October 18, 2013

Strange Fire – Are We Preachers or Witchdoctors? – Conrad Mbewe

by Mike Riccardi

For those who are unable to view the free live stream of the Strange Fire Conference here at Grace Community Church, I thought I would do my best to provide a written summary of the various sessions as they unfold (Session One; Session Two; Session Three; Session Four, Session Five, Session Six, Breakout Session 1, Q&A 1, Session Eight). I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep this up, or if I’ll be able to do other sessions (check out Tim Challies’ blog for his coverage) But I thought a little would be better than nothing. It provides us with a helpful opportunity to interact with what is actually being said at the conference. Having said that, the following was transcribed in haste, and so please forgive any typos. I pray it’s a benefit to you.

Strange Fire

Now this title sounds strange, I know, to the American ear. But that’s a relevant question for my own situation back home. It’s a matter I’ve raised, something I’ve dealt with on my blog, because it’s a pertinent question. There’s clearly been a shift in the way in which “Evangelicals” are relating to the pastoral ministry.

The Pastor’s Mandate

To get us going I want us to begin by reading 2 Timothy 3, a passage that clearly demonstrates before us something of what a true preacher of the Word of God ought to be occupied with. And while you’re getting there, let me say quickly something of what I said two evenings ago. What I’ll be giving you is a broad sweep. Invariably, some people will be caught up in that broad brush that may not completely fit into that description, but I trust you’ll appreciate that I only have so much time. So clearly, that’s something at least you can bear with in order to achieve the greater good.

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires.

This is the last surviving epistle that the Apostle Paul wrote, on the eve of his own departure. He is conscious of the fact that he will soon leave the scene of his labors. More or less in the same way as the Lord Jesus Christ was speaking in the Upper Room discourse. But with their departure will not come the end of the Christian church, and so there is a defining moment in which they are saying, “This is what you ought to concentrate on.” The Lord, in His prayer [in John 17]; the Apostle Paul in a direct exhortation [here].

And as you’ll notice from these few words, the Apostle is quick to clarify in Timothy’s mind the primary instrument that he is to use: it is divinely inspired and it is sufficient for all the work the man of God is required to do. “So that he might be thoroughly, completely, adequately equipped for every good work.”

The second thing, based on the first, is that Paul puts a charge on Timothy. It is a hair-raising charge. Invoking the name of God the Father, God the Son, pointing to the coming judgment, he says to him: “Not only are you to preach, but you are to preach the Word. You are to expound these same Scriptures I’ve spoken about.”

And thirdly, “Not only when you’ve got an audience that’s willing and ready and looking forward to hearing what you have to say, but even when men and women are stopping their ears, preach it! Be patient, but preach it! Do all you can to ensure that this happens.”

News from Zambia

Let me read to you two newspaper clippings from back home. And they will be referring to three “evangelical” preachers. Both clippings were from this year. The first is July 8th.

“A Lusaka based clergyman, who in 2012 alone impregnated at least 10 women among his followers has finally been divorced by his long-suffering wife. Bishop Emmanuel Chika of the Restoration Deliverance Church was sued by his wife for divorce after his ‘skirt evangelism’ was published in the media in September 2012. His wife, Alice Kasonda decided to end the marriage after seeing for herself the number of children the pastor has sired within the church.”

The second was also in the same month in a different part of the country.

“The Chipata magistrates’ court has heard how two clergymen [have sexually assaulted] two women who they paraded naked in the hills while casting out demons.” I could go on. The whole thing gets dirty. I’ll spoil your morning if I read the details. Suffice it to say that they were sexually abused on those hills.

How can this be happening so frequently among so-called evangelical churches today? All across Africa. These are two paper clippings from the month of July, this year. The answer I would give, and I hope to prove the point to you this morning, is that it is due to the seismic shift that has taken place in the popular understanding of who a pastor is. What we read in the Bible a few minutes ago is not what is in the popular mind back home. A pastor is someone who faithfully studies the Bible preaches it in its context, applies it in the context of God’s people.

