On October 12, 2013, GYC Southeast held a conference at Southern Adventist University, Tennessee. On Sabbath, Pastor Steve Wohlberg exposed the dangers of spiritual formation and the emerging church. ADvindicate interviewed Wohlberg to learn how the conference was received and to learn more about the dangers the church is facing from these forms of spiritualism.
How did you end up at Southern talking about the Emerging Church?
Last spring I was contacted by GYC-Southeast and specifically informed that they were looking for a speaker for their Oct. 9-12 conference at Southern Adventist University “who can refute and present against the Emerging Church and Spiritual Formation.” An additional context was GYCSE’s deep concern over a looming Spectrum-sponsored “Adventist Forum Conference” called “A Third Way,” scheduled for Sept. 6-8, featuring Emerging Church leader Brian McLaren. Some SAU students would no doubt attend. So it was by direct request that I became involved in this controversial topic. In preparation for my talk, what I found shocked me.
What did you know about the Emerging Church (EC) prior to this speaking request?
Some things, but not as much as I know now. I’ve done a lot of research in occultism over the years, and that research helped me better understand Emerging Church dangers too — especially the perils of spiritual formation. But honestly, I wasn’t expecting to discover so many details about its inroads into the church I love and serve, the Seventh-day Adventist church.
What concerns do you have regarding the EC?
I have many concerns. First, the EC movement either minimizes or ignores the life-and-death importance of believing in, humbly submitting to, and fully obeying solid, non-negotiable Bible truth, especially the Three Angel’s messages. Secondly, even though Christian concepts may be strongly expressed, much of EC teaching is insidiously laced with Roman Catholic mysticism and New Agism, both of which ultimately lead to the greatest peril of all, deadly spiritualism and invasion by evil spirits. Third, under the guise of promoting a deeper experience with God, EC teachings have become one of Satan’s subtlest vehicles in his campaign “to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (Matt. 24:24). Fourth, my biggest concern is for Seventh-day Adventists, especially our young people. At all costs, we must avoid these dangers.
To start with, here’s an example showing how the EC is affecting Adventists. This past summer I spoke at a lay-sponsored Adventist camp meeting in Ohio. It was a very Christ-centered event with a good spirit. Dr. Philip Samaan from SAU’s School of Religion spoke there too, along with Dr. Evelyn Kissinger from the Michigan conference. To my surprise, I was informed at that event that the Ohio conference President had strongly discouraged all of his pastors from attending this wonderful Forward to Zion camp meeting. To my amazement, I also discovered that this same President, and his pastors, had often been taught at pastor’s worker’s meetings, and at their “National Conferences on Innovation,” by non-SDA Emergent leader Leonard Sweet (more about him soon). Is this really happening inside God’s church? I asked myself. Sadly, it is.
Two of the most prominent guiding thinkers of the Emerging Church movement are Brian McLaren and Leonard Sweet, both of whom publicly promote Roman Catholic mysticism. In Quantum Spirituality, Sweet positively quotes Jesuit philosopher Karl Rahner stating that “the Christian of tomorrow will be a mystic” (p. 76). Brian McLaren, in his book, A Generous Orthodoxy, also stated that after being raised in a conservative Christian home, “I discovered other Roman Catholic writers -- 20th century writers such as Flannery O’Conner, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Romano Gaurdini, and Gabriel Marcel, as well as the medieval mystics and others” (P. 62). Amazingly, both Sweet’s and Mclaren’s books are now recommended on Advent Source as good reading for Adventists!
In my research for my GYCSE talk, I also discovered that such things have been slipping in among us for some time. Here’s another example. In the wake of a growing realization that Adventists often score high in doctrinal understanding, but low in practical Christian experience, the Adventist News Network ran a story on Feb. 3, 2004, titled Church, Congregations Increase Focus on Spiritual Formation. The intent of the article is crystal clear: Spiritual Formation is recommended as part of the solution to our lack-of-experience problem. The article concluded with,
The Adventist world church created the International Board of Ministerial and Theological Education (IBMTE) in September 2001, designed to provide overall guidance and standards to the professional training of pastors, evangelists, theologians, teachers, chaplains and other denominational employees involved in ministerial and religious formation, or spiritual formation, in each of the church’s 13 regions around the world (ANN, Feb. 3, 2004).
