Do Churches have a Houston problem?

Brian Houston has resigned as global senior pastor of Hillsong Church, following an internal investigation. He was found to have breached the church’s code of conduct with incidents involving two women over the past 10 years.

Concerns have been levelled at Hillsong over what is perceived to be a long standing lack of transparency and even an unwillingness to deal with erring leaders. One senses that the Board is now trying to set the record straight but even yesterday’s press release fails the mark. As many are noting, it is inappropriate to announce the resignation of a pastor found guilty of mistreating women and in the same letter, praise the man.

“Irrespective of the circumstances around this, we can all agree that Brian and Bobbie have served God faithfully over many decades.”

I suspect it was unintentional but the fact is, this one sentence diminishes the seriousness of the offences against the two women and it fails to acknowledge the damage now caused to the public reputation of the Gospel due to Houston’s behaviour. 

If you are staggered and angry by Brian Houston’s behaviour toward these women and the excuses offered by Hillsong (medication and alcohol), you are right to feel this way. If this raises further suspicions and causes you to ask if there are more stories hiding and may be uncovered, that reaction is pretty natural. If this latest Hillsong revelation is causing you to lose trust in churches and their leaders, I understand. If you’re wondering, is church a safe place for women, again the question is understandable. It is reprehensible that any person should mistreat another no matter the setting; how much worse though when the man is considered a pastor over Christ’s Church. It should never be. 

Having said that, this is not an anti-Brian Houston post. Neither am I here to throw rhetorical rocks at Hillsong. I rarely speak about Hillsong, especially in the public domain. Readers won’t be surprised to learn that I have never been a fan of Hillsong. There have been serious question marks over their ‘brand’ of Christianity for more than 30 years. The thing is, Hillsong isn’t alone in admitting to sinful and failed leaders. There are examples appearing in all kinds of churches. There are failed church leaders who once oversaw churches and organisations that are fairly aligned with my own theological convictions. Whether it is Mark Driscoll, Jonathan Fletcher or Ravi Zacharias, and many names that never reach public attention, bullying, abuse, sexual sin,  and unfaithfulness is a contagion that crosses denomination lines and churches, and societies. Hillsong has become a popular football for media pundits to kick around, but a quick look in our own backyard may reveal that we also have serious issues with inappropriate and even wicked leaders.

Houston has fallen, let us be careful lest we follow him.

What are we going to do about the growing number of errant and disqualified leaders? On the one hand, the Bible warns us that such figures will arise and control and damage churches and people’s lives. On the other hand, the Bible also expects leaders to be godly and faithful and humble and servant-hearted. 

Last year we decided that our first sermon series for Mentone Baptist Church in 2022 would be First Timothy. This letter written by the Apostle Paul is concerned with right and godly leadership over the church. As an example, last Sunday I was preaching on chapter 3, a fearful passage for any preacher given it outlines qualifications for church overseers (pastors) and deacons. I am not mentioning this in order to convey some hubristic sense of godliness, as though Mentone is holding the high bar perfectly and without shakes and knocks. Rather, as we revisited these important Scriptures, I am reminded of how high God’s bar is for those desiring to serve as church leaders.

I suspect, one of our issues isn’t that churches think too much of the Bible, but that we think too little of Scripture. Our problem isn’t too much faith in God, but that we don’t really believe what God says. We are quite proficient at pointing the Bible at other people but less willing to let God address our own lives.

A Church cannot survive on the personality or prowess of the pastor(s). The health and future of any church runs far deeper than any individual’s desire or demand to lead.

Desire is one thing. 1 Timothy 3:1 indicates that “whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task”.  However, desire alone is inadequate. Our broader culture might believe that we should pursue what we feel. We mustn’t let any ceiling prevent us from realising our desires. Paul notes that pastoring is a noble task, however, desire is not enough.  Desire is necessarily coupled with qualifications and these are qualifications that must be recognised in the candidate by the church.