The Face of Christianity in Africa

No. What you need to appreciate is that the Charismatic movement in Africa has evolved further than its American counterpart, especially in its portrayal of the person often referred to as “the man of God.” In years past I hardly ever heard a pastor being referred to the man of God. I can’t tell you how many times a day I’m referred to as a man of God. A pastor used to be understood to be a preacher. But that has changed. [He’s now a “man of God.” And they don’t mean what the Bible means by that phrase.]

And one cannot help but recognize why this change has taken place. The initial Pentecostalism that visited the shores of Africa did not directly aim to move the Word of God off center stage. I mentioned that two nights ago. Rather, what it did was to apparently add the miraculous phenomena of the extraordinary gifts without subtracting the original perception. And consequently, you went to such a church and you would hear some effort at exposition. It’s just that after the exposition there would be that extra time for those of you with all kinds of problems to come forward and be prayed for. However, like the story of the Arabian Camel, human fascination for the mysterious has caused one thing to lead to another until preaching in the popular Charismatic circles across Africa has lost content and is largely nothing more than motivational platitudes, followed by a lot of shouting and chanting.

I think that you could turn to your own television channels with celebrity Charismatic preachers, and I could say: Just change the skin color and it could be what we have back home, apart from, of course, the nice buildings you have here. But largely that’s what you have. Nice phrases, perhaps a quotation from the Bible here or there often tortured out of what it’s really saying. And then, the height of the preaching is really the preacher looking like he’s now demon-possessed, looking crazy.

But often, back home now, what is important is what follows after that. And that’s where the “man of God,” that term wrested out of the context in which we saw Timothy being referred to as such, then takes on the role whose only equivalent can be that of the village witchdoctor. And let me explain. Timothy was being told here, “Your job is that of preaching, preaching the Word—that which has just been described in the earlier verses as being God-breathed, as being useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteous. Timothy: Major in that!” Well the situation back home is that in fact the work begins after the motivational talk is over. It begins with the laying on of hands as the multitudes begin to come forward. They were hardly even listening for that talk. They were waiting for this person with power. This is done in prolonged church services, overnight prayer meetings, and all-day prayer times on the hills. And as I mention “hills,” I hope you’ll remember the newspaper clipping I read before. You go into the hills and you find the “man of God” busy “praying,” at least they claim.

There is no effort at biblical counseling when people come with their problems. No effort. If a person says, “I’ve been in and out of jobs,” there’s nothing like, “OK, let’s talk about your work ethic. Are you hardworking or lazy?” When a couple comes forward and says they’ve got serious marital problems, there’s nothing like, “Man, do you love your wife as Christ loved the church? Are you working in that direction? Madam, would you say that about your husband? And madam, do you submit to your husband’s leadership in the home, as the church submits to Christ. And sir, does she do that to you?” Nothing like that! “Having marital problems? Come forward I’ll pray for you.” In fact, often when I’m driving long distances I try to listen to the radio and every so often you come across one of these pastors and he’s got a radio broadcast where someone else is reading letters to him and he’s responding, you can guess what the answer is going to be, almost invariably. “You’ve got marriage problems? Madam, come for our overnight prayer meeting this Friday. You need to be delivered. Next.” “Do you have problems conceiving? Come for the overnight prayer meeting. You need a breakthrough in your marriage.” That’s the panacea for all the ills.

[Live stream interrupted; I missed a few minutes]

The result of this is that many people have died of illnesses that can be cured by conventional medicines. Often they go to hospitals when it is too late. I’ve got doctors in my own church, and every so often this is the frustration they express. Once upon a time, they came too late, and when they took off their garments they found the etchings all over their body, and they knew why this people came late. It’s because they had been to the witchdoctor and they had told them they were cured. The same is said about the bishops and prophets and apostles in the so-called evangelical church. And often it’s too late, and sadly, people die.

How Can This Be Happening?

How can this be happening so frequently among so-called evangelical churches? That a wife should know that her husband has been sleeping around with girls in the church and she still zipped her mouth, sits there and listens to him “preaching,” and apparently reeking with “power” from God? How can individuals be so ignorant as to follow these pastors into the middle of the bush, up a mountain, alone with them for prayer? Why can’t they pray in the house where they were?

