The evangelical world is buzzing with concerns about the practices of Elevation Church and Pastor Steven Furtick. Let us begin by saying that we are grateful for every good thing that God has done through Pastor Furtick and Elevation Church. Their zeal to see lost people saved is truly wonderful. And, we want to say with the Apostle Paul that we rejoice anytime the gospel is preached (Phil 1:15-18).
Having said that, we do want to raise questions about whether or not the reported practices of Elevation Church are inconsistent with the gospel. We have hesitated to write about another pastor or church for many reasons, and we know that in doing so we open ourselves up for critique. Even so, we felt it necessary to raise these concerns for several reasons: first, we are concerned for our brother Pastor Furtick, and for his church. Second, we have members in our churches who are interacting with this story on social media, and we have a responsibility to address these issues as their shepherds. Third, since Elevation has sought to distribute their guide to spontaneous baptisms to other local churches (click here), this is a public issue that affects more than one local church. We see some deep theological problems in these reported practices, so we want to raise some questions in hopes of helping our churches wrestle with what our practices communicate:
1) Do our practices reveal a lack of confidence in the power of the gospel?
If a church follows these spontaneous baptism practices (click here for How-To-Guide), then it might reveal a lack of confidence in God’s Spirit and the gospel. At Pentecost, Peter didn’t plant people in the crowd to respond to the sermon. He didn’t assign people to “smile and clap,” create a “HUGE and over the top celebration,” or “pick young energetic people” to go first in order for God to perform a miracle (all direct quotes from the guide). Instead, he simply stood in the power of the Spirit, proclaimed the simple gospel of Christ crucified and risen, and a miracle happened. These types of practices sound very similar to what Paul references in 2 Corinthians 4:2 when he says, “But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” Paul didn’t manipulate miracles. He trusted in the power of God to open blind eyes through the message about Jesus (2 Cor 4:1-6). (Note: It is also concerning that no where in the “How-To” document do they instruct potential churches who they are encouraging to follow their pattern to interview candidates about the gospel or give their testimony. In fact, the words “gospel” and “testimony” are not found in this document. This is no minor oversight because it could imply that regeneration is not necessary for baptism.
2) Do we pull the verses out of context for our own purposes?
There seems in integral places to be misuse and poor interpretation of the Bible. One simple example is the coloring sheet (see the coloring sheet here) that uses Romans 13:1 to teach the kids at Elevation to submit to “the visionary,” Furtick. Romans 13 talks about the government not the pastors of the church. Certainly there are verses that talk about following pastoral leadership, but Romans 13 isn’t one of them. In addition, check out this blog (read blog here) about Furtick’s troubling use of “I Am” to also refer to human beings not just Yahweh. This is potentially dangerous teaching that sounds close to prosperity theology.
3) Do we believe in the priesthood of the believers?
Repeated statements about the authority of pastor Furtick’s vision from God seems to communicate a pope-like role for the pastor (contra 1 Peter 5). The Elevation Code seems to have no place for the Priesthood of the Believers; instead, the priesthood seems to lie with the Visionary alone. Elevation Code 4 states, “We are united under one vision: Elevation is built on the vision God gave Pastor Steven. We will aggressively defend our unity and that vision.” This is quite problematic for two reasons among others: 1) The scriptures indicate that all Christians can hear from God and know his plans for the church as outlined in the Bible. 2) We don’t need a priest to mediate these things to us because there is One Mediator (1 Tim 2:5).
Yes, the pastors are called to lead the church in accomplishing God’s mission (Heb 13; 1 Pet 5; etc.), but God in his goodness has also given a voice in decision-making to the congregation (cf. Acts 6; 13; 1 Cor 5; 2 Cor 2; Gal 1). Church leaders and the congregation hold one another accountable and serve on mission together.
4) Do we believe that a pastor should shepherd his people?
There seems to be a wrong understanding of the role of the pastor in regard to the church at Elevation. In the Elevation Code (read the code here) it states, “We need your seat: We will not cater to personal preference in our mission to reach this city. We are more concerned with the people we are trying to reach than the people we are trying to keep.” And in another clip on YouTube (Watch clip here), Furtick says “if you know Jesus, I am sorry to break it to you, this church is not for you.” On the surface, both of these statements seem right. Our mission – like our Savior’s – is to seek out and see the lost saved. However, these statements fly in the face of the biblical witness. Paul told the Ephesian elders otherwise, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). This doesn’t mean catering to personal preferences; it means that you have a weighty and high calling to protect, exhort, rebuke, encourage, pray for, and equip your sheep because you will give an account for them (Hebrews 13:17).
Yes, the church should be focused outward, but at the same time the pastor and the church should be focused inward to care for members (i.e. obey the one another commands). To say that we must choose one or the other is a false dichotomy not presented in the Bible. The early church’s love for one another was part of their corporate witness that led to people being added to their number daily (Acts 2:42-47).
5) Where are the Bereans?
Finally, where have all the Bereans gone (Acts 17:11)? Why don’t more church people question what their pastor says to see if it squares with the Bible? Why does the coloring page not shock more parents? Why are more people not asking, “Does planting people in the crowd not violate 2 Corinthians 4?” Church members need to search the scriptures to see if, as this graphic (View graphic here) indicates, what the lead pastor hears from God truly comes from God and is in line with the scriptures.
These are important theological questions for all of us to ask ourselves. Do our practices reveal any of these theological concerns? It may not be our spontaneous baptism plan that lacks confidence in the gospel, just our lack of passion to share it. It may not be a coloring sheet with the pastor on it that shows a misuse of the scriptures, but we all have agendas that we will be tempted to paste a verse over. Out of concern for the witness of Christ’s church in the world, the clarity of the gospel and our own local churches, we need to answer these questions to the benefit of our own churches and ministry.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Jon Akin is the pastor of Fairview Church in Lebanon, Tenn., a suburb outside of Nashville, and Nathan Akin is one of the planting pastors of Imago Dei Church in Raleigh and serves there as the pastor for Disciple-Making. This piece was used with permission from Baptist 21. Before the Akins released this article they sent it to Elevation Church with the hope of opening dialogue about these concerns and learning from Elevation Church and pastor Steven Furtick. [As of March 6] the Akins had not heard back from Elevation Church.)