“Truth” + irrelevance = FAIL

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.

The Post That May Just Offend Everybody

or, My Thoughts on the Gay Marriage Issue

If you think you know me, and know where this is going, let me challenge you–you’re probably wrong.  Whether you think you’re going to agree with me, or think you can just stop reading, because you know you’re going to disagree with me, I ask that you read on, as I’m betting you’re going to be surprised.  I’m a little surprised myself.

To all that I offend:  my intent is not to hurt, or alienate, or disparage.  I’m not asking you to agree with me, or debate me, or dismiss me.  I just ask that you consider this; I wouldn’t have taken the time to write it, or 10 times that amount of time to consider it, if I didn’t think it were important–not because it’s my thoughts, but because it’s the results of what I believe God has been cultivating in my head over the past several years, and because he’s been pretty relentless in getting me to writing this down tonight, when I have a hundred excuses why I can’t.  Yes, this post is going to have a decidedly Christian slant (although some might strongly disagree).  Please don’t let that turn you off–just hear me out.

Now for the disclaimers:  I’m probably one of the most conservative, fundamental people I know.  Paul rattles off his qualification to be the ultimate Jew in Philippians 3:5-6.  Well, here’s my parallel list of qualification to be a poster-child for Fox-News watching, Tea-Party-supporting, NRA-member, super-conservative status:  Born in the Midwest, raised by two Christian parents who are still married to each other, for the first time; retired Army officer; big-oil employee; firearm owner (all of which are banned in CA); John Wayne posters and pictures THROUGHOUT my garage; and most recently, a certified Pentecostal pastor!  I can out-conservative the best our country has to offer, and have been able to clearly articulate the superiority of my conservative values my entire life.  But like Paul in the subsequent verses, I now consider all of that not just a loss, but sewage (that’s a nice way of translating what the NIV calls “garbage”).  Not because I’m better than that; because I’m most definitely not.  No, it’s because God’s been dragging me through a knothole in the process of trying to remake me in the image of his Son, and along the way, I’ve been confronted with the cognitive dissonance of my traditional beliefs vs. what the Bible says.

Based on my qualifications, one would expect me to be firmly on the far right, crying out against gay marriage.  I’m not.  In fact, I think the church in America really needs to re-examine itself here.  I’ve seen a lot of traffic on the internet for a long time now, and particularly in the past few days, with professing Christians crying out to God, their neighbors, and anyone who will listen on the internet to oppose this “attack on marriage.”  I’ve even read one church who posted a call for fervent prayer that God would not allow the Supreme Court to “destroy marriage.”  I’ve even seen some pretty hateful stuff said toward those who disagree with their position that marriage should be legally restricted to one man and one woman.  I think all of that is a mistake, and a failing of God’s people.

More on that in a minute.  Now that I’ve alienated all of my conservative Christian readers, let me make clear my position that I firmly believe that homosexual activity is a sin and an abomination to God.  I’m not going to make a vigorous defense of my position here; It is abundantly clear in the Bible.  In fact, those who try to refute the Biblical assertion that homosexual activity is a sin only do so through  interpretive gymnastics that would break Gumby’s back.  To be clear:  this post is in no way condoning a homosexual lifestyle.

Homosexual activity is a sin (now I’ve most assuredly alienated those who support gay marriage), but there are many other sins out there; unfortunately conservatives have chosen to make this one their litmus test and their Waterloo.  Adultery is a sin; so is prostitution, alcohol abuse, lying, cheating on your taxes, and judging others.  All of these are affronts to God, but somehow we’ve made homosexuality the Asherah pole of our society, and committed all of our Christian resources to defeating gay marriage, or dying on the hill in the fight.  So, what would Jesus do?  Well, the Gospels are silent as to Jesus’ position on homosexual activity, but that is because 1st Century Judaism had no questions–it was a sin and an affront to God.  It is almost a sure thing that the issue never came up.  But, we can look at how Jesus dealt with other examples of sin to extrapolate a good idea how he would have approached the issue of homosexuality:

