Reflections: Success – True and False, by Edwards Elliott

Reflections: Success – True and False, by Edwards Elliott

Edwards E. Elliott (1914-1979) was the minister of Garden Grove Orthodox Presbyterian Church (now Westminster Orthodox Presbyterian church) in southern California from 1956 until his death. He arrived at Garden Grove a year after Robert Schuller began the Garden Grove Community Church, which eventually evolved into the Crystal Cathedral. Elliot’s labors for the gospel in the shadow of Schuller’s emerging empire prompted him to reflect, in the following article, on the true nature of ministerial success.

Originally appearing in November 1978, “Success – True and False” was the last of many articles that Elliot wrote for the Presbyterian Guardian.

There are those, even in apparently orthodox circles, who are ready to say, “There is no such thing as a successful small church.” And the scornful cut is often added, “A church is small because it wants to be.” But what godly church would actually cherish its smallness? What church wouldn’t bless the Lord for an enlargement of its coast?  And what true church would not resent the put-down by Pastor Robert Schuller when he says that any church with less than 1,500 members has nothing to offer but a “cheesy little program?”

We invite men to hear the Word. We labor at this continually and faithfully, as ambassadors of Christ. We want them to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. And God gives the increase, as the author and evaluator of genuine ecclesiastical success.

Does success mean the erection of ever-larger buildings, to house the latest crop of admirers?  Shall there be an institute by which to challenge others to imitate such successful church management? Is religion for the sake of men to fill our vision of what is within the realm of possibility?

The Greeks used to say, “Man is the measure of all things.” And thus it was the glory of man that was projected in the Greek temples. The itch for human glory and the development of human religious advancement caused the Athenians, according to Acts 17:21, to spend “their time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some new thing.” There is an itch among men which cries out for pleasant scratching. The one who can measure-up as an itch-scratcher will receive the man-pleaser’s reward. All men will speak well of him. He will be thought of as a success-symbol.

Pastor Schuller says, “I intend to become an American classic” (New West, April 1978). In the same context, he says his message is a “statement that has never been made by a churchman before in history. It’s not in the roots of Calvin or Luther, or even Augustine. It’s as simple as stroking people. It’s as simple as keeping human beings surviving by keeping their emotional systems fed.”

When the Apostle Paul appeared on the Athenian scene, proclaiming Jesus and the resurrection and the day-of-judgment, the Athenians largely responded with cruel mockery. The message did not “grab” them. But if the gospel does not “grab” the Greek mind, shall there be an alternative statement which will do the job? Shall the gospel be reduced to simple stroking?

Paul warned Timothy of a coming declension: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts, shall they, having itching ears, heap to themselves teachers; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (II Tim. 4:3,4).

As surely as roots are cut, roots which are found not only in Calvin, Luther, Augustine, but in Scripture itself, church growth will be grafted into another root system. Such roots are available in modern cult teaching. But to take advantage of such alternative roots, a Reformed church pastor must violate his own ministerial vows.

The novelty of introducing cultism to the church is indeed startling, but at the same time interesting and even flattering to the unsaved person. The recitation of the Possibility Thinker’s Creed, a creed with no suggestion of the offense of the cross, surely would not be a difficult task. And conceivably, some may regard such an expression as tantamount to a credible profession of faith.

Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, whose earlier teaching of positive thinking is reflected in possibility thinking, did not balk at speaking a congratulatory word at a celebration at the Founder’s Church of Religious Science; for it too could be hailed as a success.

As time goes on, the showcase of the Garden Grove Community Church seems to contain more elements which ordinarily are associated with cult teaching. For example, the cults with one voice reject the Bible’s definition of sin as transgression of God’s law. And Pastor Schuller would redefine sin by asking, “What is the core of sin?” He would answer, “It is our innate, inherited negative self-image! The negative self-image is responsible for any and all sin.”

