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Blindsided

Hundreds of evangelicals were caught off guard in March when their church leaders, without any open discussion, announced that sexually active homosexuals could become members. How did that happen, and what steps can members of other churches take to...

Blindsided

Worshippers at City Church’s Russian Center in San Francisco. (Dale K M Tan)

Dale K M Tan

Fred Harrell preaching.

Wilson’s <em>A Letter to my Congregation</em>.

Handout photo

Pastor Ben Pilgreen preaches at Epic Church.

City Church’s Mission location.

City Church’s Sutter location at the Russian Center.

Associated Press/Photo by Rogelio V. Solis

Mary Jane Kennedy

SAN FRANCISCO—Two days after Valentine’s Day in 1997, City Church—an attempt to build a biblically focused congregation in San Francisco—held its first service in a former Army chapel lined with commemorative plaques. Fred Harrell, who had earned his spurs as a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) campus minister, preached on the book of Jonah. 

Harrell, a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary, told the seminary’s magazine that God “has called me to take the Gospel to what many consider to be a modern-day Nineveh. I think God is providentially arranging for the ‘sparing’ of the city of San Francisco through a unique, authentic, and historic Christian witness.” The magazine noted, “Fred can hardly contain his excitement.” 

California’s Nineveh seemed an unlikely spot for a Bible-centered church to take root. The city’s Orthodox Presbyterian Church faced years of protests after its pastor in 1978, Chuck McIlhenny, dismissed a gay organist. (McIlhenny tells that story in his memoir, When the Wicked Seize a City.) In 1993 gay protesters blocked the doors of another conservative church and pelted a caretaker with eggs. One police official who received a request for protection responded, “You must understand. This is San Francisco.”

San Francisco, though, is also a city where trees grow in unlikely places. An 1853 map of the city labeled the area that Golden Gate Park now occupies the “Great Sand Bank.” Wind erosion made most farming and gardening in western San Francisco impossible. But pioneer William Hall, through trial and error, found that by first planting barley he could stabilize the sand dunes enough to dump manure and top soil. Then other plants grew and homes followed. 

During the first few months Harrell’s congregation numbered only 30. By the end of 1997, the church had grown enough to move to the Russian Center closer to downtown, which with its stage, red velvet drapes, and 500 seats looks like a small Broadway theater. Harrell said, “We are not seeker-focused or seeker-driven. We are seeking to be biblical.”

City Church received great initial support from other PCA churches that appreciated bravery. Four of them, including the conservative First Presbyterian in Jackson, Miss., contributed at least $300,000 for Harrell’s startup. Attenders say his sermons were Bible-focused but not fiery, taking after those of Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian Church a continent away (but demographically close) in Manhattan.

City Church grew to 1,000 regular attenders at two services plus a satellite venue. By 2005 it was a regular stop for tourists from the East who carried gifts of praise for a wise child performing an apparent miracle: City Church was sticking to its historic Christian witness and attracting young congregants amid a disordered city that worshipped idols for destruction.

On March 13, 2015, though, members were shocked when Harrell and six elders—two resigned—sent out a letter announcing that City Church “will no longer discriminate based on sexual orientation.” The letter made it clear that sexually active gay and lesbian couples in same-sex marriages could become church members. 

The change surprised more than 40 pastors who on March 25 sent Harrell a letter proposing “Compassion without Compromise.” They asked Harrell and the remaining elders, “How long did you take to make this decision? … Were opposing views openly discussed? … Was there a period of open dialogue where members could give input before the decision was made? Why or why not?” 

Harrell’s brief response to those pastors did not answer those questions. I traveled to San Francisco in May and tried to get answers for the benefit of City Church members but also members of churches across the country that may soon face an LGBT juggernaut. What steps can they take to stop church leaders—under pressure from family members, friends, financiers, and fame-seeking—from calling an audible that is not biblical? 

Source security

A word about sources for this article: Our WORLD policy is to accept off-the-record comments only when a person’s life or job is in jeopardy. Many City Church members remembered how Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich lost his post by irritating LGBT activists—so most of my interviews had to be off the record. In the 45 years and 3,000-plus stories since my Boston Globe professional journalistic debut in 1970, I have never seen anywhere outside of Havana and Beijing such a chilling effect. —Marvin Olasky

IN RETROSPECT, SOME MEMBERS point to a 2006 decision made after long discussion. That year, City Church decided to ordain women elders. To do so the congregation voted to leave the PCA and join the Reformed Church in America (RCA). Elders promoted that change, but their discussion was not a closely held secret. Drew Yamamoto, then about to become a pastoral intern, said he learned of the plans two months before the official announcement. Harrell said he met 30 or 40 times that year with groups of members: Only a handful voted against leaving the PCA and joining the RCA. 

