Shameful history of anti-gay megachurch Hillsong as disgraced founder resigns amid misconduct claims
The founder of Hillsong megachurch, Brian Houston, has resigned after investigations reported that he engaged in inappropriate conduct of “serious concern”.
Until Wednesday (23 March) Houston was global senior pastor of the church, which he founded with his wife Bobbie in 1983.
Last week, the church released a statement in it confirmed it was “sadly” dealing with two complaints made against Houston, and that they were being “treated extremely seriously.”
One incident took place around 10 years ago, when Houston sent “inappropriate text messages” to a female staff member.
Hillsong said: “At the time, pastor Brian was under the influence of sleeping tablets, upon which he had developed a dependence.
“He immediately apologised to the person. We also worked closely with pastor Brian to ensure he received professional help to eliminate his dependency on this medication, and this was achieved successfully.”
The second took place in 2019, the church said: “It was found that pastor Brian became disoriented after a session at the Hillsong Conference, following the consumption of anti-anxiety medication beyond the prescribed dose, mixed with alcohol.
“This resulted in him knocking on the door of a hotel room that was not his, entering this room and spending time with the female occupant.”
Investigations were carried out by Hillsong’s “integrity unit appointed by the global board”, and found that Houston “had breached the Hillsong pastor’s code of conduct”.
The revelations about Houston’s conduct come at a time when the church leader is already embroiled in scandal – just last year, he was charged with covering up child sex abuse committed by his father, Frank Houston. He has denied it, and in October, his lawyer confirmed he would plead not guilty in court.
Announcing Houston’s resignation on Wednesday, Hillsong said: “Hillsong Church was birthed out of Brian and [his wife and co-founder] Bobbie’s obedience and commitment to the call of God and we are extremely grateful for all that Brian and Bobbie have given to build his house. We ask that you continue to pray for them, and the entire Houston family, during this challenging time.”
Who is Brian Houston?
Brian Houston, 68, was born in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1954.
In 1978, he moved to New South Wales, Australia, with his wife Bobbie Houston to become assistant pastor at his father’s church – Christian Life Centre.
In 1983, Houston started his own church, Hills Christian Life Centre, with just 45 members, although its congregation grew to 900 within four years.
By 1999, the popularity of Houston’s church had far outpaced his father’s, and he merged the two, rebranding the now large, two-campus church as Hillsong.
Hillsong now has around 150,000 members worldwide, and its hipster, concert-style services have made the megachurch a hit with millenials and celebrities, including Justin Beiber, Kanye West and Kylie Jenner.
It has expanded to include not only its 80 churches in 21 countries, but also conferences, films, a Bible college with three different campuses, music groups like Hillsong Worship, Hillsong United, Hillsong Kids, and Hillsong Young & Free, and even a TV channel, the Hillsong Channel.
What does Hillsong believe about LGBT+ people?
For many years, Hillsong evaded the question of its stance on LGBT+ people, but in 2013, Brian Houston, which preaching in the UK, addressed what he called “the gay situation”.
He said he was working to align “the world and the times we live in, the weight we live with, and the word we live by”.
The sermon seemed tentatively positive towards LGBT+ people, but in 2015, Houston published a blog post called “Do I Love Gay People?”
He wrote that while he “loves and cares” about all people, “I also live by my own convictions, and hold to traditional Christian thought on gay lifestyles and gay marriage. I do believe God’s word is clear that marriage is between a man and a woman.
“The writings of the apostle Paul in scripture on the subject of homosexuality are also clear… Hillsong Church welcomes ALL people but does not affirm all lifestyles.”
In practice, he said, this meant that LGBT+ people were welcome to come to Hillsong, but they would never be allowed to hold leadership positions.
Houston added: “Can you take an active leadership role? No.
“This won’t make everyone happy and to some, this stance may even be seen as hypocritical. We are a gay welcoming church but we are not a church that affirms a gay lifestyle.”
In her paper “Rise Up Warrior Princess Daughters’: Is Evangelical Women’s Submission a Mere Fairy Tale?”, published in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Marion Maddox paints a picture of Hillsong as a place where sex and gender are strictly binary, and describes the church as “an intensely homophobic environment”.
“Within the framework of heteronormativity, Hillsong emphasizes gender complementarity, with men’s and women’s roles sharply differentiated according to standard gender stereotypes,” she wrote.
“Hillsong demands compulsory heterosexuality.”
Hillsong conversion therapy claims
Gay former pastor Anthony Venn-Brown, who ministered at Hills Christian Life Centre, now works with LGBT+ people from Evangelical backgrounds and founded Ambassadors and Bridge Builders International (ABBI), which works with churches to become LGBT-affirming.
In a research paper on Hillsong and the “ex-gay” movement, Venn-Brown discusses what seems to be the first record of anti-LGBT+ sentiment surrounding Hillsong.
In 1986, Sy Rogers, “former homosexual” and then president of the ex-gay organisation Exodus, was invited to preach at Frank Houston’s Christian Life Centre. In the months afterwards, an ex-gay ministry was formed at Christian Life Centre called Exit.
When the merge between Christian Life Centre and Hills Christian Life Centre took place and Houston rebranded the church as Hillsong, Exit was closed down.
But one former pastor is reported to have told Venn-Brown this wasn’t because they didn’t believe in conversion, but allegedly because they were worried that gathering too many ex-gays together would result in an avalanche of hook-ups.
His paper quotes Andrew, who was involved with children’s ministry at Hillsong in the early 2000s, and told leadership about his attraction to men when he was 20 years old.
“My world instantly collapsed. Leadership asked me to leave the worship team. I was asked not to tell anyone and as a result I became incredibly isolated in my sin,” Andrew said.
“I sobbed most of those days. I felt numb. I feared that this sense of evilness and isolation would never end. My friends of 10 plus years were not able to offer support or love because they were kept totally in the dark.
“I was encouraged to exercise to enhance my masculinity, we prayed the demons off my back and I was sent to an outside minister for counselling who had a specialisation in homosexuality and more earth shatteringly for me child sex offenders.
“I felt evil beyond words. I felt demons crawling all over my body and the depths of despair cannot be described here in this speech. The identity I had curated within God’s eyes had vanished overnight.”
In the years that followed, multiple LGBT+ former Hillsong members spoke out about being referred to conversion counsellors and ex-gay programmes, and some of these programmes claimed to have good relationships with Hillsong.
In 2011, Houston banned referrals to ex-gay or conversion therapy counsellors, and in 2015 Hillsong International Leadership College removed its ban on homosexuality in its code of ethics.
Venn-Brown wrote that while he believes Hillsong will eventually become genuinely LGBT-affirming, it won’t happen any time soon.
“No matter how innovative or progressive Hillsong claims to be it is not ready for that seismic cultural shift,” he wrote.
“In the end though, it will take courage, humility and leadership. Humility to say we were wrong, and we are sorry for the harm we’ve caused. Leadership that takes the movement on a fresh path, and courage, to stand strong no matter what the backlash and weather the inevitable storm. If Alan Chambers, who was the President of the largest “ex-gay” organisation in the world can do it, so can Hillsong.
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