Avoiding the pitfall of panentheism

By Dr. Gary Deddo

Gary Deddo
Gary Deddo

Panentheism is the name of a misleading and misguided approach to thinking about the relationship between God and God’s creation. In general it confuses the being of God with the existence of creation. It also affects, often indirectly, how we approach relationships, our ethics.

Panentheism has been around a long time, taking various forms. It has most often been associated with religions other than Christianity. The Bahai faith, for example, teaches a panentheistic relationship of god with the material creation where creation is said to be “the body of god.” Its adherents believe god is more than creation, yet all of creation is seen as part of, or an extension of god, and thus has the same kind of being as god. Panentheistic teachings tend to fuse creation with god.

More recently, there has arisen a Christianized form of panentheism (we might call it Christo-panentheism). It sometimes shows up among teachers of spiritual formation or spiritual direction. Some of these teachers are aware of their divergence from biblical, evangelical and historically orthodox belief and practice. Others may have been drawn to certain teachings and inadvertently are passing on to others what they don’t fully realize undercuts the essentials of Christian faith, worship and obedience. It’s likely that most of them are well intentioned, even if mistaken. In their desire to overcome a false opposition between God and God’s creation, they blur the distinction between the two. These teachers attempt to use Jesus Christ and his incarnation to justify a confusion and fusion of God’s being with human being.

Why are some Christians attracted to panentheism?

The draw of panentheism for some Christians is that it holds out the promise (which is a false promise) that a fusion and joining of God with his creation in general, and with humans in particular, will result in ethical good. It promises that the perceived differences, disagreements, divisions and hostilities among individuals and groups (economic classes, races, genders) and between humans and the environment will all be resolved. Why? Because, in their view, these are really united (really one), thus there is no reason for the hostility and division. We can all get along. This idea of being naturally and automatically in harmony with God and with each other (and being in some way divine yourself) has strong appeal to many: all is well; all is right. What could be wrong with eliminating our differences? Such a unity and feeling of togetherness will surely bring harmony and end hostility. Or so it seems.

The problem with panentheism

The problem with panentheism is that it involves thinking and speaking as if there is some sort of natural connection (and even identification) between God and some aspect of creation. But affirming that there is a unity of being that results in an automatic and “natural” harmony and flow between God and creation fails to recognize the proper distinction between God and his creation. In the panentheistic view, creation is naturally divine or is infused with the divine. At the level of their being they naturally intermingle since they are or have become the same kind of being. But this thinking of God’s being as extending from or joined to the being of creation is a form of idolatrous thinking. Israel’s first lesson about the creator God is that God is not a creature (not a created being). God is not a material thing. Instead, God is infinitely transcendent over his creation. God made creation, and creation is entirely dependent on God, even for its very existence. God gave creation its existence. Before he spoke, it did not exist. Before God acted, nothing else existed except God. After God acted, the only things that exist other than God are what he made.

Though God is not dependent in any way on creation, all creation is entirely dependent on the action and activity of God. To think or treat any part of creation as God or as somehow divine is idolatry. Israel was given this truth early on and was thereby radically distinguished from all other ancient Near Eastern religions. God alone is to be worshipped and nothing about creation is to be worshipped. Creation can (and should) be honored and respected for what it is—the good creation of God. But creatures commit idolatry when they treat creation as divine in whole or in part—either as God, or somehow as an extension of God’s being. Jesus Christ, his apostles and the church and its Scripture consistently affirm this fundamental truth. It’s part of the bedrock of the Judeo-Christian faith.

Does God’s transcendence mean that he has no relationship with the works of his hands? Does his transcendence mean that the relationship between God and creation is one of absolute opposition? Alienation? Antagonism? Not at all. Before the fall of humanity (and even after), there was a very positive and fruitful relationship of goodness and love and even grace (undeserved favor). The creator God had no trouble interacting with his creation. God’s utter transcendence over creation created no barrier, no disharmony. Rather it was humanity’s distrust and disobedience that broke the harmonious relationship. The sin and evil that becomes a part of the story through human misuse of the good gift of their freedom is what is alien and hostile to God’s good creation and his purposes for it.

The story from Genesis on shows that the absolutely transcendent God who reigns infinitely over his creation has no problem being present to it and interacting with it. Theologians call this God’s immanence. The God of Israel interacts freely with his creation, and is in no way controlled or manipulated or contractually put under obligation by it. God is thus both transcendent over and immanent in (present to) his creation. Those who affirm a natural, automatic panentheistic connection between God and creation confuse God’s being present to things and even being involved with or in things (God’s immanence) with those created things sharing in God’s being and so being divine, or being identified with and naturally joined to God. The error of this panentheistic thinking is that its proponents end up either minimizing or neglecting God’s transcendence over creation or giving creation its own natural transcendence like God’s. With this mistaken approach, God and creation overlap in being, and creation is erroneously given a transcendence that is intrinsic to its very being, like that of God.

