WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you’re listening in on my conversation with pastor, radio teacher, and author Dr. Michael Youssef.
Dr. Michael Youssef’s new book is a scathing critique of so-called “progressive Christianity.” And he has particular credibility when it comes to the telling of this story because he had to fight a so-called progressive Christian denomination early in his own career. He founded an Episcopal Church in Atlanta that started growing in part because it did not compromise the Gospel. But in the 1980s, he found he could no longer stay in that denomination and his church, The Church of the Apostles, left the denomination. In the 30 years since then, his church has thrived and now has more than 3500 in regular attendance each week. Meanwhile, the Episcopal Church he left is less than half the size it was when he and his congregation departed.
His new book, Saving Christianity? tells that story and calls out leaders in the progressive Christian movement. But it doesn’t leave things there. The book also prescribes a way forward, which is in some ways a way backward, to the ancient Apostle’s Creed, in order to preserve what he calls “the Gospel once delivered to the saints.”
I had this conversation with Michael Youssef at The Church of the Apostles in Atlanta, a building which was—as you will hear—a place that I worked when I was a teenager growing up in the Atlanta area.
Dr. Youssef, welcome to the program. It’s an honor to be here in this space because I used to work in this building whenever I was in high school—probably 45 years ago.
MICHAEL YOUSSEF, GUEST: Yes, yes. It was an Allstate Insurance company processing center. And then they wanted to move out in the suburbs. So they moved further north. And this building actually—believe it or not—was going to be a Ritz Carlton hotel. And then the neighbors fought them. They didn’t want the hotel. So as it happened, the founder of the Ritz Carlton hotel is a member of our church. And so he told me, he said, “Look, we’re gonna walk out and we’re going to leave it.” And I said, “No, this is too expensive for us. We can’t really take it.” So we decided to leave it and waited and waited and we looked everywhere.
SMITH: Well, and you weren’t nearly the size church that you are now either. Much smaller, right?
YOUSSEF: We were. We had at the time when we had our first service in the renovated Allstate—’cause we renovated the whole building and we were in it for six years. And so we were in a school before that for six years. So we came in and renovated this space and we’re in it for six years. But from the time the Ritz Carlton company walked away, two years later the recession hit. And when the recession hit, we were so privileged. And really I think it’s God’s perfect timing. We were able to buy it for half the price they were asking for.
SMITH: Wow. Yeah. So you could afford it then. Well, the reason I wanted to in part ask you about some of that church history is because—and I do want to get your book—but it provides a bit of context and I would say credibility for you in the topics of this book, which is about sort of the creeping liberalism of the evangelical church. You witnessed that firsthand because when you founded The Church of the Apostles, it was an Episcopal church, which, you know, has a beautiful and storied history of faithfulness to the gospel. But then went on the slide that you talked about in the book.
YOUSSEF: Exactly. I was ordained in Sydney, Australia. I went to seminary—Anglican school—at Sydney University. And I was ordained. And the reason I chose—I used to be a Presbyterian and when the Presbyterian asked me, how come you left? I said, I was predestined.
SMITH: Well, they’re both reformed in their, you know—
YOUSSEF: Well, the Anglican church of Sydney is a very reformed church. And not only that, but there were five bishops—they still have five bishops in the diocese—all godly men, and as a man from the Middle East, and I have no problem submitting to authority whatsoever, I said, what a privilege to submit to the authority of godly men like this. So I became an Anglican. I served in a parish there as associate rector. And so when we left Australia in ‘77, came to the United States, I realized that’s not the same church.
SMITH: The Episcopal church in America was an outlier.
YOUSSEF: I used to say, well, there may be cousins, but they’re really very lost cousins because there is no relationship between the two other than th book of common prayer. But even that is not shared so—
SMITH: Well and the book of—some Anglicans, believe it in some don’t, right?
It’s like, I remember Bishop at Fitz Allison used to say that every time John Spong, who was a heretic, recites the Apostles Creed, he perjures himself. You know, so they read the same words, but they don’t believe them.
