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Can Ministry be Unhitched From Theology?

Pastoral care disconnected from theology is neither pastoral nor caring

OPINION—For the last few weeks, all eyes, at least evangelical eyes, have been locked on Atlanta. When North Point Community Church announced the “Unconditional” conference, held this past weekend, many noted that two of the speakers were men “married” to other men. Many of the rest were on the record as “affirming” same-sex relationships, recognizing LGBTQ as legitimate categories of human identity, and describing their work as hoping to convert Christians to their ideas about sex, identity, and marriage. Would this conference mark Andy Stanley’s final departure from historic Christian teaching on human sexuality?

Stanley, who is among America’s most prominent pastors, defended the conference and choice of speakers due to the focus of the event. In his Sunday sermon, he responded to the criticism, stating that this conference was not about the theology of human sexuality, or even about talking someone out of an LGBTQ identity. Rather, he said, it was aimed at “parents of LGBTQ+ children and ministry leaders looking to discover ways to support parents and LGBTQ+ children;” in other words, parents who had already tried (and failed) to talk their children out of these identities and now only wished to stay in relationship with them.

Even if the conference was intentionally designed to not address the questions of the morality of same-sex relationships and alternate sexual identities, as apologist and “Unconditional” conference attendee Alan Shlemon noted, it answered these questions “by virtue of who they platformed, their resources, their recommendations. It’s a confusing message at best, and at worst it’s … saying that homosexual sex would be permissible, (and) satisfying transgender ideations would be permissible. (To hear more of Shlemon’s perspective, watch his interview with fellow apologist professor Sean McDowell here.)

On Sunday, Stanley maintained that the conference successfully met its stated goal without implying any kind of moral or theological shift. This is possible because of something Stanley has said both about this conference and about the overall work of the Church. Introducing in another context the work of “Unconditional” conference speakers Greg and Lynn McDonald, founders of “Embracing the Journey,” Stanley stated the following: “This is the reality for those of us who are in ministry. … We’re dealing with real people and real relationships. … It is not political for me. … It is relational, because we are in ministry, and because we’ve learned to distinguish between theology and ministry, we can figure this out.”

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This is, I think, Stanley’s primary and most problematic contention: that pastoral ministry can be, and really must be, “unhitched” from theology. With this presumption, Stanley has continued to insist that North Point remains committed to biblical teaching about sex as only for marriage and about marriage as only for a man and a woman. At the same time, though he has never publicly and officially come out as “affirming” of homosexuality, Stanley has consistently described it as something that simply is, something that is part of people’s lives and not something that we should expect to change or be changed. He has praised the faith of people who, though they have embraced an “alternative lifestyle,” still wish to be connected to the Church, including the “married” men who presented at the “Unconditional” conference. He has also described gay marriage as a reasonable alternative if singleness is “not sustainable,” and both he and conference materials consistently used the identifiers of “gay,” “gay Christian,” and “LGBTQ+” to refer to those who struggle with same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria.

Neither Scripture nor the teaching of the church throughout millennia of Christian theology is nearly as ambiguous about such matters. The Bible is clear about God’s design and intentions for His image bearers, male and female, the marital union, sexual desires, and relational and sexual sins. The conference, as if this teaching were not clear, claimed to offer “a quieter middle” in a world that demands we “choose sides.” On Sunday, Stanley claimed that this matched the ministry of Jesus who “drew circles instead of lines,” drawing people in rather than keeping them out.

Jesus’ pastoral practice was, of course, unparalleled. He often surprised people by drawing them to Himself. In other words, He drew circles. But He also drew lines. For example, after drawing in the woman caught in adultery, He sent her off with a clear line. When questioned about divorce, Jesus pointed to the lines drawn in creation, of male and female and permanence. Of course, Paul drew lines, too, especially on issues of sexual morality to the church at Corinth.

In the nineteenth century, theological liberals, attempting to defend Christianity against cultural disdain for the supernatural, unhitched the practical results of Christianity in people’s lives from the truths about Who Christ is and what He accomplished. Relegating questions of theology to abstract and even arbitrary slogans, churches that embraced liberalism ceased to be churches and, even worse, ceased to be Christian.

“Unhitching” our doctrine from our pastoral care makes sense if the goal of the Church is simply to help people live better lives. Reducing the Church this way only elevates the self. Ministry, once unhitched from doctrine, devolves into idolatry. Like the golden calf worshiped in the time of the Exodus, it is possible to claim God’s name while losing all moral direction.

This article was co-authored by Dr. Timothy Padgett. It was originally published by Breakpoint.

John Stonestreet

John Stonestreet serves as president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He’s a sought-after author and speaker on areas of faith and culture, theology, worldview, education and apologetics. John is the daily voice of BreakPoint, the nationally syndicated commentary on the culture founded by the late Chuck Colson. He is also the voice of the Point, a daily one-minute feature on worldview, apologetics and cultural issues.