Hillsong and God

by Cameron Buettel & Jeremiah Johnson, GTY

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Truth matters, especially when it comes to worship. That ought to be obvious; you can’t properly praise the Lord if you don’t know who He is. Christ Himself was unequivocal on that point—He said true worshippers “must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24, emphasis added).

However, much of modern worship music seems to aim at taming the one true God. Some popular “worship songs” are nothing more than artificial praise offered to a different god altogether. In his book Worship, John MacArthur describes the fallout of the biblical illiteracy that permeates the church today.

“Worship” aims to be as casual and as relaxed as possible, reflecting an easy familiarity with God unbefitting His transcendent majesty. This type of “worship” seems to aim chiefly at making sinners comfortable with the idea of God—purging from our thoughts anything like fear, trembling, reverence, or profound biblical truth. . . .

The decline of true worship in evangelical churches is a troubling sign. It reflects a depreciation of God and a sinful apathy toward His truth among the people of God. Evangelicals have been playing a kind of pop-culture trivial pursuit for decades, and as a result, the evangelical movement has all but lost sight of the glory and grandeur of the One we worship. [1] John MacArthur, Worship (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012), 10-12.

During our recent visits to Hillsong Los Angeles, we’ve seen that trend played out in vivid detail. Worse still, we’ve identified some unbiblical characteristics that Hillsong routinely attribute to God.

Hillsong’s God Is Passive

In their Statement of Beliefs, Hillsong asserts—without any biblical support—the following: “We believe that God wants to heal and transform us so that we can live healthy and blessed lives in order to help others more effectively.”

That statement raises some important questions: What is hindering God from making us all healthy and blessed? And why is the world full of sickness, poverty, and hardship if God doesn’t want it that way?

The simple answer is that Hillsong worships a passive and impotent God. Over and over during our time at Hillsong LA, we were encouraged to “invite God in to lead and guide” and to “allow” Him to lead us. We were taught that our worship opens the door for God to work in our lives—that it offers Him the opportunity to bring breakthrough to our circumstances. One night we were bluntly assured that “our prayers can even change God’s mind.” 

That’s a far cry from the God of the Bible, who “does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3); whose purposes cannot be thwarted (Job 42:2); who predestines His people according to His purpose and will (Ephesians 1:11); and who sovereignly rules over all His creation (Psalm 103:19). While God’s sovereignty is occasionally paid lip service in songs and sermons, the concept of a truly sovereign Lord is utterly foreign to Hillsong’s theology.

Hillsong’s God Is One-Dimensional

But that comes as no surprise, given Hillsong’s general myopia when it comes to divine attributes. In the Hillsong doctrinal economy, one aspect of God’s character stands head and shoulders above all others: His love. On more than one occasion we were told that “God desperately loves every single person out there in Los Angeles.” We were repeatedly reminded that the gospel and the message of Jesus Christ are “inclusive”—that God is not interested in perfect people; that He loves you “just the way you are” (more on that next time).

In one evening service, we heard from Christine Caine, an anti-trafficking activist and international speaker—herself a product of Hillsong. Her message concerned God’s faithfulness to keep His promises, and she used the story of Abraham and Sarah as her text. She closed by reassuring us that God still loves us after the “dumb stuff”—a term she applied to all sorts of sin, including Abraham’s fornication with Hagar. Her point was that there is nothing we can do—no matter how egregious and rebellious the sin—to make God love us any less. His great love for mankind will always win out, overcoming any and every obstacle.

The problem with that view of God’s love is that it ignores so many of His other fundamental attributes. There is no thought given to His holiness, His justice, or His righteous wrath. In fact, as Romans 5:8-9 makes clear, God’s love and His wrath are best understood in tandem. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.”

Hillsong is quick to apply the blessings and benefits of God’s great love. But apart from those other vital aspects of His character, it seems like little more than vague affection. Put simply, God’s love loses its luster in a vacuum.

As John MacArthur explained in a video blog earlier this year, “You can’t take one attribute of God—any one attribute of God—and isolate that as if that defines God alone. God must be understood in all the complex of all His attributes.” In God’s divine nature, those attributes complement one another—they do not compete. And they cannot be fully or accurately understood in isolation.

Hillsong’s God Is Familiar

Perhaps one of the other hazards of over-emphasizing God’s love is that it turns Him into a kindly benefactor, robbing Him of due reverence and respect. Worship services do not need to be somber affairs, but there is a noticeable lack of sobriety that pervades Hillsong LA’s meetings.

And it’s not just a matter of the club-like atmosphere or the rock show accouterments. There’s no discernable sense of reverence or awe for God—no notion that He is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:28-29). And while they spend significant time wooing people to enter into a relationship with Christ, there is no sense that “it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). Rather, Hillsong’s God is a cosmic butler, attentive to all our needs and eager to unleash breakthrough, heal relationships, and shower blessings into our lives. He waits at our beck and call.

Gone is any sense of God’s transcendence or holiness. In fact, the reactions of men like Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Paul, and John—who humbly fell on their faces in the presence of the Lord, dumbstruck with awe—seem inappropriate for a deity as intimate and familiar as the one Hillsong describes.

That attitude can lead to some disturbingly casual and careless discussion of God’s Person and work. For example, in the aforementioned message from Christine Caine, she brought the audience to hysterics with the following description of God’s creative work: “God woke up one day and burped and [gestures] earth, and [said] ‘Whoops, look what I did.’” Those simply aren’t the words of someone who takes God and His Word seriously.

A Word About God’s Word

That same giddy carelessness is on display in most of the preaching we heard at Hillsong LA. Speakers frequently play fast and loose with Scripture and its meaning. Context is rarely a concern. The general pattern is to isolate a portion of Scripture’s narrative and turn it into an analogy for the audience and a promise of God’s blessing and favor.

Even the most familiar verses and passages are exceedingly pliable in the hands of Hillsong’s leadership. The first Sunday we attended, Hillsong LA’s lead pastor Ben Houston turned John 3:16 into an exhortation to give to the church, explaining how “God so loved that He gave,” and that our love for the church ought to prompt us to give our money.

That sort of postmodern flexibility is brought to the text in every service, and it turns every lesson into a reminder of God’s aggressive love for you, His eager desire to bless you, and your integral part in unleashing that blessing in your own life. It’s not much more than a watered-down version of the prosperity gospel or the Word Faith movement.

In his book, Worship, John MacArthur points to several Old Testament examples to illustrate how seriously God takes worship. Whether it’s the Israelites fashioning a golden calf at the foot of Mount Sinai, the strange fire offered by Nadab and Abihu, or Uzzah simply reaching out to steady and secure the Ark of the Covenant, the message is clear:

God will not accept deviant worship. Some would insist that any kind of sincere worship is acceptable to God, but that is simply not true. The Bible clearly teaches that those who offer self-styled worship are unacceptable to God, regardless of their good intentions. No matter how pure our motivation may seem or how sincere we are in our attempt, if we fail to worship God as He has commanded, He cannot bless us. [2] Worship, 20.

At best, Hillsong’s God is a pale and incomplete shadow of the fullness described in Scripture. At worst, he’s a fraudulent idol, made in man’s image and incapable of providing the redemption and transformation that sinners so desperately need.

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