What Does It Mean to Be a Prophetic Church?

What does it mean to be prophetic? The word is thrown around a lot, but depending on which circles you run in, it means something quite different. If you’re in the charismatic crowd, being prophetic means speaking the ‘now’ word of God— bringing ‘fresh revelation’, and possibly even doing it in a way that is spontaneous and disruptive to the plan or the schedule. But if you run with justice-oriented Christ-followers, being prophetic is being bold, confrontational, and possibly disruptive not to a plan but to an order, a societal framework. How could the same word have such different connotations? What can we recover from the Biblical roots of the prophetic role?

In the Old Testament, two words are used to describe the prophet. The earlier of the two is the word ro’eh, which roughly means, ‘the one who sees’. Later, the more common word used for a prophet is nabi, which can be loosely translated as, ‘the one who speaks’, particularly, on behalf of another.

A prophet is one who sees a different world, and says a different word.

Specifically, a prophet is able to speak a revealing word because he sees something others don’t, something hidden to others. This is why the woman at the well in John 4 called Jesus a prophet– he revealed the truth about the number of men who had married and abandoned her. And this is why Paul is a prophet– because the mystery of the Gospel has been revealed to him. If we bring all this together, we can outline a sketch of what it means to be a prophetic church.

A Prophetic Church…
1. Sees Jesus as King and His Kingdom arriving here and now.

One of the major themes in the Old Testament is that the Creator-God is the King of His Creation (many of the Psalms praise God in this way). When we read the first few chapters of the Bible through that lens, we begin to understand that human beings were created to reflect the wise and loving rule of God the Creator-King into His creation. This is what having ‘dominion’ means. Yet, the fall was a rebellion that forfeited that privilege.

Until…the True Adam came as the world’s True King. When Jesus announced His Kingdom mission in Luke 4, He quoted Isaiah 61, where the anointing of the Spirit is the empowerment to bring good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoner, and more. In Luke’s ‘Volume 2’— the Book of Acts— the Spirit is poured out on the Church so that this Kingdom mission can continue.

Paul argues through his letters in different ways that the Church participates in the Kingdom by confessing Jesus as ‘Lord’— the true sovereign of the world— and by living under His reign by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Church is at its prophetic best when it lives in a way the would make no sense unless Jesus is King, and His Kingdom really were arriving here and now. That is why a prophetic church does not divide up evangelism and miracles and justice. We see them as a threefold cord. A prophetic church announces the forgiveness of sins, healing for the sick, and justice for the oppressed in Jesus’ name.

2. Speaks the truth to power.

Our image of the prophet has to be shaped by the Old Testament’s regard for Moses as the greatest prophet in Israel. We don’t usually think of Moses as a prophet, but when we do, we understand that part of the prophetic call is speaking truth to power. In that light, Nathan’s rebuke of David and Elijah’s confrontation with Ahab and Jezebel all begin to make sense. Sometimes the prophet does the truth-telling through the voice of lament, as Jeremiah did.

Thus Jesus is prophetic not only because of His revealing the marriage history of the woman at the well, but also because of His confrontations with power. When Jesus overturned the tables of money-changers in the Temple, and when He defied Pilate— by reshaping his questions, refuting his claims to power, and even by refusing to answer— He was living out the prophetic vocation by speaking the truth to both religious and political powers. (Paul echoes these behaviors in his conversations with various religious and political rulers in the latter half of the Book of Acts.)

The early Christians were not killed because Christianity was a religion Rome did not like. Rome welcomed any and all religions, but they were particularly threatened by Christianity. Why? Because Christianity made a radical, new and exclusive claim: Jesus alone is the Lord of all, worthy of worship; all other gods must be renounced as false. Rome viewed this as a dangerous belief. And every time the Church gathered to worship, there were speaking the truth to power by confessing Jesus as the True Lord– using terms Caesar had applied to himself as political propaganda– and thus declaring the gods of Empire as false.

