Saved by the Church?!
- Monday, March 7, 2016
- By Tyler Strickler
Last week saw one of the leading voices in evangelicalism come under fire. On February 28th Pastor Andy Stanley said that if you attend a church of 200 people you are “so stinkin’ selfish. You care nothing about the next generation. All you care about is you and your five friends. You don’t care about your kids, anybody else’s kids.” Naturally, this brought on a firestorm of criticism, and to Andy Stanley’s credit, he has apologized for these comments.
If you don’t know who Andy Stanley is, he is the lead pastor of the largest church in North America, North Point Church, in the metro-Atlanta area. The church boasts 6 locations with an average weekly attendance of nearly 40,000 people. Stanley is also a prolific author and spends lots of time teaching his model of church to pastors and church leaders as he tries to help others find the success North Point has experienced.
Like so many people, I listened to the clip from which the above quote is taken. And like so many people, I was offended by it. After all, I pastor a church whose average attendance is right around the 200 mark, so his comments were directed right at me and my congregation.
But as a pastor, I also know that sometimes you say things from the pulpit that afterwards you regret. We are humans who are still struggling with our flesh, and occasionally that is going to come out in the pulpit. This is humbling and requires that we apologize just like Andy Stanley did last week. This comes with the territory.
However, as I watched the clip from which this quote was pulled from, I noticed the title of the sermon: Saved by the Church. I know pastors like to come up with edgy titles, but this one bothered me. Then at the tail end of the clip, Pastor Stanley’s next point flashed up on the screen, and as I read it, I had a problem with the quote. So I decided that I needed to listen to the whole sermon and see if I am just being critical because he has a ministry that I will never have, or if my theological concerns were founded.
North Point posts all the videos of Pastor Stanley’s sermons on their church webpage. As I watched the sermon, I was alarmed by everything I saw. The offensive quote had been edited out. But even without it, the talk was so deceptive that I feel I must respond. Normally I would not concern myself with this kind of an issue, but Stanley is heralded in many groups as the man to model. His books are widely read, and I know that members of my congregation expose themselves to his material regularly. Thus, a warning is necessary.
There were three fundamental problems with this sermon.
First, there was a complete absence of the Word of God. The edited sermon ran for 36:40, and it was surprisingly devoid of any Biblical content. In place of the Bible Stanley repeatedly referred to the truth of his personal experience. The church had accomplished many good and moral things in his life. Therefore, he claims at one point that the local church had both ‘redeemed’ and ‘saved’ him. He had personally experienced it, therefore it was true. Experience trumped Biblical truth. Yet since the things he talked about sounded biblical (the bible does talk about morality, generosity, and servanthood), the church will go along with it and think it is biblical.
Yet Pastor Stanley could not be bothered to explain any Biblical texts; however he could spend roughly 10 minutes of his talk exegeting a quote from a Philip Yancey book. Of course the quote was edgy and made great fodder for discussion. Yet again, the authority of God’s word was markedly absent. Man and his wisdom stood supreme in the discourse.
The sad thing is that Andy Stanley knows better. As he moved to close his sermon (at the 31:20 point), Stanley piously says that every sermon needs at least one verse, and proceeds to quote a portion Matthew 16:18. Now I disagree with how he applied the verse (more on that below), but my point here is that he knows that every good sermon needs a verse. Yet the verse wasn’t the authority of the sermon. His experience was, and the verse needed less focus than Philip Yancey’s dubious quote. The Word of God was a sideshow relegated to the closing comments of a 40 minute rant that, as we will see in a moment, was far less Biblical than it appears at first glance.
How far have we fallen from the cry of the reformation: sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)! But sola Scriptura was not the only cry of the reformation under full attack in this sermon.
The absence of the authority of God’s word led to the second problem, which is corrupted theology. When we remove the inerrant source of truth from our churches, it is inevitable that we will end up in error ourselves. It is not surprising that Stanley would make such a rash statement as the one that got him in so much trouble. It flowed out of the bad theology of church that was the entire talk!
Stanley repeatedly identifies the church as the source of redemption and purification in his life. Now, I believe that church involvement is crucial to every Christian’s life. God told us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. But the church never saved anyone. Christ and Christ alone is Savior, not the church. And it is the Word of God that brings purity, not the church. The church is where Scripture is lived out. But it isn’t the church that purifies or saves. To say so is bad theology.