YOUSSEF: And he says, well, you know, it’s your interpretation. I said, what’s your interpretation? The words are clear. So that was then, at that point, when I came here to Atlanta—here for nine years—and really for two years, the Lord kept pressing me to start a church and I really struggled in prayer. I remember some folks, a dear friends of mine, well-known leaders in evangelical world were saying to me, you’re nuts. What do you mean you’re leaving global ministry, speaking on campuses and cathedrals that are all over the world as the head of the Haggai Institute and now you’re going to start a little church in Atlanta. I mean, literally.
SMITH: Well, I should back up. You came to Atlanta because of the Haggai Institute, which many of our listeners might know. John Haggai and I think his brother Tom Haggai were involved and he did a lot all around the world in terms of leadership and especially in Christian leadership. What does it mean to be a Christian leader.
YOUSSEF: And I was a managing director of this operation for nine years. I had been used by God under his guidance to help build that ministry. In nine years we had come a long way. We quadrupled everything. And then when God began to lay this vision on my heart to start a church, and I kept saying, Lord, you know, and even my friends, people like Leighton Ford, dear people that I love. They said, what are you doing? How can you leave that to do this?
And I said, well, I don’t know and I don’t understand, but I’ve got to trust God. Now, little did I know that this little mission church that we started is going to impact the world for Christ and be on 195 countries in 26 languages. And I’ll come to that later. But at the time I said, well, I was ordained in the Anglican church. Is it possible for me to see if we start this church as an Episcopal church and therefore it will be an enormous mission field. And sure enough, in those four years—we were only there for four years—so many people came to The Church of the Apostles out of curiosity, these people who were Episcopalians but not really, did not know Jesus in a personal way. And they would come here and the Holy Spirit gets hold of them. So many of the leaders, business community leaders in this city came to the Lord in those days.
SMITH: Well, in fact, I’m from Atlanta, so I know a little bit of the history here. Many of your early members were members of the Cathedral Church here in town, Saint Phillips. Which was a very large and influential church for many decades, really, in the Atlanta area.
YOUSSEF: Well, the dean at the time—this is back in the 70s, early 70s—who was very intellectual, very liberal, but through the charismatic movement, he came to Christ, he gave his life to Christ. So he got up one Sunday and he said, well, I knew all about Christ, but I did not know him. Now I know him. And, boy, that really kind of was like throwing a bomb in the middle of the place. But many people come to Christ and I was teaching a Sunday school class there in the ‘80s, early 80s and so many of the people who are in my class have come to attend Apostles.
SMITH: Well, I wanted to sort of let you run in telling that history, Dr. Youssef, in part because again, just to reiterate your book Saving Christianity is a book about Saving Christianity from formerly Orthodox, formerly Bible-believing churches and people in movements that have slid into heterodoxy or even into heresy.
YOUSSEF: Well, do you notice the book says Saving Christianity—question mark. Because all heretics in the past and all apostate of the present, every one of them starting back when I was part of the Episcopal church, a guy named John Spong and John Spong said the reason he’s changing Christianity—basically gutting it from the Virgin birth to the resurrection, gutting Christianity—he said, I’m doing this to save it. And from that time on, even before him, there was Fosdick in New York, which I deal with quite considerably in the book. He started when he began to change the scripture and doubt on the supernatural and so forth. He said he is saving Christianity. Everyone ever since when they come to change it, water it down, modify it, tinker with it, every one of them said, “Well, it’s just not accepted anymore—all biblical Christianity. So we need to change it.”
Today, so many evangelical churches said, we need to reinvent Christianity. We need to reinvent church. And so having lived with that in the 70s and the 80s and I saw what it did to the Episcopal church and Presbyterians and now the Methodist and mainline denominations, and I’m seeing the same language is creeping into the evangelical pulpits, I began to be burdened to write this book. Out of 42 books, I consider this the most important book I’ve ever written. In fact, it is my legacy. So, the Lord can take me home tomorrow. I’ve written the book I needed to write to do two things. Hopefully that I can sound the alarm for those who are teetering about, you know, changing and following some of these young pastors who are really disarming the gospel from its supernatural. Two, the younger generation to not fall into that trap because it’s easy because it’s so popular and it’s liked by the culture and accepted by society. And we all know that temptation, every one of us including the apostle Paul, I believe, in Timothy. They understood what that temptation is. I understand what that temptation is because I was persuaded. I was offered positions. And I was thinking, but I’m going to face Jesus one day. What am I going to say to him? So having been through that temptation and overcome by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, I’m able to warn others, please don’t do this.