While some either refuse to admit it, or just don’t discern it, there is no doubt that Emerging Church teachings and Spiritual Formation have entered our church, and it is particularly troubling that even non-Adventist Christians have sat up and taken notice. We are attracting attention—the wrong kind. “Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary Integrating Contemplative/Emerging Spirituality Into Degree [DMin] Program,” was the title of an article published Dec. 31, 2009, by Lighthouse Trails, which quoted the Feb. 3, 2004 ANN story. LT is an evangelical organization well aware of Emerging Church perils that has even published well-documented anti-Emergent Church books, such as A Time of Departing, by Ray Yungen, and Faith Undone by Roger Oakland. Read the article linked above. The facts are there. Such articles dishonor God’s church, and damage our witness to these souls. How ironic. Here non-Adventists are warning Adventists about being seduced by mysticism and the beast. Fortunately, I have been informed that Andrews Seminary (I graduated from there in 1985) has since made some adjustments due to what I assume was an appropriate backlash from within our own ranks. Praise the Lord.
How was your talk received at SAU and on AudioVerse?
Exceptionally well, especially from students. One young man approached me in the cafeteria, placed his hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m a theology student. We’re behind you.” GYCSE leadership was particularly pleased by my presentation (which was tough for me to give, but needed). But the real kicker was what happened when that talk was released on Audio Verse a few days later. “Perils of the Emerging Church is #1 on Audio Verse,” was a text message that came into my cell phone. I checked, and it was true. As I write this, average downloads are still approx. 1400 per day since it was released ten days ago. I say this to emphasize that Adventists are hungry for this information. They want to know what is happening. As an ordained minister of our church, I sense -- and this is an unexpected struggle I now find myself in -- that it is my responsibility to appropriately provide such information.
What is “spiritual formation”?
Spiritual formation is a specific phrase that applies to the use of specific meditative techniques and so-called “spiritual disciplines” to find an experience with God, many of which often involve the quest to empty the mind of all thought so that humans can then “experience” the One above all thought. “Seeking the silence,” “breath prayers,” repeating single words or sentences mantra-style, are all used. The biggest problem is that either the same or similar methods are used by Roman Catholic mystics, New Agers, and spiritists in their quest for “enlightenment” and communication with spirit entities. The supposed discovery that “all is one,” “God is all” (pantheism), or that “God is in all” (panentheism), is often the result. Ultimately, Satan’s goal is spiritualism and invasion by demons.
Didn’t something like this happen before within our own church?
Yes, a similar situation occurred inside Adventism in the early 1900s when Dr. Kellogg fell under the spell of mysticism and pantheism. His book, Living Temple, contained deadly errors. The Review also fell under a similar spell and began printing books permeated with Catholic mysticism. Ellen White wrote:
I feel a terror of soul as I see to what a pass our publishing house has come. The presses in the Lord's institution have been printing the soul-destroying theories of Romanism and other mysteries of iniquity. The office must be purged of this objectionable matter. I have a testimony from the Lord for those who have placed such matter in the hands of the workers. God holds you accountable for presenting to young men and young women the fruit of the forbidden tree of knowledge ... I have been almost afraid to open the Review, fearing to see that God has cleansed the publishing house by fire (8T, 91)
The Review office was destroyed by fire in 1902. It happened before, and we are naive if we think it can’t happen again. Concerning Living Temple, Ellen White wrote,
We need not the mysticism that is in this book. Those who entertain these sophistries will soon find themselves in a position where the enemy can talk with them, and lead them away from God (1 SM, 202).
Could this be the Omega that Ellen White warned us about?
