My sister was teasing me the other day about how I can’t just seem to stay away from listening to Pastor Smith’s sermons.
As I mentioned in the previous two articles here, our former church has recently begun to offer recordings of Pastor Smith’s preaching on iTunes. With more than six months’ perspective on what it was actually like to attend Pastor Smith’s church, it’s been interesting, to say the least, to go back and listen to Smith preach
I was trying to explain to my sister just what it is that keeps me listening. I was telling her that in a way, it’s like analyzing a crime scene to see how the criminal got away with it. If you listen to one of Pastor Smith’s sermons, it’s almost bizarre to trace how he will take a perfectly straightforward passage of Scripture and twist it around to support whatever point he wants to make.
(And, by the way, it’s not just enough to listen casually…rather, you must think through and analyze each twist and turn of phrase, because Smith is very smooth and tricky. He talks fast and, as I’ve mentioned before, sounds completely authoritative, which has the effect of lulling his listeners into automatically accepting everything he says as the absolute truth. I find myself pressing the “pause” button a LOT so that I can fully follow his leaps of logic.)
For instance, in his most recent sermon, he preached about the Beatitudes, from Matthew 5. After a rather lengthy introduction, in which he once again recapped all his main points from the previous messages (apparently, this is still a continuation of his “Loose the Curse and Release the Blessing” series), Smith then had the congregation read the passage of Scripture aloud with him. Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. So far, so good.
(Intriguingly, during his recap, Smith put a whole different spin on what he’d said previously about getting blessed by giving your financial gifts to him personally. He downplayed giving him money, and instead turned it into blessing him with what you said about him. I wonder if perhaps someone had taken exception with the desperately greedy and self-serving tone of his previous assertions.)
Then Smith proceeded to interject some statements about how fortunate the congregation was to be sitting “under the anointing” of someone who still preaches the “uncompromised Gospel.” Smith paused dramatically so that the crowd could cheer for him. Then he continued to rev them up by making fun of other churches, where the message was “skim milk and diet cookies” compared to the “real meat” that Smith preaches. More cheers from the audience. Smith gets still an even greater reaction from the people when he goes off on a mini-rant about how he’ll never stop standing for the Bible, the uncompromised Word of God. It’s a bit repetitive, but still—so far, so good.
Then Smith begins with the real nuts and bolts of his message. He reads the passage again, stopping on occasion to define terms and expound upon them. Here is where it starts to get tricky. Smith doesn’t say where he gets his definitions. He doesn’t really use the Greek terms. So I can only assume these are definitions he’s getting either from a dictionary, or from his own thoughts.
Much of what he says is pretty unremarkable and essentially orthodox. I do wonder how he arrives at defining “Blessed are those who mourn” as meaning, “Blessed are those who repent.” It COULD mean that. It probably does. But as Smith launches into a 10-minute discourse on repentance, I can’t help but wonder if maybe there’s a bit more to “those who mourn” than just “those who repent.”
However, it’s great to call people to repent of sin, which Smith does. He has the audience roaring its approval as he declares that if they come to HIS church, they’ll still find someone who calls sin “sin,” and he won’t water down the Gospel.
I do have a fleeting thought that it’s interesting how Smith defines “sin.” He rattles off a list of the “biggies,” like homosexuality, pornography, and adultery. Then he mentions road rage and yelling at one’s wife. He never mentions the type of “sins of the heart” that Jesus specifically addressed in His Sermon on the Mount. He also doesn’t mention greed, pride, or being a lover of money.
Although Smith SAYS he’s preaching a “hard message” as he talks about sin, I can’t help but wonder. I mean, if it really WERE such a hard message, it seems like there’d be more people in the audience who would recognize sin in their lives and repent of it. More of the crowd would be “mourning” rather than hooting and hollering.
But we’re only about twenty minutes into Smith’s message. Let’s continue.
