BYRON CENTER, Mich. — In a move that some would say is counter to its mission of “calling the church … to repent of its worldliness,” The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals has invited an unorthodox pastor and podcaster who espouses a love for all things dark—from horror movies to death metal to dark fiction—and whose “Pastors in Cars Smoking Cigars” series and other videos reflect his love and promotion of cigars, bourbon and tattoos, to speak on justification and the Christian life at its upcoming Reformed theology conference.
On March 16, Thorn is scheduled to speak at the “Redemption Accomplished and Applied” conference at the First Christian Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan. He will be leading a session on “Justification Through Faith Alone,” as well as a workshop on “The Cross and the Christian Life.” Other speakers will include Liam Goligher, Ian Hamilton and David Murray.
Thorn leads Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, and is the author of the books “Note to Self: The Discipline of Preaching to Yourself,” “Experiencing the Trinity: The Grace of God for the People of God,” and “The Life of the Church,” “The Heart of the Church” and “The Character of the Church.” He is a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, which published his Church trilogy under its Moody Publishers label.
Thorn, who co-hosts the podcast “Doctrine and Devotion,” is known for often being pictured or filmed smoking a cigar.
In 2017, Thorn posted a series to his YouTube channel entitled “Pastors in Cars Smoking Cigars,” during which the two engaged in banter about various subjects before delving into the topic for the video.
In one of the recordings, Thorn asked pastoral assistant Jimmy Fowler to “name that song,” that is, to identify music that he pulled up on his phone and played out of his car stereo. The two laughed as Fowler correctly identified the tune, which turned out to be the “Thong Song” by Sisqo, a Grammy-nominated hit centering on “what men think about”—namely women’s rear ends—as it states, “Baby, move your butt” and “Baby, make your booty go.”
“Why would you know the Thong Song?” Thorn asked, then turned up the music for a moment and rocked to the beat.
“Do you know the lyrics?” he asked.
“No, of course not,” Fowler replied.
The video then cuts to a clip of the two breaking out singing “let me see that thong” as they cruise down the street jamming, with Thorn holding on to his cigar.
In another video, the two discussed a friend’s going away party for his daughter.
“He’s got bourbon. We’re drinking his stuff,” Fowler stated. “Why do I have to bring bourbon to somebody else’s place? … It was my birthday and my wife supplied it—the bourbon, cigars.”
Social media posts from Thorn, Fowler and other associates at Redeemer Fellowship have included similar recurring interests, including one showing a tiered tray of bourbon, vodka, sangria, and other hard liquor, and remarking that the person responsible “knows how to throw an elders’ fellowship.”
Thorn has additionally been a guest on Les Lanphere’s “Reformed Pubcast,” a podcast that discusses alcohol and theology, and was featured in Lanphere’s film “Calvinist.”
“[I]f somebody says, ‘Wow, that’s weird that you as a Christian, you’re going to drink alcohol and stuff—that’s really distracting,’ then just don’t drink alcohol in front of them. There’s a weaker brother issue. But, if somebody says, ‘Christians cannot drink alcohol,’ that’s when you bust one open in front of them and you chug it in their face, maybe spill some on them if necessary,” Lanphere stated during a 2015 episode.
“I think [the Apostle] Paul would say, ‘I’m not going to drink Blanton’s bourbon around people who might stumble over it.’ But if somebody said, ‘You can’t drink Blanton’s and be a Christian,’ Paul would pour himself a double, I believe, and he’d be like, ‘Hey, what’s up?'” Thorn similarly remarked.
The current Facebook profile photo for the podcast features a parody drawing of the “Banner of Truth” publishing logo, which depicts Thorn holding a lit cigar and Fowler raising a glass of alcohol.
Appearing on the Popcorn Theology podcast in 2016, Thorn outlined to the show’s hosts, “I do favor the horror genre. I have for many years. I still probably watch on average one new or unseen horror movie each week.”
He spoke of his favorite horror films on the podcast, namely the R-rated film “Frailty”—a story about an axe-wielding killer on a murder spree in the name of God and his belief that demons live in people—and “The Bad Seed,”—a story about a woman whose eight-year old daughter turns out to be a serial killer, which Thorn said “everyone should watch.”
