Exegeting Experience


Back in June of 2014, Anglican Priest and prolific blogger Rev David Ould posted a thread about Hillsong using the provocative heading Hillsong Conference – Sydney’s Greatest Promoter of False Teaching. The thread he wrote (and the interesting responses) inspired me to write my own piece, not about Hillsong per se, but about an issue that I think underlies much of the detours of Hillsong and perhaps underlies many of the responses also.

David’s observation of the choice of speakers that Hillsong invites to their conferences serves to highlight one of the weaknesses of Hillsong – poor spiritual discernment. For a church like Hillsong, that has a strong passion for seeing lost people love the Lord Jesus, with their songs (which have always been musically of a high calibre) becoming much more theologically coherent in my view, it seems quite dissonant of Hillsong to invite speakers who are not theologically sound.

My view is that Hillsong’s poor spiritual discernment is symptomatic of something else, and it is something that historically has been a characteristic of Charismatic and pentecostal churches  and that is, exegeting experience instead of exegeting the Scriptures. The Christian who exegetes experience will have the tendency to use their experience (whether it be feelings, a sense of peace, etc) to measure what is true and/or what is from God rather than the Scriptures and will interpret the Scriptures through the lens of experience.

This is also why I believe it is so difficult to critique Hillsong, and why our Christian brothers and sisters in Christ who exegete experience find it so painful, offensive and hurtful when their practices and/or theology are critiqued or discerned biblically. And it is not common to receive the response from the former words to the effect of:

“How can one judge something to be of God or not of God if the one judging has not experienced the same thing?

While I can empathise with this question, the question reflects the thinking that truth is measured by experience rather than the Scriptures. Pastor John MacArthur Jr who holds to the cessationist position in one of his books quotes a scathing letter that he received:

“You resort to Greek translations and fancy words to explain what the Holy Spirit is doing today. Let me give you a piece of advice that might just save you from the wrath of almighty God: put away your Bible and your books and stop studying…you have no right to question something you never experienced.”

This letter also reflects the same thinking: truth is measured by experience rather than Scripture. What I found fascinating about David’s piece is that the reactions of many towards what he was saying were very subjective, very rarely were the Scriptures primarily engaged with and appear to be indicative of the same practice – using experience to gauge truth.

The crux I believe of David’s argument is quite clear – Hillsong has invited teachers, and continues to invite teachers, who do not expound the Scriptures faithfully. Yet from reading the many responses of Rev David Ould’s thread, this either does not matter, or it matters only a little bit (i.e. “Yes Hillsong does teach error sometimes but…”), because God is doing amazing things there and people’s lives are being transformed. And the basis for this claim is experience.

“So how dare you David write what you write!” 

I have not been to a Hillsong service for many years, I have been about three times, but this is back in the early 90’s. For a time in my late teens I went along for some time to C3 (though in those days it was not called C3) and it must be said that those who belonged to C3 were the most fervent when it came to evangelism and seeing lost people know the Lord Jesus. It is something that will stay with me, however the appeal used to bring people to Him was not the Scriptures, (and the Scripture use many different appeals – see this post on more about this) rather, it was in effect and in practice “give your life to Jesus based on what you have experienced here tonight”. So it does not matter if your experience was the music (which was very good), everyone praying in so-called tongues at the same time, people falling down (being slain in the Spirit – and the passages from Scripture used to justify this passage was [to put it gently] special pleading), and people claiming to be healed (with old people running up and down the stairs with people cheering), just give your life to Jesus.

Recently in our church we ran a preaching series in the Acts of the Apostles, and what is very clear very early on is that even though God the Holy Spirit was doing miraculous things, (Pentecost, the healing of the Cripple – just to name two), and the Apostles were experiencing amazing things, their focus was always on proclaiming Christ and the Scriptures, not the experience…and the reason they does this is obvious:

Experience alone is not enough to engender or foster saving faith.

Scripture is littered with examples of this, (i.e. The Exodus Generation, the crowds who followed the Lord Jesus, the Pharisees). So should Christians discount experience? Absolutely not – we are called by the Lord Jesus to love the Lord our God with more than just our minds. Our faith is not a merely cerebral faith. But experience,(like all other authorities, i.e. reason and tradition), is subservient to the Scriptures because it is the Scriptures that are the final authority and it is the Scriptures that gauges what is truth.This is a good thing because experience is notorious also for getting it wrong and for being subjective. Of course this is a truism, experience by definition is subjective, which is why it is so flimsy when it comes to gauging truth. So with any experience, it must be filtered by the Word of God (and not the other way around).

Which leads me back to the original issue of Hillsong and why I think they get things wrong sometimes and lack discernment – they use the wrong filtering process. It is all about experience, how a preacher makes them feel, how the music makes them feel. If they experience God’s ‘presence’ then the fact that the visiting guest preacher teaches error is either ignored, seen as small anomaly that appears on one’s spiritual radar that hardly makes a dent or (most concerning of all), not even detected in the first place.

One of the commentators on David’s post said this pearler:

“People may feel “blessed” by a conference but there’s no way of knowing if that is something genuinely from God or just an emotional reaction to the event. What people feel is largely irrelevant – we must evaluate something by its message, not the response it produces”.

This is absolutely spot on and the way we evaluate a message at conference or a sermon is by the Scriptures, God’s Word Written,  not experience. And I believe that this is something that all Christians must hold to, as it is not just a Hillsong problem; and I would be extremely remiss to point the finger at Hillsong and say Hillsong is (insert negative adjective here), it is an Anglican problem, a Presbyterian problem, it is a human problem. And my plea to my brothers and sisters at Hillsong, is the same plea I give to my own congregation and to myself.  We must go back to the Word of God. Scripture is not the only authority but it is the final authority and the Word of God is the sole arbiter when it comes to discerning what is true and what is not.