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February 21, 2018

A Question of Consistency: Vancouver Churches Versus Franklin Graham

In Vancouver, Franklin Graham will be conducting a ‘Festival of Hope’ which is the rebranded name for evangelistic meetings which his father held under the now impolitic name of ‘crusades’.

But the crusader imagery has been brought to the forefront again as a group of churches in Vancouver have signed a letter denouncing Graham’s arrival. Their central claim is that Graham’s arrival will incite violence. According to this claim, Graham’s ministry of gospel preaching would launch physically violent attacks by Graham’s presumably evangelical hearers against communities of different identities. Muslims and LGBTQ communities would be subject to a new physically violent crusade.

The question which Christians and citizens of other faiths need to ask is whether these churches’ protest is well-founded, and well-applied.

Christian Consistency

It appears that one of the concerns expressed by these churches is that Franklin Graham’s comments on the US political scene have been inconsistent with biblical teaching. They claim Graham made statements which are graceless toward two groups: those who profess identity with Islam and others who self identify on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Specifically, Graham is said to call Islam an “evil religion” and to instruct Christians not to permit someone self-identifying as LGBTQ+ into their homes.

At the level of Christian consistency, we need to recognize that all teachers will be held to a higher account (James 3:1). So if Franklin Graham has said things which indicate that Muslims are less than human, or have a propensity for evil which other sinners don’t have, then his teaching would be false and need correction. If Graham was talking in a technically theological and moral sense, then it would be correct, according to historic Christian teaching to identify Islam as a false system of belief, and therefore a part of an overlay of deceit which Satan has cast upon the world.

As for statements about those who identify as LGBTQ+, again Graham’s statements need to be parsed in context. If he has claimed that those who self-identify as non-heterosexual are to be unloved or refused hospitality by Christians then he would be in serious error. Christian faith is professed by those who received a preemptive love from Jesus Christ (1 John 4.19). It was an undeserved love (Romans 5.8), which is the ground for Christians to be able to obey Jesus’ call to ‘love your neighbor’ (Mark 12.31) and even to ‘love your enemies’ (Matt 5.44). Franklin Graham knows this and preaches this, but if he has spoken in ways that are not consistent with this, then he needs to clarify his statements in order to be consistent with the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

On the other hand, if Graham has named as sin those sexual desires outside of monogamous heterosexual marriage, then he is saying what the Apostle Paul said in Romans 1.24-27.

The call to Christian consistency requires that we be clear about what God calls sin, as well as being clear about the way God calls redeemed sinners in the church to minister to lost sinners outside the church. Such clarity about Christian witness will only come through consistency with the Christian gospel.

Churches’ Consistency

The other call to consistency applies to the churches which are making the protest against Franklin Graham and his ministry in Vancouver. Each church which signed the statement of protest against Franklin Graham needs to ask themselves whether they are being consistent with their confession of faith.

The scenario looks like this: Protestant evangelical churches are identifying with Roman Catholic churches in protesting a Protestant evangelical ministry. Evangelicals are joining with non-evangelicals.

Now possibly these churches are practicing what theologian Francis Schaeffer called, ‘co-belligerence’, namely the joining together of religious groups that disagree about the core of their faith, but who have common interests on specific moral questions, such as the illegitimacy of abortion.

In this case, these churches would be offering a social protest by linking with groups that they would otherwise mark as teaching false doctrine. Churches intent on sharing the gospel of Jesus need to be wary that they aren’t giving support to those who deny the necessity of evangelizing lost sinners.

Rendering to Caesar?

At the heart of the protests against Franklin Graham are his associations with US President Donald Trump. By being too favorable and supportive of Trump, whose name is now unutterable by many in Vancouver (especially the city mayor and councillors), Graham stands condemned in the view of the protest signatories.

If Graham has not kept a prophetic distance from President Trump, then his ministry ought to be analysed and critiqued in light of Scripture. It could be argued that the great legacy of Franklin’s father, Billy Graham was not enhanced by being ‘the pastor’ to successive US Presidents.

The condemnation from the Vancouver churches has been cast as a concern for public safety as they claim Graham’s visit will “incite violence”. Does this mean that by Graham praying at Trump’s Inauguration, he will now preach to launch a literal, physically violent crusade in Vancouver?

Such a claim is wildly false, as there is no evidence that Franklin Graham’s ministry incites violence. In fact it could be argued that one of the most significant agents for compassion toward Muslim refugees, be they Sunni or Shia, has come through Samaritan’s Purse, the relief and development agency which Franklin Graham founded.

If the violence will be directed against Franklin Graham and attendees at the Festival of Hope, then the main message these churches should be advancing is a call for tolerance. This would be a great opportunity in Vancouver to remind the city that it can hear messages from people they choose to disagree with, but which are welcomed to be spoken in peace and safety.

Either way, the Vancouver churches ought to be wary of descending into the same ‘scare tactics’ which dominate discourse across the political spectrum. Could it be that the Vancouver churches are encouraging civic authorities to police the speech of an evangelist at a time when the prophetic freedom of religion is increasingly under threat? It would be a great irony if in a decade Canadian churches looked back at this episode as the defining invitation for the state to control the messaging of the church.

Self Critique and Gospel Unity

This protest reminds Evangelicals of their need for self-critique. Those who hold that the inerrant Bible has binding authority on the conscience must be ready to critique any softening of truth when applied to politicians. Those in public office do not get free passes simply because they briefly have hands on levers of civil power.

When Christian leaders use their influence to validate politicians by softening truth, it undermines the prophetic witness of the gospel. Christians must speak truth to power, even as Nathan the prophet did to King David who was in the wrong and needed to be told so.

Yet even as some Evangelicals have uncritically embraced political means, there are other Evangelicals who have made sharp calls for Christian consistency. This is what has been happening in the US as many Evangelicals have been at the forefront of speaking truth to power and critiquing other Evangelicals complicity in moral degeneration. Russell Moore, the Southern Baptist has been in the lead challenging now President Donald Trump from a truth-telling Evangelical stance. He has also spoken out against racism that has rippled out of the recent US election. Moore is well documented as a critic of his own denomination’s record on discrimination going back to the 19th century. This is the sort of self-critique and truth to power which the Vancouver churches could aspire to.

Now if the Vancouver churches choose not to self-critique in this way, they are opting to become the very thing they are protesting— a lobby group. As such they are relinquishing their prophetic power in order to court municipal, political, and societal influence.

Many Canadian Evangelicals are concerned that support for Franklin Graham, a fellow Evangelical, will be construed as support for the character, quotes and policies of President Donald Trump. But this concern should rather be seen as an opportunity to clarify the gospel of Jesus, namely the summons of God to a self-abandoning reliance upon the atonement of Jesus Christ for sin. God is our mighty fortress not the towers of Trump, Babel, or any other. Evangelicals don’t need to respond to political leverage with opposite leverage. The weapons of our warfare are supernatural with ability to captivate even hardened, entrenched opinions (2 Cor 10.4).

In Vancouver, and across Canada, we can be wary of obscuring the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no accord between Christ and Belial (2 Cor 6.15), the latter being political powers or religious groups who deny the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.
By keeping the gospel central, we can speak truth to power, as well as humbly returning to Jesus Christ whom we so easily stray from even when we have intended to do what is right.

About Clint Humfrey

Pastor of Calvary Grace Church in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. I'm married with three sons. Views expressed on this blog are my own.