Mountain out of a Hemphill, II

Well, I guess I should have a strong opinion about this Joel Hemphill kerfuffle, but honestly I find it difficult to get overly worked up about it. The best I can tell, Hemphill is coming from the general vicinity of Oneness Pentecostalism, which certainly is unorthodox compared to mainstream Protestantism, but is just one subspecies of overwrought exegesis and scriptural hairsplitting common to poorly trained theological thinkers that amounts to not much. When you go with the priesthood of the believer, you’ve got to be prepared to deal with this sort of thing, and unlike so many of the hand-wringers who worry about Hemphill’s “dangerous” thinking, I don’t think the fact that he wrote and sang some popular gospel songs 20 years ago gives his ideas any more or less weight than unorthodox views are typically given in conservative Christianity.

That said, there seem to be two points worth making.

One: from what I can gather, Hemphill didn’t arrive overnight at this conclusion about Jesus not being God in flesh. His view may not exactly coincide with Oneness theology, but as far as I can tell, he’s been moving in Oneness circles for quite some time now. A lot of people seem shocked and personally offended to find this out, acting as if they’ve been duped by a guy who led them to believe he was “just like us” all this time. But if people are put off by suddenly having learned about Hemphill’s affiliation with Oneness theology (or its derivatives, where Hemphill’s ideas seem to belong), that’s as much on them as Professor Hemphill himself. If what a singer or songwriter believes is so important to you, do your homework.

Which gets us to the second point: enjoying, liking, performing, or buying someone’s creative productions doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with everything the creator thinks, says, or does. People have enjoyed Hemphill’s songs for decades, before they knew about his theological leanings, and yet read the reactions to Hemphill’s book and you’ll see a number of commenters suddenly calling into question their appreciation of Hemphill’s music in light of his theology. This is a not quite a classic example of the intentional fallacy, but it’s in the same neighborhood.

Once an author or artist releases his work to the world, the meanings, reactions, and functions that build up around it are determined by the listening, reading, watching, interacting individual. At best, the author can be said to shape or intend meanings. To say that you can no longer enjoy Joel Hemphill’s songs because of Joel Hemphill’s theology is not just to deprive yourself of some really fine gospel music, but to invalidate the authenticity of your own experience and your capacity for making meaning.

You may want your favorite songwriters or performers to share your views, but this is at best a useful fiction, at worst a lazy fantasy. If it was more common knowledge how much of gospel music is the work of skeptics, agnostics, homosexuals, doubters, drinkers (social, casual, and otherwise), liberals, apostates, people who say shit and damn on a regular basis, and other varieties of outcasts and pariahs in the view of orthodox evangelicalism, your average southern gospel fan would probably be horrified … or else delighted to realize they’re not the only one.

The fact that southern gospel is full of garden variety human beings and worldviews shouldn’t be that surprising. And I assume that the standard-issue replies in situations like these - “Well, just goes to prove God can use anybody,” for instance – are a way of acknowledging that humanity even if officially it must be condemned. But acknowledging isn’t the same as dealing meaningfully with it, and when outsiders disparage southern gospel as sanctimoniously self-delusional in cases like these, it’s hard to deny that they have a point.

Mind you, none of this should be construed as a defense of theological Hemphillism (besides, I get the impression Hemphill’s main “sin” here is to have gone so far to the right theologically that he looks left). I haven’t read the book, don’t plan to, and probably wouldn’t find it terribly interesting even if I did. But, insofar as Hemphill’s unorthodox views on the trinity disrupt the idea of southern gospel as somehow theologically purer or otherwise reassuringly homogenous than other forms of religious experience or culture, it helpfully exerts a corrective force on some self-indulgent myths.

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  1. Ward Hodges wrote:

    Could not agree with you more. Does this speak as well to our wanton desire to place people on a pedestal and worship? Not that we would ever say so publicly of course, but folks reactions to situations like these seem to make that point as well. Well said.

  2. John wrote:

    My sentiments exactly, Doug.

    Maybe this post will be the much needed “chill pill” that so many who are inclined to make such an issue out of this story need to swallow.