A member of the senior pastoral staff at that time said, “It did not seem like a big deal.” The most frequent question at meetings was, “Are we on a slippery slope” that could lead to gays becoming members? Harrell and elders pointed to examples in the Bible of women leaders and said the homosexuality issue was of a different character, since the Bible is so clear about it. In 2008 Harrell was still telling membership classes that City Church was holding and would hold to the historic Christian view of homosexuality. 

Over the next several years, though, several disquieting signs appeared. Members say Harrell’s preaching became more therapeutic and less exegetical: He would typically mention at the outset the Bible passage just read by a layperson, but then offer anecdotes and quotations from various writers. By 2012 Harrell was telling an RCA synod meeting that leaders at “theologically traditional and pastorally progressive” City Church were “expanding our empathic imagination.”

Harrell himself was having tough times. His older son tweeted in 2013, “Hooray, the pope doesn’t judge my homosexuality, only my homosexual actions. Now the only barrier between me and Catholicism is my libido.” When we talked in May, Harrell said the shutdown of the ex-gay organization Exodus International in 2013 meant “lots of evangelical pastors lost that in their tool kits. … More and more LGBT Christians who were sons and daughters of the church were emerging. … Lots of shame, lots of hurt.”

Harrell recalled in May that during 2013 his own views were “evolving.” In 2014 he suggested that all the elders read Ann Arbor pastor Ken Wilson’s A Letter to my Congregation. In it Wilson claims that the Apostle Paul and others of his time had no knowledge of innate homosexual orientations and loving same-sex relationships. Wilson says Paul was criticizing only gay prostitution and exploitation.

That’s not true, according to Tim Keller, Harrell’s role model. Keller has pointed out that Wilson’s conclusion about ancient understandings goes against the findings of “the best historical scholarship since the 1980s—by the full spectrum of secular, liberal, and conservative researchers. … Paul knew about mutual same-sex relationships, and the ancients knew of homosexual orientation.” Keller’s conclusion: Paul “categorically condemns all sexual relations between people of the same sex.”

When Wilson pushed his Vineyard church to adopt his view, he almost destroyed the congregation. Last year national Vineyard leaders published a position on “Pastoring LGBT Persons” that annihilated Wilson’s exegesis. Another pastor at Wilson’s church, Donnell Wyche, stood up to him and published an incisive paper on how to strengthen and grow the church without abandoning clear biblical teachings.

FEW LEADERS AT CITY CHURCH are in a financial position to stand up to a pastor who can fire them. Prices of cable-car-sized homes in San Francisco climb halfway to the stars: Rent for a one-bedroom apartment two miles south of the Giants ballpark is $3,000 per month. City Church staffers with families generally receive ample compensation and often take out ample mortgages. Some church leaders not on the payroll have spouses who are.

Seven pastors report to Harrell, with considerable turnover in recent years: Several left after signing non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) and receiving financial settlements. Only one left without signing an NDA: He spoke to me initially on the record with great specificity about the negatives he had witnessed, but as our go-to-press date approached he pleaded to have his name removed, citing damage to employment opportunities. This article does not include the information he provided.

From 2012 to 2014, according to a City Church report, the number of households contributing to the church dropped from 807 to 706. Expenses grew as City Church, working with the RCA’s Western Theological Seminary, created a training center for future church leaders, the Newbigin House of Studies. City Church was in good financial shape, though: Church members were generous, and some say a gay billionaire who professes faith in Christ, Peter Thiel—he co-founded PayPal and was an early Facebook investor—became a major donor to Newbigin.

Harrell and administrative pastor Jonathan Gundlach would not confirm that, but in 2012 Thiel’s home was the venue for a Newbigin dinner. Attendees say Harrell spoke of how he was embarrassed by his earlier theological education and had grown immeasurably since then. This year, on Feb. 4, City Church teaching pastor Scot Sherman interviewed Thiel at a Newbigin event held at the Century Club, a prestigious venue. There Sherman called Thiel “a great friend and supporter” of Newbigin House, and announced that Thiel had made Alana Ackerson, a 2014 Newbigin Fellow, the CEO of his foundation. 