It’s highly possible. Ellen White wrote, “In the book Living Temple there is presented the alpha of deadly heresies. The omega will follow, and will be received by those who are not willing to heed the warning God has given” (1 SM, 200). The alpha led to a condition where “the enemy” could “talk” directly to his victims (a form of spiritualism) “and lead them away from God.” It makes sense that the omega would have similar features. The current Emerging Church inroads within Adventism also lead to Catholic mysticism and New Age snares. We have been warned, “Little by little he [Satan] has prepared the way for his masterpiece of deception in the development of Spiritualism ... Except those who are kept by the power of God, through faith in his Word, the whole world will be swept into the ranks of this delusion” (GC, 561). This includes Adventists too who are not “kept by the power of God, through faith in his Word.” Bible truth is our shield.
Some people vigorously defend spiritual formation as being a healthy addition to the gospel. Are we being too hard on it?
No. Mysticism is deadly. While millions may blindly defend it, we shouldn’t. To clarify, we do need a genuine experience with God, but spiritual formation is not the way to get it. Instead, read Steps of Christ. A true experience with Jesus comes by carefully comparing our characters with God’s Law (see Rom. 3:20; 7:7), by repenting of all sin (Luke 13:3), trusting Christ’s love, grace, gospel, and shed blood (Eph. 1:7,12,13), being “justified by faith” (Rom. 5:1), receiving His Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5), being born again (John 3:5), and becoming “obedient children” (1 Pet. 1:14) who obey God’s law through His power (Rev. 12:17; 14:12). This is Seventh-day Adventist doctrine, and it is based solidly on Scripture. “Contemplative prayer,” “spiritual formation,” and Catholic-based “spiritual disciplines” are the devil’s counterfeits. Why use such words? Especially when they are pregnant with devilish mystical overtones.
I spoke with the Dean of a Wesleyan Academy yesterday. He said many Wesleyans, Nazarenes and others have aligned themselves with this apostasy. Why do you think some Adventists are vulnerable to it?
I think the main reason is that they are not carefully studying God’s Word, the Spirit of Prophecy, and the Testimonies. Ellen White wrote: “There will be a hatred kindled against the testimonies which is satanic. The workings of Satan will be to unsettle the faith of the churches in them, for this reason: Satan cannot have so clear a track to bring in his deceptions and bind up souls in his delusions if the warnings and reproofs and counsels of the Spirit of God are heeded” (1SM, 48). Our safety is Jesus Christ and His righteousness (see Jer. 23:5,6). My new book, God’s Last Message: Christ our Righteousness (Pacific Press), explains this message in detail. Soon “one subject will swallow up every other,--Christ our righteousness” (RH, Dec. 23, 1890). Through “experiencing” this message, we will be sealed in our foreheads.
What will Emergent spiritualism lead to in your opinion?
The experiment has already been tried. After the apostles died, a new generation arose seeking to “remodel the cause” that compromised the gospel, abandoned sound doctrine, sought to be overly contemporary, adopted pagan practices, and absorbed mystical ideas. Eventually, a new church “emerged,” which was the Roman Catholic Church, leading to the Dark Ages. In The Great Controversy, God has given us clear warning not to repeat that mistake.
It seems that people in our church are starting to realize that Emergent mysticism really is a serious problem. How can committed church members help encourage people away from this?
First, by receiving some basic education about Emergent Church perils. This is not narrow-minded criticism, but a moral imperative, for souls are in danger. People can’t resist what they don’t understand. My talk at Southern Adventist University, Perils of the Emerging Church, offers a simple overview, and lists other resources too. I won’t go into details, but more SDA resources are coming out soon. Truly, God is waking up His people to this strong delusion. Years ago when I was first ordained in the Dakota conference, I had a memorable conversation with Joel Tomkins, president of the Mid-America Union. We discussed the crisis over Desmond Ford’s theology, and about how so many left our church over this. “When that crisis was growing,” Tompkins reflected, “the big guns were silent. When I saw the fallout, I made a vow to God that if I ever saw something like this growing within our church, I would blow the trumpet.” His words still ring in my ears today. If we “see the wolf coming” (John 10:12), we should protect the sheep. A true shepherd will do this, while a mere “hireling” won’t. If we don’t, we are unfaithful to God.
