This is a retraction (or adjustment) of a previous post, and a critique of Andy Stanley’s philosophy and most recent sermons.
In light of the recent controversy over the Rob-Bell-esque, postmodern slip (or nose-dive) that Andy Stanley has taken toward emergent church heresy, I’ve been thinking a lot about a post I wrote in January of this year called “The Bible’s Not Essential to Christianity.” In it, I used some careless language and made a few factual errors and so I’d like to clarify and correct my own words, and also offer a critique of Andy Stanley’s philosophy that has led to the sermons that are still unclarified. I’ve listened to some men give critiques of Stanley’s sermon series. These are men with whom I disagree in some theological areas but whom I respect as godly and skilled exegetes, and I’ve realized that some of their critiques of Stanley’s words transfer over to mine as well and they are right in their assessment. I was wrong in many areas and want to correct what I can.
Clarifying and Correcting my Own Words
In the post, “The Bible’s Not Essential to Christianity” I argued exactly that, and I defined essential as “having a quality about them of foundational essence… from the Latin esse or “to be.” Without what is essential, you don’t have the thing itself.” I then further clarified that Christianity is rooted in, finds its essence in, the person and work of Jesus Christ. I still agree with this, but I would add a clarifying and illuminating statement that the Bible’s essence is the very same thing. The bible gets its essence from those events as well, and also from another source: God Himself. Without the Spirit of God carrying along the prophets of the Old Testament and the Apostles of the New Testament to bear witness about Jesus, the knowledge of these events would be lost to us, and so the bible IS essential to the practice of Christians and to Christianity’s continuation on this earth until Christ’s second-coming or the rapture… whichever comes first.
In the post, I said “There were Christians… who didn’t have complete bibles like we do. These are the Christians who wrote the Bible. (Specifically the New Testament, because, as far as we know, Israelites all wrote the Old Testament, not Christians… but I digress.)” I still agree with this statement, however it could be misconstrued to suggest that these Christians who wrote the New Testament (the apostles) didn’t have the scriptures at all. This is not the case. They had the whole Old Testament and viewed them as the primary source of proof for Jesus’s claim to be the Christ (along with his proof of coming back to life and performing miracles… all to “fulfill the scriptures.”). Paul inextricably links the gospel message to the scriptures in a beautiful way in 1 Corinthians 15 “Now I reaffirm to you the gospel that I preached to you… that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” It is both because of the writing of the scriptures that Jesus did what he did, and because Jesus would do what he did that the scriptures were written… and because Jesus had done what he did that more scriptures (the New Testament) were written. You really can’t separate the two.
In the post I said that the current biblical canon didn’t have any kind of official affirmation until the council of Nicaea in 325. I would like to retract that statement. It did have “some kind of official” affirmation… namely the witness of Peter claiming that what Paul wrote was on par with the “other” scriptures (2 Peter 3:16) and the fact that Christians were dying to protect their copies of the New Testament. The apostles’ and martyrs’ witnesses are as official as is necessary, but to clarify the original statement further, I should have said, “No official church council recognized our current protestant canon as such until Nicaea, and it was later at Hippo that they were actually canonized.” However, I am inclined to speculate that such canonization was more out of cultural necessity than actual lack of clarity. It’s similar to the cultural uncertainty that is causing local churches to make a clear statement that they do not recognize homosexual marriage. Until now, it wasn’t necessary to specifically state that they didn’t recognize homosexual marriages. In the same way, the church didn’t need to specifically state what was and wasn’t scripture… everyone knew it. That’s conjecture of course, but I think its safe conjecture to make, given the way church fathers treated Old Testament scripture (and they treated the new testament writings the exact same way).
In the post I said, “I tell you that fact to make this point, and to make no other points: There were godly Christians who lived during that period who never read the whole Bible.” I still agree with that statement, however I see now, with Andy Stanley, how easily a statement like that can be misconstrued. I tried to guard against it with the phrase “and to make no other points” but to help I’ll enumerate some of those “other points” I’m not making. I’m not saying that an average Christian today can be godly without having read the whole bible. I’m not saying that the fact that some Christians alive while the New Testament was being written means they did not have access to divine revelation. I’m not saying that any real implications for today can be drawn from this reality. I am saying only that it was (and is) possible for a Christian to be godly without reading the whole bible. (I say this to account for certain scenarios today. Say, a Christian who does not have access to all of the scriptures who’s in jail for their faith, or who lives in a deserted and hostile place without internet. Those Christians, I believe, will be given more direct revelation by God in order to progress their sanctification in the absence of the written word of God.) The fact is, anyone who has access to this blog cannot fall in the category of “without access to the Bible,” and so does not have a meaningful parallel to the Christians who “hadn’t read the whole bible” referenced from the first century.
