Andy Stanley, Youth Ministry, and Thoughts In Process. . .

It’s too widespread and too important to be ignored. The dialogue over Andy Stanley’s remarks in a recent sermon about the need for believers to “unhitch” the Old Testament from the New Testament has been going on for a few days now. I’ve chosen to be a part of it for the simple reason that I want to get clarification, I’m concerned about the possibility that those who embrace Stanley and his teaching could be led astray if in fact he is preaching heresy, and because I desire to see youth workers and the kids they lead drawn into believing and living the truths of the Scriptures rather than being pushed away from such. I also want to learn a little more about myself.

No, this is not a witch hunt. Nor is it insignificant, petty, and unimportant. This matters. I see it as a opportunity for members of the body of Christ to function as we’ve been called to function so that together we can move forward in ways that are faithful to the Gospel and which bring glory to God. It’s about properly tending to the flock.

For starters, I would encourage you to watch the sermon. Andy Stanley has stated that he would like you to watch the entire series of sermons, and he’s also mentioned the need to read his forthcoming book that will address the topic (both of these things mentioned in an interview with Relevant Magazine, which I encourage you to read as well). I have watched the sermon in question. I have not (full disclosure) watched the entire series of sermons. I’m not sure that I will.  But I’ve been tracking with not only the sermon, it’s online response, and the response of some trusted/trained theologians, but with my own thoughts on the issues Stanley’s “unhitched” remarks raise regarding theology, Biblical truth, hermeneutics, cultural shifts, and the way we address those cultural shifts through ministry strategies and practices.

As always, my thoughts are in process. So please bear with me knowing that they are not exhaustive nor are they fully developed. I simply want to invite you into my process of processing what’s been going on in my mind in the hope that it might serve our youth ministry community in ways that glorify God and are faithful to the Scriptures. . . two things that I don’t see as mutually exclusive. So. . . in no special order. . .

First, I do believe that Andy Stanley has made a statement that if it is not heretical, takes definite steps towards slipping into heresy. Wesley Hill has written an important piece in response that you can read here. Put your allegiances to personalities aside here. Read as objectively as possible. Take some time to consider what several well-intentioned and well-informed theologians and biblical scholars  – Wes Hill being one of them – are referring to as the heresy known as “Marcionism.” Because Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is now so apt and accurate a descriptor of the counterfeit faith we teach and are drawn to, I would also recommend Rod Dreher’s piece on “Moralistic Therapeutic Marcionism.” 

Second, there is a huge difference between correcting our own and crucifying our own. We are called to hold each other accountable. This is necessary for the advancement of the Gospel and the purity of the church. Think about it. . . do you realize that many of the New Testament letters are written to address error and set a course for correction? We must all be humbly ready to receive correction where correction is needed. . . and be thankful for that correction. None of us is above correction. And for those of us who spend our time in front of faithful followings. . . well, the need for accountability is even more necessary. In fact, it’s essential. Andy Stanley has a large and loyal following. There’s a lot at stake here.

Third, I believe that Andy Stanley’s criticism of those who are “academic types” (see the Relevant Magazine piece) is unwarranted. If I were Andy Stanley I would be stretching my neck, tilting my head, and humbly asking for silence while I strain to hear what they have to say. These folks are important members of the Body of Christ who we should depend on to steer us, evaluate us, and guide us into conformity to sound doctrine. And public statements spread far and wide demand and deserve public responses spread far and wide.

Fourth, I think we should be pausing and evaluating our strategies for reaching a post-Christian world. Yes, that’s the changing world we are living in. And yes, we need to contextualize the message so that it can be heard by our changing world. But I fear that our contextualization is going so far that we jettison the full Gospel. Yes, we want to say things in a way that those things fall on open and accepting ears. But we sometimes forget that the Gospel is offensive. We forget that the Gospel will be seen by many as foolishness. We forget that the Holy Spirit works through our faithful proclamation of the full Gospel. We must also remember that our offensiveness in method and manner can’t get in the way of the offensiveness of the Gospel. But there’s a big difference between de-offensivizing ourselves and de-offensivizing the Gospel. The former is necessary. The latter is heretical. I fear that many of our new strategies and methodologies are driven by our fear that the Gospel will be rejected. . . so we end up changing the message rather than working to be clear in ways that prevent us and our offensiveness from getting in the way of the message. Is it possible that in our well-intentioned efforts to introduce people to Jesus, we are introducing them to a Jesus who Jesus is not?

