Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Bold apostolic leader Peter Wagner mealy-mouths about his New Apostolic Reformation

One at least partially constructive result of Texas Gov. Rick "Goodhair" Perry's run for the Presidency is that it has brought new and broader media attention to the "neo-Pentecostal" New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), a stealth religious denomination led by chief apostle C. Peter Wagner which prominently supported Gov. Goodhair's pre-announcement prayer event.

Wagner isn't entirely happy with the newfound attention. Being an Apostle and all, he wants to see his apostolic message presented in the most favorable light. So he has done a defense of his movement in The New Apostolic Reformation Is Not a Cult Charisma News 08/24/2011.

Not to question his Apostolic marketing savvy or anything. But if you want to present a defense of your controversial movement for the press and general public, framing it as We're Not A Cult doesn't seem like the most promising way to go about it.

But his piece offers a good example of far-right and Christian nationalist messaging. Not surprisingly, it's in the white-people's-whine tone so popular in those political precincts: them mean libruls is pickin' on us! This victim posturing is chronic to present-day American conservatism. Frank Schaeffer calls its more religious various the Jesus Victims posture.

Wagner also uses the self-defense that Christian Right groups have used since they took shape in the late 1970s in their current form. They make two claims simultaneously: we're really really important, and we're actually pretty insignificant. The former claim is aimed at their supporters, the latter at everyone else.

Apostle Wagner cites a blog post by Marsha West at a site called Forgotten World Ministries, Texas Governor's Upcoming Leadership Event Includes Cult Members 08/03/2011. The article is clearly written from a conservative Protestant point of view, and she does mean the NAR when she talks about cult elements in Perry's prayer rally support.

There are cultish aspects of the NAR's practice. But West doesn't make much of a case for considering the NAR as a cult, and I wouldn't use that term for the NAR. But her description of them as a cult seems to be based on this claim: "The NAR believes that God is restoring the lost offices of Prophet and Apostle and that the modern-day apostles and prophets are gifted with the same gifts as the New Testament era Apostles." This is a red flag for observers of cults and those familiar with abusive practices by religious leaders. These NAR leaders claiming those titles not only claim to receive direct messages from God in the forms of auditory and visible manifestations. They also claim direct authority within their religious world based on their claimed status as Apostles and Prophets.

By contrast, the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations generally have formal requirements for ministers. And they have various procedures that can be used to address misconduct by ministers that don't require direct supernatural guidance from the Almighty. The kind of claim the NAR leaders make to divine authority are very legitimate concerns for anyone looking at their movement.

Before reading Wagner's polemic, it may be helpful to read Rachel Tabachnick, C. Peter Wagner's Response to Increased Exposure of the New Apostolic Reformation Talk to Action 09/09/2011. She points out that he Apostolically misrepresents the nature of the criticism to which he is responding in several recent defenses, presumably including the one cited here: "Wagner claims that the criticisms of the NAR are coming from the secular and liberal press, but proceeds to counter the accusations that have come from conservative evangelicals and Fundamentalists."

In the Charisma News article I linked, he cites West's article by name and also a Paul Rosenberg piece at Aljazeera English called America's own Taliban 07/28/2011. Rosenberg is Senior Editor of a left-leaning California alternative paper, Random Lengths News. In the Republican alternative universe, Aljazeera is "leftwing" all by itself. Apparently he considers West a leftist, too. Because he introduces the two references saying, "The best I can discern, the NAR has become a tool in the hands of certain liberal opponents of the conservative candidates designed to discredit them on the basis of their friendship with certain Christian leaders supposedly affiliated with the NAR. To bolster this attempt, they seek to accuse the NAR of teaching false doctrine and paste on it the label of 'cult.'" (Them libruls are persecutin' us nice Christian white folks!)

Actually, conservative evangelicals not associated with the NAR probably also qualify as libruls/leftists/socialists in Wagner's view. After all, the NAR considers their churches to be controlled by demons.

