On Spiritual Bankruptcy

I came upon an interesting religious news item today. It seems that one very famous church in America has gone bankrupt, and is up for sale. The cash-strapped church is now trying to get out of debt by selling off the renowned glass structure, the Crystal Cathedral. A Roman Catholic diocese has made a $50 million cash offer to buy the place.

Here is how one press report covers this story: “The Diocese of Orange said its proposal could pull the megachurch, which was founded more than 50 years ago by pioneering televangelist Rev. Robert H. Schuller, out of bankruptcy by the end of the year. The Crystal Cathedral is trying to sell the property and lease back portions of it for use for services to help erase a $36 million mortgage and settle nearly $10 million in unsecured debt. The church has been plagued by financial troubles after a disastrous leadership transition and a devastating slump in donations.

“The church is also mulling several other offers. A real estate investment firm offered $46 million, as did Chapman University, which is considering building a medical school on the sprawling campus. A Norco-based church, My Father’s House Church International, also made a $50 million offer for the property, which includes the famous glass-spired church designed by architect Philip Johnson.”

The church certainly seems to be in quite a pickle, at least in terms of money. But the point I wish to stress here is that long before this financial bankruptcy occurred, a more sinister and destructive spiritual and theological bankruptcy occurred at this church.

Robert Schuller is famous for his upbeat, positive message. In an effort to be trendy, relevant, and appeal to the secular masses, he decided to only offer a positive, happy message. Thus he simply would not speak on any of the negative themes found in Scripture.

So he of course has refused to talk about sin. He has been more concerned about people’s self-esteem. He wants us all to think positively, and he is quite unhappy with the biblical notion of sin. In 1982 he said this: “Sin is any act or thought that robs myself or another human being of his or her self-esteem”.

Or as he put it in 1985: “I don’t think anything has been done in the name of Christ and under the banner of Christianity that has proven more destructive to human personality and, hence, counterproductive to the evangelism enterprise than the often crude, uncouth, and unchristian strategy of attempting to make people aware of their lost and sinful condition.”

In this he stands in the tradition of other positive thinking advocates such as Norman Vincent Peale. Peale wrote his influential and best-selling book, The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952. Like Schuller, his views are a far cry from that of Scripture. Indeed, the book was so opposed to biblical thinking that it prompted Adlai Stevenson to quip, “Paul I find appealing, Peale I find appalling”.

Such anti-sin thinking has been a hallmark of liberal theology for several centuries now. New England was greatly influenced by liberal theology. The very unbiblical Unitarianism was mainly the religion of the elite in New England in recent times, so critics joked that Unitarian preaching was limited to “the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighborhood of Boston”.

Robert Schuller has also been very concerned about the power of words. He urges his followers not to allow negative confessions to proceed from their lips: “Never verbalize a negative emotion out loud” he says. Instead, focus on “possibility thinking”: “Two of the most profane words we do not permit in our homes are the words, ‘I can’t.’ Verbalize those negative words, and you surrender yourself to their negative, hypnotic power. They’ll destroy you. By contrast, affirm, ‘I can!’ It’s astounding what miracles you can accomplish”.

Of course there are plenty of other influential advocates of positive thinking. Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller are just two of many. But much of the modern positive confession teaching can be traced back to the preaching and teaching of these two men. As an example, consider some of the chapter titles of one of Peale’s books: “Pre-condition Your Mind to Success”; “No More Failure for You”; “The Wonderful Law of Abundance”; “Better Health Through Positive Thinking”; “Learn to Live with the Spiritual Forces Around You”; etc.

As for Schuller, the title of one of his books pretty well summarizes the approach he takes: Self-Esteem: The New Reformation (1982). Such unbiblical sentiments have been critiqued by many. For example, David Wells in his important 1993 volume, No Place For Truth has a chapter on “Self-Piety”.

