Australia Christian Living the Church

Hillsong heartbreak: how should we respond?

This weeks Christian Today article – you can read the original here –   I wasn’t going to write anything but then I read a few things in Thomas Manton that I thought were really helpful – hence this article…maybe the Puritans can help the Pentecostals?

 

“A good man takes no delight to rake in a dung hill, others’ failings cannot serve his mirth and triumph” (Thomas Manton sermon on James 3:1).

Manton was writing in the 17th century. But it doesn’t matter whether it’s the 17th, the 21st or the 1st, the danger is ever the same: “so, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).The failure and falls of church leaders have been with us from Judas and Demetrius up to Zacharias and Houston.

There are a myriad of reactions that we can have to the news that Brian Houston, the founder of Hillsong Church, has been compelled to resign as senior pastor. Some want to know every gory detail – gossip tastes sweet. Others want to take the opportunity of sharing their insight into the wrong theology and practice of one of the most successful megachurches in the world – schadenfreude (delight in another’s misfortune) is an ugly emotion.

Many will grieve for the victims – because there are victims. The ‘behaviour’ towards two women who both admired and trusted the church, was not just ‘inappropriate’, it was wicked, and they are the primary victims. Likewise, the hurt and pain that so many in Hillsong will be feeling just now is heartbreaking. I hope that people will reach out to care and pastor them.

The damage to the public reputation of the Gospel is depressing. “The name of God is blasphemed amongst the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:24). All the major media outlets in Australia (and many throughout the world) have covered the story. Some here in Australia seem to almost delight in it, not least because it has given them a chance to make yet another attack upon the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. Mr Morrison, the Western world’s only Pentecostal political leader, has not been a member of Hillsong for 15 years, but guilt by association is a useful card to play in an election year. Besides which there are some in Australia who have an almost pathological hatred for Hillsong. This is a day of rejoicing for them. Their day of judgement is yet to be.

The message from the Hillsong global board reflects some of the confusion and pain. While we should be thankful for their openness in sharing and dealing with the situation, the statement itself leaves a lot to be desired. The sentence that is particularly unwise is, “Irrespective of the circumstances around this, we can all agree that Brian and Bobbie have served God faithfully over many decades.” We cannot be “irrespective of the circumstances”. It is those circumstances that prove that the service was not faithful.Houston’s unwillingness to withdraw from ministry after the allegations came to light in 2019, and the failure of the board to suspend him at that time demonstrates the weakness of a corporate church which depends not on Christ, but on the brand established by the leader.We cannot know if this is a pattern of behaviour that had gone on for many years; we leave the Lord to judge his own servant. But we also cannot talk about “faithful service” in a ministry which ended so unfaithfully. That does not negate all that Houston said or did, but it does mean that we should not be so quick to attribute faithful service.

It is good to see that the Hillsong board acknowledge that change is needed and that there must be “humble reflection” as they seek to consider how to honour God. We should pray for them as they do so. Perhaps one place to begin would be repentance? It is one thing to express remorse and set up an independent inquiry; it is quite another to come as dependent beings before a Holy God who knows all things and to inquire of him.If Hillsong try to keep the brand and preserve the corporate church, they will sink. Churches rise and churches fall, but the gates of Hell will not prevail against Christ’s church (Matthew 16:18).

What about those of us who do not belong to Hillsong? How should we react? As it happened before sitting down to write this article, I read three of Thomas Manton’s sermons that deal with the beginning of James 3 and he makes some appropriate points for us.

“Those that vainly boast of their own faith are most apt to censure others; and they that pretend to religion are wont to take the greatest liberty in rigid and bitter reflections upon the errors of their brethren.”

This is not to say that we are never to judge an action right or wrong; nor can we offer excuses for those who misuse their power to harm people and bring disgrace upon the name of Christ. But we need to be careful to avoid those “rigid and bitter reflections”.

Then we are to examine ourselves. While not on the same scale as Houston, I, as a very minor conference speaker, have sometimes had to stay in hotel rooms in distant cities – with all the attendant temptations. We only need to give into these temptations once to ruin a ministry. Manton’s warning is insightful and challenging.

“Gracious hearts are always looking inward; they inquire most into themselves, are most severe against their own corruptions … a good heart is ready to throw the first stone against itself, John 8:4-5; others can, with much heat, inveigh against other men’s sins, and with a fond indulgence cherish their own.”

I also fear that the Church’s own version of cancel culture will now kick in. In much the same way that corporations and institutions in the West are desperately seeking anything vaguely Russian to cancel (to show they are on the right side), there are Christians who want to purge themselves of any association with any church or Christian organisation that has gone wrong.

