October 4, 2023 – Daniel McCoy, RENEW.org Editorial Director
There’s a lot I appreciate about Andy Stanley. In years past, I’ve led his small group DVD studies. I’ve gathered helpful communication insights from his books. His on-stage delivery can be masterful. His Principle of the Path continues to be formative for me.
Yet appreciating someone isn’t the same as being a fan. There are numerous disagreements I’ve had with Stanley’s approach throughout the years. “Unhitching” from the Old Testament? Being downright derogatory toward small churches?
The latest Andy Stanley controversy involves a conference held at his Atlanta-area North Point Community Church. At the “Unconditional” conference, held at the end of September (2023), attendees were taught how to “love and support the LGBTQ+ community well.” The primary area of focus was on helping parents of LGBTQ+ children understand their children better and build bridges instead of burning them.
So…that was controversial? As it turned out, however, two of the conference speakers were gay men living in same-sex marriages. Also speaking was ethicist David Gushee, who made a loud exit from historic Christian sexual ethics with his book Changing Our Mind, co-written with Matthew Vines of God and the Gay Christian. The conference hailed “from the quieter middle space,” yet these nods toward pro-gay theology made it appear more a hushed shift toward the left.
The Seminary President & the Megachurch Pastor
Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, weighed in: “Andy Stanley, one of the most influential pastors in the United States, has been moving in this direction for years, often by suggestion and assertion but clouded by confusion and the deliberate avoidance of clarity.” He explained his concerns in a World article called “The Train Is Leaving the Station.”
Stanley spent the next weekend’s sermon addressing Mohler’s criticisms and telling the story of North Point’s years-long efforts to be a space where LGBTQ+ people can talk about their sexual orientation without fearing a barrage of condemnation. In Stanley’s estimation, people like Mohler are line-drawers eager to pounce on those who cross their arbitrary lines. By contrast, Stanley identifies as a circle-drawer, trying to draw as many people as possible into a relationship with Jesus, regardless of their LGBTQ+ identities. And what about the platforming of pro-gay theology at the conference? Stanley defended that by saying that it wasn’t meant to be a theology conference, but rather a conference helping parents understand and support their LGBTQ+ children.
“Andy Stanley, one of the most influential pastors in the United States, has been moving in this direction for years.” —Albert Mohler
Moreover, explained Stanley in the sermon, their church has not shifted its stance on same-sex marriage. Although the beliefs of North Point people and staff might be all over the map, the church’s official teachings have remained consistent: “Biblical marriage is between a man and a woman. We’ve never shied away from that.”
If I take Stanley’s statement here at face-value—which, to be honest, is not easy to do—significant concerns remain about Stanley’s approach, especially as it has emerged in the back-and-forth with Al Mohler. Mohler, we ought to note, knows a thing or two about theological liberalism, as in the 1980s he helped steer a U-turn of the Southern Baptist Convention from liberalism to a commitment to biblical authority. His warnings compel a hearing from reflective Christians.
In the interest of being helpful while not jumping to conclusions, here are three trajectories I’m seeing that I don’t appreciate:
#1 – Narrating Naysayers as Pharisees
Early in his sermon, Stanley draws a connection between religious leaders like Mohler and the religious leaders whom Jesus made nervous through his love and compassion. According to Stanley, Mohler’s line-drawing version of Christianity “is why people are leaving Christianity unnecessarily.” It’s careless and untrue to paint Mohler as a Jesus-opposing Pharisee when Mohler is—only sensibly, in my estimation—pressing Stanley on why he is giving pro-gay theology a platform. Stanley is using his substantial rhetorical gifts to translate a wise critic into a villainous caricature.
“Stanley draws a connection between religious leaders like Mohler and the religious leaders whom Jesus made nervous through his love and compassion.”
#2 – Trivializing Historic Christianity
In responding to Mohler’s article (“The Train Is Leaving the Station”), Stanley began his sermon by clarifying that he never “left” the Christian faith that Mohler describes. Why? It’s because, as Stanley put it, “I have never subscribed to his version of biblical Christianity to begin with.”
But what kind of version of biblical Christianity is Stanley referring to? If we’re taking Stanley at face value, he himself continues to promote a Christianity which says, “Biblical marriage is between a man and a woman”? Without a clear, core theological disagreement, this “my version” VS “his version” trivializes the important notion of a historic Christianity to which we all should be trying to align.
And isn’t Stanley’s official position itself a form of drawing lines—since he is drawing a line between biblical and unbiblical marriage? Stanley’s guiding metaphor of line-drawing VS circle-drawing breaks apart since Stanley apparently draws theological lines too, and since Stanley can’t begin to prove that Mohler doesn’t deeply care about reaching people who are far from God.
“Without a clear, core theological disagreement, this ‘my version’ VS ‘his version’ trivializes the important notion of a historic Christianity to which we all should be trying to align.”
Unless there is a significant theology difference between the two—a difference Stanley hasn’t acknowledged—then Stanley is simply making unfounded accusations on how Mohler views and treats people. It’s true that Mohler has no qualms challenging church leaders about their theology, but concern for theological accuracy is as biblical as it gets. Take your pick of New Testament epistles whatever the author, and you’ll see this concern pop up constantly.
#3 – Preaching One-Way Repentance
I would be grateful to be proved wrong here (as with all three of these trajectories I am sensing), as I certainly haven’t listened to all that Stanley has to say on the subject. But I sense from Stanley a one-sided message of repentance, as if the people who really need to repent are those who voice concern about homosexuality—whether theologians who have trouble not seeing a concerning shift at churches like North Point or parents who have trouble affirming their children’s LGBTQ+ beliefs and activities.
But when it comes to people boldly acting on their same-sex attraction, what message do they receive? There’s a lot of listening, understanding, empathizing—all important things. But what about calls for repentance? A lot of churches seem to have used up all those on the people in their church who haven’t yet internalized the subtle shifts that have been reshaping it.