Every time we show the gods of our age to be false, and expose their claims as a lie, we are speaking the truth to power. We denounce the lie that economic prosperity is the source of joy, that sexual pleasure is the highest end of every relationship, that violence is the path to peace, that a people-group or nation matters more than another. Sometimes our voice is the voice of proclamation and confession; others it is the voice of lament. Both are forms of prophetic truth-telling.

3. Signposts toward the future.

Activism has many appealing qualities. It is better than doing nothing; it unites and mobilizes people toward a common cause. It can raise awareness and even adjust a widely-held cultural paradigm.

And yet, activism is not the same thing as being prophetic. The Church does not care for the poor or feed the hungry or speak for the marginalized for the same reason an activist does. They may be in the same march or use the same hashtag, but the Christian is motivated by something different than the activist. The Christian is not in this— ultimately— to create change or to solve problems. If this were so, then a Christian may weigh the odds of actually changing a situation before speaking up or acting. A Christian is driven to act and speak because she has seen a different future. Remember: a prophet says a different word because he sees a different world.

Every time the Church ‘welcomes the stranger’, forgives an enemy, shows mercy to the offender, or protects the vulnerable, we are a signpost to the future. We don’t do these things to be a good humanitarian or to solve a global crisis. We do it to point toward the day when the Kingdom comes in fullness, on earth as it is in heaven, when every tear will be wiped away, when suffering is no more.

Now more than ever, we need the Holy Spirit to help us live as a witness in the world of a different kind of King and a different kind of Kingdom, arriving on earth as it is in heaven. May God give us the grace to live as a prophetic Church.

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“Still”: A 5- Day Devotional

Earlier this year, Integrity Music release a 5-day devotional that I had written to accompany a wonderful new instrumental album called ‘Still‘ by a fabulous UK band called ‘Rivers & Robots’. (One of their other albums– ‘Eternal Son‘–  is always on in our home, thanks to a friend who gave it to me on vinyl, and to my son who can’t get enough of it!)

Anyway, when the devotionals first released, there was a problem with my voice– it was pitch-shifted lower by some sort of technological fluke. Instead of being soothing, it sounded like Kylo-Ren trying to feed you some propaganda. Well, all that is sorted now, and these sound much better. I hope they will bless you and provide you a little respite in this noisy and chaotic world.

DAY 1

 

DAY 2

 

DAY 3

 

DAY 4

 

DAY 5

The Currency of Christian Leadership

 

Where do leaders in churches and Christian ministries gain their authority to lead?

It is tempting to simply say, ‘From God!’ There is, of course, some truth to this. All authority ultimately comes from God, and Scripture tells us that all who occupy positions of official authority do so because God allows it.

And yet, there is more to the situation. Romans 13 refers specifically to government authority. What about the authority to lead the people of God? Is the model of spiritual leadership different from general organizational leadership? And even if we would say that it is, the question is where do we look for our model of spiritual leadership?

Over the years, I’ve heard church and ministry leaders protect their power by admonishing others not to “touch the Lord’s anointed”– which they took to mean never challenging their authority. They squashed dissent and took control by using the Lord’s name…quite nearly in vain. Strangely, all the Biblical justification they used for their right to power was based on an Old Testament model of leadership.

Not everything from the Old Testament is different in the New, but leadership underwent a severe overhaul. A leadership mentor insightfully pointed out to me almost ten years ago that in the Old Testament the man of God went up to the mountain of God to get the word of God and then came down and told the people of God what to do. Think, Moses.

But in the New Testament, we are together a Kingdom of Priests; each of us has access to God, and the Spirit of God living within. A Kingdom of Priests was God’s original intent; it was the people of Israel who were afraid and refused, begging Moses to go for them. This inclination to have someone else in charge surfaced generations later when they pleaded with God, “Give us a king!” God wanted to be their King, to have each of them follow Him. But they refused. Strong human leadership is easier; it’s more convenient, and far more efficient. Just put someone in charge and let him delegate authority down.

