This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 42, number 2 (2019). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Of all the public conversions1 from conservative evangelical to progressive, Jen Hatmaker’s is one of the most culturally appealing. Her trademark breezy, well-timed humor penetrates to the heart of the overwhelmed American woman she gathers into her “tribe”2 and admonishes to keep up the hard work, which will, by her gritty love, save the world. This is Hatmaker’s gospel: as you model your life on Jesus and love as inclusively as He did, you will heal yourself, your family, and the world. This gospel is delivered in a package of can-do, no-nonsense American pragmatism.
Hatmaker rose to prominence in May 2013 with a viral blog post hilariously decrying the trials of the exasperating end of the school year.3 This led to an HGTV home remodeling show and her New York Times bestseller For the Love: Fighting for Grace in a World of Impossible Standards (Thomas Nelson, 2015). She joined the conference circuit and endeared herself to mainstream feminine evangelicalism with her insightful, funny, and unobjectionable Bible teaching.
She was well positioned, then, to rock the evangelical world with her apparent about-face embrace of the LGBT agenda in an interview with Jonathan Merritt in 2016. When asked by Merritt if she believed LGBT relationships could be holy, she said, “I do…I’ve seen too much pain and rejection at the intersection of the gay community and the church.”4 After the interview, Lifeway pulled her books5 and social media drew up for battle.
Holiness without God
Taking her cue from Barbara Brown Taylor,6 Hatmaker confuses biblical holiness — to be set apart from what is common and sinful7 — with its theological opposite. She writes, “But if we absorb the full counsel of Scripture and acknowledge that God sincerely loves us and gave us a whole world of gifts and joys, we discover many secular things we love are actually sacred.”8 Fans of her weekly podcast, For the Love, will occasionally hear her say, “That is holy” when a guest describes the moon rising in the evening, or a young man rejects the biblical standard of sexuality, or a mother holds high her sign at gay-pride parades to give hugs. In For the Love, she applies the word church to her Sunday evening dinner gatherings.9 In Of Mess and Moxie, she writes, “Making your home pretty is nice, but making it nourishing is holy. Sister, paint that chair or hang that mirror, sure, but for the love, don’t wait until everything is done before putting on a pot of chili and inviting new friends over for football.”10 All these disparate human actions and natural phenomena are lumped together under the labels “holy,” “sanctuary,” “altar,” and “church.”
By contrast, biblical holiness is grounded in God‘s otherness, that He is set apart and utterly opposed to all that is sinful. God is described in Isaiah 6:3 as thrice holy. Isaiah, a sinner, cannot stand in His presence. The chasm between man’s common, sinful state and God’s holiness cannot be bridged by human effort — an angel sears Isaiah’s lips to cleanse him and set him apart so that he can speak. Moreover, Jesus carries forward the Old Covenant command “You shall be holy as I am holy” (Lev. 19:2)11 into the New with the clear but impossible “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). And in Luke 5:8, Peter experiences the fear Isaiah knew. He sees that, apart from atonement, God’s holiness means his death, and yet he is in the boat with the one who purges sinful hearts.
By including every heartwarming thought or action within the theological boundary of “holiness,” Hatmaker shifts the meaning away from its divine origin and onto the intentions and feelings of the human person. There is no longer any meaningful distance between God and humanity, between the Creator and the created. This shift undermines the biblical category of wrath, which is central for understanding the Cross.
The Gospel without the Cross
Hatmaker articulates God’s salvific plan this way. She says:
[He will] send Jesus to change all the rules and set people free in every way…By word and deed, example and instruction, Jesus would teach his followers to love the outcast and the poor, to embrace their communities and each other. He would give them distinct marching orders — generosity, humility, grace, inclusion, courage — and tell them it all boils down to two things: loving God and people….The plan had Jesus go on and on about what it means to be blessed in this life, making sure He included the upside-down stuff: meekness, mourning, community, simplicity, kindness. He gave honor to a bunch of folks in the right head space, like kids and widows and outsiders. He stayed at parties and dinners. Oh! And Jesus forgave His enemies while He was hanging on the cross, just to be clear about how forgiveness worked pragmatically.12
The human dilemma, then, is one of operating out of wrong categories, what she calls “head space.” Having correctly identified the law — love God and love others — the solution she offers is not then to turn and plead for forgiveness from the One who gave the standard. Rather, the task is to reevaluate one’s own life and work harder to keep the command. The law is attainable because it is centered in the subjective human feelings of empathy and forgiveness.
Hatmaker’s own journey to right thinking began when she first genuinely encountered systemic injustices of hunger, poverty, and racism. As part of her quest, she developed a test for biblical interpretation and theological thinking. “There is a biblical benchmark I now use,” she writes. “We will refer to this criterion for every hard question, big idea, topic, assessment of our own obedience, every ‘should’ or ‘should not’ and ‘will’ or ‘will not’ we ascribe to God, every theological sound bite. Here it is: If it isn’t also true for a poor single Christian mom in Haiti, it isn’t true.”13 The relative goodness of the Haitian mother is taken as the measure of truth itself. All truth is determined by the needs, desires, and victim status of the oppressed.
The Cross, in this light, represents the kind of empathic forgiveness that one human person can extend to another out of right knowledge on the one hand, and inclusivity on the other. She describes the work of the Cross this way, “Jesus permanently made the sanctuary safe, pure, and accessible to all. He didn’t lessen its holiness but rather raised us to heaven’s standards through the cross….Jesus threw the church doors open to the entire world and bid us come. Obviously, this entire miracle was Jesus’s doing: His life, His death, His resurrection, His dreams for this earth.”14 Jesus simply picks someone up when he has fallen down. There is no reference to the measure of God’s wrath that He took on Himself in order to redeem the sinful and unholy person.
