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What happened to Andy Stanley?

I’m not a big fan of calling people out. I like to go about my business, pointing people to Jesus and God’s Word, and leave the arguments over who is the “rightest” and the “wrongest” to others. However, in this situation, I have to say something for several reasons. First, I’ve been a big fan of Andy Stanley’s. I have felt that he was a great balance between being rooted in old-school theology and communicating it in a way that makes sense to our culture. I often saw the criticism he has received as coming from people who don’t understand what he’s trying to do. His teaching on leadership is full of great wisdom as well. Because of my admiration for a lot of what he has done in the past, many people would know that I have been a big fan. The second reason I have to say something is because many have felt the same way about Andy. Therefore, this might be one of the most significant moments in American Christian culture. This is not someone who has always been progressive, or who has always doubted the Bible, or who has even been known for being arrogant and doing things for attention to build his own brand. This is Charles Stanley’s son. This is possibly the most famous Dallas Seminary graduate. This is the guy who, if I’m remembering this correctly, wrote a bottom line for every chapter of the Bible when he was a youth pastor. Another reason I have to say something is because of where we are culturally. We are at a place where having someone of Andy’s stature throwing his weight behind these progressive arguments could cause an avalanche of others doing the same. Andy is one of the most effective communicators in the country. His phrasing is intentional and powerful. While my voice is not as important as many others who have weighed in on this, it’s important that as many of us as possible parse what he has said and done to help others see the dangerous nuances.

If you have been under a rock, let me catch you up on the controversy. Andy Stanley and North Point Community Church hosted the Unconditional Conference at the end of September. The goal of the conference was to support parents of LGBTQ+ children. That sounds harmless in the sense that parents, especially Christian parents, who face that situation could use some support and encouragement (and redemptive truth). Controversy first broke out over the conference when the speakers were announced. People immediately noticed that almost all the speakers were affirming of LGBTQ+ lifestyles or in some cases were living in those lifestyles. I have posted links below to some breakdowns of what was said at the conference. I will focus most of my attention on what Andy said in his sermon defending the conference and responding to Al Mohler’s article about the conference (written before the conference).1

First of all, let me briefly focus on the good parts of the message. Andy says one of the goals of the conference was to help the church be a place where people who are struggling with these issues would not be afraid to be honest about it. It is true that the church needs to do a better job in this area. There are lots of sins that people can confess and ask for prayer and accountability, but it feels like LGBTQ+ sins and temptations are much harder to talk about. We can debate why that is, but overall most people would probably agree. He also talked about how their middle school group leaders came to the staff and said they needed help knowing how to respond to all the middle schoolers that were coming out to them. Andy made the case that he thinks it is amazing that students would choose to come out at church. If the church is going to lovingly and truthfully help that student know how to handle those temptations in a way that honors Christ, then it is a wonderful thing for that student to be willing to share at that level with their group.

Now for the things that were not so good. Andy defended the conference by saying it was not a theological conference. Instead, it was a pastoral conference. Those who attended said there was no discussion of whether these things were right or wrong. They said there were, however, references to the church getting it wrong in the past on racism, implying that the church is getting this wrong as well. The focus was on how to love someone who is in that situation. The problem with this concept is that there is no such thing as pastoral care that is detached from theology. I don’t sit with people at funerals and tell them their loved one is in heaven if they never showed any evidence of knowing Christ. There are other theologically correct things I can say at that moment. But using bad theology to comfort someone doesn’t help anyone. If God defines reality in Scripture, using bad theology to “love” someone is like using bad medicine to treat cancer.

Alan Slemon said that the conference claimed to be a theologically neutral space, but almost every speaker and resource recommended affirmed that homosexual behavior and satisfying transgender ideation are morally permissible. He said they were selling books that opposed the traditional biblical understanding of passages that cover these issues.