I want to repeat, it’s a seismic shift in the way the public views an African charismatic pastor. It has resulted in blind loyalty especially among the followers. That phrase, “man of God,” is the equivalent of the phrase, “the village witchdoctor.” There is some eerie mysteriousness around this individual. Like the village witchdoctor, this individual has keys that unlock the mysterious world that enables him to know things in the spirit-world that we lesser mortals know nothing about. Therefore, to oppose such a person or to expose such a person is to bring a curse upon yourself.

And you can’t miss it in the village context. When a person comes from visiting a witchdoctor and you say, “Tell me what happened there.” You hardly have anything concrete, because “if I say anything here and it makes its way back to the witchdoctor he can put a curse upon my life. I won’t say anything. I know nothing.”

When this Book is closed, you’re dealing with ignorance. And consequently, when this so-called man of God begins to say and do things that are obviously immoral, there is no premise on which you can blow the offside whistle. And it’s shocking to me the number of women that finally come to the end of the road, come and when they share the story, you say, “But madam, when this guy began to do this, didn’t you realize the whole thing was wrong? Immoral? Unbiblical?” And the answer is often: “Well you know I thought as a man of God he knew what I didn’t know and therefore I trusted him. Until it became too much.” And hence that newspaper clipping.

Now brethren, I wish this was just about cults. I wish it was just about some traditional African religion. But I’m speaking here about what is fast becoming the face of evangelical Christianity to the outside world. It’s a far cry from what we read in 2 Timothy 3 and 4.

Often these individuals will be flashy in their dress, like worldly pop music idols, with their feigned American accent. Of course, the African accent is so strong that you can still detect it within that imported accent. As I’ve already said, their sermons are not worth listening to twice. There is absolutely no exposition of Scripture. There is an observable absence of a display of the unsearchable riches of Christ. Repentance is conspicuous by its absence. And there is no effort at working towards the people of God conforming to the image of Christ. It’s all about how you can get so much that you are looking for to spoil yourself with.

“I declare prosperity on your life, in Jesus’ name.” Why should his declaration be more powerful than mine? I might as well be declaring prosperity in my own life in Jesus’ name. Why him? He is the “man of God.” There is “power” behind his words. So when he makes that declaration, something is supposedly happening. Hence the frequent irreverent repetition of “in Jesus’ name.” The way in which the witchdoctor in the village is repeating some canned phrase! Exactly the same thing! In reality, nothing is really happening that’s worth talking about.

Pastor Conrad on Mount Carmel

A few years ago, I was invited to a live radio broadcast, the most popular private radio in the country. And the subject was miraculous healing today. There were four of us who were on the panel: a Roman Catholic priest, two famous Charismatic pastors, and myself. One of the Charismatic pastors, a well-known healer, couldn’t make it. He said he was sick. [Though the irony would have been rich, it turns out that] he lied. Because immediately after that whole broadcast was over, I met him at the shopping mall, pushing a trolley full of goods with his wife, going out to the car park. But that’s beside the point.

As the interview went on, the priest was trying to be on the two sides of the argument. It was the Charismatic pastor and myself that basically locked horns. Since it was a live broadcast and people could call in, I made a challenge. I read the passage of Scripture where John the Baptist’s disciples inquired of Jesus whether He was the Messiah, and Jesus said, “Go and tell john what you see: the blind see, the dead are raised,” and so on. And I said on that broadcast, “If there is any one of you who fits this description and you have been healed by any of these, please call.” That went on for well over an hour. I became a New Testament Elijah, because I kept taunting.

Now remember, that this is in a country where literally every weekend, churches are having these healings. Every weekend, you’ve got pastors all over your city—from one prophet, another apostle, this bishop, and everything else—conducting these healing crusades. And all of them are claiming these things are happening.