This could also factor into a discussion about cessationism vs continuationism. Does the Holy spirit continue to give divine and direct revelation to Christians? Does he give it to those who have access to the complete, revealed, written word of God in scripture? Those are questions for another time. But in brief, I lean toward an open but skeptical continuationism that says he may give special revelation and gifts to those who do not have access to his revealed word, and he does not give divine special revelation in other circumstances in this age.
In the post I said, “There are two possible errors into which one can fall in regarding the Bible in the current age: one is to deify it; the other is to disregard it. A healthy balance is required.” I went on to clarify this statement in the post, and I stand by it. I think this is a proper view to hold so that we do not hold up rules as the ends in themselves as the Pharisees did. My allusion to white-washed tombs in the original post gets at the meaning I intended. We should not be like the Pharisees and scribes who look at the scriptures and miss who they are pointing to: Jesus.
I would like to retract the entire paragraph beginning with “If every Bible were destroyed…” While I still agree with the point I was trying to make, it was made poorly and it’s not really a point worth making. There are plenty of points that are true but not worth making. “I have a nose,” would be an example of one such point. The paragraph in question serves only to confuse and needs to be chucked.
In the post, I repeatedly used the phrase “a high regard for the Bible” or some variation of that phrase. What I meant by the phrase on most occasions is, “a proper orthodox view of scripture… that it is inerrant and infallible in its original manuscripts, breathed-out (theopneustos) by God, and profitable for correction, reproof, instruction, and training in righteousness.”
I’m starting to question my use of the phrase “faith in Christ” and whether it can be applied to someone rightly without an orthodox view of scripture also applied… I don’t know about this. Can someone have an effectually saving faith in Christ without having a “high regard for the Bible” as defined above? I want to say yes… but the more I think about it the less sure I am, given how much the Apostles and church fathers referred to the scriptures as the support behind their belief. I tend to think if you knowingly reject the orthodox view of scripture (That is, you are presented with both the orthodox view and a substandard unorthodox/liberal view of scripture, and you choose the liberal view) your “faith in Christ” might not be a true and saving, effectual, faith and so it is a misnomer… but I might be wrong about that. That being said, I’d like to add a question-mark to the phrase in the original post, but I still don’t have a better word to put in its place, so take that for what it’s worth.
Everything else in the post I think is clear and I stand by it.
Now on to our critique of Andy Stanley’s Philosophy and recent messages about the bible…
Critique of Andy Stanley’s Messages/Philosophy
A Few Introductory Matters
(1) Note that this is a critique of Stanley’s messages (the recent ones he’s given about the bible on Sunday mornings to his congregation) and his philosophies. This is not a critique of him. At some points a critique of his philosophy and theology may sound like a critique of him as a person, but I will do my best to distinguish between the man and the ideas the man holds and expresses.
(2) I attend the same Seminary that Andy Stanley attended and am in the same degree program that he went through (albeit with largely different professors, though I have read the works of the professors he sat under and agree with their teachings more often than I do with the current profs).
(3) I write this critique while both trying to be understanding and giving the benefit of the doubt (I know I often say things I don’t mean, or communicate poorly what I do mean so that I sound like I’m saying something else… as evidenced above), but also trying to be fair about what points were actually made and what words were actually said.
(4) I don’t know Andy Stanley personally, but his wife and I were in a seminary class together and I got to know her fairly well for a whole week. She is the epitome of kindness and graciousness toward others, and based on what I’ve seen of her husband, I would expect the same. I do not think Andy Stanley is maliciously trying to deceive. I think he is trying to help. The only real question is, “Is he actually helping?” That is the issue at hand. Unfortunately, good intentions aren’t always enough.
(5) I hate being taken out of context and I didn’t want to do that to Andy, so I have listened to ALL of the sermons in the series in question and I’ve read about his church and philosophy straight from the published church website and watched various interviews of him talking about his views and church philosophy. I think I have fairly heard him in context, and I still see some issues. This post is one brother in Christ trying to correct another in love. My deepest hope with this is that he might see it and understand where he is wrong and correct his mistakes, by the grace of God.
Some Philosophies Andy Holds that Lead to Some Issues
I think the philosophies Andy holds are the real problem and the recent controversial sermons and statements are just symptoms. Because of this I’ll focus on the philosophies, not the sermons, but I encourage you to view the sermons and interviews for yourself to see if what I’m saying is accurate.
“Doing Church for the Unchurched” This catchphrase has been one of the cornerstones of Andy Stanley’s ministry. He wants to make Christianity more accessible to the “unchurched.” This is what drives most of what he does.
