So, after Brendt’s post last week, I thought my temptation to write an article on this would pass. However, after a number of DM’s, Tweets, Facebook messages and some emails, I think it might just save me some time and lots (and lots) of repeating myself. Additionally, a good friend asked me what was going on with all of this, and my reply was “it’s a long story” (which I probably owe her at some point, anyway), and current events seem to be surfacing this topic, as well.
Background on “Christian”
Andy Stanley started an 8-part series a couple of months ago at North Point Community Church, called “Christian”. The overarching premise is that “Christian” is a malleable word (a poor adjective) that can mean most anything these days. It was a word given to Jesus-followers by outsiders, not the followers, themselves. What the followers called themselves, and what Jesus called them, is much better defined: disciples. As such, we, as followers of Christ, ought to try to live up to what Jesus expected us to be (disciples), not take the squishy road of “Christian”. [I highly recommend the entire series, FWIW.]
- Part 1: Brand Recognition – This is the basic premise of the entire series, relayed above, where Stanley lays out Christianity’s reputation, outside the church as “judgmental, homophobic moralists, who think they are the only ones going to heaven and secretly relish the fact that everyone else is going to hell”, and then goes on to describe the difference between “Christian” and “disciple”
- Part 2: Quitters – Picking up from Part 1, Andy tells the story of Anne Rice – leaving the church, rediscovering her faith, and then disavowing “Christians”, saying “Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ, as always, but to being ‘Christian’ or being part of ‘Christianity’. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group.“ Stanley then goes on to describe the defining characteristic given to disciples by Jesus (see 1 John 4:7-8), that should differentiate us from the world around us, so that we don’t settle for the brand “Christianity”. Key quote: We give up our leverage in society when we opt for anything other than LOVE.
- Part 3: Insiders Outsiders – Andy follows the evolution of the early church – from a small, persecuted minority to a movement that toppled the Roman Empire. He points to this event in time as a point where Christians stopped leveraging love as their distinguishing characteristic, and started leveraging other things – like political power – to impose their faith on others, by threat or force. He examines how Christians should treat those outside the faith, and that we should not expect those who don’t follow Jesus to live as he commanded his followers to live. (This sermon shared points with the incredibly good 1-sermon series last summer, The Separation of Church and Hate.) Over time, though, Christians morphed the Great Commission into “Therefore, go and impose my teaching, values and worldview on all nations, threatening them with judgment and destruction if they don’t obey everything I have commanded you.“ The main point he comes to is that we are to judge disciples (who are acting against his commands), not outsiders (who never signed up to follow his commands). [He uses Mark & Grace Driscoll's appearance on The View as an example of how to demonstrate this.]
- Part 4: Showing Up - The Sunday before Easter, Andy preached this sermon on how disciples should live – as salt and light – in the world. He traces this from the experience of the early persecuted church, up to how we ought to live now – where how we treat one another and how we treat those outside the church (by “showing up”) – is to be such examples of Christ that when people see us, they see what he is like. This is messy, and is not always immediately (or ever) visible to us, but our good deeds should shine in such a way that others speak well of Christ from seeing how we act. “The way we act may make them feel guilty, but it should not make them feel that we are condemning them.” (i.e. it should be their conscience that convicts them, not our criticism.)
- Part 5: When Gracie Met Truthy – In a theme common here, Andy touches on the tension that exists between grace and truth. His basic premise, spoken several times and several ways: “A tension exists between grace and truth. If we try to resolve that tension, in either direction, we lose something.” He goes through multiple examples in Jesus’ ministries where Jesus, described by John as the perfect embodiment of grace and truth, gives both grace AND truth. For example, in the woman who committed adultery and as brought before him, Jesus response was “I do not condemn you” (grace) and “go and live in sin no more” (truth). As Brendt quoted this sermon, “… people may misunderstand your grace towards sinners as somehow condoning their sin, but that is not the case.“ This was a very good, but very difficult lesson (and the source of the controversy, covered below).