Consider how the New Testament church appointed leaders. 1 Timothy 3 contains the New Testament guidelines for elders and deacons. Here is just one line from the long list of qualifications, and this is one for deacons:

“A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and household well.” (1 Tim. 3:12, NIV)

Follow me for a minute: Who was the best and greatest king of Israel? No brainer– David. Every other king is measured against David. Because of God’s love for David, He wouldn’t punish Solomon for his sins during his own lifetime. Even the best of the kings of Judah that followed couldn’t hold a candle to David. He was the greatest.

Yet David would not meet this New Testament qualification to deaconship. What did deacons in the New Testament church do? Remember Acts 6? Deacons were appointed to wait on tables to help with the care of the widows. Wait a minute. You mean David would not have been allowed to wait on tables in the New Testament church? Yup.

The greatest leader in the Old Testament would not have qualified for the lowest position of leadership in the New Testament.

Why?

In the Old Testament, leaders got their authority to rule from “divine right”; in the New Testament, people get their authority to lead from earned trust. Every one of the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and even in Acts 6 when they chose the first 7 deacons has to do with trust. What kind of reputation do they have? Are they known for servanthood? Are they known for being people of wisdom, full of Spirit of God? Have they been tested? Do they have the abilities necessary? (Paul says specifically, “able to teach”.) He doesn’t ask if they’ve been prophesied over as children or if they have a calling on their lives or if they believe they are called to be a prophet to the nations or even if they’re anointed. He asks what sort of reputation they have. In essence, can they be trusted?

Trust is the currency of leadership in the New Testament era.

There are authority structures even in the New Testament church. It’s not spiritual anarchy. The church in Jerusalem was led by a council of elders, the head of which appears to be James. Authority is not a bad word. The question is how God wants to establish that authority publicly in the Church. From the examples in Acts and from Paul’s writings, the process seems to be as follows:

  1. God works in an individual’s life, giving gifts and the desire for leadership.     
  2. The individual gains the people’s trust by a servant’s heart, solid character, and by faithful and skilled service.
  3. The established leaders lay hands on him/her in front of the people, confirming his/her calling and setting him/her in office.

It is tragic irony that the Church so often resorts to an Old Testament leadership model, and not the one pioneered back in Jerusalem in the 1st century.

All authority comes from God; but leadership over others comes from the trust of the people.


How do leaders gain the trust of their people? More on that in Part 2 HERE.

The Trouble With Exodus

As the buzz would have it, there is much to find troubling about Ridley Scott‘s Exodus: Gods and Kings. Mainstream reviewers are bemoaning the lack of meaningful dialogue, the strangeness of God-as-an-11-year-old-boy, and even the racism in the casting. One critic, writing for OnFaith, suggested that the value of the movie is in the way it projects our discomfort onto the ancient story, giving voice through Pharaoh to a question we have longed to ask: “Is this your god? Killer of children?”

Yes, Exodus is troubling. And there is no ‘solving’ it. But we can at least locate it in the story the Bible tells. In a sense, the trouble with Exodus is that it is only Episode 1.

There are many ways to paint the arc of the Biblical narrative, but one way of seeing it as with Exodus as the beginning. After setting the backdrop of a good world that God made on purpose and with pleasure, the Bible shows us how everything began to fall apart at the seams. Humankind’s relationship with God began to fray, as did the male-female union. It’s not long before brother is killing brother, and by Noah’s day gangs of tribal violence are having the day. At Babel, society is fragmented. By Genesis 11, it seems that all that God has joined together, humans have torn asunder.

And then, God call Abram. And soon, there is a family—three generations with the call and covenant restated and reinforced. But this family finds themselves in trouble. Brothers once again are turning on one another and soon, they find themselves in Egypt. God meets them there, in this strange land, and for a season, they enjoy prosperity. It isn’t long, however, until Egypt began to oppress the foreigners and exploit them for their own gain. This is where the Exodus story begins.

