Andy Stanley’s Disturbing Leftward Spiral

I’ve been catching myself up on Pastor Andy Stanley’s recent comments regarding the issue of homosexuality. They’ve created a little stir in liberal media circles, who are triumphantly running pieces that contrast Andy’s more relaxed approach with Stanley Sr.’s hard-line rhetoric. Andy Stanley has a wide following, particularly in the South, and so far he’s managed to tiptoe around hot-button social issues without saying something outright heretical that would alienate his fan-base. (This fan-base includes a number of relatively conservative Christians, including readers of this very site, and it clearly includes the same kind of people who attend Gaither events, since Gaither has invited him on their latest cruise.) While not all the remarks being quoted on leftist sites are taken from the same context, it’s not hard for us to look at the individual pieces and notice a leftward drift that should concern Christians who follow Stanley Jr.’s ministry. I’ve already mentioned his remarks in a USA Today piece dissing the Kansas religious freedom bill, where he said that he found it  “offensive that Christians would leverage faith to support the Kansas law” and continued, “Serving people we don’t see eye to eye with is the essence of Christianity. Jesus died for a world with which he didn’t see eye to eye. If a bakery doesn’t want to sell its products to a gay couple, it’s their business. Literally. But leave Jesus out of it.”

Most recently, he gave an address to young church leaders in April in which he set up a list of three things that he “wishes would change for the local church in our generation.”

1. The local church should be the safest place on the planet for students to talk about anything, including same-sex attraction.

2. The church must stop expecting outsiders to act like insiders while insiders act like outsiders.

3. The church must capture and keep the hearts and minds of students.

You can probably tell already that there are a lot of directions he could go with all of these points, and some of them are not good at all. And you’d be right.

I went and listened to pretty much the entire message from the beginning of his first point on to the wrap-up. (You can too, on this site. The title is “Change Makers.”) I’m going to encourage you to read a response post by Bible scholar Michael Brown, as well as a follow-up post where he tried to get clarification from Stanley himself. I don’t want to re-hash everything Brown has to say, because he says it so concisely and well, but I did want to unpack the message a little more and explain why I find it so troubling, especially in conjunction with his remarks on the Kansas bill. (I find it amusing that when Stanley reached out to Brown for a personal dialogue, Stanley was mainly concerned that Brown thought all these quotes were coming from the same context, when the real problem is their content, not their context!)

The money quote from point one is that Stanley paused in his elaboration to say, “I know there is not consensus in this room on homosexual attraction. There is not consensus in this room on gay marriage.” This naturally led people to wonder whether Stanley meant to imply that the distinction didn’t matter. When Michael Brown asked Stanley point-blank whether he meant the church should be “safe for students who are willing to wrestle against the orientation” as opposed to “safe for students who are comfortable practicing their orientation,” Stanley clarified: “Correct. I’ve never met a teen that didn’t pray for change. Bishop Robinson admitted as much about himself as a seminary student. The unanswered prayer approach to this is important for church leaders. We teach teenagers to honor God with their bodies and to never sexualize a relationship. ‘Sexualize’ is stronger and broader than don’t have sex.” Brown was grateful for this clarification, but some concerns remain. To make Pastor Stanley happy, we’ll stick to the context of this particular address.

Stanley began by claiming that the issue of homosexuality had become overly politicized, and it was time for church members on opposite sides of the aisle to come together in agreement on making sure kids who revealed their gay orientation didn’t leave the church. His exact wording was, “We’re just going to decide, no matter what you think about this topic, no more students are gonna have to leave the local church because they’re same-sex attracted, or because they’re gay. That ends with us and with our generation, because we can figure this out.” As in his response to Brown, he said homosexual temptation should be viewed as an issue of unanswered prayer (implication, rather than something that can be “prayed away”).

The problem with this approach is that even though Stanley himself may still personally believe homosexual acts are sinful, he is a fool to think anyone can just wave away such a theological rift in any church. “What people think about this topic” lies at the very heart of how to respond to such young people! It’s nonsensical to croon, “Let’s all come together for the children” when “coming together for the children” means encouraging them in sin for one half of your congregation and ushering them away from sin for the other half. There’s another issue Brown didn’t point out, namely that we eventually do want heterosexual young people to begin thinking (sensibly, maturely, gradually) about romantic relationships. We encourage activities that bring young men together with young ladies. We encourage the ultimate fruition of romance in marriage. The approach Pastor Stanley describes fails to draw any sharp distinction between heterosexual and homosexual romance. If by a “broader” view of sexuality than the act itself he means to include physical attraction, romantic interest, etc., then I’m sorry, but in a heterosexual context, those things can actually be good up to a point, even in teenagers, whereas they are completely tragic and toxic in a homosexual context. Stanley hasn’t given any clear sign that he groks this.

Stanley’s political philosophy came even more to the fore in point two, which was perhaps the strangest section because it was bound up with much that a conservative could actually agree with. Brown himself gives Stanley full marks for issuing a clarion call to the church to clean house internally. The pastor produced a list of sins like p*rn use, adultery, and pre-marital sex, saying that if all American Christians would commit to abstain from these things for a year (sarcastically, “Come on, just one year,”) the country would “feel different.” He even had some surprisingly sharp remarks on divorce and re-marriage, coming down hard on people who look for “loopholes” and end marriages based on things to which Jesus’ only possible exception doesn’t even apply.

