Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Imperfect Company

David Millikan (pictured), Imperfect Company: Power and Control in an Australian Christian Cult(Sydney: ABC Books, 1991). This is a disturbing book. It shows the degree to which people will submit themselves to the spiritual authority of others even when those others are unremarkable, small-minded, pathetic individuals without any particular spiritual charisma. It narrates the story of the “Tinker Tailor” (TT) sect of sinless perfectionists that emerged out of Sydney Evangelicalism in the 1940s and continues to exert an influence over a small number of people even to this day. The harshness, brutality and breathtaking hubris of Del Agnew and Lindsay Grant is difficult to accept as anything other than evil, though Millikan wants to resist placing them in this category lest we exempt ourselves from the capacity to exhibit similar behaviours. The book displays much wisdom and argues for a balanced approach to spirituality that does not lead to dehumanization, unhealthy withdrawal from the world, or cultural iconoclasm.

While it is clear that the author wants to position himself in the broad stream of orthodox Christianity it is equally clear that he is an outsider to Evangelicalism and less than warm toward Evangelical faith. His analysis sometimes lacks sophistication and there are errors that betray a lack of deep familiarity with the literature on Evangelicalism and related movements (e.g. the word “Pentecostal” is consistently misspelled and the footnotes do not demonstrate much reading in Wesleyan theology or serious theological works on perfectionism.) There is also a good deal of guilt-by-association here. While the writings of Oswald Chambers, Hannah Whithall Smith and Andrew Murray may have a strain of mysticism to them that is at times “super spiritual,” many thousands of Evangelical Christians have benefited from reading them without falling into the kind of spiritual abuse of which the TT group is clearly guilty. One might gain the impression from reading this book that the Salvation Army held the same kind of extreme views as TT because it “maintains a commitment to perfectionism in their [sic] official doctrines.” Clearly the Army (and other historic churches in the Wesleyan tradition) should not be placed in the same category of aberrational religion.

The most disappointing feature of Millikan’s handling of the Evangelical tradition is his misreading and misrepresentation of John Wesley. His claim that Wesley “had claimed the status of perfection” (p. 174) is contrary to plain matter of fact. Wesley, in fact disavowed on more than one occasion that he lived up to the picture he drew of the entirely sanctified believer. He was willing (perhaps naively) to accept the genuineness of others’ testimony to that experience but never claimed it for himself. “Sinless perfection” was a term he strongly rejected because it gave the impression of an absolute state of perfection from which it was impossible to fall. In fact Wesley placed many important qualifications around the term that make it clear that the kind of perfection he envisaged was of a relative nature, in fact much like the description Millikan gives as the New Testament view of the matter on pp.178-180. Wesley did not exactly write the Twenty-five Articles of the United Methodist Church as Millikan states (p.181). They are his abridgement of the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles, the wording being drawn from the original. Nonetheless Millikan’s attribution of Article 12 to Wesley clashes with the statement that the founder of Methodism thought himself to be perfect - “They are to be condemned who say that they can no more sin as long as they lire here; or deny the place of forgiveness to those who truly repent.” In any case, Wesley did not see this article as challenging the possibility of a sinless life but the idea that a person may be a in a state where it is impossible for them to sin any longer.

Millikan depends for his interpretation of Keswick teaching and its difference from Wesleyan teaching on a single source – a “series of notes prepared by Stuart Piggin in December 1989” with the rather loaded title A Terribly, Terribly Sad Business: Sinless Perfection in Australian Evangelicalism, 1938-43. (A reliable and well nuanced description of Keswick teaching is found in David Bebbington’s Holiness in Nineteenth Century England.) Piggin is a good historian, though his theological ability occasionally lets him down. I once heard him dismiss Charles Finney’s theology as problematic solely on the grounds that it was “Arminian.” This reflects his own Reformed theological position with its revulsion toward that system of theology once referred to by J. I. Packer as an “intellectual sin of infirmity.” (!) It would be more accurate however to speak of Finney’s theology as “Pelagian” since he denied the existence of inherited depravity and made perfection a simple matter of making the right choices. If this is “Arminianism” it certainly wasn’t Wesley’s Arminianism which affirmed the doctrine of depravity in very strong terms indeed. Whether drawn from Piggin or misread from him, Millikan characterises Wesleyan theology as teaching that there is no sin in believers (p.175). One could be forgiven for thinking this after reading some of Wesley’s earlier sermons influenced as they were by the “Zinzendorfian error” held by some of the London Moravians. But he very soon corrected this mistake and affirmed that, while perfection is possible in this life and the goal toward which every believer should strive, sin remains in the regenerate as something to be struggled against until it is finally rooted out (see for example his sermon On Sin in Believers)

In spite of these inaccuracies this is an important book that gives a salutary warning about how easily the highest religious ideals can become toxic. Sinless perfectionism does not appear to be any kind of threat in Evangelical or Pentecostal circles today. Nor do I think it was perfectionism as such that led to the spiritual abuse warned against here but a set of views still widely held among Pentecostals and Charismatics (and perhaps Evangelicals to a lesser extent). Some of these are identified in Millikan’s final set of conclusions. They include the untouchable status of church leaders who are understood to be anointed leaders who hear directly from God and whose decisions cannot be second-guessed by any kind of democratic process involving the laity.

"When the life of a group is dominated by the insights or “revelations” or “words of knowledge” or “prophecies” of one or a few people, and where these utterances are assigned a higher priority than the normal process of reading, discussion and reflection. This is by its nature dangerous. It denies those who do not have such “special gifts” the capacity to make the same level of decisions. Once such a division occurs within the life of a community, where a tiny minority acquires the unquestioned right to state the word of God, it puts the rest into a dependency relationship, which inevitably begins to cramp their growth to maturity. It also puts an excessive emphasis on the importance of special spiritual gifts." (p. 199)

There is also in such circles an unwillingness to submit theological insights to the wisdom of the ages and little sense of continuity with or accountability to the historic church and its great tradition. Intrusions into other people’s consciences and an attempt to control their responses along certain prescribed lines will always lead to an unhealthy kind of faith. Seeing the world as completely evil necessitating a withdrawal into the narrow confines of a supposedly pure community is a recipe for disaster. If one was to remove Lindsay Grant and Del Agnew’s quirky views on perfection from the equation and leave in these other features of unhealthy spirituality, the abuse would probably still have occurred. In any case such insights as Millikan makes throughout this book make it a valuable warning against extremism, in spite of its weaknesses in theological precision.


Keith said...

There was a Christian cult that held meetings at St Paul's Anglican College at Sydney University in the 1970's.

Their group was called the Christian Fellowship Group, they later changed the name of their meeting place at Hurstville to the Hebron Church.Their women were made to dress similarly to muslims. They had a "high profile" convert at St Paul's named Leigh Yaxley,an engineering student, whose dad worked for the UN. Leigh,before his conversion, was arrested for a protest in Sydney at the opening of the Opera House by the Queen. He used to walk around the University campus and streets of Sydney wearing advertising boards saying, "I am a fool for Christ, whose fool are you"

Keith Brookes

Keith said...

Thanks, I'll try to figure out how this works, later. I have to go out now


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