I read in Christianity Today that Francis Chan, a Christian speaker, pastor, and author perhaps most well known for his book Crazy Love, landed himself in a little bit of hot water recently.
In summary, Chan has been attending and speaking at major events with noted prosperity gospel preachers. The photos of him praying with these teachers and/or taking the stage at these events has astonished those who consider prosperity gospel teaching – rightly – as bad theology and an inaccurate representation of Scriptural truth.
When questioned about this, Chan had a ready response. I think it’s worth reprinting in full here:
Often times, I decline [speaking requests] because other speakers will be at the event who believe almost exactly what I believe. My reasoning is that it may be a waste of Kingdom resources for all of us to be there, speaking largely to people who already agree with us,” Chan wrote on the site for his church planting network, We Are Church. “It seems more effective to speak where there is less Bible teaching.”
You can read the rest of his response here. Chan went on to state that believers could expect him to see him at similar conferences in the future. However, he also acknowledged the concerns of those who worried he might be seen as advocating prosperity gospel teachings: according to the article, “he said he would consider adding a research team and working with elders to prevent confusion over his future appearances.”
The entire affair fascinates me because the fundamental question here is not really about Francis Chan or the prosperity gospel. The fundamental question is one that nearly every believer I know has faced at one time or another: how close is too close? When I metaphorically go to “eat at the home of a sinner,” when I spend time and dwell in the spaces where non-believers or false teaching is, at what point do others perceive me to be advocating the practice? Where is the line?
I don’t drink, but I like visiting Irish pubs in Ireland and I like eating wings at sports bars in the States. In my early days in college (and back before I realized there were indeed Christians in the world who consumed alcohol with a clean conscience), I used to worry: would people perceive me as advocating drunkenness? Was I both in the world and of it?
My husband loves metal concerts, often held in grimy bars and packed full of non-believers wearing pentacles, upside-down crosses, and Satanic imagery. After he became a Christian, he was forced to confront the question: would his presence in these places be a ministry? Or would it be a stumbling block for other believers?
I know someone who attended B’hai meetings with a member of the faith in order to minister to them; some Christians in her church were horrified, worried that her presence at these meetings lent credibility to them and that she might be swayed by the teachings herself. I know another believer who invited local members of a cult into her home in hopes of ministering to them…and almost wound up in the cult herself before her husband, children, and congregation interceded to express their concern.
As we all know, this struggle arches back to the New Testament church, where believers scrapped over whether or not to eat meat sacrificed to idols: some found the practice sensible and divorced from its pagan roots, while others vociferously did not. Their disagreement was so profound Paul had to get involved. How far is too far?
I’m not here to offer a one-size-fits-all answer. I don’t think there is one: I think most of the matters must be decided with prayer, counsel, and discernment. Many of them are matters of personal conviction or personal call. But I do think that what I now call “the Francis Chan question” should spur us to be careful in our assumptions about other believers.
It is easy to assume the worst. I lived in a small town where the sight of a Christian breathing near the liquor section of the grocery store raised eyebrows. See a believer walk out of a bar or a club, and those eyebrows would lift up right off people’s foreheads. What would you think if you saw a local believer entering a mosque or heading out of an Narcotics Anonymous meeting? Standing in the street with a group of people wearing blasphemous shirts? Talking with a prostitute in a parking lot?
Many of us would assume the worst: a believer succumbing to temptation, hiding a dark secret, advocating practices that the Christian church disagrees with, sinning. At best, we might treat it like a piece of juicy gossip; at worst, we might try to intervene. But in none of those scenarios do we assume that a believer might actually have a reason or a purpose for what they are doing, and that the purpose might even be spiritual. In none of those scenarios do we pause and think before we speak or act.
I found Chan’s honesty about his decision refreshing. I also found it good and appropriate that he didn’t seek to disparage those who shared concern over his choices. He acknowledged them and he made an effort to respond in a considered and nuanced way. It was clear he’d considered this at length, and yet wanted to respond respectfully to his interlocutors.
When we give people the benefit of the doubt and we don’t immediately assume the worst about them, we can learn interesting and surprising things. We still might not agree with the choice, of course, but we can consider it from a different perspective. And being willing to ask before we make accusations or assumptions can create a dialogue that is respectful and engaging for everyone, rather than an oppositional interaction that results in truth and conflict.
Scripture reveals that our best practices should be to listen first; to speak only after consideration and with care; to avoid recklessness, imprudence, and impulsivity. When it comes to the matter of “how far is too far” for some believers to go in ministry, we would be wise to remember that.
If we consider what is before us, and then speak and seek the truth in gentleness and love, practicing discernment with our assumptions and responses, we will always be better off than when we rush off on the basis of half-baked beliefs, suppositions, and hypotheses.