Hillsong, Homosexuality and the Half-Gospel
Broadway actors Josh Canfield and Reed Kelly were key members of the New York campus of Hillsong Church, with Canfield serving as a choir director and Kelly hosting a “connect group” for Hillsong members. According to Christian Today, the pair made no bones about their homosexual relationship and plans to be married next year: “We have been open and forthright about our relationship from the get-go,” said Kelly.
The Hillsong brass signaled in response that it holds to a biblical position on homosexuality. Brian Houston, founding pastor of the Sydney-based megachurch, said, “It is my understanding that they have not been involved in an active leadership or ministry role since. That said, we still love them and acknowledge that they — like all of us — are on a journey, and our role as a church is to assist them on this journey with grace and compassion.”
The church wants “LGBT people to feel welcome — with limits,” reports Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Service. “They are welcome to attend, worship, even participate as members. They are eligible to serve in some roles, but not others. Josh and Reed, for example, can sing in the choir, but would not be eligible to direct it. Houston even called Hillsong ‘a gay-welcoming church’ in a statement on the ordeal.”
By allowing Kelly and Canfield to live as a gay couple for some time and continue to be members of the church, Hillsong has failed to offer them the true gospel. Here is the irony: churches that preach a half-gospel think that they are acting in hope. They think that lost people will benefit immeasurably from their quieter, tamer message. “Just choose Jesus,” goes the line, “and you can sort out the rest later.” In this formulation, commitment comes first; life-change happens later. Or not.
This sounds like Christianity, but it is not. It may seem loving for a church to affirm such behavior, but in reality, this affirmation — of whatever form — is profoundly unloving. We taste the love of God when by the grace of God we keep his commandments (John 14:15, 23). Any other kind of love conditioned by any other kind of practice is a counterfeit.
These comments do not target one sin or another. There is one condition, lostness, and one solution, Christ. Every sinner of every kind needs, more desperately than they know, the transformative love of God. Outside of the receipt of this love, we are all equally estranged and hopeless. The only way to overcome this terrible plight is to repent and trust Jesus (John 1:12-13).
Many modern churches, including many megachurches, have done away with “behavior modification.” They don’t want Christianity to merely make people better citizens. They want an “authentic, living relationship” with God for their people. But they have unwittingly created a new kind of behavior modification. We could call it situational redirection. They still preach about Jesus, but the blast radius of faith has shrunk. You say you’re a Christian, but you are not transformed. The blood-path that Abraham walked has been cleaned up and scrubbed down. Now you check a box for Jesus, attend some services, and live your broken, messy, un-overhauled life.
Some might say, “Why are you being so hard on Hillsong? They’re in New York — do you have any clue how hard it is to reach people in that city? You have to bring them along a step at a time.” It is quite true that, following conversion, every one of us must die to sin over the whole course of our lives. Until we die, Christ walks with us, continually forgiving us as we, despite every motivation and incentive to the contrary, sin against him.
But there is no special spiritual program for megacities. There is no unique gospel for the theater community, or the athletic world, or the political superclass. There is not one message for food critics and another for plumbers. There is one Lord and one baptism. To argue otherwise is to miss the significance of Paul’s message to the Corinthians. Corinth was an enhanced New York, a city shot through with iniquity. It celebrated sexual license and encouraged people to find their identity in their depravity.
Paul would have none of it. “Such were some of you,” he reminds his struggling friends. “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9-11). If ever there was a climate for “spiritual gradualism,” Corinth was it. Paul shows us that there is no mushy middle of spiritual half-transformation.
The message of Christ has not changed. He doesn’t offer us the half-gospel of commitment first, transformation later (maybe). There is just one thing that is necessary: for us to preach Christ, proclaiming the whole gospel, and then to watch as God overcomes the sins that we swear we cannot lose. This work only God can do. And he will.
Owen Strachan tells the story of Chuck Colson’s conversion in his new book The Colson Way: Loving Your Neighbor and Living with Faith in a Hostile World (Thomas Nelson, 2015).