In the course of the interview, Sherman told Thiel, “You understand theology … better than a lot of theologians do.” He spoke of a “courageous book” Thiel had just written, Zero to One, and its “perfect title.” He also said in response to Thiel comments, “That’s a great idea” and “Wow.”

A MAJORITY OF CITY CHURCH ELDERS last October agreed to accept the membership application of a gay man without requiring that he would endeavor to be chaste—but the man did not join, and almost all church members remained unaware of the imminent change. At a meeting of elders this January, Harrell pushed to make the October agreement official policy for everyone. Elder Alex Lim said he and the five other elders who were present at the January meeting agreed with Harrell. They discussed ways to communicate the change to the entire congregation. 

Two developments that month led some City Church members to think it was time for the church to change. Two big evangelical churches in other cities—GracePointe in Nashville and EastLake in Seattle—announced they would now admit noncelibate gays. An article in The Guardian on hip Bay Area churches focused on new entries: Reality, Epic, C3, and The Table. City Church didn’t receive even a mention.

Harrell met on Feb. 9 with the two elders who missed the January meeting. Both opposed the decision. Harrell said he had “ideas to extend the conversation” but a resignation letter from one of the elders on Feb. 27 led him and other elders to suspect that news of the decision might spread before they had a chance to make an official announcement. 

On March 13 Harrell and the six elders who supported him emailed their own letter: It declared that City Church’s policy against sexually active gays becoming members “has not led to human flourishing,” so “we will no longer discriminate based on sexual orientation”: The church would treat heterosexual and homosexual marriages equally.

The letter stated that elders “invite you into this discussion in safe settings where all can voice disagreement, concern, push back,” but many City Church members say the letter was deceptive. One member looked forward to an announced Q-and-A session the Sunday after the elders’ letter went out, but was frustrated to find it was only a one-sided presentation, with no questions allowed. “There is no dialogue,” another member said. Members critical of the decision often received admonitions against “disunity,” with unity defined as acquiescence.  

MORE FRUSTRATION EMERGED on April 19 when Ken Wilson (A Letter to my Congregation) preached at City Church’s three morning services that day. Another advocate for gay membership, Mercer professor and Sojourners board member David Gushee, spoke that evening. Congregation members could not directly question Gushee, but had to write their questions on index cards: Scot Sherman then chose ones to ask. At another large-group meeting, members viewed slides supporting the church leaders’ argument, with only questions about the slides allowed.

Harrell did visit small groups, but members say his answers varied according to the makeup of the group. Asked at one “community group” made up of young and hip members whether he would officiate at same-sex weddings, Harrell reportedly replied, “I absolutely would do them.” At another, he said he could not do that now because the RCA does not allow it, but he could see doing them in the future.

Asked about those responses, Harrell saw “no inconsistency in what I’ve said.” He summarized his view as: “(a) I would. (b) The church has not made that decision and we submit to our classis [a group of RCA churches]. Some people hear ‘a,’ others ‘b,’ and others both.”

Church officials did not schedule large-group meetings at which broad opposition to their change could coalesce. Harrell and the elders explained in a May 15 statement, “We have decided not to facilitate town-hall style congregational meetings, as we are very concerned that such meetings would lead to many in our community feeling hurt or damaged, rather than encouraging productive communication.” 

Several members set up an online forum at which members could share their views and sorrow: Former intern Yamamoto, who worked three years for Jews for Jesus, equated the forum to the Orthodox Jewish tradition of “sitting shiva,” mourning and grieving together. But forum organizers say a church official threatened legal action because they used a church directory to invite potential participants. 

Opposition emerged outside the church via critical articles in the journal First Things and other publications, and at a March 19 meeting of the classis to which City Church belongs. Other pastors asked Harrell why they were not informed in advance, and Ken Korver, pastor of Emmanuel Reformed Church in Paramount, Calif., said the new City Church position will “harm the church, divide us, and weaken our position.” Six days later the 40-plus RCA pastors sent their letter questioning whether the church allowed for “open forums” and “public conversations.”

City Church Director of Operations Jonathan Gundlach answers questions of that sort by saying, “Had it not been for those [two dissident] elders, there would have been broader discussion.” Elder Alex Lim says, “I have my own fears that this will distract us.” The message is uniform: Fall in line; pay attention to more important things. Harrell and the elders put this more mellifluously in a statement: They plan to “welcome all people into full Christian community, regardless of sexual orientation, in the name of Jesus, while holding the tension of varying theological/scriptural interpretations.”

