Don’t Pump the Brakes: Engaging Hillsong’s Doctrine of Church Membership

Don’t Pump the Brakes: Engaging Hillsong’s Doctrine of Church Membership August 17, 2015

hillsongunitedHillsong Church of New York City has landed in the news recently. Reed Kelly and Josh Canfield, a gay couple, have apparently been serving in the ministry of Hillsong NYC while remaining in their relationship. Over at The Stream, I made the case that if Hillsong failed to call this couple to repentance for their homosexual activity, then it offers them and others a “half gospel.”

This was all of interest in part because I have just written a book, The Colson Way, which is essentially about true conversion and its effects. Michael Gerson, former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, said after Colson’s death in 2012 that Colson was “the most thoroughly converted person” he knew. Conversion exploded in Colson’s life. It gave him a new mind, a new sense of purpose, a new worldview. There was nothing tame or half-converting about the gospel Colson met.

But that gospel seems problematic to some today. This came to light when Hillsong NYC pastor Carl Lentz responded to his critics in a Religion News Service interview with Jonathan Merritt. In what follows, I want to engage his understanding of church membership.

First, Lentz apparently argues that church membership puts up “barriers.” Lentz to Merritt: Our doctrine and theology rings hollow and often even comical when we set up even more barriers for hurting people than our broken world is offering. Apparently, people want others to be transformed by a gospel they are actually not allowed to hear, doubt, explore, have explained or see in action. 

I find this a quixotic comment in light of Jesus’ take-no-prisoners call to repent and believe in his name (see Mark 1, for example). Jesus–and his apostles–seem to think that it is indeed a Very Big Deal to come to faith. Count the cost, Christ said at one point (Luke 14:28). This little phrase indicates that following Christ means summiting peaks and climbing over barriers, to be sure. It’s not supposed to be a small thing to convert to Christianity. It means death to self. It means crossing over the line. It means leaving father and mother behind (Luke 14:26). Think of the dread significance of that last statement. Leave your family behind to follow me, says the audacious Christ. Any church that doesn’t uphold this standard is failing the biblical test.

Second, Lentz seems to think traditional church membership gets in the way of authentic faith. Lentz to Merritt: We don’t believe that to partake in aspects of this community, to sit at this table, you have to fully understand, comprehend or be convicted by our doctrine. … We believe you can have church discipline, accountability and strong pastoral discipleship without “traditional membership.” …to pretend membership is the answer to people living holy, disciplined lives is wrong. 

The first part of the quote above is really wishy-washy. No one “fully understands” biblical doctrine when they get saved. That’s a non-starter as an idea. But you better “fully understand” the gospel and the weight of conversion when you join a church. If you don’t get the gospel, you don’t get Christianity. This is a matter of belief and practice (see the love tests of 1 John).

The second part of the quote seems on its face to flatly contradict 1 Corinthians 5. Regarding the man who is sexually entangled with his father’s wife, Paul does not say to the church, Pump the brakes, fellas. Bring him along slowly–give him time to let go of his iniquity. Let’s hear what Paul does say: you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that he can be saved, ideally (1 Cor. 5:4). Did Paul think that membership was the elite enemy of sin? Absolutely. If you chase sin and give in to it in a sustained or egregious way, then you are to be disciplined and cast out of membership. Deliver this man to Satan. Terrifying words, these.

This reference to Corinth is hugely important, because if ever there was a place for a slacker membership policy, Corinth would be it. The city was rife with sexual libertinism; it might make modern NYC blush a bit. There were temple prostitutes; men could sleep with pretty well whomever they wanted; Aristophanes coined the verb Corinthianize to signal adventuresome sexual practices. Seems like Paul should have accommodated such immorality, right? Pump the brakes, right, Paul?

No. Paul goes exactly the opposite way. He does not tolerate this man’s gross sin. He does not allow the church to think for a solitary second that they are marked by such sin any longer. Such were some of you, he says to them. In perhaps the most stunning pastoral words in all of Scripture, he reminds them, But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:11). Paul refused to allow the Corinthians to think that their past sins, including the sin of homosexuality, marred them any longer. They had made a clean break with these transgressions and the identities they created.

We don’t need a new doctrine of church membership. We need to call people to come to the grace-giving God, and to leave all their sin behind. Then, when they have risen from the baptismal waters and are united with the church, we must call them to live according to the high calling of their profession, and discipline them if they fail. This is the only loving, missional practice there is. Anything else is a counterfeit, a half-measure, that will create half-Christians.

Third, Lentz claims that weaker membership breeds “genuine transparency.” Lentz to Merritt: There are plenty of examples of traditional membership working extremely effectively. … It’s equally valid to have a system that can produce genuine transparency than perpetuate a system that at times causes people to hide their tensions, questions and strongholds for fear of exclusion.

The argument here seems to be that the biblical standard of membership easily “perpetuates a system” of “fear of exclusion.” It doesn’t yield “genuine transparency” as his halfway system does. Here’s the deal: in Lentz’s framework, you can kinda sorta become a Christian. You can claim Jesus, I guess, but then not really go all in. In being “genuine,” you might commit huge, Bible-denying sins. But that’s cool. Pump the brakes, bro.

I want to believe that Lentz wants people to be saved. I want to believe that Hillsong is a truly Christian church. But statements like these chill my blood. It is precisely the “fear of exclusion” that helps keep us from sin. The possibility of being “handed over to Satan” should echo in our minds regularly. This is what you could call the negative means to holiness, with the glories of grace being the positive means.

Let’s get down to brass tacks: Lentz’s model is cleverly crafted. It draws a crowd, particularly among those who like the trappings of faith but not the whole enchilada. But this model is not biblical. The church is not a marketing firm. It is not scared of people counting the cost. It wants people to weigh the risk of following Jesus. Because of this, it strives for a body of members who love and obey its Lord and Savior. None of them do this perfectly; but all are called to this way of life as a consistent reality.

Sadly, Lentz and Hillsong seem to be well on their way to abandoning the very means God has instituted to sober us and call us to Christ. Our God does not only woo; he also warns. Our God does not only save; he also judges. Many professedly evangelical churches only want to preach half of these formulations. I pray they do not persist in these unbiblical ways. If they do, they preach a God without moral authority who loves a church without holiness–a people who are in danger of dying without faith.


Image: Hillsong United by Abrahamvf on 9/29/07, accessed on Wikimedia Commons and licensed under Creative Commons

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