This week, Jen Hatmaker, progressive Christian author and speaker, stated in an interview that she believes that “gay relationships are holy”.
Talk about stepping in it. The moment Jen made her claim, you knew what was coming: a tsunami of rebuke from every corner of the orthodox church (and Internet). And instantly, as you know they would, some of her loyal fans flocked to defend her.
It was a mess, unfocused and emotion-ridden. Her defenders asked unproductive questions of her critics like “Are you so perfect yourself?” They pointed out the self-satisfied, angry, and alarmist tones of the criticism (and they weren’t always wrong). That smug delight is everything Christian millennials already dislike about the evangelical church and the word “doctrine”. Yet the hard place was there with the rock, because orthodoxy was Scripture-bound to respond to Jen’s statement.
But what caught my attention in the fracas, and what got me reflecting, was something I know too well: the hesitation to release an earthly hero.
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: a kind of dull panic. They fear any threat to her message, which emphasizes the love of Jesus and grace for the sinner. That tenderness is crucial to them, because her fanbase is heavy with believers who have not experienced it in today’s church. So 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.
It’s the same worry we all feel when our favorite pastor or author gets criticized.
It was painful for Mark Driscoll’s followers to watch him finally and unquestionably fall from grace. But some kept trying to shrug it off. They performed mental gymnastics to excuse glaring and grievous sins. And while I couldn’t agree, I understood. Though his victims deserved justice and he had to go, God had worked through him, and people 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 human teachers kept falling like October leaves (C.J. Mahaney, Bill Hybels, James MacDonald), I realized I cannot be tied to human teachers. They will err. They will fall short. And they will never be Jesus himself.
My favorite author, John Eldredge, has framed the gospel and daily discipleship in a fresh, personal way for me. I have no doubt that God has used his message to bring healing to my life. But every once in a while, he gets criticized (like everyone). And every time it happens, in my antsy mind, those criticisms threaten to negate and invalidate not just him, but by extension, the work I believe God has done in my life.
To date, I haven’t come across any really non-disputable cases against John’s teachings. But in those first few moments, I know a worry. We are highly sensitive to critiques of our favorite figures.
And we take it even further: Teacher Comparison Games. 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 all inevitably find teachers who speaks to our hearts, it’s God doing the watering. This is our great comfort when a teacher falls: everything we love about them is a thousand times truer of God.
If Eldredge ever “evolves” some position into an actual heresy, I must stand ready to denounce him. Utterly. Swiftly. Without apology. Why do I fear the sullying of a human leader anyway? The Lord is my shepherd. It is because of Jesus, not any of his followers, that I shall never be in want.
This truth frees us up to hold power players accountable. When people knock Steven Furtick, another preacher I enjoy, for buying a million-dollar house or sharing stages with less savory figures, I can accept it. “Yeah. I wish he’d knock that off.” The objectivity is difficult, but necessary. I’ve sometimes found myself incensed on behalf of Beth Moore (another frequent target), knowing the good she’s done for women. But I remember to stuff my indignation and ask, am I clinging to human heroes? Or do I recognize God as the true mover of everything good? (Ultimately, there isn’t much to attacks on Moore – just discernment bloggers who denounce conversational prayer and distrust any teacher not named John MacArthur.)
Paul has labels for those who play comparison games: worldly. Jealous and quarreling. “Mere human beings”.
Let go of humans. Be willing to acknowledge good and bad; be willing to walk away. The message is greater than the messenger. Too many of us are fighting tooth and nail to preserve an imagined infallibility in our earthly heroes. It’s not there, and the fight runs the risk of hiding the real source. Only Jesus deserves our unswerving loyalty; only Jesus will never fail us.