Smith then discusses “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” and I notice an interesting thing. Almost immediately, Smith equates hungering and thirsting for righteousness with “being in the house of God,” which in the next sentence then apparently means Smith’s own church. He goes on for 10 minutes or more about how you’ll be blessed if you attend services, if you attend Wednesday prayer meetings, if you support the church programs. Conversely, he declares, those who avoid church will NOT be blessed. In fact, they will bring curses upon themselves.
I press the “pause” button here and listen again to this segment of the message. It’s all very smoothly done, but on second listen, I realize that Smith has essentially redefined “hungering and thirsting for righteousness” as “going to Smith’s church every time the doors are open.”
I realize that it’s not necessarily wrong to assert that if you “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” you’ll probably be a churchgoer. It’s not even such a huge leap of logic to say that if you don’t have any desire to worship with other believers in a church setting, you very possibly might not be “hungering” for righteousness. Most people who care passionately about righteousness do tend to be go to church.
And here, I’d also like to say that I fully realize it would never be possible for any preacher, no matter how learned and thorough, to discuss every possible facet of each of the Beatitudes. Jesus’ ideas are so big, so all-encompassing, that we could probably continue for days to flesh out just what they mean and just how they might look as we live them out in daily life.
That being said, however—don’t you find it disconcerting that a preacher can boil down “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” into a diatribe about attending his own church?
The same thing happens on a smaller scale with Smith’s explanation of “Blessed are the meek.” He proceeds to define “meek” as, “Power under control.”
I have no doubt that that’s PART of meekness. However, it seems like there’s a whole lot more to meekness than simply “power under control.” I decide to check out what the long-respected Matthew Henry Commentary has to say about Matthew 5. There, I read Matthew Henry’s definition of meekness:
“The meek are those who quietly submit to God; who can bear insult; are silent, or return a soft answer; who, in their patience, keep possession of their own souls, when they can scarcely keep possession of anything else.”
I’m not exactly sure where the word “power” would fit into that definition. Smith does mention that Jesus was meek, and Jesus had power that He kept under control. OK. I suppose so. But I do wonder why Smith’s definition is so different from a commonly recognized Bible resource’s definition. Could it possibly be because Smith is more comfortable talking about “power under control,” rather than about a characteristic that would require actual humility?
What really made me alarmed in this sermon, however, was Smith’s discussion of, “Blessed are the pure in heart.”
Smith defines “pure in heart” as “without guile.” Since I’d heard another highly respected preacher use that definition of “pure in heart,” and since I’d done some checking around myself, Smith’s definition didn’t really give me pause. “Without guile” is one fairly accurate rendering of what it means to be “pure in heart.” The phrase connotes childlike innocence, sincerity, no ulterior motives.
But what I found so disturbing was how Smith developed what it means to be “pure in heart,” or “without guile.” Smith’s big example, his big illustration, was giving gifts with ulterior motives. “If you give a gift to someone,” he proclaimed, “you give it to them with no strings attached.” He described how sometimes, someone will give him a gift, and a few weeks later, they’ll then come to him and want something. “If you give a gift,” he repeats, “you give it as unto the Lord!”
He adds another example of this pure-in-heart gift-giving. “I’m sick to death of people who call the church and say, ‘I’m a tither.’ Big deal! If you’re a tither, you’re just doing what God told you to do in the first place. It don’t give you no clout, it don’t give you no say in what we do!”
Believe it or not, Smith had the crowd cheering for this harangue as well. Eager to prove how “pure in heart” they are, his loyal parishioners peppered his statements with enthusiastic cheers and amens.
At this point—45 minutes into the 75 minute sermon—I lose heart and decide to listen to the rest of it another day. That way, I can always hope that the last third of the sermon comes back to Scripture, although I doubt it does, as Smith had already transitioned into his conclusion, which was, “What being ‘blessed’ actually means.” From our several years at this church, I can pretty much guess that “blessed” is going to mean financially prosperous.
