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The gentleman on the left is John Ortberg, 53, the senior pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in California.

His congregation’s demographics are very much in line with PCUSA findings.  For those who don’t know, Menlo Park is near Stanford University and Silicon Valley.  Therefore, many of the 4,000 people attending his services each week are no doubt high-earners, extremely intelligent and, quite possibly, looking for that much more out of life.

And Ortberg has an answer — Monvee, ‘the future of spiritual formation’.  The Sola Sisters, always on the lookout for new Christian movements of which we should beware, tell us that Bob Buford’s Leadership Network — heavily involved in church growth — partnered with Ortberg to bring the programme to us.

First, a bit about Ortberg, who is originally from Rockford, Illinois.  He earned his Bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College, not too far away.  He went from there to Fuller Theological Seminary for his M.Div. and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology.  He also served as teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church for several years.

Psychology and theology

In my review of Fuller’s curriculum the other day, I didn’t go into the clinical psychology aspect of Fuller’s curriculum.  The school runs courses separate to those from the school of theology, however, it is interesting that a seminary would have such a focus in an area which many Bible-believing Christians would view — correctly, in many cases — as being antithethical to a life in Christ Jesus.  As The Lighthearted Calvinist so aptly demonstrates time after time in the prison ministry (Keryx) in which he participates, the Word of God is the only book we need to live a godly and healthy life.  Psychology is man-made and man-centred.

Indeed, Ortberg plays on this man-centredness in his latest book, The Me I Want To Be: Becoming God’s Best Version of You (Zondervan, 2010).  One has only to look at the cover to see that it’s all about … well, ME!  He’s a Joel Osteen for those into psychology and self-development.

However, it’s worse than that.  Ortberg also combines contemplative practices and works-based Christianity with the self-help.  The Monvee site has an online self-assessment (to take part, you’ll need to register).  It allegedly helps you find your own ‘spiritual inhibitors’ preventing you from discovering your pathway to God.

Some of you reading this might be asking, ‘What’s so wrong with combining psychology and church?’  As Pastor Bob DeWaay warns us (emphases mine throughout):

They were all justified and sanctified through New Testament teaching and the gospel Paul preached. There was no sanctification plan for fornicators that was different from a sanctification plan for swindlers.

One very bad idea churches have chosen is to divide people into fellowship groups based on their former sin. This only happened after evangelicalism began to believe that psychology could sanctify people. Therapy groups soon were brought into churches to replace normal fellowship. The great thing that Christianity has to offer, and found nowhere else, is the forgiveness of sins. If we were justified and sanctified as Paul said, then we can leave the past behind.

Who needs grace or Scripture?

Pastor DeWaay* of Critical Issues Commentary discussed Monvee in August 2010. He points out theological error in several places.

First, human ability over Christian teaching:

Like fellow modern evangelical Rick Warren, Ortberg thinks we do not need more Christian doctrine. He writes: “People would rather debate doctrine or beliefs or tradition or interpretation than actually do what Jesus said. It’s not rocket science. Just go do it.”12 Obviously he assumes we can do what Jesus taught without means of grace. He also says, “You already know more than you need to know.”13 That statement proves that Ortberg’s theology is man-centered. He assumes if we know something, we have the ability to do it. Clearly we then would not need Bible teaching as a means of grace if we had read through the Bible even once …

Furthermore, simply knowing something does not imply the ability to do it. Jesus taught this: “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). If Ortberg is right and all we have to do is go out and do what Jesus taught because it is not “rocket science,” then all Christians could be perfected right now if we just went out and did it. But Ortberg says, “It is easier to be smart than be good. You don’t need to know more from the Bible; you just need to do what you already know.”14 This is appalling. No wonder Bible-teaching churches are disappearing from America. Our Christian leaders think we have a technological problem that can be solved by applying knowledge with the correct technique. God uses the teaching of the Bible to sanctify Christians. Sanctification is not a “how to” issue.

Second, mystical contemplation:

When I read books that I intend to write about, I make notations in the margins to help when I do the writing. As I flip through my notated book on “ME,” I see that the most common notation throughout the book is “no means of grace.” For example, Ortberg writes: “People often wonder how long they should be in solitude. You can experiment, because spiritual practices are about freedom.”16 He holds to an idea called “the flow of the Spirit” which is found throughout the book as well. I do not know what that is. But whatever it is, one is instructed to experiment to see how they specifically may find it. Where does the Bible ever promise that if we sit in solitude, we will find something called “the flow of the Spirit”? The answer is never. It is no wonder Ortberg promotes Catholic mystics—they invented various ideas about experimenting to find God.

