Monday, September 21, 2009

Denny Kenaston, Charity Christian Fellowship, and Remnant Christianity

I figured I'd weigh in on the discussion of Charity Christian Fellowship. I was very interested in the movement for a while. I attended meetings with them. Stayed in their houses. Participated in pastoral ministry. Had a house church that was a satellite of their ministry for a period of time.

I've also been away from them for quite a while, since the early 90s.  My path took me through Charity eventually into the Eastern Orthodox Church, where I have rested, at least from  ecclesiastical wanderings.  I've kept up with them only indirectly, through their web presence, and recently through YouTube preachings by Denny Kennaston. Denny has not changed much except he has gotten older.
There are burning questions out there.  Is Charity Christian Fellowship a Cult?  No, it is not, at least in the theological sense. It adheres to Traditional Christology and to a Trinitarian doctrine of the Godhead.  Is it a cult in the sociological sense?  No, because it is not a new religious movement but is a synthesis of two distinctively protestant theological movements from whom it has separated. It is a synthesis of revivalism with anabaptism.  Is it a cult in the mental health sense, that is to say, is it a group that practice physical or mental abuse?  That depends- if the group
 refuses membership to divorced and remarried people, is that mental abuse? If so, then the Catholic Church is also a cult in the mental health sense (although the Catholic Church has gotten around that hard position by being very liberal with marriage annulments, whereas Charity has not, that I know of).  I know that I was dealt with quite harshly by one of their leaders when I came to doctrinal convictions with which they did not agree.  Is that abuse?  I doubt it, though it made me glad I did not continue going their way.. Itis not good leadership. Is Charity a cult because they have strong leadership? I would say no.  This world needs good Christian leadership. Is it cultish to have empire building ambition? If so, the whole religious world lieth in cultishness.  No, Charity is not a cult. It is simply a zealous bunch of Christians with strong and directive leaders who lead as best they can as imperfect men in a terribly gone astray world.
Is Charity Christian Fellowship a sect?  Yes.  But in the Protestant world, being a sect is not a bad thing;  it is inevitable given the high priority it gives to the individual and private interpretation of Scripture.  A sect is a group of Christians that separates from another group for reasons of faith or practice.  Charity identifies itself as anabaptist, yet has separated from the myriad of other anabaptist bodies on a number of issues, most of them having to do with heart Christianity as opposed to outward religion.  Charity seeks to rescue itself and others from the problem of mere outward religion with the instruments of revivalism- chiefly protracted preaching and teaching with the induction of crisis experiences where individuals come to deepened repentance, and new inward states of subjective asssurance.  Yet, Charity retains many of the outward forms of anapbatism- conspicuous practice of dress modesty and non-conformity, and strict non-participation in most of the forms of entertainment that now engulf the modern western world.  The women persist in wearing a veil in prayer, and wear it all the time.  There is strict cultural distinctions between men's and women's roles.  Families and Church are strongly patriarchical.

