Should Perry Noble be given the benefit of the doubt?

Over the next few posts, I will be going through my old case files and reviewing some of the more surprising statements that Perry made in sermons and podcasts after the details of the 2009 NewSpring harassment against us were known to them. Neither side publicized the fact that a lawsuit was underway, so most of Perry’s congregation or podcast audience would not have known the significance and foolishness of much of what he was saying. Now that you know (at least some of the story), these statements take on a different color.

To begin this series, I’m going to start with something relatively brief. This is from a sermon preached on July 17, 2011, entitled Frequently Asked Questions: Part 3. The first quote starts at 47:42 in the audio version of the sermon.

Listen, listen. I’ve got several people that don’t like me personally

He’s about to describe critics of the church, so why is this relevant? It’s much easier to dismiss criticisms of NewSpring as being based on emotion or personal dislike than to acknowledge that they’re based on principle and reason.

– they’ve never met me,

His choice, not mine.

probably wouldn’t like me anyway – and it’s not people who attend here, it’s people, critics of our church. And listen, here’s what’s weird. On matters of theology, all of these people that I know of and that I’ve read some of their stuff, we would all agree. We all agree on the substitutionary atonement of Christ, we all agree on the authority of Scriptures,

Not really. One of our complaints about Perry is that he diminishes the authority of Scripture by adding extra revelation to it. When you dilute it with your own visions, we say you’ve undermined its authority.

we all agree on the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

Apparently not, either. NewSpring’s youth pastor, Brad Cooper, has flirted with Rob Bell’s marginalization of the historic resurrection.

We all agree on matters of theology. It’s matters of methodology that most people have a problem with.

You cannot separate theology and methodology, just like you can’t separate belief and practice. Our understanding of God and his holiness informs our understanding of worship and, consequently, our practices in worship. Whether or not you play Highway to Hell as an Easter hymn has everything to do with your theology of worship. Even if Perry rarely preaches clear theology (that’s not being mean; he boasts of it), we can infer what it is from his methodology.

And, listen, when we confuse theology and methodology, we’re just like the Pharisees who crucified Jesus.

Wait, I thought we all agreed on theology. If all we disagree about is methodology, why is Perry calling us Pharisees and blaming us for killing Jesus? Unless, of course, you really can’t separate theology and methodology. See, the Pharisees embraced a religion based on methodology, and Jesus rejected it because it rested on a foundation of false theology, assuming that man knew better than God what holiness was and how it was to be secured.

So I would say that this church is going to be a church that does anything it takes short of sin

Is there a nice bright line that distinguishes sin from not-sin? How does NewSpring determine whether using Highway to Hell in worship crosses that line? Plenty of us think it’s way over the line. In 2 Corinthians 6, Paul calls us to separate from unrighteousness. If we’re even considering doing something that’s “short of sin,” aren’t we sinning already?

to reach people far from God

This phrase contains profound theological and anthropological assumptions, about which we disagree. Our distance from God is not one of degree; it’s based in our very being. We are dead sinners in the presence of a living, holy God; the distance between us is infinite.

and bring them to where they need to be.

Another theological issue. Is it the church that “brings them” anywhere, or is that the Holy Spirit? Where is it that they need to be? What happens when they get there? This short mission statement contains theological (the nature of God), anthropological (the nature of man), soteriological (the nature of salvation) and ecclesiastical (the nature of the church) assumptions that many of us think Noble and NewSpring get wrong. The statement assumes that man can move towards God based on his own effort, or with the help of the church, after which God will reward their combined efforts with salvation. People like Martin Luther thought those kinds of assumptions and the methodologies that sprung from them warranted a Reformation.

Speaking of which, does Noble think that Luther was a Pharisee who killed Jesus? After all, Luther’s initial objection was to the methodology of selling indulgences. What could be wrong with that? The Catholic Church wanted people to find forgiveness and salvation, and who’s to say that you shouldn’t do it that way? People were getting closer to God, and God’s kingdom was being built, especially back in Rome. As a contemporary politician might ask, What difference, at this point, does it make, anyway?

A bit later in the sermon (1:05:20), he turns his attention to his leadership.

If there are days where is seems like I don’t know what I’m doing, there’s a very simple explanation for that. It’s because there are days where I don’t know what I’m doing. I constantly feel overwhelmed and over my head. And I’m constantly begging God to never take his hand of favor off this church and to please continue to be with me and to be with us and guide us in everything we do. But let me promise you something. I am going to mess up because I’m human, and I’m going to make mistakes. And you know what? This church is going to mess up. And this church is going to make mistakes. In fact, the majority of the mistakes that the staff make is because most of the time I led them in the wrong direction, so I take complete blame for that.

Well, in theory. In practice, they were swift and savage in blaming Josh Maxwell for what he did when he followed Noble’s and Clayton King‘s leadership.

But this is all I’m asking, because if you come here long enough, we’re going to make you mad. We’re going to make you upset. We’re going to offend you. We’re going to do something that doesn’t sit well with you.

Define we. I’d be sympathetic to this line of thought if he was saying that God’s Word was going to do these things. The Word, well preached, will often make our sinful natures mad and upset as it diagnoses and treats our sin. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s what he meant, though we can hope so.

And at the end of the day when you’re mad and you cuss and you scream or you tweet or you blog or you Facebook about how much… All I’m asking you is this. At the end of the day, would you be willing to give us the benefit of the doubt?

Why? He just said that he didn’t know what he was doing and that he regularly messes up. More than anyone else, pastors ought not ask, and ought not receive, the benefit of the doubt for what they do or say. Here’s why:

  1. The Bereans were responsible. When the Bereans in Acts 17:11 heard Paul preach, their doubts drove them to Scripture to confirm what he had said. Here’s an Apostle who is preaching the literal, authoritative Word of God, and his listeners are praised for doubting him.
  2. The bar has been raised. In the qualification for church overseers in 2 Timothy 3, Paul says that, among other things, the overseer must be above reproach and be well thought of by outsiders. These are not benefit-of-the-doubt standards; these are no-doubt standards. Also, rather than assuming leaders can skate by by lowering the standards by which they are judged, James 3:1 raises the bar. “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”

Pastors who ask their congregations for free passes should be listened to with caution.

In my next post, I’ll show you what it looks like when someone writes a pastor a blank check to do or say whatever he wants to.