In his message, Andy says that he never subscribed to Al Mohler's type of Christianity. That’s a problem because Al Mohler adheres to a biblical form of Christianity. I suspect that Andy was not talking as much about theology as he was about ministry style. He may think the way Mohler talks about cultural issues biblically isn’t kind enough, but it would be hard to say Mohler’s Christianity is not accurate. He accuses Mohler of losing Jesus in all his theology. Unless someone can show where Mohler’s theology is errant, it’s not possible to lose Jesus in good theology. Perhaps Andy meant that some people are more wrapped up in being right and holding all the right positions than they are in fulfilling Jesus’ mission. That can happen. But this statement hit me right in the face because it felt like he was disavowing a very biblical “form of Christianity.”

The most famous line in the sermon might be when Andy said that Jesus didn’t draw lines, He drew circles. This one line might be the clearest picture of where Andy has gone astray. Through the years, Andy has been incredible at boiling concepts down to powerful and pithy statements. Those statements are so catchy that they become axioms that his church and others live by. The danger is when these statements don’t perfectly reflect the truth or only apply to certain situations. Let’s look at this concept through two of Andy’s bottom lines from past messages. At one point he said, “My past will remind me, but it will not define me.” Honestly, I can’t find a problem with this statement. Maybe others can. But it seems to fit well with the overall teaching of the Bible on how we should view our past. Here’s another one, “You are more important than my view.” The intention of this statement is probably that I need to value others and my relationships with them more than just arguing with them and being right. But think about this as an axiom that you use to govern your church. There are all kinds of ways this could go wrong. If my views are based on the Bible, then those views are eternal realities. Yes, I shouldn’t go around railroading and arguing with people, however, this statement could easily lend itself to compromising biblical beliefs to maintain and foster relationships.

In my mind the statement, “Jesus drew circles, not lines” fits that latter category. If this becomes your mantra, who could you leave out of the circle? And frankly, what does that even mean? Does that mean welcoming them to hang out with you, or does it mean acknowledging that they are Christians? Yes, Jesus included a lot of people in His life that others of that day would not have included. So I guess He let them into His circle. But inside that circle, He drew lines. He told the woman found in adultery to go and sin no more. He told the Rich Young Ruler that until he was willing to walk away from the idol of money, he would not have eternal life. Jesus said that God would separate the wheat and the tares, the goats and the sheep. We cannot just come up with a catchy phrase that does away with the line between truth and error.

Another problematic phrase that Andy included in his message was this one: “They didn’t choose this attraction, it has chosen them because of ‘who they are.’” That last phrase is the most dangerous. I have never heard anyone speak of all the adulterous Christians or lying Christians they have serving at their church. There are no other sins that we have used to qualify the word “Christian,” and therefore assumed that is who they are and they cannot change. The idea seems to be, “love them and concede that they can’t change or live out what God requires.” Andy has exempted LGBTQ individuals from dying to self, submitting their sinful desires to Christ, and repenting. Andy says this is an “is.” So this is just what they are.2 He said, “We don’t want another generation of LGBTQ kids to think that who they are is incompatible with their faith or incompatible with the church.” It would be easy to say that Andy is just talking about their temptations, not their actions. In other words, he doesn’t want kids who feel tempted by same-sex attraction to feel like they can’t be at church or have a relationship with Jesus. But before we give him that much credit, let’s move on to another part of the message.

Andy began to talk about where North Point stands on these issues. He said that his church teaches that sex outside of marriage is wrong and that marriage is between a man and a woman. That’s good to hear! But he also said, “But for many, that is not sustainable. So they choose a same-sex marriage. Not because they’re convinced it’s biblical - they read the same Bible we do3 - they chose to marry for the same reason many of us do. Love, companionship, and family. And in the end, as was the case for all of us, this is the important thing I want you to hear me say; it’s their decision. Our decision is to decide how we respond to their decision. Our decision as a group of local churches is how are we going to respond to their decision. And we decided 28 years ago, we draw circles we don’t draw lines, we draw big circles. If someone desires to follow Jesus, regardless of their starting point, regardless of their past, regardless of their current circumstances, our message has (been) “come and see and come sit with me.” And this is not new. This is who we are, as we’ve always been.”

