Perry Noble took the unprecedented step of directly addressing criticism from the pulpit Sunday morning in response to Rosebrough’s and my critique of his Christmas Eve claim that God told him to preach that the Ten Commandments aren’t commandments. After having a week and a half to reconsider his error, Noble dug in his heels and reaffirmed his assertion that there is no Hebrew word for command. He also walked back NewSpring’s earlier categorical denial that he had ever used the N-word (“Perry doesn’t use that word and doesn’t address anyone in his life by such a word.”), suggesting that we did indeed hear him correctly and that it wasn’t the first time he’d used the word.
Before he addressed the problems with his sermon, Noble took a predictable swipe at his critics.
Fifteen years ago when we started this church, I had no idea that what I was going to do would be this hard. No idea. But I have learned that Christians can be some of the meanest, angriest people on the planet. And so, man, we have people saying…, and you’ve heard me talk about this before. “If you talk about how you don’t love cats again, we’re not coming back to the church. And if you talk about Clemson again, we’re not coming back to the church. And I don’t like it when you say sucks, or crap, or darn, or pissed.” [Laughter and applause.] I had someone email me on social media the other day and say that I cannot bring a friend to our church because I never know what you’re going to say.
And I want to be honest with you guys. I have a pastor’s heart, and my heart is that I wish that I could make everyone in the world happy. But you know what I’ve realized in 15 years of doing this? If I try to make you happy, I become fake. And if I become fake, I become a bad leader of this church. So the promise I’m going to make you as a church [applause] is you get the same guy on stage as you would get at dinner…. [Editor’s note: He doesn’t want to eat dinner with you.]
Listen, church, people are going to attack me. People are going to attack our church and the way that we do church. It’s just going to happen. Recently–I don’t know if you’ve seen this online–but recently there’s been some stuff said about how I say the Ten Commandments (our Christmas Eve services, by the way, were awesome, they were incredible), and some people said that I tried to rescind the Ten Commandments. I didn’t try to rescind the Ten Commandments. I simply declared that they are actually promises from God, because Ten Command…–that word command in Hebrew–it is not command, it is saying. I have resear… I have gone back and talked to people in Israel that confirm those things.
Let me just mention this while I’m at it. There’s been a lot of chatter online this week, and some of you may have seen it, and people saying that I said from this stage the N-word at our Christmas services. You’ve probably seen it. If you haven’t, it’s online; you can go look at it. But listen, don’t fight, don’t fight online. Fighting online is like peeing in the wind; it feels good at first, but everybody gets messy. [Laughter]
If you watch through the video, it looks like I said the N-word. Let me promise you something: that’s not the word that was in my heart. My words got jumbled. It’s not the word that was in my heart. It’s not the word that I wanted to come out of my mouth. It’s not the word that I’ve declared from this stage. My heart is for racial reconciliation. I love all races. Listen, when we get to heaven, every nation, tribe, tongue and language will celebrate who Jesus is together. [Applause] So, let me say this: If you watched that and you felt like I said that word, and you were offended by that, I am deeply sorry. Please know, that’s not what was in my heart, and that’s all we’re going to say about that, and we’re going to move on because we’ve got people to reach for Jesus. Amen? [Applause]
Noble’s statement from the 8:30 a.m. service is noticeably less forceful than their earlier statement that he had never used the N-word. Perhaps because he realized there are too many witnesses to his conversations to sustain an outright denial, Noble seems to concede that he has used that word in private (note the emphasis on not wanting to say it on stage) and that it had accidentally slipped out as he prepared to tell the punchline to the conversation he was having with his friend. My guess is that Noble uses the term affectionately so doesn’t see how using it would make him racist. (I’m not excusing that type of use, just saying that’s probably how Noble sees it.)
One thing I’ll credit Noble for is that as soon as he said it on stage he knew it was a mistake and stopped. He also kind of apologized for it, though he put most of the blame on the listeners who felt like they heard it rather than fully accepting the moral responsibility for having obviously said it. It was also a nice rhetorical flourish to wrap himself in the evangelism flag to put an end to further discussion: Stop talking, we need to win people for Jesus.