Episode 1: God comes to save his people and judge their enemies.
This is the central theme of the Exodus: God hears the cry of his people, and God acts to save them and to judge their enemies. The killing of the firstborn male in Egypt is a symbolic act of striking down the strength of the enemy. Furthermore, it is a act that stops evil in its tracks. No offspring will carry this wickedness to another generation. It is God’s mighty “Thus far, and no more” announcement to the embodiment of evil and oppression in that day. As uncomfortable as this might be for post-modern sensibilities, even in our world, we have been confronted with evil so heinous we have no choice but to say, “This must be stopped.” There are people who need to be rescued; and there is evil that needs to be ended.

The Old Testament shows a God who offers little explanation for evil but plenty of action to limit and contain evil. Why this incomplete action? Stay tuned…

Episode 2: The people who need saving also deserve judging.
There were hints of this even with Abraham: his lying and his wife’s unbelief. There were foreshadows of the fracture when Jacob’s sons sold Joseph into slavery. But eventually, the seeds of discord bore the fruit of destruction. After the height of glory during Solomon’s reign, the nation splits in two. The succession of mostly wicked kings in the northern kingdom, Israel, lead to their doom at the hands of Assyria. But the southern kingdom falls some 200 years later at the hands of Babylon. God’s people need judging, and God isn’t afraid to use wicked nations to do it. 

Episode 3: The people who deserve judging also need saving.
The story doesn’t end with the realization that everyone has got it coming from God. After all, hadn’t God promised to use Abraham’s family to bless (i.e., ‘save’) all the families of the earth? Now that Abraham’s family had a share in the wickedness, would God scrap his project of creation and decide not to save anyone and to judge them all instead? The story of Jonah—among others—shows us a God who remains committed to saving all people, even the ones who were clearly ‘the enemy’. Ninevah is representative of all the empires who oppressed God’s people. And yet God sends a prophet to Ninevah.

It is at this point in the Old Testament that we find that things are more complicated then they seem. There aren’t simply ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’; God’s people and pagans. The people who need saving also deserve judging, and the people who deserve judgment also need saving. But how?

These three movements in the Old Testament bring the story to the edge of a cliff. Would God abandon his plan to save his world? Or would God forget his promise to do it through Abraham’s family? How can God judge even those he wants to save and save even those he needs to judge?

Enter, Jesus– the seed of Abraham and the representative of Israel; the everlasting God himself, come in the flesh at long last. In Jesus we see not only the faithfulness of God but also the wisdom of God. Jesus is the surprising, unexpected Episode 4.

In Jesus, YHWH comes to save and to judge. But Jesus accomplishes this in a most unexpected way. Jesus, the Gospel writers find many ways to tell us, is fully human and fully God– and thus he is the one doing the judging and the one receiving the judgment, the one doing the saving and the one being saved from death through resurrection. He is the warrior who conquers by losing, the Savior who rescues by dying. Jesus takes the weight of all that is evil and sinful and wrong in the world upon himself, standing in not simply for ‘Israel’ but also for ‘Rome’—not only the covenant people but also the enemies and outsiders.

Jesus saves and judges by taking the judgment upon himself.

And that is tremendous news.

So, as you watch the movie and read and re-read the Exodus story, it’s quite alright to be troubled. Just keep reading. It’s not the end. That’s the trouble with Exodus– it’s only Episode 1.

“Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me.”– Jesus.

The Problem With Our Critique of Modern Worship, Pt. 1

What are the repeated critiques you hear about modern worship?

It is so noisy.

And why is every bridge a monosyllabic chant? (eg. ‘whoa…oh oh…)

It looks too much like a concert.

The songs are so repetitive.

It’s too much about ‘me’.

I am sure there are more, but let’s just take these five. I will focus on the first three in this post, and on the last two in the next installment.