In the case of 1 Timothy ch.3, there are 13 qualifications. The list isn’t designed to be comprehensive, for there are more attributes and responsibilities explored in other parts of the New Testament. However,  these 13 are non-negotiable and must form part of the resume for any who are suited for pastoral ministry. For anyone interested in an explanation of the qualifications, you can listen to the sermon I gave last Sunday (or read a good commentary). For the sake of brevity, I will just state each qualification here:

  • the overseer is to be above reproach,
  • faithful to his wife,
  • temperate, 
  • self-controlled,
  • respectable, 
  • hospitable, 
  • able to teach,
  • not given to drunkenness, 
  • not violent but gentle, 
  • not quarrelsome, 
  • not a lover of money. 
  • He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) 
  • He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. 
  • He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

Over the last 5 -10 years, the broader culture has resurrected the question of character. Does a politician’s private life matter when it comes to public office? Can we ignore a leader’s personal sins so long as we approve of their politics? Whether it is the case of Barnaby Joyce or Donald Trump or Tim Payne, our aspiring neo-puritan age is indicating that character does in fact matter…at least in those cases where leaders fall foul of the culture’s milieu. 

The Bible has always said that character matters in our leaders. Godliness is important in all our lives, and especially those who are appointed to lead. 

As one way of getting around the problem I recently heard an old adage repeated: the way we avoid bad leadership is by having no leaders in the church. In order to fulfil some egalitarian dream of the church, everyone should have an equal say and role. Perhaps that sounds appealing to you, but of course, that model of church contradicts the pattern laid out in Scripture and it’s also irresponsible. What ends up happening is that those with personality and power end up leading by default.

In addition to those essential qualities presented in 1 Timothy ch.3, I want to suggest these further 7 points that I believe will help churches in protecting the congregation and helping leaders from falling into grievous sin. Of course, no system is perfect, and any process can be misused, but any Christian Church must recognise how high the stakes are. At hand are things of greater consequence than we can grasp. It is not only the question of character that the Bible emphasises, it is the gravity of the pastor’s work. It is of such weight that we should hesitate before raising our hands for the job or before accepting a nominee.

“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”

May I humbly present this offering, as I reflect on our own church and the near impossible task of shepherding the people who belong to God and have been purchased by the precious blood of Christ:

  1. Don’t be a pastor. Of course churches need pastors, both those training formally at theological college and those raised from within the congregation. It is ok to slow down. It is okay to realise that this isn’t for you. It is okay to say no.
  2. Insist on character. Churches, don’t sacrifice character. 
  3. Establish a plurality of leadership. The New Testament’s vision for healthy churches is not a solo pastor but of a plurality of elders and plurality of deacons who are accountable not only to each other but also to the church membership.
  4. Insist upon clear accountability structures that are readily observed.
  5. Insist upon a fair and accessible grievance process for everyone in the church.
  6. Pray for those who lead.
  7. Build a culture of transparency and trust. It is worthwhile quoting Paul’s letter once again. In the chapter following the qualifications for elders and deacons, Paul urges Timothy to lead by showing and sharing his life as well as his teaching. Paul comprehended the value and importance of transparency and trust, and he also understood saw the goal to which this pastoral oversight is pointing,

Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers”.

Bishop of Liverpool calls churches to become more like the world

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)

The Anglican Bishop of Liverpool (UK) has come up with a strategy to turn around the frailing Church of England. What insight is he offering? What move is he announcing? Imitate Christ? Preach the Gospel? Persevere in prayer? Paul Bayes’ message is none of the above. In what sounds like a defiant ‘no’ to Romans 12:2, the Bishop of Liverpool wants churches to become more like the world! 

In a speech last week, the Bishop of Liverpool, Paul Bayes, called for “gender-neutral marriage canon”. He notes that “world beyond the church” has found the church’s teaching and practice of marriage is  “offensive, oppressive and hypocritical”. [1]

There is a certain ‘duh’ that’s appropriate here. Societies often regard certain Christian teachings as offensive; it comes with the territory. I’m pretty sure Jesus said something about not expecting or looking for adulation from the culture at large,

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you”. (John 15:19)

The Bishop’s logic is simple, the outside world doesn’t approve of Christian teaching (especially on marriage and sexuality), therefore we must change in order to the win the approval of the world. That’s like saying to Americans, I can see you don’t like cricket, so we’ll put away the bat and instead take up baseball. Or to change the analogy, it’s like submitting to anti-vaxxers: we sense your fury about taking a COVID vaccine, so to avoid offending you we will throw out every last vial. 

In case we are left in any doubt, Paul Bayes gives churches an example to follow. Following Jesus sounds like a great idea to me, but no, this clergyman is telling Churches to become more like the English soccer team (apologies, ‘football’!). I’m not convinced that footballers are the paragons of virtue we ought to be emulating, but according to this Bishop they are our exemplars.