Over one solid hour of waiting and discussing, and me repeating the invitation, two calls came through. One was a gentleman who said that eight years ago he took a neighbor’s daughter, whose legs were not quite equal, to this faith healer and the legs became equal after praying for them. And I remember saying, “Eight years ago?” Yes. “Eight years ago?” He wasn’t getting my point. If it’s happening every weekend, that testimony must be stale! Eight years ago? The second caller was a lady, clearly agitated, encouraging the “man of God” not to listen to me because I am a dead theologian. But what does that have to do with me? I’m asking for testimonies. Those were the only two calls that pretended to have anything in support of this—in a whole nation of over 10 million people, with healing crusades every weekend!

The gentleman doing the interview turned to the pastor on the other side and said, “Well we’ve waited for a while and nobody’s calling.” This was his answer: “I think they are shy.” Poor soul, he had a stroke not too long after that. He was in a coma for about a week, and then he finally died. Why didn’t his fellow faith-healers rush in there and raise him from that bed? It’s because they knew that it was fraud. It was a lie.

One more point and I must hurry on. In Zambia, we have an organization that looks after the well being of the handicapped and physically challenged. When these “healing” phenomena became too much, they said, “Those of you who are blind and crippled, deaf, dumb, stop going to these meetings that are claiming that they are healings, because according to our records there’s not been a single individual who has been healed from those meetings.” Now, if there were to be an organization, surely, that ought to have independent verifiable information, it’s the Charismatics. But here are charlatans, half-converted choir boys, going all over the place, drawing in crowds, in the name of doing the miraculous, when they know deep down in their souls that nothing like that is really happening. They claim to have gifts they don’t have. What is that but fraud? Iniquity. Wickedness. Sin. That’s what it is.

They’ve not only abandoned the work they were told to do, they are claiming to do what they are in fact not doing—simply to draw the crowds and get their money.

Conclusion and Appeals

Let me hurry on to close.

First of all, an apology. I know I’ve spoiled your morning. This is not the kind of message you want to listen to with a cup of coffee in one hand and a donut in the other. I wish I could be more positive. I wish I could say that this is something that happens here and there once and a while. Or as I said, that it was in an extreme fringe corner of Christendom. Yet I want to repeat: this is a growing phenomena. It’s fast becoming the face of evangelical Christianity to the outside world. The modern day successful “evangelical” pastor is simply a witchdoctor who is apparently using cleaner and perhaps more potent power to bring about deliverance, healing, and breakthroughs in the lives of the people. That’s the concept.

In the light of what we read in 2 Timothy, what concerns me is the silence, the silence, in addressing this matter, in locking horns with it. I’ve done a blog post on this, I think it’s entitled, “Our Criminal Evangelical Silence.” If you were to look at the membership lists of the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia, 90% of the membership are these same ministries. I saw the list myself. I know what I’m talking about.

So what’s my appeal?

1. First of all, if you ever do come across to Zambia, or to Africa generally, emphasize 2 Timothy 3:16 to 4:3. Call pastors back to what their work is.

What sets me apart from my congregation is not that I have some backdoor entry into God’s presence that bypasses the ancestral spirits and demons and therefore I can bring the blessings to you. No, there is the priesthood of all believers. It is the fact that I have gifts and a calling that enables me to preach this Word to you.

2. Secondly, pray, and keep on praying, for those who are fulfilling 2 Timothy 4. Pray for them! That they might be faithful and that they might increase in number, so that this tide may be stemmed by the Word of God itself, bringing the light into the darkness. Pray for us, if I may dare to include myself there!

3. And then thirdly, provide truth, especially through books, that clarifies the issue, that clearly sounds the warning, that when you open the door slightly to so-called extraordinary revelatory gifts in Africa, without the benefit that was there in Bible times, which was the presence and regulation of the Apostles themselves, this is where you land.

It’s a matter of time. This is not just some grouping, on its own, out there, full of mad guys. It’s an entire spectrum, a continuum, different shades, but following each other, like the mice listening to the Pied Piper. Now, those who are clever can just remain “open but cautious,” but the common guy who dabbles with these things will get sucked in entirely. And before you know it it’s the Arabian Camel story.

