Today, I interview David Orton on his book, Snakes in the Temple: Unmasking Idolatry in Today’s Church.
Instead of asking, “what is your book about,” I’m going to ask the question that’s behind that question. And that unspoken question is, “how are readers going to benefit from reading your book?”
David Orton: The reader will benefit from a “root and branch” exposé of the contemporary church’s hidden idolatry.
The book shows that the enemy of our souls – Satan – finds footholds in the corporate life of the church through the inner life of both people and leaders—this is the root. These idolatrous attitudes, values, and mindsets then play out in how the church does ministry and leadership, how she structures herself—this is the branch.
Through this the reader will not only discover the root causes of the western church’s spiritual malaise, but also find solutions that are not merely cosmetic or exclusively structural—it’s not just a matter of re-jigging how we do church. These solutions are within the grasp of every believer through their own heart response to God. This will then play out with some spiritual authenticity in a complete re-formation of the people of God from the inside out, effecting mindsets and then structures, ultimately leading to the regeneration and renewal of whole cultures and nations.
What does “Snakes in the Temple” mean, exactly?
David Orton: “Snakes in the Temple” is referenced from Ezekiel 8 where the elders of Israel – the leaders of God’s people – had created a completely concealed room within the temple dedicated to the secret worship of snakes and reptiles—and this, while the temple’s ritual continued as normal.
It provides a potent picture of the pseudo-spirituality of the contemporary church. While our programs, services, gatherings, and conferences continue unabated, internally we – as leaders – have bowed to the dominance of created things—of reputation, success, and growth. Like the generation of Christ and the apostles, we have unwittingly established the house of God as the “synagogue of Satan”.
Tell us about the experiences that shaped the insights in the book.
David Orton: After 30 years of ministry and church leadership I was well versed in church life and much of it very positive.
I was converted at the height of the Charismatic Renewal and Jesus Revolution. I was launched in my spiritual journey through a powerful conversion, coming out of the counter-culture of the late 1960s—we were looking for authenticity and social revolution. We were immediately immersed in an experimental movement that sort to reform the church through the restoration of personal shepherding and fathering apostles.
Also integral to the DNA of this movement was an emphasis on God’s will being done on earth. We had a vision of the kingdom of God renovating all spheres of life—of cultural transformation. Strategic to this was a redeemed community demonstrating the wisdom and love of God to the world. For this to happen the church needed to be radically reformed. She needed to be set free from man-made systems that divided her and restored to first century apostolic unity across whole cities. This would demonstrate God’s power and the integrity of the gospel in transforming man, not only individually but also corporately.
So, that was the vision. But as the saying goes, “The devil is in the detail!”
That particular movement – as with so many – contained the seeds of its own destruction. What we saw was that no matter what the structures and systems of church life – whether organizational or organic – the human factor is the same. The apostolic leader we related to was exposed for serial immorality and subtle abuse of power over many years. He was a highly gifted person exercising leadership throughout the Pacific Rim, including Australia and North America. Despite an emphasis on relationship, personal shepherding, and character there was still a subliminal emphasis on hierarchical authority and leadership. This and human weakness played into the movement’s demise.
With this and subsequent pastoral experience in a denominational setting and in pioneering a national citywide pastors prayer movement, focusing on relational unity we had ample first-hand proof that something was radically wrong. Both our pastoral situation and the national movement of pastoral unity hit a wall. Values and leadership conflicts plagued both. I resigned all my leadership roles and involvements. And what we thought might be a 6-month sabbatical became 5 years of cave-time. With the help of “brothers” my reputation was shot both locally in our city and nationally. I was without a job and without friends. Every attempt to extract ourselves from the cave failed.
And so, Jenny – my wife – and I learned to sit before the Lord and to wait. In that time I began to ask, “God, what was that all about?”
And he began to answer, “David, have I changed?” – “No Lord, you haven’t changed” – “David, has human nature changed?” – “No Lord, human nature hasn’t changed” – “Well then, neither has my controversy with my people changed”.
That was the key that unlocked the book.
I began to see that the perennial controversy God had with his Old Testament church was their worship of idols—and so too with his New Testament church, with us!
This was why the pastors’ prayer and unity movement that was making great strides across our nation and many cities of the world hit the wall in the late 1990s. It was why the Shepherding Movement had failed and the Charismatic Renewal and the Prophetic Movement and Apostolic Movement after 40 years had all gone to seed.
