The last place you might expect to hear a call to put “religion in its place” is a church. And certainly the last church you might expect to hear it at is an Evangelical megachurch . But that was indeed the message of Atlanta megachurch pastor Andy Stanley’s message on Sunday, April 6, entitled “Putting Religion in its Place.” Stanley, the pastor of Atlanta’s North Point Community Church, addressed the topic as part of a sermon series addressing why God became human. One of those reasons, Stanley preached, was “to put religion in its place.”
Stanley noted right off the bat that religion does have a place, in that it allows us to answer unknowable questions and provides a moral and ethical framework. However, the “place” that Stanley has for religion is below other, more important concerns. “When religion takes first place, it begins flexing its muscles at the expense of mercy…. [W]hen religion is in the top shelf, when religion is most important, when religion moves into first place, mercy always, always, always, always loses.”
“Just think about some of the phrases we’ve heard in connection with religion,” Stanley continued. “Child sacrifice. Honor killings. Holy wars. ‘Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!’ the religious people cried.” Stanley then launched into a four-minute illustration of the evil of the Crusades, and how religion was used to justify it.
Religion, he added, “collapses under the weight of the real world.” Stanley said that while religion is systematized and orderly, the real world is unsystematic and messy. As a result, when religion is in first place, “leaders become self-righteous and followers become hypocrites.”
Stanley described Jesus’ battle with the religious leaders of the day as essentially a debate over priorities. As he sees it, both the religious leaders and Jesus agreed that people were important and following religious laws were important, but each prioritized different things. The religious leaders prioritized religion, while “Jesus consistently prioritized people over his own religion, and he’s the Son of God!”
Stanley likened God to a parent who lets their child bend the rules out of love. “Great parents set rules, and when they feel it’s in the best interest of their children, they break their rules… Great parents decide that their children are more important than the laws that the parents set. And the parent who doesn’t do that creates an orderly home that everyone can’t wait to leave. And God is a perfect, heavenly Father.”
“Jesus’ conscience was informed by compassion, rather than consistency…” Stanley preached. “Love demands inconsistency. Every parent knows this!”
“You are more important to me than my view,” Stanley summarized. Bizarrely enough, Stanley seemed to admit that he found the implications of his own words uncomfortable. “Where will that lead? How far do you go? What extreme does this take us? I don’t know.”
Towards the end, Stanley was even more direct: “…I don’t want you to ask me how to apply it.”
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With all due respect, I submit that if Andy Stanley did not know the answers to the questions posed above, he should have never delivered the sermon. At best, it was poorly thought-out. At worst, it flirted with a departure from Christian orthodoxy and moral teachings.
It would have been one thing if Stanley had clearly delineated which religious rules ought to take a backseat. Obviously, there are religious rules and regulations without much moral weight behind them. No one could say with a straight face that either the Western or Eastern Church is sinning, because one of them must be celebrating Easter and Christmas on the “wrong” days. But then there are religious rules and regulations that Christians believe carry heavy moral weight. There are the moral laws (do not steal, do not covet), but also rituals and practices required of all Christians to further their connection with God (prayer, attending church). Which rules and regulations does God let us break for “love?” Stanley doesn’t say.
Equally troubling is his suggestion that Christians’ ‘views’ are less important than love. And which views are those? The closest that Stanley comes to saying is his statement that “the moment someone places their religious beliefs and values above you, we go backwards.” So it isn’t simply a matter of simple opinions, like liking one color over another. Stanley believes that Christian “beliefs and values” are not as important as ‘love,’ but again, Stanley leaves it to us to decide which Christian beliefs aren’t actually that important.
Really, the problem permeating throughout Stanley’s sermon is a false dichotomy between ‘love’ and ‘people’ vs. ‘religion’ and ‘views.’ Put simply, there should never be a conflict between practicing the Christian religion and loving someone. If there is, either you aren’t practicing the faith or you aren’t actually loving someone.
Likewise, he creates a false dichotomy between ‘you’ and the Christian ‘view.’ ‘You’ are not more important than the Christian ‘view,’ because there is no conflict between the Christian view and the importance of every individual. If the Christian ‘view’ keeps you from loving someone, again, you’ve misunderstood the situation.
Probably the most relevant example of a false tension between love and the Christian religion is the recently dissected-to-death scenario of providing a cake for a gay wedding. Some would say that Christians ought to refuse to provide the cake, because providing the cake would involve oneself in an affirmation of sin. Are those people prioritizing religion over love? Of course not. Love, as they understand it, doesn’t mean providing for someone whatever they ask. They’d likely say that facing the possibility of lawsuits and public ridicule in effort to correct the sins of the couple was an act of love. Even those who take the opposite view (including Andy Stanley himself) can’t fairly be said to be prioritizing love over religion, because they understand the rules of their religion in such a way that they’re required to provide the cake.
That was at the heart of the dispute between Jesus and the religious leaders of the day. It wasn’t simply that the Pharisees were placing their religion in “first place”: Jesus did that, too. It was that they put the wrong religion in first place. They took a totalitarian approach to rituals and traditions that, in truth, God had never commanded. Jesus and God the Father weren’t “inconsistent” in religion as Stanley claims; they were the only consistent ones.
The claim that God’s goodness requires Him to be inconsistent when applying the rules is likely the most troubling aspect of Stanley’s sermon. Again, there are religious rules and traditions which are largely arbitrary and have little-to-no moral weight. But those didn’t come from God. Those are the religious laws of men. The moral and religious commandments of God do not change and will never change. We believe in a just and fair God, and there is no justice or fairness in requiring men to follow His laws, only to break them for others.
Suffice it to say, Stanley’s notion that God could be inconsistent in any fashion raises a boatload of theological issues, not to mention his claim that His nature requires inconsistency. Here’s the one I consider most disturbing: if God’s rules and Jesus’ ethics are inconsistent, doesn’t their moral perfection becomes un-praiseworthy? Why should we praise God’s surpassing goodness or Jesus Christ’s sinless nature, when the Father and Son can exempt themselves from the rules at will?
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This is hardly the first provocative sermon from Andy Stanley. In 2012, he mentioned a situation where a man in his congregation left his wife for another man, with the two men continuing to attend and serve in the church. Stanley found out that the second man was still married and rebuked the adultery, but made no moral statements on the homosexuality. That sermon led to several critical responses from fellow Christians, including a piece from Dr. Albert Mohler entitled “Is the Megachurch the New Liberalism?”
That controversy was as much about what Andy Stanley said and what he left unsaid. Stanley’s silence on homosexuality, coupled with his strong denunciation of the adultery, left the impression that there was only one sin to be concerned with. Throw in a dubious use of the phrase “modern family,” and it should have been abundantly clear that his sermon had the potential to confuse his congregation on the issue. Dr. Mohler, and all those who criticized Stanley, simply sought a clarification: a clarification that never really came.
This sermon too is disturbing because of what Stanley left said and unsaid. Really, it’s bad enough that in an age where Americans are increasingly rejecting organized religion, one of the country’s foremost pastors gave them a sermon loaded with anti-religion ammunition. And it’s bad enough that he did so in a way that denied the immutability of the laws of God. But equally disturbing was what he didn’t give his congregation, namely any sort of restrictions on this newfound commission to ignore the Christian religion for the sake of love.
“I don’t want you to ask me how to apply it,” Andy Stanley told his congregation. Well, I must. I urge Mr. Stanley, a man who has done so much good for the body of Christ, to clarify his comments.