His remarks are biting but accurate: “In another age, Robert Schuller’s ministry … might well have been viewed not as Christian ministry at all, but as comedy. Would it not be possible to view him as providing a biting parody of American self-absorption?…

“But Schuller is no comic. He earnestly wants us to believe all of this, and many do. When he makes these pronouncements, he attracts a large and devoted Christian following. What is his appeal? The answer, it would seem, is that Schuller is adroitly, if unconsciously, riding the stream of modernity.”

He explains the differences between the individualism of the Reformation and the individualism of the Enlightenment. “If the genesis of modern individualism lies in the idea of the dignity of the individual, the genesis of modern humanism lies in the failure to acknowledge the companion reality of human depravity.”

People like Schuller fail to understand that by eliminating the bad news of the gospel – the message of the Fall, sin, and judgment – they also eliminate the good news of the gospel. If we are not sinners we have no need of a saviour. If we are basically decent people, there was no reason why Jesus had to come and die on a cross.

A gospel reflecting the spirit of the age instead of timeless biblical truth is doomed to fail. Such an anaemic gospel will titillate the masses for a while, but it will never keep them really satisfied. It can’t. Only the Word of Life can. Only a whole gospel for a whole people will suffice.

So the outward financial bankruptcy of this once great structure is a fitting symbol of the inward spiritual bankruptcy of this church. Such will always be the case. Only a living gospel featuring a living Christ who deals with the living reality of sin and selfishness can set people free and radically transform lives.

Away with all the crystal cathedrals of our age, and back to the risen Christ in the fellowship of true believers who put Christ and His Word above all else, including the latest fads and trends. That eternal Christ is the one the world needs. That is the one we must faithfully represent.


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18 Replies to “On Spiritual Bankruptcy”

  1. What happened to his power of positive confession? Seems like the free markets do not care. Many prosperity evangelists and their supporters are facing the same dilemma. I hope people will draw lessons from this, and learn them well and will now not be so gullible as to believe their gospel of gold and silver.
    Barry Koh

  2. Yes good point Barry. Perhaps he was thinking and talking too much about debt and other ‘negative’ realities. He should have just been singing to himself, “Don’t worry, be happy”.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. The really sinister thing about positive confession is that it trains professing Christians to lie and deceive. If something bad (financial, health, relationships – anything) is happening and someone questions you about it, you are pressured to only present the good side, and never contemplate or discuss the bad.

    Positive confession is simply institutionalised deception.

    Nathan Keen

  4. “Positive confession is simply institutionalised deception.”
    Nathan there’s another name for that and Schuller also used it – Marketing.
    Wayne Pelling

  5. I wonder what Christians in China, Pakistan, Indonesia and many other nations think of “positive confession” as they face torture, imprisonment, the confiscation of their property and even death for confessing Christ. Schuller and his ilk are responsible for drawing thousands away from the true gospel. Hopefully, it is not too late for them to find their way back to the Father.
    Vic Trudeau

  6. I don’t understand why people who don’t believe in sin and so a need for a saviour call themselves Christians. Exactly what part of Christianity do they claim to believe?

    Kylie Anderson

  7. Could this be the beginning of the end for the corporate churches of tele-evangelism. Benny Hinn, Creflo Dollar, Joyce Meyer , etc.etc. I have been watching the demise of this false style of preaching for years and warning interested persons of the false doctrine these multi million dollar “Churches” bring in each year, In the name of Jesus, yeh right.
    Brian Carrick

  8. I know nothing about this kind of religion, and evangelicalism – but I do know that the concept of sin is very liberating. Why? Because it never ever comes without the concept of forgiveness, which means the restoration of one’s loving relationship with Christ (Catholics talk about the “Ministry of Reconciliation”).
    And: remember that a cathedral is a church housing the seat or chair of a bishop, and there aint no bishops in Schuller’s ministry (I assume) – but maybe if the local Catholics purchase it, there will be.
    When all’s said, however, you do need to have a positive mindset, or you’re unlikely to achieve much in life, so not all “positive thinking” is all bad.
    John Thomas, UK

