A couple weeks ago, I noted Elizabeth Diaz’s feature-length article in Time magazine arguing that evangelicals are changing their mind about gay marriage. Today she has a follow-up piece about Nashville, Tennessee’s GracePointe Community Church which has become “one of the first evangelical megachurches in the country to openly stand for full equality and inclusion of the LGBTQ community.” The church’s pastor, Stan Mitchell, made the announcement at the end of a sermon a few weeks ago. You can watch it above beginning at 44:00.
What strikes me about this sermon is that it reveals that the church’s transition actually occurred three years ago, not three weeks ago. But the church’s identity is so bereft of biblical ecclesiology that they apparently don’t realize it. What do I mean?
Pastor Mitchell says in the sermon above that when the church began their “conversation” about sexuality three years ago, they extended “partial membership” to practicing gays and lesbians. That “partial membership” consisted of welcoming them to be baptized and to the Lord’s table but of barring them from leadership and from the “sacraments” of baby dedication and of marriage. The only thing that changed three weeks ago was that those final three barriers were removed. So what gives?
Well, in the evangelical tradition, baby dedication and marriage are not sacraments. The only two sacraments (or ordinances) are baptism and the Lord ‘s Supper. Those two ordinances are defining marks of church membership, but leadership, baby dedication, and marriage most assuredly are not. That means that GracePointe crossed the theological Rubicon years ago, but apparently no one noticed.
And this underlines a problem that makes many churches vulnerable to the same kind of error that has now emerged at GracePointe. Churches that do not have a biblical ecclesiology will be more likely to fold than those that do. A biblical ecclesiology is God’s provision for sound teaching, qualified leadership, and meaningful membership—all three of which are essential to a healthy church and which are certainly missing at GracePointe.
Another item that emerges in this sermon is that the pastor reveals that he no longer believes in meticulous sovereignty. He left that view years ago and became fully convinced of process theology and of open theism. Process theology and open theism are related, but they certainly aren’t the same thing. Nevertheless, Pastor Mitchell says that he embraced both for a time and that he’s now somewhere in between pendulum swings. He wasn’t altogether clear where he’s landed, but he does reveal that Greg Boyd will be filling GracePointe’s pulpit in the very near future. One does not have to believe in meticulous sovereignty to be an evangelical, but the positions this pastor embraced in place of meticulous sovereignty are not pathways to biblical faithfulness.
This pastor’s theological journey is relevant because it raises questions about his evangelical bona fides. This man does not have the theological profile of a committed evangelical but of a person who is considering various theological trajectories that lead out of evangelicalism. Diaz’s report says that after this recent announcement, GracePointe’s attendance and giving dropped to about 50% of what it was this time last year. If it was unclear before, it is now no longer unclear what theological direction this church is going in. And about 50% of their membership have left as a result. For this reason, I question whether we can really point to GracePointe as the future of evangelical churches. It looks more like an example of how to kill evangelical churches.
Nevertheless, Diaz argues that Pastor Mitchell’s sermon illustrates all four marks of Bebbington’s quadrilateral of evangelical distinctives:
But churches that are shifting, like GracePointe… are not only retaining their faith, they are also using their very evangelical roots to come to these new decisions. There are four hallmarks of evangelicalism, according to the historian David Bebbington–Biblicism, a high view of Scriptural authority; crucicentrism, a focus on the sacrifice of Jesus; activism, living out this gospel message; and conversionism, transforming their own lives.
Yes, that is Bebbington’s framework, and it is one that I believe to be largely correct. But Mitchell’s sermon is not in fact marked by these emphases. “Biblicism” is not merely using the Bible to make a point. Even theological liberals in mainline churches do that. Biblicism in the evangelical tradition gives the Bible the ultimate authority. And that is certainly not on display in Mitchell’s sermon, which deals with none of the relevant texts related to homosexual behavior or marriage.
Likewise, “conversionism” is not self-improvement or turning over a new leaf but is a specific commitment to the necessity of the new birth and to repentance and faith. None of these latter items are evident in Mitchell’s sermon. In fact, the sermon makes clear that the church now no longer requires members to repent of certain sexual sins. This is a far cry from anything resembling evangelical faith.
I think GracePointe Community Church does exemplify a trend, but not the one that Diaz thinks. Gay marriage and homosexuality are going to become the occasion for a great winnowing of the evangelical ranks, and we are going to be seeing a lot of that in days to come. Those churches that have been evangelical in name only and that have not been conducting themselves with biblical integrity are going to get exposed on this issue. Many of these “evangelical” churches will buckle under pressure (like GracePointe) and will be known as “formerly evangelical” in very short order. For that reason, GracePointe’s falling away is not the future of evangelicalism but of former evangelicalism. And that is a big difference.