The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

It’s Wednesday, September 20, 2023.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

When a Conference is More Than a Conference: The Trajectory of Andy Stanley and the “Unconditional” Conference

We’ve been tracking for years now a certain pattern prevalent among at least some claiming to be evangelical Christians. It is a continual program of theological revision. It is in the name of one cause or another, a resetting of the theological table, but it’s often done incrementally. One of the things we need to note is that trajectory matters. When there is a trajectory away from biblical Christianity, if that is not quickly checked and very conscientiously checked, then it continues in that same direction. And it’s largely because of the sociology of the context. The context is this, we’re living in an increasingly secularized society and the pressures coming from the progressivist moral impulse of that secularizing society makes it all the more difficult, frankly, for conservative biblical Christians to stand in one place without facing a great deal of secular opposition.

But that’s actually our calling. Our calling is to stay within the faith, once for all delivered to the saints. It is to stand on biblical authority and it’s also to think through these issues comprehensively on biblical conviction and understanding the nature of truth. At the same time, there’s some very interesting counter-arguments. And the counter-argument of classical liberalism, theological liberalism is your understanding Christianity is just woefully out of date. The modern age requires a complete redefinition of Christianity, so beginning with Jesus Christ himself and understanding who Christ is and what he accomplished, that’s entirely redefined. And then, of course, every doctrine progressively falls. But there’s another way of abandoning the Christian faith and it’s not the way of classical Protestant theological liberalism, which is just saying Christianity is going to have to be updated out with all those old doctrines, the Bible’s just a human book.

No, the second way is by minimizing doctrine and by trying to find a way out of the very clear teachings of scripture, especially on issues with greatest abrasive conflict with the larger culture. And let’s face it, right now, the sexuality and gender issues are at the forefront. And that takes us to Atlanta, Georgia. Back in 1995, Andy Stanley, son of the very well-known pastor of the First Baptist Church of Atlanta, Charles Stanley who was also host of the In Touch television program. Andy Stanley stood in a conference room and spoke in 1995 about starting a church there in Buckhead. It now has several locations, but the most important thing to recognize is that this was a church that was advertised from the very beginning as a church that was going to be seeking those who were not Christians in order to reach them for the gospel and to bring them into the Christian faith.

So that sounds good. The problem is, and we’ve seen this pattern especially throughout the course of the last say 20 to 30 years, the pattern is so many of those churches adopt a missiology that actually requires the abandonment of a theology. And you certainly have a situation in which claiming that you’re trying to reach non-Christian people, and of course, that’s what we’re trying to do with the gospel and using the adage you have to meet them where they are. The argument is you simply have to be quiet, or a lot quieter about some of the issues that are most abrasive in the cultural context. But there’s a larger context to that pattern, and that is the fact that in a progressivist culture, secularizing, increasingly progressive and liberal in terms of its moral impulses and thus considerably day by day, sometimes it seems more antagonistic towards biblical Christianity.

You have to understand that culture is making ever more insatiable demands. So eventually, here’s where we need to see clearly. There really isn’t any middle ground on these issues because you have the progressivist culture that’s simply saying it’s not enough to be quiet about what the Bible teaches on sexuality and gender issues. You’ve got to actually affirm what we demand that you affirm. So we’ve been seeing this progressively in the case of Andy Stanley, there’s no joy in talking about this, but I think it’s necessary to talk about this. On Monday I dropped a major article entitled, The Train is Leaving the Station published at World Opinions. I’m following up on that now on The Briefing. In order to set the larger context and to extend the conversation a bit.

What drew our attention most recently is the fact that Andy Stanley and the church is set to host a conference known as the Unconditional Conference. It’s going to be located at a campus in North Point Community Church there in the metro Atlanta area.

Now, the website for the conference builds it as a two-day premier event, which is designed especially for parents of LGBTQ+ children and ministry leaders. Here’s a quote, “You will be equipped, refreshed, and inspired as you hear from leading communicators on topics that speak to your heart, soul, and mind.” One statement above all others seems to stand out to me in that description, quote, “No matter what theological stance you hold, we invite you to listen, reflect and learn as we approach this topic from the quieter middle space.” Now, I just want to go at those words for a minute, the “quieter middle space” because I just want to say right up front, I believe that’s illusory. I don’t believe that quieter middle space exists. I can see why many might hope that it would exist. You might hope there would be a place which is not so confrontational, not so controversial, not so loud.

