by Carol Tharp, MD

Nearly four hundred years ago Christians from the British Isles established homes on the land mass later to be named the United States of America. They were truly children of the Reformation, having the glorification of God as the general purpose of their lives. The ever-present self was to be denied. They took Jesus’ warning seriously:

If any man [or woman] will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? (Matthew 16:24-26).

In 2002, Christians on the same land mass in the same USA could title a conference “Thrive: Becoming a Woman of Influence” and have no one question the conference goal. The church has become convinced that women are so burdened with low self-esteem that the $69 fee for this one-day conference was seen as a bargain! Over 25,000 females gathered at various participating churches for this live, nation-wide, satellite-transmitted video conference hosted by John C. Maxwell. The demand for this conference reveals the truth of Scripture’s description of fallen man’s proud heart having made the doctrines of secular psychology acceptable in the church.

The Thrive Conference speakers, presumably all thriving and influential, were said to be committed to the following core values: to encourage women to pursue God as their source of identity and esteem, to encourage women to connect with each other, and to validate women. Society and the church have so absorbed the meaningless newspeak of the psychological therapeutic industry that no one asks for a definition of “identity,” “esteem,” “connection,” or “validation.” These vague entities are simply assumed to be inherently lacking, out there somewhere, and worthy of intense pursuit.

Kay Arthur opened the conference with the use of Scripture, but with the stated purpose of using it to give hope for each attendee to be a woman of influence. She told them that realizing these truths from Scripture will make us great women of influence.

Joyce Meyer, having an Honorary Doctorate of Divinity from Oral Roberts University, spoke on submission as a criterion of influence. She told the women how she became a world-wide influence in spite of past abuse and fear of trusting men. She taught that no one can mistreat you for long if you have something to do for God and that you’ll be promoted if you have an excellent spirit.

There was no mention of the continuing mistreatment of Paul the Apostle as listed in II Corinthians 11:16-29. No mention was made of Paul’s last letter to the churches as he awaited execution because of what he had done for God: “No man stood with me, but all men forsook me” (II Timothy 4:16). Meyer mentioned Daniel as having been promoted due to his exceptional qualities (Daniel 6:3), but ignored the rest of that same chapter six where, because of these same qualities, he was thrown into the lions’ den. The obvious was carefully ignored: that all the apostles were demoted to execution or exile because of their excellent spirits. It was not mentioned that the one who did the most for God and had the most excellent Spirit was promoted to a Roman crucifixion after beatings and thorns. “Though He were a Son, yet learned He obedience by the things which He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8).

Meyer encouraged the women to follow their own heart, even though Scripture describes the heart of every man and woman as “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). She urged the attendees to repeat phrases after her, such as: “I’m an individual”; “I just want to be me”; and “I want to like me.” Such advice reminds one of the warning in 2 Timothy 3:1-2 about “lovers of their own selves.” Such self talk takes the eyes off Jesus and onto me, myself, and I.

Becky Tirabassi, described as having “a passionate interest in health and fitness,” was the conference emcee, frequently asking attendees: “Are you thriving?” She instructed them to be transparent as they broke into small groups and to search for the root of personal insecurity. These women of the twenty-first century, with a so-called burden of low self-esteem throughout their entire beings, appeared to be crying, “What must I do to thrive and be influential?” Can these possibly be the progeny of those seventeenth-century American women who fled Bunyan’s City of Destruction with a burden of sin on their backs crying, “What must I do to be saved?” and who identified with John the Baptist when he plainly declared that Jesus “must increase, but I must decrease”? This emphasis on self does not come from Scripture, but rather from the world, and now permeates the church under the guise of psychological counseling.

The Thrive worship leader, Alicia Williamson, asked the crowd, “How many of you are winners?” before repeating: “Jesus Christ makes you a winner!” Her CD, entitled “We Win,” was for sale at $15 each. In tune with the conference, the song focused on “we” and “me” rather than on Christ. “We win, we win, we win!” “When Christ rose on the third day, we won the victory! We’ve got the victory,” etc.

The result of such teaching was evident in the comments of the discussants at break-time: “I overcame my insecurity by taking control and forgiving my parents on my own terms,” and, “When I pray, I think positive thoughts so that endorphins pour into my brain and lift me right up!”