But the biblical revelation is clear: God has no natural relationship—no given or fixed connection with his creation, in the sense of creation sharing to some degree in the same kind of being as God. God has an entirely different kind of being (summed up in saying that he is uncreated, eternal, infinite, etc.) than his creation, which is made (and thus finite)—limited in many ways. Creation is entirely dependent on God for its very existence. God upholds everything in existence. Only God has existence in himself (theologians refer to this as God’s aseity)—God is not dependent in any way on anyone or anything. Consequently God’s relationship with his creation comes by his action, by his will (not by necessity), and as the outcome of his decision that expresses his own character and purposes.

If God did not choose to relate to his creation there would be no relationship between God and his creation. The creator God’s relationship with Israel is a real relationship. It involves deliberate acting, interaction and initiative on God’s part. God’s relationship to creation is an act of pure grace! The glory of the God who is, is that he is free to create and love his creation. God does not need creation to be God. God simply is Triune, and that is all that is needed for God to be God. There is nothing about God’s relationship to his creation that is built in, automatic, mechanical, determined by impersonal forces or laws. God is sovereign in his goodness and love over his creation. So Israel was commanded to worship God alone and to repudiate idolatry. God and his creation are entirely different kinds of being. God is uncreated while creation is made—by God.

Panentheism obscures grace

A panentheistic view of the relationship between God and his creation not only misrepresents the transcendence and immanence of God and the created and dependent nature of things made by God, but obscures the free grace of God that is essential to their relationship. Grace is not nature and nature is not grace. Grace is not opposed to nature and does not destroy nature, but grace is freely given out of God’s goodness and love and it rescues, redeems, transforms and perfects his creation and creatures.

Ontologically or philosophically speaking, grace is not necessary—God’s grace is not mechanical or automatic or built into creation. If it were, it would not be grace. Out of his sheer, free grace, God does for creation what it could never do for itself. By grace, creation will be given a perfection that it could never attain out of its own potentials and possibilities. Creation reaches its God-intended end (telos) in and through a real relationship and interaction initiated and completed by God. This decision, relationship and action reached its culmination in the incarnation of the Son of God and his life, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension.

Panentheism obscures the knowledge of God

In the Old Testament and New, even the knowledge of God is not natural. Human beings have no intrinsic power to know God as God truly is. God is known because he chooses to reveal himself and make himself known. The knowledge of God is thus the result of the grace of God. If God chose not to be known, and did not act in a way to make himself known, he would not be known. God has the power to remain private, anonymous. If God did not want to be known, he would not be known! But he chooses and acts to reveal himself. Recall God’s revelation to Moses: “I am that I am.” The early church had a saying: “Only God knows God, and only God reveals God.” This reflects Jesus’ own saying: “Only the Father knows the Son and only the Son knows the Father…and those to whom he chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27 NRSV). If God is known at all, it is because God, by his grace, has revealed himself, thus enabling us to know him as he is.

divine-danceThose thinking panentheistically (like Christian author Richard Rohr, whose latest book is shown at right) speak as if by knowing created things one is naturally also getting to know God because God is somehow in these things and identified with them (thus if you know one, you know the other). These teachers speak of the relationship between God and some aspect of creation the way Jesus speaks exclusively of his unique relationship with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. Recall Jesus’ saying, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). There we have true identity—Jesus, and he alone, is Immanuel, God with us. However, those thinking in a panentheistic way speak as if creation itself has a natural, built-in mediatorial power to overcome our spiritual blindness and reveal God.

Though Rohr and others who think this way can admit that there is some part or aspect of God that transcends creation, they view other parts (aspects) of creation as being an extension of God’s being. Some of these authors/teachers say creation is the body of God, though they also say there is more to God than his body (in contrast to panentheism, pantheism simply declares that all is God and God is all).

When knowledge of God and relating to God by interacting with some aspect of creation is identical to knowing God, that knowledge of creation becomes a norm for what stands as true knowledge of God. It serves as a natural source of “grace” that ends up coloring all that we think and believe about God. The knowledge of creation then becomes a normative authority that at least equals and therefore rivals Scripture and Jesus Christ as the revelation of God. In some cases, knowledge of creation sounds like it surpasses Jesus Christ the Living Word of God and his authorized Written Word. According to this mistaken view, creation as revelation crowns God’s personal and particular self-revelation by the Word of God and fulfills them. Aspects of creation are then presented as unique and even necessary in our knowing of God. Creation (and particularly the human spirit) is thereby given divine status. In this wrong-headed way of thinking, the Holy Spirit is often identified with the human spirit, so that there is no need to discern the difference between them. A continuity and natural connection is assumed. Sometimes the arts and often experiences of nature are given the highest revelatory status.

Panentheism puts a mistaken focus on experience

The net result of this panentheistic frame of thought is that the knowledge of God (and our relationship to God) starts with or concentrates on an experience of something created. It is thus focused on everyday experiences, especially ones we have some control over. Our relationship to God is thus approached from a center in ourselves, and is understood and evaluated in terms of the quality of our experiences. Such a “spirituality” can lead to seeking to have a series of certain experiences. It can lead to persons comparing experiences one to another and to feelings of superiority or inferiority. A danger arises in this preoccupation with oneself and the quality of one’s experiences. Such panentheistic thinking shares in teachings that are offered by sub-Christian forms of mysticism.

