Hillsong & Evangelicalism’s Future
Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Service notes that at the conference of Hillsong, the international Evangelical megachurch, its leaders declined to defend Biblical teaching on homosexuality. When a NYT reporter asked leader Brian Houston to clarify the church’s position on same-sex marriage, this is what happened:
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, 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.
If the leaders of Hillsong, one of the most influential evangelical ministry conglomerates in the world, refuse to draw lines on these issues, it could influence other churches and pastors to reconsider their own positions.
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.
Of course not. But what is to be done? Earlier, Walker wrote that Evangelicals who want to compromise Christian witness on marriage in favor of a radical position that no Christian had ever endorsed in nearly 2,000 years of the Church’s existence is cowardly. But he added something interesting:
Today, a spirit similar to that of early twentieth Fundamentalism is encountering revival. It preaches “peace” in overtones of cultural withdrawal. It seeks “love” by way of “pluralism” only to adopt foreign interpretations and incoherent social policies. Love and pluralism are, of course, good things in our diverse society, but not when it leads to the abandonment of sound theology and the adoption of unloving policies. This is a gentrified fundamentalism. This fundamentalism seeks compromise in the name of social detente.
I want to say something here about the Benedict Option, which advocates for a kind of strategic withdrawal. The point of the Benedict Option is not to seek peace with the Zeitgeist. It is to recognize that the cultural currents in which we Christians move are so strong today that we have to build a stronger identity, and thicker ties to our historical theology and to each other, if we are going to ride this thing out. I don’t seek compromise at all, much less social detente. Our opponents are never going to give us this, so as a matter of survival, we have to figure out how to build resilience and cultural resistance into ourselves and our little platoons. That’s very different from what Walker describes.
The Southern Baptist theologian Al Mohler sees the stakes clearly, in his column about a (disfellowshipped) Southern Baptist pastor who said he seeks a “Third Way” on LGBT issues. Mohler:
The church eventually split over the issue, with those remaining declaring their intention to affirm their pastor and to become a “Third Way church” that allows for disagreement on the question of the sinfulness of homosexual acts and same-sex marriage.
But, as I argued at the time, there is no third way. A church or denomination will either believe and teach that same-sex behaviors and relationships are sinful, or it will affirm them. In short order, every single congregation in America will face the same decision — do we affirm same-sex relationships or not? Those who suggest that there is some way around this “binary” choice are fooling themselves and confusing the church.
Consider this — the only way to construct a “third way” is to suggest that one can allow for the affirmation of homosexuality without affirming it. That simply does not work. To allow the affirmation is to affirm.
This was the sad lesson learned by conservatives in the Church of England on the question of woman priests. The “third way” presented then to the Church of England promised that those who believed that women should not be priests could coexist within the church with those who affirmed that women should be priests. The problem is that the church had to decide who would be priests, and they decided for the ordination of women. Thus, the “third way” was just an argument to get to the eventual goal that the church would have women priests.
The third way disappears very quickly when the church has to decide if it will recognize or celebrate a same-sex marriage. There is no third way when that decision arrives, and there are limitless decisions that will eventually have to be made.
As I wrote this past summer, whether you like it or not, sex — and specifically, homosexuality — is the great divide on which American churches are separating. There cannot be a third way. As Evangelicals Al Mohler and Andrew Walker rightly see, those congregations that now believe the traditional teaching is optional will soon make it anathema (Neuhaus’s Law: Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.)
Every one of us Christians will have to make that decision. It may be painful, but it is also unavoidable. There is no Third Way.
What does Evangelical self-loathing on college campuses have to do with this? A lot, I’d say, but my guess is that we’re not going to accumulate real evidence of this for another decade or so.