First, the critique of noise and the use of non-sensical, monosyllabic words.
I have combined the first two because both find very interesting parallels in ancient Israelite worship. Fuller Seminary’s Old Testament professor John Goldingay writes:

‘The onomatopoeic verb most commonly translated “praise”, halal…which lies behind that noun tehilla, suggests that praising means saying lalalala. The derived expression “hallelujah” is thus an [eruption] combining this verb with the short form of the name of Yhwh…’

Wait…so ancient Israelite praise was often an eruption of repetitive monosyllabic sounds? It gets better. Goldingay continues:

‘Alongside the formlessness of shouting and ululating that expresses the untamed and undomesticated fervor of praise is the form and order or music that also enhances praise as it channels and thus enhances that fervor…’

And what sort of musical accompaniment ‘enhances that fervor’? Why, a rhythmic noisiness, of course.

‘The key musical aspect to Israel’s praise is rhythm. We have little evidence of melody or harmony in Israelite music; the musical aspect to worship would likely not strike a Western person as very musical at all…

The function and nature of sound would thus resemble those of the crowd at a football game or the work of a rapper more than those of regular Christian worship.’

The parallels with ancient Israelite worship are not insignificant or incidental. I grew up in non-denominational, Pentecostal/Charismatic churches, and almost every teaching on worship I heard was rooted in the Old Testament: patterns of the Tabernacle of David and the Temple of Solomon, the stories about the Ark of the Covenant, the Hebrew words for praise, the Psalms, and on and on. This is not to say that there was no reflection given to what makes worship Christian. We understood how the three symbols/figures central to Israelite worship– temple, priest, and sacrifice– are fulfilled in Christ. And what’s more, we understood (if only dimly) that what is true of Christ is true of us: because He is the temple, the priest, and the sacrifice, we have become the temple, priests, and living sacrifices. The influence of Old Testament worship texts was not set in isolation from or in opposition to the New Testament or a Christological understanding of worship.

But it was set in opposition to personal preferences or cultural norms of ‘expressiveness’ (or lack thereof) and loudness. For instance, in many non-denominational worship settings– especially those of a Pentecostal or Charismatic persuasion– the congregation is exhorted to not stay silent but to ‘make a joyful noise’ or to ‘lift up a shout of praise’. Psalm 150 is read to encourage the use of any and all instruments–and by extension, the full range of musical creativity– to ‘let everything that has breath praise the Lord!’

While Goldingay notes that in some Calvinist traditions, music that overpowers the voice is problematic (as it was for Barth), for those steeped in ancient Israelite worship, the louder the better!

Goldingay states it strongly:

‘Its systematic insistence on noisesome worship issues the Psalter’s closing exhortation to intellectual and socially activist readers of the Psalms, reminding us that sharp thinking, heartfelt sincerity, moral integrity, joyful feelings, loving commitment, willing obedience and social involvement are not the only important things in the world…’

Where does this leave us? Perhaps it should chasten us from being too hasty in condemning a certain worship style or musical approach as being ‘unbiblical’…when what we really mean is that it doesn’t fit our culturally-conditioned mode of expression. (Would it be painting with too broad a brush to suggest that Western European approaches to music in worship favor a quieter, ‘accompaniment’ approach, while Eastern– and perhaps African– approaches to music accentuate rhythm and volume?)

Next, the critique about the resemblance to a rock concert.
For those loosely familiar with my work over the past few years, you know that I have challenged the church— at times quite sharply— to work more attentively to align the visual elements of a service (lights, stage, layout…even architecture, where possible) with the verbal elements. Too often we say it’s all about Jesus while the image magnification continues to put our worship teams in focus.

So, this critique has considerable merit.

And yet, we are too careless in applying it. See a church with lights? Ah, it must be a rock show. See a band front and center? They must be ego-maniacs. Yet it is not simply the presence of a cultural form in Christian worship that matters; it is how Christians inhabit that form.

