Update: Hillsong: We Haven’t Shifted After All

Religion, and maybe Ebola, owned the news this week. From the confusion and public relations nightmare at the Vatican over the Synod’s Relatio, to the Caesarism of Annise Parker and the City of Houston subpoenaing sermons from pastors, it has been a busy week for the religion beat.

Then yesterday, coverage about a Hillsong press conference came out, indicating that the global evangelical enterprise is triangulating on homosexuality, particularly about whether it should publicly hold what the Bible teaches in light of culture’s rapid change on the subject. According to Jonathan Merritt,

At a press conference for the Hillsong Conference in New York City today, Michael Paulson of The New York Times asked Houston to clarify their church’s position on same sex marriage. But Houston would not offer a definitive answer, instead saying that it was “an ongoing conversation” among church leaders and they were “on the journey with it.”

Houston says that he considers three things when evaluating the topic: “There’s the world we live in, there’s the weight we live with, and there’s the word we live by.”

He notes that the Western world is shifting its thinking on this issue, and churches are struggling to stay relevant. The weight we live in (sic), he added, refers to a context where LGBT young people may feel rejected or shunned by churches, often leading to depression and suicide. But when Houston began speaking about the word we live by or “what the Bible says,” he refused to offer a concrete position.

Merritt’s reporting also quotes this gem: “Lentz’s wife, Laura, chimed in: “It’s not our place to tell anyone how they should live. That’s their journey.”

What do we say about this?

First, if I were writing the Art of Cultural War, this is the strategy I’d use to bring the opposing side to heel. The steps look something like this: Relativize the issue with other issues. Be uncertain about the issue. Refuse to speak publicly on the issue. Be indifferent toward the issue. Accept the issue. Affirm the issue. Require the issue. Hillsong is currently on step three. I don’t think they’ll stay there.

Second, 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. Perhaps Hillsong would rather abide by a “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell” policy on matters of orthodoxy. That’s their prerogative. But let’s be clear that this is not the route of faithfulness.

Third, this isn’t an issue over whether gays and lesbians should or should not be welcomed in church. This also isn’t an issue over whether young individuals within the LGBT community have faced bullying. Bullying of all sorts is deplorable and should be condemned, and not because the Human Rights Campaign says so, but because Jesus says so (Matthew 7:12). What this issue is about is whether the church models faithful obedience to Christ in a way that both honors Scripture and loves its neighbor. Hillsong thinks it’s doing both; but is actually doing neither.

Fourth, Hillsong thinks itself a contemporary and culturally relevant church. Perhaps it is. But as Christians, we don’t get to define what “relevant” means in terms that are unquestioning of what our culture means by “relevant.” I submit that Hillsong is a church in retreat. A church in retreat doesn’t give answers. It doesn’t storm the gates of Hell. It settles and makes peace where there is no peace (Ezekiel 13:10). 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.

This is, as I’ve written elsewhere, a gentrified fundamentalist withdrawal rooted in the belief that the foreignness of Christianity can’t overcome the tired intellectual patterns of cultural decay. At the end of the day, I think Hillsong’s non-answer answer is rooted in an embarrassment about what the Bible teaches and the church has held since the time of Jesus. The good news is that the truth of Christianity outlasts the untruths of man’s applause.

When I read stuff like this, my reaction isn’t anger. It’s an eye-roll. Churches should know better than to believe the myth that accommodation will swell their ranks. The opposite happens. 

Following the Apostle Peter, this all means that judgment begins within the household of God, so I’m not writing for outsiders. I’m writing for the church, to the church. I’m writing about Hillsong, a church or enterprise with enormous global influence. What I see, tragically, isn’t a church grappling with a complex issue. What I see is a church exchanging compassion for cowardliness before culture’s consistory.

Articles by Andrew Walker

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