The Christian world is all knotted up right now in a bout of self-torture over a recent New York Times interview with Brian Houston, pastor of Hillsong Church. The reporter asked Houston to clarify Hillsong’s position on gay marriage. Houston refused to take the bait, in part because his church has a presence in LA and NYC, and is being effective at ministering to the gay community in those two cities. His response:
“It’s very easy to reduce what you think about homosexuality to just a public statement, and that would keep a lot of people happy,” he said, “but we feel at this point, that it is an ongoing conversation, that the real issues in people’s lives are too important for us just to reduce it down to a yes or no answer in a media outlet. So we’re on the journey with it.”
The reaction to this response was swift and strong from the evangelical conservatives, led by the Southern Baptist Convention. In his blog post, Andrew Walker (no relation), SBC Director of Policy Studies for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, takes Houston to task for being accommodating to culture by not declaring an unequivocal Biblical stand in opposition to gay marriage, and homosexuality in general. Conservative evangelicals hate the concept of cultural relevance, and believe Christians need to be clear, blunt, and unbending in declaring the “truth” found in the Bible. In Andrew Walker’s words:
a non-answer is an answer. Let’s be very clear on that. It’s also a very vapid answer. What we’re seeing in many corners of evangelicalism is a pliability that makes Christianity an obsequious servant to whatever the reigning zeitgeist is. With non-answers like this, it isn’t Jesus who is sitting at the right hand of the Father. Culture is.
Apparently Walker and other evangelicals who are offended by Houston’s choice not to reply to a loaded question have forgotten Jesus’ answers to the chief priests in Matthew 21:23-27. The religious leaders ask Jesus a loaded question: “On whose authority are you saying and doing what you’re doing?” Knowing that the question was loaded, Jesus artfully dodged the question by responding with a loaded question of his own. When the religious leaders dodged Jesus’ question, he refused to answer theirs.
The NYT question to Houston was a loaded one–any answer was going to bring about division and controversy. Here is where Houston erred in the eyes of Mr. Walker, and most other raging evangelical commentators: He chose to avoid an answer that, while affirming Biblical truth (as even Mr. Houston interprets it, as indicated in this press release in response to the firestorm) didn’t poke sinners in the eye with a sharp stick. These critics love to throw about a small phrase from Ephesians 4:15, devoid of context*: “speaking the truth in love,” as in “The Bible demands that we declare loudly that homosexuals are sinners, and that by doing so we are showing them how much we love them by saving them from Hell.”
News flash for Mr. Walker and his friends: Pretty much every coherent homosexual in the western world is abundantly clear on the evangelical position that homosexuality is a sin (not just any sin, but an abomination!), and that gay marriage is an affront to God, marriage, and Focus on the Family. Your friends at Westboro Baptist are leading the charge in communicating the anti-relevance message. We don’t need Mr. Houston to pile on.
18 months ago I articulated my views on gay marriage, so I’m not going to expound on that point. Truth is, this post isn’t so much about gay marriage as it is about cultural relevance and the Christian church. Houston’s critics will tell you, either indirectly or overtly, that their job is to present God’s truths so that everyone who does not know God as Lord and Savior will realize they are sinners, repent, and accept God’s forgiveness. Any efforts to connect with the culture in a meaningful way is derided as accommodation, and diluting the gospel, most often with the stated or implied motive of attaining or maintaining popularity, which equals dollars.** These critics proudly proclaim that they would gladly see current society burn in hell before they would give up their primary mission of proclaiming “God’s truth.” (Walker: A church in exile (and that’s how I’d describe the current placement of confessional evangelicalism) is one that is faithful amidst the culture, regardless of whether that culture looks more like America or more like Babylon. It knows that it may lose the culture, but that it cannot lose the Gospel. So be it.”)
There’s a problem with that approach, and it is most clearly seen in the example of missionaries of the past 200 years who left Western churches to “take the Gospel” to the unchurched in other parts of the world. Whether it was Central America, Africa, or Alaska, those missionaries who refused to be relevant to the culture they were trying to reach, found themselves first trying to convert their audience to Western modernity before they could convert them to Christianity. Most failed outright; some made initial headway (usually by force) in trying to force the people to change their culture, and in so doing, created long-lasting problems that we are still trying to undo today. All created a distrust and fear of the Church. On the other hand, missionaries that realized that you don’t have to be a Western European or American to be loved by God and be a part of his Kingdom have planted churches that are growing and thriving. Those missionaries realized that the Truth of God is meaningful to all cultures, and does not have to be framed in the context of the culture that sent them.
More simply put: the SBC’s message that “God abhors your sinful behavior and will send you to hell for all eternity if you don’t stop doing _____” is completely meaningless to someone who has no clue who God is, or why the person should care what God thinks. Our culture doesn’t know God–they only know the church. And their primary understanding of the church is that they hate homosexuals. Somewhere along the way, evangelicals in America have lost sight of the Great Commission to “go and make disciples.” Making disciples involves building a relationship. That’s hard work. Before we can help someone become a disciple of Jesus, we have to get to know them and help them get to know Jesus well enough that they would desire to follow him. It’s going to be hard to do that with homosexuals when our initial message is “God hates you and is going to send you to hell if you don’t stop having homosexual sex.”
Evangelicals love to point to John 8’s account of the adulterous woman to justify their actions, citing Jesus in verse 11 telling the woman “Go now and leave your life of sin.” However, they lose sight of the fact that he only made this statement after he saved the woman’s life, and told her that he didn’t condemn her.
Brian Houston chose to avoid a trap, in order to continue building relationships with people who he wants to help know Jesus, so that he can help them become disciples of Jesus. He is condemned by fellow Christ followers who would prefer that he alienate these people by “speaking the truth.” While the SBC message may be factually correct, its disdain for cultural relevance means that they will become less and less effective at the Church’s primary mission of making disciples. To those who feel the need to “speak the truth” on this (or any other) sin issue, I would recommend they consider following Houston’s example. You see, Houston is choosing to speak Truth–in the form of Jesus himself. Because, it is Jesus, not the SBC, who takes away the sins of the world.
* Too bad most folks don’t read all of Ephesians 4. Paul’s discussion about spiritual maturity and church unity might clarify that this oft-quoted phrase is not a license to castigate nonbelievers, but a plea for Christians to quit acting like babies and instead to treat each other as integral parts of the same body of Christ.
**Many commenters immediately attributed Houston’s approach, despite his clear statement that a simple yes/no answer would diminish the importance of the conversation, to a perceived greed and desire to preserve the wealth of his church. Their evidence: Houston’s church is big, and it has a huge influence in the Contemporary Christian music genre. Therefore Houston’s motives must be greedy, selfish, and devoid of Christ. I wonder how many of those who grabbed their keyboard and thesaurus to launch their scathing attacks on a Christian brother on Friday, finished their worship set Sunday morning with Oceans (a Hillsong original which is immensely popular with contemporary worship services around the country)? Their immediate association of Houston’s lack of alignment with their thoughts to the astounding success and impact his church is having around the world is curious, and without further evidence seems to be a glaring fallacy of logic.