Losing my religion

Perusing the blogosphere I came across an article by Alexander Griswold entitled Andy Stanley’s Troubling New Sermon. Based on some of the quotes I’d hoped that the article wasn’t entirely accurate but a friend informed me that AS considered the article a fair review. I had to hear it for myself.

The sermon was the 4th in a 5-part series that aimed at explaining why God would become a man. According to Stanley, one reason God became a man was to “put religion in its place.” The sermon assumes that (i) religion aims to answer life’s big questions & bring certainty in an uncertain world but that (ii) religion can’t bear the weight of real life which is messy & unorganized which is why (iii) Jesus consistently prioritized people over His own religion; He never let theology get in the way of ministry.

Sadly, the positives of the message are undermined by a forced reading of Scripture that sounds more like personal projection than principled exposition.

Stanley’s takeaway—when you don’t know what to do, do what love requires of you—is a bona fide biblical principle (Mat 22:26-40; Gal 5:14). But to put the pithy into practice we’re told that unless we choose love over religion mercy will suffer and we’ll become mad, self-righteous hypocrites. Don’t think so? Take a look at history and see what religion (a.k.a. theology, a.k.a. values, a.k.a. convictions) has brought us–child sacrifices, the crusades, and the crucifixion.

So while the spirit of the message rings true, the content misses the mark in significant ways:

1) religion w/out class – From the start it’s taken for granted that all religion is equal. But Scripture distinguishes two kinds of religion (and two kinds of righteousness, and two kinds of faith, etc.):

James 1:26-27 {NAS}   If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

The possibility that all religions might not be equal never seems to be considered. As such, the dichotomy between love and religion is dangerous and unwarranted. Rather than pit religion/theology against love the church is better off confessing that the goal of our doctrine is love (1Tim 1:5).

2) misinterpreting the Pharisees – Stanley claims that “both Jesus and the religious leaders believed the Law of Moses was important and [they] believed people were important . . . What they argued over was how you prioritize these values.” But is this characterization accurate? Did Jesus and His eventual murderers agree on theology but differ in their priorities? Jesus didn’t think so:

Mark 7:8-13 {NAS}  8Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” 9 He was also saying to them, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. 10 “For Moses said, ‘HONOR YOUR FATHER AND YOUR MOTHER’; and, ‘HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF FATHER OR MOTHER, IS TO BE PUT TO DEATH’; 11 but you say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, whatever I have that would help you is Corban (that is to say, given to God),’ 12 you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother; 13 thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that.”

The problem with the Pharisees wasn’t their religion’s priority but its purity. The religious leaders manifestly did not share Jesus’ theology nor did they argue over “how to prioritize” it. Theirs was an ignorant theology (Jn 5:46-47; Rom 10:2).

3) an (unre)strained analogy – A key element to Stanley’s argument is a parenting analogy. Drawing on personal experience he asserts the following:

Great parents set rules and then when it’s appropriate and they feel like it is in the best interest of their children they break their own rules.

-and-

Great parents decide that their children are more important than the laws that the parents set . . .And God is a perfect heavenly father.

So when we reflect on the fact that parents go back on their word and change the rules we should consider that “That’s what good parents do. That’s what your heavenly father does.”

Yikes.

In this portion of the sermon it sounds as if Scripture is made to serve the analogy. Specifically, the biblical limitations of the analogy appear to be ignored. Would an omniscient parent ever need to go back on his word because he discovers new information (Psa 139:1-6; Isa 46:10)? Would a parent who decrees perfect laws ever need to change the laws for the good of his children (Psa 19:7)?

Scripture is replete with divine-human analogies but we’re never led to believe that God is like us in every way, no matter what the point of comparison is. Consider, for example, the way(s) in which God is both like and unlike us in parental discipline:

Hebrews 12:9-10 {NAS}  Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live?  10 For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness.

The point is that even a biblical analogy is not without caveats. Failing to acknowledge this means that we may make God more to our liking by making Him more in our likeness.

4) missing the point of the cross – Last but certainly not least I couldn’t help but wonder if Stanley thought through the implications of his sermon for our doctrine of the cross. In the conclusion of his message he claimed that “Jesus didn’t even die for sin; Jesus died for sinners.” Intentions notwithstanding, this statement is either extremely careless or very misleading. Taken at face value the claim flies in the face of Scripture:

1 Corinthians 15:3 {NAS} …Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures . . .

Galatians 1:4 who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father . . .

Hebrews 5:1 For every high priest taken from among men is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God, in order to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins . . .

But even if we were to ignore these passages (and others like them) we would still be left with a rather awkward question: If not for sin, why did Jesus die? To respond “He died for us” begs the question. Why should He die for us? By Stanley’s own logic Jesus’ death is unnecessary since a glorified parent-God can just set aside His own law. As such the greatest demonstration of the priority of people over law would be a unilateral declaration of amnesty. Sinners could be forgiven and Jesus could fore-go the cross.

What shall we say then?

I know that not everything can be said in a single sermon. I know that all pastors have moments when they wish they could rephrase if not retract an utterance here or there. Maybe the counter-balance to this sermon is already in the works. Maybe a qualification or correction will be published soon. Until that time, I think Griswold was right–this is a troubling sermon.

 

 

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Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Associate pastor for education at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian and theological Luddite. A student of one book.

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