By itself, all of those things are laudable. The problem is that in Stanley’s address, they were inextricably intertwined with a palpable disdain for Christians actively involved in the culture wars, and they were hammered home with the assertion that Christians have “forfeited their moral authority” to talk about marriage (including, presumably, what it even means), because… some Christians, somewhere, are cheating on their spouses. Or something. In fact, Stanley framed this whole “spend a year fixing x, y and z” proposal as “taking a year off from the culture wars.” His entire rhetorical thrust was a bifurcation of things like fighting the homosexual agenda on the one hand and personal holiness on the other. And no, throwing in a passing, “And we should be concerned about those things but…” doesn’t make it all okay. It’s almost enough to make one re-evaluate even the nominally good things he was saying earlier in this point. If you take it as a piece, it looks less like righteous indignation and more like “any stick with which to beat a dog.”

Brown dismantles this false dichotomy excellently in his first piece, and all I have to offer in addition is an Amen. The worst thing you could possibly get up and say to a large crowd of young church leaders is that there is some kind of deep-seated tension between fighting the tide of cultural change and fighting one’s own personal temptations. This is precisely the wrong kind of message for the American Church at this time. As an attempt to drum up biblical support for this idea, Stanley dug out Paul’s verse about judging people outside the church as opposed to judging church members: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.” (1 Cor. 5:12-13, NIV)

Well, since Pastor Stanley is so concerned about context, maybe we should look at the context of this verse in Paul. We could start with Paul’s cultural context, where “judging” manifested itself as a refusal to have any kind of interaction whatsoever with a person. (i.e., total social ostracism). In the context of this particular letter, Paul is dealing with a nasty in-church case of incest. He’s clarifying a previous injunction of his never to associate with immoral people by saying he didn’t mean all immoral people, because that would mean you couldn’t interact with the outside world at all. (This is a very Rabbinic sort of thing. Paul is constantly clarifying fine points and making reductios like this.) However, he does teach that people within the Church who embrace sin should be shunned. It is in this context that he says “What business is it of mine” or “What have I to do with” judging “outsiders.” Paul was a missionary. He was pounding the pavement with the gospel. Obviously, he was going to carry it as far as he could, including pagan Athens. Of course he wasn’t going to refuse so much as to eat with pagans. But somehow, I don’t think  the Apostle Paul meant by this that we shouldn’t utter a peep if the highest court in our land decides to redefine the whole institution of marriage.

I also noticed that Stanley left out the second half of verse 13, saying that the sinning member of this church should be “expelled.” Maybe that would rub up uncomfortably with his saying over and over again that we should keep gay teens from leaving the church. Now granted, he did seem to clarify that they were only open to teens seeking help with their temptation, but only after being pinned down on the point. Why did he not say so in the message itself? For that matter, he didn’t even give Brown a straight answer when Brown followed up by asking whether he agreed that the Bible was crystal clear on the matter.

Pastor Stanley also doesn’t seem to care about the bullying tactics that people on the left are practicing towards Christians. He waves his hands around and vaguely wags his finger at conservative believers who are “expending all their energy” just “telling the world how bad they are” (slight paraphrase). He doesn’t seem to realize that we’re past the point of trying to convince such homo-fascists that they’re sinners. We’re grateful to God if we can just keep our children from being corrupted by their agenda. We’re grateful if even one baker or florist who refuses to lend active participation to a mock wedding can manage to escape a lawsuit without being financially ruined.

I could point out more problems with Stanley’s address. I could talk about the shallow way he talks about marketing church to high-schoolers in point three, even saying in so many words, “If high-school students don’t love your local church, then that’s a problem. You should change everything you have to change until high-school students love your local church. [applauseapplauseapplause]” It would be one thing if he were actually saying something concrete and substantial like, “We aren’t equipping our high-schoolers well enough to hold onto their faith in the real world. Something needs to change in our approach to worldview and apologetics education, so they can give reasons for why they believe what they believe.” But all I heard coming out of his mouth was some vague talk about money and buildings. And about how if you drive 50-year-olds away in the process, that’s fine, ‘cuz they’ll be replaced by “better 50-year-olds” who get it. (No, really. He actually said that.)

Oh, and I didn’t mention the pernicious way he then re-jiggers Jesus’ harsh prescription for whoever causes a little one to stumble as some kind of message to churches that aren’t attractive enough to high-schoolers. (Or in Pastor Stanley’s words, “I don’t know, I’m kinda making this up, but maybe it’s like, causing them to stumble out of the church.”) Gee, I don’t know, maybe Pastor Stanley should, like, stop playing cut and paste with Bible verses. ‘Cuz it seems like, you know, maybe he has no idea what he’s talking about. In fact, this verse is far more applicable to the very kind of activists that Stanley has gone out of his way to tell us we should shut up about in his second point.

Anyway, to sum up, Stanley has yet to go full Rob Bell and abandon the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality altogether. But his ignorant contempt for Christian culture warriors (many of whom, by the way, are not being hypocritical at all but are raising godly families in the admonition of the Lord), does not bode well. It does not bode well at all.

Again, if you have followed his ministry in the past (and I haven’t, particularly, but some of you have), take note. And see where he’s at in five more years.

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One thought on “Andy Stanley’s Disturbing Leftward Spiral

  1. Lydia

    An excellent dissection of Stanley’s confusions. I especially appreciate the point that churches should foster the right direction of heterosexual impulses and that attempts to treat homosexuality and heterosexuality in young people as on a par are confused in this respect. Stanley’s talk on this issue is very much of a piece. His condemnation of Christians who refuse to participate in celebrating homosexual weddings and his opposition to religious freedom bills is incredibly disturbing.

    I think it’s extremely clear that he is _not_ sound on this issue, that he is personally ambivalent. At this point, with people even smarter than Stanley (Ben Domenech, for example) falling like ninepins and supporting homosexual “marriage” at an alarming rate, I would say that Stanley’s own eventual capitulation is strictly a function of time. Conservative Christians should not be listening to this guy or giving him a platform. I don’t care who his father is.

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