“We hear about several ways that a female serial killer murdered her victims. At one point, a girl sets a fire to kill a man, and we hear him yelling in pain from the building. A woman tries to kill her child with an overdose, and herself with a bullet, when she finds that her child’s a killer,” one description of “The Bad Seed” outlines.
Thorn returned as a guest later that year to talk about the horror flick “The Witch,” an R-rated religious-themed film set in early 1600’s Puritan New England described by Rolling Stone as an “otherworldly combination of infanticide, full-moon blood rituals, and an animal imbued with the spirit of Lucifer himself.” By the end of the film, the teenage daughter joins the levitating witches in the dark forest.
While acknowledging that it was a “sad, hard movie” with much violence as a family is devastated by evil and witchcraft, and “all the kids get harmed,” Thorn said that he found it to be “a brilliant and even biblical presentation of how the devil entices, and what it’s like to ‘live deliciously.'”
He also cited that the film is by a secular writer who just “wants to tell a great story, a horror story, exploring classic tales of witchcraft, and so he’s writing a genre film that is telling a different story than what Christians might want him to tell—and we can’t expect him to tell some other story.”
In August 2017, Thorn appeared on a podcast that was later entitled “Joe Thorn Loves the Darkness” as he was asked about his various interests, which included horror films, cigars, bourbon and heavy metal music—including “melodic death metal,” noting that “95 percent” of his listening is heavy metal music.
When asked for recommendations, he provided Insomnium and Septicflesh as examples.
“Insomnium—they’re not like a dark, depressing, angry band; they’re singing about life, and mortality and love, and things like that,” Thorn stated. “Then, if you want to take a step out and go in different direction than this, try the band Septicflesh. Go ahead and give that a try after. … You want to get Septicflesh ‘Titan.’ And then listen to it. You’ll have lot to consider lyrically. … That’s darker stuff, but yeah, I really like [them].”
Songs by the bands include “The Vampire From Nazareth” and “Black Heart Rebellion.”
When host Stephen Altrogge joked about trashing an apartment, Thorn cited Skeletonwitch.
He said that he has enjoyed metal from his youth, as it “made me feel good and up and excited.”
“They didn’t sing about sex and drugs; they sang about life and death and bitterness,” Thorn explained. “They sang about things that I understood.”
He also outlined that he also gravitates toward “darker” fiction novels, such as the Alex Cross novels by James Patterson, as well as the Harry Potter series, which he opined was “wonderful” and “awesome.”
Thorn asked Altrogge if he had read any of Joe Hill’s books (the son of horror/mystery/thriller writer Stephen King), and he replied that he started listening to one, but that it got “kind of super creepy demonic right off the bat.”
“‘Heart Shaped Box’?” Thorn asked. “Yeah, that’s good. That’s a good one. You go back and read that thing.”
“See, I don’t love like—maybe this is a slight difference, but I don’t love [novels] that are massively creepy,” Altrogge stated.
“Yeah, that’s what I like,” Thorn responded.
“You don’t always read fiction, but when you do, it’s dark and murderous,” Altrogge also remarked during the podcast.
“Somebody’s gonna die. A lot of people are gonna die,” Thorn replied.
Thorn cited that perhaps he likes darker fiction because he has had an interest in horror films from childhood.
“Scary movies, scary stories, thrillers, horror—that genre has always been important to me, so that’s probably why I like Joe Hill stuff,” he explained. Thorn also stated that asking him to select his favorite horror movie is “like asking me best cigar.”
He further remarked during the podcast that he is drawn to the darker material because he is reminded of the “human fallen condition” and that Christians have victory over the darkness. Thorn was formerly into Satanism and the occult.
NO CONCERNS FROM THE ALLIANCE
Christian News Network reached out to the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals about their decision to include Thorn at the conference, and Executive Director Bob Brady outlined that he didn’t see any concerns as Thorn holds to a “scriptural view” of chapter 21 of the Baptist Confession of 1689, “Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience.”
He further noted that speakers are selected and vetted by an advisory group and steering committee.
“Joe [Thorn] is a fully ordained gospel minister under the direct supervision of a rightly established church and there is not an issue with either of those processes; there are no charges, censure, or otherwise,” Brady said.
“I understand that Joe not only subscribes to, but actively promotes the doctrine of the Reformation as articulated in the Confession of 1689,” he continued. “I understand that he holds a scriptural view of his own confession’s 21st chapter … among other works on that same doctrine.”
