Richard had a fear of getting caught up in a cult and being deceived. He was seeking God and ‘truth’ and there were lots of questions he wanted answered – but reliably and authoritatively. Surely, here was a ‘church’ which could help him.
But he was also reassured by the word ‘family’. Richard thought highly of his own parents and sisters – theirs was a happy family unit. For this reason too, he felt inclined to get involved in what appeared to be a family-orientated church.
There was only one thing to do – visit their website and discover more about them. And that is what he did. Initially, Richard felt reassured because the leaders were a husband and wife team, Robb and Linda Thompson. They had launched the group about sixteen years ago in the Chicago area.
In addition to having a small number of scattered local churches in the USA, South Africa, Russia, Philippines and Western Europe (with a main centre in Oxford, England), the Family Harvest Church has a worldwide television programme which attracts lots of people. Their website is also used effectively to acquaint people with their ministries, resources and planned events.
What encouraged this young man further was their emphasis on the Bible. They quoted the Bible and aimed to ‘teach people how to win in life through the uncompromising Word of God’ (Family Harvest Church: Welcome p1, www.familyharvest church.org).
Their talk of people being changed through their teaching was also appealing to Richard for he felt his own personal need for redirection and change. Not knowing what his needs were, he browsed regularly on their website. He noticed mention of ‘seven keys’ which can, they claim, help to transform individuals.
Friendliness and care
His mind was made up. He read their resources and then visited one of their local churches on several occasions. He discovered other good points about the group. One was their friendliness and care. They seemed nice people and respectable.
Another feature he admired in them was their concern to reach out to people all over the world with their message, especially by means of TV programmes and the internet. There was a zeal among them he had not detected in traditional churches.
Again, Richard had observed the regular way in which their speakers quoted and used the Bible in their messages. He questioned what they actually said from the Bible but he had to acknowledge they used God’s Word.
But despite all these positive factors, this young man began to feel uneasy about their message and claims. In fact, he became suspicious as to whether they really understood the Bible.
In the end his suspicions were confirmed – but only after a slow and difficult process which involved reading the Bible extensively for himself. It was through reading the Bible avidly and prayerfully that Richard gained a clearer understanding of the character of God and his purpose in Christ.
Here is an example of a person who could say, ‘Your word [that is, the Scripture] is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path’ (Psalm 119:105). Within five months he abandoned the group because he felt disillusioned with them.
Turning now to the Family Harvest Church itself (abbreviated to FHC), there were three ways at least in which Richard would have found its teaching inconsistent with the Bible. Let us briefly identify these three areas of unbiblical teaching.
View of God
First of all, the FHC view of God is unbalanced and distorted. To be fair, there are hints that this group may believe in the Holy Trinity – namely, the co-equality of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three distinguishable persons within the Godhead.
But there are only hints, and vague hints at that. For example, they speak of our ‘heavenly Father’ (Rich God Poor God, p.1) and his ‘generous character’, one who is ‘Jehovah-Jireh’ (p.2).
But only occasional references are made to the Holy Spirit (Excellence Keys to Change, p.2) and to Jesus (Cultivating Favour in Your Life, p.3) and their deity is not affirmed in any obvious way.
In fact, I looked in vain in all the resources I accessed for references to the holy majesty of God, but instead I found heretical statements like ‘God still hasn’t recovered’ from Lucifer’s rebellion and, ‘If only one person ever went to hell, God wouldn’t recover from that lost life’ (Cultivating Favour in Your Life, p.5).
Unbiblical? Certainly, but the teaching is often expressed in a more subtle, disarming way.
Secondly, FHC strongly emphasises self-help rather than divine help. I am referring here to their emphasis on helping ourselves, rather than to any denial of the need for divine assistance. The FHC does not deny such need, and I want to be fair.
For example, in Robb Thompson’s Excellence Keys to Change the FHC founder emphasises prayer and the importance of maintaining our relationship with God as well as with people (pp. 2-3).
Again, he teaches that it is our responsibility to please God (p.6) and ‘approach Him according to the Word, saying, “Lord, I have taken you at Your Word, I know You will give me that which I require”‘ (p.8).
In Rich God Poor God, John Avanzini insists: ‘As believers we must see God as He really is…’ (p.2). Admittedly, Avanzini misuses this statement in applying it to health and wealth teaching, but nevertheless it does imply trust in God.
Power of choice
However, the FHC’s major emphasis is on our own human activity. For example, Thompson refers to ‘the greatest gift God ever gave us’ (Excellence Keys to Change, p.1). My heart leapt for joy on reading these words. I expected him to refer to the Father’s gift of his Son, described by Paul as ‘his indescribable gift’ (2 Corinthians 9:15).
In Romans 8:32 the Apostle further describes this greatest of all gifts: ‘He who did not spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all. ‘ There really is no greater gift than the Lord Jesus.
Imagine, then, my despair and disappointment when the FHC leader identifies ‘God’s greatest gift’ merely as ‘the power of choice’! Does Thompson really mean this? He seems to.
For example, he tells us that our problem relates to the way we think. That is true – but in a much deeper way than Thompson recognises. Christians often fail to think biblically and to relate scriptural principles in a believing way to their lives and situations.
After all, it is by faith that believers live (Habakkuk 2:4). For unbelievers, the mind is also crucial, for it is instinctively hostile towards God and his authority over their lives (Romans 8:7).
Thinking, therefore, is important and for Thompson the process of transforming us involves ‘changing the way we think’ (p.1). But just what kind of change does he have in mind?
Answer: this transformation involves essentially the ‘memory and imagination’. God wants us to focus on the imagination, insists the FHC leader, so that it will work ‘to create your future and fulfil your destiny’.
Familiar? Yes, because this is nothing other than the old ‘power of positive thinking’ teaching in a new garb – positive thinking in which you visualise for yourself a future of wealth and happiness provided by a rich God.
Such a philosophy is not biblical and does not require a Christian framework.
What kind of prosperity?
Thirdly, FHC is preoccupied with material wealth, health and prosperity rather than spiritual riches.
Their resources are full of this emphasis. Avanzini’s Rich God Poor God articulates the teaching unashamedly. God’s plan, he explains, ‘is for us to walk in great abundance…’ (p.1) and his desire ‘is to get wealth to His children’ (p.2). God also ‘wants you to be a success’ (p.4). Thompson’s Cultivating Favour in Your Life contains the same message.
In other words, the Family Harvest Church proclaims the false gospel of ‘health, wealth and happiness’. It promises its adherents the earth, when what they need is heaven – and the Christ who alone can bring us there.
The story of Job reminds us that suffering for the believer is often God’s sovereign will. And Job is not an isolated example. Paul the Apostle was sick (Galatians 3:1-5; 4:13-14) and Epaphroditus was seriously ill (Philippians 2:26-27) – while Paul left Trophimus ‘in Miletus sick’ (2 Timothy 4:20). Suffering is part of our common experience in this world, for ‘we must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14:22).
What about wealth? Riches are not wrong in themselves, but spiritual riches are far more important. And that is the major emphasis of the Bible: ‘Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth … but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven’ (Matthew 6:19-20).
Only the one who trusts in Christ knows spiritual wealth. That is the treasure we need.