SMITH: Dr. Youssef, I want to drill down a little bit into the book. You named names in your book, and we’ve already talked about your story, Church of the Apostles here in Atlanta, but you also talk about another church—The church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, New York. Would you briefly recount that story?
YOUSSEF: Yes. It’s one of those things. So literally, I mean, you have to have a heart stone not to have a broken heart over it. Where there were some conservatives from that church who were kicked out by the Episcopal church wanted to buy it. But the diocese of Binghamton, New York decided to sell it for less money to a group of Muslims to turn it into a mosque than sell it to the conservative Episcopalians. It is heartbreaking and it’s happening all over the place. It’s happening. So many faithful Episcopalians have lost their properties altogether. And as you know, going all across and they’re going to courts and spending a lot of money, millions of dollars, and then losing. So this is the epitome of the bigotry. There’s people who you talk about acceptance and tolerance. In my experience in dealing with them, they’re the most bigoted people you’ll ever meet because they bigoted against Bible-believing Christians.They hate Bible-believing Christians. We don’t hate them. We love them. I used to go and hug some of these people who literally do not believe anything. Whether the leaders in the church or pastors. In fact, in the early days of this church, I would invite one-by-one to lunch and just talk to them. And I want them know that as an evangelical, I have no hatred toward them. I love them. That’s the very gospel that I preach. But nonetheless, they have exercised such hatred toward evangelicals that even a church in Northern Virginia, when they went to the Bishop and offered him $24 million for the property, he said, “No, I don’t want your money. Get out of here.” And he’s never given a dollar. They paid for it themselves, but they’re going to pay some more. Out of bitterness and anger, he kicked him out. Now that church that seats 2,000 people has less than 100 on a Sunday morning.
SMITH: So this is a phenomenon, though, that we’ve already identified as not just in the Episcopal church. It is infiltrating evangelicalism generally. We’ve already mentioned some of the progenitors of it—Henry Emerson Fosdick in the early part of the 20th century, you mentioned Bishop John Spong in the Episcopal church. You spend a little bit of time in your book also talking about Marcus Borg and the men—including Spong and Borg—that were associated with the Jesus Seminar. Can you say more about the Jesus Seminar and why that is an important sort of signpost on this slide into heterodoxy?
YOUSSEF: Absolutely. Here’s the thing. If you seat yourself in authority or in judgment on what really Jesus said or didn’t say, and the Jesus Seminar people used to vote by color. So they sit together around the table and they’ll read the gospels and say, well, did Jesus really say this or no? And then they vote with different colors—red, green, white, blue, and so on. They decide whether they really think Jesus said that or didn’t.
SMITH: So they tried to determine and their judgment from the 20th century Jesus definitely said this. Jesus might’ve said this or Jesus definitely didn’t say that kind of a thing, which really sort of flies in the face of—I mean when you are able to do that or if you think you are able to do that, then God’s word is really your word. Your word becomes God’s word.
YOUSSEF: Exactly. You are sitting in authority over God’s word. You place yourself above the word of God. That is a very dangerous thing to be. But here’s the thing N.T. Wright, who’s read by a lot of young pastors—an English bishop—he said, well, when it comes to the New Testament, we need to decide—we need to decide—when Paul speaks as the Jewish rabbi and when he speaks as the Apostle of Jesus Christ. OK, we need to decide. See, the moment you take that “we decide” then that that’s a slippery slope and there’s no way really up. It’s going to go down, down, down, down to universalism and down, down, down as we’re seeing so many evangelicals today. They start there, but it doesn’t stop there. It’s like Spurgeon used to call it the downward slide.
SMITH: Well, I think a lot of people would agree with you on—or at least a lot of my listeners—would agree with you on this. I think they might be a little surprised, some of them, to hear that you would put N.T. Wright in the same bucket as Brian McLaren and Rob Bell.
YOUSSEF: I’m not. I’m not putting them in the same bucket, but I’m saying he’s the first step that can lead to danger. And I would put him in a separate category. But, nonetheless, once you say we need to decide, that we need to decide, then you really have taken the first step on the downward direction.
