Ideology? Pete Rollins, Polarization, & the Denial of a Third Way

Recently, Carl Lentz, pastor of Hillsong NYC, was interviewed on CNN.

In the interview, Carl responded to questions about Hillsong’s stance on LGBT issues. And his response was to not give a direct “yes or no” kind of answer (which has been his response in other interviews as well). He did say that “gay men and women” are present and welcome at HNYC. But he wouldn’t say what the official stance is on gay marriage – and the interviewer highlighted his refusal.

There is a lot of conversation happening in the larger church right now about the possibility of a “third way” on this issue (I weighed in here). Hillsong is not quite in the same genre as my current denomination (the United Methodist Church), but the struggle is perhaps similar. Hillsong is trying to be welcoming and relevant locally while holding onto its largely conservative official positions on sexuality issues (Hillsong Australia, the mother church, is part of the very-conservative Assemblies of God). Likewise, the UMC has an official stance on homosexuality that is conservative, while its local reach is more progressive and contextual.

I’ve been critical of the movement that Carl and Hillsong find themselves in, but my focus thus far has primarily been on the blurred lines (pun intended) between church and celebrity. That is, there is a strong trend especially among younger charismatic churches to adopt the values of celebrity culture – fame, arrogance, and excessive wealth – as the ideals of a blessed or favored life, and communicate a gospel that promises a kind of celebrity experience. (It’s a sort of repackaged prosperity gospel without the nastier bait-and-switch tactics of the old televangelists.) For this reason, the look and feel of these churches/leaders is very E! Network or Details Magazine – and outlets like that do stories on them to highlight the celebrity feel. I have dubbed this trend Celebrity Christianity.

The thing is, Carl, for all the press he receives for being a pastor to celebrities, has been fairly open to my critique. We’ve formed a friendship through dialogue on this and other issues. I appreciate his willingness to engage on these things – it’s a rare quality.

I mean, I’m sure we’d have quite a tussle over the ecclesiological dimensions of baptizing Bieber, but at least it’s a conversation we can actually have.

Enter Peter Rollins. Yesterday, Pete wrote a strong critique of Carl and Hillsong over the softball LGBT interview questions and the seemingly evasive answers from Carl. Pete is likely seeing this as an example of the aforementioned third way run amok. In critiquing the ideology behind a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach (rendering the problem non-existent by simply not acknowledging it, a la North Korea), Pete says it’s simply a matter of time before the truth comes out or there is a policy change. Both lead to the eventuality of equality.

If I may, I want to offer an affirmation and a critique to both Pete and Carl.

Pete Rollins

To Pete, my affirmation is this: Yes, “don’t ask, don’t tell” is ideological avoidance whereby some churches simply deceive themselves (and seek to deceive others) on whether they are actually welcoming to gay people. And yes, this avoidance, when there are clearly rules in place that a church has to abide by, is at best a temporary buffer. (At worst, it’s just plain dishonest.) People will dig deeper and figure out the truth.

But my critique is this: By setting up the ideology of avoidance, Pete runs the risk of ideological tendencies on the other side. For instance, he never engages with what it actually looks like for a church to be honest, up-front, and humble about policies (and theologies) that prevent gay people from getting married or becoming clergy, while still desiring to welcome and include as much as they are able. Denominational, and even local church, policies don’t change overnight – and many never will, at least not in the foreseeable future. And there are real LGBT people in denominations and churches right now with these policies and theologies who do feel welcome and included, while doubtless unhappy with the policies themselves. They have found a spiritual family and home. They don’t want to leave or split or schism. Likewise, there are real LGBT people who have chosen celibacy or even straight marriages because of their own theological and spiritual convictions. Are we supposed to ideologically avoid – or perhaps just demonize – the more conservative “Other” to the degree that we erase these LGBT people from memory and reality? That would be shameful.

The third way as I imagine it (which I hope will become more normative among churches on both right and left) operates from a baseline of distinguishing between theological conviction (not to mention policy) and the embodied practices of love, acceptance, inclusion, etc., that can occur in real human communities – and subjecting theology to love. Further, it practices the belief that open LGBT Christians are real, and are really true Christians, even if there is theological disagreement. And, it continues with an insistence on supporting civil rights for gay people under law, and authentic inclusion in the church (even where there may not be full inclusion).

As the UMC is facing the possibility of a schism (like other denominations before it), I am further advocating the ideal situation that denominations and movements officially allow for gay marriages and gay clergy. By making allowance, a theological spectrum may continue to exist whereby local churches/districts can discern things theologically and spiritually on the ground. But again, this means conservatives must refuse to split when the official stance is to allow gay marriages and clergy. And, it means progressives must see the possibility of mutual love and respect despite theological differences. And, it means that all must stick to the aforementioned baseline, or there will, in my opinion, be practical intolerance and harm caused to LGBT people. (In other words, fundamentalism won’t fly – movement will be required on both sides.)

Is Pete in denial of this third way? Has his ideology blinded him here?

Carl Lentz

To Carl, my affirmation is this: Yes, there is the actual potential for Carl and Hillsong NYC to love, accept, and include LGBT people, even if their official policies and even theologies can’t change. This is something Carl can say with conviction in interviews (though I wish he’d do less interviews, especially when they’re so superficial and Celebrity Christianity-driven, like “hipster pastor! looks like a movie star! hangs with basketball players and celebs! big crowds!” etc. etc. But I digress.). And, it’s something he can practice on a deep, personal level as he nurtures relationships with gay friends and neighbors and completely validates the faith of LGBT Christians in his circles.

But my critique is this: Pete is right. Carl HAS to be honest. Hillsong as a global movement and Hillsong NYC as a local expression both need to respond to these kinds of questions with clarity and humility, not blocking and avoidance. A defensive posture is not going to work on this issue. Too much is at stake. Too many people have been hurt by bait and switch tactics. Honesty and humility about the theologies and policies involved can give rise to a tangible grace, love, and acceptance toward LGBT people – but hedging and doublespeak will not.

My hope is that even churches like Hillsong could participate in a humble third way beyond the polarizing, warring ideological debate (and maybe shed some of the Celebrity Christianity stuff in the process). 

For the sake of the reformation and unity of Jesus’s church which, I think, is a theological stance we can all agree on.

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About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter was released in 2012. Twitter & Facebook.