So God has a standard that He expects in the areas of sexuality and marriage, but if it is not sustainable you can do something different? I understand what he is saying about it being their choice. There’s a sense in which you can’t force your morality on everyone else, other than through laws. But then he says our choice is how to respond and we are going to draw circles. That sounds as if there is no accountability. I also understand that when a person is coming into a relationship with Jesus, things are not always neat and tidy. Sometimes it takes a little patience to help them realize what God wants for their lives. However, Andy’s statement appears to say that if someone says they are following Jesus and biblical sexuality is just not sustainable for them, they can be a part of the church with no line of accountability.

It feels like there is no point where he would hold the sin accountable. There is only love and understanding (I agree there should be love and understanding), but there is no pointing people to denying self and submitting to Christ in obedience. It is not loving to just love and understand, without pointing out the sin. The Bible presents sin as our #1 problem. It destroys parts of our lives. Despite his stated theological stance on marriage and sex, he is effectively affirming because it is clear that there is no accountability for these sins. In fact, in one message Andy referred to the verses about homosexuality as clobber verses, as if it was an assault to point them out.

Andy said they brought in the two married gay men to speak at the conference because they could help parents understand what their kids are going through. He also said they had spoken at his church before. He says that to assure everyone that they knew what they were going to say. But that just shows that they have been intentional to bring in actively gay speakers. It seems unrealistic to say that, with all its resources, North Point can’t find a couple of strong Christian speakers who have been through those same experiences but found peace by surrendering to Jesus and obeying Him.

Another phrase from his message that really surprised me was the phrase, “We are literally saving lives.” This is a progressive talking point in this cultural debate. It is constantly used as the justification for anything a kid wants to do. The idea is that if you tell them what they are doing is wrong, or that we are responsible for submitting even our feelings to Christ, they might kill themselves. No one wants to feel responsible for that! But in their book Exposing the Gender Lie (p. 16), Jeff Myers and Brandon Showalter say, “So, do these experimental medical measures actually prevent a trans-identifying person from taking their own life? In perhaps the most famous study that followed the post-operative transsexual-identified persons in Sweden over the course of thirty years, researchers found that even in a famously liberal Scandinavian nation, the rate of completed suicide was nineteen times higher after so-called transition when measured against population-matched control groups. This concept comes from a completely wrong worldview. A biblical worldview understands that going against what God says is best for us leads to dysfunction, a lack of peace, and inner turmoil."

In my opinion, Andy’s ministry philosophy has eclipsed his theology. He so passionately wants to reach people that he has lost view of what he is offering. Reaching someone without giving them the truth does not transform anyone. There is nothing to save them from if we can’t help them see their sin. We all have sin that must be repented of. We all have areas where we have to deny ourselves. But understanding that and admitting it is the first step to Christ moving into our lives to set us free. If we can’t call a whole category of sin - sin, we are trapping those who struggle with those sins in a place with no hope.

Many years ago, I heard Andy tell a funny story about the beginning of North Point Community Church. He said that at the rented facility they had a marquee out front that scrolled the events that were happening. He said there was not enough room to put the whole name of the church on the sign, so the facility had abbreviated. Their abbreviation was unfortunate because it said "No Point Community Church." That story was funny when I first heard it. Now I see it as a heart-breaking foreshadowing. If North Point is about just getting everyone into the circle, but excusing certain sins because dying to self and allowing Jesus to move in that area is "unsustainable," then they have nothing to offer the community. I’m glad Andy still verbalizes the biblical position on sex and marriage, I can only hope that his pastoral practice will come back into alignment with those truths.

2 This argument acts as if God did not see these sins coming and has no plan for helping them live in obedience. Almost as if God is unreasonable to expect anything different from them. It fails to see that we are all born with a bent toward certain sins. Some people seem to struggle with lying. Some people have had a temper problem since they were a baby. Many heterosexual men struggle to rein in their womanizing habits. But we all expect people to control their anger, stop lying, and stop cheating.

3 That statement is naive today. There are plenty of progressive teachers trying to convince people that it is biblical.

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