If you were at our Sunday evening service this week, you heard me issue a very serious warning about Andy Stanley, a leading voice in North American Evangelicalism. Stanley recently did a series titled Who needs God. In the third sermon in the series titled The Bible Told Me So Jesus, Stanley said some things that reveal just how unstable evangelicalism has become in North America.
Two weeks ago, while preaching on Titus 1:10-16, I gave three practical ways to identify false teachers. The first and primary way is by matching up what they say with the Bible because it is our ultimate source for truth. In The Bible Told Me So Jesus, Stanley aggressively argues that at least parts of the Bible are not true; therefore, we can reject it and still be good Christians. In doing this, Stanley demonstrates the major problem that evangelicalism faces today. We have a slice and dice faith. Slice off the parts of the Bible that we do not like and dice up the doctrines that contradict the wisdom of the day. Although I believe that Stanley is honestly trying to remove barriers to people’s faith in Christ, the solutions he provides violates God’s word and introduces way bigger problems than he claims to solve while becoming dangerously close to being a false teacher.
Stanley begins his sermon by quoting the children’s song that says Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so. The he goes on to say that this is where our trouble began. Then he begins to argue that the Bible cannot be completely trusted because not everything in it is true. Stanley makes a number of edgy and bold statements designed to shake us in our belief in the inerrancy and inspiration of the Bible, which he believes is a child's belief that can't function in a grown up world.
Stanley tells his audience, “Don’t you know that there are all kinds of contradictions in the Old Testament?” He then goes on to deny the creation account, saying, “Everybody knows that the world is 4.5 billion years old.” He denies that the Exodus ever happened. He denies the flood. He denies the events surrounding the capture of Jericho. He states that there are many facts and figures and dates in the Old Testament that are not accurate. In other words, the Old Testament cannot be trusted. Therefore, we can reject it and still be good Christians.
Stanley knows exactly what he is doing. Before describing all the ways that the Old Testament is wrong, he makes some bold statements. He says that “If the entire Bible isn’t true, then the Bible isn’t true.” “If the Bible is the foundation of our faith, as the Bible goes, so goes our faith. If the Bible is the foundation of our faith, it is all or nothing.” “If the Bible isn’t true, Christianity comes tumbling down.” This is when he tells of all the places where the Bible is wrong in the Old Testament before ultimately rejecting its inspiration and inerrancy , saying that it is an impossible doctrine to defend.
Stanley summarizes he view with a particularly potent statement: “Christianity becomes a fragile house of cards religion. Christianity is a fragile house of cards religion that comes crashing down the day you realize that the walls of Jericho did not.” These are his exact words, not my interpretation of what he said.
The ironic thing is that, after destroying the reliability of the Old Testament and Christians’ trust in the Bible in general, Stanley begins to aggressively defend the authenticity and reliability of the New Testament. He argues that Christianity is not build on the Bible, but on the accurate eye witness accounts of people who saw Jesus resurrected from the dead and implores us to believe their witness. Of course, we only learn about their witness in the Bible, so he wants us to accept part of the Bible, namely the New Testament, as true even though we are free to reject other parts of as not being true.
Stanley’s goal in all this is good. He wants to get those people who have de-converted from Christianity because they realized that the Bible isn’t true to reconsider their choice and return to a ‘grown up version’ of the Christian faith. They can reject the Bible and still be Christians as long as they believe in the resurrection. This is his premise for the entire talk: you can reject the Old Testament as unreliable, but the New Testament is build upon reliable eye witness accounts that can be fact checked and proven true, which Stanley supports with a history lesson, citing historical events to prove his point that the church existed for nearly 300 years without a Bible, so we can too.
There are a number of problems with Stanley’s premise. Let me give you six.
1. Stanley makes Jesus a liar. Stanley rejects major Old Testament events as untrue and says that it is not God’s inspired and inerrant word. Yet Jesus views it as God’s word and endorses some of the very events that Stanley says we are free to reject. Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18). The phrase the Law and the Prophets was Jewish shorthand for what we call the Old Testament. Jesus says that He not to abolish but to fulfill these Scriptures. Over and over again in His debates with the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus quotes from the Old Testament and calls it God’s word. A great example of this is John 10:35, were Jesus quotes the Old Testament, calls it God’s word, and then says the Scripture cannot be broken. Stanley says that the Old Testament is broken and can be rejected. Jesus says this is not possible. One of them is wrong.
2. Stanley’s willingness to set aside the Old Testament doesn’t square with the gospel writers. He aggressively argues that we should accept the New Testament, particularly the narrative accounts. The problem is that anyone who actually reads these documents sees that the authors believed Jesus’ life was the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. Matthew is particularly careful to demonstrate this connection, but all the writers show how everything about Jesus ministry…His birth, life, teaching, miracles, death, and resurrection were a fulfillment of the Old Testament text. If the Old Testament is unreliable and not God's word, then using it as a source of authority in the Gospels will import those same problems into the New Testament, which is something Stanley fails to recognize.
