Four years after a sex scandal prompted him to depart from Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, Tullian Tchividjian, grandson to Billy Graham, has again assumed the pulpit. Now, he is preaching an alternative approach to the faith that he calls “Upside Down Christianity.”
Since I last wrote about him in 2015, Tchividjian’s life has taken many turns. He attempted to resurrect his Liberate Network parachurch ministry and found employment at Willow Creek Presbyterian Church in Winter Springs, Florida. Both endeavors fizzled in early 2016 after revelations that he had had another extramarital affair—before the one that ended his time at Coral Ridge. Kevin Labby, pastor at Willow Creek, issued a statement on behalf of the congregation:
We would . . . like to state in the clearest possible terms that we do not believe that Mr. Tchividjian should be in any form of public or vocational ministry. Rather, inasmuch as he is truly repentant and in accordance with his membership vows, we would urge him to immediately return to his church of membership, submit to its leadership, and pursue healing and renewal through repentance in the context of his local church to the glory of God and for the good of the broader Church and her witness to the world.
Labby’s call appears to have gone unheeded. In August 2016 Tchividjian married Stacie Phillips, five months after finalizing his divorce with his first wife, Kim. His new marriage marked a turning point in his return to ministry. He began to take preaching engagements in the fall of 2016. Instead of returning to his church of membership and submitting to its leadership, he became a member of Living Faith Church, a congregation of the Lutheran Brethren.
Tchividjian then launched a personal website, and the initial posts included endorsements from the pastor at Living Faith and Episcopal priest Paul Zahl, who went so far as to say that the world needs Tchividjian’s message and that “Tullian’s personal experience, as bad as you want to make it out, has qualified him (and qualified him brilliantly!) to preach the Gospel.” In the summer of 2018, Fortress Press, a publisher associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, announced that it would be republishing Tchividjian’s book Jesus + Nothing = Everything, which had been pulled by the original publisher after his affairs came to light. And in 2019 Tchividjian launched a new non-denominational church, The Sanctuary, which meets in the Hilton Garden Inn Palm Beach Gardens.
The Sanctuary aims to reflect what Tchividjian has been calling “Upside Down Christianity,” the title of a recent sermon series, in which the theology of most churches is turned on its head. As the “Mission” page on the church’s website puts it:
The Sanctuary is a judgment-free zone where people can come as they are, not as they should be. A place to find love and laughter and hope and healing and acceptance and forgiveness and mercy and help. Sadly, churches tend to be the scariest places, rather than the safest places, for fallen people to fall down and for broken people to break down. The Sanctuary strives to be different.
For all this talk of a “judgment-free zone,” Tchividjian doesn’t balk at judging other churches—and even traditional Christian teachings. Tchividjian’s sermons contain many warnings about the norms that prevail in most churches, which he warns have turned away from authentic Christianity and toward false religion. By favoring legalism over grace, he argues, they have driven people away.
As before his fall, the thought of twentieth-century Lutheran theologians Werner Elert and Gerhard Forde highly influence his writing and preaching. The Sanctuary defines its message as a Theology of the Cross, versus a Theology of Glory, a distinction that Forde mined from one of Luther’s early writings and then popularized in order to promote his program of “Radical Lutheranism.” This Radical Lutheranism informs Tchividjian’s combative stance against most churches.
By his own admission Gerhard Forde formulated Radical Lutheranism—which, as I wrote in 2015, amounts to little more than “reminding people of grace,” contradicting classical Lutheran doctrine—in part to amplify the theological distance between Lutheranism and other Christian theological traditions. Forde’s theology presents an even greater challenge to Christian unity: By reducing the task of theology to merely reminding people about grace, it leaves no room for other theological endeavors such as the pursuit of good works (Ephesians 2:10) and the mutual adoration of God (Ephesians 1:12), endeavors in which Christians often find unity and companionship even across confessional lines.
Traditionally, Christians have considered sin, death, and the devil their enemies. But in Tchividjian’s writing and preaching, as is often the case with those influenced by Radical Lutheranism, other Christians become the enemy. Sin, on the other hand, becomes a friend, as it is the means by which one comes to appreciate the gospel.
As Tchividjian said in a recent sermon, “It’s always the immoral person who gets the Gospel before the moral person.”
Christopher Jackson is the pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church and St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Northeast Wisconsin.