Every now and then I get an e-mail from someone concerned that I have used, quoted or sung a Hillsong song. ‘Don’t you realise how wrong the megachurch is?’, they ask – not understanding that singing a particular song does not mean you endorse the whole theology or lifestyle of the writer! It would be foolish and sad if churches now decide not to sing some of the great songs that Hillsong have produced because of the sins of the founder. Applying that standard would leave us with very little to sing!

Most of the Psalms in the Bible were written by a man who committed murder and adultery! It was that very situation which gave us one of the great songs/prayers of deep and heartfelt repentance – Psalm 51. That psalm came about because of the prophet Nathan had the courage to bring a prophetic word which exposed and condemned David.There are many churches that say they believe in ‘prophetic’ words, but they seem to regard the prophetic as some kind of wishful thinking about the future, rather than a ‘you are the man’ call to repentance. The Church could do with a more courageous and robust prophetic ministry – more John the Baptist and less Benny Hinn!

Let Manton have the last word:

“Censure with the more tenderness; give every action the allowance of human fragility (Galatians 6:1). We all need forgiveness; without grace you might fall into the same sins.”

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16 comments

  1. I always appreciate your familiarity with the sermons and writings of the Puritans. Any number of times you have sent me running to find the texts you quote from…

  2. ‘Letters to a Broken Church’ is an inspiring [?prophetic?] statement about much which is wrong. The focus was the CoE but the 2019 book’s themes might have been about many other churches. I was wary of-‘wasting’-£15 on the book (to include P&P) but it was very worth every penny. At 180 pages or less and around 30 chapters it’s a fast and relaxed read, but with serious questions for thought and debate. Chapter 5 alone (by a Presbyterian professional with knowledge of many Church scandals or cover ups) was possibly worth the book price in isolation. Do some churches look exclusively for ‘gifting’ and inspirational mafia or jailhouse conversion stories in potential leaders? The sober and quiet servant, plodding and contributing reservedly for years, can be dismissed out of hand (or far worse, even face fraudulent charges of misconduct based on flimsy or false evidence). Too much has been borrowed from capitalist factory production or the corporate world, where fast and visible results count. This has sometimes placed charismatic and overbearing personalities on a pedestal, to the detriment of themselves and others. What we desperately need is independent analysis of charges or complaints brought against anyone, to protect the innocent and not allow the guilty to escape. Are the days of-‘vicar’s tea party’-justice committees over? They should be!

    1. I think you can look at things two ways either we have a particularly abusive generation of church leaders who do things that would never have crossed the minds of previous generations or we are in a season of justice where secular authorities are dealing with crimes by church leaders, even if not non criminal abuses.

      Brian Houston is unlikely to be brought to any kind of trial for his behavior towards the two women, but he is going to trial for failing to report knowledge of his fathers sexual predation.

      It is a very sad state that many denominations are in. They seem to think protecting leaders protects their reputation, but it really does not.

  3. ‘Both nations and individuals have tried Christianity and abandoned it, because it has been found too difficult; but no man has ever gone through the crisis of deliberately making Jesus Lord and found Him to be a failure.’ – Oswald Chambers

    Chambers captures so succinctly the fundamental reality of this repeated issue from his day to ours. Our devotion is not to Christianity or the church. It is to Christ.

    The Bible clearly marks out principles for the local church, a body of people each gifted to edify the whole, overseen by local elders, appointed in each location. There was never a pattern for mega churches or central control leadership. The church in Ephesus or Philippi was never a ‘branch’ or ‘satellite’ of the church in Jerusalem.

    For some reason we seem to think that building these huge ‘movements’ based of the charisma of a leader, which invariably results in many trying Christianity and church, and abandoning it, because it fails. Why? The church is not a franchise or brand like Coca Cola, Google, Apple, McDonalds. To many are drawn by the brand, label, organisation of church, and not called to go through the crisis of personal devotion to Jesus Christ. He is Lord. Nothing else.

    In my journey in churches, I’ve known leaders fail, some repent, some abandon the faith, but am I called to devote my life to the church and them, or to a Christ himself? Jesus has never failed. Everyone else will.

    The test of the reaction to this (like all these global church brands) will be, what have people built on, what do they point to as the failure and cause of them giving up? Because for the one who deliberately goes through a crisis of making Jesus Lord, not the church, will never find Him to be a failure.

  4. By my count no fewer than 5 senior leaders of Hillsong are no longer leaders because of sexual misconduct and all bar one of the people who covered up for them are still in their positions.

    I think it’s a tricky decision as to whether to continue to use their music and/or actually buy Hillsong merchandise, but I will say this. If I had been buying goods or services from a secular company and its leadership were behaving like this (and the sexual misconduct is just the tip of the iceberg really) then I’d go elsewhere and this leaves me wondering why we often give churches a pass when we would not do so if they were anyone else.

