A recent sermon by megachurch pastor Andy Stanley has a lot of people criticizing him for everything from poorly worded teaching to Marcionism. Stanley doesn’t have a single text he preached from but loosely bases his sermon on the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, and Galatians 2. His points are not well stated, and this is the source of the trouble. He wants to echo the sentiments of the apostles to say that when Gentiles come to faith, it is not necessary that they keep the law of Moses. This was the judgment of the Council and the substance of the Galatian epistle. Had Stanley stuck to that, his message wouldn’t have raised much ire. But he goes on say some things that are untrue and unhelpful. I don’t think they rise to the level of heresy, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t problematic.
Christianity is tethered to the Hebrew Bible
Stanley’s ministry is a seeker-sensitive model, and that informs how he presents his teaching. For people who haven’t grown up in the church, the Old Testament is a foreign country. To provide a more pleasant journey, Stanley seems to want to stick to what’s essential and drop what isn’t. And this is where he first goes wrong. At 4:06 in the message, he says this:
“When the church launched, the foundation of the faith of the early Christians was not a book (they didn’t have one.) It wasn’t the Bible, (there wasn’t one). It wasn’t the Old Covenant, or what we call the Old Testament or what they called the Law and the Prophets, because that didn’t tell the story of Jesus. The foundation of the faith for the early church was an event, it was the resurrection of Jesus.”
This sets up a false dichotomy. The resurrection of Jesus is the founding act of the church, but that doesn’t mean that the Old Testament is not the foundation of the church. Indeed, when the apostles preach the gospel in Acts, they constantly appeal to the Hebrew Bible (which they had) as the proof for the gospel. It is untrue to say the Jews had no Bible. When Paul writes to Timothy about the Sacred Scriptures he knew from his youth, he is referring to the Hebrew Bible. And when Jesus himself speaks to the two on the Emmaus road, he says “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:47)
The church cannot do without the Hebrew Bible because every doctrine of Scripture is there. Without question, there is progress in revelation, but the New Testament completes and does not negate the Old Testament. At a time of widespread biblical illiteracy, Christians should pay more, not less attention to the Old Testament.
The Mosaic Law is not the standard for Christians
The ironic and sad part of this controversy is that Stanley’s main point is an entirely valid one. Christians do not relate to God on the basis of the Mosaic law. While there is a continuum of views on this point, to some extent all Christians agree with Stanley on this. We do not insist on circumcision as a Christian ordinance, we do not keep the dietary laws, and we do not keep the vast majority of the other parts of the Mosaic code. While it’s convenient to dismiss a large part of the Mosaic law by partitioning it into moral, civil, and ceremonial, the apostle Paul and the New Testament never do this. The law is a unit in the New Testament, and when Paul tells the Romans that they have died to the law, there is no caveat that of course, the moral law remains. This is what makes Stanley’s remarks unfortunate. He notes that the standard for believers is actually much higher than the law of Moses. That is true, but it got lost in his denigration of the Hebrew Bible as Scripture.
If we read apostolic teaching carefully, Paul affirms we are released from the law, but when he tells the Galatians, he argues for this by saying “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?” (Gal. 4:21) What does Paul mean by the law? It’s clarified later in the chapter. “But what does the Scripture say?” (Gal 4:30) We need the Hebrew Bible as the foundation of our faith, but it’s equally true that the New Testament clarifies that our relationship to the law is not what it was for believers under the Mosaic Covenant. When Stanley says “Peter, James, and Paul elected to unhitch the Christian faith from the Jewish Scriptures” he conflates two things he should not. We are not under the law of Moses is by no means the same thing as dispensing with the Jewish Scriptures. We cannot do without with the Hebrew Bible and maintain the foundations of the Christian faith. In other words, the Old (Mosaic) Covenant is not the same as the Old Testament Scriptures. I hope Andy Stanley takes the opportunity to make this clear.