“Look at our football team, kneeling in the face of the boos of the sleepwalkers so as to advocate for justice. The world beyond the church has set the moral agenda, and those who kneel with our footballers, or who see no difference between attending the marriage of their gay or their straight friends or work colleagues, find the community of faith to be wanting and indeed increasingly offensive. Nowhere is that more true than in the area of human sexuality”.

Be more like England! I assume the Bishop might add…and be less like Hungary. For those following Euro 2020, Hungary is portrayed as the bad guys at the moment due to the way their Government is pushing back on the popular sexuality narrative that has captured the West. The current European football championship has led to arguments over stadiums lighting up in rainbow colours and all manner of virtue signalling. 

The reality is, churches shouldn’t look like England or Hungary. The Church is called not to be a synonym for the world nor its antonym. Rather, the New Testament vision is of a redeemed community communicating by both life and teaching God’s revealed truth in the Gospel of Jesus. For instance, 1 Timothy 3:14-15 explains, 

“Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.” 

Far from emulating the world, the Apostle’s descriptor of the church is that it’s like a new building set apart from all others in the city. In contrast to the Temples in Ephesus (the city where Timothy was living), the Church is distinct for two reasons: one, the foundation (it’s built on God’s truth), and second, its life (the church upholds God’s truth in both life and teaching). George Knight comments on these verses, “the living God has established his church to be the embodiment of his truth.”

What makes Christianity distinct and enthralling, shocking and appealing, is that it does not sit comfortably in any given culture. Genuine Christianity doesn’t feel like England and it doesn’t look like Hungary. For this reason, there is always a sense in which we (Christians) never truly fit and are at home in the places we live, work, and play.

I recall an observation made last year by British historian Tom Holland, 

“I see no point in bishops or preachers or Christian evangelists just recycling the kind of stuff you can get from any kind of soft left liberal because everyone is giving that…if they’ve got views on original sin I would be very interested to hear that”.

Holland is not a Christian but he understands the lunacy of ecclesiastical leaders sacrificing Christian beliefs at the expense of pursuing favourable opinion polls. Didn’t Jesus say, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot”?

As soon as Christians begin talking about truth, some readers will pushback with suggestions of narrow-mindedness and archaic bigotry. That’s not how Christian truth works. The truth Paul is affirming mustn’t be misaligned with power plays, abrasiveness, and hatred, for doing so tarnishes the truth. Truth’s companion is love and truth’s context is grace. Anyone building pillars of truth without the essential ingredients of love and grace, is building a structure that’s certain to fall down.

For example, in the same letter Paul urges Timothy to confront false teaching and he explains how “the goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”

Paul can both speak of behaviours that contradict sound doctrine and the Gospel, and he can speak of God’s great love for law breakers, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.” 

In calling for a church of the world, the Archbishop of Liverpool fails to mention this crucial point: churches that stick with the Bible and who hold onto the Christian view of marriage, do in fact love and accept people from across backgrounds and persuasions. It is this distinct community that is so appealing for those who are weighed down with guilt and sense of helplessness. The Church isn’t a heterosexual club, it’s the community of men and women who have found God’s grace and mercy in Jesus Christ and who are now learning to find their truest identity and contentment in Him. This truth is not oppressive, it is freeing. It’s not life destroying, it’s life building. I am among the first to recognise that churches don’t always do this well, but often they do, and the more churches are enthralled by the Gospel of Christ, the more wonderfully they display the character of God and the beauty of his good news. 

As Jesus says, “love one another and the world will know that you are my disciples”.

The Bishop of Liverpool is essentially calling for churches to dismantle 1 Timothy 3:14-16. Such betrayal by a church leader does not encourage Christians who are seeking to follow Christ in the world, it confuses them and causes them to doubt what God’s good purposes. Neither will this kind of revisionism help people outside to become Christians; it only gives further reason to view Christianity as an irrelevance. 

There are churches who’ve capitulated and become servants of today’ cultural Kings. Other churches understand what’s at stake and are standing on this firm foundation. Again, others are hoping they can remain on the fence and they’re hoping no one ever asks them what they truly believe. 

The future doesn’t lie with camouflaging the Biblical vision of marriage and sexuality, nor in taking the advice from the Bishop of Liverpool. Churches, we need to become less like the world, whether it’s the world of England or Hungary, and let’s become more like the Lord Jesus. 

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[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/26/church-of-england-should-recognise-same-sex-marriage-says-bishop