CELEBRATION OF DISCIPLINE by RICHARD FOSTER (Part 2)

EMERGING TRENDS IN THE CHURCH TODAY – RICHARD FOSTER’S CELEBRATION OF DISCIPLINE (Part 2)

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Previously, we introduced the author of the (once) popular Celebration of Discipline (COD), Richard Foster.  We discussed several items that he brings up in COD.  In this posting, we will examine those topics in more detail and respond to some of his most aberrant teaching.  To those who think the ‘EMERGING CHURCH’ issues are dead, I would say that the opposite is true.  Emergents may call themselves different names (e.g. Progressives, Missional.…etc.), but their theology and practices have been so ingrained with Christian theology, seminaries, books, sermons, small groups….etc., that it is important to be reminded of these key issues.

Roman Catholicism has gone for centuries largely unnoticed by Evangelicalism. Within smaller pockets of Roman Catholicism, several aspects of medieval mysticism has survived and for the most part has gone unnoticed by Evangelicals until more recently. A few groups such as the Quakers, have always kept some aspects of mysticism alive and noticeable within Evangelicalism.

Classical mysticism was virtually unknown in Evangelical circles until 1978, when Quaker minister Richard Foster published Celebration of Discipline (COD). COD radically changed many Evangelical’s understanding of spirituality.

Foster reintroduced to the Evangelical church the so-called “masters of the interior life” – Foster’s name for the medieval and early mystics that he repeatedly writes about.

“Is there a proper time for meditation? When a certain proficiency has been attained in the interior life, it is possible to practice meditation at any time and under almost every circumstance. Brother Lawrence in the seventeenth century and Thomas Kelly in the twentieth both bear eloquent testimony to this fact. Having said that, however, we must see the importance for beginners and experts alike to give some part of each day to formal meditation.” (R.Foster, Celebration of Discipline, p.27)

Foster attributes these mystics (and they alone) with discovering the key to true spiritual life. Surprised? You should be, because I would think that the first place to compare these ideas is to look at what the Bible teaches on these issues. Unfortunately, Foster doesn’t always rely on the Bible as his source for his theology. Not only does he make these claims, he has convinced many Christians that he is right. It seems as if his views have grown exponentially over time – starting out looking more linear in pattern but over the last few years it has exploded onto Christian teachings across all denominational groups – ranging from traditional mainline to Evangelical Christianity.

One writers states that –

“new forces and new players have popularized Foster’s ideas to a new set of Christians and it seems to be rapidly taking hold. This is due to the efforts of organizations such as Youth Specialties, numerous Bible colleges [seminaries], and a rash of books and speakers, all introducing mystical practices and theology to our young people and our young ministers. Many of these, having grown up in churches that no longer major on the teaching of Scripture, and are thus lacking Biblical discernment, are easy prey for spiritual sounding techniques, especially those that promise such personal and life changing encounters with God.” But today, even solid Evangelical Churches fall prey to this brand of theology.

For example, let me first look at my own church to see how this is playing out. In the seminaries of the Christian & Missionary Alliance (C&MA), future pastors are getting a boatload of training in mystical practices and theology. The C&MA has long been viewed as relatively conservative in doctrine with a focus on missions and discipleship that in many ways have exceeded many other Christian groups.  But today, seminary professors are doing things that would have been unheard of even 10 years ago. Let me briefly share one example of this. At the Alliance Theological Seminary, a class requires its participants to visit a Roman Catholic monastery for period of time ranging from one day to spending an entire week engaging in exercises such as monastic meditation, long periods of silence and solitude, the use of various breathing techniques during these times of mediation, maintain a certain posture during this time, as well as other mystical techniques. The students are getting exposed to this practice and brand of theology that is NOT Evangelical to say the least. Does this mean that these future pastors and leaders will graduate with an understanding that this approach to their walk is normal and will they be passing it on to their future congregations, classes….etc.?  How can it not mean that?

These practices, at times, can include things like meditation but with a different focus of emptying your mind. This is a perspective that Richard Foster teaches in COD in his original 1978 edition.  Foster goes on to say that after emptying your mind, you are in a better position to hear God speaking to you.  But, even Foster issue a WARNING that interacting with spiritual forces could be dangerous if these forces are not from God.  This meditative state is relying on your efforts to reach a state of not being distracted while also being in tune with voices you hear, feel,…etc., are from God.  How do you know?

This is opposed to the view from Scripture which shows mediation to be a time of focusing on God’s word – NOT emptying your mind. These practices can also include paying special attention to times of silence and solitude – again to focus on emptying your mind followed by listening to God (or whomever else talks to you in this moment), experience a DEEPER life with God…..becoming unified with God (Eastern Mysticism teaches this but is it Biblical ?). This may appear to sound like a valuable “religious” experience, but again, is this what the Bible teaches us to do?

Whether you agree or disagree about these practices, at a minimum, they depart from historic Protestantism as well as Evangelical Christianity. In my view, when more emphasis is placed on early church and Roman Catholic monastic traditions, it is difficult to see how the Bible supports these practices. In fact, a great deal of these practices share more in common with Eastern Mysticism than they do with clear teaching from Scripture. These traditions hold the Desert Fathers in high esteem as a source for these traditions – that in itself is worth a separate discussion in a future posting on this blog.

It quickly can be seen how the effect of this approach strays widely from Evangelicalism and the Bible. The following is a brief description of some of Foster’s major beliefs –

Gary [Gilley]……states that “the Celebration of Discipline alone, not even referencing Foster’s other writings and teachings and ministries, is a virtual encyclopedia of theological error. We would be hard pressed to find in one so-called evangelical volume such a composite of false teaching. These include faulty views on the”

  • subjective leading of God (pp. 10, 16-17, 18, 50, 95, 98, 108-109, 128, 139-140, 149-150, 162, 167, 182);
  • approval of New Age teachers (see Thomas Merton below);
  • occultic use of imagination (pp. 25-26, 40-43, 163, 198);
  • open theism (p. 35);
  • misunderstanding of the will of God in prayer (p. 37);
  • promotion of visions, revelations (pp. 108, 165, 168-169, 171, 193);
  • endorsement of rosary and prayer wheel use (p. 64);
  • misunderstanding of the Old Testament Law for today (pp. 82, 87);
  • mystical journaling (p. 108);
  • embracing pop-psychology (pp. 113-120);
  • promoting Roman Catholic practices such as use of “spiritual directors,” confession, and penance (pp. 146-150, 156, 185); and affirming of aberrant charismatic practices (pp. 158-174, 198).”

Without agreeing or disagreeing with all of these points, some of them raise some serious issues with what Foster is teaching.

We will continue to look at more specifics during future blog posts.

Until next time, take care!

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