It does not seem likely that financial pressure will force a change from the pro-gay position. The City Church website lists average monthly general fund expenses at $385,000. May had five Sundays, and on four of them giving was $35,000, $30,000, $25,000, and $28,000, respectively, for a total of $118,000, well below what the budget requires. On May 17, though, contributions totaled $300,000, suggesting a major funder (or major funders) had come through. 

Ninety City Church members on May 20 sent a letter to RCA leaders explaining their concerns and requesting an intervention. On June 13 the denomination’s General Synod (its annual convention) voted 145-73 to form a special council to address “questions of human sexuality as it relates to ordination and marriage” and make recommendations for the General Synod to vote on next year. Many among the two-thirds majority supporting the resolution did so because they want the RCA to oppose homosexual ordination and marriage.

Harrell spoke from the floor against that resolution. He said those favoring it want “uniformity and compliance. …  I spent 16 years in a  denomination like that.” Regarding human sexuality, Harrell said, “science tells us that this is an increasingly complex issue. We now know that while we think we encounter a largely gender-binary world, it is not one at all.” He said, “Truth bringing unity is a false premise. Rather, unity brings us truth.”

ON SUNDAY MORNING, MAY 10, THE 9 A.M. City Church service at the Russian Center (usually the larger of the two services) had only 150 adults and a smattering of children in attendance. Pastor Julie Van Til preached about how God loves and accepts us. She noted that “Romans is so hard to preach on,” and quoted Paul Tillich and former Franciscan priest Brennan Manning. 

At 10:30 two miles away on a concrete floor in what once was the San Francisco Chronicle building, 21 souls at the service of a brand-new PCA church, Glory San Francisco, lustily sang “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus.” Pastor Christopher Robins (asked about his name, he says his parents once were hippies) prayed for City Church and asked God to “lead us out of temptation, because I know from experience I will not lead myself.”

‘God with City Church started a fire, and embers are now flying all over the city. We have more church plants now than at any time in the history of San Francisco.’ —Christopher Robins

Using a whiteboard, Robins preached on Ezekiel and noted that 16 of the 23 times the Bible cites “rebellion” are in that book. He said, “Many people in San Francisco want to be rebels—but rebels against what?” That led into the Lord’s Supper, with Robins explaining, “This table is for rebels who receive Christ. This is a reverse altar call: If you don’t know God, don’t partake.” The contrast with City Church broadening membership was clear.

Later, Robins mused about his PCA plant and its predecessor: “God with City Church started a fire, and embers are now flying all over the city. We have more church plants now than at any time in the history of San Francisco.” Embers, yes, and also barley. Fred Harrell, like William Hall in the 19th century, planted a new crop in San Francisco. Residents now do not grow barley, but they enjoy hundreds of tree varietals from around the world, including Japanese Yew, Queensland Kauri, and Italian Alder. And, young evangelicals moving to San Francisco now have at least 20 church choices.

Proselytizing Christians

Lisbeth Melendez Rivera, a practicing lesbian and Catholic, knows by heart the Bible verses that are specifically about homosexuality. She can rattle off Leviticus 18:22 and tell you where the others are.

That may be because, as director of Latino and Catholic Initiatives for the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign (HRC), she hears them enough from people who object to her behavior. But rather than alter her lifestyle, she decided to revamp her faith and give the verses a nickname: “verses of terror.” She argues that “in the entire Bible, homosexuality is mentioned eight times. Eight verses.” 

HRC’s Director of Faith Partnerships and Mobilization MacArthur Flournoy similarly sidesteps the “eight passages” and speaks of “faith-based principles like love, unconditional love, hospitality.” To soften Christian opposition to homosexuality HRC has also developed a heart-tugging PR campaign and used media allies to paint critics as extremists or bigots. And it’s working. Polls show 40 percent of Protestants now favor legalization of same-sex marriage.

Michael Brown, author of Can You Be Gay and Christian?: Responding With Love and Truth to Questions About Homosexuality, says he’s saddened but not surprised by HRC’s success. Speaking of polls that show increasing support for LGBT initiatives, Brown said, “Those same polls will show a higher rate of biblical illiteracy.”

Brown said that Christian unpreparedness, combined with progressive theology, has allowed gay rights groups to lambast opponents like himself and effectively silence debate on the issue. Last September, HRC published a report entitled “Export of Hate,” a de facto “hit list” highlighting individuals it says have threatened the gay community’s desire to win global acceptance. Out of the eight profiled, six are Christians.