The cited chapter states, “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to His word, or not contained in it.”
It also explains that “the end of Christian liberty … is, that being delivered out of the hands of all our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him, all the days of our lives,” since “[t]he liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel, consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the rigour and curse of the law, and in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin …”
Brady stated that the cited aspects about Thorn—from his love of horror, heavy metal and dark fiction, as well as his persona revolving around cigars, bourbon and tattoos—remind him up of his prior experience with fundamentalism.
“[T]he call to avoid [these things] remind me of what I heard in my fundamentalist upbringing. Upon my own study of the Bible, I can’t find clear rebuke, but warning of excess,” he said.
The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals was birthed out of the work of the late pastors Donald Grey Barnhouse and James Boice, who led Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.
“There are those who are after the flesh, and there are those who are after the Spirit,” Barnhouse preached in a sermon entitled “Two Kinds of People.” “Those who are in the flesh, walking after the flesh, are the last to suspect their condition. … Men may be living according to their conscience and yet be walking after the flesh, both practically and religiously.”
“If conscience is not enlightened by the Holy Spirit, it is a blind guide. Conscience will only tell you what you think to be right, but you must bring your conscience to the standard of God’s word to judge if what you think is right,” he proclaimed. “There are many in our congregations over whom our hearts yearn. Alas, they are in a dangerous state. Rocked to sleep in satan’s cradle; conscience at rest, undisturbed …”
The Alliance website similarly states that “The purpose of the Alliance’s existence is to call the Church, amidst a dying culture, to repent of its worldliness, to recover and confess the truth of God’s Word as did the reformers, and to see that truth embodied in doctrine, worship, and life.”
‘BE SEPARATE FROM THE DARKNESS’
Ryan Denton, an ordained Baptist minister who serves as an evangelist with Old Paths Church in El Paso, Texas and has taught on the 1689 Confession, told Christian News Network that he disagrees with the Alliance’s view.
“[T]o appeal to the 1689 to justify the type of behavior that we see in this particular case is either an utter misunderstanding of what chapter 21 teaches or a willful shutting of the eyes for the sake of brushing everything under the rug,” he stated. “Either that or the 1689 needs to be thrown in the garbage for promoting licentious, carnal behavior, which is not the case.”
Denton pointed to 2 Corinthians 6:14, which asks, “What fellowship has light with darkness?”
“Horror movies, death metal, and dark fiction are all offshoots of the occult. It glorifies violence, chaos, and most egregiously, death,” he stated. “In a culture where death is already promoted—look at abortion and assisted suicide, for example—for any Christian to participate or even enjoy such satanic-driven amusement is beyond alarming. Much less for a supposed minister of the gospel to do so.”
“It’s one thing for a minister or Christian to humbly struggle with these sins. It’s another to flaunt them,” Denton, who served for a time as a pastor in New Mexico, continued. “We can’t forget that the Lord says to be separate from the darkness (2 Cor. 6:17), not to grovel in it.”
In regard to the other material posted online, such as “The Thong Song” clip, he asked, “All I have to say is, would you ever catch Paul acting this way? Much less our Lord?”
“Considering his office as ‘pastor,’ it’s more than alarming behavior. It’s something you would see among high schoolers or frat boys,” Denton said. “In no way does this reflect the 1689’s teaching on Christian liberty, which again is not a license to sin, but a call to holiness since sin has been paid for.”
He pointed to Hebrews 12:1-2, which states that Christians are to “lay aside every weight” that keeps one from running the race properly.
“Whenever a man like this is placed as a speaker at a conference, it gives the obvious impression that the conference organizers endorse this man’s teaching and lifestyle. The two are not divorced,” Denton said. “In fact, the lifestyle is what gives credibility to the teaching in many ways. So, it makes the statement that ‘we approve of this man.'”
Christian News Network reached out to Thorn via his Doctrine and Devotion site, which states on the contact page, “If you have any complaints or concerns, please email them to your best friend. He probably cares a lot more than we do.”
The automated response reads, “Thanks for taking the time to send us a note. We read them all and only make fun of the really dumb ones.”
Numerous requests surrounding the questions submitted to Thorn were not returned.