“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his soul?” Mark 8:36 (KJV)
In a wonderful bit of irony, Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ CEO, pulled out of the annual Willow Creek Leadership Summit in South Barrington, Ill this past week. You might ask what’s so ironic about that? Well, it turns out Mr. Shultz was scheduled to speak about his new book, Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life Without Losing Its Soul. I don’t take Howard Shultz for a comedian, but that has to be one of the funniest book titles that I have ever seen. Whether he realizes it or not, Starbucks has lost its soul, if it ever had one.
No, I’m not talking about how our post-modern, post-Christian Starbucks’ culture defines the soul. Starbucks and other cultural accommodaters — both in the secular and church world — have radically redefined soul so that it is divorced from the Biblical concept of that which will live on forever — either in a very real place called heaven or a very real place called hell. It should not surprise us in the least that Starbucks and its CEO have no grasp of that concept. To write a book with such a title, one displays his or her failure to grasp the concept of eternity and the soul’s immortality.
What should surprise Christians — but which now seems so commonplace that the element of surprise is missing — is how churches themselves fail to grasp the concept of eternity and heaven and hell. How else to explain Willow Creek’s response to Shultz’s abrupt withdrawal from the Leadership Summit? In trying to massage the message, longtime Senior Pastor of Willow Creek, Bill Hybels, revealed a church that is moving precipitously close to capitulating on one of the most dangerous attacks against the church in our society today — the radical gay agenda!
It seems that Change.org, the radical gay rights group that started a petition to agitate for Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie to get married to each other on national television, put enough pressure on Starbucks’ CEO, Howard Shultz, that he backed out of his speaking engagement at Willow Creek. You might think this was done because of Willow Creek’s “hard” stand on homosexuality, but you would be wrong. In fact, Change.org targeted Willow Creek because of a past association with a group that has become anathema to gay rights groups and those who sympathize with gay rights groups. That organization, Exodus International :
is a Christian organization dedicated to equipping and uniting agencies and individuals to effectively communicate the message of freedom from homosexuality, as well as how to effectively convey support and understanding to individuals facing the reality of a homosexual loved one. Exodus upholds heterosexuality as God’s creative intent for humanity, and subsequently views homosexual expression as outside of God’s will. (see here for Exodus’ full Policy Statements)
As it turns out, Willow Creek severed their relationship with Exodus International in 2009, although this was not publicly acknowledged by the church until this past June. Why did Willow Creek wait so long to divulge that they were no longer supporting Exodus International’s ministry? We might begin to find the answer to that question when we read Pastor Bill Hybel’s explanation of Willow Creek’s approach to homosexuality within the church. In a page right out of the Joel Osteen playbook for dealing with difficult moral questions that you really don’t want to answer Biblically, Hybels proudly proclaimed:
“If the organizers of this petition had simply taken the time to call us, we would have explained to them as we have to many others that Willow is not only not anti-gay, Willow is not anti-anybody,” Hybels said to applause. “Our church was founded on the idea that people matter to God. All people, all people of all backgrounds, colors, ethnicities, and sexual orientations.”
At first blush, this seems like a perfectly sensible statement. Of course, for anyone who has watched Joel Osteen painfully answer questions about homosexuality (and other sins) during multiple interviews on Larry King Live, you will recognize a “non-answer answer” when you see it. And, that is exactly the kind of answer that Bill Hybels gave in response to the kerfuffle resulting from Mr. Shultz’s sudden no-show. Every church should be founded on the premise that people matter to God — all kinds of people as Hybels describes — including those whose sexual orientation is homosexual. Jesus Christ came to die on the cross for people — all kinds of sinful people. His precious blood was shed as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of people — all kinds of people — who were separated and estranged from a Holy and Righteous God.
The problem with Willow Creek’s philosophy of ministry is not that they were “founded on the idea that people matter to God.” The problem is not seeing that people matter so much to God that He sent Christ to die for their sins so that they would be “new creations in Christ,” and that their old lives would be forever changed by the power of the Gospel. The Apostle Paul puts it this way in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 (ESV):
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, byou were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
Some will likely argue that Willow Creek believes what the Apostle Paul proclaimed in these verses, namely that those “who practice homosexuality” are sinners who can be “washed in the blood of the Lamb,” sanctified and justified by the Lord Jesus Christ. That maybe true, but cutting ties with Exodus International is an odd way to support that thesis. Even odder still is Pastor Hybels’ explanation of Willow Creek’s incredible tolerance for those on a journey to discover Christ.
“Now, what is true is that we challenge homosexuals and heterosexuals to live out the sexual ethics taught in the scriptures which encourages full sexual expression between a man and a woman in the context of marriage and prescribes sexual abstinence and purity for everybody else. But even as we challenge all of our people to these biblical standards we do so grace-filled spirits knowing that confusion and brokenness that is rampant in our fallen world,” he stressed. “At Willow, we honor the journey of everyone who is sincerely attempting to follow Christ. (emphasis added) So, its unfortunate that we could not have explained this to those that called us anti-gay and started this petition.”
Why would one want to honor the journey of those who are following the broad road that leads to destruction, however sincere he or she might be? One can be sincere in their attempt to follow Christ, but he or she could be sincerely wrong in the path that they travel. It is one thing to honor people made in the image of God. It is quite another thing to honor all that they believe in, particularly that which is at variance with God’s Word. I believe that Pastor Hybels sincerely wanted to explain Willow Creek’s position to Change.org and help this radical gay rights group understand that Willow Creek is not “anti-gay” or “anti-anybody.” Somehow, I think trying to explain that to the same folks who want two male puppets on a long-running Children’s television show to get married is a lost cause. But, better capitulation than losing, right?