Depending on your definitions of both “doing church” and “the unchurched” in that phrase, it is either a harmless philosophy or a dreadfully harmful one.
If by “doing church” you mean “gathering together believers of the gospel who are committed to the teachings of Christ, for worship of the triune God, edification and correction by each other, the scriptures, and the Spirit, and to hear the truth proclaimed from the word of God” and if by “unchurched” you mean “people who didn’t necessarily grow up learning theology or in a home of true Christians living out their faith, but who now believe the gospel and place their trust in Jesus Christ as lord and are growing in their understanding of what church actually is… as defined above,” then you are spot-on. This is what Christ’s church should be doing! We should be doing church for the unchurched according to those definitions! We should not discriminate between congregants based on their upbringing or background or previous knowledge of the gospel.
But we SHOULD discriminate based on what they profess, and based on who they call Lord. Which might be the problem.
I think instead of these definitions, Andy has two different definitions. I think by “doing church” he means “gathering together people (physically or just virtually) for the purpose of hearing music (and maybe singing along), hearing a motivational speaker give a lecture (from the bible or just from what we all ‘know to be true’) in a culturally relevant way” and by “the unchurched” he means “people who didn’t necessarily grow up learning theology or in a home of true Christians living out their faith, and who now may or may not believe the gospel, may or may not place their trust in Jesus Christ as lord, and may or may not understand what the church is, but still attend the gathering every week and feel comfortable.” If those are his definitions, then he should not be doing “church for the unchurched.”
Churches should not be safe places where “the unchurched” (i.e. unrepentant people throughout this paragraph) feel safe and comfortable. “The unchurched” should feel profoundly UNcomfortable in church, extremely aware of their own sin and need of a savior, and they should hear about that savior that day. I’d say an “unchurched” person shouldn’t be able to endure more than a week or two, maybe three, of regular attendance at a church without feeling the compulsion to change his/her nature. The weight of their sin should be heavy upon them and their need for grace should be apparent to them. Again, they should feel profoundly UNcomfortable.
I think Andy Stanley is actually closer to the second set of definitions. I think Andy Stanley may be more concerned about not offending people and making them feel welcome at his gatherings than he is about speaking the truth to them, which is a dangerous line to cross. I think Andy Stanley believes HE is the one responsible for bringing people to God, instead of God being responsible for bringing people to Himself.
To put it in theological terms, Andy’s ecclesiology and soteriology are really in question and very likely lacking.
This is the study of “the Church.” What does it mean to be a church? I’ll give a brief but biblical and orthodox sketch of the LOCAL church. For an understanding of the universal Church, check out my post “When I Criticize The Church…”
First of all, gathering. The Greek word for church (ecclesia) means “gathering.” A church is a gathering of believers of the gospel in one geographic area. Physically gathering together is essential to being “a church.” It is not possible to “attend Church via the internet.” It’s possible to listen to music and a sermon via the internet, it is not possible to “gather” with other saints. I think Andy Stanley doesn’t believe this and wants to redefine church to be closer to the latter. This is impossible.
Second of all, preaching the word. At that local gathering of believers it is essential to preach God’s written, revealed word. If the word of God is not proclaimed, church was not “had.”
Third of all, encouragement and exhortation toward holiness. The local believers must encourage each other, reminding them of the gospel that they are saved by grace, and exhort them toward holiness (and often times rebuke them for their sin). Discipline of those gathering, ensuring that they believe what is in accordance with sound doctrine and practice what is good and shun what is evil, is part of a local church’s function.
Fourth of all, and most important, worship of the triune God. This does not mean singing songs. Singing songs may be included in worshipping the triune God, but worshipping Him is more than just singing songs. It’s saying what is true about Him, to Him and to others. Worshipping might be described as glorifying Him. What does it mean to glorify something? It’s to say what is true and marvel at it. It’s saying how big and powerful God is, because he is, and thanking him for being so. It’s saying how gracious and loving God is, because he is, and thanking him for being so. It’s saying how merciful and just God is, because he is, and thanking him for being so. It’s saying true things about God, believing them, and marveling at them. THAT’S worshipping God, and yes, music is a good medium for it. In church we do this together. All of the believers get together and speak the truth of how big, powerful, loving, gracious, merciful, and just God is, because he is, and they do it together, with one voice, in one accord.
These four things are basically what the local church is and what it does.
“The mission has always been to lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.” That’s the mission statement of Northpoint Ministries, and it’s not the mission statement of the church. For the myriad potential problems with this, check out my post on “Your Church Doesn’t Need a Mission Statement.”
