How Far Would You Follow Your Pastor?

Thoughts on 'The Christians'

When a pastor changes his theology, does he have a duty to let his congregation know? Should he make the shift subtly, in the hope his people will follow, or does he have a responsibility to make his view plain and let the chips fall where they may?

This is one of the many intriguing questions raised by a recent off-Broadway show called The Christians. The play, written by Lucas Hnath, is no mocking send-up of evangelicals; in fact, it deals seriously with the most serious subject of all: hell.

Waiting for the Right Time

Pastor Paul is a winsome preacher whose storefront church plant has grown into a mega church. The thriving congregation has just paid off a massive building debt, and Pastor Paul marks the occasion by telling the worshipers that henceforth the church will no longer believe in a literal hell. After he finishes his sermon, a shocked associate pastor walks out, followed by 50 members with more to come. Over the course of 90 minutes, the play gives a remarkably thorough and fair treatment of the arguments for and against the existence of hell, as well as a complex and realistic portrayal of church politics.

For example, the congregation takes note that Pastor Paul’s revelation coincided with the payoff of the church building debt. One member suspects he has disbelieved in hell for some time but hid his belief to avoid splitting the church while still in debt. Pastor Paul doesn’t deny this, but he sees his silence as virtuous forbearance rather than cowardice. He defends his decision to keep his view a secret by saying that he was “waiting until the people could handle it.”

When Pastors Privatize Beliefs

This aspect of the story brought to the fore an overlooked complication of ministry. When one’s career is tied into one’s theology, it’s hard to disentangle it from financial realities. Would it have been better for Pastor Paul to come clean and resign, leaving the church he planted deep in debt? Ministers who change their minds on hell or gay marriage or biblical authority may be tempted to keep the faith publicly while rejecting orthodoxy privately, in the hope that—if they reveal their views gradually—neither they nor their people will have to pay a price.

A congregation that centers on a beloved founding pastor is especially vulnerable to being led astray by him. If a church is founded on a person rather than a creed or confession, why wouldn’t the pastor expect his flock to follow wherever he might go?

This was not the apostle Paul’s expectation, however. He expected the churches he founded to remain true to the gospel even if he strayed. In fact, he urged the Galatians: 

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Gal. 1:8–9)

Storytelling Power

While these sorts of questions may be familiar to readers who frequent The Gospel Coalition, they are not the usual fare for theater-goers. I noticed a change in the audience over the course of the play. In the beginning, they were looking for humor in all the wrong places. Earnest speeches drew forced laughter from an audience for whom hell only exists as a backdrop for New Yorker cartoons. But as the characters and the arguments were fleshed out, it became impossible not to take them seriously. Pastor Paul’s decision tears the church apart, and every player in the drama pays a price. Somehow, the audience sympathized with all of them.

While Lucas Hnath does not claim to be a Christian, he clearly understands us well. The Christians is an example of fiction’s power to produce empathy, even for a character whose views you abhor. A play about hell and church politics offered the playwright any number of stereotypes, but he rejected them in favor of creating characters who are complex rather than comical, people rather than position statements. In the process, he gave me a lot to think about.

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