When a Church Loses Confidence in the Gospel

It seems to me that churches and pastors are often-times pressed to change their biblical positions on issues like homosexuality, ordination of women, and the exclusivity of Christ out of a desire to better reach a rising generation or culture.

What is it within the context of daily ministry life in the local church that leads pastors to begin to question the veracity of what have been long-held tenets of Christian Orthodoxy? We have seen this theological interplay take place with other doctrines besides homosexuality and same sex marriage, such as Rob Bell’s questioning of the bible’s teaching on hell or Tony Campolo championing the words of Christ over and against the words of Paul.


I first met Fred Harrell in the fall of 1990 at the University of Tennessee. Winding down my so-called college career, I was wrestling through questions related to calling, seminary, and ministry. Fred had recently arrived on campus to start a new chapter of Reformed University Fellowship (college ministry of the Presbyterian Church in America), and this ministry later grew to a place where it was ministering to hundreds of students weekly through Fred’s excellent bible teaching.  On this day, though, Fred didn’t try to recruit me to be a part of that – he just wanted to serve me by pouring into me biblically. I was a theologically eclectic animal at the time, and as one of my friends once cracked, “eclecticism is a fancy word for confusion.” Fred stepped into my theological confusion and paucity and led me to feast on the doctrines of grace, the gospel, and God-centered thinking. For this, I was and am eternally grateful to God for Fred.

I kept up with Fred off and on for the next few years, more off than on, finally losing touch as he headed off across the country to plant a PCA church in the San Francisco area. Inspired by Tim Keller’s vision to recapture our cities with the gospel, Fred was someone who inspired and encouraged me greatly through his love for the lost and his desire to see the Good News of Jesus change people’s lives in hard places. I listened to his sermon podcasts, visited the City Church website on occasion, tracked the church’s comings and goings, and generally served as a long-distance cheerleader to everything God was doing in San Francisco through Fred’s church.

Small Changes Leading to Big Problems

I was certainly surprised a few years later when I learned that City Church was pulling out of the PCA to move into the RCA over the issue of the ordination of women. At the time, Fred and his leadership team maintained that their decision to begin ordaining women was based upon the fruit of their biblical study on the issue. They also affirmed that their doctrine of Scripture (Sola Scriptura) had not changed. I disagreed at the time with Fred and City Church on this issue (and still do) and surmised that there were other things afoot driving this decision for them. I chalked it up as a well-intentioned but misguided theological accommodation that City Church was making. Planting a church in the heart of progressive San Francisco is a herculean task, with almost all of the cultural odds stacked against the teachings of the bible.  I assigned the purest of motives to Fred and his leadership team: City Church was attempting to remove as many cultural stumbling blocks as possible (as they saw them) to reach that city for Jesus. Misguided, but well-intentioned.

While surprised by the church’s evolving position on women elders, I was utterly shocked when I read City Church’s recent leadership letter announcing its intentions to start recognizing same-sex marriages as a valid, biblical lifestyle choice. In retrospect, I should not have been so taken off guard. The principles of biblical interpretation employed in embracing the ordination of women opens the door wide for these same principles to be employed in more devious ways in relation to the core doctrines of Scripture. Owen Strachan has written an excellent piece on spurious methods of biblical interpretation and the logicall connections between the church ordaining women and the church endorsing homosexual marriage. As he notes, the journey from complementarianism to egalitarianism is long, but the journey from egalitarianism to same-sex marriage is quite short, as the interpretive methods used to arrive at egalitarianism and same-sex marriage are precisely the same.

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