God Is Not My Fall Guy

“Hello, my name is__________, and I approve this message.” This awkward disclaimer became part of standard political jargon in 2002, when the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act was passed. Specifically, its “Stand By Your Ad” provision demands that all political ads run on radio or television include “a statement by the candidate that identifies the candidate and states that the candidate has approved the communication.” You’ll hear those kinds of statements a lot over the next seven months. And while the success of such an initiative is difficult to measure, the system is probably better off because of it. Aspiring politicians ought to accept responsibility for their words and actions, and ought to be held in contempt when they don’t. The buck stops at the top—there is no “fall guy” for the man who would be President.

But what about Christian leaders? Do they have a similar accountability? Of course they do. And yet, we sometimes inexplicably absolve them of that accountability. Instead of a “Stand By Your Ad” disclaimer, we’ve come to expect a “God Laid It on My Heart and Led Me” disclaimer. We hear it regularly when a leader enters the ministry, when he changes ministries, when he drops out of the ministry, and sometimes at critical points in between. Explanations involving secondary causation (i.e., providence and wisdom) are thought to be unacceptable in such cases; the explanation needs to involve primary causation (God called me, burdened me, prompted me, laid it on my heart, etc.) to pass muster. In other words, we give them a chance to deflect responsibility for their own decisions.

Primary causation explanations do have certain advantages:

  • They sound a lot more spiritual (ministers are closer to God and have special knowledge that normal Christians don’t).
  • They silence objections (after all, who can argue with God’s “clear leading”?).
  • They give an “out” when the decision turns out to be a dud (failure can be explained away as one of God’s mysterious ends rather than as my stupidity).

But at the end of the day, primary causation explanations to me smack as much of soft cessationism, mysticism, heavy-handedness, and blame-shifting as they do of true spirituality. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the way we announce ministerial decisions.

My name is Mark Snoeberger, and I approve this message.

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12 thoughts on “God Is Not My Fall Guy

  1. Don Johnson says:

    Mark, I agree that a lot of poor decisions are accompanied by an attempt to sanctify them by the “God led me” excuse, but I disagree that it smacks of ‘soft cessationism’. Cessationism has to do with Spiritual Gifts, not the actual leading of the Holy Spirit in one’s life. Despite abuses, the Holy Spirit does so work, no?

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  2. Jon Gleason says:

    Don, it shares something with continuationism — an unverifiable authority claim by the speaker.

    How can I know whether or not God led you to make a decision? Does Scripture tell me to believe you when you say He led you?

    “God led me” is a claim others aren’t supposed to believe, so we shouldn’t say it. It may not be continuationism, but it’s comparable. Someone I know :) recently called it a form of taking God’s name in vain — an empty usage of God’s name.

    The furthest we should go is something like, “I think this is God’s leading.” That’s not a claim to authority, it’s a (hopefully considered) opinion.

  3. I, umm felt led to share this on FB…(won’t blame anyone but me for the leading, however).

  4. Don Johnson says:

    Hi Jon

    I think we are falling into a trap to use the terms “continuationism” or “soft cessationism” in stating our position on Spirit-leading. Those who are springing the trap are trying to justify on-going sensational spiritual gifts, primarily tongues.

    While I don’t endorse the use of “God led me” language most of the time it is used, it is a fact that Christians are led by the Spirit of God (Rm 8.14). Does anyone deny this?

    I agree with Mark’s article in the main, just react to this usage of “soft cessationist” because I don’t think it is true. The Holy Spirit does lead Christians. That has nothing to do with cessationism.

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  5. Jon Gleason says:

    I certainly don’t deny that fact.

    But when I say it definitively happened in a particular case, I am making a truth claim which isn’t grounded in Scripture and which you shouldn’t accept on my word alone. That is akin to much of continuationism.

    Let’s put it another way. God’s leading of you is never normative for me, and vice versa. I trust you agree.

    In that case, it is an irrelevant and empty statement for either of us to make.

  6. Ben says:

    Don, I actually agree with you that “soft cessationism/continuationism” isn’t the right descriptor for much of this sort of language. But to the degree that it’s wrong, it’s wrong because it’s too gentle.

    If I say, “God told me” something that God actually didn’t say, I’m not a soft cessationist. I’m either a continuationist, I’m delusional, or I’m a false prophet.

    If I say God led me to do something, I’d think your question ought to be, “How do you know that?” And then what would you expect me to say?:

    “I just felt as though God would have me do it”? “I sensed the leading of the Spirit”? But then, those are exactly the sort of things non-cessationists would say.

    Does the Spirit lead? Yes, of course. But are you aware of a non-inspired, non-apostolic figure who described precisely when and how the Spirit led him?

  7. Bill Provenzano says:

    Mark,

    I really appreciate this post. It seems to compliment the book, “Just do Something” by Kevin DeYoung. I read that book in December and wish it was written and I had read it 20+ years ago.

    I once worked with a pastor who often communicated his decisions in the manner you described. He often referred to sensing “something” in his spirit. I was much younger then, but even so, after a while I noticed it seemed to be used to disarm anyone he said that to about whatever it was he was speaking. I almost want to say I consider it to be manipulative in some ways, and generally don’t trust those who speak in that way. Admittedly, that’s based solely on experience. Others may have had a different experience.

    I wouldn’t have a problem with someone saying “It seems to me that God is leading this way or that” as long as they stand ready to admit that sometimes our five senses play tricks on us humans and our judgment is inherently flawed.

    All the best,
    Bill

  8. Don Johnson says:

    Hi Ben

    Well, I don’t know about others, but I can say that I am aware of specific incidents in my own life where I knew what God wanted me to do by means of what seemed to me to be clear indicators.

    But the reality of that or not is not the point I am raising. Cessationism has to do with the gifts, not the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit amongst God’s people. It is a red herring to throw out that if you believe in the leading of the Holy Spirit somehow you are soft on cessationism. Its entirely irrelevant.

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  9. Dan Phillips says:

    “continuationism — an unverifiable authority claim by the speaker”

    Very well-put. I’ll use that!

  10. Dan Phillips says:

    I wonder whether this and this might provide helpful background to your very good and needed point.

  11. Excellent post, Mark. I recently preached on this, and I couldn’t agree more.

  12. Jon Gleason says:

    Glad you find it helpful. Use it when I’m not looking so I won’t get to feeling important. :)