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Judge not? On the resignation of Brian Houston

Friday, 8 April 2022  | Nils von Kalm

Editor’s note: This article is only about the recently revealed allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct against Brian Houston. It is not related to his alleged failure to report Frank Houston’s sexual abuse of a young man. For commentary on the latter, see this article.

The revelations about Hillsong founder, Brian Houston, and his apparent inappropriate treatment of two women have triggered discussions about whether we have the right to judge those who fail morally.

There has been much backlash and various responses from Christians all over the world since the revelations came to light. I feel sad over the whole saga, especially for the women who have been hurt and who not many people have talked about. However I also feel for Brian and his family, and for the many people associated with Hillsong who continue to do amazing work for the kingdom.

When we look at a saga like this – and there have been a few recently, with Carl Lentz and Bruxy Cavey exposed as well – what is a Christlike response? Is any criticism at all to be seen as being judgmental? Do we have a responsibility to make a statement about it? Or do we sit back and say nothing and let those involved sort it out?

The question in any situation like this is always, ‘what does love require?’ What is the example of Jesus? What is the example and advice of St Paul? What should be the consequences of moral failings? Should someone in a position of responsibility who fails morally always step down? And, most importantly, how do we uphold and protect the dignity of those who have been hurt the most?

In the Brian Houston case, and in pretty much all cases like it, some people will make hate-filled judgments, others will make statements that are well-meaning but ill-considered and others will make carefully worded statements that are born out of painful experience and suffering love.

When the allegations against Houston first came to light, my thoughts went to the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Would I be the Pharisee who smugly thanks God that I’m not like Houston, while of course remaining quiet about my own sins? Or would I beat my chest, pleading with God for mercy because I too am a sinner and because ‘there but for the grace of God go I’? Would I be a hypocrite or would I see myself as a contrite and humble sinner in need of God’s grace?

Contrition and humility are crucial when making judgments. That does not mean however that we are never to judge. Many Christians seem to think that any criticism of anyone is judgmental. I remember this happening when Donald Trump first ran for President and was then elected. Amidst the subsequent extreme polarity of views on him, there was a belief among many Christians that, because we are apparently not supposed to judge, any criticism of Trump at all was ungodly.

That just doesn’t match with what we see in the pages of the New Testament, nor in the life of Jesus. Let’s have a look at what is actually said in Scripture about this, because what this comes down to is how we define judgment.

Jesus doesn’t tell us to not judge. He tells us to judge with right judgment (John 7:24). I believe this to mean that we are to judge with integrity so that, when we have pulled the log out of our own eye, then we can see clearly to remove the speck from our brother or sister’s eye (Matthew 7:5). So, we can still make judgments, but you’d better be sure you have your own attitude in the right place when you do it.

This is a big challenge for me. I am a bundle of contradictions. We all are. So I need to look at my own failings first before I make any judgements about anyone else’s.. We’re all hypocrites in some sense. We commit a very noble act one minute, and then the next minute we’re abusing another driver on the road. Does that make us frauds? Well, it depends. If we are putting on a show of being all righteous, and are then living a life contrary to what we tell everybody, then we are being hypocritical.

Even then, though, we need to be careful about how we judge. Many people have genuine weaknesses over which they are powerless, despite wanting to be different. What about the Christian leader who preaches from the bottom of his heart and means everything he says, and then, on the way home to his wife and family from the conference, stops at a brothel? After he leaves the brothel, he hates himself for succumbing to the same temptation yet again. Is he a fraud or is he a genuine man who wants to please God, someone around whom Jesus puts his arm and says, ‘I do not condemn you. Go now and sin no more’?

As a good friend of mine pointed out recently, this is not so much about the moral failing as about the nature and character of God, particularly God’s outrageous grace. After all, which one of us would pay the worker who has toiled in the hot sun all day the same amount as the guy who rocks up at 4.55pm and does five minutes’ work (Matthew 20:1-16)? It goes totally against our sense of what is fair and just.

Another story to consider when thinking about God’s grace is one of the most famous parables of all, that of the father and his two sons (Luke 15:11-32). The Episcopal Church minister, Debie Thomas, recounts fictitious letters she once wrote to both sons, stating clearly how she felt about both of them and how they were treated by the father. She says she relates more closely to the older brother, who did the right thing and didn’t squander his inheritance with disreputable people. He helped Dad out on the family farm, yet the younger son comes back and there is a massive party for him while the older son doesn’t get anything. Too right he’s upset! Like the older brother, often our response is very different to the graciousness of God.

Then there is the story of Peter, his denial of Jesus and subsequent reinstatement after Jesus’ resurrection. In this story, Peter was not forced to step down after his moral failing. Instead, Jesus invited him to step up. In response to Peter’s three-fold denial, Jesus asked him three times if he loved him, and then commanded him to lead the fledgling movement that would come about after Jesus left this world.

To the question of whether we are to make judgments about the Brian Houston saga, or that of any other Christian leader’s moral failing, we can say that we are to do what love requires. And to do that, we can look at the life of love personified, that of Jesus. Yes, we can make judgments, but let’s make sure the log is well and truly out of our own eye first, and, where possible, seek the person’s restoration rather than condemnation.


Nils von Kalm is a Melbourne-based writer who is passionate about the relevance of Jesus to life in the 21st century. He is the author of Bending Towards Justice: How the Gospel is More Relevant Than Ever in the 21st Century and can be found at facebook.com/nils.vonkalm.

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