Charity also continues to embrace the strict non-resistance of the Mennonites and Amish that
 extends to non-participation in the political processes of the governments of this world; it operates with a two Kingdom model, with the governments in this world held to be in antithesis to the Kingdoms of Christ.
On the other hand stylistically they embrace the fervent and emotion charged preaching. prayer,  and congregational styles of revivalism, in contrast to the somber and silent temperament of the Mennonites and the Amish.  Theologically they continue in the Arminian mode as far as the process of salvation is concerned, yet continue to advance the ideal of assurance of salvation that traditionally comes from the Calvinist end of the spectrum, but not the old Calvinism but the new light of Finney, with inner assurance flowing out of an inner experience of election.
Such was the case in the re-conversion of one of the leading ministers, tape Moses.  He was a man who joined Charity and became the heart of their tape ministry. He had pious children and a pious wife and was pious himself. Yet, several years after joining Charity, he concluded that he was not 'saved', and so had an altar call experience and finally got saved.  Tape Moses illustrates the extreme subjectivity of the revivalism that is practiced in Charity, as one can never be sure that one has enough faith to be saved.
So, this illustrates that one of the criticisms I have for Charity is a criticism that I have for revivalism in particular.  The other criticism has to do with the fixity of outward forms that Charity practices, and that is a criticism of conservative Anabaptism.  It is an odd collection of criticisms, as it posits an inordinate subjectivity on the one hand and an inordinate fixity in outward form on the other.
The fixity of outward forms-  the only sermon I ever preached at Charity Christian Fellowship was a sermon on Christian liberty from the writings of St. Paul. I was led of the Spirit to preach on that.  The general idea of the sermon is that Christian faith frees us from cultural captivity so that we may be free to present the Gospel in a multitude of cultures without outward forms being
 a stumbling block to the message of the grace of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Perhaps this has changed in the fellowships, but I sort of doubt it.  A Youtube video of Denny preaching in 2008 shows him still wearing clothes that limit him to a particular cultural setting, that of Anabaptism. He was wearing a white shirt with long sleeves and without a tie, and black pants, with military short hair on his head and Moses length beard on his face.  When you look at
 his family pictures they are the same for his children.  White shirts, or pale blue, and so forth.  There is a fixity of form.  They style of dress is modest in that it covers his body, however it is a modesty that is conspicuous and calls attention to itself, so in that sense could be construed as very immodest. The idea of clothing in Scripture is clothing that neither calls attention to us or calls attention to our flesh.  Such fixity in outward form limits the out-reach of the Gospel and requires that converts not only respond in repentance to the Gospel but also adopt a particular cultural form, or so it seems to me.
There have always been Christians throughout Christian history who have practiced non-conformity in outward form, and the Lord gives them the liberty to do it. However, Scripture and the catholic practice of the faith go further and say that those who feel the need to practice such scruples for their conscience sake need to make room for those whose consciences are not weak- in the case of Charity, to make room for those who wear short sleeves without a sense of loss of Communion with God, or for ladies who do not wear a prayer veiling 24 /7 yet who likewise do not feel the loss of the presence of God to allow them to do so.  So, in the Church, as conceived by the apostles, there is the room for the weak conscience, the long sleeve wearer, and also for the strong- the catholicity of the Church requires room for both.  This is the missing of the mark of Charity, the failure to attain to catholicity in its expression of the Faith.  Such failure to achieve catholicity is called legalism, if the group that holds to such practices denies that those who do not are necesarily not of the fold of God. I know that Denny has had men who wear ties to speak at his Church, and subscribes to the teaching of others who do not hold to his particularist views. So, I would not say it is a legalism on Denny's part, but it merely that the practice of Charity is sectarian, that have narrowed for themselves the way that they wish to express the faith. I supose it would be legalism if when the attempted to take the Gospel to a very different culture, say, in Africa, and they were decking out people in a tropical climate with Mennonite coats with circumcised collars.  I do not wish to put on them a label.  I have my own failings to live in the light of Christ that occupy my sights.
But their practice does not attain to Cathlocity, and that means that they are a sect.  Now as to the subjectivity that is involved in their revivalism, I suggest that this is a misdirected mysticism. Christian faith is a mysticism; but it is a mysticism that is grounded and delivered from the inherent risks of mysticism by its existing within the life of the Church.  This balance of mysticism with Church is unique for Christianity because it is expressive of the mystery of the Incarnation.  How can this be?  Jesus Christ is the Eternal Logos who became a Man, without ceasing to be God.  In His Eternal Person, as the Second Person of the Trinity, He united The Divine and Human in Himself, the Uncreated and the Created.  Through His death and resurrection and asension, He then incorporated those who believe in Him, into the mystery of this Divine Human life.  This incorporation is accomplished through the medium of the Church. The Church is the ongoing presence on earth of the Ministry of Jesus Christ. It is His Body doing in the earth all the things that He did in the days of His flesh on earth.  While on earth He forgave sins, He sanctified souls through preaching, He gave his Body and Blood for our vivification.  In the Church Jesus Christ is doing the same Thing.  In the days of his flesh, as He moved about preaching and teaching and healing and being the world's pastor, the Spirit was mystically revealing Him to His followers. Peter was the first to be illumined and as a result this human Jesus Christ was revealed inwardly to Peter, who came to recognize Him as the Son of God.
There was a mysticism with inward revelation going on at the same time that the disciples were with Jesus in Body.  They knew Him first through His Body and as they experienced Him in the Body, the inward revelation of who He was was given to them.  In conjunction with the things He did was the revelation inwardly of who He was.
This is continued in the Church.  The Church is the bodily presence of Christ. It is Christ present in an objective way, and in the Church there are acts that are done that, in an objective way, begin the journey of being a Christian, so that we are not snared in the morass of mystical subjectivity.  In the Church our sins are forgiven. Christ gave that power to the Church through the apostles as is recorded in Matthew and also in John, both a synoptic and a johannine testimony.  How does the Church begin to forgive our sins?  Well, it preaches the Gospel of repentance, and those that hear the Gospel, present them to the Church and are baptized. Baptism is the ministry of forgiveness of sins.  It is objective. There is a time when we were not
 baptized, and had not entered into the mystery of forgiveness.  There is then a time when we have been baptized, and we cannot divest ourselves of that through subjectivity. It is an outward and bodily reality- our sins have been forgiven and the Holy Spirit has been imparted.  Such objectivity delivers us of the dangers of mystical subjectivity. We have been born again.
However, the mysticism of the Faith delivers us from the dangers inherent in the objectivity of baptism and of participation in the Church, for the impartation of grace which baptism is is to the end that we have Communion with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and that is the mysticism to which we all are called, and if we do not go on and know the Lord, something is amiss in how the grace in our baptism is being invoked.
And here is my criticism of Charity as a participant in the Christian movement called revivalism-
the call to inward illumination which is the call to every Christian has attached to it things which properly ought to be attached to the outward graces that subsist within the Church, in our previous discussion, baptism; but to all the mysteries, or sacraments that were placed in the Church as a Body.  The classical denominations of Protestant were all resistant to revivalism for this very reason, the personalistic, and subjective was set at war with the corporate, and the ecclesiastical, undermining the very basis of Christian life in the Church, and morphing it into something individual and private. In fact this attack on the Church by revivalism has directly led to the lone ranger Christianity that plagues the west, not to mention the smorgaasbord approache to finding a Christian fellowship, for it has led to the process of finding a fellowship that agrees with me, who in my subjectivity and private reading of Scripture am the final arbiter of what is the depths of Christian faith, rather than finding myself confonted with the Church and finding it nessary to pray and struggle until my understanding is transformed as it is conformed to the Apostolic deposit of faith. Yet the subjectivity of Charity and all revivalist movements almsot guarantees an endless succesion of further schisms and separations, and eventual dissolution of the movement after the parting of the strong leaders that served as the condensation point that brought the movement together in the first place.  The revivalist principle has within itself the seeds of its own destruction. That is why Finney, towards the end of his life, lamented, saying, 'where is the fruit', as he looked out on the territories he had worked with revival and found nothing really of substance remaining.  Futher, he had left the Churches in a weakened state. Is it any wonder that in that spiritual wasteland, that the Mormon movement emerged?
I would like to touch briefly on another aspect of the weakness of the tradition that is revivalism- Jessie Penn-Lewis who chronicled the Welch revival at the turn of the 20th century stated that itw as destroyed by emotionalism. (the Welch revival is another example of a powerful spiritual fervor that after a generation showed no fruit: another is the West Africa revival chronicled by Norman Grubb, a generation thereafter was the grounds of the Tutsi and Hutu genocides).  I go into this with reluctance because I like Denny, and I know that he has pointed many to Christ, and has a zeal and a discipline in the Christian life he has chosen that I cannot match, but Denny's preaching is exhausting. It is full of zeal, but it lacks the peace from above, it is as if Denny himself has not yet entered into the Stillness of the Father so as to minister that Peace in the
 midst of his calls given to us to pursue a holy life.  Perhaps that is not a criticism of Denny as it is a comment about his own personal spiritual neediness, but when inordinate weight is put on preaching as is the case of revivalism, and inordinate weight is put on inward subjective responses, as is the case in revivalism, then the temptation is inevitable to marshal the forces of emotion and striving to advance the things that are considered needful.  Denny comes across as a man, not at peace, but driven by his own lack of peace and lack of resolution. I feel for him because I recognize that own sense in my own life.  But it is a slough toward which one is tended by revivalism and the only way out is through a paradigm shift.
This failure to manifest peace to the world has deep roots, that are outside of the scope of this essay to pursue. However, it might be said that, the Peace from Above, is a peace that comes from a Revelation that comes that is deeper than Scripture and of which Scripture only hints at-

