by Stephen Ferguson | 7 November 2023 |
As reported by Christianity Today, the resignation of Brian Houston of the Hillsong megachurch for inappropriate behavior with a female staff member:
Brian Houston has resigned from Hillsong Church, the congregation he founded nearly 40 years ago and led as global senior pastor.
The boards of the Australian congregation and the global ministry announced they accepted his resignation in a letter posted Wednesday.
Houston had been on leave from the church awaiting his appearance in court on charges he had covered up abuse by his late father.
Last week, news broke that Hillsong had also investigated the pastor in two instances of inappropriate behavior. One involved text messages sent to a female staff member; the other occurred when Houston drunkenly entered a woman’s hotel room after a Hillsong conference three years ago.
In a sensational follow-up, an Australian parliamentarian has accused Hillsong of money laundering and tax evasion:
“The independent MP Andrew Wilkie has used parliamentary privilege to level extraordinary claims of money laundering and tax evasion against Hillsong, producing what he claims are leaked documents from the mega-church that he says reveal it earned $80 million more than what it has publicly declared.”
Houston’s love of wealth and commitment to the prosperity gospel is well-known. One of his most famous books is You Need More Money.
As reported, matters went from bad to worse for Houston when he got arrested on drunk driving charges:
Hillsong founder Brian Houston has admitted to drunk driving in the United States in the month before he resigned from the church, following an investigation into his “inappropriate” behavior towards two women. In a statement posted on Instagram on Wednesday morning, the megachurch’s former senior pastor claimed he had been driving his car a few hundred meters to park it after drinking when he was charged with driving under the influence.
Finally, and most recently, a small ray of hope: Brian Houston was found not guilty of covering up his own father’s (Frank Houston, the founder of Hillsong’s precursor church) sexual abuse of a child.
It was also found that a $10,000 payment arranged by Frank Houston to Mr. Sengstock could not be proven to be “hush money,” or that Brian Houston had intended it to be so.
Despite this latest win, Brian Houston’s ministerial reputation seems damaged beyond repair.
Why do mighty men of God fall?
You may have never heard of Brian Houston, but the guy is big news amongst a corner of evangelical Christianity, including for many Adventists. Hillsong, a megachurch that Houston founded in the hills of Sydney, Australia, is an international behemoth. The songs of Hillsong are also legendary, sung in many churches around the world, including my own local Seventh-day Adventist congregation.
Houston became such a household name, at least here in Australia, that Brian counted former prime minister Scott Morrison as one of his personal acolytes. After some diplomatic tussles, he was even able to get himself an invite to dinner at the White House, despite some opposition from then-First Lady Melania Trump.
Having attended Hillsong services on occasion over the years, I can affirm they genuinely provide a safe and accessible Christian service, especially for those who come from a non-church background. When my wife and I lived in England for a year, we so disliked attending local Adventist churches (sorry to admit that), we ended up visiting Hillsong London instead. We switched back to Adventist churches when we traveled to the United States and returned home to Australia.
It is important to understand that within rising secular countries, such as Australia, the United Kingdom, or France, Brian Houston seemed like some modern-day prophet sent to rescue Christianity from the rising tide of secularism and irrelevance.
Adventism had a lot to learn from Brian and his methods. I personally admired the man—greatly. His fall did have some personal impact on my own faith, despite my having no formal connection to Hillsong. I would hate to think how it impacted its own members.
Yet Houston’s fall seemed to be almost as dramatic as his rise. What caused it all to come undone? Was it some deep theological dispute? No. Was it a failed evangelistic program that was not achieving results? No. Did the songs suddenly become unpopular? No.
The allegations against Houston (and to be clear, I am not pre-judging or saying anything about any criminal charges that will have to be substantiated before a court of law) seem to involve age-old human foibles: sex, drugs, money, and power.
Christianity is a history of suspect, failed, religious movements
The history of Christianity is one of a succession of failed religious movements, many of which originally started with good intentions, but ended in disaster. There are almost too many to count. And there are skeletons in almost every denominational closet, lest we start pointing fingers.
We might start at the time of Christ with the ancient Essenes, awaiting out Judgment Day in the Judean wilderness on the edge of the Dead Sea. Moving into the New Testament period, we could then mention both the ultra-strict Jewish-Christians, the Ebionites, on the one hand, and the anti-Jewish Gnostics (the first anti-Christs) on the other.
By the time Christianity became a state religion, we had the inevitable corruption that led to the absurdity of indulgences or the drunken orgies of the Borges popes. The opposition to papal rule was often not that much better. We had the rise of puritanical Protestantism, from Luther and Calvin’s open antisemitism to 300,000 dead in the Peasants War.