There is a parallel here in Biblical studies. When a young bible student discovers that there were Babylonian stories of a ‘Job’-like character, he may be initially dismayed. Oh no. The Bible is not true after all. It is simply borrowing well known ancient myths and reworking them. But such a conclusion would be a mistake. For it is not simply the presence of the myth that matters; it is how the Israelite storytellers ‘inhabited’ that myth— how they made it their own and re-worked it. And the differences make all the difference. With Job, it matters greatly that YHWH speaks to Job, whereas the Babylonian god, Marduk, does not. YHWH is not simply transactional, giving back what was lost; YHWH is fiercely personal.

And so in worship services, we must not be lazy and look only for similarities between a church service and a rock concert. We must also pay attention to the differences.

Here’s an example. At a recent conference our church hosted, our worship team came out to lead after a well-produced, creative and inspiring video opener. Now, the genre of conference opening sessions says, “Open big! Capitalize on the excitement! Build the momentum!” To be sure, there is nothing evil about doing that. Yet, Jon Egan—my friend and the worship pastor at New Life Church— chose to subvert the script. They came on stage unspectacularly. Jon was hidden behind the other leaders playing a floor tom drum for the first song, a mid-tempo number with no added hype.

Think more deeply: What are the other elements of the ‘rock concert’ cultural form? A front man or woman, lights (focused on the lead singer), perhaps music that capitalizes on the emotion. But you know what our team did? There were six people across the front, and the darn thing about even numbers is no one becomes the center. When Jon— surely the one in everyone’s mind who should be the leader— finally did speak, we were four songs in and in a worshipful frame of mind. And during the song that he did lead, the lights all of sudden went dim, silhouetting the band, drawing our focus further upward on God.

Now, this is simply one example. You can think of others. And it does not solve all our problems with borrowing the rock concert form. But that’s the point: there is no easy way through this— no easy critiques and no easy defenses.

We must constantly wrestle when we borrow cultural forms; we must work intentionally and attentively to let all the elements— sight and sound and action— center on Christ and proclaim the Gospel.

But such carefully work won’t be the result of cheap critiques of modern worship.

[Goldingay’s quotes are from his ‘Old Testament Theology, Volume Three: Israel’s Life’, pp. 173-175.]

READ PART TWO HERE.

Is There a Difference Between Public Statements and Pastoral Exhortation?

[NOTE: This is a follow-up piece to my initial response to the reactions to Hillsong’s decision to decline making a public statement on ‘LGBT issues’. The first piece, ‘It’s Too easy to Dismiss Hillsong…and Miss Our Shared Problem’, can be found HERE.]

Well…Now that Pastor Brian Houston has made his position clear— via Paul’s letters, no less– the same writer at First Things (who suggested they were shifting) is concerned that we are making too much of the distinction between public statements and pastoral exhortation. Apparently, if we believe something we must say it every time we are asked, regardless of the setting.

This is worth exploring more.

Does the New Testament give ground for speaking differently to those who are followers of Jesus and those who aren’t?

Jesus reserved his strongest and clearest words for religious leaders and his own disciples– calling Pharisees ‘brood of vipers’ , telling Peter he was colluding with the devil, etc. But when pressed for specific answers, Jesus seem to evade Pilate: “What is truth?” he asked. Now, perhaps this is contextual: Jesus didn’t want to reveal His Messiah-ship to the greater public yet. But considering the amount of things to confront Roman rulers about, Jesus seemed strangely silent when on trial.

So, let’s go to the oft-cited John the Baptist’s confrontation of King Herod for his adultery. What is never said is that Herod was a Jewish king (a puppet king of Rome, but symbolically Jewish no less). John the Baptist does what a long line of Jewish prophets have done: speak the truth to power. And for this, he is beheaded– joining again the long tradition of Jewish prophets being persecuted for speaking the truth to power. But this is not a case of confronting a secular empire. Herod is confronted because he ought to know better; he comes from the chosen people of God. He is technically under covenant obligations. Caesar, on the other hand, is not. And so, I submit, neither Jesus nor John the Baptist confronted Caesar on ethical grounds. To be sure, Paul would challenged Rome on the claim of who the real ruler of the world was…but not on the basis of ethics.

