This week, Jen Hatmaker stepped in it.
The popular progressive Christian author and speaker, in an interview with the Religion News Service, stated she believed that “gay relationships are holy”.
Before I offer my stance on this*, I want to talk about something else: our reaction.
For as soon as I read Jen’s words, a swell of something hit my chest, and I wasn’t sure whether it was a response to Jen’s doctrine, or pity for her.
The moment Jen made her claim, you knew what was coming. She’s been hit with a tsunami of harsh rebuke from every corner of the earthly church. Smug responses, in some cases, like this from the Christian satire site Babylon Bee. Piling on. Without the nuance of face and voice, I can tell you that this wave of response has already struck some people as self-satisfied, angry, and alarmist – everything Christian millennials (like Hatmakers’ fans) already dislike about the evangelical church. It’s a downside to the internet. It’s also one reason my generation struggles so much to respect doctrine.
If you’re ice-cold objective about all this, you probably acknowledge that the harshness of the church has no bearing on whether a piece of doctrine is actually true.
But something is revealed here, I think, by fans of both Hatmaker and of those criticizing her: a hesitation to let go of our earthly heroes.
You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?
What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. (1 Corinthians 3:3-8)
I know what Jen’s fans are feeling right now: a kind of dulled panic. They fear Jen’s loss of reputation, because they fear the loss of the message she’s been carrying: the love of Jesus and grace for the sinner. That tenderness is crucial in their eyes, because it’s too often left out of the Gospel by a politicized and divisive 21st century church, and they hate the vitriol the church is capable of. (I, for example, shake my head every time Matt Walsh of The Blaze gets into a Twitter battle with someone. What could possibly be gained?)
So, in disgust with the church, they experience a huge temptation to dig in their heels and dismiss the church’s response outright – stepping deeper into one theological camp out of disgust towards another.
I understand them, actually. I have felt their worry myself. It’s the same worry we all feel when our favorite pastor or author gets criticized.
My favorite author, John Eldredge, has framed the gospel and the daily walk with Christ in a fresh, personal way for me over the years. I have no doubt that God has used his message to heal my own life. But every once in a while, he gets criticized. (Everyone does.) And in my antsy mind, those criticisms threaten to negate, not just him, but the work God has done in my life.
To date, I haven’t come across any truly irrefutable cases against John’s teachings; my research usually validates him, or dismisses the accusations as disputable matters. But in those first few moments, before the research, I know a worry. The temptation to just knee-jerk-dismiss his critics is very real.
I saw the same thing with Mark Driscoll years ago. It was painful for his followers, watching him finally and unquestionably fall from grace. But some continued to shrug off his mistakes. They performed mental gymnastics to excuse glaring and grievous sins. And while I couldn’t agree with them, I understood. God had worked through him, and they feared losing the unique truths he’d shared.
For many years, it was hard to look into my own heart and see this fear. But as I got older and better at honestly dissecting my motives, and as human teachers continue to fall from grace like maple leaves in October, I realized this: I cannot be tied to human teachers. They will err. They will fall short. And they will never be Jesus himself.
If John Eldredge ever “evolves” some position into a truly un-Scriptural heresy, I stand ready to denounce him. I must. Utterly. Swiftly. Without apology. There are loyalties higher than to a human author, like the truth of Scripture. Why do I fear the sullying of a human leader anyway? The Lord, not John Eldredge, is my shepherd. It is because of Jesus, not any of his followers, that I shall never be in want. Everything that’s been accomplished in my life really came from God. None of his apparatuses deserve adoration; only he does.
But that’s hard. We get really wrapped up in our heroes. Even those of us who prioritize good theology in our teachers are still prone to this. I must constantly crucify that part of my heart, every day.
When people knock Steven Furtick, another preacher I enjoy, for buying a million-dollar house or sharing a stage with less savory figures, I can, by the grace of God, accept it. “Yeah. I wish he’d knock that off.” Beth Moore is another favorite target of criticism. I found myself incensed on her behalf, knowing the good she has done for believing women. Once again I had to stuff my indignation and ask, am I clinging to human heroes? Or do I recognize God as the true mover of everything good in my soul? (In the end, there wasn’t much to the attack on Moore – just your typical discernment blogger who denounces conversational prayer and doesn’t trust any teacher not named John MacArthur.)
Paul has a choice word for those of us who play the “teacher comparison” games: worldly. Jealousy and quarreling. “Mere human beings”.
The Apollos-Paul stuff sounds a lot like what we do today. Someone said “one Francis Chan is worth twenty Steven Furticks!” Chan doesn’t want that comparison. If he does, he’s not worth your following. Though we will all inevitably find a teacher who speaks to our hearts, it’s God doing the watering. The power rests there, and there alone.
Let go of your teachers. Be willing to hold them accountable; be willing to acknowledge good and bad; be willing to walk away if they lose credibility. Don’t fear this. The true Gospel is not at risk; the message is greater than the messenger. Too many of us are fighting hard to maintain an imagined infallibility in our earthly heroes. It’s not necessary, and it runs the risk of hiding the real Jesus.
Only Jesus deserves our unswerving loyalty; only Jesus will never fail us.
* I can’t tell you what to do with Jen Hatmaker. But I believe the true Jesus, the Jesus displayed in the Word of God as a being of both tenderness and justice, offers the true tenderness of sanctification. Matthew 18 and the writings of Paul interpret the pain Hatmaker describes, the pain of homosexual practitioners being rejected by the church, as the pain of conviction – a holy and merciful fire, designed to cleanse us into a truthful walk with God. Leaving us to our sins is never kind.
If we are to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we are walking with the real Jesus and not our own made-up cardboard cutout, we must be prepared to put these truths ahead of feelings. That will be a difficult challenge in the decades to come.