When a Church Loses Confidence in the Gospel
by Paul Gilbert
I first met Fred Harrell in the fall of 1990 at the University of Tennessee. Winding down my so-called college career, I was wrestling through questions related to calling, seminary, and ministry. Fred had recently arrived on campus to start a new chapter of Reformed University Fellowship (college ministry of the Presbyterian Church in America), and this ministry later grew to a place where it was ministering to hundreds of students weekly through Fred's excellent bible teaching. On this day, though, Fred didn't try to recruit me to be a part of that - he just wanted to serve me by pouring into me biblically. I was a theologically eclectic animal at the time, and as one of my friends once cracked, "eclecticism is a fancy word for confusion." Fred stepped into my theological confusion and paucity and led me to feast on the doctrines of grace, the gospel, and God-centered thinking. For this, I was and am eternally grateful to God for Fred.
I kept up with Fred off and on for the next few years, more off than on, finally losing touch as he headed off across the country to plant a PCA church in the San Francisco area. Inspired by Tim Keller's vision to recapture our cities with the gospel, Fred was someone who inspired and encouraged me greatly through his love for the lost and his desire to see the Good News of Jesus change people's lives in hard places. I listened to his sermon podcasts, visited the City Church website on occasion, tracked the church's comings and goings, and generally served as a long-distance cheerleader to everything God was doing in San Francisco through Fred's church.
SMALL CHANGES LEADING TO BIG PROBLEMS
I was certainly surprised a few years later when I learned that City Church was pulling out of the PCA to move into the RCA over the issue of the ordination of women. At the time, Fred and his leadership team maintained that their decision to begin ordaining women was based upon the fruit of their biblical study on the issue. They also affirmed that their doctrine of Scripture (Sola Scriptura) had not changed. I disagreed at the time with Fred and City Church on this issue (and still do) and surmised that there were other things afoot driving this decision for them. I chalked it up as a well-intentioned but misguided theological accommodation that City Church was making. Planting a church in the heart of progressive San Francisco is a herculean task, with almost all of the cultural odds stacked against the teachings of the bible. I assigned the purest of motives to Fred and his leadership team: City Church was attempting to remove as many cultural stumbling blocks as possible (as they saw them) to reach that city for Jesus. Misguided, but well-intentioned.
While surprised by the church's evolving position on women elders, I was utterly shocked when I read City Church's recent leadership letter announcing its intentions to start recognizing same-sex marriages as a valid, biblical lifestyle choice. In retrospect, I should not have been so taken off guard. The principles of biblical interpretation employed in embracing the ordination of women opens the door wide for these same principles to be employed in more devious ways in relation to the core doctrines of Scripture. Owen Strachan has written an excellent piece on spurious methods of biblical interpretation and the logicall connections between the church ordaining women and the church endorsing homosexual marriage. As he notes, the journey from complementarianism to egalitarianism is long, but the journey from egalitarianism to same-sex marriage is quite short, as the interpretive methods used to arrive at egalitarianism and same-sex marriage are precisely the same.
What has gotten my attention about this specific development with City Church are not just the theological issues at play, though, but the pastoral ones as well. Specifically, what is it within the context of daily ministry life in the local church that leads pastors to begin to question the veracity of what have been long-held tenets of Christian Orthodoxy? We have seen this theological interplay take place with other doctrines besides homosexuality and same sex marriage, such as Rob Bell’s questioning of the bible’s teaching on hell or Tony Campolo championing the words of Christ over and against the words of Paul.
It seems to me that churches and pastors are often-times pressed to change their biblical positions on issues like homosexuality, ordination of women, and the exclusivity of Christ out of a desire to better reach a rising generation or culture. "If only we set aside those things that are disdainful or offend our culture," the thinking goes, "then we would be better positioned to draw them into the church." However, those who travel down this road need to ask themselves this question: "Have I lost confidence in the gospel to do what only the gospel can do?" The Apostle Paul says in Romans 1:16-17 that the gospel itself is, "the power of God for salvation." This means that what is needed most for people to change and for fruitfulness in ministry to blossom is a faithful commitment to engaging people with the Good News of Jesus, and then entrusting the results to God. The ethical demands of the gospel can not be divorced from the gospel itself. In fact, the failure and inability for people to comply with these demands are the very means that God uses to show people their need for the gospel!
LOSING THE GOSPEL
Fred's letter indicates that for the leadership of City Church, the impetus to begin questioning the bible's teaching on homosexuality and same-sex marriage arose within the context of engaging struggling people on these issues and working through their hurt, confusion, and questions. I have no reason to believe this is not true. However, I also have to wonder that if somewhere along the way, confidence has been lost in the gospel itself. In my discussions with other pastors and ministry leaders over the years, I have oftentimes witnessed the subtle tendency for guys, including myself, to begin to lose confidence in God's gospel to do what only God's gospel can do: change lives and produce fruit. Has the gospel stopped being enough for City Church San Francisco?
Fred, who did not respond when I reached out to him for comment on this post, believes that what he is doing is in fact reaching people for the gospel through the removal of unbiblical obstacles (i.e. opposition to homosexuality). Yet, as we've seen time and time again over the history of the church, pastors will oftentimes follow the same, critical path: Out of a desire for a wonderful thing (winning people for Christ), pastors sometimes compromise true things (biblical doctrine), in order to accommodate hard things (an oppositional culture), and thus end up with the worst thing (an apostate church).
I do know that there is only one thing that has the power to change people's lives in San Francisco, and it's the same thing that holds the power for people here in Tallahassee: the gospel of Jesus. It has the power to overcome not only same-sex attraction and behavior, but also heterosexual adultery, gossip, lying, slander, theft, and drunkenness, all things that Paul says in I Corinthians 6 are impenetrable, man-made barriers to inheriting the kingdom of God. Yet, the gospel can overcome them all, because we have confidence in IT, for IT is the very power of God. And, because the gospel is enough, we should never lose confidence in it.