Panentheism mistakenly tries to eliminate created differences

What drives many of these teachers and followers in a panentheistic direction is a reaction to and desire to correct a view and understanding of God being at a distance, of God being opposed to or against his creation. Sometimes this problem is identified as a dualism. While it’s true that thinking of God as unapproachable (even hostile to creation) can lead to division, abuse, violence and injustice, the biblical story tells us that there are real distinctions (by God’s design) that exist between God and his creatures, which are there to bless, not curse. These created distinctions (differences) are thus good. It is evil that misuses and takes sinful advantage of them. But the solution to this evil is not to eliminate the good created differences, especially those between God and humanity. God’s solution is to redeem those created differences so that they are all used to bless, uplift and perfect—all for the purposes of love. Good created difference is what allows for the free exchange of life-giving gifts! If all were the same, there would be no reason for relationship, for life-giving gift exchange. There would be no need for or room for true God-like love, fellowship and communion.

In order to address the misuse of the differences, panentheists overcorrect by seeking to eliminate the thought of difference. They promote thinking that the relationship between God and creation is automatic, involving a natural identity, a fusion of being. In their way of thinking, God and creation have the same kind of being—they are coextensive. In a way, this fixes the problem they perceive, but it does so by creating another problem that is just as bad, and possibly worse. They miss the transcendence of God and the grace of God’s relationship to his creation. They miss the fact that God’s relationship to his creation and creatures is a mediated one—that God is connected directly only to Jesus Christ and we are connected by the Holy Spirit to the humanity of Jesus Christ who is the one and only Mediator between God and humanity (1 Timothy 2:5). There is thus no natural, non-mediated relationship of God with his creation. The relationship that he has established with it is based on God’s willing choice that is all about grace. And while it’s true that God’s grace reaches down to the roots of our human being, and in that sense affects our being (ontology), that grace does not give us a different kind of being. Rather, it perfects our human being.

What, if anything, can we learn about God from nature?

God may use aspects of his creation as created signs to point to him and at the same time away from themselves as objects of devotion. Recall how Paul and Barnabas, in horror, rejected the idea that anyone would worship them! Creation (apostles included) has no intrinsic power or ability to connect, relate or reconcile us to God. Nature is not divine—it cannot save. Nature is now fallen in every and all aspects—it is distorted, not even able to fulfill its natural harmonies and created goodness. All of creation needs to be reworked, re-headed up, or recapitulated, as Paul puts it in Ephesians 1:10.

Since God is not a creature and nature is not a piece or part of God, knowing God or relating to God cannot be the same as knowing some aspect of a created thing. An analogy might be the difference between knowing and being acquainted with a work of art by a certain artist on the one hand, and on the other actually meeting, conversing with and having a life-long close relationship with that artist. Some speculations about the artist based on contemplating their works of art might turn out to be true. However, one could never know the artist well without meeting him or her in person. But once you’ve met and conversed with the artist, then you can interpret and understand the artwork in the light of that knowledge. At that point you would no longer be merely speculating based on second-hand knowledge. Therein is the huge difference between knowing something about an artist compared to knowing the artist in person, face-to-face, having a relationship with him or her. A work of art can only serve as a kind of witness, or parable or sign, concerning the artist. It can never be equivalent to the being of the artist. A work of art has a different kind of being than the artist.

That is why the early Christian Nicene Creed declares that Jesus Christ was “begotten from the Father, not made.” Although the teachers and representatives of the early church who drafted the creed indicated in multiple ways that Jesus was divine in the same sense as the Father and Spirit, they used this phrase to communicate by way of analogy that what is begotten is of the identical kind of being as the begetter. Horses beget horses, humans beget humans, etc. What is made is of an entirely different kind of being. Jesus alone is of the identical kind of being as the Father (homoousios to Patri—“of one being with the Father”—is how the Greek-speaking authors of the Creed put it).

The problem of speculating about the artist when the only evidence the viewer has is the artwork, is greatly heightened when the viewer comes at the artwork with suspicion and distrust concerning the artist. An interesting crisis would ensue for such a person if the distrusted artist were to walk into the gallery and there demonstrate convincingly to the viewer that they were actually good and faithful, forgiving and loving, and wanting a good and right relationship with the viewer, and had, in fact, done everything on their part, at their own expense, to make that right relationship happen, and that’s why they had now come into the gallery! This made-up scenario is a parable of the gospel itself, and understanding it depends upon being able to recognize the decided difference between the work of art and the artist. It’s a huge difference—but one that in no way denies an indirect connection between the two. It also affirms the clear priority of knowing directly (in person), in great contrast to knowing indirectly something about a person through their creations.

It’s all about the grace of God

Our knowledge of God, and the source of our salvation, comes about through the agency of God, the choice of God, the action of God and thus the grace of God. This grace comes to us by God’s self-revelation and self-giving mediated by Jesus Christ. It’s not provided by the knowledge of nature or by the exercise of nature’s powers. The transcendence of God is no barrier to God’s being in real and intimate relationship with his creation (a relationship always achieved through the mediation of God’s grace). We have, in the end, a real relationship initiated and established between the transcendent God and his finite and contingent/dependent creation, all by his grace, by virtue of his mediation. God remains God and creation remains creation in this fellowship and communion of grace for all eternity. That is part of the glory—there is a unity that maintains the difference and distinction of being. The difference between God and humanity is not obliterated, but sustained and glorified. Creation is good—just by being God’s creation, not by being an extension of God.