  9. John,
    The cathedral or any other building where believers in Christ gather to worship God is not the church. The church is the Body of Christ consisting of all born again believers. So it’s the church that gathers in the cathedral or any other building to worship. The misconception that the building is the church results in the building of grandiose cathedrals like this crystal one. Such a waste of money. The right way to invest and build the church is to invest in the people of God, which is body of Christ.
    Barry Koh

  10. Hi Bill, The history of any ministry is extremely important.
    I seem to remember the original PC mantle passed along from Napoleon Hill (Think And Grow Rich) to Norman Vincent Peale (Power Of Positive Thinking) and then on to Robert Schuller. Hill by his own testimony received the positive confession revelation when the “masters of the universe (including some famous Americans like Edison and Washington) crossed the eons of time to release this new revelation to mankind”. Everything had to be positivised including sin.

    When Peale wanted money he used to concentrate his thoughts via prayer upon some rich person and imposed his will so that they were mysteriously moved to give him the money. Obviously this is not working for Schuller today.

    In more recent days Schuller claimed he was the inventor of the new revolution in the church and mentored or heavily influenced both Bill Hybels of Willow Creek and Rick Warren of Saddleback.

    Back in the 1970’s I remember when the pastor of the largest church in the world came to speak in Australia at the AOG conference, Yonggi Cho saying how the greatest influence upon him at that time had been close friend Robert Schuller. I was there.

    Make up your own minds but in my opinion if ever there was a man who promoted the doctrines of devils it was new age pastor Schuller, his influence in the demise of Christianity goes far deeper than many imagine. I have been following the collapse of the crystal cathedral for some time and frankly good riddance.

    Rob Withall

  11. Barry: I don’t see how you’ve read this confusion into my words. Of course a church is not the Church (I often use capital letters, like this, to make the distinction). But as for buildings being a “waste”, as a life-long Christian architectural historian, I’d have to disagree with you there. Some are awful, we know, but many are inspiring, uplifting, beautiful, and truly holy (it would take many, many words to explain my viewpoint). We all know the Church is the body of believers – but we all have to live in a physical world; great art and architecture is the handmaid of faith. Inspiration to produce wonderful things to god’s glory is one of his greatest gifts to us. Praise Him for it! (Obviously, I’m not seeking to justify Schuller, and his motives/tactics; I think I’m with Bill on all of that).
    John Thomas, UK

  12. John,
    Okay, we agree that the cathedral is just a building. However beautiful the building is, it’s still unnecessary. It’s a waste and bad stewardship of God’s money. Now it’s just another attraction, for tourists to marvel at the beautiful architecture. Why do we need such an expensive building to worship in. How is God glorified in it. The church can meet and worship in a simple building.
    Barry Koh

  13. Thanks Barry

    Actually I am with john on this. Our God is a God of beauty, and he has created us to enjoy his beauty. And if we Protestants want things done only and exactly by the Book, then we have full warrant for this. Consider all the time, money and attention given to the construction of the tabernacle (Ex 25-28) or the temple (1 Kings 5-6), etc. God was the one who said spend lots of money and effort on creating such beautiful and lavish sanctuaries or places of worship. In these cases this was not waste or extravagance, but the divinely-appointed creation of places worthy of our glorious and beautiful God. Not that we necessarily have to do the same today, but it is not at all sinful or unbiblical in and of itself.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  14. Bill,
    I agree with you with regards to the building of the tabernacle in the Old Testament, but it was upon God’s instruction and for His pleasure. Today, the extravagance in the building of “the house of God” is not a blueprint from God but steming from some leaders’ human ambition, vanity.and personal dreams.

    Today, God no longer dwell in the Tabernacle like in the Old Testament but in the true House of God which is His people. He takes pleasure and delight in the beauty of His Church ie His people. That is where we need to make huge investment to build the Church, not in some architecturally beautiful expensive extravagant building that pleases the human eyes and ourselves, but leading to financial bankruptcy or cutting down of spending on the work of the ministry. Worst still is when the leaders resort to begging the people to give more to pay off the huge debt incurred by their extravagant folly. I personally know of split and division in churches on account of leaders incurring huge debt to build their “dream church”. They even resort to asking members to borrow from the banks and lend the money interest free to help pay the debt.

