I had the privilege of taking a trip to Israel in March. While walking around in Bethlehem, I ran across a Starbucks coffee shop. I wasn’t surprised to see one there, given the fact that American culture has found a foothold in virtually every country on earth. I’ve eaten at Pizza Hut in Port Said, Egypt; I’ve had Wendy’s at midnight in Athens, Greece; and I’ve enjoyed a McDonald’s Kiwiburger in Palmerston North, New Zealand. I figured that this was another example of an American company that opened its stores abroad. I snapped a picture and walked on.
Then I turned and looked the store over a second time. Something wasn’t right. It didn’t look like a Starbucks. In America, branding is important. Oftentimes you can tell what a restaurant is going to be when it is still under construction by the shape of the building alone. “Well,” I figured, “maybe it’s because it’s a foreign store.” I took a few steps, then looked back again. There was something odd about the signage. I checked the Starbucks app on my phone and noticed that the logo was different. “Well, it’s a foreign store, so maybe they don’t have the resources to update the logo every time Starbucks makes a change.”
I then wondered aloud to my companions whether the store was authentic or not, adding that I doubted it. As I discovered later, my suspicions were correct. Starbucks closed all of its stores in Israel in 2003. The store was a counterfeit, looking just enough like the real thing to fool the undiscerning passerby. This is how counterfeits work. They are intended to look like the genuine article, and their creators take great pains to make them look as authentic as possible. It’s only the small details that give them away.
I cannot help but think of many church fellowships that have followed a similar trend. They look just enough like the church of the New Testament that many people equate the two. The undiscriminating church-goer may not notice the subtle discrepancies, and may become convinced that those differences don’t really matter. We might see one of the following characteristics:
- Defective Theology. We have seen the rise of various preachers who offer a gospel much different than the one found in the New Testament (cf. Gal. 1:6). This may take the form of the prosperity gospel found in the preaching of figures like Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, and Kenneth Copeland. It might be the soft universalism of figures like Rob Bell. It could be the avoidance of difficult topics such as sin, judgment, and hell in much of contemporary left-leaning preaching. But the apostle Paul did not shy away from any aspect of the gospel message (Acts 20:27; cf. Matt. 28:20). Sound doctrine is indispensable (cf. Titus 1:9). We have to remember that any other gospel not matching the New Testament precisely is a gospel that is, by definition, perverted.
- A Distorted View of God’s Grace. This may be the view that God’s grace is designed only for an elect few, as in Calvinism. A dangerous and wide-reaching distortion is found in teaching that redraws the parameters of salvation. This is often accomplished by making personal goodness or sincerity into acceptable substitutes for a saving relationship with God through Christ. We might state it in two ways: “love for God is optimal; love for the good is acceptable,” and “obedience is a mark of those who are saved in Christ; sincerity is the mark of those saved outside of Christ.” Jesus gravely warned about those whom he would turn away at the door of his kingdom, in spite of their deeds and, apparently, the misguided sincerity which had produced them (Matt. 7:21-23).
- Teaching Unbiblical Traditions. The Pharisees often received stinging rebukes from Jesus, and for good reason. They followed prescribed laws of their own making, putting their traditions virtually on par with God’s commands. They weren’t the last to manufacture their own traditions. This has continued with the Roman Catholic Church, which puts tradition on the same level as Scripture. It has also continued to a limited extent with the Eastern Orthodox Church, which appeals to apostolic tradition for various aspects of its theology. Paul warns Christians about accepting replacements for the biblical message (Col. 2:8; cf. Mark 7:8-9).
Counterfeits succeed because they look almost exactly like the original. The New Testament warns us about them (Matt. 24:4-5), and there are many who have been duped (cf. Luke 6:46). The devil has spent a long time perfecting his craft. But as with all counterfeits, he can never succeed in concealing the little mistakes that betray his handiwork.