Wagner argues, on the one hand, that the NAR hardly exists at all:

I am rather fascinated at the lists of individuals whom the media glibly connects with the NAR. I'm sure that some of them wouldn’t even recognize the term. In many cases, however, they would fit the NAR template, but since the NAR has no membership list they themselves would need to say whether they consider themselves affiliated or not.
On the other hand, in the two preceding paragraphs, he contends that the NAR is a world-historical phenemenon:

The roots of the NAR go back to the beginning of the African Independent Church Movement in 1900, the Chinese House Church Movement beginning in 1976, the U.S. Independent Charismatic Movement beginning in the 1970s and the Latin American Grassroots Church Movement beginning around the same time. I was neither the founder nor a member of any of these movements, I was simply a professor who observed that they were the fastest growing churches in their respective regions and that they had a number of common characteristics.

If I was going to write about this phenomenal move of the Holy Spirit, I knew I had to give it a name. I tried "Postdenominational" but soon dropped it because of the objections of many of my friends who were denominational executives. Then, in 1994, I tested "New Apostolic Reformation." "Reformation" because the movement matched the Protestant Reformation in world impact; "Apostolic" because of all the changes the most radical one was apostolic governance, which I'll explain in due time; and "New" because several churches and denominations already carried the name "apostolic," but they did not fit the NAR pattern. Other names of this movement which are more or less synonymous with NAR have been "Neopentecostal," "Neocharismatic," "Independent," or "Nondenominational." [my emphasis]
It hardly exists. But it's as important as the Protestant Reformation. Welcome to the mealy-mouthed world of the contemporary Apostles.

As the diligent folks at Talk to Action and Religion Dispatches have documented, the NAR headed by Wagner isn't organized formally as a denomination. But in fact it is a network of "independent churces" that functions as a denomination. Wagner in the linked article lists some of the distinctive features of their beliefs. Here's how he describes the NAR's structure at the end:

Some of the authors I read expressed certain frustrations because they found it difficult to get their arms around the NAR. They couldn’t find a top leader or even a leadership team. There was no newsletter. The NAR didn’t have an annual meeting. There was no printed doctrinal statement or code of ethics. This was very different from dealing with traditional denominations. The reason behind this is that, whereas denominations are legal structures, the NAR is a relational structure. Everyone is related to, or aligned, with an apostle or apostles. This alignment is voluntary. There is no legal tie that binds it. In fact, some have dual alignment or multiple alignment. Apostles are not in competition with each other, they are in cahoots. They do not seek the best for themselves, but for those who choose to align with them. If the spotlight comes on them, they will accept it, but they do not seek it.
What he doesn't emphasize is that this "relational structure" is based on specific, sweeping claims of divine authority and functions in a distinctly authoritarian manner.

He argues that they don't advocate theocracy. He just wants:

... to have kingdom-minded people in every one of the Seven Mountains: Religion, Family, Education, Government, Media, Arts & Entertainment, and Business so that they can use their influence to create an environment in which the blessings and prosperity of the Kingdom of God can permeate all areas of society.
Religious scholars distinguish between "theocracy" and "theonomy." But both mean what most people would think of as theocracy: specific religious values dominanting government and the law, with the preferred religion given actual preference.

I'll close with a comment on the Christian theology of the NAR, in particular their demon-hunting. Without trying to add the qualifications that history has presented, the basic Christian theological concept of magic is that magic represents an attempt by humans to conjure God into doing what they want. In mainstream Christianity and even in much of conservative Protestant thinking, people can pray to God to meet their needs. But God does what he wants to do; he isn't subject to control by human prayer or conjuring.

The NAR makes claims not only about faith-healing, which itself pushes into the realm of superstition. They believe that their exorcisms can affect demons, which they conceive of in horror-movie terms as real entities with magical powers, can effect physical changes in the world. By which I mean physical changes not directly involved with the exorcism procedures themselves. And exorcism is a central feature of the NAR faith and practice. As Wagner writes: "One critic claimed that the NAR has excessive fixation on Satan and demonic spirits. This is purely a judgment call, and it may only mean that we cast out more demons than they do. So what?" That's cute: "One critic" says this. Actually, it's a very obvious and very obviously problematic aspect of the NAR Apostolic belief system.

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