when he arrived, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace; for he vigorously refuted the Jews publicly, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ. (Acts 18:27–28 NKJ)
And so we see that a true teacher, called to his ministry by God and suitably equipped by Him so that he is ‘mighty in the Scriptures’, takes upon himself correction when it is offered.
CONCLUDING THOUGHTS: IN PRAISE OF DISCERNMENT MINISTRIES
It is a noble for any believer to compare to the word of God whatever he or she is taught in the name of God.
There are those (I do not count myself among them) who have devoted themselves to warning the Church against false teachers and their doctrine. These watchmen mostly (I admit that there are some dishonourable exceptions) have done so because, like Pricilla and Aquila, they love the Truth who has set them free, and wish others to hear His Gospel accurately proclaimed.
I especially admire those who are able to correct false teaching and use it as an occasion to preach the Law lawfully (1 Timothy 1:8) and proclaim the true Gospel in all its sweetness. This, too, is a noble calling.
These brothers and sisters receive little honour for their work, but rather much criticism and abuse. I would that their ministry were not needed. But the Church should give thanks for them, for in these dangerous latter times they perform an essential function in the body of Christ. Let us therefore bear them up before the Lord in our prayers, seeking that He might encourage them and open their mouths boldly to make known the mystery of the Gospel (cf. Ephesians 6:19).
In the light of the mercies of Christ, let us therefore be speaking ‘the truth to one another in love, that we may grow up in all things into Him who is the head – Christ – from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.’ (Ephesians 4:15–16, NKJV)
And ‘Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you.’ (Ephesians 4:29-32, NKJ)
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Every Bible teacher and every Christian blogger has proclaimed some error. And every one of us, teacher or not, has some wrong idea about God, has shared that notion with another. Nicky Gumbel is thus no worse than any of us. Let us all repent of our errors as they are uncovered.
And let us hear those wonderful, comforting words from the end of that last passage, proclaimed to all who believe: ‘God in Christ forgave you’ (v. 32).
POSTSCRIPT: FURTHER READING
- Discernment in an Age of Deception: Defining the Believer’s Biblical Call to Judge, by Pastor Bob DeWaay, is a helpful and comprehensive treatment of the subject.
- The Shack, Revisited, over at the Sola Sisters blog, defends the public refutation of false teaching with particular reference to William P. Young’s book, The Shack.
The original appears here.