But here’s where we understand it’s the culture making this loud. This is not that conservative biblically minded Christians stood up in the public square and said, “What I want to talk about is sexuality and gender.” It is a revolution in those issues that is now presented to us as if we must surrender to it. And one of the most important responsibilities of the Christian Church is to talk about these issues out loud but to talk about them in explicitly biblical terms consistent with Christian moral witness over the course of the last two millennia on issues of marriage, sexuality, and gender. But the other reason I drew attention to those words–the quieter middle space–is because not only do I believe middle space doesn’t exist, I believe this conference is anything but middle space, and that was the instigation for looking at it much more closely.

Why would I say that? Well, the advertising for the conference indicates that this is actually going to be an event designed as a platform for normalizing the LGBTQ+ revolution, while at the same time claiming this is a representation of quieter middle space. Now, as I say, there is no middle space on these issues, and evidence of that is the fact that at the conference scheduled speakers advertise for the event, include two men who are married to other men, at least they’re married to each other according to current civil law. Biographical background on speakers, Justin Lee and Brian Nietzel indicates that both men are now married to men. They’re in what are now described as same-sex marriages. Justin Lee’s been on many platforms speaking about this issue. He’s very well known for arguing for the legitimacy of monogamous same-sex relationships. That’s the terminology that he’s been using, monogamous same-sex relationships.

Brian Nietzel likewise presents seminars on what is described as restoring LGBTQ+ faith. But what you’re looking at here, two men married to other men. Let’s just be clear, this isn’t middle space. This is declaring sides, and this is not the side consistent with biblical Christianity. This is the side that I believe is not only incompatible with biblical Christianity but cannot coexist in one space with biblical Christianity. So the first thing we notice when we look at this advertisement for the conference is that it’s going to feature two men, both of whom are married to other men as speakers at the conference and presenters. Another major speaker at the conference is David Gushee at Mercer University, a prominent intellectual. He’s been very honest about his own change of mind on the moral status of LGBTQ+ behaviors and relationships, and he’s been writing about these things now for many years. In what’s identified as the definitive edition of his book, which is entitled, Changing Our Mind. The subtitle of the book, by the way, is, “A Landmark call for inclusion of Christians.”

David Gushee traces his own pilgrimage to eager LGBTQ+ advocacy. In the book, he states that he will quote, “Grant the historical claim that the church has believed that same-sex acts in relationships are always wrong.” But the book traces his own change of mind on this issue, and he’s very honest. He believes that the church should change its mind on the issue as well. He’s very honest about this. In the book he traces his own change of mind, indeed, that’s the title of the book, Changing Our Mind on the question of sexuality, gender, and marriage. And he’s clearly come to the position that he thinks the Christian church has been historically wrong on this issue. He is clear about his position, he’s honest about his reasoning. He is very, very straightforward in his reading of the Bible, how he understands the Bible and sees those texts. He’s honest about his conclusions.

I appreciate his honesty. I appreciate the clarity with which he makes his argument. Furthermore, I’m pretty confident that David Gushee would agree that the issues at stake in this debate reflect the deepest issues of Christian conviction, right down to our understanding of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and how we read the Bible. So when I look here, what I see is an honest disagreement over what both of us agree would be the most fundamental Christian convictions, including how we read the Bible, how we define marriage, how we understand sexuality, sexual morality, and gender. What we face here is an honest disagreement. As David Gushee writes, quote, “I’m instead asking whether devout gay and lesbian Christians might be able to participate in the covenantal marital sexual ethical standard, one person for life, faithful and exclusive in a loving non-exploitative, non-coercive, reciprocal relationship that is the highest expression of Christian sexual ethics, which in fact a goodly number already doing.”

