Hillsong, Homosexuality and the Half-Gospel

This file photo features Hillsong UNITED members Joel Houston and Taya Smith performing at the 2nd Annual KLOVE Fan Awards at the Grand Ole Opry House on June 1, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee.

By Owen Strachan Published on August 12, 2015

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).

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  • Rafe Andersen

    Thank you for this article on the ordeal, Dr. Strachan.

  • James Brown

    OWEN, the modern Laodicean Church despises you.- I read it on the “discernment blogs” regularly.

  • Jimmy Shnebby

    It’s pretty easy to write a blog about people that you don’t know, in a church you’ve never been to, led by a Pastor you haven’t talked with isn’t it? It’s also pretty easy to assume what the leadership of that church is or isn’t saying to the people you do not know, in the church you’ve never been a part of.
    Why add to the noise of our day by writing an opinion piece on what other church leadership should be doing based on a couple of reports you read on the internet?

    • rdrift1879

      Jimmy, it appears that Hillsong itself is saying that repentance is not required for membership. Are you saying that is not the case?

      • Jimmy Shnebby

        There are lots of things that ‘appear’ a certain way. I certainly wouldn’t write what Owen did based on appearances. I don’t think it’s helpful. In full transparency I’m just tired at people that have a ‘platform’ of some sort taking shots at each other via the internet when they don’t actually even know the other person or people involved and are just basing their judgement on appearances. John 7:24 comes to mind.

    • Sir it is the internet age and with some responsible research it IS easy to to do all the thing s you have said. The public statements are more than sufficient for the conclusions that Owen brings here. (yes, I know what I am talking about) This piece is entirely biblical and I respectfully challenge you to demonstrate otherwise from scripture. If not, yours is merely the self exalting wisdom of man and must be dismissed as such.

      • Jimmy Shnebby

        I full agree that it is the internet age Greg and that’s my issue. Owen hasn’t had a conversation with anyone involved but is basing his opinion on fragmented bits of info that are on the internet. Anyone with a blog can weigh in on any issue but the reality is that things are always more nuanced then you or I know. No amount of blogs, wikipedia articles, or tweets will suffice for understanding the nuances involved without knowing and talking to the people this issue actually involves. Owen is simply adding to the noise of the internet and weighing in on an issue that frankly he has no right to weigh in on any more than I could comment on your marriage if someone wrote a blog about it. I’d point to Jesus words John 7:24 and say that all Owen is really doing is judging by appearances and his best guess about how things are being dealt with.

        • This is crystal clear Jimmy. There is no confusion or noise. The evidence is incontrovertible. Nuance is for post modern pagans.

          You need to let God screw your head on straight and get those neo emergent cobwebs outta yer brain.

          Owen, among many others, has done the church a service. Hillsong is a flaky liberal caricature of the church of the New Testament.

          • Jimmy Shnebby

            And you’re doing exactly what Owen did. Labeling me as a ‘neo emergent ‘ (whatever that even means) without knowing anything about me other then an internet comment. If you this is what you call incontrovertible evidence then I can only imagine what other assumptions you hold as truth.

        • hey! dude!

          so please explain why taya smith is wearing a new world order tshirt live on tv?

    • hey! dude!

      you dont need to attend the church or meet brian houston, youtube more than makes up for that, hillsoosng has some beautiful songs but has thousands of youth placing style over substance – they are being misled by their money hungry leadership

      • Jim S.

        Do they really or is that just your perception? Just like this article – written two year ago now – there is a lot of false perception based on ZERO relationship with leaders and members.

  • Salty Earth

    That 1 Corinthians verse is in regards to our eternal spiritual union with Christ, it means that we can find our identity in Christ and not in the values that those sins promised. It does not mean that we no longer struggle in the temporal realm.

    Being a Christian shouldn’t be about a focus on sin-avoidance but in showing God’s grace to the world by our weakness.

    “Until we die, Christ walks with us, continually forgiving us as we, despite every motivation and incentive to the contrary, sin against him.”

    Not entirely true, Christ doesn’t “walk” with us, he is our life, it is no longer us who lives, but Christ who lives in us. He does not continually forgive- he forgave and took the wrath for all past present and future believers’ sins on the cross- when he said “it is finished” on the cross, he meant that the wrath of all believers’ sins for all time had been paid for.