This cultish definition is a far cry from Romans 5:12-21, as well as from the Reformed standards. The sinfulness of that estate into which man fell is no mere negative self-image. It is a four-way sinfulness: “The guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of righteousness, the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin, together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it” (Westminster Shorter Catechism. Q.18).

But by the cultish definition, the need of the sinner is so slight that Schuller advises against even telling the man in the pew that he is a sinner. “He knows that already.” And in a recent article in the Ladies’ Hone Journal, Schuller denied that Jesus ever called any man a sinner.

It is the redefinition of sin that makes the preaching of success such an easy thing. With sin so slight a matter, the mere alteration of the self-image can transform the audience into “beautiful people.” And it is this generous benediction which sinks into their ears. It is this which permits the distribution of the sacramental elements from car to car in the parking lot, without a negative thought.

This success story has its admirers, not only among ministers of the Reformed Church of America, to which Pastor Schuller belongs, but in other churches as well. For the argument is, “The outsiders will be attracted by the initial presentation, and then we can give them the Word.” But shall we do some evil that good may come? Paul, under pressure to be a man-pleaser would not “shrink from declaring … the whole counsel of God.”

In the Christian temple, God is host, and man – even the most successful among men – is guest. As host, God has the right to regulate what goes on in the house. If we were to say, “remove sandals,” we would. His word regulates our worship. We may not introduce elements or novelties unless required to do so by the Word. For what the host does not command or provide is, in this house, forbidden. Jesus quoted the words, “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrine the commandments of men.” We may not hide the offense of the cross even temporarily. That offense is our showcase. We glory in exactly this.

The chief end of the church is not the good of man but the glory of God. But glorifying God by obedience to his Word is the best way to gain the greatest possible good for men. We must deny our own wisdom, and reject our own ideas of what men need. This is the only way for the church to succeed.

Success in the church is to be measured by a divinely given reed (Rev 11:1). “Rise, measure the temple of God, and the altar, and them that worship therein.” It is not counting, so much as measuring. There were many out in the court who could have been counted, but they were only temple-treaders, and not worth measuring. Heresies, said Paul, actually are necessary, that they which are approved may be made manifest. The draining off of those who are merely temple-treaders is an important function. What is left is measured for eternity.

As our Lord laid the foundation-rock for his future church in Matthew 16, he also spoke of the necessity of his going to Jerusalem to suffer many things, to be crucified and killed. As Peter heard this, he took Jesus aside to suggest an alternative. And perhaps by some stroking, perhaps by keeping Jesus’ emotional system fed, such a drastic turn could be avoided. For such an untimely death would terminate a very promising messianic career. “Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee.”

But to Jesus, this was an attempt to introduce religion for the sake of man. And such a religion was to be viewed in its essence as religion for the sake of Satan. It was for the sake of God that he would go to the cross. And in the end, the cross would be the instrument of bringing the greatest possible benefit to men. But the suggestion of a kingdom without a cross was exactly the offer that Satan had tendered in the wilderness temptation. And now Peter was sounding like Satan. So Jesus addressed the ventriloquist: “Get thee behind me Satan: thou art an offense unto me; for thou savorest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.”

The religious heights obtainable by the recitation of the Possibility Thinker’s Creed are at no higher level than the heights obtainable by religion for the sake of man. The offer of a kingdom of beautiful people, and the opportunity of a well-integrated person to do good, can find an echo in the statement, the stroking, and the feeding of emotions, coming from the utterances of this self-styled “American classic.”

Abraham Kuyper said, “A church, Calvinistic in origin and still recognizable by its Calvinistic confession, which lacks the courage, nay rather which no longer feels the impulse to defend that confession boldly and bravely against all the world, such a church dishonors not Calvinism but itself. Albeit the church Reformed in bone and marrow may be small and few in numbers; as churches they will always prove indispensable for Calvinism; and here also the smallness of the seed need not disturb us, if only that seed be sound and whole, instinct with regenerative and irrepressible life” (Lectures on Calvinism, 1898, p. 195)”