HRC says its report exposed “a network of American extremists” who “spew venomous rhetoric, outrageous theories, and discredited science.” Turn the page and readers will see each opponent’s expressionless face sketched in high contrast black and white attached to a short description of their purported offenses. It’s hard not to see parallels to police wanted posters.

Peter LaBarbera, president of Americans for Truth about Homosexuality, is on this list. He’s getting fewer phone calls from the media and more irate notes from people asking him why he hates gays. He said, “We can disagree and still have a civil debate about this. But they’re saying, some voices don’t deserve to be heard in the public square, and it’s a very dangerous argument.”

LaBarbera noted one occasion when a magazine invited and later rescinded its invitation to have him speak as the sole representative opposing homosexual practice. The reason: HRC and two other panelists refused to sit at the same table with him. Brown, who also made it onto the list as a “dishonorable mention,” said HRC has worked hard “to demonize the opponents of homosexual practice. … When I say that traditional marriage is between a man and woman and kids deserve a mom and a dad, there’s nothing hateful there.”

HRC has reached millions of living rooms in the South with emotional stories of stay-at-home moms like Mary Jane Kennedy. One HRC video aired last November brought viewers into Kennedy’s leafy Brandon, Miss., backyard. “I’m a Bible-believing, born again Christian,” she says with an unmistakable Southern drawl. She speaks about her grown sons as the camera shows her flipping through photo albums in her living room. Her voice cracks as she says, “My middle son was about to graduate from college, and he said, ‘Mama, I’m gay.’”

Then she pauses to compose herself, and says, “Nothing in my life had ever prepared me for that. I said, ‘What’s going to happen? This is going to tear our family apart.’” The background piano music intensifies as she offers a wrenching appeal: “One of the main things that I want to happen is to open the arms of Jesus Christ to people that have been pressed out of the church. We’ve closed our doors to the people who need us the most. God called us to love each other.” The episode closes with the words, “We are all God’s children,” and HRC’s familiar yellow and blue equal sign logo embedded in one of the letters.

Melendez Rivera, who has shown such videos at conferences and other gatherings, said emotional testimonies like Kennedy’s are powerful. Many evangelical churches, on the other hand, welcome gays to hear the gospel but do not affirm their lifestyle. Bob Lynn, associate pastor at Knox Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Mich., says his Evangelical Presbyterian congregation understands that Christians should not engage in homosexual practice, but it’s “heartbreaking” that men struggling with same-sex attraction face chaste singleness. “We don’t understand the price they have to pay for faithfulness.”

Please read my column “Be on guard” in this issue for thoughts on what members of churches can do to make blindsiding less likely.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

Comments

  • Marymartybaker
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:07 pm

    The last line in the "Proselytizing Christians" "We don't understand the price they pay for faithfulness" is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard stated as a serious thought. The price homosexuals pay for faithfulness is exactly the same that everyone pays. It's called dying to self. I have to die to self, drug abuse,alcohol abuse, having sex with my neighbors wife, or robbing a bank. If you are not dying to self you are not a Christian and that is the real problem.

  • STEPHEN KLOOSTERMAN's picture
    STEPHEN KLOOSTERMAN
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:07 pm

    Thank you, Marvin, for shedding light on the workings of these men. 

  • DPF
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:07 pm

    It appears J Lee Harshbarger has made some relevant comments about Mr. Olasky's article. I, too, wondered about the points J Lee mentions and would appreciate Mr. Olasky's response to them. That is not to say I agree with the elders'/Pastor's decision at City Church. I have witnessed a pastor whose theology was firm on no-remarriage-after-divorce, who later embraced it and officiated at marriages of divorced individuals AFTER one of his daughters divorced and wanted to remarry. (And did remarry and divorce again and remarry again). A pastor's family life definitely influences his theology and it is something to beware of. Jesus was compassionate, yet he said to the woman accused of adultery " go and sin no more," the key being " sin no more," a difficult admonition to follow no matter what the sin.

  • MarkPA
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:07 pm

    Thank you. Yes truth comes out of unity was an obvious alarm. I'm more concerned with the allegation of being a "Bible-believing, born again Christian," because I can abide (for some indefinite time) a humble immature Christian's confusion about homosexual conduct, but is the person immature or are they obstinate? Are they born-again or not? That's what unsettles me. My emotional state perhaps resembles the one I am in when someone's concept of science controls their interpretation of scripture.