There’s much more that could be said about Noble’s N-word problem, though that’s not the biggest problem with his sermon or yesterday’s statement. While he saw his error and apologized for the N-word, Noble continues to see no problem with his rejection of the Ten Commandments, an error that he has now embraced twice (one in the statement from Jan 2, the second from yesterday’s service).
On Christmas Eve, Noble, perhaps unintentionally, stepped outside the boundary that defines biblical Christian faith. Yesterday, he declared that he’s not ready to come back.
From the outset, I’ve given Noble the benefit of the doubt on how he came to his conclusion that there are not actually any commandments in the Old Testament. The kernel of truth that grew into Noble’s big error was that the Ten Commandments, also known as the Decalogue (ten words), didn’t have a formal title. You can see the outline of what Noble’s Bible tutor was trying to teach him in the Terminology section of this Wikipedia article.
If we stipulate that the Wiki article is correct, we see that the terminology issue is limited to the title of the Commandments. Would Noble say that Boston College, which doesn’t use the word university in its title, isn’t a university like Clemson or USC? Of course not. The nature of the institution is described but not determined by its title. Whatever title anybody gives the Decalogue doesn’t change what they are: commandments.
Now, that’s all interesting, but it’s ultimately irrelevant. The only issue that matters is what the Bible calls the commandments, and it turns out that the Bible calls them commandments. The issue is so blindingly obvious that it seems unnecessary to actually have to spell it out, but people’s willingness to accept or defend Noble’s argument has surprised me, so let’s do this again and let the Bible interpret itself.
And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your hearing today, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them.” (Deut 5:1)
Ah, but statutes and rules aren’t commands, Noble might argue. Deut 6:1 makes it clear that they’re the same:
Now this is the commandment–the statutes and the rules–that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them.
Statutes and rules are an appositive, a restatement or renaming of the word that precedes them. If the Old Testament doesn’t really have a word for command, this verse from Deut 8:1 also becomes impossible to translate or understand:
The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do.
When we look at the ten commandments themselves, we see that they’re written as imperatives.
You shall have no…, You shall not…, Observe, Honor. (Deut 5:7-21)
The plain grammatical syntax of these verses shows that they’re commands. Looking at the New Testament, Jesus identified them as commands in Matthew 19:17.
If you would enter life, keep the commandments.
Ephesians 6:2 also creates a problem for Noble’s premise.
Honor your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise) that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.
Paul distinguishes commandments from promises, though he points out that they are sometimes linked. Commandments are not promises, they’re commandments.
Noble’s mistake was to take a little bit of truth and apply it to the entire Old Testament and to each of the ten commandments. For example, he told parents they were wrong to teach that the Bible commanded children to honor their parents. As I argued in my previous post, the larger theological implications of Noble’s error are serious and heretical, which is why I and many others had hoped he’d correct his obvious error.
That he didn’t is a cause for serious concern. Noble preached a sermon that denied the heart of God’s law, which in turn eviscerates the entire gospel and denies the atoning power of Christ. Perhaps Noble departed orthodoxy accidentally, but he has refused the opportunity to come back.
His statement today suggests that he knows he’s wrong but he doesn’t dare discover the truth. Look again at Noble’s “defense” of his sermon:
[The Commandments] are actually promises from God, because Ten Command…–that word command in Hebrew–it is not command, it is saying. I have resear… I have gone back and talked to people in Israel that confirm those things.
He starts to say that he researched the term, but can’t quite bring himself to use that word. Instead of research, he went back to the source of his error–his friends in Israel. It’s as if he didn’t want to find any information that would undermine his thesis. Start with the desired conclusion, then work furiously to avoid anything that would contradict it. G.K. Chesterton described Noble’s behavior well: “To be wrong, and to be carefully wrong, that is the definition of decadence.”
So why won’t Noble correct such an obvious and serious error? Here’s my theory.
It would expose his weakness as a preacher
He readily acknowledges his ignorance of Hebrew, which is why he reacts so credulously to his Israeli driver. Noble mocks serious theological education and boasts about walking away from seminary himself. A mix of his willful ignorance of the biblical languages and of church history was the toxic stew that helped produce his sermon. (Shouldn’t it have given him pause that he was rejecting the label that Protestants have always used for the commandments?)