SMITH: Got it. So, back to the Jesus Seminar, you’ve got Marcus Borg and you’ve got John Spong and a number of others, a number of other scholars, liberal scholars. They published a number of books among them. They were pretty influential and they impacted people like Brian McLaren, like Rob Bell, like Rachel Held Evans. You mentioned them by name in your book. Would you say a little bit more, especially about Brian McLaren—because he started out as an Orthodox evangelical pastor.
YOUSSEF: So with Rob Bell. When I met Rob Bell years ago, I said, man, thank God we have such young, strong, Bible-believing evangelicals. And they all started preaching the word to God and they all started believing the gospel as it is. And then all of a sudden, and I am not judging motives, I don’t know how to judge motives, only God knows what their motive is. All of a sudden popularity becomes more important to them in order to keep people coming, keep them filling in the pews. So they began to say, well, we don’t really know for sure and the word McLaren and this whole ilk—ambivalence, they said. Just be ambivalent about it. Well, ambivalence about some things maybe, but the very core of the gospel? Absolutely not. We’ve got nothing left if we do that. And so they all start on the right direction and then they start heading back in the wrong direction because it’s a downward spiral.
You know, I always tell the congregation, I always tell my preaching, the Christian faith is the only faith I know where you cannot stand still. You’re either going upward or you’re going to slide backward. It’s a hill. We’re going uphill. You’re going to keep going up or you slide down. Can’t stop. If you stand still, you’re going to slide down. And this was part of the problem. And, again, whatever their motive is, they start and then they become popular and then they have maybe intimidated. One mega church pastor said that one of his members came to him and quoted this atheist author. And said something about mocking the Jonah story and Noah story. And so this megachurch pastor gets up and he said, what we need to do is to get unhitched from the Old Testament—they used that word unhitched—and just focus on the resurrection. Well, if they doubt the supernatural in the Old Testament, why would they believe the supernatural in the New Testament? See the inconsistency? And the whole motive for me to write this book is to plead with these people, repent, turn back to the Lord. It’s never too late. But of course in the end we know the saved will always be saved and will come back. And if they were not saved they were pretending to be, they’re not going to come back. But at least I want the faithful elect of God to be forewarned.
SMITH: I appreciate, Dr. Youssef, your unwillingness to impute motive to these people. But it is true that some who become popular don’t succumb to this slippery slope. I mean, after all, you’re pretty popular. You’ve not succumbed to this slippery slope and others have. So, can you just briefly tell me what the difference is? If I’m a young pastor listening to you, what should I be doing to guard my heart from going off in a wrong direction?
YOUSSEF: Here’s the thing. I remember when everybody was flocking to Willow Creek and oh, they got the formula. They got the formula for bringing unbelievers into the church. Well, wait a minute. Who saves? The formula or Jesus? See, this is where at the beginning, you begin by thinking, well, the marketing program or the method is going to bring people. Method is just a tool. You use it and you throw it away. It doesn’t matter. In this church we say, I’m forever saying to the 15 pastors I have on the team, we are not a program-driven church. We’re a Bible-driven church. If the program doesn’t work, throw it out. But here’s a problem. Once you get hooked on the marketing, there’s almost like you got caught in the midst of all the animals and you just panic and you stay.
SMITH: Well and since you mentioned Willow Creek and I’m not trying to pile on here, but you know Willow Creek has had a lot of scandals recently and it seems to me at least in part what you’re saying is that when you start depending upon the program rather than depending upon Jesus, ultimately if you’re building your castle on sand, it’s going to crumble, and we’re seeing sort of the fruit of that dependence upon the wrong foundation playing out even at Willow Creek right now.
YOUSSEF: Exactly. You put your finger on it. No matter how attractive and big and enticing that castle is, sooner or later when the rain comes down and the floods come up, that castle is going to collapse and we’re seeing it. I lived in California in ‘77 and ‘78. There was no greater church or talked about church in California at the time in Los Angeles where I lived than the Crystal Cathedral. Where is the Crystal Cathedral today? By contrast, look at Moody Church. Moody Church has been going on for hundreds of years now, a hundred and plus 50 years and still there, still faithful pastor after pastor—Dr. Lutzer just retired—other faithful pastors there and stayed true. Why? The difference is one was preaching positive or possibility thinking. The other one is preaching the word of God. And for a continuation, you have to stay with the true foundation because that is what is going to keep our legacy and the next generation, next generation.