  • Brother Christopher
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:07 pm

    Our Lord long ago ( Matthew 24:4-13) spoke of congregations and church "leaders" doing such things. So also Christ's apostles have also spoken as inspired by the Holy Spirit, spoken of those teachers and preachers who depart faithful teaching for "evolving theologies" concerning eternal truths which God has revealed through His Word. St. Paul exhorted Timothy  - and ALL faithful servants of God's kingdom: 2 Timothy 4:3ff"For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths."So, we now see this prophetic Word of God's truth coming to pass (once again).  We should not be surprised, but should instead evangelically apply God's word to those who stray and stumble. Yes, we should patiently call them out, and exhort them to repent and return to the truth of God's will according to His Word. Seldom before these days has this instruction been more relevant and needed: 2 Timothy 2:22ff"Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. Don't have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will."Sadly, out of a desire to pursue "faith, love and peace" ~ some of our Christian brothers and sisters have forgotten about upholding God's righteousness and the standard that HE has set for us all in His revealed Word!  Yes, they want to be loving and inclusive of ALL... yet are willing to compromise and redefine God's holy law and standard of righteousness to reach out to those who are living outside of God's will.  It is tragic, no matter what the motives of those who exchange God's will and word for the full inclusion of those of this age.Jesus Himself stated that God's kingdom is exclusive (Matthew 5:17-20). It is limited to those believing faithful who confess Christ as Lord, who repent of their sinful acts and seek to live in true righteousness.  We do not have the freedom to change or ignore God's Law or Gospel ~ even by claiming "evolving theologies" for the sake of loving and accepting others.  In the end ~ God will be our Judge, according to His Word and  standard of righteousness, not ours. May our living Lord have mercy upon His Church and all its people, and help them ever hear, speak, and conform themselves to His holy will ~ as opposed the will of this permissive and lawless age and its fallen prince of darkness ~ that former angel of light. The devil has set his snare ~ and too many truly loving and caring people who name themselves as followers of Jesus are falling into it.   Yet, faithful Christians ought not fail in upholding the way and truth of God ~ or grow weary in trying to free those caught in this most recent snare.

  • J Lee Harshbarger's picture
    J Lee Harshbarger
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:07 pm