    My view is that a core problem with Hillsong theology is that you should never question leaders. This has led to a scenario where leaders can behave in ways that would not be tolerated amongst ordinary members or the outside world. If people who buy their products and use their worship songs are not holding Hillsong even to the standard that we would hold secular companies then they too are being sucked into this theology that God has annointed them and so criticism of them is an attack on God.

  5. You said “Mr. Morrison, the Western world’s only Pentecostal political leader, has not been a member of Hillsong for 15 years, but guilt by association is a useful card to play in an election year.” Perhaps you may remember that Morrison brought Houston along with him when he visited the US during the Trump years. Morrison asked to bring Houston along to the White House dinner during his stay. The Trump White House refused the invitation since it was aware of the controversy surrounding Houston and the alleged coverup of his father’s sex abuse in the church. That was only 3 years ago. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7488255/White-House-denied-Scott-Morrison-bringing-Hillsong-Pastor-Brian-Houston.html

    1. Exactly my point. He has not been a member of Hillsong for 15 years and he is being attacked for guilt by association. Would you like to be judged by all the people you associate with? I seem to remember someone else who was judged because he associated with sinners!

      1. I know of some Australians who are genuinely concerned about the relationship between Houston and Morrison because Houston has leveraged his relationship with the prime minister to get more influence (such as almost getting an audience with the president of the United States) and political favors. It’s not like Hillsong is even in the top five biggest denominations in the US!

        I dont think that all of these concerns should just be dismissed as mere political point scoring.

      2. ‘I know of some Australians’ is just gossip. It would be interesting to know what ‘political favours’ Morrison has granted to Houston. I wouldn’t dismiss it as mere political point scoring – just nasty, mocking, gossip….

  6. Some may think the old story of good versus evil are best left for the big screen, but if we are faithful to the scriptures, then we understand that satan is in full attack against the church.
    Each day, for the last month, we have watched Putins army cause horrible physical damage upon the population of Ukraine, yet we seem to not see the unseen battle that wages against the church year in year out, day by day. It feels like satan has anaesthetised the church spiritually, so we don’t feel the pain.
    When the truth came out about Ravi, I felt such pain in my heart, I was stunned, and as someone who head up a Christian mission, I felt Satan’s minions mock me like never before. Since then we have witnessed Christian leaders fall like nine pins. I know many churches in my locality crumble from within.
    Dear church, wake up and get on your knees. Stop simply preaching blessings and life coaching sermons but steer yourselves back to holiness. We are, or should be, a people set apart, not of this world, but of a greater kingdom. Stop looking for and following celebrity, but fix your eyes once more upon Jesus, the biblical Jesus, not the one we have moulded and shaped in our fashion – may He save us from ourselves!

  7. It’s sad that some Christians take delight in the downfall of public preacher, church leader which could be the demise of a congregation. Satan here has managed to take a major scalp, but for some they’re not bothered about that. At some point we’re all going to have to bow before the Lord, and the Lord doesn’t categorise sin like mankind does. We need to be continuely seeking His forgiveness, mercy and be praying that He gives us wisdom in how we can best serve him.

    1. I think that very much depends on your point of view. Is Brian Houston a good Christian leader brought down by the devil or is he a “devil” brought down by justice?

      Brian Houston has at the very least sexually harrassed two women and a drug and alcohol dependency spanning at least the last decade. He would not tolerate that amongst interns or volunteers. They would be fired.

      He failed to take any action when the daughter of another church leader was sexually assaulted by one of his worship leaders. He failed to take any action at all against Carl Lentz when he was warned that he was breaking Hillsongs own requirements on alcohol and sex.

      There is very good evidence that he repeatedly lied to cover for his father, a predator who raped children. He is facing criminal charges for not reporting his father to the police.

      His practice of demanding large sums of money and lots of free work from young church members, which, in part, funds his lavish lifestyle, is somewhere between questionable and deliberately exploitation.

  8. Of course, the news that Brian Houston has been compelled to resign as senior pastor can cause ambiguous reactions because people made different conclusions regarding him. It is difficult to judge Brian Houston or not, but I can say that for me it is almost impossible to understand his decision to keep silent about such awful actions of his father and hide them because it is inhuman. I absolutely agree with you that we cannot be “irrespective of the circumstances” because they characterize Brian Houston not only as a pastor, but also as a human. Such circumstances are the determining factor which indicates that clergymen are not deprived of skeletons in the cupboard and that exactly this pastor was not able to manifest his honesty. I think that it is really important for any clergyman to be true to his principles and to be both honest before God and before himself, remaining impartial.

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