He says, “In conclusion to this point, I can’t find a compelling reason to say ‘no’ anymore.” So let’s just understand that’s about as clear a statement as we could imagine from anyone. It’s absolutely free from evasion or confusion. He’s speaking on the platform at the Unconditional Conference at the invitation of Andy Stanley and his church. So this conference is taking a side, this is not the middle. Honestly, looking at the materials written by and presented by those who’ll be speaking at the conference, this is nowhere near the middle. And as I’ve already said, there isn’t a middle. You’re either going to stand on biblical conviction or you’re going to call for a redefinition of Christian sexual morality and the practice of the Christian Church and preaching about these issues, teaching about these issues, even right down to how the Christian Church understands male and female, man and woman, boy and girl, marriage, sexual morality, the whole gamut.

Now, as a theologian, I just feel a responsibility to say that what this represents is a departure from historic normative biblical Christianity. I think both sides understand this is the most basic disagreement we could imagine, so are sex and gender. It’s over ontology and being, it’s over scripture, the authority of scripture, and the interpretation of scripture. It’s over God and the gospel. It just doesn’t get any more basic than this, but I do recognize the gravity of the words I’m using when I say that what we see here is a departure from historic normative biblical Christianity. I say that because I believe that’s exactly what it is, and I believe Christians ought to take note of it.

Now, Andy Stanley’s been one of the most influential pastors in the United States for quite a while, and he’s been moving in this direction for years often by suggestion and assertion. So I go back to how I started. That’s one of the things we need to know. There are some who just jump off a cliff into the abandonment of biblical Christianity, but there are others who kind of inch along. My point is they both end up in the same place, one faster and one slower, but they do end up in the same place. Here’s some of the things we’ve been watching, back in the year 2018, Andy Stanley called for the church to be in his words, “unhitched from the Old Testament.” Now, he argued that the Old Testament should not be understood as the go-to source regarding any behavior in the church. That’s quite a statement. The Old Testament is not the go-to source, about any behavior in the church.

Now, there’s some big issues of the interpretation of the Bible that faithful Christians can be involved in here, the relationship between the Old Testament and the New. But here’s the one thing, no Christian can say that the Old Testament is to be unhitched from the church or the church from the Old Testament. As Martin Luther said, “The Old Testament is the cradle of Christ.” But if you can claim that you’re somehow very effectively and driven by missiology, unhitching, the Old Testament from the church and the church from the Old Testament, then you no longer have to deal with any texts, such as, “You shall not lie with the males with a woman.” It is an abomination in Leviticus 18:22. But in truth, we need to recognize that enhancing the Old Testament means the entire Old Testament. About six years before that, in the year 2012 in a message, Andy Stanley seemed to argue that adultery is a sin. That is adultery when a man and a woman married to each other enter into a sexual romantic relationship with someone outside the marriage.

He seems very clearly to argue that adultery is a sin, but the story is really of a man and a woman. The man breaking the marital vow has a relationship with another man, and yet Andy Stanley dealt with it only as adultery as if the same-sex nature of the sexual relationship didn’t matter at all. When that was made an issue, what’s most important is that Andy Stanley didn’t clarify it. He left it right where it was.

More recently, perhaps even with this conference on the horizon, Andy Stanley dismissed biblical texts against homosexual behavior as clobber verses. Now, he didn’t come up with that term, that term clobber text or clobber verses that’s been used by others for a matter of about two decades pushing the LGBTQ+ agenda. But I just need to note that in itself is an amazingly negative thing to say about scripture as if any text in scripture is a clobber text and can be dismissed or reduced to a clobber text. We’ll have to talk more about that another time, but right now, we just need to recognize that’s really not a respectful attitude to scripture in the first place.

In this more recent presentation, Andy Stanley said this quote, “If your theology gets in the way of ministry like if there’s somebody you can’t minister to because of your theology, you have the wrong theology.” You look at it and say, “On the one hand, we should be able to minister to anyone, but we have to minister to everyone on the basis of biblical authority and the authentic gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.” I think we understand that in this context what Andy Stanley is saying is that if your theology doesn’t allow you to say avoid these issues, then you have the wrong theology. What’s most important I think, is that we recognize the trajectory at work here and the pattern because this is not just about one man, it’s not just about one church, it’s not just about one conference. This is about the pressure that is now being experienced by evangelical Christians in the United States, and frankly by anyone who would hold to conservative theological beliefs and to classical Christianity on Biblical authority.