But once you build it around a marketing program or a motivational, you know that if you have some good thoughts, good things happen to you if you do this, if you do this. What that kind of false gospel does, provides a dependency on the motivational preacher. It’s almost an addiction. They want more and more and more. And as Jesus said, if you drink that water, it’s gonna make you thirsty. But if you drink the water I give, that’s his word, you will not thirst. And so I am pleading with every young pastor who would be listening to this podcast. Please stay true to the word of God. God said, I honor those who honor me and he will honor you. Just be patient.
SMITH: Dr. Youssef, in our sort of last segment here together, I’d like to pivot once again, talk about some of the solutions. We spent the first segment talking about the history of the church here and how that is provided a unique context for you to kind of be aware of and be able to articulate these issues. And then the second segment, we talked about some of the pathologies within the church. In your book and in our conversation, I’d like to turn to what some of the solutions are. You were alluding to that just a moment ago when you said, you know, honor God and that’s the firm foundation. In the book you speak specifically about the Apostle’s Creed. You spent the last third or half of your book almost really unpacking the Apostle’s Creed. First of all, why that document? Why did you pick the Apostle’s Creed as opposed to say, John 3:16, or, you know, Romans 5-8, which is packed with really dense theology. Why the Apostle’s Creed?
YOUSSEF: I can tell you that a lot of people who are not trained in seminary don’t realize that the first, second, third century church went through—excuse the expression—hell. We think that boy, the early church they were just perfect. No, it wasn’t. They had heresies right into the church. The gnostics were invading the church. So much so that so much of John’s Gospel was basically apologetics against the gnostics who believed that true knowledge you can save. And so there were many heresies. Later came on the arians and a sabellians and the nestorians and all these heresies were basically attacking the very fundamental foundation of the Christian faith.
SMITH: Well and I don’t mean to interrupt your flow here—and I don’t want to unpack all of the theological definitions of all of these words—but I wanted to at least observe and ask if you agree with this, that in some ways there’s really nothing new under the sun. That many people would say that the people we’ve talked about—Spong and Brian McLaren and Rob Bell and Rachel Held Evans—are nothing other than sort of a modern version of gnosticism.
YOUSSEF: Exactly, exactly. I say heresies are just dressed up in a nice dress, but it’s the same heresy.
SMITH: To go back in and let you continue, the reason that then the Apostle’s Creed becomes so important is because it became the document in which the church fathers came together and said, we are going to put these heresies to rest. We are going to make a clear and definitive statement that distinguishes biblical Orthodox Christianity from all of these heresies.
YOUSSEF: Now you said it. That’s it. You have put your finger on it. The whole reason why they said we got to come up with something that everyone can understand, comprehend, a summary of the faith, because remember not everybody was literate and not everybody was educated and not everybody could read the Bible. Even though the Bible is translated into seven languages by the fifth century. Nonetheless, not everybody could read, so they came up with this Apostle’s Creed. What did the Apostles believe? And the summary of it is in the Apostle’s Creed: I believe in God the father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. And then goes on to Jesus Christ, his one and only son, begotten son and the Holy Spirit, the universal church, a church of God around the world, the elect of God is the Bible calls it. And so it’s a summary of the Christian faith. The Nicene Creed came later in 325 I believe in the city of Nicea in Turkey. And you know, here’s one of the interesting tidbits that out of the 300 people who attended—the bishops and the pastors, church leaders attended, there were only 12 of the 300 who were whole in body. Some came with broken legs, broken arms, missing eyes, all been tortured for their faith.
And it was Bishop of Alexandria by the name of Athanasius. He’s one of my great heroes because he fought arianism tooth and nail in Alexandria, which was the center of Christianity at the time. And they came up, we have the Athanasius Creed. It’s another creed, but it’s much bigger, much more involved, much more detailed. And so they distilled the Apostle’s Creed as a summary. So a person can stand up and say, I believe. Earlier you said something about Spong was perjuring himself or all these Episcopalians that are—97% of the clergy in the Episcopal church do not believe in the literal creed, believe it or not.
