Andy Stanley is Not Wrong, Just Misunderstood: Unhitching from the Old Testament Explained

Andy Stanley has a knack for being misunderstood. I like it. Largely because he exemplifies the ordinary struggle of good teaching pastors (despite being a popular Christian teacher). Andy appears to have big heart for Jesus, and as such, often pushes Christians to not get sidetracked into the religious enclave of Christian fundamentalism. So, when he suggested that Christians “unhitch” themselves from the Old Testament, naturally, all the Christian fundamentalist-leaning websites lost their minds. CBN, Charisma News, and The Gospel Coalition[1] were quick to write pieces about the new fox in the sheep pen. Kevin DeYoung and Wesley Hill were even suggesting (without naming him directly in DeYoung’s case) that Stanley was the next Marcion (a heretic in the early church who thought the God of the OT was not the same as the God in the NT).[2]

All the while, no one thought to listen to the Stanley’s entire sermon for a beautiful thing pastors call “context.” For if they had listened, they would have heard him say, “the Old Testament is divinely inspired,” though “it should not be the go-to source regarding any behavior in the church.” At arm’s length, both these statements are true. He wasn’t suggesting that the Old Testament was theologically outdated, but rather it shouldn’t be our primary source for “church practice.” And rightly so, between Jesus and Paul there’s more than enough material to cover how Christians should respond in communion with each other.

So why are Fundamentalist and some Evangelicals ready to call an inquisition? Perhaps this excerpt from Stanley’s sermon will help:

Jesus’ new covenant, His covenant with the nations, His covenant with you, His covenant with us, can stand on its own two nail-scarred resurrection feet. It does not need propping up by the Jewish scriptures…The Bible did not create Christianity. The resurrection of Jesus created and launched Christianity. Your whole house of Old Testament cards can come tumbling down. The question is did Jesus rise from the dead? And the eyewitnesses said he did.

On the surface, Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christians (dare I suggest they are now one and the same), believe Jesus has created a new covenant, but deep down, their fervent religiosity and holiness tradition flares up when Levitical Law is scrutinized. Let’s be honest, the Levitical Law is really the only part of the Old Testament they seem to be concerned for. For instance, I read a comment about Stanley’s sermon which said, “he’s a heretic because he is saying the 10 commandments no longer need to be valued.” First, this is not what Stanley is saying. Second, Stanley, from the context of his message, would identify Jesus as the fulfillment of the 10 Commandments (John 5:39), so that whoever believes in him, is given a new heart (Ez. 36:26; John 3), and can better live out the key parts of the 10 Commandments: Love God, and love your neighbor (Mt. 22:36-40). Jesus demonstrates God’s “love ethic” which covers the whole point of the 10 Commandments. So, no, Stanley is not trying to undo the 10 Commandments, rather the opposite, by pointing people to Jesus, who encompasses the whole of the 10 Commandments in his simple teaching.

Perhaps the heart of Stanley’s message is ambiguous to some, but having heard Stanley preach on this issue in a live setting, with plenty of context, he is concerned that some of the national and priestly laws embedded in the Old Testament, which don’t apply to Christians today, might become, as Paul says, “stumbling blocks” to those who might be otherwise intrigued by Jesus and Christianity. As Stanley says in his sermon:

Many have lost faith because of something about the Bible or in the Bible, the Old Testament in particular…

If you’re an Evangelical or Fundamentalist Christian, I know your immediate response is: we can’t take out the sections we don’t like. Agreed, but this again, is not what Stanley is saying in context. He is merely suggesting that the new covenant in Christ has fulfilled all the old baggage of the New Testament. Stanley even cites Acts 15, a clear case where the disciples, through the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, decided that Levitical Law no longer applied to Christians because Christ’s new covenant has satisfied the requirement. Here is a clear moment when the Church “unhitched” itself from the OT at a practical level (notice: not theological) because they were about worshipping Jesus, not the Scriptures.

The Old Testament is divinely inspired, and it gives us understanding of God, ourselves, and the world around us, but in Jesus, we have a new set of commands, which fulfill all the old commands: love God, love your neighbour. It’s this simple message that Stanley was trying to communicate, but as often happens, he was poorly understood.

My fear is that we as Christians can misunderstand our pastors from time to time. Great teaching often challenges our perceptions of reality and draws us closer to Jesus. Jesus challenged the “Law-lovers” of his day and they crucified him. Andy Stanley challenged Christians to move on from the baggage of Levitical Law towards the liberating power of Jesus. This caused other Christians to cast stones. Those Christians can call him a heretic for preaching a completely Biblical view of new covenant theology, but if we peeked at their views, particularly towards issues such as war and attitudes towards women in ministry, we might find something actually heretical and opposed to the teachings of Jesus.

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[1] There is some debate over definition of Fundamentalism…I tend to believe it is any Christian or Christian organization that worships the Bible more than Jesus. Rather than Scripture being a divinely-inspired witness to Jesus (John 5:39) and the redemption of God’s people, it becomes set of rules and restrictions. In this sense, Fundamentalist Christians emphasize what they are against, in terms of the Bible, more than what they stand for, which ought to be Jesus. Again, this my own analysis of Fundamentalism.

[2] To label Stanley the next Marcion is absurd. Both DeYoung and Hill need a refresher on why Marcion was labelled a heretic. The heresy stemmed from believing the God of the Old Testament was different than the God of the New Testament. This belief would create a theological discrepancy in the redemptive acts of Jesus. In effect, Marcion believed that the God who sent Jesus in the New Testament was superior to the Hebrew God of the Old Testament, which he considered an inferior being. It doesn’t take a Christian long to understand why this would be an issue: it would call into question the whole redemptive process if you removed the Old Testament narratives. Stanley does not believe the God of the Old Testament is different than the God of the New Testament, rather, he is suggesting that the new covenant, and ultimately the resurrection are the central beliefs of the Christian faith, and supersede the old covenant laws precisely because Jesus fulfills them. This is a very orthodox theology. I fear DeYoung and Hill, the so-called modern “defenders of the Bible” are more concerned with the slippery sloap than listening to what Stanley is actually saying.

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