  • Adultery:  Jesus interceded on behalf of the adulterous woman, telling the judgmental crowd to have the sinless among them cast the first stone.  He then tells her that he doesn’t condemn her either, but “Go now and leave your life of sin.”  (John 8:1-11)
  • Prostitution:  Luke 7:36-50 tells of Jesus not only associating with a prostitute (not to be confused with having sexual relations with her), but he forgives her sins.
  • Alcohol abuse:  In John 2, Jesus’ first recorded miracle of turning water into wine.  This was a Jewish wedding feast–a multi-day party, where the host was praised for not bringing out the Mogen David once the guests were too drunk to know the difference.  The norm was that the host banked on the guests getting tanked up early, and took advantage of it by serving the cheap stuff once they were drunk, to save money.  Jesus didn’t condemn them, he gave them world-class wine!
  • Lying:  My personal favorite is how Jesus treated one of his closest friends, who not only lied three times, but in doing so, denied any connection with Jesus.  Jesus didn’t exclude him, he sought him out, forgave him, and restored the relationship. (John 18:25-27; 21:15-19)
  • Cheating on your taxes:  Tax collectors of his day were the ultimate tax cheats, but Jesus befriended one and brought him into his inner circle (Matthew), and famously ate dinner with another (Zaccheus).
  • Judging others:  Ok, this one goes a little differently.  Jesus was famously intolerant of those who judged others, particularly those who saw themselves as somehow superior, or favored by God, because of their observance of religious laws.  Instead, he spoke highly of those who sacrificially loved their fellow man, even when they had all rights to judge them negatively based on how their fellow man had treated them. (Luke 10:30-37)  An in-depth study of the Gospels will reveal that the only group that Jesus judges, speaks harshly to, or condemns, is the religious leaders who judge (and condemn) others.

These examples demonstrate Jesus’ approach to those who commit sins:  He loves them.  That doesn’t mean that he condones their sinful acts!  But he definitely does not chastise them, condemn them (with the noted exception of judgmental religious leaders), and tell them to get away from him, clean up their act, and then he will talk to them.  And we don’t do that in church with almost any other sin:  Can you imagine how much more abysmal church attendance would be if we said “don’t come through those doors until  you’ve given up your (personal sin issues)”?  Sinners were drawn to Jesus, despite their sin, because of his unconditional love–and in the process of encountering him, they rejected their sin and worshipped God!

The Church hasn’t taken this approach.  We’re trying to outlaw sin!  That’s not going to work, as it’s outside of temporal government’s jurisdiction.  Although we are desperately trying to give government jurisdiction in spiritual matters.  “Greg, you’re nuts!  We’re doing the exact opposite! We’re trying to get government OUT of spiritual matters” you say?  Well, to keep this post smaller than a book, let me give one example that’s directly on point:  Marriage.  Many conservative voices are stating that a Supreme Court ruling in support of gay marriage will “destroy traditional marriage.”  Really?  How can that be?  See, somewhere along the line we lost sight of the fact that GOD defines Christian marriage, not the government.  Marriage licenses in America are nothing more than an acknowledgement of a civil union of two people.  If GOD defines Christian marriage, then guess what?  SCOTUS, POTUS, and all the other USes can’t redefine it.  The problem is, the Church has lost sight of the fact that IT is the agency on earth that acknowledges the unity of one man and one woman in HOLY matrimony.  Those who claim a favorable ruling for gay marriage will destroy “traditional marriage” have just given that power to the State–the State doesn’t have it unless the Church abdicates it.