SMITH: Well, even though they recite it. So I guess part of the lesson there is that just because you know it, just because you’ve memorized it, just because you can say, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and in Jesus,” you know and so on. That’s not a protection, necessarily.
YOUSSEF: And that’s why I unpack it because it was like, Oh yeah, yeah, I believe in God the Father, some god out there. It’s not personal god and I believe Jesus. Yeah. He came and he gave us a role model but then he died on the cross and his body was thrown out and consumed by the animals, wild animals. I mean, stuff like that where they say, yeah, I believe, but say resurrected, well, his spirit resurrected. I have had those debates. I have the scars to show them. And I know exactly how they kind of take all of that out of context. Yeah, we’re saying it. It’s like, I remember a preacher one time kept talking about the risen Christ. The risen Christ in Episcopal church. I sat with him the following week. I said, well, you keep talking about the risen Christ. You told me he never rose from the dead. He said, but his spirit rose to heaven.
SMITH: Well, and of course that’s a hallmark of gnosticism, right, where you separate the historical incarnational reality from this idea, this sort of special knowledge. Let me kind of push a little bit more on some of these ideas, Dr. Youssef. You sort of claim kin, if you will, in this book with a J. Gresham Machen who said—he fought progressivism in the early part of the 20th century and he went so far as to say that there really is no such thing as a liberal Christianity or a progressive Christianity. That it’s really not Christianity. It’s something else. Can you say more?
YOUSSEF: Exactly. And in fact, there’s a book out there called Unholy Rage where the author said, she said, our goal, she’s a progressive Christian, is nothing short of overthrowing Christianity. And I said, well, thank God for your honesty. At least you’re being honest. Most of them try not to be and speak with both sides of their mouth. But that’s a problem. You see, there is no such thing as liberal Christianity. In fact, many times I don’t use the word liberal because to me they are heretics. To me they are apostate. If you don’t affirm the scripture as the infallible, authoritative, verbally-inspired word of God, then you are not preaching Christianity. You’re preaching something else and that is really is going to be the dividing. And we seeing it now. God has seemed to be separating the sheep from the goats and people are sitting in churches for years and they said, Oh, well wait a minute. They’re waking up. And I think the Lord is preparing the elect. He’s preparing his church. I really believe that. And as apostasy began to spread around the world, it’s not just here. I saw the other day a picture of 20 religious leaders with their garb opening and dedicating an abortion clinic. They’re wearing their clerical garb and the scarf and they’re praying. Well, I don’t know who they’re praying to, but dedicating an abortion clinic. So, we are seeing now the line of demarcation has become so clear and the choice is so clear. I give this illustration often it’s like in the 50s where everybody went to church and particularly in the South, you know, the boat was parked at the pier. But then with the 60s coming in and then the 70s and certainly today, we’re seeing that boat is leaving the pier and anyone who has one foot in each place is going to be in a world of hurt because that boat is leaving the pier and it’s time for men and women, boys and girls of God to stand up and take a stand.
SMITH: What do you want your legacy to be?
YOUSSEF: Well, my legacy, I pray to God, would be that he was unwavering in his faith in Jesus and in the gospel of Jesus as it is once delivered without modifying it, watering it down, or compromising it. That is the greatest thing that could be said of me after I’m gone. But I’m also training young leaders here so that in this church at least—I know my son is preaching on a regular basis at one of the services and that we have two or three others who are being are being trained and pouring myself into because I want to see the next generation, at least in this church anyway, to take that same stance for their future generation. I’m going to be 72 this year and I’m telling you I never looked back and said, oh to be 50 again. I have never had a year that I want to go back to. I enjoy every year God gives me. I work as hard as I can every year. I cannot understand it and I guess I will not understand it until I get to heaven, why do I have more energy at almost 72 than I did when I was 52? But all the credit—110 percent of it—goes to God.
SMITH: Well, Dr. Youssef, thank you so much for letting me visit with you here today. Thank you for your faithfulness. Thank you for this church. It’s great to be in this church again or in this building again.
YOUSSEF: Thank you so much.