The leader of an influential global network of evangelical churches is sparking controversy for sending mixed messages on the subject of homosexuality, initially taking a hands-off approach to the matter before quickly backtracking and voicing support for “traditionally held Christian views” on same-sex marriage.
At a press conference last Thursday, Brian Houston, head of the evangelical megachurch Hillsong, was asked by the New York Times about his position on same-sex marriage. Houston, whose congregation is based in Australia but boasts around 100,000 weekly worshipers at campuses in a dozen cities around he world (including New York City and Los Angeles), responded to the question by saying that while he wouldn’t offer a firm position on the matter, he also wouldn’t rule out further conversation, and lamented the negative impact that anti-gay theology has had on LGBT youth.
“The world we live in, whether we like it or not, is changing around and about us,” Houston said, according to the New York Times. “The world’s changing, and we want to stay relevant as a church, so that’s a vexing thing … It’s very easy to reduce what you think about homosexuality to just a public statement, and that would keep a lot of people happy. But we feel at this point, that it is an ongoing conversation, that real issues in people’s lives are too important for us to just reduce it down to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer in a media outlet. So we’re on the journey with it.”
However, Houston quickly changed his tune when several news outlets wrote stories detailing his seemingly ambivalent response. In an interview with the Christian Post on Saturday, he insisted that had not shifted his position on LGBT issues.
“Nowhere in my answer did I diminish biblical truth or suggest that I or Hillsong Church supported gay marriage,” he said. “My personal view on the subject of homosexuality would line up with most traditionally held Christian views. I believe the writings of Paul are clear on this subject.”
Houston’s back-and-forth on homosexuality comes in the midst of a round of victories for marriage equality activists in the United States, and is part of heated debate among many conservative Christians over a possible a “third way” approach to LGBT issues, where opposition to homosexuality isn’t treated as a make-or-break requirement for membership in a church. Last week, for example, the Catholic Church made waves for unveiling a report that appeared to offer more welcoming language toward LGBT people, only to quickly redact the English version of the document and eventually remove the affirming phrases from the final report.
Similarly, some evangelicals are also trying to strike a more open tone on LGBT issues, also with limited success. In fact, Houston’s initial refusal to either condemn or endorse homosexual behavior matches similar statements made earlier this year by Carl Lentz, the “celebrity pastor” of Hillsong’s New York City-based church who is known for offering spiritual guidance to people such as Justin Beiber and Kevin Durant. When CNN asked about his stance on homosexuality in June, Lentz also declined to give a firm answer, saying that since Jesus didn’t directly address homosexuality in the Bible, neither should he.
“Jesus was in the thick of an era where homosexuality, just like it is today, was widely prevalent,” Lentz said. “And I’m still waiting for someone to show me the quote where Jesus addressed it on the record in front of people. You won’t find it because he never did.”
In addition, Southern Baptist leaders have called for their denomination to adopt a more conciliatory position on homosexuality, and earlier this year New Heart Community Church, a Southern Baptist congregation near Los Angeles, California, voted to take a live-and-let-live approach to the issue. In a lengthy sermon explaining why he shifted to a pro-LGBT stance, the church’s pastor noted that while he no longer believes being gay is a sin, he still welcomes people who disagree with him to stay in his congregation.
But many conservative evangelicals took issue with the church’s embrace of a “third way.” Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, penning a lengthy blog post declaring “there is not ‘third way’” on homosexuality and saying, “A congregation will teach a biblical position on the sinfulness of same-sex acts, or it will affirm same-sex behaviors as morally acceptable.” As pressure mounted, the Southern Baptist Convention ultimately voted to disfellowship New Heart Community Church, effectively kicking the congregation out of the denomination because it did not “presently meet the definition of a cooperating church” under the SBC’s constitution, which bans churches that “act to affirm, approve or endorse homosexual behavior.”