God’s people are beholden to institutionalized and thus legitimized idolatries that ultimately resist the move of God. These are false value systems that undergird our traditional denominational divisions, including our congregational and pastoral structures. The book seeks to penetrate these issues and provide a way out.
How is your book different from the many other books on the same subject of critiquing contemporary church practices?
David Orton: While it addresses church practices and structures it shows how these are merely the institutionalized expressions of a private and personal idolatry, particularly in the hearts of its leaders. To tackle “church practices” without first tackling the “inner motivations and values” that created them is self-defeating.
And so, the book is not so much focused on the technology of new church paradigms as it is on the technology of the heart.
Give us two or three insights from the book that would be helpful to Christians.
# 1. Our Working Definition of Idolatry.
For our purpose, we use this working definition of idolatry: Idolatry is the feeling of well-being gained from my relationship to a created thing, either material or non-material.
There is one sure test that exposes our own idolatry. It is this question: “From where do I draw my sense of well-being?” This means anything has the potential to be an idol – a person, possession, position, or even a perception – our own self-image, or even a thought-process through which we rationalize or justify ourselves. Anything that gives me a sense of identity – a feeling of significance in my world, and therefore, a feeling of power.
# 2. Confusing the Goal with the Prize.
As a spiritual Olympian the apostle declares,
“…one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize….” (Phil.3: 12-14)
A stirring analogy. It inspires us to press through our pain to achieve great things for God.
But there is a difference between reaching the goal, and receiving the prize. Whoever reaches the goal, crossing the finish line as a winner, automatically receives the prize. As Paul said, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize”. On seeing the prizewinner’s dais it is not a smart athlete who cuts out of the race, thinking, “Wow – the prize, all I have to is cut across the field – and go get it!” And yet, tragically, this is exactly what the church has done.
Let me explain. Because the Western church has lost sight of the goal, taking short cuts to get the prize, she has been disqualified. Paul warned, “Run in such a way as to get the prize…so that…you will not be disqualified…” (1 Cor 9:24-27). In fact, the Western church’s goal has become the prize.
We have replaced Christ as the goal with the prize of missional effectiveness.
# 3. New Paradigms – Old Problems: Pouring Old Wine into New Wineskins.
Jesus said, “You don’t put new wine into old wineskins”. But what we are doing is putting old wine into new wineskins! Let me explain. The issue is one of spirit and structure. The wineskin exists for the wine – not the other way around! Therefore, new wineskins should only be created for new wine – new paradigms, therefore, should come out of a new spirit. So very simple! But, we get it all wrong. We put all our energy into producing new wineskins, new models and new structures. We import the latest church growth and leadership formulas, thinking they will produce the new wine of life and growth when all-the-while, according to Jesus, new structures come out of a new spirit.
We know that new wine is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. But, what about old wine? Surely it is the opposite – symbolizing the world spirit.
Paul says that, “We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us” (1 Cor 2:12 NIV, emphasis mine).
If drinking the new wine of the Spirit enables us to “understand what God has freely given”, the old wine of the world spirit does the opposite. It numbs our spiritual understanding and highlights only what the world can give. It is an anti-Christ spirit, setting up value systems that displace God, putting confidence only in human ability.
What do you say to people who charge you with hating the church?
David Orton: My love for God and his people is the very thing that constrains me to speak out.
And so, I don’t hate the church, I just hate what we have done to it, in light of her destiny.
My calling and gift to the body is – to the best of my ability – to be true to God, to his nature and character. This demands a measure of prophetic probity. While none of us can claim the stature of a biblical prophet, the fact remains that as a prophet Jeremiah, for example, was to function as an “assayer” of metals, testing the hearts and ways of God’s people. However, the measure is never the arbitrary dictates of any individual – for “no prophecy is of private interpretation” – the touchstone, rather, is God’s own nature revealed in his own word. And so, his word is the prophetic touchstone to which we must return and this demands an interpretative community. I would be worried if I were the lone voice down this line. Nonetheless, the track record of the church’s handling of prophetic voices is not positive. We still have much to learn in this regard.
My burden – and I believe of the Lord – in any prophetic confrontation is unto destiny. I am consumed with a vision of God’s high call upon his people—that they may be a demonstration to the nations of God’s wisdom and ways.