There are some tempests in coffeecups that need to be examined closely. I think Willow Creek Community Church is doing good things for the cause of Christ. I think they have great ways of ministering to people and challenging Christians to be better people. But I am concerned that their stance on gays and lesbians will cost them in the end because it doesn’t reflect God’s stance, and because it hurts families, and ultimately hurts Christ’s message to the world. Below I go through the recent Leadership Summit situation and try to find some answers within Willow Creek’s response.
Things were going fine for Willow Creek Community Church as they were the sponsor and host for a Leadership Summit in 2011 that had on its list of speakers CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz. Then Change.org sponsored a petition that asked Mr. Schultz to cancel his speaking engagement at Willow Creek based on Willow Creek’s past association with Exodus International, which promotes ex-gay conversion therapy. Willow Creek had dissolved relationships with Exodus International years ago, but not on belief issues, but moreso based on where the church wanted to focus its activity. They got a lot of heat for that from evangelicals and other Christians on the far right who saw their dissolution with Exodus International a sign that they were going soft on gays. Still, the petition mentioned that Willow Creek still had anti-gay messages of its own. They wanted Starbucks not to associate itself with anti-gay anything.
So Schultz canceled his speaking engagement at the Leadership Summit.
The World, watching, reported and discussed Willow Creek Community Church in a negative light. So, Willow Creek started doing damage control. They came out with a statement that said they were not “anti-gay” nor were they “anti-anybody”. In fact, they touted the hundreds of people with “same-sex attraction” that attended their church on a regular basis as proof they weren’t anti-gay. Just ask them, Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek, seemed to say. They don’t feel unwelcome, he implied. He went on to say that his church challenges everyone to live up to the “sexual ethics” as presented in the Scriptures. And these are: “full sexual expression between men and women in the confines of marriage” and “sexual abstinence and purity for everyone else.”
The Video Response:
Of course, in the video statement below, he is on home field. He gets lots of hoots and hollers from supportive congregation members. It’s a safe place for Hybels to make that kind of statement. He gets to compliment them. He gets to tell them they are doing fine. He gets to re-brand them as the nice people they know they are. Who would question Hybels at WCCC? A whole room full of people who felt a bit stung by the media’s labeling them “anti-gay” give him clapping and happiness when they are re-labeled as not “anti-anything”, but welcoming of everyone–by the person who most needs to re-label the church, Bill Hybels, because of the bad PR he and his church are getting. It’s always nice to show your mother your artwork. You know she’ll love it. But she’s not the best critic.
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“Welcoming and not affirming” is a murky idea. As an English teacher, it’s hard to read it and really understand what it means. We all know what “welcome” is and how to welcome, but it seems “not affirming” is an odd way to express a verb. It seems important to figure out what “affirming” is and then what “not” doing that would look like. According to the dictionary, affirming is defined as:
State as a fact; assert strongly and publicly
he affirmed the country’s commitment to peace
he affirmed that she was, indeed, a good editor
“Pessimism,” she affirmed, “is the most rational view.”
Declare one’s support for; uphold or defend
Accept or confirm the validity of (a judgment or agreement); ratify
Make a formal declaration rather than taking an oath (e.g., to testify truthfully)
(of a court) Uphold (a decision) on appeal
Offer (someone) emotional support or encouragement
Antonyms include: negate, reject, deny, nullify, renounce, refuse, decline
So, “welcoming and not affirming” could just as easily be said as “welcoming and denying ” or “welcoming and rejecting.” We can probably see that no one wants to have a billboard say that they are both “welcoming and rejecting”…. but in a sense that’s what welcoming and not affirming means.
The other problem with this phrase is that for most evangelicals the adjectives don’t modify the same noun. What are we “Welcoming” –all people, we might say. What are we “not affirming”–a sinful lifestyle. But without the nouns to make a difference, the phrase gets confusing—and we end up saying we are “Welcoming, but not affirming” actual people. Because we’re not saying we’re “welcoming and not affirming” a lifestyle…. You’re not welcoming a lifestyle into your church are you?
But perhaps there is another definition that we need to consider.
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Jesus met up with lots of sins he couldn’t affirm–especially lifestyle sins. But we only use the phrase “welcoming but not affirming” when we talk about gays and lesbians, not when we talk about sinners in general. We’ve already seen that the phrase itself is murky, at best. Surely, there must be a Biblical precedent for how to welcome but not affirm gays and lesbians. The church can’t possibly be using a method that Jesus himself would not endorse, and practice. Since there are no visible gays and lesbians in the Bible, we’re going to have to expand to those other sins that Jesus encountered. What did He do when He met up with greedy tax collectors, two adulteresses, a prostitute, the Pharisees as a group and as an individual, and rambunctious, argumentative disciples?
Jesus must be against greed. It’s a sin. Now Zaccheus was a greedy little man, but Jesus went over to his house. He eats there, accepts his food and family. He makes a public show of his acceptance to the whole crowd both outside and inside the house. He doesn’t say anything against Zaccheus, neither privately or publically that we can find. In fact, it is Zaccheus who repents because of this outpouring of acceptance. So Jesus never affirmed greed, but he also never displayed any disgust, any judgment, any reprimand, any opinion against greed. How do we know he didn’t affirm it? We know Jesus. Oh, wait, he did have a tax collector as his disciple, Matthew. We don’t know if Jesus ever publically rebuked Matthew. But the words we know he said to this sinner, of whose sin he didn’t approve or affirm, “come follow me.”
Jesus can’t have approved of sexual sin. But he does meet up with an adulterous woman, a promiscuous woman, and a prostitute.
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