The Bible is just a few platitudes, rather than full-orbed, Christ-centered exposition. I’m saying let’s continue providing the truth so that God’s people can know how rich this book is; that it teaches us the whole counsel of God; that it is adequate for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.

4. And then lastly, support the training and the work of true preachers and the planting of churches—lampstands, churches that represent New Testament Christianity. Support them whichever way you can.

Africa needs your partnership.

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • Mandela

    I am an African and I would like to say those are extreme cases you are talking about. And furthermore, mature churches have stopped importing the gospel from the West. We have the ability to rightly judge scripture for ourselves. Some of us have decided to stop receiving the Western Gospel and started believing the true gospel

  • todd

    Watching Phil speak of John today and his never being upset was admirable but I must say something. Knowing full well this comment might be deleted and already understanding if it is. Mike and the rest of you at Grace and Cripplegate are much too gracious to state what I am about to state and I don’t speak on behalf of them. MARK DRISCOLL ACTIONS TODAY WERE TOTALLY CHILDISH!!! http://www.christculturenews.com/mark-driscoll-crash-john-macarthurs-strange-fire-conference/

    These shenanigans make absolutely no sense. It is amazing, how much flack Pastor Macarthur and Grace is receiving for disagreeing charitably and the cussing pastor pulls this stunt!!! The funny thing is, I am a premil, post-trib, congregational ruled baptist. Meaning: There are plenty of things I disagree with Pastor Macarthur about. How other pastor teachers in our reformed circles could link up with this type of childish behavior from a “middle aged man” is beyond my understanding.

    What do I know? I’m only in my early 30’s. Maybe in 10 to 15 years I will be like Mr. Benjamin Button, excuse me the cussing pastor and understand.

    Grace to you my brothers. May the Lord bless you Mike for your loving patience. 3rd John 2

    Yes, I love Mark, but someone had to “note this man”. No, my anger will not prevent me from praying for this man.

    Once again Mike and the guys at Cripplegate. Excuse my post, if I could have contacted you privately I would have. God bless you all

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  • nwabugwu

    I do agree with some parts of Conrad’s message,but I totally disagree with a the miracle part of it. Am from Nigeria and I still reside there. Years back as students we usually go for missions in villages,as medical and paramedical students the mission team would go with drugs for the sick,we clerked and dispense drugs. But on one of the missions one of our brethren said to the others,”we came here to preach and not just talk about Jesus and dispense drugs”, so he called a couple of brethren asked the villages to come with the sick,no just malaria or headache sick but people with disabilities and grossly sick(since most of them didn’t really know what ailment was terminal),so as prayers began,a blind boy was brought and before the eyes of everyone the child regained his sight. He was only a campus fellowship leader even today he’s a doctor and not a full time minister,yet God used him to work miracles. A popular cripple in kings square,Benin City was healed couple of years ago by God through a christian who was practicalising the power of faith confession and the power evangelism. Miracles are signs for the unbelievers. So,miracle still happens in Nigeria life and direct,and i only mentioneda few.Note that I only mentioned the onesGod used regular brethren to do,not to mention the numerous He does through pastors. Though people are focus more on the miracles rather than the gospel which isn’t suppose to be,yet,healing miracles are real,I am a living testimony. (I just hope i didn’t misunderstand bro conrad’and i hope i wasn’t misunderstood as well).Blessings

    • Beaver

      All these so-called miracles are make-believe, smoke and mirrors . One man, who had problems with his dentures, was told by the faith healers to pray and believe that his natural teeth would grow again. As a test of his faith, he was told to throw away his set of false teeth and live by faith, deep faith and faith alone to experience the miracle. Well, this dear old man was observed some days later scratching with a stick in the long grass to see if he could recover his lost dentures . This is cruel and abusive treatment of vulnerable and credulous people , but the old man was programmed to blame himself for not having enough faith.
      Conrad Mbewe is right to liken these so-called healers to witch doctors . They are also like street salesmen who sell ‘snake oil’……….big promises, big payments and big disappointments. To my mind, this emphasis on miracles to-day is a perversion of the Gospel which calls us to identify ourselves with the service, sufferings and sacrifice of Christ.

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