I was teaching on this once and someone challenged me to prove that we cannot create our own ways to come to God or grow in God. The answer is found in the scripture. Paul is speaking of various religious practices invented by men. He writes: “These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Colossians 2:23). The term “self-made” can also be translated “self chosen piety.” Self chosen piety is precisely what Ortberg teaches and Paul forbids. The means of coming to God and growing in God are revealed in scripture and are the same for all people. If we have different needs as we go through life they are covered by God’s providence—not by signing up for a personality test.

Third, exalting mysticism and its practitioners:

Ortberg has written curriculum with mystic Ruth Haley Barton. He praises false teacher Dallas Willard. He praises the Roman Catholic Saint Benedict. He praises Roman Catholic mystic Henri Nouwen. He cites New Age writer Teilhard de Chardin favorably. He cites the Roman Catholic Thomas Merton favorably. He promotes the Roman Catholic Richard Rohr‘s teaching on the Enneagram. It would not be unfair to say that there is no popular, “Christian” mystic he does not approve of.

Fourth, ignoring Scripture:

he cites The Journal of Happiness Studies to promote the idea of “connectedness.” He also cites a social researcher: “The single most common finding from a half-century’s research on life satisfaction, not only from the U.S. but around the world, is that happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one’s social connections.”10

Notice that sociology and psychology have pushed theology out of the picture. Ortberg speaks of connecting with “somebody,” but that is not the Biblical concept of fellowship. We only have fellowship with one another if we have fellowship with God based on the blood atonement. Why do I need a supposed Christian book from a Christian publisher to learn psychological and sociological ideas stolen from the world? I do not. Frankly, the church doesn’t need this tripe

When Ortberg writes on the topic of “fellowship” he includes nothing that defines fellowship Biblically—nothing specifically Christian. Nature has eaten up grace. Evangelicalism has in fact pushed the means of grace to the sideline in favor of what can be gleaned from the natural world. Paul’s teaching in Romans 1 about being able to know about God through nature does not indicate that such knowledge is a saving knowledge—rather it is a condemning knowledge.

Fifth, utopian universalism:

Ortberg also mimics Emergent writers. Consider this:

One day there will be a glorious harmony between God and all that he has made. God wants no one left out. As you flourish, you help in God’s re-creation of the world he wants to see.5

This implies universalism and glosses over the issue of coming judgment. God does not need our help to create the world He wants to see. He is coming again and is going to judge the present world. That fact never comes up in Ortberg’s book. (In fact the gospel itself never comes up other than in a very truncated form on page 253.)

Finney and Fuller

DeWaay lays the blame for Ortberg’s type of thinking squarely at the feet of Fuller and 19th century evangelist (and heretic) Charles Finney:

Sociology underlies the church growth movement. Donald McGavran, who invented the movement by applying sociology to missions at Fuller Seminary in the 1950s, had a famous axiom: “People do not become Christians for theological reasons; they become Christians for sociological reasons.” His book Understanding Church Growth was required reading for me at seminary.8 I do not think that McGavran’s intent was to drive theology out of the evangelical movement, but eventually that was the effect. The church growth movement is based on McGavran’s use of sociology to grow the church. It makes theology a side point …

I suppose Monvee and Ortberg are the products of a long process dating back to the heretical Charles Finney.15 Finney taught the doctrine of human ability more fully than anyone since Pelagius himself. Finney believed that if God issued a moral law, then all people were capable of obeying it with no special work of grace. I cannot prove that Ortberg has studied Finney and learned his ideas from him. But they are the same ideas. It would not be overstating the matter to say that Finney ultimately destroyed American evangelicalism. In place of the gospel and the means of grace, we got the American ideal of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. Monvee merely carries Finney’s ugly legacy from the 19th century into the 21st century.

DeWaay concludes:

In Ortberg’s thinking, we need to be more “you-ier.” The biblical concept is to be more Christ-like. We have gone from Christ-centered to self-centered. We have jettisoned the means of grace and replaced them with technology and the study of self. We are in serious need of repentance ...

If you still don’t see it …

The Boomer generation has lived half its life under the shadow of New Age influences.  Generations X and Y have lived most, if not all, of their lives in its shadow.  We’re used to it — the mind-expanding meditation, object-oriented techniques (crystals, labyrinths) and self-centred nonsense wrapped up as spiritual ‘insider knowledge’ — gnosticism, a heresy.

In ‘Mysticism for the Masses’, the Sola Sisters explain the error of combining New Age practices with Christianity, as Monvee does:

There’s just one problem here, but it’s a biggie: these Catholic monks, who were known as the Desert Fathers, cloistered themselves in the Middle East and Egypt; and, because of their close proximity to eastern cultures, ended up being heavily influenced by paganism to the point of grafting pagan practices into their prayers, chiefly, mantra meditation.  So in essence, these “spiritual disciplines” that are part of Monvee’s “Spiritual Formation” programs are classic, eastern occultic practices that have simply been “Christianized” with a sprinkling of the magic pixie dust of Christian terminology.  But make no mistake, these practices are occultic.