We’re being increasingly told, we are the problem. We’re being increasingly told one way or another that if your theology gets in the way of the sexual and gender revolution, then change your theology. And that’s where I want to end by saying on closer reflection, this new form of liberalism really does look a lot closer to that Protestant liberalism in classic form I mentioned earlier, the Christian faith is simply out of date. It’s one thing to say that about say Trinitarian doctrine or atonement theology, the way it was said back with the early Protestant liberals, it’s basically the same thing. We need to recognize if you say we just need to get rid of this emphasis on the sexual morality and definition of marriage and understanding of gender revealed in scripture, you abandon the biblical teachings on human sexuality, gender, marriage, you’re abandoning the gospel. You may not acknowledge that you are, but you are, and this points to an even more fundamental issue, and this is where we’re going to have to end this consideration today.

The most fundamental issue is this, the Christian gospel is the good news of how God saves sinners through the atonement accomplished by his son, the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross, and in his resurrection; salvation, and the forgiveness of sins is promised to all those who confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and repent of sins. As the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” But the New Testament also tells us that the command to believe is matched to the call and command to repent, and you thus have a complete package there in understanding what is the gospel and what is required of us, what the gospel call looks like, and what faithful Christianity looks like.

One of the other problems we have here frankly, is the separation of the doctrine of salvation from any lasting notion of biblical sanctification.

But final thoughts on this, our hearts should be broken about this. This is heartbreaking. It was heartbreaking for evangelical Christians to watch the Protestant liberals in the early 20th century abandon the faith. It was heartbreaking to see churches where you had pulpits that once resounded with gospel preaching that are now very much just singing the siren call of Protestant liberalism, a new theology for a new age. It was heartbreaking to see how these issues divided friends and colleagues, sometimes even divided denominations. It was and is heartbreaking to see this happen, and it’s particularly frustrating to see it happen in the name of reaching people. The New Testament calls us to reach people, but it calls us to go into all the nations and preach the gospel, and that includes faith and repentance. I felt the need to say here just a bit more than I said in that article published on Monday, particularly for listeners to The Briefing, and I think we can all anticipate there’ll be more to say about this in weeks to come.

Part II

Thou Shalt Not Be Permanently Monogamous? The Narcissism of Our Age Reigns Supreme in USA Today Article

But next, I want to turn to related developments in the culture. This is something we also need to watch. And in this case, I don’t think this is such a near danger to biblical Christianity. I think it’s very near danger in proximity to wherever we live and work. And frankly, I think it’s a real danger to confusion on questions of sexual morality and marriage. It tells us a lot about the culture.

Sara Kuburic writing for USA TODAY offers an article in recent days entitled, What is ‘modern monogamy’? Why it’s a fit for some couples. When you take a good thing and you put a modifier in front of it as a word, this is just a warning that’s generally not a good sign, and in this case, it’s profoundly not a good sign.

The argument here is for a redefinition of monogamy that doesn’t actually mean monogamy. Now, let’s just remember that the New Testament understanding of marriage, and it’s of course rooted in the Old Testament, is of a man and a woman and a lifelong monogamous relationship. And every one of those words is important, lifelong monogamous relationship. But as you’re looking at this, you recognize there’ve been calls for basically legislating polygamy who already have at least a couple of cities and local areas in the United States are playing around with redefining and even legalizing polygamy in one sense, and that tells you a whole lot about where the culture’s going. But even before that, you have the so-called same-sex marriage phenomenon, and that’s not only confusing people, it’s subverting marriage, I think deliberately so. And as you look at that, you recognize, well, marriage no longer means a lifelong monogamous union of a man and a woman.

