CE Interview: William E. Cripe Sr.: Senior Pastor, Faith Evangelical Free Church, Waterville, ME
By Ronald E. Keener
Bill Cripe’s faith journey began in high school when he attended the First Church of Christ Scientists, and on entering the Army two barracks buddies recently converted to Christ began challenging him on his beliefs as a Christian Scientist.
“I realized I needed to learn what Christian Science actually taught, and on reading Science Health, the teachings of the church, I realized that Mary Baker Eddy, the founder, redefined virtually every tenet of biblical Christianity. So while the language was similar, it had radically different meaning,” he says.
He particularly took issue with Mrs. Eddy on page 23 where she wrote: “That God’s wrath should be vented upon his own beloved son is divinely unnatural. Such a theory is man-made.” Remembers Cripe, “In one sentence she discards the very core of salvation by grace through faith. Jesus is totally redefined in Christian Science as a normal human being who ‘demonstrated the Christ principle’ or ‘Christ truth.’”
Is there a tie between Christian Science and the prosperity gospel of today?
Not an intentional tie certainly but the process of refusing the intrusion of reality in a fallen world is pretty much the same. Through positive thinking, positive affirmation or positive confession, you change what otherwise might have been a negative outcome.
You write in your book, “The prosperity gospel is the very antithesis of the gospel of Christ.”
Jesus came to have first place in everything. Because of Jesus and the Gospel, we see what is important in life; God’s Spirit empowers us to give up right to self to the glory of God. All that we do is supposed to be for the glory of the Lord. The prosperity gospel, however, is all about ME and how God exists to grant my every wish. I am at the center of everything. Even when the prosperity preachers speak of giving they do so in self-serving terms. That is, give so that God will give YOU back even MORE!
So what is the “proper pursuit of prosperity,” the title of your book?
“Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and everything else will be added unto you.” There is blessing in obedience but we still live in a fallen world with old natures that war against the soul. The rain still falls on both the just and the unjust and not necessarily because of a lack of faith. If we are seeking to glorify the Lord in all that we do, not so that we can enrich our surroundings, but because he is worthy of our love regardless of what he does or doesn’t do; that is the proper pursuit.
What is your main concern for prosperity preaching? You write, “One of the hallmarks of prosperity preaching is that it focuses on the shinier parts of Scripture while selectively ignoring the not-so-lustrous ones.”
It contains many partial truths and “god talk” to sound perfectly biblical. But context is often entirely ignored or even full statements are condensed to avoid the “rest of the story.” For example, “He will give you the desires of your heart,” is a nice thought; “Trust also in him, and he will do it,” is reassuring. But the Psalm contains a rather important caveat, for the complete thought says, “Delight yourself in the LORD” and “Commit your way to the LORD.” This puts an entirely different emphasis on the real promise beyond God existing to be one’s personal wish machine. People are being duped into a “religious” understanding of who God is and why they exist, but it is a bill of goods.
What do you make of Joel Osteen’s prosperity gospel?
Osteen’s variety of it is over the top as clearly revealed in Your Best Life Now. At times it is hard to tell the difference between his recipe for prosperity and the New Age Movement’s suggestion that we can create our own reality.
You write in the book, “As far as we could tell from the pages of the Bible, the only prosperity God promised was giving us our daily bread, and even in that, we needed to exercise some responsibility.” What do you mean?
The words are foundational to the understanding of what God’s promises as provision entail. To the prosperity preachers, it assumes far more than “needs.” But the prosperity gospel feeds right into the American mindset of abundance. God’s promise for provision as you trace it through the history of God’s people right into the New Testament (Matthew 6) are for the essentials of life — shelter, clothing, and nutrition.
Even in that, God still expects human responsibility and integrity to be part of the equation. It is always curious when someone walks in off the street to our church asking for “help” with gas or food. They invariably reek of cigarette smoke and they almost always have a cell phone. Even many “poor” who claim a faith in Christ have cable or dish TV, Internet, a vehicle and many luxuries of life. (I’d love to write on the “real” poor and a biblical understanding of welfare for my next book.)
Isn’t it difficult to tell people, as you write in the book, that “The hard truth is that a tendency of suffering in this life is more normal for the Christian than the promise of perfect health and extraordinary wealth”? What is the short answer to us in accepting that statement?
Ironically, this takes little convincing since that is what most people’s reality is! The prosperity gospel is utterly contrary to what most people live and experience around them, but they want it so bad that they will grasp at nearly anything.
What do you mean when writing about “Christianized junk food”?
I like a good custard-filled Danish with a cup of coffee for breakfast, extra cheesy pizza for lunch, a mocha chip grande frappacino in the afternoon, and KFC for dinner with a night cap of two scoops of ice cream with hot fudge and whipped cream. It would be sheer reverie.
And if that was my steady diet I would be malnourished and sickly.
It all tastes great but it isn’t what my body needs to remain alive and active. The prosperity message is so narrowly focused and redundant on only the very positive aspects of the Bible and they may sound great, they may make you feel good, and they may — for a season — lift your spirit. But there is so much more in Scripture that categorically warns against our earthly existence being defined by what we have.
After all, it is all destined to perish even if it is realized here and now. The prosperity preachers I listened to or read when writing my book only ever serve pretzels, cupcakes and soda consciously omitting the other side of the walk of faith. (Hebrews 11 for example.)
