As many are now aware within reach of the conservative evangelicalism algorithms, Pastor Alistair Begg recently talked himself into a bit of a mess. A clip surfaced of a months-old interview in which Pastor Begg gave a real-life example of a case where he counseled a grandmother (an unknown woman who reached out to his ministry) to attend the “marriage” ceremony of her grandchild and to bring them a gift, even though transgenderism was involved. This greatly respected Christian leader and preacher with a beloved accent, has received no small amount of blowback for his advice, and rightly so. With nearly two weeks having passed, Pastor Begg has been given ample opportunity to clarify, reconsider, and recant his position. However, it is apparent that at least two times, including in an evening service at his own Parkside Church, he has affirmed and defended his counsel, and communicated further his opposition to his critics.
This controversy is not the “tempest in a teacup” as he sought to identify it. He doesn’t have the luxury of doing ministry in the public and popular platform that he has chosen, without being open to the possibility of shock and widespread dismay at his controversial statements. I sympathize with the surprise and the disappointment that he has for becoming the center of attention for a couple of months, at least through his highly anticipated Shepherd’s Conference appearance coming up in March. However, he is not going to be able to get away with just preaching to his local congregation and considering the matter settled. He has embraced being a public, worldwide Christian leader, and he cannot shy away from hearing and answering objections. Perhaps Shepherd’s Conference will be a good opportunity for him to answer some legitimate and tough questions.
Concern Over Counsel
I listened to Pastor Begg’s evening sermon to his congregation this past Sunday in its entirety, and I continue to have two main concerns. The first concern is regarding the counsel itself and its impact on the church more broadly. Pastor Begg was aware of the controversial position he was taking, noting in the original interview that some would likely disagree with his advice. This may be the understatement of the year. However, the crux of the matter centers on Pastor Begg’s failure to distinguish between what it means to attend a wedding and how a believer can show compassion to a sinner steeped in sexual immorality without compromising our allegiance to Christ and the truth.
A wedding is a solemn occasion and celebration of holy matrimony between a man and a woman. Marriage is God’s design, and He performed the first wedding in Eden, establishing for us our normative pattern. But a transgender “wedding” includes participants who are actively seeking to corrupt God’s holy institution. That “wedding” ceremony is the solemn formalizing of a sinfully rebellious union. Pastor Begg knows this and thankfully, he opposes it.
However, he seems to not understand what it means to be an attendee of a wedding as an invited guest. To attend a wedding is to be an active participant with the two parties covenanting together. A wedding is a celebration and the giving of hearty approval. To attend a wedding is to be a supportive witness to the couple’s ceremonial and spoken commitments. Your presence is the “Amen” to the substance of the union taking place. It used to be that part of the wedding liturgy included an opportunity for anyone in attendance to object to the proceedings. “If anyone has any reason why this couple should not be joined together in holy matrimony, let him speak now or forever hold his peace.”
As a pastor, I would have counseled the grandmother that she could attend such a transgendered “wedding” if that opportunity was given to her or if she was willing to take it anyway, and she had the courage to publicly object. Furthermore, I noted to a gentleman in my church that I would approve of not attending the ceremony, but going to the reception if you were bent on being an evangelist to the other guests and if you were prepared for some holy trouble. Christians can go anywhere if they are prepared to behave faithfully. But for a Christian to attend a wedding as a silent observer and to bring a gift, is to be an active supporter.
Pastor Begg sought to “nuance” the situation by first confirming that the grandchild knew the Grandma’s stand on the issue, but the actions he prescribed completely contradicted the godly position she was trying to maintain. This communicates a concern for the relationship more than maintaining a clear conscience before the Lord. In failing to understand what it means to attend a wedding, he caused an upset in the evangelical world through his false view of compassion.
Concerning Pastor Begg’s self-defense, he chose to argue for the validity of his counsel from Luke 15 and Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and scribes, who were grumbling that he was receiving and eating with sinners. Jesus answered them with three parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost boy. Each of them was lovingly pursued, found, and rejoiced over. In the parable of the prodigal son, it was the older brother who refused to countenance his brother’s return. Pastor Begg suggested that it was the fault of American Fundamentalist-type “Pharisees” who lack compassion for the lost and who don’t have the heart of God for the salvation of lost sinners. He supposed that is why his online opponents can’t accept his counsel. He scoffed at the idea that he was in need of repentance, and he suggested that he was simply seeking to communicate compassion. But it is Pastor Begg who’s misapplied his own defensive text. The contrast is that the parables are about rejoicing over someone who was lost but then FOUND versus grumbling over a repentant sinner. None of Begg’s critics are upset over a repentant sinner. Instead, our criticism is over counsel that promotes and celebrates (even if unintentionally) unrepentant sin. Pastor Begg has continued to conflate the evangelistic association of Christians with sinners and the celebration of a sinful “wedding.” It is entirely different for a Christian to have lunch with a person who is practicing immorality, and to share the gospel with them, than it is to attend a transgender wedding in silent disapproval.
For Pastor Begg to not see that, is a serious error in discernment.
Concern for the Man
My second concern is for Pastor Begg himself, his future ministry, and the consequences of this compromise. At 71 years old and 40 years of faithful ministry at Parkside Church, Pastor Begg has been a stalwart of expository gospel preaching for many thousands of people who have loved his voice on the radio, at conferences, and through his many books. Yet this significant error in judgment has raised concerns about a slide into compromise in the face of an obvious culture war. Begg also expressed a commitment to the tired left-leaning principle of “building bridges” with those with whom we have fundamental moral disagreements. The fear is that in the sunset years of his ministry, he will not end well as he goes the way of grandfatherly compromise. We all hope to not be remembered for the worst thing we ever said, but the fear is that he will become a casualty of capitulation and lead many trusting people into error.
At this time, we beg Pastor Begg to soften his heart to the loving admonishment of brothers who are seeking to correct him. Our disagreement and disappointment are because of love for him and the gospel he has preached. I’m concerned at his stiffening and bristling at the notion that Christians would take serious issue with his words and turn his rhetorical guns at us. That is why we need to pray for Pastor Begg and not only beg him to repent but also beg God to preserve and protect him from failure. We need to have real compassion for him and hope that he will not have this compromise as a lasting legacy. I, for one, would much rather cry over his description of the man on the middle cross, than cry over the fall of a mighty man of God. Please, Pastor Begg, we beg you to repent of your error.
Please, God, help him.