- Part 6: Angry Birds – This sermon covers similar territory the previous week – this time via Jesus’ teaching, whereas Week 5 dealt with Jesus’ actions. It examined Jesus’ teaching to the disciples about how to treat sinners, followed by the story of the Two Lost Sons (sometimes called The Prodigal Son). In the first part, he says that if Christians are doing what Jesus did and following what he taught, we, too, should end up attracting the “tax collectors, sinners and prostitutes”, which will likely result in the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law to mutter that we’re associating with the wrong sorts of people. Even though we have more in common, and nearly identical theology, to the ‘Pharisees”, the way we live our belief – if we’re doing it right – will likely result in the sinners feeling welcome and the self-righteous feeling … self-righteous and put out. Basically, as Stanley follows on, we should be modeling the role of the Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son.
- Part 7: Loopholes – This sermon continues on, examining how “Christians” (and, to some degree, non-Christians) try to use “loopholes” which allow our own sinful behavior, while condemning/damning the sins of those who are different than them. He contrasts this with what Jesus taught – “Love God, and love your neighbor – all other laws flow from/are subservient to these”. In the context of loopholes, Andy sums this up – to the Pharisees – as “Don’t you dare take a verse or a passage of Scripture and use it to unlove someone else, you hypocrites” and then continues: “Disciples don’t look for workarounds or loopholes – ‘Christians’ do that – Disciples ask ‘What does love require of me?’“ [I loved this particular bit, as well: "'Christians' use the Bible like a mace - 'Disciples' use the Bible like a mirror."] If you only have time for one sermon in the series, I’d go here. Very challenging stuff. Stuff I often suck at. Stuff that will make you uncomfortable. Stuff that doesn’t require you to compromise, but requires you to love people who are not like you.
- Part 8: Working It Out – In the final sermon of the series, Andy picks up from the final question of Week 7: What does love require of me? In it, he notes that the people who have shaped us the most are either a) those who really loved us; and b) those who really hurt/abused us. Originally, Jesus gave us a new commandment: Love one another. Our defining characteristic was to be how we love one another, but over time it has evolved from being more about how we behave to being almost completely about what we believe. If we want to re-brand “Christian” to become synonymous with “Disciple”, we need to follow the new commandment he gave us. “We represent the commander, not the commandments.” He finishes up the series by talking how to prepare ourselves to live in love: 1) Don’t do anything that will hurt you; 2) Don’t do anything that will hurt someone else; and 3) Don’t be mastered by anything.
- All in all, this was an incredibly good series, and one that is challenging (for good reasons). I encourage you to watch/download/listen to it all. Twice.
Got it? OK – now for the controversy:
Gracie and Truthy
Part Five of the series, When Grace Met Truthy, landed on ODM radar because Andy, purposely or accidentally, broke an unspoken commandment in modern Evangelicalism: If you mention homosexuality in a sermon or sermon illustration, you must also – as quickly as possible – make sure that everybody knows that it is a sin and it is not tolerated in your church. If you fail to do so, it will be automatically assumed that you are condoning it.
Not only did he break this commandment once, but he did it twice in the same sermon.
First: Early in the sermon, about 5 minutes in, Stanley mentioned that he knew a number of LGBT folks who visited/attended North Point, having left the “predominantly gay” churches. He said that they said, when asked why they had made the switch, that the gay churches spent a lot of time “affirming homosexuality”, but that North Point “teaches the Bible”. The implication, being, that the two (”affirming homosexuality” vs. “teaching the Bible”) were opposed to one another. \
As we have learned here, often over the past 6 years, if the ODM crowd is lacking in anything, it is a complete lack of recognition of nuance and subtlety. It’s not that they don’t understand homosexual practice is a sin (they do, and we do). It’s not that those who are outside the church don’t understand that the church teaches that homosexual practice is a sin (every single survey of non-Christians about Christians – see Barna – tells us that non-Christians understand this more than any other truth about the church), or that the ODM’s and self-proclaimed “watchdogs” don’t know this (because they do). And it’s almost never some sort of altruistic desire to “protect” the flock that doesn’t realize what their church’s teaching is on homosexuality (because you can pretty much guarantee that they do, whichever way their church falls on the issue). It really comes down to making sure that they (homosexuals, liberals, ‘outsiders’) know that they are wrong on this issue and we (the true church) are right about it. [See week 7's message, above, "Loopholes".]
But that wasn’t enough.