    The builders of the Tower of Babel built the tower, not that it will reach the Heavens but as a monument to their abilities and to enhance their fame.
    Now Schuller and their followers have to pay the price of this folly. But at least Schuller still retains his fame as the man who build his dream “TOWER OF CRYSTAL” and the people, mainly tourists, continue to marvel at its beauty.
    Barry Koh

  15. Thanks Barry

    Of course anyone who knows me will realise I am not arguing for fancy buildings, wasteful excess, and so on. I have often expressed my concerns about megachurches and all the unnecessary trappings that go with them. But my point remains – God himself has allowed for, and at times commanded, lavish, artistic and expensive houses of worship. Thus it is not wrong in principle, as you seemed to be suggesting.

    Indeed, everything you said earlier could be applied to the tabernacle and temple: “it’s still unnecessary. It’s a waste and bad stewardship of God’s money. Now it’s just another attraction, for tourists to marvel at the beautiful architecture. Why do we need such an expensive building to worship in. How is God glorified in it.”

    So there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. A sunset is probably wasteful as well, but I am glad God delights in them and allows us to enjoy them as well. There is a place for art in other words in the Christian life. God is the original artist, and he calls us to image him. That of course is a different matter from obvious waste, self-promotion, and ego trips. But we need to be careful to make clear distinctions here.

    When I see the great cathedrals in Europe my heart soars in worship to God, and I am so thankful these marvellous structures were built. They really do reflect the glory of God, and cause many to turn to him. Of course one can worship God is a cave or in a field of mud as well. But that is not the point. You probably live in a nice house and drive a nice car and have a nice computer and eat nice food and wear nice clothes, etc (at least compared to so much of the developing world). Does that make you wasteful, sinful and so on? So a bit of biblical balance is required here.

    But we are starting to get a bit off topic here. I may yet write an article on these matters however, so we can debate it further there if need be.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  16. Bill,

    Qoute: Indeed, everything you said earlier could be applied to the tabernacle and temple: “it’s still unnecessary. It’s a waste and bad stewardship of God’s money. Now it’s just another attraction, for tourists to marvel at the beautiful architecture. Why do we need such an expensive building to worship in. How is God glorified in it.”

    I respectfully disagree with you Bill. The reasons for building the Tabernacle then and a grandiose church building today are different. Firstly, the building of the Tabernacle where God dwells was a NECCESSITY.
    It was central to Old Testament worship and for the ordained sacrifices to be made, and the only ‘tourists’ were the Jews that came from a far distance to offer their sacrifices. Secondly, though grandiose, it was NOT WASTEFUL because it was not built out of man’s carnal will but God’s SOVEREIGN WILL and according to His blueprint. Thirdly, why it was neccessary and not wasteful was because the Temple of God was not the people but the Tabernacle itself and so there was alot of focus on the building. Fourthly, God is indeed GLORIFIED as God’s Glory indeed resides there. That’s the arrangemant in the Old Covenant. Church buildings today are not on the same footing as the Tabernacle and so the comparison is inappropriate.

    Today, under the New Covenant, we are the Temple of God, not the church building. And it’s a grandiose Temple built by the works of Jesus on Calvary. It’s a very expensive Temple, as it cost God His Son.

    There’s no baby in the water, Bill, just man’s carnal dream . That crystal tower will stand as a reminder of human wastefulness and carnal dream for fame.. Beg to differ. Thanks again Bill.

    Barry Koh

  17. Thanks Barry

    You obviously have made up your mind on this, and no amount of biblical reasoning will sway you. You seem to take your view as gospel truth. Sorry, but I am just not ready to go to the wall over this.

    And why in the world do you assume that anyone today who wants – or is even in fact led of God – to create a beautiful structure for worship is automatically doing so “out of man’s carnal will”? Wow, you have divine insight into human motivations which mere mortals like I simply do not possess.

    So yes we will have to agree to disagree here.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

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