Fifth, if those concerned about Stanley’s message are, as Stanley says, not hearing what he is really saying, then perhaps Stanley needs to be more clear and nuanced in his presentation. And, if Stanley is. . . as he says in the Relevant Magazine piece. . speaking to his congregation and his congregation will understand what he is saying, then these sermons should not be posted online for consumption by the masses who are not a part of his congregation.

Sixth, this entire discussion points out our need to know theology. Theology matters. And even if we intentionally avoid it because we think it doesn’t matter, we still do theology. Tragically, the theology we unconsciously “do” is bad theology. As I’ve heard some friends say over the course of the last few days, this story offers a strong apologetic for good seminary education.

Finally, any pushback on the criticism of Andy Stanley that appeals to Andy being a nice guy (he is) with a big heart (it is) and a passion to see people come to know Jesus (he does) is not a healthy pushback at all. Nice guys with big hearts and the right passions get it wrong from time to time. We all do. Our allegiance to Christ and the truth of the Gospel must always eclipse our allegiance to personalities, organizations, and movements.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from all this that I’m working through right now are lessons learned about the man in my mirror. How I study, how I speak, how I enlist and submit to accountability, and how I develop habits that keep me faithful to God and His Word.

6 thoughts on “Andy Stanley, Youth Ministry, and Thoughts In Process. . .

  1. I am just curious as to why you did not contact Andy Stanley himself? In the interview you refer to in the above article, Andy Stanley seems like he is more than willing to receive questions or offer clarification. Yet, nowhere in this article did it suggest that you yourself contacted him. Should that not have been a first step? If you wanted clarification as you say in your first paragraph why didn’t you contact the source of the comment in question himself instead of referring to Wesley Hill or Relevant Magazine?

    1. Ruth. . . thanks for your comment. I didn’t contact Andy Stanley directly for a couple of reasons. First, Andy has not sinned against me. If I felt that Andy had sinned against me, I would have followed Matthew 18 and responded accordingly. Second, I believe that broadcast sermons, magazine articles, books. . . anything produced for distribution to the masses. . . is for public consumption and warrants public response. I wrote in my blog. . . “public statements spread far and wide demand and deserve public responses spread far and wide.” Third, I think Andy’s body of work, as he says, offers the clarification that he desires. And, even with that clarification, there is strong error and cause for deep concern. Now to be honest, I don’t have the time, energy, or stamina to read/listen to everything Andy has written/ published/broadcast. And, I do think that Andy has a clear sense and awareness that his words in that talk were going to be provocative and even controversial, based on his holding back from creating the 10 commandments slide! Ruth. . . have you read Wes Hill’s article in First Things?

  2. Walt,
    I need more clarification and have a few questions.
    What statement is heretical? About unhitching the OT from the NT?
    First, can we call him a heretic if we’re giving Marcionism a new definition?
    Second, Andy Stanley does humbly receive correction. He’s publicly apologized already.
    Third, did he really criticize academic types? All I read was that they didn’t contact him prior to publishing.
    Finally, why did you only listen to the one sermon and not the series, his Christmas or Easter messages? He also said he repeatedly explained himself on Twitter. Did you look there?
    Would you want someone to label you a heretic after hearing ONE of your talks?
    He’s a graduate of DTS and a personal friend of Os Guinness. He has repeatedly said that he hasn’t changed any of his theology. If you’re worried he doesn’t believe the OT to be the Word of God, he has also repeatedly says he does and recently did a series on King David. I’ve been listening for almost a decade and have yet to hear anything heretical.
    I appreciate your caution and concern for his listeners. Yet, I hope you’ll listen to more of Andy Stanley before just believing his detractors.
    Beth Moore recently tweeted, “When I see comments like, ‘I don’t agree with Beth Moore’ I want to reply, ‘I don’t always agree with her either! I don’t agree with anyone on everything.” Amen.
    Thanks for listening. Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks Debbie. This is the kind of discussion. . . back and forth. . . that is very helpful. Simple answer is that his one statement is a step towards Marcionism. . . which the church is primed and ready for in many ways, sadly. I do think Andy Stanley is very well-intentioned. I don’t think he is consciously embracing heresy. I do think his “unhitched” comment will be embraced in all the wrong ways by far too many people. . . including those who teach and lead youth. That’s a big part of what I find frightening. . .