Misunderstanding church was not the only theological problem in this sermon. As Pastor Stanley moves into the second half of the sermon, he begins to discuss the effect the local church can have on society (again making the church the redeeming agent rather than Christ the Redeemer). Stanley piously extols his audience to love your neighbor as yourself and daydreams of what it might be like if every person in America lived by this principle for six months.
The command to love your neighbor as yourself is Biblical, so again this sounds like good Christian preaching. But as you listen to what Stanley says, he gets the command all wrong, for he elevates it to the place of the greatest commandment. But when we look at what Jesus said when He told us to love our neighbor as ourselves, we discover that it is the second greatest commandment, not the first. The first is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. It is our love of God that will produce in us a love for our fellow man. Yet Stanley ignores the first command (more on this below) and replaces it with the command to love our neighbor.
This brings us back to Stanley’s quote of Matthew 16. The authority for everything Stanley had said about church had been his personal experience and the redeeming work of the church throughout history. Then he quotes Jesus’ promise that He would build His church and the gates of hell would not prevail. In essence, Stanley is putting the Jesus stamp on everything he has said. Since he has the largest church in North America (something Stanley goes to great lengths to communicate at the beginning of his talk) everything he has said must be true since Jesus is building His church. Yet what Stanley describes as church throughout the sermon does not reflect what Jesus said His church would look like in the pages of the New Testament. This leaves us asking the question of who is building church. Is it Jesus or someone else?
The final problem I had with the sermon was that God took a back seat to everything. The authority for Stanley’s sermon was his experience, not God’s Word. The local church is seen to have redemptive power while the redeeming work of Christ is completely ignored. Love for man is made our highest aim while love for God is nowhere to be found. The glory of eternal life is relegated to a secondary issue while life today is made the primary focus. This sermon does nothing to point people to the greatness of God. Instead, it is all about the greatness of the local church and its redeeming work. Jesus seems to have been pushed out of His own church.
The postmodern man feeds on these things because it places us, our experience, and our life today at the center of everything, while God, His Word, and His ways are relegated to secondary issues. And this was really the problem I had with the entire sermon. God, Christ the Savior, and God’s word were devalued, while man, his experience, and the church were glorified. The glory of the church is Christ its Redeemer, yet Christ was shockingly absence for Stanley's sermon on the redeeming work of the church.
In the final 3 minutes of the sermon, Stanley makes quite a few orthodox sounding statements. Yet after 30 minutes of error, it feels like Stanley simply attaches this footnote to keep people thinking he is orthodox. And many elements of what he says could have been explained from Scripture. Yet, Stanley deliberately chose to ignore Scripture and to go to his personal experience. In doing so, he exposed himself to error, demonstrated a poor theology of church, and ultimately diminished the greatness of God our Savior. It is no surprise then that he would say that those who attend a church of 200 or less are stinkin’ selfish. He had already clearly demonstrated that he had no concern for the Biblical picture of church long before he leveled these inflammatory remarks.
Any pastor can have a bad sermon. The problem is that what I observed in Stanley’s sermon is normal. I have read several of his books, listened to several sermons, and even watched a seminar he did on preaching. It is my impression that Stanley’s sermon Saved by the Church is normative for him.
It is easy to be critical, and I want to be slow to criticize the bride of Christ. My guess is that Andy Stanley is my brother in Christ. Yet the Scriptures warn against many becoming teachers, for they will incur a stricter judgment (Ja. 3:1). I believe that both Andy Stanley and I will have to stand before God and give an account for the things we say and how we have led the various people God entrusted to our care. I take that serious, which is why I stick to the Word when I preach. I still believe that it is through the foolishness of the Word preached that people get saved (see 1 Cor. 1:21-25). It is the gospel of Jesus Christ that is the power of God in bringing salvation (Ro. 1:16). The church never saved anyone. Yet as the church proclaims the message of Christ from the Word of God, God delights to save people for His glory. Therefore, Paul told Timothy to preach the word (2 Tim. 4:2). This is how God works, not through flashing lights, small groups, or slick sermons. The North American church doesn’t need preachers who promote bad theology rooted in their personal experience. We need men who are arrested by the glory of God who boldly proclaim the whole counsel of God with passion and accuracy.
Be careful, Christian, who you listen to. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away from the truth, and will turn aside to myths. 2 Timothy 4:3-4
The Reformers had it right. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, in the word of God alone, to the glory of God alone. Find and follow the men who demonstrate these things consistently from the pulpit.