Three types of union with distinctions

An orthodox understanding of Incarnational Trinitarian theology maintains the important distinctions between the three kinds of union:

  1. Union that is eternal and internal in the Trinity (perichoresis)
  2. The union of divine and human nature in the One Person of the Son of God (the hypostatic union)
  3. Our union with Christ by the Holy Spirit (the saving union, sometimes called the economic union)

In the first union (the perichoretic, Trinitarian union of God) there is, uniquely, oneness of being. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all divine in the same way. They are united in being.

In the second union, the divine nature of the eternal Son of God, via the Incarnation, did not turn into human nature (nor vice versa). The divine Son of God did not cease being the divine Son and turn into a man called Jesus, nor is Jesus a man who turned into a divine being. The two natures (divine and human) are joined in the one Person of the divine Son in such a way that the divine nature remains what it was, and the human nature remains fully human (though sanctified and regenerated in Christ).

In the third union, which pertains to salvation, we do not become the person of Jesus when by the Holy Spirit we are joined to Jesus’ human nature and united to him in that saving way. Instead, we become sanctified human beings, sharing in Christ’s own sanctified humanity. We do not become divine, and we do not become Jesus; and he does not become any of us. Our saving union with Christ maintains the difference (distinction) of our persons.

It is thus important to note that there was not and is not a fusion of being or natures in Jesus’ incarnation or in our saving union with Jesus by the Spirit. Even though we use the word union to describe all three of the above noted relationships, there are crucial differences. In each case the union is of a different sort. Many are confused by this, or have never been taught properly (which is why some avoid the topic of our union with Christ altogether). However, this is standard, orthodox Christian teaching that does justice to the whole of biblical revelation.

The serious error of Christo-panentheism

Some have tried to use either the perichoretic union of the Trinity (#1, above), or the union of the Incarnation (#2) to make a case for panentheism. The result is what we might refer to as Christo-panentheism. The problem with this approach is that it obliterates the differences among the three aforementioned kinds of union. Trading on that confusion, Christo-panentheism turns the idea of the unity or union that applies to Jesus Christ alone into a generic principle that applies to all relationships within creation and between creation and God. It takes the one-of-a-kind and different unions that apply only to the Trinity and only to the incarnation of the Son of God, and makes them out to be simply particular instances of a generic category of relationship, a unity-oneness, that applies as a built-in given to all of creation.

cosmic-christFrom this (false) perspective, unity is taken to mean a kind of ontological fusion of God with creation that becomes a general feature of all creation because somehow creation is mystically related to the “cosmic Christ” (the mistake made, for example, in the book shown at right). In order to move from a particular and one-of-a-kind understanding of Jesus to him being merely exemplary of what is true everywhere and all the time, a radical distinction is made between Jesus and the “cosmic Christ.”

Taking the absolutely unique relationships found in God and in Jesus Christ and applying them in the same way to creaturely existence in general makes a serious error. But further, none of the three relationships mentioned above, as depicted in biblical revelation, indicate a kind of union that amounts to an identity of those related, so that there is no difference, so that the things in relationship are interchangeable, so that our knowing and relating to one is the same as knowing and relating to the other.

The perichoretic relationship that applies only to the Triunity still maintains the difference (distinction) of the divine Persons for all eternity. There never was a time when God was not Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Divine unity does not undo the difference or fuse the Persons. They do not become identical and/or interchangeable. But in the eternal life of God they so indwell one another that while remaining distinct in Person they are united in being. This is standard, historically orthodox Christian understanding.

Likewise, in the union of the divine and human natures in the one person of the Son, the two natures are not “divided, separated, confused or changed into one another” (as stated in the Chalcedon Creed or Definition so as to avoid error in speaking of Christ). The two natures remain distinct even while being together in the Person of the Son. But these two natures are not related in a perichoretic way like the Persons in the Trinity are related. The divine nature is eternal and divine. The human nature is creaturely and limited and not eternal and remains human even if sanctified and made immortal (glorified). The human nature is not intrinsic to the eternal existence of the Son’s divine nature. Human nature is joined by an act of grace to the Person of the Son. So the unity of the natures in Jesus Christ does not result in their fusion or confusion.

Finally, our union with Christ by the Holy Spirit does not mean we are Jesus or that Jesus is us. We remain distinct and “other” as persons in this saving unity. Jesus remains Lord, and we are not (and never will be). Jesus is to be worshiped and we are not. And in that saving union with the humanity of Christ, we do not become so united to him that we become additional persons of the Trinity! No, our humanity is maintained and our distinct personhood as creatures is upheld even as we share in the life of Christ and in him we will share in the life of the Trinity, forever. The glory of this sharing is that such fellowship and communion in Christ by the Spirit sustains the difference at the level of our being. That unity-in-difference beautifully displays the glory and grace of the triune God.

Jesus Christ does not represent a generic principle of the union of all things being of the same kind of being and joined in that way. The truth he reveals about the Trinity and about who he is as the Son of God tells us of absolutely unique, one-of-a-kind relationships. Our relationship with God through Christ upholds the very important difference between us and God, between God and creation. He remains Lord over us and all creation. He remains Savior. But that does not mean we cannot share in all that he has for us, even having fellowship (koinonia, sharing in) with his divine nature by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:4).