Janet Parshall, said to be “sought after nation-wide to speak on issues that impact family preservation,” gave examples of women of all religious persuasions as being of influence. She told of her experiences at the White House and on Larry King Live and of how values are caught, not taught. She used Moses’ sister Miriam as the example of one who caught values from her mother, who had rightly identified her world of influence. Typical of this conference, she conveniently ignored the description of Miriam’s values in Numbers 12, where the anger of the Lord was kindled against Miriam and she was made leprous, white as snow, because she challenged Moses’ leadership.

John Maxwell, listed as “best-selling author, dynamic speaker, and successful entrepreneur,” described the process of becoming a woman of influence and gave ten steps to accomplish this, all without using Scripture. His books include The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership and The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork. His video curriculum was available at the Conference for $199.

Since this type of conference is so common within the modern church, Christians do not usually question the doctrinal base. Neither do they ask whether it coincides with the revealed Word of our Creator. If one does question it, church leaders generally respond with the suggestion that personal insecurity is just a gentler way of rephrasing Bunyan’s City of Destruction and that low self-esteem is simply a more acceptable terminology for sin. Must we nitpick? Do words really make a difference? After all, haven’t many church leaders decided that Generation Y is better evangelized via images rather than words?!!

Scripture directs believers to walk by faith, not by sight (II Corinthians 5:7). Therefore, we cannot assume the church to be righteous (successful in Gods eyes) just because individual congregations number in the thousands. Christian music is financially profitable and eagerly sponsored by secular corporations. Christian publishing houses are profitable entities for secular corporations. The same techniques that supposedly motivate Wal-Mart employees are used to motivate the church. Dr. Dobson leans on a podium graced with the Presidential seal in the photo on his Christmas card. None of these facts, however, mark the church as faithful.

Dr. Ann Douglas, Professor of American studies at Columbia University and author of The Feminization of American Culture, said the following during a 1996 interview with Michael Horton of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals:

The idea that God is much greater than our own happiness was the Calvinistic ethos that the liberals simply would not accept. “Though He slay me, yet will I worship Him” was not accepted, in part due to the humanist tradition, but also partly the commercial: if we’ve got to sell ourselves now, is this the ad spiel that will best sell our product? This is straight out of the liberal Unitarian sentimental tradition of the nineteenth century. Women wondered, Why do we have to have all this theology and an emphasis on sin and the need for redemption? Why isn’t the home the model for God? Why shouldn’t the things we do and hear in church suit us where we are?

She concluded her interview by saying, “I have enormous respect for the intellectual and spiritual endeavor of trying to understand a world that is not necessarily there just to make you happy.”

Men of the church, as well as women, ought to feel shame that a secular university professor recognizes that much of the teaching among today’s Christians is the product of Romanticism rather than the product of a serious study of Scripture. Scripture gives no light warning to those who walk by sight, feelings, and experience (e.g., Deuteronomy 13:1-5).

All women, because they are made in the image of God, are inherently women of influence. However, no woman is inherently a woman of faith. Faith is a gift of God and will never come via a 12-step program. True faith produces a woman used by God, rather than a woman of influence attempting to use God.

The anthropocentric doctrine of this Thrive Conference is not unique to women nor to this conference. It permeates our seminaries, Christian radio, Christian books and magazines, and our churches in general. This doctrine increases self and thrusts the church out of the way that God commanded. In 1947 C. S. Lewis wrote:

The magicians’ bargain is that process whereby man surrenders himself to Nature in return for power. For magic, the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and in the practice of this technique, men are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious (The Abolition of Man).

What a great chasm there is between the modern church, with its disgusting, impious techniques, and its rich heritage! What a contrast this conference was to the words sung in Brahms’ German Requiem, which was first performed on Good Friday, 1868, in Breman Cathedral. This major sacred choral work was noted by the composer as written “according to words from the Holy Scriptures”:

For all flesh is as grass and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower thereof falleth away. Be patient therefore. Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am. Behold, Thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before Thee; verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. Surely every man walketh in a vain shew. For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come. For Thou hast created all things, and for Thy pleasure, they are and were created.

Even at that relatively modern date, these words from the Holy Scriptures achieved immediate recognition and were performed more than one hundred times within the first ten years of its composition.

We desperately need to ask whether Brahms’ composition would be at all acceptable in our local congregations today, either on a Sunday morning at the so-called celebration service or even at that other celebration previously known as a funeral. Brahms’ words written “according to . . . the Holy Scriptures” are no longer appealing to many American Christians; they are too negative, failing to affirm, too morbid. The doctrine of counseling psychology is far more appealing to human nature than the whole counsel of God. This reality defines the problem with the Thrive Conference and with Christianity today.

PAL V11N2 (March-April 2003)