3. Stanley’s view also violates the clear teaching of the Epistles. Again, he argues that we should accept the New Testament minus Revelation. Yet the Epistles follow the Gospels' example and root their defense of Christ’s ministry in the Old Testament. Key for Stanley, both in this sermon and in other parts of his ministry, is the resurrection. In this he agrees with the Apostle Paul. If Jesus did not raise from the dead your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:16-19). Yet as Paul establishes the validity of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, he begins by rooting it in the Old Testament. He writes for I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. Before he sights a single eye witness to the resurrection, Paul grounds the authenticity of their witness to authority of the Old Testament. These things happened in fulfillment of God's word, yet Stanley is all too willing to cut this witness off.
4. Stanley makes both Peter and Paul liars. Both Peter and Paul state that the Old Testament is God’s word. Paul specifically states that the Old Testament Scriptures were inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16). Stanley denies inspiration. Either Paul or Andy is wrong. Peter tells us that the Old Testament writers spoke on behalf of God because they were moved to do so by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21). This describes the act of Holy Spirit inspiration. The prophecies of the Old Testament were not recorded as an act of human will. Instead, men were born along by the Spirit. Later in that same letter, Peter calls Paul’s writings Scripture and places them on a par with the Old Testament (2 Pet. 3:15-16). Again, either Peter or Andy is lying to me. Andy wants me to accept Peter and Paul’s witness about Christ as authoritative, but he does not want me to accept their witness about the Old Testament text.
5. Stanley presents a nice clean case for why you should trust the New Testament to be historically accurate. Yet as someone who has studied this part of history, I find his case to be a poor representation of what actually took place. While I agree with most of his conclusions in this part of the talk, he fails to recognize the complexity of the issues. He is happy to set aside the Old Testament because we cannot prove parts of it. Yet everything he said about the New Testament, including some of the dates he uses, are hotly debated and not nearly as concrete as he would have you to believe. He would have us reject part of the Bible because of academic fog around it, yet he fails to recognize the same fog surrounding his own arguments. In other words, he is inconsistent in his use of information, presenting an iron-clad case for his view that is way more debated than he would have you believe.
6. Finally, Stanley says that the church did not have a Bible of any kind between 30 AD and 350 AD, when the church finalized the list of books included in the canon of Scripture. Yet the church exploded in size and popularity during this time. Again, he presents a simplified story that does not reflect the reality that existed during this time period. The truth is that the church did recognize Scripture during this time. They accepted the Old Testament as Scripture. Paul could tell Timothy to study the Old Testament diligently, that he might accurately handle the word of truth. Peter calls both the Old Testament and Paul’s writings Scripture. Many of the church fathers, whose writings we still have, quoted from the New Testaments books, calling them Scripture. The final recognition of what books were in and what books were out was not made until around 350 AD, but Stanley’s argument that the church functioned for 282 years without a Bible is pure myth. They had one and it was their source of authority. For him to say otherwise is a deliberate manipulation of the historical record to fit his argument and points people away from the truth.
There were a number of other problems with this sermon, but what is seen above is enough in to condemn it. If we consider what Stanley says carefully, we will realize that his own arguments can be turned on his head. Stanley said, “If part of the Bible is not true, then the Bible is not true.” Well, if part of the New Testament is not true then the New Testament is not true. If we cannot trust Peter and Paul and the other Apostles’ witness about the Old Testament Scriptures, then what makes us think we can trust their witness about the resurrection? If we cannot trust Jesus' teaching about the Old Testament, then how can we trust Him to save us from our sin? Stanley is more right than he realized. Beleiving the Bible is an all or nothing proposition. By being willing to reject the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, Stanley destroys his own arguments. He may think that believing in the entire Bible as God’s inerrant, authoritative word is a religious house of cards that will quickly topple once proven to be untrue. He may believe that the Old Testament is hopelessly indefensible. But the house he proposes to erect in its place is far less stable than the one he attempts to destroy. Once we begin to slice and dice the Scriptures, there is no way to know when to stop.
If Stanley is wrong in his assertions about God’s word, then we need to ask, “How damaging is it?” Well, consider some verses from sections of the Bible that Stanley does accept. Earlier I quoted Jesus’ words from Matthew 5:17-18, where he reveals His high view of the Old Testament. He follows that statement up in verse 19 by saying Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. By being willing to nullify portions of the Old Testament, is Stanley unwittingly falling prey to the very thing Jesus describes here? I think he does.
Peter affirms this conclusion. In the 2 Peter 3 passage I referenced earlier, Peter talks about how the untaught and unstable distort the Scriptures to their own destruction. Again, by Scriptures, Peter means the Old Testament and at least some of Paul’s letters. When we reject part of the Bible, it reveals that we are untaught and unstable, leading to our own destruction.