Speaking of Paul. Much is made of how clear Paul was in 1 Corinthians. I agree. I preached through 1 Corinthians this year and tried to be as clear as Paul was in teaching the text. But the letter opens with these words: ‘To the church in Corinth…’ Not, ‘To everyone in Corinth…’ Paul isn’t broadcasting to the general public; he’s writing to a congregation he planted. And what did Paul lead off with when in public? Well, if his speech at Mars Hill is any indication, he tried to make a connection with their world and then draw a line to Jesus as the Messiah. Paul didn’t lead off with ethics; he opened with the core Gospel proclamation: Jesus is Lord!

To be sure, once you accept that Jesus is Lord, you will have to accept a new to live. And Christian ethics– as I have also made clear elsewhere— is not a collection of random rules, but the path to genuine human flourishing. I don’t disagree with the notion that Christian preaching must include Christian ethics, and specifically Christian sexual ethics. The question is one of sequence–which comes first?– and setting— where do we say what?

But for some Christians, this distinction doesn’t exist. It seems they want us to go randomly down the street telling perfect strangers that we don’t support gay marriage or aren’t for homosexual relationships.

OK, perhaps that’s a caricature of their argument. Sorry. The logic of the First Things piece is: If asked a clear question, give a clear answer, even– or especially– if it’s about Christian sexual ethics. I understand the desire for this. But again, I suggest that neither Jesus nor Paul gave the same answer or the same degree of clarity in every setting. Isn’t this what Paul meant when he said that he tries to be ‘all things to all men in order that he might win some’? Isn’t this what the poet Emily Dickinson says to us about telling the truth?

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

What is most troubling about the First Things piece is the use of fuzzy logic. It is a ploy– a ploy, if conscious, a trap if not– of bloggers to cite A (a true event or statement) next to B (a troubling trend or topic) and by placing them side by side insinuate that A is part of B, even if it is not. In this case, A = the statements made by Hillsong pastors in two press events; B = the troubling trend of pastors not preaching traditional (Pauline) Christian sexual ethics. And by placing Hillsong’s media statements in the context of Christian preaching, the reader is left with the impression that Hillsong is compromising, that they don’t preach the Bible, that they are embarrassed about the truth…and on and on. Not only is this sloppy thinking; it is pretty close to slandering our brothers and sisters.

Don’t confuse a media statement for a sermon; a press conference is not the same as preaching. Please: let’s not unfairly characterize another church’s preaching by what is said in a media setting.

I’m sure we will continue to wrestle with what should be said in public and how and why. But perhaps we can try to think a little more carefully about what the New Testament does or does not model.

It’s Too Easy To Dismiss Hillsong…and Miss Our Shared Problem

So, Hillsong declined to publicly declare a position on ‘LGBT issues’.

And the internet was awash with opinions. Some shook their heads in disappointment, because, after all, ‘the Bible is clear’. Others smugly remarked that we shouldn’t expect much from this ‘culturally accommodating’ brand of Christianity. I find neither response particularly helpful or accurate.

First, the response of certainty: ‘A non-answer is an answer.’

I understand this response, and there is some truth to it: a non-answer is indeed an answer.

But it is not saying as much as we might think it is. It does not, for example, (necessarily) mean a ‘shift’ in position. It may simply be a statement about what the church’s mission is: to announce Christ in the pluralistic public square, and to challenge Christians more specifically once they are in the community.

I didn’t read their response as fudging on the what of Christian morality but rather as a statement about the where, when and to whom. Is it the Church’s role to announce ‘positions’ on issues to the public? Or is that tendency a leftover from Christendom– the era where we were gladly the power-brokers of society, blessing presidents and wars and condemning movies and rock stars? The Church is not a government agency; we need not announce ‘policy’ to the public.