Now, we’re told as we were just reminded about this conference, that it can be a man and a man or a woman and a woman, but if you can change it by gender, certainly you can change it by number, but you can also redefine monogamy. And here’s where maybe this does hit closer to home, than some Christians, some churches would like to admit, because if we’re honest on issues of divorce in any number of other issues, we’ve allowed all kinds of concessions when it comes to the definition of monogamy. But let’s look at this article what Sara Kuburic is writing about here is the need for a modern monogamy, and she says, “It’s a fit for some couples.” In other words, don’t misunderstand her. She’s not saying this is any kind of moral mandate. There’s no like thou shalt and thou shalt not hear. She’s really clear about that.

But she refers to modern monogamy as, quote, “A dynamic where an individual prefers an exclusive partnership with another person, but understands relationships as impermanent or seasonal.” So there you have it, the redefinition of marriage, and by the way, it doesn’t say a man and a woman. So this is just any two people. Any two people can just say, “For this season of life, I’m willing to go into an impermanent agreement about some kind of monogamous sexual relationship.” And so monogamy now just means, I guess, one person of any gender for some duration of time. Explaining why this modern has to be put in front of monogamy. Well, because it’s not monogamy for one thing, but the modern part is this, quote, “For example, what you want in a partner at 20 may differ from what you want in a partner in your forties. As you go through life, you may seek different types of support, connections, or traits sometimes to remain compatible with someone throughout a lifetime, we stop ourselves from growing and changing.”

Oh, that’s an awful thing to stop ourselves from growing and changing. You notice this evolving, absolutely narcissistic understanding of the self. And you also notice something else, you can’t really have any enduring family ties with this redefinition of monogamy. Let me just go back to the example that this author gives us. What you want to partner at 20 may differ from what you want in a partner in your forties. Well, guess what? If you have children, you still have children. And it shows you that this society is not just opposed to monogamous heterosexual marriage as marriage, it’s opposed to the family. It’s opposed basically to having children. It’s opposed to any kind of lasting continuity or for that matter, objective reality when it comes to how human beings relate to one another. Children just by the way, disappear from this article. There’s also a whole lot about why they’re disappearing from the moral consciousness of millions of Americans. Children are just not here.

But some of this also sounds like Hallmark popular psychology, and I think it’s fair to say USA TODAY is fairly well known for trotting this stuff out from time to time. Listen to this quote, “Modern monogamy can be understood as writing different chapters with different people.” So there you are, you’re the author of your own life, you’re just writing different chapters with different people. The personal autonomy dimension of this is just not only obvious, it’s frankly idolatrous. Describing this modern monogamy the author says, “It’s loving someone enough to let them go when they are unhappy or loving yourself enough not to sacrifice your whole life for the sake of a relationship.” That’s the big problem in the world, isn’t it? Married people just don’t love themselves enough.

But before leaving this, I just want to, well give you the conclusion of this article. Where’s all this going, quote, “Modern monogamy is used by many to honor themselves and those they love, it’s an agreement that allows them to experience, love, partnership, and commitment, while also being open and curious about the continuous alignment and not shying away from being willing to adjust, shift, or let the relationship go.” At the end of the day, this article could have just been summarized with the modern motto, you be you.

Part III

Could You Spare a Bit of Honey? Disney World Temporarily Shut Down By Black Bear During Its Eating Season

One final word, sometimes we need these. On Monday, Walt Disney World in Florida was shut down because of an intruder. The intruder in this case was a bear. A guest at the park reported that a black bear was in a tree at the Magic Kingdom there near Orlando in Florida. Officials of Florida and Walt Disney World just pointed out that if you are in Florida, you’re probably close to bears. And having grown up in Florida and spent a lot of time outside, I can simply say that is profoundly true. In this case, the intrusive bear was an adult female. She was captured quite safely and escorted out of the park. She had not paid for admission.

But I’ll tell you, the most amazing part of this article to me, is where Talal Ansari for the Wall Street Journal tells us, quote, “In the fall adult bears need to consume 20,000 calories a day.” That was by the way information issued in a warning about why so many bears are so active and evidently so hungry as we move into fall–20,000 calories a day. That’s running through an awful lot of honeypots.

Part IV

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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