The nature of sin and evil

Panentheistic thinking concerning the union of all things by virtue of having the same kind of being, badly obscures the nature of sin and evil. Contrary to panentheism, the Bible teaches that all things are not holy. Indeed, God stands implacably opposed to evil. Evil is not a part of God. God will judge all evil—he will sort out good from evil and bring all evil to an end. He will do so to rescue and save his good creation from evil. Because he loves his good creation, God remains vehemently opposed to all that opposes his creation and his good and glorious ends for it. Evil is not overlooked by God. He will never change his mind about it or excuse it.

Contrary to panentheistic reasoning concerning the intrinsic union of all things, evil is not necessary to God or to God’s good creation, nor is it needed for his ultimate purposes. The Bible reveals that evil has been judged and condemned in Jesus Christ while rescuing us from it to bring about a new heaven and earth. God can use evil when that is what we give him, but he uses it against its nature and will. God makes evil do forced labor to serve his holy purposes. And what cannot be redeemed, God eradicates in the end. Evil itself has no future.

Panentheism seems to wrap all differences, even the difference between good and evil, into one giant synthesis so that good and evil work naturally together (perhaps with God’s or Christ’s assistance) to contribute to some greater end. Evil, then, is less than evil because it contributes to a greater good. And in that case, evil is not alien to God and his good creation but rather a necessary means for God to bring about his “higher” ends. And then, good is not entirely good either. For good needs some evil to reach the higher “good.” If that is the case, then God is both good and evil and we should not expect evil to ever be fully eradicated since it is needed as an ingredient in the greater good to come.

Panentheism diminishes the radical difference between God’s good and evil and eliminates the need for both judgment and salvation from evil by an act of God. “Grace” then simply makes sure that all evil ends up contributing in a natural way to good. Notice then, that there is no need for forgiveness. If evil naturally serves good, then evil is justified! In that case, there is no need for the cross of Jesus Christ and his justification of the sinner and deliverance from evil. Evil doesn’t need to be overcome and done away with. It is not the final enemy. It is a friend, perhaps in disguise. It is self-justifying since it is needed to bring about greater good. But that view is not the biblical picture of God’s good, of evil, and of God’s judgment and salvation brought about by the incarnate Son of God who conquered death and evil in his death, resurrection and ascension.

Conclusion

The kind of unity envisioned by panentheism, even if Christianized, comes at a very high cost. The nature of God, the nature of Christ, and the nature of human beings and creation itself are all misrepresented. By blurring the God-ordained distinctions between creature and Creator, panentheistic thinking contributes to a form of idolatry. Along with that, it makes unnecessary the atoning, reconciling and saving work of Christ and his victory over evil on behalf of his good but fallen creation. Panentheism provides a justification for evil while obscuring the free grace of God who chose us and then acted in our place and on our behalf to restore us to fellowship and communion with him as his beloved creaturely and human children. It is for these reasons that GCI does not endorse any teaching that promotes a panentheistic view of the relationship between God and his creation (including human creatures). This view is a false gospel.

Worship that is authentic and true

Dear fellow worshippers,

Joseph and Tammy Tkach
Joseph and Tammy Tkach

I recently saw an anonymous blog post titled, The Church Service of the Future. I think you’ll enjoy this slightly modified version:

Pastor: “Praise the Lord!”

Congregation: “Hallelujah!”

Pastor: “Please turn in your tablet, iPod, iPad, cell phone, PC or Kindle to 1 Corinthians 13:13, then switch on your Bluetooth to download today’s sermon notes. You can also logon our church Wi-fi using the password, ILOVEGCI777.”

[P-a-u-s-e]

bible-app
Source

“Now, let’s pray, committing this week to God. Please open your Apps, BBM, Twitter and Facebook and let’s chat with God…”

[S-i-l-e-n-c-e]

“And now as we give our tithes and offerings, please have your credit or debit card ready. Those preferring electronic funds transfer, go to one of the laptops at the rear of the sanctuary, or use your iPad or iPod. Those preferring telephone banking use your cell phone to transfer contributions to our church account.”

[As the ushers circulate, mobile card swipe machines in hand, the holy atmosphere becomes electrified as cell phones, iPods, iPads, PCs and laptops beep and flicker.]

[Then at the end of the service comes the final blessing and closing announcements:]

“This week’s ministry cell meetings will be held on the various Facebook group pages where the usual group chatting takes place. Logon and don’t miss out! Thursday’s Bible study will be held live on Skype at 1900 hours GMT. Don’t miss out! This weekend you can follow me on Twitter for pastoral counseling and prayer. May God bless you—have a wonderful week.”