    This article is a Class A Exhibition in how framing and emphasis creates bias in reporting.  The tone in this article gives the impression that the changes at City Church are motivated by money and bullying.  I find both of these to be highly unlikely.First of all, whenever the leaders of an evangelical congregation decide that in taking the total Gospel, that LGBT persons should not be excluded from full church participation, there is an exodus of those who disagree with the stance, which causes financial hardship on the congregation.  Leaders who make these decisions are well aware that this will happen, but choose to act according to their convictions, despite the loss of funds.This article shows a similar thing happening at City Church.  "From 2012 to 2014, according to a City Church report, the number of households contributing to the church dropped from 807 to 706."  Later in the article: "The City Church website lists average monthly general fund expenses at $385,000. May had five Sundays, and on four of them giving was $35,000, $30,000, $25,000, and $28,000, respectively, for a total of $118,000, well below what the budget requires."  Despite this, Olasky implies that because there is a wealthy person at the church who is presumably on the side of the leaders, the decision of the leaders is therefore motivated by financial reasons.  This does not make sense to me.  Furthermore, with the tone that Olasky takes on this topic, he seems to imply that had there not been a wealthy person at the church, and the donations continued to plummet, that the leaders should change their stance to prevent financial bleeding.  I am certain Olasky does not believe that church leaders should make theological or pastoral decisions based on how it will affect giving, but the way he frames this situation at City Church makes it sound that way.  What I mean is, he criticizes them for this decision on LGBT inclusion, and implies that it's motivated by money, but the converse of that would be that they would not have made this decision without the wealthy donor's money -- would he have supported them in that case?  "Oh, our donations are dropping...we should change our mind."  This is exactly what appears to have happened with World Vision.  Is that the kind of reasoning Olasky supports?  The framing of the financial issues in this article seem out of whack.The other form of bias in this article is in the framing of this as bullying.  Olasky uses the term "LGBT juggernaut."  In the political world, I could see this term fitting.  But within the evangelical church, this is not fitting.  In the evangelical world, those who support LGBT full inclusion in church participation are clearly in the minority, and when decisions are made in that direction, a congregation may be kicked out of the denomination, or receive some other loss within the organization, or at least loss of reputation, if nothing else.  In this same paragraph, he lists as those who influence church leaders as "family members, friends, financiers, fame-seekers."  I already addressed the "financiers" issue above -- this seems like a cynical view to me.  And fame-seekers?  I have not seen any indication of anyone taking these steps to become famous.  Leaders who take these steps tend to do so with trepidation, knowing the backlash they will receive.  That doesn't sound like fame-seeking to me.Olasky paints the process at City Church as being heavy-handed.  First of all, according to this article, six of the eight elders agreed with Harrell at the January 2015 to allow full membership for those in same-sex marriages.  That's a ¾ majority of the elders...yet Olasky makes it sound like it's some kind of one-man coup by Harrell.The description of the processes of presenting the changes to the congregation are reported as allowing little dialog.  Given the bias of the rest of the article, I am skeptical of the reporting on this. I have a response to one item, however: this article reports the following statement on May 15: "We have decided not to facilitate town-hall style congregational meetings, as we are very concerned that such meetings would lead to many in our community feeling hurt or damaged, rather than encouraging productive communication."  This follows an April 19 visit by Ken Wilson, who pastored Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor when it dealt with this situation.I began attending the Ann Arbor Vineyard in 2001, and was there during the time when this issue was being dealt with.  The Ann Arbor Vineyard church board had provided several avenues for discussion on the matter.  After seeing the effect this had on the LGBT people in the congregation, Wilson felt that it had not been a good way to handle the situation.  As I recall, he compared it this way: What if a congregation were debating whether or not to allow people who remarried after divorce to be full members of the church?  While being theological debates, in the process of such debates, real people's lives would be discussed, questioned, and many would be hurt or damaged by what was said.  It seems likely that Wilson may have shared this experience with Harrell during the April 19 visit, and that was the reason for the May 15 statement.  In other words, this is a genuine concern for the lives of congregants, and not some kind of strong-arming.In the case of the Ann Arbor Vineyard, the question was whether or not the congregation should abide by the demands of the denomination (which prohibits full LGBT inclusion), or leave the denomination.  Ultimately, the board decided to not put the issue to a vote to the congregation (which according to their by-laws, would be the necessary step to leave the denomination), even though a survey showed only a minority of the congregation supported the requirements of the denomination.  The reason for not putting it to a vote was to avoid more strife that such a vote could incur.  The way I see it, such a vote would involve people politicking for their side, trying to drum up votes, which would not only be divisive, but have a lasting negative aftermath.The article was about City Church, but I can't help but wonder if Olasky considered this about Ann Arbor Vineyard.  He finds the process at City Church to be heavy-handed; given that Ann Arbor Vineyard chose a route Olasky would support, would he find the process at Ann Arbor Vineyard to be equally heavy-handed, being that the decision was not even put to a vote?   In my view, it is not good to put things like this to a vote in churches; it just increases the divisions.  Church leaders should make their decisions according to the way they see fit.  The leaders at Ann Arbor Vineyard did this, as did the leaders at City Church.  This is not heavy-handededness; this is considering the well-being of the congregants and the long-term health of the congregation.The article states, "Members critical of the decision often received admonitions against 'disunity,' with unity defined as acquiescence."  Yet a few paragraphs later, we find these words: "Ken Korver, pastor of Emmanuel Reformed Church in Paramount, Calif., said the new City Church position will 'harm the church, divide us, and weaken our position.'"  Olasky does not give a hint of the making of City Church stick with the position of other churches as coming off as "acquiescence," I suppose because it's on his side of the fence.  This is something I've noticed in general:  When someone challenges the dominant view, they are considered to be "divisive" and "breaking up unity."  Those on the dominant side insist on keeping "unity."  But if you disagree with the dominant side, then the dominant side is being "heavy-handed" and making the minority in the organization "acquiesce."  The way Olasky chooses to highlight these terms reveals his bias.No reporter is free of bias, and WORLD magazine in general is clearly biased toward conservative viewpoints; there's nothing wrong with bias in itself.  But I feel that this article misrepresents the heart of what is going on at City Church and other evangelical churches across America.  Olasky barely mentions the aspects of the decision that come from soul-searching and seeking how to understand the whole Gospel in light of our current situation.  We get this quote from Harrell: "More and more LGBT Christians who were sons and daughters of the church were emerging. ... Lots of shame, lots of hurt."  And, "Harrell recalled in May that during 2013 his own views were 'evolving.'"  So little about this; so much about money and processes that imply heavy-handedness, as if those were the heart of the matter.  That's what's so disappointing about this article.Finally, I'd like to expand on something only mentioned in the article.  The article quotes a statement from City Church to "welcome all people into full Christian community, regardless of sexual orientation, in the name of Jesus, while holding the tension of varying theological/scriptural interpretations."  This is something called the Third Way, which Wilson outlined in his book that was mentioned in this article.  In brief, churches choosing the Third Way, such as City Church, are not stating definitively that gay marriage is Biblically sanctioned.  The stance of Third Way churches is that they acknowledge that genuine devout Christians come to differing conclusions on this matter, but can still fellowship together in a congregation, working for the Kingdom of God.  That's what's behind the statement "...while holding the tension of varying theological/scriptural interpretations."

