May 8, 2012
Andy Stanley, Al Mohler, and Homosexuality
Stanley gives a sermon about tension, and Mohler refuses to live in it.
Recently North Point Community Church's senior pastor Andy Stanley preached a sermon about the theological tension that is needed to live in the Way of the Christian faith. (Listen at North Point's website. The controversial section begins about 24 minutes in.) Well known conservative commentator and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Al Mohler, took offense to Stanley's non-mention of the sin of homosexuality in the sermon. Stanley illustrated a story of a wife, husband and daughter in his church—where the husband cheated with another man who eventually became his partner—and the journey for each of the participants. The reality of this family's new tension-filled dynamic illustrated for Stanley the tension between grace and truth in the Christian faith.
Stanley spent the majority of the sermon fleshing out his understanding of this tension by highlighting Jesus' changing response to sin through his words and deeds in the Gospel stories. Should sin be forgiven, or should a person be held accountable? Should we act harshly or be kind? Point a finger or ignore? As Stanley stated:
"We're all tempted to want to resolve that tension. But if you resolve it, you give up something important. It's what drove people crazy about Jesus. But he was comfortable with it. He was able to minister through it. And we dare not walk away from it."
It should not be a surprise that Mohler took a hardline stand against Stanley's nuanced message of tension.
Mohler's worldview leads him to take the role of a moral watchdog within Christendom to anchor and promote conservative social, theological, and political ethics in an ever-trending liberal Western society. "The larger culture has turned increasingly hostile to exclusivist truth claims such as the belief that faith in Christ is necessary for salvation," Mohler wrote in his post.
Using that filter I can grasp Mohler's point about sin not being mentioned in relation to the gay relationship in Stanley’s illustration. Mohler has the expectation that every time homosexuality is mentioned, “sin” must be reiterated (you know, just in case there are any doubts). Since the progressive and LGBT movements are at the crux of cultural trends opposing strong conservatives like Mohler, when one of his own doesn't unequivocally reaffirm his understanding of orthodoxy, even if that was not meant to be the point of the sermon, he must respond. In his mind, not taking this opportunity to label homosexuality sin leaves Stanley and other nondenominational megachurch pastors on the road toward liberalism. Yet my experience has shown Mohler's assumption of a “slippery slope” is a theology-based academic construct much more than a functioning real-life theology of engagement.
To suggest that Stanley was attempting to normalize homosexuality by not speaking of the sin of same-sex sexual acts, as Mohler suggested, is to miss the point of Stanley's sermon. Stanley focused on what it means to live in the tension of sin being present in the world and yet still follow as best as one can in the Way of Jesus. There is no better example of this in contemporary society than the complicated, broken, mixed family Stanley profiled—wife, boyfriend, daughter, ex-husband and his partner.
Stanley recounted how the wife made clear to her ex that she thought homosexuality was a sin; she even proactively kicked him out of North Point on behalf of Stanley (which he joked about). There was no doubt that the ex knew what the wife believed. Years later the wife started showing love in tangible ways to her ex and his partner through the grace of Jesus. This does not mean orthodoxy is thrown out the window. It means the wife, her daughter and Stanley in his message, were validating the tensions of very uncomfortable, confusing, inconsistent and messy realities.
There is a difference between concentrating on a “correct set of beliefs” and concentrating on how to live like Jesus, and love even one's estranged family, within one's orthodox theological framework.
At one point near the end of the sermon, Stanley mentioned the fear many of Jesus’ disciples had of reputations if Jesus continued to befriend tax gathers and sinners. Others would interpret this behavior as Jesus (and his disciples) accepting, affirming, and agreeing with the sinners. Unfortunately Mohler seems to be repeating the same fear-based approach. He, like Jesus’ disciples, found the tension unacceptable. But this is the tension that was at the center of Stanley's sermon:
"If someone has sinned against you and set you in a spiral ... you're not sure you'll ever recover from: (As Jesus modeled for us), the Truth is: ‘You're a sinner,’ and the Grace is: ‘I don't condemn you.’”
Stanley's message focused on the balance of truth and grace and how to live in relation to, and relationship with, the tension of others’ sins against you. So Molher's expectation of something different having to happen (e.g. naming the 'sin' of homosexuality) was completely sideways to the thrust of the 41-minute message.
"Truth will all of its painful ramifications, and grace with all of its healing power,” is how Stanley summarized it. It's about the pursuit of reconciliation in real time, in real life situations. Something Stanley was attempting to model for his congregation amidst the most culturally, theologically and politically divisive topic in contemporary society.
Andrew Marin is the President and Founder of The Marin Foundation, a public charity working to build bridges between the LGBT community and conservatives. He is the author of the award winning book Love Is an Orientation. You can find him on Facebook (facebook.com/marin.andrew) and Twitter (@Andrew_Marin).