While I enjoy the use of technology to enhance church services (and I’ve been known to use my phone to look up a Scripture from time to time), I think you’ll agree that technology cannot replace worship: It can’t replace prayer, it can’t replace study groups or small groups, and most importantly, it can’t replace fellowship and the sharing of the story that gives shape to and explains why we worship.

texting
Used with permission

A story of real relationship

Authentic and true worship is about a story of real relationship that affects all humanity. That story tells how the world became dysfunctional due to the sin of its inhabitants who developed a storyline other than the one their Creator intended. It tells how humanity rejected God, seeking its own way, leading to lawlessness, jealousy and hate. But it’s also the story of God and his gift of redemption, forgiveness, adoption and love. Were we to focus only on humanity’s side of the story, we’d have no cause for worship. But God has written already the end of the story, and continues working to bring it about. The story tells us that our Creator became our Redeemer and that our Redeemer is Jesus—the truth who sets us free (John 14:6; 8:36). By, through and in him we worship God in gratitude for the fact that we are included in God’s story—a story that tells us how God got involved in the chaos of humanity’s mess and redeemed and restored us so we might fulfill his purpose for all creation (humanity included).

Created for worship

Human beings were created to worship their Creator and Redeemer with all they are and all they have. For humans, the ultimate fulfillment in life is being in right relationship with God. We see that fulfillment in the Person and work of Jesus who not only shows us who God is as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but show us who we are as humans in right relationship with God. Jesus shows us that we were created to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbors as we ourselves are loved by God. In Jesus, we hear and see this purpose lived out to perfection. He alone perfectly fulfills the two great commandments that sum up all of God’s will and ways. And by the provision of his grace, accomplished in his cross, resurrection and ascension, Jesus has included us in his circle of perfect relationship and, by the Spirit, calls us to participate in his ongoing worship of God and his love for all people.

Embrace the true narrative, reject the false

Various religions have devised narratives to describe their particular conception of God and his relationship to the world. Some of these conceptions are noted in the chart below. We believe that the most accurate understanding of who God is and how he is related to the world is found in Scripture and in the creeds of the early Christian church—a narrative identified below as Trinitarianism (under Monotheism).

theisms

One of the other narratives is Panentheism (under Polytheism). It’s gaining popularity in North American and Western culture, with some offering a “Christianized” version (Christo-panentheism) in which the God-world relationship is seen as a unity of being between the triune God and creation. Although those who teach this story acknowledge that there is more to God, creation is held to be naturally divine and naturally in right relationship with God—a relationship that is built-in, behind-the-scenes, on auto-pilot. This relationship requires no costly personal intervention by God to put things right. The “unity” and “love” in this narrative is impersonal, requiring no repentance or transformation, and no worship. It’s a very different story than the Christian gospel of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Christo-panentheism’s easy and automatic nature makes it attractive to some Christians. In this issue we’ve included an essay that I asked Dr. Gary Deddo to write to spell out for us the key elements of Christo-panentheism, showing how it diverges from the biblical narrative revealed in Jesus Christ. I encourage you to read it carefully.

The heart of worship

The story of our Triune God (which includes creation, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and re-creation) shows forth the glory of God and the true nature of our ongoing relationship with God. The dynamics of the relationship between the Triune God and his creatures, through Christ, and by the Spirit, is the heart of worship that is authentic and true. This worship not only involves praising God for including us in his story—it also has to do with participation in that story in our individual lives and in the life of the church. This worship occurs in churches where the truth about what God has done and is now doing is lived out in his people.

Appreciating worship that is authentic and true,
Joseph Tkach

Paul Smith

Prayer is requested for Paul Smith, assistant pastor of GCI’s congregation in Big Sandy, Texas. Paul had a serious stroke recently and was in intensive care. Paul and his wife Freia have been married 62 years. Please pray for Paul’s healing and Freia’s comfort. Cards may be sent to:

Paul and Freia Smith
PO Box 295
Big Sandy, TX  75755-0295

Experiencing the Trinity retreat

GCI’s affiliate ministry, Odyssey in Christ, recently hosted an Experiencing the Trinity retreat in Titusville, Florida. Participants came from the U.S., Nassau and St. Lucia. Led by Larry Hinkle, Charles and Carmen Fleming, Gracie Johnson and Carolyn Lane, the retreat was designed to help participants gain a deeper understanding of God in his Trinitarian person and a deeper personal relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

retreat
Retreat participants

Here are comments from participants:

It gave us a wonderful step away from the distractions and noises of our stressful lives to consider our perspective about our faith journey. We were able to prize the value of silence, solitude, and privacy, and reflect how our understanding and response to our Triune God can be radically improved when we quietly and patiently listen to his voice as he works in us, and with us each day. Like most of us, I have formed distorted views and perspectives over my years of faith and ministry that, in the context of my spiritual temperament, certainly affect my thinking. But the retreat refocused my understanding of my personal relationship with God. I sincerely appreciate how the Father’s unconditional and unfailing love, Jesus’ total obedience and sacrifice, and the Holy Spirit’s constant comfort and leading illustrate the profound love God has for each of us during our earthly walk. —Dwight Dean

I believed that the retreat would just be helping me to decipher Scripture. Boy was I surprised! It is a very personal experience between God and myself that helped create a safe place to let go of stuff and create more space for God. It was the most thought-provoking, spiritual fulfilling, and emotionally stabilizing experience of my life. —Stephanie Hall

It was a special blessing to attend this beautiful, moving retreat, learning how to move from just knowing about our Great Triune God, to really knowing him. For over 40 years I have been reading and studying God’s Word. Today, it’s my passion! So much of what I experienced with my brothers and sisters during the retreat has brought me to knowing my Lord in deeper and new ways. It became obvious that he was gently moving me out of my comfort zone, inviting me not only to see him more clearly, but to follow him more nearly. I am grateful to the leaders for making it such a great spiritual journey for me. —Bobbie Tonucci

Visit to Namibia

GCI-Tasmania pastor Phil Hopwood and his wife Deb, along with GCI-Australia member Jan Jackowiak, recently visited GCI congregations in the African nation of Namibia. Here is Phil’s report.

