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”. Her emotion-dripping justification included this:
…my views here are tender. This is a very nuanced conversation, and it’s hard to nail down in one sitting. I’ve seen too much pain and rejection at the intersection of the gay community and the church.
I’ll offer my detailed thoughts on these thoughts at the end of this piece*, because if I share that first, it’ll distract people. First I want to talk about something else: our response.
For as soon as I read Jen’s words, a swell of something hit my chest, and I wasn’t sure whether it was revulsion at lazy doctrine, or pity for Jen.
The moment Jen made her claim, you knew what was coming. She got hit with a tsunami of harsh, sharp-edged online rebuke from every denomination and corner of the earthly church, not to mention those chiming in from the pews via Facebook comments. Smug responses, in some cases, like this from the Christian satire site Babylon Bee. Piling on. In writing, without the nuance of face and voice, I can tell you that this wave of response has already come across to some people as detached, self-satisfied, angry, and alarmist – everything that Christian millennials like Hatmakers’ fans already tend to 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 know that the harshness of the church’s response doesn’t excuse faulty doctrine. We should be indignant when the name of our God is tarnished, and alarmed when his people are deceived. This stuff matters.
But there’s something about my generation’s struggle that I want to validate – our hesitation to let go of our earthly heroes.
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 primary message she’s been carrying: the love of Jesus and grace for the sinner. They see it as crucial, because it’s been forgotten by a politicized and divisive church. Sure, they may have forgotten that the Bible is already the most progressive document ever written, and that it doesn’t need man’s help in getting there, but they are correct that tenderness is a crucial and oft-forgotten component of the Gospel. And they hate the vitriol the church can be capable of. (I, for example, wish Matt Walsh of The Blaze had not gotten into a Twitter battle with Jen. What could possibly be gained from that except turning people off?)
So, in disgust with the church, they experience a huge temptation to dig in their heels and dismiss the church’s response outright – falling deeper into one error 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.
Here’s an example. 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, and 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 undermine him and expose any work God has done in my life as false. To date, I haven’t come across any fatal problems with John’s teachings; my research usually validates him. But in those first few moments, before the research, I know a worry. And the temptation to just do a knee-jerk dismissal of whoever is criticizing him is very real.
I saw the same thing with Mark Driscoll a few years ago. It was a painful experience for his fans, watching him finally and unquestionably fall from the grace of the pulpit. But some people continued to shrug off his mistakes. They performed mental gymnastics to excuse some glaring and grievous sins. And while I couldn’t agree with them, I understood why. 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 motive in myself. But eventually, as I got older, I gained the ability to honestly dissect my motives. And I realized this: I cannot be tied to human teachers. They will err. They will fall short. And they will never be Jesus himself.
Today, if John Eldredge ever “evolves” his position on something into a truly un-Scriptural heresy, I stand ready to denounce him. I must. Utterly. Swiftly. Without apology. There are things more important than my loyalty to a human author, like upholding the truth of Scripture and its definition of a godly teacher. 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 has been accomplished in my life really came from him. None of his apparatuses deserves adoration; only he does.
But this is hard to accept. We get really wrapped up in our heroes. Those of us who prioritize good theology in our teachers are still prone to this. Be honest: does your heart feel a faint joy at being right, at being “above the crowd”? Is that even a partial motive, existing not in explicit words but just a blink-and-you-miss-it emotion of satisfaction flashing through your heart? Some personalities are bent this way. Mine is.
I must constantly crucify that part of my heart, every day. I must be ready to criticize my heroes.
When people knock Steven Furtick, another teacher I enjoy, for buying a million-dollar house or sharing a stage with Joel Osteen, I can, by the grace of God, accept it. “Yeah. I wish he wouldn’t do that.” Beth Moore recently came under fire for something. I found myself incensed on her behalf, knowing the good she has done for believing women. I once again found myself asking, am I clinging to human heroes? Or do I recognize that God is the true mover of everything good in my soul? (To be clear, there wasn’t much to the attack on Moore – just your typical discernment blogger, the kind who denounces conversational prayer and doesn’t trust any teacher not named John MacArthur.)
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)
Ouch. Paul has a choice word for the “teacher comparison” games we play as believers: worldly. And jealousy and quarreling. The Apollos-Paul stuff sounds very much like what we do today. I once heard someone say “one Francis Chan is worth twenty Steven Furticks!” Chan doesn’t want that comparison. If he does, he’s not worth your following. It isn’t about the teachers; it’s about the God behind them. Though we will all inevitably find a teacher who speaks to our unique hearts or offers an angle or filter for the Gospel that energizes us, it is the same God. The power rests there, and there alone.
Here’s what I’m trying to say: let go of your teachers. Be willing to hold them accountable; be willing to acknowledge the good and the bad; be willing to walk away if they finally 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 depict our earthly heroes as infallible. It’s not necessary, and it runs the risk of hiding the real Jesus from the eyes of the world behind untruthful doctrine.
Only Jesus deserves our unswerving loyalty; only Jesus will never fail us.
* I cannot tell you what to do with Jen Hatmaker. But if you are trying to know the true Jesus, the Jesus displayed in the Word of God as a being of both tenderness and justice, then you know the proper response to Hatmaker’s belief in this area. You know that true tenderness is sanctification. You know from Matthew 18 and the writings of Paul that the pain Hatmaker describes is the pain of conviction – a holy and merciful fire, designed to cleanse us into a truthful walk with God. 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’s going to be a difficult challenge in the decades to come.