the peace that comes from the Revelation of the Stillness of the Father. It was spoken of by St. Ignatius, third Bishop of Antioch, who said, "those who have acquired the word of Jesus must hear His Stillness, so as to be perfect."  The deep Stillness of the Father is something that the Western Protestant Tradition knows nothing and writes nothing about, yet it is essential to being a Father in Christ, who draws others on into the depths of fellowship in the Holy Trinity. I suggest that the reader Google 'hesychasm', or look at others posts in this blog on Stillness, to follow up on this idea.
The tragedy is that Western Christians are cut off from the depths of the Apostolic Mystical Tradition and inevitably weight their preachings and their prayings with either too much emotion or too much thinking, for they have not plumbed the depths the Stillness that is within the heart.
So, misdirected mysticism, non-catholicity in terms of the forms of the Faith, these all speak to the failure to have found the Church. It is another evidence of men, earnest men, zealous men, men who have heard the word of Christ, attempting to re-invent the wheel of Christian faith for themselves, having the Bible but being divorced from the Church that both wrote it and canonized it and held within itself the Apostolic Tradition that interpreted it.  Failure to find the Church is also a failure to fully confess the Incarnation, and to the post,  David, David, Whither Goest Thou?, do I point the reader to see something of how the evangelical, revivalist, anabaptist, Western Christian inadvertently fails to confess the Incarnation in its doctrine of the Church and in its soteriology, as we have attempted to show in this post that failure to confess the Incarnation has led to an imbalanced Christian mysticism.
Lord have mercy on us all, for we have great need of Thee. amen.


  1. Thank you, Ben; this has been helpful. My daughter and her husband are involved in the Charity Christian Fellowship - or, it seems, in a congregation that recently leftCCF. They are both converts to Anabaptist Christianity, and she was raised in the Episcopal Church - with me as her pastor (and I am an Evangelical), so my wife and I are concerned about their current spiritual situation.

  2. Quite an interesting read. Is this a cult? Well, yes, it is.

  3. Quite an interesting read. Is this a cult? Well, yes, it is.