We arrived on a Tuesday in Windhoek, capital of Namibia, where we spent a day and a half preparing our vehicle and getting supplies ready for our trip, including purchasing youth and adult Bibles from the Bible Society of Namibia. On Wednesday we drove to Sesriem where we visited the world-famous Sossusvlei sand dunes (pictured below).

dunes

On Thursday we visited the coastal towns of Walvis Bay and Swakopmund before staying overnight under the spectacular rock formations at Spitzkoppe. We then spent four days in Etosha National Park, experiencing its incredible diversity and density of animals, including giraffes, wildebeest, rhinoceros, lions, elephants, ostriches and many otherbird varieties.

The following Wednesday we drove through the countryside to the Zambezi Region. Namibia is mostly desert and arid land, with poor soil in most areas. There has been a two-year-long drought in most of the country. The population density in Namibia is the lowest in Africa, with small rural villages and occasional towns spread sparsely over the country. There is more population in the north than the south, and we started to see many more villages at this stage, including many schools. Namibia has one of the highest rates of literacy in Africa, with compulsory primary school education.

lascan

We spent Thursday exploring the Divundu-Okavango area before another long drive to Katima Mulilo on Friday where we met up with Pastor Lascan Sikosi (pictured above). We then visited his church building, which had been constructed with help from GCI-Canada. Together with Lascan we drove to Singalamwe where our members enthusiastically welcomed us with singing and dancing. As shown in the picture below, Bibles were presented to the members who could read English or are in the process of learning the language.

distributing-bibles-at-katima-mulilo

beginnings-of-singalamwe-church-building

We then visited a neighboring village where the basic beginnings of a new church building were inspected (see picture above). GCI-Tasmania congregations have raised funds for roof and structural materials to enable the building’s completion. The congregation there is growing and their existing church building is too small. The new building will have a metal roof and a more central location making it easier for members to access.

We then returned to Katima Mulilo where we camped overlooking the Zambezi River. We joined the Katima congregation for worship that evening, again receiving a warm welcome. I was invited to give a message, and spoke on 1 John 4:16, and the assurance that God loves us as his children, and how he wants us to be confident in and trust in his faithful, unconditional and never-ending love. There are a number of historical and current religious influences in the area that push a message of works including Sabbath-observance and other religious rules that must be kept to be acceptable to God. As at Singalamwe, the singing was joy-filled and inspiring with beautiful African harmonies, movement and dance. Jan and Lascan presented more Bibles and distributed some of the clothing that the Adelaide, South Australia church had funded.

We had hoped to meet South African Mission Developer Tim McGuire in nearby Botswana early the following week, but his vehicle broke down when returning from church meetings in Lusaka, Zambia and he was unable to join us. Thankfully, we caught up with him a week later in Johannesburg.

cooking-maize

The following Friday we joined members in the region meeting in Katima for a two-day training conference. Topics included GCI history, Trinitarian theology, Christian leadership and pastoring, God’s faithfulness, the role and value of marriage, stewardship, and preaching. The training was interspersed with worship and meals consisted mostly of maize powder mixed with water, cooked in a large pot over an outdoor fire (see picture above). On Sunday, most of the members joined in the baptism of ten adults and teens in a ceremony held on the banks of the Zambezi River (see picture below). The distant sound of hippos, along with the joyful singing of members on shore provided accompaniment.

bpatism-at-zambezi-river

Upon arriving back at the church building, a massive thunderstorm let loose—the first real rain in almost two years. The church building weathered the storm but many local houses (constructed mostly of mud) did not fare as well. After about an hour, we were able to conclude the weekend event with singing and fond farewells (see pictures of the Katima Mulilo congregation with Phil below). 

members-at-church-building-in-katima-mulilo

children-at-katima-mulilo-church

phil-with-children-at-katima-mulilo-church

Monday was our last full day in Namibia, and we spent much of it with Pastor Lascan discussing the weekend training, and ways we could be of help in the future. We found and purchased a new drum for the congregation and contributed funds towards other church needs. Lascan’s old phone needed replacing, and he didn’t have a computer, so we gave him a spare phone we had as well as a small notebook PC. He is currently trying to obtain better internet service.

lascan
Pastor Lascan

Lascan is not employed by the church, and the local members have very little money to contribute. He receives a small stipend from the South African office. He often does contract work for the local government, and is hoping to pick up more work soon. He has worked enthusiastically and faithfully in Katima Mulilo where he lives to build the local congregation that was in disarray when the former pastor moved back to Germany. He has worked tirelessly and patiently to build relationships with people in surrounding communities.