As I pondered what I’d heard, I realized that Pastor Smith had delivered a pretty odd mix of real Scriptural truths with his own self-serving spin. Meanwhile, he worked the crowd over so well that if you asked any one of them, they’d probably swear in a court of law that Pastor Smith had indeed preached an “uncompromised Gospel.”
Yet in relation to the Beatitudes, the Gospel—what Christ did for us by dying on the cross and rising again—wouldn’t be just about using that list of “blesseds” as guidelines for the behavior that leads us into blessing, which is how Pastor Smith had framed the entire sermon.
Rather, Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” gave us an utterly impossible standard for behavior. Jesus’ point was less about providing his listeners with a new set of rules and more about showing us how utterly impossible it is to live up to God’s definition of righteousness and holiness on our own. Even as believers, we inevitably find ourselves brought up short against Jesus’ standards. Without the “good news” of how Jesus provides us with a “pure heart,” we are hopeless to be “pure in heart.” Without knowledge of Jesus’ own meek nature—available to us believers through the indwelling Holy Spirit—there is no way that we, on our own strength, can ever demonstrate the kind of meekness that will truly please God.
Pastor Smith claims to preach an “uncompromised Gospel,” yet in his sermon, I heard very little true “Gospel” at all. Sure, he made a few good points, and said several things that lined up with the Bible fairly well. Yet for all the self-aggrandizing about how he preaches the Word, there was far too much UNSCRIPTURAL self-promotion.
Just as I was wondering how on earth Pastor Smith keeps people thinking that his self-promotion, mixed with a few random Bible thoughts, was the “uncompromised Gospel,” I happened to stumble upon a comment that someone had made on a random message board about cult churches. The poster said:
There are 3 stepping stones used by personality cult leaders in developing a following. If they were just to go around saying, “I am the messianic hero—follow me,” then they would mostly just be ignored as crazy. So instead they use a 3-step strategy.
First, they promote loyalty to the truth of the Bible. This massive absolute trustworthy authority gets them lots of sincere followers and provokes little challenge.
Second, they promote loyalty to their movement as a means to implement obedience to the scriptures. Fair enough to do so and necessary, but the breaking point becomes when loyalty movement becomes more important than loyalty to scripture. Then people are drawn into the next level, and for them the movement becomes a cult. The successes of the movement are boasted about in an unrealistic manner. All sorts of benefits are promised. The value of defending each other is emphasized. But most others are still loyal to scripture.
Then the third stage is the transfer of loyalty from the movement as a group to the messianic hero leader himself. Lots of subtle ways to do this: self-promotion, boasting, mentoring, special promotions etc. Telling people their destiny is linked to being around a great leader, etc. Leaders introducing each other in bloated, unrealistic ways. Anyway, at the same time different people in the movement can be at different stages in this loyalty slide: Bible to Movement to Leader. Once the person is loyal to the next level, loyalty to the previous level can be dispensed with quite conveniently. For example, once people are blindly loyal to the movement, then the Bible can be dispensed with. Once people are blindly loyal to the leader, the interests of the rest of the movement can be dispensed with. This explains how certain cultish people can be so hypocritical. They no longer really care about the Bible or really care about the interests of other people in the movement. Their professed loyalty to these other things are just stepping stones for people to stop on in the manipulative plans of a personality cult.In some cases, the driver of this movement is not actually the leader—it is the followers. They move themselves, with no encouragement, to the next level of cultish loyalty. In fact, they push the decent honest leader to behave as if he was god-like, they hero-worship him and flatter him and try to attack anyone who disagrees with him. But it is evil and idolatry, and good people must stand up to this degeneration and stop it. The pattern also explains how someone can be teaching stuff that is almost 100% Biblically correct and yet still be leading people astray like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Yes, it’s painful, but this is how good , honest, God-loving people get sucked into a personality cult. We must expose this manipulation and try help these people back to God and the Bible.