As for our Anabaptist forebears, during the 16th century they created a violent repressive hellhole in the town of Münster so singularly terrible it made the French and Bolshevik Revolutions look like teddy-bear picnics. Anabaptist prophet John Leidon would declare himself a messiah whilst he lived in luxury, surrounded by a harem, as his followers starved and died defending him.
Of course, we Adventists know well about – and are usually embarrassed by – our own founders. People who foolishly sold all their goods thinking the world was literally going to end on October 22, 1844. We try to justify their delusion in theological backpaddling, but the truth even the most basic grasp of scripture should have told them is that no one knows the day or hour Jesus is going to return. But why reject the obvious when we can engage in some convoluted numerology it almost takes a degree in mathematics, if not astrology, to understand.
And closer to modern times, we have the Branch Davidians and their mass death in the FBI raid in Waco, Texas, in 1993. We Adventists take great pains to explain that David Koresh, a former Adventist who believed he was a new messiah and demanded he have sex with all of his followers’ wives, had nothing to do with us.
Why does Christianity end up in cults?
Give me a new Christian group and one can almost guarantee you will find a cult, whether in whole or in part. But what do we mean by cult, exactly? The dictionary defines cult as:
- a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious;
- a great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work;
- a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion;
- a system of religious beliefs and ritual.
I think these definitions are not entirely helpful. I prefer more modern sociological and psychological frameworks, such as Hassan’s BITE Model of Authoritarian Control. These don’t see “cult” so much as questions of belief or practice per se but of control.
Even supposedly orthodox Christianity is bizarre when you really think about it—depending on how it is presented. Although Christianity is considered mainstream today, as early Christian writer Eusebius observed, many Romans of that period thought it a cult whose members practiced incest (i.e., on account of everyone’s calling each other “brother and sister”) and cannibalism (i.e., because of supposedly eating Christ’s flesh and blood) (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 5.1.26, 4th Century).
Still, the better hallmark of a cult is control. Control over what people think, what they wear, what they eat, what they drink, whom they can marry, whom they can be friends with, how they spend their time, how they spend their money, and what they can do for fun.
Again, it is not whether a group promotes any such thing but whether a person must do such things out of fear of serious consequences. For example, there is a long Christian tradition that promotes vegetarianism, which is better for your health, better for the treatment of animals, and better for the environment. One isn’t in a cult simply for being a vegetarian. But only a cult makes vegetarianism mandatory:
The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. (1 Tim. 4:1-3)
Perhaps more importantly, a cult comes down to whether the leaders of such a group have to follow these same rules. One will almost always find that cult-leaders carve out exceptions for themselves.
While cult leaders can be women, they are more often men. And these men have been known to occupy a mansion, drape themselves in finery, and prostitute their own female followers into sex-slavery.
Did Jesus found a cult?
With the above background in mind, did Jesus of Nazareth Himself found a cult? There are arguments that He did.
A man who considered Himself divine, whose disciples surrendered all worldly possessions, and who demanded total commitment to the point of death, is someone we would typically be wary of. It is easy to criticize the Pharisees and Sadducees, but if Jesus turned up unannounced at your local church this Sabbath, I almost guarantee you would be tempted to call the police.
Yet Jesus was the real deal. I believe it. As Christian apologist C. S. Lewis rightly observed:
Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. (Lewis, C. S., Mere Christianity, London: Collins, 1952, pp. 54–56.)
If there is one thing that truly distinguished Jesus from cult leaders in history, it is how He lived His own life. As a homeless celibate with no earthly possessions, Christ was the antithesis of a David Koresh, or even (as some have alleged) a Brian Houston:
Jesus answered him, “Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lie down and rest.” (Matt. 8:20)
Even by historical norms, Jesus was a failure. His death on the Cross was an ancient embarrassment, a sign of failure, a theological point not lost on the Apostles as they spread this weird message (Gal. 3:13).
Nonetheless, Jesus is the very Second Adam (1 Cor. 15:22)—the one who could call down a legion of angels, who was offered the world, who was very equal to God, but surrendered it all unto death (Phil. 2:5-8).
If you are never sure whom to follow, and concerned you may be in a cult, my advice is simple: follow the example of Jesus. That means following the one who doesn’t get drunk and attempt to have sex with his own staff, who doesn’t drive a Ferrari, who doesn’t wear a Rolex watch, and who doesn’t make up a bunch of controlling rules he himself would never bother following.
Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia, with expertise in planning, environment, immigration, and administrative-government law. He is married to Amy and has two children, William and Eloise. Stephen is a member of the Livingston Adventist Church.