Those who would preach God’s Word have a serious, terrible responsibility. To get it right requires much effort and study. In the Old Testament, the Levites prepared for the priesthood from birth and couldn’t start their priestly duties until they turned 30. Paul commends Timothy (2 Tim 3) for having learned Scripture from his childhood, yet commanded him to continue to study it as a workman so he would be ready to preach. Such serious preparation was required, Paul says, because other preachers would arise who would preach unsound doctrine.
Peter had the same concern about the harm that would be wrought by unlearned teachers.
Our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15-16)
A pastor’s ignorance of Scripture is not an excuse, it’s a threat.
It would undermine his salvation statistics
After Noble’s sermon, he pleaded for the unsaved to come forward to say yes to Jesus, something that Noble assumed signaled their conversion to Christianity. What would happen if Noble now renounced his entire sermon? Should the people who accepted his argument still be considered saved, given that they had actually heard a message that rejected the gospel? How do you issue a recall on an altar call?
He really does want to redefine Christianity
Friends of Noble have defended the Commandments sermon by suggesting that we’re overreacting and taking his lesson out of context. Noble actually provided the context at the beginning of his sermon.
It all starts with the word yes... Have you really said yes to God?…
There are two main objections that people have to becoming a Christian. One is that they’ve met some Christians, and I understand. Listen. We–because I’m a Christian–we can be weird people sometimes. We can say some dumb things. We can say some stupid things. We can say some insensitive things. Yes, we have been weird, but please don’t think God is weird because his people are…
But number two–and this is the biggest thing that people tell me. They say, “Perry, I don’t feel like I could do what it takes to be a Christian. I don’t feel like I could keep all the rules. I don’t feel like I could keep all the regulations. I don’t feel like I could keep the commandments. And, so because I can’t do it well I’m not even going to try because I would rather not try than to try at something and fail.”
And there are people here tonight that you’ve said no to Jesus for so long because you feel like you would fail, you would mess up, you couldn’t do it right. It goes back to this idea that in the Bible there’s these things called the Ten Commandments.
You ever heard of those? Even if you’re a non-christian, you’ve heard of the Ten Commandments. Now it became real interesting to me–and this is the reason that I think you need to say yes to Jesus tonight–because earlier this year I was in Israel…
[The story of his driver’s lesson about the Ten Commandment follows.]
Instead of Ten Commandments that you have to keep if you’re going to be a follower of Jesus, they’re actually ten promises that you can receive when you say yes to Jesus. So what I want to do tonight is I just want to go through each one of them very quickly….I am trying my best to convince you to say yes to Jesus because of these ten promises.
After describing God’s family as an embarrassment, he gets to the heart of the issue. If nonbelievers are repelled by God’s law, it’s really OK. There is no such thing as God’s law. God is really just a soft bucket of puppies and kittens that you’ll really, really enjoy. Noble is revising the Ten Commandments because God’s enemies don’t like them.
Noble is creating a religion that is going to be acceptable to people who can continue in their rebellion against God’s law. Rather than being broken by the law and rescued by Christ (see Romans 7), Noble is preaching an anti-Christian message that embraces a revulsion towards God’s law and God’s family.
This is why Noble needs to repent publicly and quickly. He has sold a false religion to his flock, many of whom may have no reason to examine the state of their salvation (Philippians 2:12).
We take no joy in seeing Noble persist in his error, though this Commandments sermon has provided many with a moment of clarity over the danger of his preaching. I fear for Noble, who in the last few weeks has denied that the early church had a Bible, said that homosexuality is no more sinful than obesity, and has now rejected the Ten Commandments. The trajectory is ominous.
Noble has lived on the boundaries of orthodoxy for a long time, but he has departed it now and is advocating a non-christian gospel. For the sake of the people who continue to follow Noble, we pray that he repents and comes back.
(P.S. I did privately contact Noble last week recommending that he repent and correct his Christmas Eve sermon. His statement today was his response.)