For the apostle Paul, the Cross is central not only to understanding the work of God in the world but also to reading Scripture. He articulates the work of the Cross this way: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13), and again, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21), and again, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3–4). The Cross is good news. There, Jesus endured to its uttermost the wrath of the Father. He didn’t just forgive; He absorbed the penalty that was owed to the one who had sinned.
This news is central to the whole witness of Scripture. Traced out from the first chapter of Genesis to the last of the book of Revelation, everything points forward and backward to the work that Jesus accomplished for the redemption of His creation. So, far from measuring a human reading of the Bible by the experiences of a human person, the Christian looks to the Cross to understand the holiness and love of God as it is articulated throughout human history. For Hatmaker, the Cross is about acceptance rather than atonement; but without atonement, love is robbed of its glory and its power.
Love As Acceptance
“Love,” writes Hatmaker, “is a genuine solution….It provides the lighted path to forgiveness, which sets everyone free. Love makes us brave, pulls up seats to the table, refuses bigotry, and attacks injustice. It is our most powerful spiritual tool. Do not underestimate it as the solution to almost everything that is broken.”15 Having redefined holiness as common human work and emptied the Cross of its atoning power, Hatmaker twists the love of God into a new law, and one, if possible, more burdensome than before. Love, narrowed down to the realm of human feeling and intention, becomes the vessel into which she pours all her hopes. She writes, “We can stand rightly before God when love leads and compels us. We need not fear that He will say, ‘You loved too greatly, too liberally, too generously, too shockingly.’ The entire story of God reveals a vast, encompassing campaign to love humanity all the way home.”16
Hatmaker tethers love to feelings, feelings that have the power to heal. The human person can “love humanity all the way home.” Love is not the action of pouring oneself out for the good of another, it is a spiritual force, a deep feeling that draws others into an accepting community where they can “flourish.” She writes, “Let’s flourish under Paul’s instruction: ‘Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed’….You are approved. You are a worker….Your place is secure. If not you, who? Who else will deliver hope to your people? Who else will embrace the weary and lonely?…Who else will take responsibility for your people and your place? You will.”17 Not Jesus — you. Hatmaker encourages the Christian to pull herself together and just love. If she is plagued by shame, it is not because she has rebelled against God. If she is persecuted by doubt, it is not because she is cut off by sin from the light of truth. If she is overwhelmed, it is not because she has failed to live a life centered in the mercy of the Cross. She simply hasn’t yet learned the tricks of boundaries, season,18 and self-acceptance. The solution is not repentance and faith but to love herself, do good to herself, protect herself, and expend herself.
Encouragement As Salvation
In a world increasingly characterized by cruelty, isolation, and impossible human standards, Hatmaker’s encouraging, socially forgiving humor is a balm for thousands of burdened, struggling women. Her let-yourself-off-the-hook message, when joined to one of personal empowerment and feelings recast as world changing actions, is intoxicating for the beleaguered, helpless, strung-out soul. But in rejecting the biblical definition of holiness and sin, her human-centered gospel of feelings and works is not able to provide a deep and satisfying answer to the question of evil in the world, nor provide a Christian view of suffering, nor ultimately to rescue the very person Hatmaker is so anxious to encourage.
Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Sarcastic Devotions for Angry and Worn-Out People (Kalos Press, 2016). She blogs about current events and theological trends at Preventing Grace on Patheos.com.
- Michael Kruger, “The Power of De-Conversion Stories: How Jen Hatmaker Is Trying to Change Minds about the Bible,” Cannon Fodder, February 5, 2018, https://www.michaeljkruger.com/the-power-of-de-conversion-stories-how-jen-hatmaker-is-trying-tochange-minds-about-the-bible/.
- Jen Hatmaker, Of Mess and Moxie: Wrangling Delight Out of This Wild and Glorious Life (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2017), xvii.
- Jen Hatmaker, “Worst End of the School Year Mom Ever,” Jen Hatmaker blog, May 30, 2013, http://jenhatmaker.com/blog/2013/05/30/worst-end-of-school-year-mom-ever.
- Jonathon Merritt, “The Politics of Jen Hatmaker,” Religion News Service, October 25, 2016, https://religionnews.com/2016/10/25/the-politics-of-jen-hatmaker-trump-black-livesmatter-gay-marriage-and-more/.
- Kate Shellnutt, “Lifeway Stops Selling Jen Hatmaker Books over LGBT Beliefs,” Christianity Today, October 27, 2016, https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2016/october/lifeway-stops-selling-jen-hatmaker-books-lgbt-beliefs-chris.html.
- Jen Hatmaker, “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” For the Love podcast, June 6, 2018, https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/for-the-love-with-jen-hatmaker-podcast/id1258388821?mt=2&i=1000413140378.
- See R. C. Sproul’s lecture, “The Meaning of Holiness,” Ligonier Ministries, March 10, 2015, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/series/holiness_of_god/the-meaning-of-holiness/.
- Hatmaker, Of Mess and Moxie, 23.
- Hatmaker, Of Mess and Moxie, 113.
- Hatmaker, Of Mess and Moxie, 70.
- All Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version.
- Hatmaker, Of Mess and Moxie,
- Jen Hatmaker, For the Love: Fighting for Grace in a World of Impossible Standards (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015), 18.
- Hatmaker, Of Mess and Moxie,
- Hatmaker, Of Mess and Moxie,
- Hatmaker, Of Mess and Moxie,
- Hatmaker, For the Love, 201.
- Hatmaker, For the Love, 6.