    “The message of Christ has not changed. He doesn’t offer us the half-gospel of commitment first, transformation later (maybe).”

    Also not entirely true, transformation from a dead spirit to an alive spirit happens before commitment, and sanctification and justification are the result of the commitment. Sanctified and Justified are our positional stance and happens instantly upon belief. Technically it’s all instant but the order is rebirth(regeneration)-commitment(conversion)-justification-sanctification

    The struggle that remains between flesh and spirit is due to the fact that our new spirit is temporally inside our fleshly bodies. The ultimate sanctification of the body happens upon death so there is no more struggle.

  • Stephen

    Or could it be that Hillsong are teaching the whole Gospel, whereas some christians are selectively adding extra conditions to the Gospel? – ie. creating one-and-a-half Gospel: To condem homosexual relationships some are in effect trying to claim that the rule in Leviticus 20:13 is part of the gospel? while for example completely ignoring Leviticus 20:18? Leviticus 20:22 says “Keep all…” not just some. Is obeying the laws in Leviticus 20 really part of the Gospel?

  • Stephen

    Also Romans 2:1 makes a strong point: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”, which refers to things in Romans 1.

  • howard bell

    This is about “Churchianity” which has or nothing to do with Christianity.

  • millers3888

    Cause we all know the only people sitting in Church that openly shrug off sin, it’s those darn gays…

  • Maria

    This article is very disappointing. I have been to Hillsong NYC and lwatch online Hillsong Australia…there is no half gospel being preached there. I believe they did the right thing with this homosexual couple. If Hillsong did what this article suggests, it would have turned this couple COMPLETELY away from God and they may not walk into a church for the rest of their lives. I cannot stand when brothers and sisters in Christ attack like this on social media. There is no perfect church and we know this because each of us have walked through the door.

    There are alot of people who have surrendered their lives to Christ in the midst of their sin. It has taken their surrender and submission to allow God to show them the error in their thinking. I got saved in 1992 and didnt pick up the bible until 1997. Gods sweet slow gentleness of peeling me like an onion one layer at a time, got me free from serious sin. God has to get to the root of our sin. This couple is still attending church? I am so grateful they didnt leave. I think Jesus can handle this. How about taking the log out of your own eye so you can see clearly and write the next article with Jesus as the editor.

    • Liz Litts

      Whoa–hold it–God calls us to repentance-and when someone claims to be following Christ but still insists on openly fluanting their sin–all bets are off. Remember that Jesus said . “a little leaven levens the whole lump”. It’s good to welcome sinners-that is what we are for–but we do not show love if we keep letting them sin–no matter what the sin is. There was a time in my life when I wanted to have it both ways–I wanted to run the bars on Saturday night and roll out of bed on Sunday and expected everyone to ‘love ‘ me and not challenge me to change. I have to be truthful-I was also dragging other people down and hurting their walk with the Lord. I was finally told to leave until I repented and turned from my behaviour–Yeah I was upset–and I vowed never to come back to church—that was the best thing that ever happened to me. I had plenty of brothers and sisters praying for me-but at the same time they followed the model put out by Paul–and sepriated themselves from me for a time. In the meanwhile, God dealt with me and I came back into realtionship with him-and eventually my church family. I was shown ‘love’ by being confronted with my sin and my hard rebellious heart. We don’t ‘Love’ if we let people go on sinning any more than we ‘love’ our kids by letting them play in the street or don’t make them mind because we are afraid that they will be ‘offended’ There is a time when we have to ‘shake the dust from out feet’ if people insisit on their own way and try to attach God’s name to it. Welcome them back later-after God has corrected them–but if they don’t come back that is between them and the Lord. The truth is the truth –does not matter if we like it or not!

      • We have a winner boys n girls. Very good Liz.

    • hey! dude!

      your reply indicates you have already begun to succumb to the hillsong candyfloss-coated Gospel

  • Liz Litts

    Did I miss something here? It was my understanding that Brian disiplined the leaders of the NYC church and removed these two from the church all together–Did I get this wrong?