Secondly, (around the 25-minute mark) Stanley relayed an illustration that began 5 years ago. In it, there was a married couple with a daughter. The man left the woman to be with another man. The woman kicked the husband out of North Point, immediately. The man and his partner later attended another North Point campus (Buckhead church), and their first Sunday, volunteered to be part of the “Host Team” (a group that parks cars, opens doors, passes out programs, or leads first-time guests to classrooms, etc.). The wife approached Andy to let him know that the partner’s divorce was not finalized and that the relationship was still adulterous. Andy stepped in, met with the ex-husband and partner, and told them they could not serve while they were living in overt sin (adultery). The two left the church, very upset. Over time (the point of the illustration), the wife began showing grace to her ex-husband and his partner, and became much less bitter toward them. Last year, she invited them to come sit with her at the Christmas services at North Point. Andy quipped that, looking at them, it reminded him of Modern Family (the TV show).
Right after I heard that particular illustration, I knew that the ODM’s – if they heard the illustration – would go bonkers. Why? Because in the story, Andy had focused on the adultery and said nothing about the homosexual issue (see above for ODM capabilities in understanding nuance and subtlety). In Culture War Evangelicalism, when one speaks on homosexuality without a neon sign (”<<<—THIS IS A SIN”), silence is considered acceptance, and to not condemn is assumed to condone.
It doesn’t matter that, after the illustration, Pastor Stanley said “… people may misunderstand your grace towards sinners as somehow condoning their sin, but that is not the case.“ Andy had an open shot on goal and passed up the shot. He had a wide-open receiver in the end zone and took a sack. He had a two-foot putt for par and took a double-bogey. Insert your own sports/war metaphor here.
My first comment, when the sermon was over, was “the folks that complain about this will be the same folks that, in doing so, will demonstrate they didn’t listen to the message.”
Over the coming weeks, I was (almost) pleasantly surprised.
Along Came Al
A couple of weeks went by, with only a few rumblings in ODM-land [links intentionally not provided]. Andy Stanley rarely makes their radar, so most of them don’t dissect him on a weekly basis. He rarely gives media interviews (see here for his excellent reasons why not), his dad is respected by some of the ODM’s (and their canaries-in-a-coal-mine at the Gospel Coalition), and he rarely says things that are all that controversial.
At the same time, there is a bit of jealousy in the SBC that North Point is purposely non-denominational, even though Andy’s dad is, and that it has done so well (25,000 attenders across 7 Atlanta campuses each Sunday). Also, it is a megachurch that operates as a “church for the unchurched”. So it has only been a matter of time before someone at the SBC would toss a grenade at it in public.
And along came Al Mohler, the president of the SBC. Fretting if megachurches will all go the way of liberalism, Mohler wrote an article complaining about Stanley’s sermon, and requesting/requiring an answer from Pastor Stanley as to his church’s “stance” on homosexuality. (To which, Rick Warren got in a brief Twitter spat with Mohler over the tar-and-feathering of megachurches over one perceived slight.) Andy Stanley’s response to Dr. Mohler was that he didn’t find interviews and press releases to be all that helpful, but that Dr. Mohler ought to listen to the seven online sermons and the final sermon, Part 8, on Sunday.
A brilliant response. [I'd have likely replied with something snarky, and less gracious or brilliant. Which is why I'm an engineer, not a pastor.]
And that is all the response that has been given (and I hope will ever be given).
Since then, the regular ODM’s and their (predominantly Calvinist) ilk have gleefully demonstrated what Anne Rice meant with her public comments, just in case anyone was confused as to what she meant by ‘Christians’ as a “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group”. [And no, no linky goodness for them.]
Even so, there have been some very good responses to the mess. Probably the best two are from Scot McKnight (unsurprisingly) and Out of Ur. As comments go, one of the briefest and best to sum it up, on a site that was critical of Stanley’s message, was this:
I don’t understand why everyone needs clarification of this topic when it was not the subject of the message. This sermon was not about SIN, it was about how we treat SINNERS. I think Andy answered that question quite eloquently. Additionally, the brilliance of the message was that I think he intentionally chose this very applicable story to point out that the “Christian” community doesn’t treat all sinners equally, and from judging the uproar that resulted, his point was well proven.
