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Did Rick Warren get it wrong with Elton John?

Pastor Rick Warren is a man who has done many powerful and amazing things in furthering the Gospel and seeing lives changed. Of that, there can be no doubt. But recently, his behaviour with singing legend Elton John has caused a media furore. Question is, did he get it wrong?

The Story

Here’s the story. In early May 2015, to quote humanosphere.org, Rick Warren and Elton John teamed up for global health, fronting a US Senate Appropriations Sub-committee to seek funding for, amongst other things, AIDS research. Okay, on the surface of things, having a prominent Christian leader step up for health research funding, well, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

However, during that Senate Sub-committee appearance, it is alleged that the two held hands and joked about kissing. Certainly the photographic evidence appears to point to that as being the case.

Ian Worby, a senior executive with Christian media group UCB Australia, posted a fairly strong, scriptural response to Rick Warren’s behaviour on Facebook, which I then shared with my friends, to generate some discussion.

And boy, did it generate some discussion. You can check it out here.

The Debate

The two opposite ends of the debate go something like this (At this stage, I’m not making any comments, simply trying to report the arguments – my comments come later):

At one end, the following scriptural question is asked:

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? (2 Cor 6:14)

In other words, if I can paraphrase the argument – what in the blazes is a prominent church leader like Rick Warren doing, by publicly standing with someone who practices and professes a homosexual lifestyle, something which is clearly a sin according to God’s Word? How can Rick Warren claim to be a man of God, if he appears to endorse sin, by joking with Elton John about his sin?

At the other end, is the argument that we’re all sinners and in fact, Jesus came to heal the sick, not those who are well.

When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners. (Mark 2:16,17)

This argument goes that Rick Warren was and is precisely where he should be. Out in the marketplace, with the sinners, just like Jesus was (and is).

Why Your Opinion On This Really Matters

So here’s my question: which side of the debate do you stand on and why? Or are you somewhere in the middle, having a bet each way?

At this point, you might be asking What does this have to do with me?

And my response to that would be, rather a lot. Forget what Rick Warren did and didn’t do. It’s not my job to judge that. What is important here, is asking the question what would you have done … what would I have done?

Would you have showed up at all to the hearing? Would you have stood and sat side-by-side with Elton John? Would you have held hands and joked with him, or would you have done things quite differently?

Because these are questions that face you and me each and every day, if we are seeking to live out an authentic Christianity which on the one hand doesn’t compromise the truth of God’s Word, but on the other shows love, grace, mercy and humility to the fellow-sinners around us.

And that missiology is a difficult and fine line for each of us to walk.

So… what would you have done? How would you have handled it?

The Power of Symbolic Action

Actions speak louder than words. We know that.

So if people want to know who you are, what you believe and what you stand for, they will pay much more attention to what you do than what you say. There’s nothing new in that. In fact, in this regard, Jesus is exactly the same:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name? ’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers. (Matthew 7:21-23)

In other words, for Jesus, our actions are the evidence of the authenticity of our faith and our words.

It turns out that Jesus was a master of symbolic action.

He deliberately healed people on the Sabbath in front of the Pharisees, to teach them about grace and mercy. He deliberately dined out with sinners, to show people why He’d come. He deliberately fed the five thousand, healed the blind, raised the dead … to show the power of God’s Kingdom here on this earth.

And ultimately, those symbolic actions upset the established power base of the religious hierarchy to such an extent, that they plotted His assassination … a task in which they, as we know, succeeded.

The evidence suggests that Jesus chose His symbolic actions very carefully indeed, in order to ensure that they spoke exactly what He wanted them to speak.

That’s why actions are so important. They speak louder than words. And the more “high-profile” a person is, the more loudly they speak and the more profoundly they represent his or her cause.

So the answer to the question “Did Rick Warren get it wrong?” depends entirely on what he set out to say through his actions.

What Would I Have Done?

Before I tell you how I would have handled that situation, let me declare my hand.

With all my heart, I believe the only right expression of the amazing gift of our sexuality, is between one man and one woman, in a life-long, exclusive relationship that we call marriage. I believe that every other expression of sexuality outside of that God-ordained relationship constitutes sin – be it heterosexual or homosexual.

I don’t say that because I want to be judgemental or condemnatory. I don’t say that because I have a holier-than-thou attitude. I don’t say that because I’m a prude. In fact, the only reason do I say that, is that this is clearly what God’s Word teaches, and therefore it is clearly God’s will for our lives.

Having said all those things, given where I live (in the middle of the gay district of Sydney) I have many gay and lesbian people in my life. I care for and love them deeply, and to the best of my ability, as with anyone, I try to treat them with dignity and respect. And I especially care for and love them enough never to sweep the truth of God’s love, the free gift of grace through Jesus Christ, and the need for the sinner to repent, under the carpet.

However, I am also deeply conscious of what my actions say.

If people look at me and judge me for loving the sinner, good luck to them. I have no problem with that at all. That’s exactly what they did with Jesus.

But, if you ask me to stand on a public platform with them, if in any way my presence there could be construed to be endorsing their sin, I would decline the invitation. That’s why you will never see me carrying a placard in a peace march flanked by Buddhists, Hindus and atheists. For exactly the same reason.

I care deeply about what my actions say. And any symbolic actions of mine, need to speak of the grace, mercy and love of Christ, and the deep need of the sinner to repent and turn to God, nothing else.

And above all else, I would never joke about somebody’s sin with them. Sin is no joking matter. It is deadly serious. Deadly.

So for me, to do what Rick Warren did, would be a huge mistake.

Was it a mistake for Rick Warren? I don’t know what message he was trying to convey. And I certainly don’t know what is in his heart. My prayer for him is that the Lord would work mightily in his heart, that the Spirit would fill Him with the truth, and that God’s Word would guide his thoughts, words and deeds.