  • Pastor Phil
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:07 pm

    Lizzy, you are so right. The temptation to lust and sin are great for every believer, and to single out one group for sympathy suggests that they are somehow justified if they do not pursue holiness and purity. Hebrews 11.25-26 tells us that Moses chose "to endure ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures (of this world)". May we all seek to be such followers of Christ.

  • Florida Cracker's picture
    Florida Cracker
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:07 pm

    Thank you, Marvin. This is really good and really important. I am very thankful for your reporting and analysis.

  • Lizzy's picture
    Lizzy
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:07 pm

    Agree with all those posting about the unity comment.  The other thing that struck me though was the comment about expecting gay men to be celibate and how we have no idea what a hard thing that is to ask.  Every single woman who longed for a marriage relationship that never happened also has to face the same expectation and it isn't easy for them either, yet there are no comments about how it's heartbreaking that they face chaste singleness.  In singling out gay men for such an appeal to sympathy isn't that the first step down the road of elevating emotions over Biblical faithfulness? 

  • MTJanet
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:07 pm

    It is all about the Bible - do you believe it or do you want to change it to suit your own sinful tendencies, whatever those may be?   More and more churches are going to fall away, and so what?  The Bible says it will be so.  Christians need to be asking for more wisdom and discernment - we don't need buildings; we need people set apart to do God's will.  That one hour on Sunday is nice, but we need all the other time as well to bring the gospel to the lost and hurting around us.  

  • David Osborn
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:07 pm

    " . . . for we are not unaware of his schemes."  2 Cor 2:11.  Temptation to compromise on a theological issue that is said to be something unimportant.  Financial pressures that a wealthy gay donor can relieve.  The Pastor's son facing homosexuality personally.  The enemy had a scheme to cause City Church to depart from Truth.  We can't forget that we have a crafty enemy who wants to take us out and capture our souls.

  • John
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:07 pm

    My heart breaks. We must be in the last days as those who call themselves Christians despise orthodox teachings. May God have mercy on us.

  • phillipW's picture
    phillipW
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:07 pm

    That quote hit me right between the eyes as well.  I about lost my breath.  And Richard H is spot on in that it is blasphemous.  What I observe in every circumstance where this sort of betrayal of Biblical Christianity takes place we have a member or large donor in the background, pulling the puppet strings of a pastor or board of elders that donates enough money to sway influence within the church however they wish to see it.  The comments in the article about how pastors and church staff are handcuffed by the cost of living in San Francisco is truly a sad commentary on how Americans look at church and their faith in Christ.  As a follower of Christ I must be prepared at any moment to surrender to Christ on any issue that is Biblical, and reject the teachings of man who stray from it.  If that means I lose physical or material blessings as a result then so be it.  Yes, I understand that this is easier said than done, but my eternal destination has consequences in this life.  We must remain true to Christ, no matter the result here on earth.  I pray that the true church would count the cost and reject the teachings of this demonic world.

  • socialworker
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:07 pm

    That's the quote that hit me between the eyes also.  People have been unified to do and believe horrible things together.  I really think this is the same phenomenon that made the O.T. prophets admonish the Jews for being unfaithful to God.  Those Jews probably just found that they were more popular when they spent time at the shrine/temple down the street where movers and shakers met.  They would do their Jewish thing also, for a few hours on Saturday, but they got public approval and notoriety when they were open to non-scriptural ideas and practices.  They got job opportunities strict Jews didn't get along with the opportunity to hobnob with open minded people who gave money to cool causes.  I really don't think human nature has changed.  It's hard for rich people who need public approval to go through the eye of a needle.  

  • Richard H's picture
    Richard H
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:07 pm

    Harrell says "Truth bringing unity is a false premise. Rather, unity brings us truth." Harrell's statement is blasphemous as Truth is Jesus Christ and He brings His true Church to unity as He brings us Truth per Eph 4.  Harrell's unity is compromise with the world which is built upon Satan's lies, not truth.  Too bad, but this is to be expected as scripture tells us about the falling away led by false teachers.