The silly thing about all of this is that North Point’s “stance” on homosexual practice (that they believe the Bible declares it to be a sin) is well-documented over the past 15 years, and – for the folks who have called them and asked if NPCC allows practicing homosexuals to serve in the church – their volunteer applications list multiple sexual sins (all homo-sexual sin and all extramarital heterosexual sin, including “shacking up”) as reasons for individuals to not volunteer for service, for their own good, as well as the church’s.
In this particular instance, I expect a) the hubub over this sermon will soon die down; b) more juicy targets will come along for the “Christian” bottom-feeders to attack and devour; c) North Point will now be monitored much more closely for perceived heresy (all in the sanctimonious garb of “protecting the flock”, of course); d) member of NPCC and those who listen to Andy Stanley will better represent Christ in the world; and e) if they do a good job of representing Christ, they can expect to be shot in the back with much more frequency and intensity in the future.
Where We’ve Been
I’m not going to spend a lot of time here, but we have covered this particular topic several times before.
- We do agree that the Bible says that homosexual practice (the act) is a sin, as defined in the Bible.
- We also agree that the church in the past several decades, in particular, have handled this sin incredibly poorly. So much so, that many/most homosexuals do not feel that they would be accepted into a relationship with Christ. To say that again: The church has become a place that sinners do not feel they would be accepted, because they are sinners. The church of the past few decades have singled this sin out (since most in it are not tempted by it) as a “special” sin, worthy of particular note and scorn.
- We also have seen that some churches (and some commenters, like our ex-pastor friend Chad) “square this circle” by searching for loopholes to affirm this lifestyle as OK. (With all of the accompanying weasel-words around “loving, monogamous, etc.” to try and avoid calling sin sin.) This is just as bad as declaring it a “special sin”.
- As we’ve noted before, there has to be somewhere between these poles – Andy Stanley refers to it as a “tension” – where we must act as a church.
The truth is, most of us – unless we have close family/friends dealing with this sin – have no true empathy or sympathy for what these folks are dealing with. When we tell them to “go and sin no more” (and constantly bring up 1 Cor 5, which we only reserve for the “really bad” sins like this one), what we fail to realize is that we’re also saying “Your only choices in life are to live single and alone, or to marry someone whom you have no – or little – attraction.” And that’s if they are not already in a relationship.
And if they have kids, that’s even messier.
How callous is it to flippantly demand someone “quit sinning” before God will accept them, when “quit sinning”, in our definition, may entail breaking off a relationship and making arrangements for a child?
Sin is horribly messy, and it’s awfully arrogant for us to try and take over for the Holy Spirit, when it comes to convicting someone of sin and how they need to deal with it.
I think of a friend of mine who works with Masai people in Africa. Many of the Masai men are married to multiple wives. When they become Christians, the missionaries do not demand that they leave their polygamous relationships – which would often leave women and/or children destitute. With young, unmarried men the missionaries teach “one and done”, but for those already entangled in polygamy, there is no such easy answer.
This is why one of the best churches I’m familiar with, in dealing with the sin of homosexual practice, makes absolutely no public statement about homosexuality (though they consider it to be defined as sin in the Bible). When people come to them/call them and ask what their “stance” is on homosexuality, they first ask if the caller or a loved one is struggling with it. If so, they ask them to come in and meet, and then they counsel them as best fits their situation. If they or a loved one do not struggle with that particular sin, then their answer is “What is it to you?”
And this is brilliant.
Because the church has responded so poorly to this in the past, and the public perception of its treatment of it as a “special sin” (while comparatively ignoring rampant sins like divorce and adultery in the church) is so close to truth, the proper response of the church very well may be such an approach, to take the lightning out of the lightning-rod issue.
Oh, And the World
Most of the Stanley/Mohler kerfuffle has fallen completely beneath the radar of normal people, which is fine and good.
At the same time, the North Carolina Constitutional Amendment last week, coupled with Zero’s “evolved” (but not really changed) position on same-sex marriage, will likely keep this topic close to the top of the headlines for the next six months. It is my hope that most Christians will avoid the stereotype – balancing both grace and truth – and stay out of those headlines, and that we will find a way to make “tax collectors, sinners and prostitutes” far more comfortable with us than the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law, and that it will be because we are emulating Jesus.
[Edit: I changed my characterization of the blog whose comment I quoted above, upon reviewing more of the posts at that particular blog.]