I don't often agree with Stephen Nolan. Usually when the outspoken BBC presenter interviews Christians he comes across as antagonistic and needlessly provocative. Rather than getting to the heart of an issue, he seems more interested in provoking a reaction (and sadly often succeeds).
But watching his recent documentary with controversial Belfast pastor James McConnell, I think Nolan hit the nail on the head. The 79-year-old's family opposed his decision to take part in the documentary, given Nolan's coverage of controversial remarks McConnell made about Islam in 2014. They needn't have worried however. Nolan brought out the lesser-known, sensitive side of a man from a tough background, orphaned early in life. For his part, McConnell acknowledged his aggressive nature and anger issues.
But at the end of the 30-minute programme, Nolan raised his biggest concern:
'Can I level with you? I wondered before I met you, and I still wonder, how much danger there is in one man appointing themselves as a preacher in a local community ... That's dangerous. Is that fair?'
To his credit, McConnell acknowledged: 'that's fair enough'. And it's not just Nolan who sees it as a danger. The Bible itself knows nothing of self-appointed preachers. Nor does it know anything of independent churches, such as McConnell's Metropolitan Tabernacle. The Apostle Paul asks: 'How are they to preach unless they are sent?' The New Testament describes only inter-dependent churches which must submit to a wider body (eg Acts 15).
McConnell and Whitewell show us the practical implications of preaching the gospel but ignoring other parts of the Bible's teaching. The courts decided last year that his remarks about Muslims weren’t illegal. But who decides if what he said was harmful to the reputation of Jesus and his church? Contrary to the Bible's teaching, McConnell isn't answerable to any Christ-appointed church authority.
And what happens now the charismatic preacher has retired? Numbers have already fallen dramatically. What if his successor preaches a different gospel? Who is there to step in and stop him? Nor is that just a question that independent churches must face - many denominations have ended up in the same place because ministers and elders have been appointed who don't believe in Jesus and don't care what the Bible says.
I regard McConnell as a brother in Christ. But we ignore the Bible's checks and balances at our peril.
Published in Stranraer & Wigtownshire Free Press, 2nd February 2017