      Since there’s so much going on with this, I will message you personally since I know you. . . hoping to explain some more of my concerns.

  3. Long time listener, first time caller…

    I’ve watched the conversation develop around Andy’s message and there’s a few things I’m wrestling through:

    1. The Marcionism stuff seems to be a little clickbait-y. I don’t think you’ve used that to draw people in, but I read a commenter on one of the other posts state, “This is just like Marcionism expect for all of the main features of Marcionism. Stanley doesn’t suggest that there were two different Gods, that the OT and NT are not both divinely inspired, that Christ was the fully God and fully human [sic]. Stanley isn’t pointing to a secret wisdom or rejecting the importance of the OT to understanding the NT. He isn’t suggesting that Christianity has to completely reject the Jewishness of Jesus” (Adam Shields) … I understand that his unhitching comments gave people pause, but maybe I’m missing something. Is this really Marcionism? It seems like a stretch to agree with Francis Watson–that contemporary Marcionism can be Marcionism if it’s so different. Is it a step in that direction? Maybe, but the ‘ol slippery slope analogies seem frustrating and unhelpful. I also wished slippery slopes went in positive directions. Like, “I did a push up today–man that’s a slippery slope to 7% body fat.” Okay, I digress.

    2. I read the linked pieces. I think the thing I was hoping for was a different exegesis of Acts 15, since these guys clearly think Andy’s is incorrect. Wesley Hill seems to come closest, but perhaps I need to spend time reading Markus Bockmuehl and the others to understand. But I think the fact that the rules for Gentile converts can be sourced from elsewhere in Scripture doesn’t actually negate the point that Andy was making. I think the trouble for everyone in Andy’s comments are summed up by Hill when he writes:

    “In a fallen world, talk about love can mask a kind of relativism. This is why the catechetical tradition of the Christian churches has been united in its use of the Ten Commandments: precisely because it has recognized that we Christians so often fail to discern what real love amounts to, and we need the Old Testament’s commandments to shine a spotlight on our slippery self-justifications. We may intend to treat a sexual partner as God in Christ has treated us, we may try to act toward them out of self-giving love, but the distorting effects of sin mean that we must be told what love looks like in action if we’re not to get it wrong. That divine telling, sadly, is what Andy Stanley’s sermon would keep us from hearing.”

    This is fair. This sounds to me like Hill is saying, “Andy — if you leave it here, people might misunderstand the call to holiness that we must make! If you only give them one or two imperatives to follow, people won’t really know what to do.”

    I get that. But isn’t that the tension that Jesus was creating with when he boiled 600+ commandments down to two?

    And why can’t we hold listeners to some level of responsibility? Because if the issue Hill has comes with the ambiguity around how this will be interpreted in light of a sexual relationship, wouldn’t it be fair to listen to Andy’s messages on love, sex, and relationships? Or read his book?

    Or should messages come with complex legal disclaimers to protect the communicator from misunderstandings, like the ones in the email signatures of my friends at my insurance agency?

    3. I honestly wonder if we can decide at some point what the rules are when it comes to ‘clarifying’. There’s a threshold around the number of online followers that one has–once you cross it, anything you post or say will bring outrage, malice, anger, confusion, etc. How do you discern when to engage? I don’t ever want to be a stumbling block for someone, yet it feels like that verse has been misused to scare people into buying their Pepsi from Amazon, lest someone at the grocery store be tempted to fall back into their sin of overindulgence after seeing someone else buy some.

    Maybe I’m crazy, but these are the things I’m thinking about. Maybe if Sid would just invite you back to our Canadian events we could sort it all out in person.

    I love your thoughtfulness Walt!

  4. Walt – Thank you for wisely bringing this into the context of youth ministry. Many of us battle with the temptation to implicitly disregard the OT in our teaching in favor of the NT – which makes us guilty of implicitly demonstrating what Stanley explicitly preached. Though I don’t know the nuances of Andy Stanley’s theological views nor can I judge his motives, his comments in this regard are at best unclear or worse demonstrate dangerous theological error. R.C. Sproul once said: “To simplify without distorting is the highest task of the scholar” – and I would expand that to include pastor. The widespread online debate surrounding Stanley’s message serve as a sober reminder to those of us who are called to shepherd the flock of God; theological confusion can easily be as destructive as theological error. We will give an account for every idle word and deed (Matthew 12:36). Thank you for calling us to think deeply about the implications of our words.

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