Finally, consider the words of John from the end of the book of Revelation. I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God shall add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book. Stanley is willing to reject the book of Revelation, yet Revelation says that doing that will bring about the curses that are recorded within it. I am not sure I know exactly what it means to take away someone’s part in the tree of life and the holy city, but I am certain that it is not a good thing. Stanley says you can reject Revelation and still be a Christian. The Apostle John says that is a bad idea that bears big consequences.
All three of these passages provide a grave warning that should cause us to consider very carefully whether or not we should follow Andy Stanley’s counsel. He has fallen prey to classic liberalism, where the Bible is subjected to the wisdom of the day. Whatever we cannot jive with our cultural views, we reject. In short, we set ourselves up as judge over the Scriptures and determine which parts we want and which we will reject. Once we go there, we are free to redefine any part of Christianity we deem necessary. We can reject the Bible’s teaching on issues of morality, sin, hell, salvation, etc. It truly is an all or nothing proposition.
This should cause us to ask a final question: How should I respond to a situation like this? That is a great question. I firmly believe that the view of Scripture that Stanley espouses in this sermon falls within the realm of heresy. When he says that the Old Testament is not inspired, this means by default that it is the product of men. Yet Scripture says that men recorded the words of Scripture because, being moved by the Holy Spirit, they spoke from God. That describes the act of Holy Spirit inspiration. What Stanley does in removing inspiration is attribute to men the work of God, which is dangerously close to blaspheming the Holy Spirit. I believe that the Evangelical community should call Andy to repent of this sin and to recant the contents of this sermon. I know he is trying to remove people’s barriers to Christianity, but we cannot depart from God’s word in order to make the gospel acceptable to people. This is an alternate gospel that creates false converts.
So what should the average, Bible believing Christian do? I would encourage two responses. First, pray for Andy Stanley. He has an extensive teaching ministry and is an effective leader. He is a leading voice in evangelicalism and an authority on church growth. He has major influence and will stand before God and give an account for his teaching and the results it had in either pointing people towards or away from Christ. Pray for him. Pray that he would repent of this error and proclaim truth. Pray that God would keep him from further error.
Second, I do think that this is a large enough breach of orthodoxy that calls for a severance of fellowship until repentance takes place. We are not disagreeing over modes of baptisms, models of church leadership or some other secondary issue. We are disagreeing on whether or not we will accept claims of the Bible that it is the Holy Spirit inspired Word of God that authoritatively tells us everything we need to know for life and godliness. This reaches down to the foundational source of authority in the church. Will we submit to God’s word or to the wisdom of the age? Yes, there are somethings in the Bible that are hard to rectify. I don’t have good answers to some of my questions. But the solution cannot be to throw out the parts I struggle with. Instead, I attribute the challenges to the limitations of my finite mind and choose to trust God and be okay with some uncertainty while I keep studying. The problem isn't with God's word. It is with me. Until Stanley recants these views, I beleive we should distance ourselves from him entirely.
Yet some of you will ask (I’ve already fielded this question from some), “Can I still listen to him and find the good parts of his ministry and learn from them, recognizing that there are some problems that need avoided?” That is a great question. And in most instances, I would say yes. I read regularly from men with whom I have many disagreements with. We can eat the watermelon and spit out the seeds most of the time. However, the error is large enough on this one that, unless there is repentance, that I believe we need to separate for two reasons.
The first reason is for the preservation of your own faith. Stanley is an incredibly gifted speaker who can make the heresy of this sermon sound so good. This isn't the first bad teaching Stanley has given. Extreme caustion should be used when a teacher consistently moves away from orthodoxy.
I have already quoted 2 Peter 3:15-16 a number of times as it talks about how the untaught and unstable distort the Scriptures. Consider how Peter encourages his readers to respond to these false teachers in verse 17: You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard lest, being carried away by the error of unprincipled men, you fall from your own steadfastness. Not everything Stanley is saying is wrong. In this sermon, he defends the authenticity and message of the New Testament. I agreed with most of his comments in this part of the sermon. Yet I did not need to hear those things from a man that denies that the Bible is God’s word. I could learn it just as well and probably better from men who have not crossed this line and avoid the possibility that I fall from my own steadfastness.
The second reason I believe we should pull back is so that Andy Stanley loses his voice in Evangelicalism. If every Christian in every church that affirms the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible stopped listening to Stanley’s sermons, reading his books, and supporting his ministry, he would feel it. If the entire evangelical community rebuked him and called him to repentance, he might reconsider his views. In short, if the church would reject his teaching for the error that it is, he might repent and put his obvious gifting to use preaching the whole counsel of God for the glory of God rather than destroying people’s trust in the Word of God.
Stanley has elevated himself as god over the Scriptures, judging what is essential and what can be thrown out. Dear brother and sister in Christ, be careful whom you listen to, for not everyone will point you in the direction of Christ.