Friday, December 21, 2007

Terry Virgo at the FIEC

The invitation by FIEC Council to Terry Virgo to address them in January has caused great surprise and not a little consternation to some. I am a cessationist – that is, I believe that some of the miraculous gifts of the New Testament era were only for that era alone. Nonetheless, having met Terry himself and talked at some length to him, I’ve enthusiastically supported that invitation. Here’s why.

Firstly, Terry is an evangelical; that’s not a surprise, but it needs to be said. Terry Virgo could (and would) enthusiastically sign the FIEC basis of faith. Like me, he’d want to say ‘That’s not all I believe; but yes, I believe that.’ There’d be no hesitation, no ‘crossed fingers’, no mental reservations. I know some people are not happy that the FIEC has never excluded charismatic evangelicals – but, whether they like it or not, it never has.

Secondly, Terry has taken a strong stand on penal substitutionary atonement. Since Steve Chalke and Tom Wright, that has become a hot issue in some ‘evangelical’ quarters; but it is the foundation and bedrock of our faith. If Christ were not punished by the Father for my sins in my place, then I must one day bear that punishment myself and the gospel has no good news for me. Terry has responded to the new liberalism with the same appalled horror, and the same strong convictions, that we share. That is why, I suspect, he has recently been invited onto the Council of UCCF, and why he is a major speaker (along with John Piper and Don Carson) at next year’s ‘New Word Alive’ conference. Sometimes, we just have to draw lines in the sand; and we need to be careful where we draw them.

Thirdly, he is fine preacher, and leader of one of the UK’s most successful church-planting groups. The only New Frontiers church I have visited certainly preaches the gospel; I’ve no reason to assume that the others do not. Yes, they will do some things that I would disagree with; but so do some FIEC churches! If FIEC wants to church plant to the nation, it’s worth at least asking if there’s anything we can learn from New Frontiers? How, for example, do they do their training? What areas do they target and why? What ongoing support do they give to the church planters? If we don’t agree with the answers we hear, we can ignore them. But if we do, we can learn.

Fourth, Greg Haslam, a pastor from a New Frontiers Church, has recently become pastor of one of the FIEC’s most famous historic churches, Westminster Chapel, London. Surely a greater understanding of one another would be a good thing?

‘All that may be true,’ says someone, ‘But what about apostles? Doesn’t New Frontiers claim that Terry Virgo is an apostle?’ Yes, they do. But they may not mean by that what you think they do – and surely Christian integrity means we should try to understand what someone says before we criticise? As I understand what they are saying, they argue that ‘apostle’ has at least three references in the New Testament. It is used of the Lord Jesus in Hebrews 3:1. It is used often of the Twelve, a unique original group (e.g. Mark 3:14). Terry’s own website says of them ‘…the original Twelve called by Jesus were obviously unique’. I believe that too! But thirdly, they point out that the word is sometimes used of others, too – Barnabas, for example (Acts 14:14). They see this as a ‘type 3 apostle’, and believe it is what is referred to in Ephesians 4:11 – ‘apostles of the churches’ rather than ‘apostles of Christ’. So the full quote from Terry’s website reads ‘Although the original Twelve called by Jesus were obviously unique, the ascended Christ, as described in Ephesians 4, continues to give to His church apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.’ I may think they are wrong – I do! But it is hardly heresy, and it is either dishonest or ignorant of us when we say ‘Terry Virgo thinks he’s an apostle like Peter.’ If we were more honest and said ‘Terry Virgo thinks he’s an apostle like Barnabas’ it would be more accurate and – surely? – less offensive.

I recognise that some of our brethren feel that they and their churches have been hurt by New Frontiers. We have to realise that struggling churches are often keen to blame somebody else ! But if there is more to it than that, surely that’s a reason to open dialogue? Isn’t forgiveness and reconciliation between brothers an important part of what we believe and strive for?

I look forward to meeting Terry again, and to hearing what he has to say. I hope you will pray for our session together, that great good may come out of it for Jesus our King.

Gary Benfold
December 2007