  • millers3888

    Such hate Strachan. God shakes his head at you.

    • How do you know what God shakes His head at sir?

    • hey! dude!

      please, leave it out, Jesus. spokeh, He wasnt some kind of self-righteous social justice wwrior, which is exactly what you sound like

  • Josh

    Because when we get to Heaven, the first words out of God’s mouth will be, “Are you gay or straight?”

    • hey! dude!

      err no, i dont think so, His Word will be minimal, ‘I never knew you. Depart from Me.’ or Welcome My good and failthful servant!’my guess is you have not repented before Him. do so while there is still time, while His hand is still extended

  • Lane Delano

    I don’t have enough info to opine on your overall post, but I am curious how you make the connection between “We taste the love of God when by the grace of God we keep his commandments” and (John 14:15, 23). I find this sentence beautiful and reflective of my walk with God, but when I read John 14 I don’t see the connection to grace. I do see the connection between keeping the commandments and communing with God.

    I may have read too much into your sentence not knowing what you mean specifically when you write “by the grace of God”. Do you mean divine help or something more akin to luck/escaping? Are you saying, “We taste the love of God when with divine help we keep his commandments” or “We taste the love of God when we get a little lucky/blessed and escape sinning and we keep his commandments”. My two cents are that we can’t keep the commandments without divine help. In my faith grace is often substituted with the idea of divine help which may have biased what I interpreted your sentence to mean.

    The steps that fully reflect my walk are baptism/sacrament (commitment/willingness towards God) which brings divine-help/grace to keep the commandments, which brings a remission of sins, which brings meekness and lowliness of heart, which brings the visitation of the Holy Ghost, which fills with love and perfect hope (summarizing Moroni 8:25-26. I have not found a better description of this path to God’s love).

  • Sunnie Hillman-Hoppe

    Amazing, straight forward and loving teaching of the Transformed life after receiving Christ as Savior. My thoughts of late:
    If there is no transformation to the new creation where is one’s witness?

    Good work.

  • Chelsea Bartley

    The law became dead when our king said “it is finished” our debt was paid. The last thing Jesus said to do; the most important thing, was to love others…it was he last and most important thing he lest his desciples with. If people want to pick and choose which parts of Old Testament law they want to abide by, in attempt to nail other people, to make themselves feel better, fine but, in the words of our SAVIOUR ” he who has not sinned, cast the first stone.”I’m pretty sure at that points even the high priests walked away.
    The game changed when our king took up that cross. Call it a half-gospel, I call it the gift of being set free, washed my the blood of Jesus and he spirit of our living God.

    • eccoo damo

      You follow a false gospel.

      1 John:
      6 If we claim to have fellowship with him while we are walking in the darkness, we are lying and not living out the truth. 7 But if we are walking in the light, as he is in the light, then we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of his Son Yeshua purifies us from all sin.
      8 If we claim not to have sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we acknowledge our sins, then, since he is trustworthy and just, he will forgive them and purify us from all wrongdoing.
      10 If we claim we have not been sinning, we are making him out to be a liar, and his Word is not in us.

      Being part of Christ doesn’t give you the license to sin. If you live in sin but do not claim you are sinning, you have cheapened the grace of Christ. After Christ’s death, time and time again, you see the consequences of what happens to those who willfully sin. If what you claim is truth, why did Ananias and Sapphira’s get struck down dead? Why did Paul command the man who was sleeping with his Father’s wife to be cast out of the church? If you come to Christ and you do not become a new creation and leave behind your former life or strive to struggle against sin, you are not saved and do not know Christ.

      The difference between someone who is a sinner who truly follows Christ and someone who accepts the alt lifestyle is that the sinner knows he or she is sinner and confesses and repents of their sins daily. Many in the alt lifestyle do not believe being LGBTQ is a sin.

      Feel free to continue following the false gospel that many mega churches teaches but you will find out the hard way in the end that you followed the wrong path.

      1 Corinthians 6:
      8 Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, even against your own brothers! 9 Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who submit to or perform homosexual acts, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor verbal abusers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.…

  • Tilda Wiebe Harder

    I applaud you. . . There is no other gospel. Thank you.

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