Here’s the real issue:  whether our litmus test is gay marriage, prayer in schools, or even abortion (a topic for another time–let’s just summarize with “I abhor it; I can’t even imagine how God feels about it”), we’ve failed miserably by trying to legislate Christian values–and it’s kicked our butt.  Instead of trying to make followers of God by creating laws that legislate morality and virtuous behavior (sound a little bit like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day?), let’s take the radical, revolutionary approach modeled by Jesus:  Unconditionally love ALL mankind!  Matthew 5:14-16 tells Christians that we are the “light of the world.”  Jesus uses the analogies of a city on a hill, or a lamp in a dark room.  These are warm, inviting lights.  Too many Christians have interpreted this to be searing lasers that we focus on the cockroaches hiding in the corners.  Jesus says “let your light shine before (not on) men, that they may see your good deeds (not religious works) and praise your father in heaven.”  When Americans look at the church today, they don’t see good deeds and praise God, they see judgmentalism and hatred, and reject what we have to offer.  The Barna Group conducted a landmark study of American perceptions toward Christianity.  A believable, but distressing finding:  “Today, the most common perception is that present-day Christianity is ‘anti-homosexual.’ Overall, 91% of young non-Christians and 80% of young churchgoers say this phrase describes Christianity.”

Now you know where I stand–so what?  First, let me say that this is a difficult place for me to be; I don’t stand here self-righteously judging all you who don’t measure up to my lofty piousness.  To be frank, it’s difficult for me to not have a visceral negative reaction when I see displays of same-sex attraction…  That means it gives me the willies.  That’s my 40+ years of conservative conditioning kicking in, and it’s hard for my spirit to overcome that.  But Jesus doesn’t want me to make everyone into conservatives, he wants me to show the world His love, so they seek His Father.  So I’ve got to deal with it.  Part of the way I deal with the heavy stuff, particularly the things I struggle with myself, is to write them here.  Writing helps me think it through, and more importantly, I now have to live it, or allow others to call me on my hypocrisy.  Further, I’m hoping that my Christian brothers and sisters can see that we’ve done more harm than good by making gay marriage our Waterloo.  It’s not.  We’re majoring in minors.  Satan doesn’t have to try to defeat the Church, he’s just sitting back and laughing while we alternate between killing off ourselves, and alienating the world from us to the point that we no longer have influence.  I know Satan loses in the end; but we’re certainly not contributing to Jesus’ cause right now; furthermore, we’re failing miserably in obeying his command to “go and make disciples”–we’re making enemies.

For my friends who don’t follow Jesus:  I’m sorry for the hateful, judgmental way I have treated you, and treated homosexuals in particular.  God doesn’t hate homosexuals any more than he hates bigoted judgmental asses like me.  He hates the sins we commit–all of them, not just those selected by the Moral Majority for special emphasis.  So when I judge someone else for their sin, he’s hating that action of mine.  It’s not my business to judge, or even point out your sin.  God judged the sins of the WORLD (including mine) 2000 years ago on a cross in Jerusalem.  They’re all forgiven–EVERY one of them–but you have to go to Him to receive that forgiveness.  Even when we don’t recognize something as sinful, God can help us see how he sees things, in his timing–the world today argues that homosexual acts are acceptable; it’s not my place to judge the actions of others; He’ll deal with that person one-on-one.  If I’ve judged you, or made you feel unaccepted by me, or by God, then I’ve sinned, and I ask your forgiveness.  And I’ll apologize for my Christian brothers and sisters too.  We’ve gotten a bad reputation (and for the most part we’ve earned it), as portraying ourselves as somehow better than those who don’t follow Jesus–it’s seen as self-righteousness.  Speaking for my brothers and sisters, we’re all screwed up, and left to our own devices, we’re no better than the rest of the world.  We’re trying to be better,  and God is helping us to grow every day, but some of us have a LOT of growing to do (me being a prime example).  But sometimes we still try to control things, and we end up making a mess and hurting others by trying to be God, or at least help him out.

In the next few days, the Supreme Court is going to rule on two landmark cases which may redefine what secular government defines as marriage.  No matter which way they rule, the Kingdom of God is still at hand, God is still on the throne, and NOTHING that he defines can be harmed in the least bit by any earthly government.  So what the heck are us Christians all tweaked about?  Let’s get about the business of shining our light, and pouring out God’s GRACE through us onto mankind, rather than dispensing our judgment.

A man, overwhelmed by the inexhaustible grace of God manifested in his own life, cannot help but to reject his sin, and sprint into the unconditional love God offers him (while we he was still a sinner).  I know.  It happened to me.