Lascan enacts Bible stories for children in the local schools, and teaches them about Jesus and the gospel, as well as conducting evangelistic meetings in local villages. There are now five GCI congregations in the area, including a small one attended by San (Bushmen) people. He has capable and supportive help from leaders he has raised up in those churches. He has a small motorcycle provided by GCI South Africa, and also uses local transport to get around the region.

Lascan has received some training from the church in the past and is interested in taking GCI’s ACCM classes online. He is in regular contact with Tim Maguire who visits regularly. Lascan’s vision and prayerful hope is to move to the capital, Windhoek, and raise up a congregation there, and from there conduct mission work in other areas of Namibia. He and the members pray constantly for the work of the gospel in their nation, as well as for their GCI brothers and sisters around the world. They made it clear to us how much they value being part of GCI, and appreciate the friendship and support they receive from Tim Maguire and the church in South Africa and elsewhere.

San Francisco church anniversary

This announcement is from Richard Roberts, pastor of GCI’s congregation in the heart of San Francisco.

Pastor Richard and Renee Roberts
Pastor Richard and Renee Roberts

San Francisco Community Fellowship invites you to attend our 18th year anniversary of serving our community with physical and spiritual food. Please join us on December 4, 2016, at 11:30 AM for a day of worship and fellowship as we celebrate this joyful occasion. Our address is 1195 Geneva Ave, San Francisco, CA 94112. Visit our website at www.sfcf.org. For additional information, contact Pastor Richard Roberts (raroberts@sfcf.org) — (415) 990-0352 or Pastor Tracy Lee (Trace.Lee@sfcf.org — (650) 391-5742.

Reimagining camp

This announcement is from Anthony Mullins, National Coordinator of GCI Generations Ministries.

GCI has been blessed with 50 years of excellence in camp ministry. As we embark on the next 50 years, I believe it’s time to reimagine the possibilities of what our camp ministry can be—especially as it relates to how our camps can more tightly integrate in partnership with our GCI congregations. After spending a few days in meetings in the North Carolina mountains with the group pictured below (which includes the GenMin Advisory Council), I’m more convinced than ever that we are embarking on the most exciting time in GCI camp ministry!

genmin-advisory-council
(Top to bottom, L to R) Carrie Smith, Jeff Broadnax, Susan Williams, Greg Williams, Jeff McSwain, Andy Rooney, Brad Turnage, Mark Stapleton, Anne Stapleton, Anthony Mullins, Elizabeth Mullins

convergeWe’ll be sharing our ideas about a new approach to camp ministry at the 2017 Converge conference, which will be held in April 2017 in Nashville, TN. Our conference theme will be Reimagine Camp. For the past few years, Converge has focused on leader development, but in 2017 this need will be addressed by our GC Next event in North Carolina, and our GCI Denominational Conference in Florida, which will have age-specific tracks for children, teens and young adults.

Given these plans, we’ll be returning Converge to its original focus: providing the best camp ministries possible. All our plenary sessions at Converge along with workshops and small group discussions will focus on camp ministry with an eye toward providing better support for our GCI-USA congregations.

Converge will continue to be a time of inspiration and hope. Some of our interns will lead worship; Jeff Broadnax, Jeff McSwain and I will be the main speakers; and Gary and Cathy Deddo will share insights concerning the 2017 GenMin camp curriculum they are currenly working on with Pastor Lance and Georgia McKinnon.

Converge 2017 will be held at the Scarritt-Bennett Center in Nashville (www.scarrittbennett.org). Because this facility is in the heart of Nashville, we will provide plenty of time to explore the surrounding eateries and sights, including the famous Music City Row, just a block or two away. We’ll be sharing information soon about Converge 2017 costs, lodging, transportation and registration. Be on the lookout here in GCI Weekly Update and on the GenMin Facebook page for that information. Let’s reimagine camp together!

Advent videos

We are pleased to make available to our congregations and members four Advent-themed videos recently produced by GCI Media. These videos will make good sermon illustrations and small group discussion-starters. You’ll find them on GCI’s website at https://www.gci.org/letter/advent2016, and they will be featured, one at a time, in a “Speaking of Life” series during Advent.

video

Jim Kissee

Jim Kissee
Jim Kissee

Thanks for your prayers for GCI pastor Jim Kissee (click here for the original prayer request). Jim’s wife Kaye reports that Jim’s doctor released him from the hospital, saying he’s doing great. Jim is now at home where he is eating solid food for the first time since his surgery, which removed a very large cancerous tumor along and his right kidney. Thankfully, his left kidney is functioning very well, and none of his colon had to be removed.

Jim and Kaye’s family are in town for the holiday. They wish you and yours Happy Thanksgiving, and thank everyone for the continued prayer for Jim’s full recovery.

Cards may be sent to:

Jim and Kaye Kissee
601 N. 36th St
Nixa, MO
65714-7558

Programs or path?

In an article titled Programs, Paths and Healthy Church Growth, Terry Morgan notes that it’s easy for churches to get bogged down running ministry programs. He advises them to shift to a focus on providing a discipleship “path” that helps people follow the Spirit on a journey toward maturity in Christ. Programs are then selected to serve that journey. To read Morgan’s article, click here.

programs-vs-path