Once the realities of living in a fallen world set in, faith is destroyed for the only explanation is that either I didn’t have enough faith, or God just doesn’t think as much of me as he does the “blessed” one.
I understand you have a burgeoning Muslim community developing in Portland and Lewiston that may come to your town too. How should Christians relate to Muslims?
I recently spoke on this using the book of Jonah, relating the Ninevite “problem” with the Muslim “problem.” (Audio streamed at www.fefchurch.org.) Muslims are people made in the image of God for whom Christ died. I was wayward as an adherent of Christian Science and two friends who cared about me were willing to challenge me on what I believed.
Muslims have a devout faith and sincerely want to go to heaven, but in the rubric of Islam that is impossible to know and impossible to become a reality if the Bible is right — which it is.
Muslims are more difficult to reach than some because there is tremendous fear on the followers of Islam. Exploration of other faith systems isn’t tolerated. We have a couple in one of those communities who are obtaining training in hopes of returning to the Middle East.
They reside in a Muslim community of refugees trying to get to know them and to show them the love of Christ. It seems the Lord is bringing them to us!
Reaching out to Muslims as we would any unbeliever is what we are called to do. But this doesn’t mean we – as a nation – must abandon principles of common sense and fiscal viability. There is a steep cost involved and our system of welfare is not sustainable. If we are to continue helping people who truly need it we cannot welcome a limitless number of people with a limitless bucket of benefits.
As Christian Americans we are also called to participate in the freedoms we have by virtue of our system of government which means we must be involved in the political discussions, decisions and legislative processes of our country.
The influx of Muslims into some of the communities in Maine are not without challenges, both attitudinal and practical. How should a pastor prepare his congregation for a demographic change that brings Muslims to the community, to the schools, to the churches?
Jonah hated the Ninevites and with good reason. They were a violent, relentless and merciless war machine which God had used to discipline Israel numerous times in their history prior to Jonah. The last thing Jonah wanted was for them to be spared.
For many Christians, I believe Muslims are the new Ninevites. The Bible doesn’t call on us to be naive. Obviously there are Muslims who want us dead. But Muslims are coming to America. Where some are trying to restructure our culture, we can and must resist the redefining of America to a country of Sharia Law or a country having one set of rules for them and one for us.
But not all Muslims are the enemy. I am realizing that just as we have many people who call themselves Christian, and have a very warped understanding and explanation of much that is in the Bible, Muslims are no different. They have disparate views of the teachings of the Koran and what they mean. The bottom line is, I truly have to submit to the Spirit of my Lord, not to my fleshly patriotism. At the end of it all, I exist to advance the Kingdom of God, not the kingdom of America.
Your congregation’s facilities are in what is termed a “big box.” How did that come about? How is it “a beacon on the hill” for your community?
Hoyt’s Cinema divested themselves of their American theaters and the Waterville Cineplex (six theaters) went up for sale. We were in a converted duplex outside of town which had a maximum capacity of about 200 seats and we were landlocked. We scrapped our plans for building at a new location and bought the cinema.
After running into nearly unanimous opposition from our city due to the loss of potential tax revenue, the Lord gave us a way to by-pass the City Fathers and we purchased the property, retrofitting it for our purposes. Waterville is a small town and the theater is on the main drag in the heart of the business strip. For a decade leading up to this move I was a columnist for the Central Maine newspapers so my name and the church were well known before we ever moved, but we were invisible. Now it is hard not to pass the building going in or out of town. The physical visibility has been a blessing.
In what ways is the congregation engaged in its community?
From our earliest days as a small church we inserted ourselves into the community through my writing in the newspapers but also by offering a very Christ-centered community Easter and Christmas Eve service on neutral territory. For us it was in the town’s historic Opera House. Even though this bi-annual event cost our tiny church nearly $2,000 for each service, the result was “everyone” knew of us.
As a matter of course, we have sponsored events that have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to aid our community with everything from heating oil to winter clothing for families of the community. There is a beleaguered community only a mile from our church, but it is another culture. We began penetrating the community by repairing bicycles for the kids and cleaning up the neighborhood each Spring.
After a few years, we were trusted more in the community and we seized an opportunity to provide an after school program for the children that now goes through junior high. We also help with Christmas presents and other practical expressions of Christ’s love. Just this past weekend we were cited in the paper for contributing about half the cost of a 60-bed homeless shelter operated by another church in another community to our north. www.fcfchurch.org
‘Cheap grace’ abounds in many churches
The book, The Proper Pursuit of Prosperity: Balancing the Promises of Heaven with the Experiences of Earth (Tate Publishing, 2011), highlights the most obvious abuses of the Gospel of our Lord but the concern is across the board and goes well beyond prosperous North America. Every pastor of every church wearing the name of Christ should examine the quality of his or her preaching, realizing we will be held to a stricter judgment. (James 3:1)
When the budget of the local church is already pretty tight, and the pastor’s preaching brings them to eternal punishment, or moral purity in all we do – pornography, sexual impurity, sexual perversion, addictions (which include caloric intake, caffeine, and sugar not just cocaine, heroin and marijuana and alcohol) or financial responsibility, tithing and credit card abuse — and the pastor avoids it because of the negative impact it might have on attendance, that church has just taken another step closer to the prosperity gospel.
Dietrich Bonhoffer’s “cheap grace” abounds today in many of our churches. What we are producing are pseudo-Christians who will run at the first sign of their faith costing them something. — WEC