Furthermore, there is something fundamentally wrong with thinking about this as an “LGBT issue.” I read with tears an email from a congregant who thanked me for our clear yet tender conversation about homosexuality. It was the first time he felt dignified as a person. Not an issue or an agenda. If we think of this as an “LGBT issue” or a “gay agenda”, then we will rush to announce policies and positions. But if we remember that we talking with and to people– living, breathing, holy, created beings– then we will be careful to have these conversations in pastoral contexts, not in press conferences.

Secondly, the response of smugness: ‘What did we expect from Hillsong?”

If you’re looking to bag Hillsong, you don’t have to work too hard. Criticism from afar is all too easy. The lights. The arenas packed with the young and beautiful. The upcoming movie. But all these critiques are cheap. And wrong.

Today, Hillsong was accused of ‘accommodating culture’, with the not-so-subtle insinuation that this was why they have attracted such large crowds. But I wonder if the people who wrote those critiques have ever been to Hillsong. I wonder if they’ve ever listened to a sermon. I wonder if they realize that they (likely) sing Hillsongs’ songs in their own churches on Sundays. I wonder if they know that one of the biggest new songs on Hillsong’s latest album is one based on the Apostles’ Creed— written humbly in response to a challenge from an outside denominational leader.

I know how easy it is to form an opinion or to cast doubt on a group of people by what you observe from the outside. I know because I’ve done it. But it’s wrong. From an academic standpoint, it’s irresponsible sociological analysis. From a pastoral standpoint, it reeks of the ‘older brother’ all too willing to see another’s faults exposed. And from a Christian standpoint, well…

Let’s look in the log in our own eye. 

Let’s do some theological reflection for a moment. One of the more controversial statements in Merritt’s article was from Carl Lentz’s wife, who said that it isn’t our job to tell people how to live. Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and say that by ‘people’ she meant people outside their church.

But what if she didn’t? What if she meant that as pastors it wasn’t their job to teach their congregation how to live? Now, this would be extraordinarily troubling. But it would say more about us— all of us as modern, Western, Protestant, non-denominational Christians– than it would about Hillsong. Let me explain.

What makes it possible to say that it isn’t our job to tell anyone how to live? I submit it is the fruit of seeds many of us have participated in sowing:

  • We have perpetuated an individualistic view of salvation that allows an individual to ‘be on their own journey’– and the Church ought to be silent while they’re on it.
  • We changed the purpose of a church gathering from worship— with the historic ‘four-fold ordo’ or at least the ‘two-fold shape’ of Word and Table– to evangelism, modeling it after the Frontier Revivals– a warm-up, a sermon, and an altar call. If the church gathering is more about mission than formation, why wouldn’t we end up abdicating our role to instruct fellow Christians on a new way to live?
  • We have sent out church planters with little to no sense of ecclesiality (what makes a church a church) or covering or authority, leaving them to give ecclesial authority only to those ‘who are doing it better than us’– which, in short, means those with bigger churches.
  • We have created such a hard (and false) dichotomy between ‘law’ and ‘gospel’ that we have no place for actual moral instruction. All teaching on how we ought to live is too often reduced to ‘law’ and therefore dismissed as ‘legalism’. By misunderstanding grace to be a sort of spiritual autonomy instead of the power that makes us new and helps us live in a new way, we have side-lined any notion of ethics.
  • We have not said enough about the thoroughly biblical notion that the commandments are meant to give us life, that Jesus has a way for us to live that leads us to true human flourishing, that ‘Christian ethics’ is really an invitation to be fully and truly human.

You see, it’s too easy to scapegoat Hillsong and miss the larger problem we all share. We would do better to address our participation in an anemic or flawed soteriology and ecclessiology– the log in our own eye!– than to waste another minute dismissing a church we don’t really know.

UPDATE: I wrote a follow-up piece on whether we should make a distinction between public statements and pastoral exhortations HERE.