A few years ago I attended a massive four-day conference at one of the largest churches in the nation. Its focus was to encourage and train church staff. Pastors and ministers from thousands of churches throughout the country come to this conference and soak up all there is to learn. The pastor of the hosting church is one of those celebrity-level preachers. If I told you his name, you'd likely know about him. In fact, you have probably heard him teach on the radio, TV, or Internet. He's an incredibly talented speaker. He is not only the pastor of the church that hosted the conference, but he's the main speaker for the conference itself.
Night three of the conference was impressive as always. The worship band was flawless. The lights were mesmerizing. The service was intense. The pastor began his talk with a round of funny illustrations. As he settled into the meat of his presentation, I became transfixed by his powerful rhetorical style. Though, about three-quarters of the way through the talk, he made a reference that clung to my mind for the rest of the night.
He read a few verses from First John. The way he explained the passage gave me an uncomfortable feeling. The impression I got was that he believed a person might not be saved if he doesn't love his brother. He didn't explicitly say that, but it was a possible implication. He left it vague enough that no one seemed to be bothered, except me.
As the service came to an end and the enormous crowd began filing out, I was swept up in the flow, though I couldn't shake the internal tension I was feeling. Was the pastor saying a person might not be saved if they don't love, or wasn't he? I had settled the theological matter for myself years earlier, and as much as anything I wanted to know what this famous pastor thought.
I stood along the curb at the front of the sanctuary considering the night when I remembered a man who could help. I had met a staff member named Todd before the service had begun. We had conversed for a few seconds as the lights dimmed. I knew there was no hope of getting a meeting with the celebrity pastor to discuss this issue. As far as I knew he didn't field questions from random attendees after his sermons. However, I thought I might be able to catch Todd for a quick talk. I turned and headed back into the building trying to spot my earlier acquaintance. I returned to the sanctuary and was surprised.
Standing in front of the stage was the pastor, the head cheese, the big kahuna. I totally forgot about Todd and set my sights on the main man. He had a crowd of people around getting selfies and chatting him up. I sped down to the front and began squeezing my way through the crowd of feverish fans. I waited my turn as the pastor's bodyguard eyed me. He sized me up, apparently determining that I was no threat.
A middle-aged couple snapped a selfie with #bestpreacher and then my time came. My heart was beating fast because I knew I had only a few seconds to get my question answered. I didn't want to bumble or maim my intent. I turned the question over in my mind a dozen times in the seconds before I shook his hand and thanked him for his talk. Then I plied my inquiry.
"Based on your sermon, I'm wondering: Can a person have eternal life even if they don't do a good job of loving one another?” I said. I'm guessing he wasn't excited about receiving a semi-barbed theological question from a stranger as dozens of selfie seekers watched expectantly. I did not mean the question as a trap. I merely wanted to know what the most successful pastor in America thought on the subject.
He replied with a surprisingly honest answer. He said, "I don't know." I was stunned. Here was the pastor of the largest church in the nation (at the time), trained at one of the most respected evangelical seminaries, speaking to forty thousand congregants a week, and thousands more online, and he can say, "I don't know." I found his honesty refreshing, but at the same time, the admission was disturbing. He went on by saying, "I believe in eternal security, but First John is brutal to those who don't love their brothers. So, I don't know the answer to that."
The conversation lasted for another 18 seconds as I thanked him and stepped out of the way for the next person to grab a selfie. His bodyguard finally removed his burning stare from the side of my smoking head. I stepped away trying to take in what I had just experienced. I had received an answer which made sense of the sermon. The pastor had been intentionally vague on the subject because he wasn't sure whether a person who habitually misbehaves could actually be saved. He was admitting some confusion on this incredibly vital subject. I went back to the hotel that night trying to digest what this meant.