If you’re looking for a way to grow in grace, it’s useful to know that the Holy Spirit makes the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word an effective means of building believers up in the faith.
‘Especially the preaching’ gives the priority to what comes from the pulpit. For feeding, for growing, for finding closer communion with the Lord, believers are meant to find what they need primarily from the Word as it is preached, by one of the Lord’s sent servants, in the assemblies of the Lord’s people, on the Lord’s day.
On one hand, this places a huge responsibility on preachers to say things that are not only true in general but relevant to the building up of believers – to rightly divide the Word of God so that they are in fact feeding the flock.
On the other hand, this means that believers should be cautious about expecting to find blessings that genuinely help them to grow in grace from other sources.
Unfortunately, however, there are plenty of other sources competing with preaching to be the place that believers look for help in the Christian walk.
For some reason, many of these sources target women in particular. There is an astonishing variety of ministries offering to help women make better, deeper spiritual progress.
I’m not entirely sure why this would be. Maybe women are particularly disadvantaged by poor preaching and therefore feel a greater need to look elsewhere for additional help. Maybe there are particular reasons why women face barriers to receiving the benefit of even good preaching (let’s just mention enforced absence from services because of childcare, or inability to concentrate properly in services because of childcare).
Or maybe Christian women have more reasons to struggle in the Christian walk more than Christian men? Christian mothers of young children, perhaps, have to shoulder the larger part of the responsibility of the round the clock demands of early parenthood. It is entirely possible that between an unpleasantly early start to the day, the school run, the cooking of meals that no one will appreciate, and failing to keep on top of housework, opportunities to read the Bible or pray seem to slip away before they’ve barely appeared.
In circumstances where it seems that your relationship with God is the remotest it’s ever been, your appetite for the Bible is sadly diminished, and your fervency in prayer has vanished, there can be something very attractive about a women’s ministry – advice or mentoring by women for women which understands the difficulties of your situation and offers hope of a renewed enthusiasm for the things of God.
Yet too many women’s ministries are not trustworthy and cannot deliver on what they promise.
The attraction comes from seeing articulate, relatable women describe their passion for the Lord and express their desire for others to rediscover their own joy and delight in God.
The problem is when their teachings, rather than feeding the soul, work like spiritual junk food – after an initial taste explosion, the actual nutritional value turns out to be minimal.
This happens any time when:
- the theology is shallow. This inspirational speaker mentions the name of God, Christ, and the Spirit, but can you actually tell whether she believes in the Trinity?
- the doctrines of grace are unclear. This passionate writer just can’t help magnifying the love, grace, mercy and kindness of God, but does she convey that God’s love provided a substitutionary atonement for a definite number of sinners?
- the concept of sin isn’t fully biblical. Here’s a challenging blog post from someone who certainly doesn’t want you to think she doesn’t struggle with these issues herself. But the issues are more about the way you fail your family and friends and let yourself be taken prisoner by self-doubt than about the law of God.
- emotions matter more than understanding. Here’s an intelligent writer who always offers some new insight when you read. But it’s insight into how you feel, or how you respond to people and things, or how your own behaviour holds you back – rather than explaining an important part of theology, or connecting the dots between one doctrine and another.
- the overall effect is to make you feel good, rather than be holy. Here are some powerful bible study materials from someone who really understands how women get oppressed by low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, and the pressures of a hectic lifestyle. The support it offers helps you to stop feeling guilty about things you can’t change and move forward with more confidence and self-acceptance. But the concept of dying more and more to sin and living more and more to righteousness doesn’t feature so prominently.
Alongside the junk food problem is the fluff problem.
Mostly, these writers and speakers tend to be devotional, not doctrinal. This, it seems somehow, insulates them from scrutiny. When someone excitedly shares about their love for God and their heart for their sisters in Christ, inviting you to join them on a journey into a more peaceful way of living as you experience the transformative power of prayer and learn how to delight in authentic worship – how can you even hesitate?! It seems pedantic to pause and ask even basic questions like, What kind of Christian are you? Baptist? Presbyterian? Mormon? Do you identify with any recognisable statement of belief, articles of faith, creed or confession? How will I know if your spirituality springs from ideas and doctrines that are fundamentally different from mine and potentially harmful to my own spiritual exercises?
And the fluffiness, over time, clogs up the spiritual air we breathe and starts to stifle our consciences. Long term exposure to other people’s devotional output – when it isn’t modulated by the sound preaching of the Word – either has the result of making you feel inadequate, or making you feel virtuous.
Either of these results is problematic for the conscience. Any activity which involves someone comparing themselves against a moral standard so as to either accuse or excuse themselves is an activity which involves the conscience. When someone puts themselves forward as a Christian who can lead other Christians in devotional matters, their main sphere of activity is going to be the conscience. Leading people to query their standing before God and putting questions about the quality of people’s relationship with God are matters of self-examination which involve the conscience.
Since God alone is the Lord of the conscience, when someone confronts our conscience we have the right to ask what is their authority for doing so. Are you living a life that is truly devoted to God? Do you really pray with earnest wrestling prayer? Are you not, if you’re honest, enjoying other things more than the Bible? Before anyone starts examining themselves, they have the right to say in response to questions like these, ‘Who are you to ask?’
If these questions aren’t coming from the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture, or some legitimate church authority (namely your pastor or elder), you’re under no obligation to take them seriously. Because, after all, who are these people? In the worst case scenario, they’re unqualified, unaccountable, self-appointed, and disconnected. Unqualified in terms of any theology training. Unaccountable to you or your church, unless they happen to belong to your denomination. Self-appointed, because you don’t need any recognition or commission from any churchly authority to get blogging or start producing bible study materials. And disconnected, in the sense that you have no real relationship with them, they don’t really know you or your situation, and all that you likely know about them is the version of themselves that they choose to disclose online.
Obviously it’s not that a believer can’t chat frankly about their devotional life with a trusted friend or respected long-standing member of (say) their own church. But when someone starts putting out pointed questions for self-examination, and they’re unqualified, unaccountable, self-appointed, and disconnected, then, for the sake of our consciences, we need to remember that we’re under no obligation to confess our failings, and we’re certainly under no obligation to take their advice for how to put matters right.
In fact, for a believer to put themselves in the hands of someone else for assistance in their devotional life (someone unqualified, unaccountable, self-appointed, unconnected) is to run the risk of entangling their conscience all over again when Christ has set them free. If I compare my devotions with someone else’s – my level of passion for the Lord, my fervency in prayer, the authenticity of my worship experiences, the sweetness I find in the Word, the depth of my trust in God – I’m bound to acknowledge my inconsistencies and shortcomings. I’m bound to feel guilty. But Christ was supposed to have set my conscience free from feeling guilty about falling short of other people’s standards. It doesn’t matter how godly they appear, how exercised they seem, how relatable they are, or how motivating and inspiring and uplifting they try to be.
Believers are, after all, warned about the dangers of people who have an impressive appearance of godliness, but ultimately deny its power. We should really turn away from these people and have nothing to do with them, because unfortunately they have a knack of finding the believer’s weak spots and exploiting their gullibility. They look like they want to help us be better Christians, but in the end they leave us as they found us – according to 2 Timothy 3, laden with sins, led away with various passions, ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Junk food and fluff make women’s ministries a laughing stock, not to mention more hindrance than help in the Christian walk. If only we were prepared to stick more closely to the means of grace which the Holy Spirit has actually provided for our conversion and sanctification – especially the preaching of the Word.