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.