Andy Stanley seems to believe that Atheists can be part of the regular gathering and sees no problem with it. He seems to believe that merely tuning in is the same thing as gathering. He seems to believe that you don’t have to proclaim the word of God at every official church gathering, as long as it shows up once every few weeks. These are the issues with his ecclesiology that others see and he doesn’t seem to see, or he sees and doesn’t seem to care. He talks a lot about doing church “differently” and it’s exactly that which causes the problem. Doing church differently means you’re no longer doing church… you’re doing something else entirely.
Linked to the ecclesiology is the soteriology. Soteriology is the study of how we are saved. Andy Stanley seems to believe that humans make moves toward God themselves and “choose God.” This is where my reformed leanings come out. I don’t think anyone chooses God, but God chooses them, and the Bible seems to suggest the same. (John 6:44; Ephesians 2:8; Rom 8:28-30) God makes the move and God does the saving. Humans “play their part” in salvation only by God’s grace, not by their own free will, because their will is not free, it’s enslaved to sin (Rom 6).
In Andy’s worldview, he sees people who go searching for God, and he’s trying to help those people by “making the rung on the ladder as low as possible.” That is a wrong philosophy. The ladder needs to stay right where it is, and we need to get on our hands and knees and let people stand on our backs to reach it, but we cannot dismiss God’s words about how people are saved in an attempt to “get them saved.” We can’t lower the bar. If we try to, we remove the bar from existence and people are no better off.
He seems to have a different definition of “Christian” than “those who have repented and believed the gospel” and a different definition of “Christianity” than “the system of belief that preaches the gospel of grace.” He doesn’t usually even use those words. Where someone else would say “You stepped away from Christianity” he would stay “You stepped away from faith.” Well… what kind of faith? Was it actually a Christian faith? A saving faith? Where others would say “I’m a Christian” (meaning I believe the gospel that Jesus’s death burial and resurrection procures salvation from the penalty of my sins and I will partake in the resurrection by the grace of God, not by my own works) Stanley would probably shy away from the term “Christian” all together.
Andy talks about Christianity very differently than all the “churchy” people do so as to relate to the culture, to relate to the “unchurched” (however he defines it). This leads to easy miscommunication with the theological world and it necessarily puts a whole lot of trust in Andy to “pick the right words.” It’s very easy to stray into heresy simply because of word choice, just ask the Arians. (Is it homoousia or homoiousia?) Andy tries to talk about things that people spent centuries developing language for, and when he picks a new word it makes people wonder what exactly he’s trying to say. Is he communicating the orthodox position or is he not? When a string of these “miscommunications” come in one sermon, it makes us in the theological world become less sure of his orthodoxy and more confused by what he’s actually trying to say.
I hope that’s the case with his most recent sermons… but I don’t know. I hope it’s just one big miscommunication, but those of us trained in theology are essentially saying, “Andy, you’re making a lot of little mistakes, and using very unclear language. What exactly do you believe in theological terms?” His clarification sermon simply repeated a lot of those “fuzzy” words and left us with eyebrows raised even higher than before.
He seems to set up false dichotomies between “The Bible” and “The scriptures” (They’re the same thing.) He seems to set up false dichotomies between “The Bible” and “the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and others” (they’re the same thing.) He seems to be fighting a battle against the phrase “the Bible says so” and then says the exact same thing with different words (It’s as unnecessary as renaming the nose “the smelling appendage.”) He seems to talk about the resurrection like The Old Testament didn’t say it would happen (it does). He seems to view the events of the New Testament as independent of the events of the Old Testament (They’re not). The two are intertwined, and to say that “we need to get the focus off the bible” is just plain wrong. We need to get the bible into better focus.
There are a lot of little things all throughout the sermons that I could pick at and show how these fundamental philosophies come through, but I think those are just symptoms. These two theological areas are the real problem and they’re finally starting to come through in Andy’s sermons. These are the REAL issues, and everyone’s talking about the sermons like they’re independent of these two fundamental philosophies. They aren’t. It’s the ecclesiology and soteriology that Andy holds that has led to these questionable sermons. They are the symptoms, but his theology is what’s actually ill.
It essential boils down to this: Andy Stanley is focused on changing the “church” to make it accessible to the “unchurched.” When he should be focused on making the “unchurched,” “churched.”
So I would like to end by calling Andy Stanley to repentance and to commit to understanding better what the local church actually is, and is supposed to be. As a brother in Christ, I say this to him because of love for him and for the sheep he is supposed to be shepherding. He’s steering them in a wrong direction, and may not be chasing off wolves who are among the flock. Repent brother, and start teaching what is in accordance with sound doctrine, not what is in accordance with the culture.