The Wrestle for "What is the Gospel?"

Good Friday Worship, East Vancouver, 2017

A few months ago, I signed a letter that represented a significant number of churches in the Greater Vancouver area. The letter voiced concern over the selection of Franklin Graham as keynote speaker at the Festival of Hope, a city-wide Christian outreach event held in early April. This event had been promoted as a unified effort by Vancouver churches to proclaim the Gospel, or the "Good News"[1] of Jesus Christ to the city and region. In fairness, “Festivals of Hope” are an initiative of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, (BGEA), a para-church ministry founded by Franklin’s father, Billy Graham, that seeks to partner with the whole church in any given city in sponsoring events such as this. As such, BGEA has a significant say in who the keynote speaker is. In this case, there were alternative options, including other members of Franklin’s family who were proposed by some on the committee, but BGEA and the majority of the local organizing committee were resolute that Franklin be the keynote speaker. That said, I know that I speak for my pastoral colleagues who also signed this letter, that the decision to do so was not easy. Indeed, it was painful, not only because of a desire for a unified witness as the church in the city, but, as the letter stated, we, the signatories, held high regard for the Graham family and Billy Graham’s legacy of bringing the Good News to hundreds of millions of people around the world with integrity and credibility. We also expressed great respect for Franklin’s organization, Samaritan’s Purse, which continues to provide relief and development to some of the world’s most impoverished areas. Signatories of the letter represented a surprisingly wide spectrum of church denominations, including Catholic, Mainline Protestant, Evangelical, and Pentecostal/Charismatic churches. 

So Why Risk the Sacred Gift of Unity? 

So what was at issue, and why did we sign the letter? For me, it was an issue of conscience that began a year or two ago when I was initially invited to be involved with Festival of Hope. When I read in the invitation that Franklin Graham was the keynote speaker, I made the decision to decline involvement and to do so quietly, hoping that would be the end of it. While I respected the members of the organizing committee and supported their vision and goals, I believed that Franklin had made statements that would cause harm to the Christian witness in Vancouver which had been cultivated by communities of believers being a faithful presence in the city over decades. In my view, Franklin had made some statements that represented a posture that was not congruent with the Good News

Months after making the decision not to be involved, I was surprised to discover that there were a significant number of other pastoral colleagues and leaders in the city who had similar concerns over Franklin being the Festival speaker, some of whom were on the Festival organizing committee. It grew into a conflict which, after it was unfortunately leaked to the press, went public. With no seeming resolution on the matter, some on the organizing committee resigned,[2] and a letter voicing the concerns of those dissenting the choice of Franklin as speaker was published just prior to the Festival which you can read here.  It was felt that the stakes were too high to be silent, and the disagreement needed to be communicated publicly, but respectfully. The letter voiced support for the Festival’s organizers and for their vision, but expressed concerns over the choice of Franklin as keynote speaker and its impact on the Christian witness of the Good News in the city. It was with this in view that the letter was written, signed, and published.   

In spite of the controversy, the Festival was peaceful and well-attended with Roger’s arena packed each night of the celebration. Estimates range between 1900-2700 people who responded to the Gospel invitation, many for the very first time. To my knowledge, none of the dissenting signatories actively boycotted the event, nor did they discourage their congregations from attending. Some of the signatories attended, as did their congregants, who gave good reports. In spite of the controversy, in some ways it was a “win/win” in that many people were influenced towards Christ while important concerns were voiced. In this regard, ongoing dialogue and working together for the “shalom” of our city will be critical long after the Festival has ended. 

The Heart of the Matter

As you can imagine, there has been plenty of discussion within pastoral and ministerial circles following the Festival. Some ministerial groups are split between those who signed the letter, and those who supported Franklin as Festival speaker. Concerns and emotions have been voiced, and some conversations have been difficult and, sadly, pain has been caused and incurred on both sides.  Sin has not been absent with the need for repentance and forgiveness. In spite of that, there is a commitment for most leaders to continue to walk together in unity, with a new understanding that unity does not mean that we agree on everything, and sometimes those disagreements are deep and painful, indeed, perhaps they are the greatest test of unity.

U2 championing courageous women of history
One issue that emerged in all of the discussion was a basic disagreement over what constitutes “The Gospel.” At risk of generalizing and over-simplifying, what seems to have emerged is that those who supported Franklin’s presence would regard the Gospel message being, in essence, the Good News of God’s offer of forgiveness and reconciliation through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and our response of repentance and faith in Christ’s finished work for eternal life that begins now and continues forever. Fair enough, and I’m sure that all those who signed the letter would be in full agreement with this. However, we would argue that this understanding of the Gospel does not go far enough. Yes, the Gospel provides for personal reconciliation with God. However, the message of the Gospel also includes reconciliation with one another and God’s “shalom” between all human beings, including race, gender, and class – that is, social justice, and reconciliation with all creation, including environmental stewardship. Those supporting Franklin as speaker would regard these things as important to varying degrees, but not “the Gospel,” as such, but simply the “fruit of the Gospel.” This is possibly why some who were uncomfortable with some of Franklin’s incendiary statements, were assuaged by assurances that he would stick to the “simple Gospel” while in Vancouver. However, many pastoral leaders believed that it would be impossible to separate statements Franklin had made elsewhere from the “The Gospel” he would bring to Vancouver as they believed his statements represented a posture that was not congruent with the Good News. One striking example of this in Scripture was Paul’s public confrontation of Peter when Peter’s actions were “not in alignment with the Good News” in Antioch.[3]