They helpfully list terms that fall into this category.  Please be aware of these practices and programmes, which are often marketed in church bulletins as being ‘helpful’, ‘holy’ and ‘ancient’:

– Spiritual formation

– Spiritual disciplines

– Ancient Future

– Contemplative prayer

– Contemplative spirituality

– Jesus Prayer

– Centering prayer (we have this at our church)

– Labyrinth

– Taizé (also at our church)

Lectio divina

One of the Sola Sisters warns:

So a lack of biblical training coupled with the “churchiness” of these terms has made everyone think these things were okay to do.  And yet, nothing could have been further from the truth.  All of these things have their origins in the occult.   All of these things teach and promote some type of occultic meditation. Think I’m wrong?  Look them all up and see how they’re done, then look up transcendental meditation, trance channeling, spirit guides, new age meditation, and self-hypnosis, and you will see for yourself that the technique given for reaching “God” is exactly the sameExactly the same. Before being saved, I did this type of meditation probably thousands of time. This is how it goes: corral the mind using some type of “device” (breathing, chanting, using a mantra, looking at a candle or image, etc.), enter into an alpha level brain wave state, and listen to “God.” Now, the reason I put “God” in quotes there is because if a person follows this methodology, it won’t be God they’re listening to.  It will be something….but it won’t be God.  It will more than likely “feel” spiritual….but only because Satan himself can masquerade as an angel of light.

She’s right.  They all operate on the same principle.  That’s why I stopped early on in my New Age dabblings nearly 30 years ago.

Christianity really is different

The Sola Sister lays it on the line:

Throughout recorded history, humans have worked very hard at gaining access to God’s presence through their own devices, on their own terms.  That’s exactly what mysticism is – an attempt to gain access to God through one’s own means.  That’s why every false religion – at least the ones I’ve researched – have some type of mysticism at their core.  And this is precisely what makes Christianity so distinctively different: we are given access to the one true God, but it is only through the means of God’s choosing.  God chose his Son, who having lived a sinless life was able to make atonement for us and who also – here’s the amazing part – gave us his own righteousness so that when God looked upon us, he would see the righteousness of Christ instead of our own wretched sinfulness.  We would be “hidden” in Christ, our sins covered, and therefore safe in the presence of God.

And she explains the danger of combining mysticism — occultism — with Christianity:

You’ve got a once solid, Christian nation that slowly began to drift toward works righteousness and moralism.  That’s bad enough, but when you add in the mysticism, you’ve got the missing ingredient that renders Satan’s new potion completely toxic.  Remember the problem of works righteousness not being able to deal with the conscience very effectively?  Well, occultic mysticism closes the gap in this way: occultic meditation WILL give a person a supernatural experience.  Now, it’s a demonic supernatural experience, but nonetheless it is supernatural.  And what do we know about Satan? Among other things, we know that he is a supernatural being, he’s a liar, and he prowls the earth like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.  Does he sound like a gentleman?  No – he will not announce himself at the door and state his intention to deceive.  And mysticism is one of his favorite stomping grounds. This alpha brain wave state that a person enters into during meditation? …

Once he gets any of us into this altered state of consciousness, with our God-given barriers down, and our minds primed for deception, will he tell us the truth, that instead of reaching God this way we will be led us into a dark, demonic, dangerous realm?  Will he remind us of the many biblical admonitions to flee from this type of divination?  Well – what do you think?

If you know anyone who has done any of the practices mentioned above, I urge you to warn them that these things are not Christian.  And don’t take my word for it – do the research for yourself.  The truth is that we have only one Mediator who grants us access to God – and He is Jesus (1 Tim 2:5).  And Jesus tells us that when we pray, we are not to babble endlessly like the pagans, who “think they will be heard for their many words (Matt. 6:7).”  Does this not sound eerily like mantra meditation?  He tells us that we are to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7), meaning, when our spiritual lives grows cold, we are to hold fast to what we know to be true, instead of seeking some kind of postmodern whipped up experience to help us “feel” more spiritual.

Amen, sister!  What more can I say, other than to advise you to stay away from mysticism, Monvee and spiritual development.  Stay close to your Bible and closer to Jesus Christ, our only Mediator and Advocate.  And there the lesson endeth.

Tomorrow: our final Fuller alum


*Before anyone mentions this in the comments, I did want to acknowledge that Pastor DeWaay is currently undergoing treatment for alcohol-related hepatitis.  This news came out only a few weeks ago.  Unfortunately, he has had to leave his church, Twin City Fellowship, near Minneapolis.  Like many who have followed his searing and spot-on critiques of erroneous — if not heretical —  ‘Christian’ practices and beliefs over the years, I shall be praying for his complete recovery and eventual return to ministry.

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