I really appreciate elder Ted Wilson’s warning to church members to avoid this stuff. What can we add to that timely message?
I appreciate Elder Wilson’s warning too. Again, the biblical message of Jesus Christ and His righteousness will build up our spiritual immune system. “The message of Christ’s righteousness is to sound from one end of the earth to the other to prepare the way of the Lord. This is the glory of God that closes the work of the third angel” (6T, 19). I don’t want to be misunderstood. I graduated from La Sierra and Andrews Seminary, and as I mentioned, I was ordained as a Seventh-day Adventist minister in North Dakota. My wife and I are members of the Newport WA SDA church in the Upper Columbia conference, and we pay our tithe to our local church. I’m not a critic, or any kind of separatist. I love God’s church. I’m a convert of It is Written and George Vandeman. I also believe that we have godly leaders at the GC, seminary, in our universities, and throughout our church. Many understand these challenges, care about them, and are battling faithfully, as best they can. To these, it will be very encouraging to know that others are now coming to the plate, taking a stand. The prediction is, “The church may appear as about to fall, but it does not fall. It remains, while the sinners in Zion will be sifted out--the chaff separated from the precious wheat. This is a terrible ordeal, but nevertheless it must take place” (2 SM 380). Based on this prediction, I’m in. I’m not leaving. I encourage others to do the same.
The One Project is a name that keeps coming up when I research Adventist involvement with the Emergent movement. What concerns do you have about that Organization?
From what I have learned, four of the five original founders have all earned DMin degrees from George Fox University directly under Leonard Sweet. I don’t want to judge these men personally (for I don’t know their hearts), but public information on the One Project’s own website shows that they have scheduled Leonard Sweet as one of their main speakers for their upcoming annual conference in Seattle 2014. This really concerns me, especially because many of our young people will be attending that conference.
One of the original five, Alex Bryan, who received an advanced degree under Leonard Sweet at George Fox University, is the chairman of the One Project’s board. In 2009, Alex wrote an article for Adventist Today, and stated,
... are we simply going to continue to instruct students in desk-and-chalkboard [schools] or pulpit-and-pew [church] environments about the ’28’ and Adventist Heritage?. . . . I believe a major paradigm jolt is in order for a church that is scrambling to find safety as the tectonic plates of culture quake beneath us. . . . We need 18 to 22-year-olds trained so that 23 to 35-year-olds can start leading the church. Right away. Then. Now. . . . . We need holy and hungry, spiritual and sassy, Christ-centered and creative young people. . . . A “piece of the pie” was okay in 1990. But times have changed, for the worse. . . . We need pastorates, pulpits, committees, boards, and initiatives filled with very young adults. Not tokens. Not the one 27-year-old who is really a 77-year-old in a 20-something body. . . Now we must give them the keys to the bakery before we have to put a going-out-of business sign on the window (2009, Winter, p. 10).
Alex Bryan wants to be involved in training future leaders of our church, which in itself, is certainly not bad, and this is one of the goals of the One Project, giving them “the keys” to the church. Just to clarify, yes, our youth are the future leaders of our church, and yes, they must be trained, but it bothers me deeply that at the One Project’s next big annual event to help train our young people, Alex and his One Project team are bringing in mystic Leonard Sweet, a man who has done so much damage in Ohio. To Seventh-day Adventists everywhere, I ask honestly, isn’t there something wrong with this picture?! Stop. Think. This is not slander on my part, or a failure to follow Matthew 18 (which deals with personal sins against individuals) for it is public information on their website. The 60 or so SDA organizations listed as “partners” should think seriously about this too.
Are youth particularly vulnerable to theological deceptions like this?