U2 depicting a Syrian refugee camp, on the Joshua Tree tour
Growing up, my understanding of the Gospel was that God had sent Jesus to die on the cross for our sins so that we could be forgiven and have eternal life with God in heaven. Yet, the more I looked at the first four books of the New Testament the books we call, “Gospels,” the more I noticed that there is so little about that. The focus of Jesus’ life and ministry was about God’s end goal of bringing heaven to earth, that is, the kingdom of God, and his concern for the reconciliation of all creation, summarized by how we were instructed to pray, “Your kingdom come… on earth as it is in heaven…”

The Fatal Hairline Fracture

I have observed that most on either side of this conflict agreed that it is not an issue of “either/or,” but “both/and,” but we disagreed on what constitutes the pure Gospel. Are we quibbling about words here? It seems that there is only a hairline fracture between “the Gospel,” and “the fruit of the Gospel.” However, in my humble view, when you allow this hairline fracture to occur, it has the potential to take us worlds apart. It can lead to a dualism[4] that focuses on preparing the “soul” for heaven, but at best, diminishes, or at worst, ignores, injustice towards others, as well as environmental irresponsibility here on earth. For example, someone can worship in church on Sunday, yet engage in unethical business practices on Monday. It means that you can have a country like Rwanda in the 1990’s that was supposedly 90 percent Christian, where millions of Rwandans were slaughtered by each other, and Roman Catholics and Protestants were condemned by human rights watch organizations for their complicity in the genocide. It explains why white Christians were able to co-exist with segregation in the American South as well as apartheid in South Africa, even finding biblical justification for these racist systems. It also explains why, in the name of Christ, hundreds of thousands of First Nations and Metis children were forcibly removed from their families and communities into Indian Residential Schools in order to “kill the Indian in the child.” When we allow this hairline fracture between the “Gospel” and the “fruit of the Gospel,” to occur, such dualism can result in a toxic and distorted religion causing damage that takes generations to undo. Today, in Canada, we are all still recovering from the damage inflicted by the Indian Residential School system.

U2 celebrating Indigenous people, Vancouver 2017
What I am not saying is that these issues of social and environmental justice constitute “the Gospel” on their own, without the essential message of reconciliation with God made available through Christ’s coming, death, and resurrection. If this were the case, then the church could just blend in with the many social agencies and humanitarian organizations that are working together to make the world a better place to live. Certainly, like Bono of U2, (images on this blog from their recent Joshua Tree tour launch here in Vancouver)  we may find common ground with many of these organizations and causes that are not distinctly “Christian” as such. Even here, we need the help of the Gospel to protect our hearts from becoming patronizing, or “helping” in a way that is actually harmful, and from struggling for justice in a way that is vengeful and unjust. However, the church is first and foremost about God and reconciliation with God, with the declaration that God exists, and that God is good.[5] Without Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, there is no hope for the human race, full stop. So it’s not “either/or” but “both/and.” The Gospel of Christ’s life, death and resurrection cannot be separated from social and environmental shalom and justice. As St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words.” Of course, words are important, but he was addressing our propensity as Christians to contradict our message by the way we live. 

Conclusion: Embracing the Diversity of Unity

So, while my preference would have been to keep silent about Franklin Graham speaking at the Vancouver Festival of Hope, I felt this was an important enough issue to speak out on for the sake of conscience, and for the sake of generations to come. Many of my colleagues believed the same. I know that by signing the letter, I hurt some friends, who may even have felt betrayed. I received at least one letter from a fellow-minister, accusing me of “opposing the Gospel and our brother in Christ.” I took time to respond personally to him, because I am committed to unity and ongoing dialogue as well as to a continued relationship of respect, even if we disagree on issues. Indeed, I am committed to ongoing unity, but it cannot be a false unity that ignores the plight of the marginalized. For example, I am looking forward to One City, One Message Sunday, on June 11, where many churches, Catholic and Protestant, will focus on the theme, "Welcoming the Stranger: I Was a Stranger and You Invited Me In." I am supportive of other unified initiatives in Vancouver such as the upcoming Voices Together worship event on Canada Day, July 1, at Roger’s Arena. This event will bring together churches of many denominations to worship Jesus as we celebrate our country’s 150th milestone of confederation. As such, I will be promoting this event in our church. Yet, I am cognizant that this celebratory day can cause pain for many of Canada’s First Peoples whose history is clearly ignored by the very declaration that Canada became a “nation” 150 years ago.[6]  This is the tension and dilemma of our times which we must struggle with in order to become a truly unified body of Christ which consists of different people groups and varying perspectives. The days we are living in and the days to come will continue to confront all of us with new issues and challenging dilemmas, requiring us to engage in the continual wrestle for, “What is the Gospel?”

[1] “Gospel” is an old English word, meaning “Good News.” I will use these terms interchangeably.

[2] For example, see Ken Shigematsu, Pastor of Tenth Church, in Christianity Today, Franklin Graham’s Global Fallout.
 [3] See Galatians 2:11-14. Some will argue that this confrontation was “behind closed church doors” but no one can deny the public nature of this conflict. It was a bold and clear confrontation in front of pre-Christians, new believers, and more mature believers because for Paul, the stakes were so high.   

[4] Dualism is an ancient worldview that assumes separation of the physical from the spiritual world, something that the church has had to combat right from its beginnings.

[5] Thanks to Beth Wood who observed that these two points are what we are contending for as believers in our culture, on a recent Vineyard Canada national webinar. Also see Hebrews 11:6, which asserts these two points as a summary of what constitutes active relational faith in God.

[6] I have appreciated efforts I have observed in past similar July 1 events to engage Indigenous worship and arts in the past, and pray this will continue and increase.  

Thanks to Richard Shorty, Joy Fellowship, for carrying the cross (first image) in front of our East Van interchurch Good Friday worship pilgrimage in Hastings Sunrise with VEV, Ward Memorial Baptist, Longhouse Church, and Joy Fellowship.This provided me with such a powerful image of Gospel contextualization for our times.