Yes, because they inherently lack seasoned experience in detecting subtle error, especially from professed Christians who have gotten off track (see Matthew 7:15-23; 2 Cor. 11:3,4). Remember what Ellen White wrote about Kellogg’s mystical ideas in Living Temple, and the problem of the Review itself promoting “the soul-destroying theories of Romanism”? Leonard Sweet promotes such things, such as in Quantum Spirituality, p. 76, where he praises and quotes a Jesuit who recommends mysticism. To SDAs who had become a party to this, Ellen White warned, “God holds you accountable for presenting to young men and young women the fruit of the forbidden tree of knowledge” (8T, 91). Again, leaders should guard the flock! It also concerns me that the same men who have been influenced by Leonard Sweet, and who are inviting him to speak to our youth, are also in leadership positions at La Sierra, Loma Linda, Andrews University, and Kettering College. Again, I don’t want to judge human hearts, but this concerns me. When Battle Creek college fell under Satan’s spell, God’s messenger warned parents “to keep their children from Battle Creek” (3T, 197). I’m certainly not recommending this now, and I hope God never feels this way about any of our schools, colleges and universities. Nevertheless, we should take His counsel to heart.
Yes, our youth need training to become the future leaders of God’s church, but that training should teach “from childhood ... the holy Scriptures” (2 Tim. 3:15), our SDA heritage, the Three Angel’s messages, and creative ways to reach a lost world for Christ without compromising our message. This is what GYC is all about, and Glow too, with their wonderful tracts. These ministries are run by young people. And remember, it was GYC youth who specifically invited me to Southern Adventist University to “refute and present against the Emerging Church and Spiritual Formation.” Honestly, Leonard Sweet is incapable of training true Seventh-day Adventists. He doesn’t know our message. Besides, from a prophetic perspective, he points to the beast.
Do you have any final thoughts to share with our readers?
Yes. I would like to make a heartfelt appeal to every Seventh-day Adventist, and to our leaders (who overall, I have confidence in):
- “Believe in the Lord your God, and you will be established; believe His prophets, and you shall prosper” (2 Chron. 20:20). Let’s believe “the testimony of Jesus [which] is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev. 19:10). Read 8T, 90-103.
- Let’s search our hearts, put away all sin, and “seek the Lord, while He may be found” (Isa. 55:6).
- Let’s “press together” in Jesus Christ and Bible truth (see John 17:17,23), kneeling low at the foot of the cross.
- If any of you have, without realizing the dangers, become involved in any of those things outlined here (Emergent teachings, Spiritual Formation, centering prayer, etc), renounce them now, before it’s too late. If you do, rest assured that our Lord is quick to forgive, slow to anger, and mighty to heal (Numbers 14:18; Isaiah 55:7). Jesus loves us all, and He died on Calvary for every one of our sins. There is hope for us all!
- Let’s lift up Jesus Christ, His righteousness, and His love, higher and higher, centered in “the everlasting gospel” (Rev. 14:6), proclaiming the Three Angel’s Messages in the power of the Holy Spirit to all the world (Rev. 14:6-12; 6T, 19).
- Stop allowing Leonard Sweet, Brian Mclaren, and others who teach similar, dangerous doctrines, to speak to and train our youth, or our pastors.
- If you are involved with even one thread of mysticism, and are determined to cling to it, and teach it to others, in the words of Ellen White to DM Canright, “I have one request to make, for your own sake as well as for Christ's sake: keep away from our people, do not visit them and talk your doubts and darkness among them” (1 SM, 162). I say this with a sober, heavy heart, but also with a clean conscience. Please leave. This is the honorable thing to do.
But we hope you will stay for the right reasons! We want to be with you inside the New Jerusalem. I shudder to think of it, but I imagine that the most horrified souls at the end of the Millennium will be Seventh-day Adventists who have had “great light,” but spurned it.
The enemy is preparing for his last campaign against the church ... and when he makes another advance move, [many] will not recognize him as their enemy, that old serpent, but they will consider him a friend, one who is doing a good work (5T, 294).
To stand in defense of truth and righteousness when the majority forsake us, to fight the battles of the Lord when champions are few--this will be our test (5T, 136).
To our leaders,
Take heed to yourselves, and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He has purchased with His own blood (Acts 20:28).