  3. CVH wrote:

    A perceptive analysis and right on. I’m curious to see how disillusioning or antagonizing people will find the sixth paragraph:

    ‘You may want your favorite songwriters or performers to share your views, but this is at best a useful fiction, at worst a lazy fantasy. If it was more common knowledge how much of gospel music is the work of skeptics, agnostics, homosexuals, doubters, drinkers (social, casual, and otherwise), liberals, apostates, people who say shit and damn on a regular basis, and other varieties of outcasts and pariahs in the view of orthodox evangelicalism, your average southern gospel fan would probably be horrified … or else delighted to realize they’re not the only one.’

    For nearly thirty years that’s been my experience in CCM and SGM and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The notion that, somehow, ‘Christian’ writers, artists, musicians and entertainers live on a higher plane and/or that God can’t or doesn’t use people as described above, is foolish. God has always used flawed people to accomplish his work. To think otherwise is a useful fiction indeed.

  4. Tony Watson wrote:

    For me the issue is not about Hemphill’s career or lack thereof. His influence on the SG world at large has been minimal for almost 20 years. However, he does preach and sing a lot around the country and there may be churches who would invite him in to speak who do so because of his body of work and not realize that his theology may differ radically from theirs.

    The issue is this heretical theology which denies the Deity of Christ. That is a BIG deal, but it affects those who he has preached to since his arrival at this conclusion and those he preaches to since. For me, it’s no bigger or lesser of a deal than for other heretical doctrines being preached by other preachers and evangelists such as Word of Faith movement. Both doctrines are heretical in the way the Holy Spirit has interpreted scriptures for me. There are others, certainly, but you get the idea.

    Does this deride the body of work as far as the songs Joel Hemphill has written? Not necessariily. Though I may look at little more critical at the lyrical content of his songs from this point forward, I would still sing them if I found them worthy and truthful.

    I don’t know what denomination Joel has had any affiliation with in the past, but I was thinking it might be Assemblies of God. If that’s the case, he would be out of line with their view of Christ as Deity.

  5. FW wrote:


    Honestly, I have to agree with your 6th paragraph as well…adding to your list Masons and “actors”.

    How can a truly born-again believer be in the Masonic Lodge? A great question. But there are a LOT of SG guys in it…you would be very surprised to see some of the big names that think they are “enlightened”.

    And actors? You bet. They play the game around the Christian crowd…but see them “off the bus” and you would see that they serve other gods.

  6. wackythinker wrote:

    Doug, you’re right — God DOES use flawed people. Look at Abraham, Moses, and David, just to name a few. It still happens today.

    Many people were saved or encouraged by ministers, whose lives were later found to be flawed (drunks, womanizers, thieves, et al). Does that make those peoples’ salvation any less valid? No! God said He would honor His Word.

    I am thinking of a CCM songwriter from 25-30 years ago, who was very popular in some circles — recorded by Evie and several others of that era. He was from a Jewish heritage, and although he acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, he could not bring himself to a personal relationship or public confession, as that would acknowledge his non-believing father’s condemnation to hell. That doesn’t make his Christian songs any less valid.

    As long as there’s nothing in the songs that contradict your own theology, I’m not sure it matters whether it was the holiest holy Christian person you know or the author of the worst cheatin-and-drinkin’ songs you know. We should ALLOW God to honor His Word.

  7. Bubba wrote:

    Avery said…”When you go with the priesthood of the believer, you’ve got to be prepared to deal with this sort of thing”

    What??? Priesthood of the believer means you need no other intercessor beween you and God. It is not a license to mangle the Word of God and say well that’s what it means to me.

    FW……..LOL you’ve done it now! LOL

  8. Edie wrote:

    Wow. Great post…I could not agree more. I think the southern gospel industry has suffered from the fans’ right-to-know-everything-about-my-favorite-singer mentality because it forces imperfect people into other forms of music and often leaves us with the more perfect (acting), and therefore more bland, leftovers.

  9. Leebob wrote:

    FW - Please stay on subject or you will be asked to go to the back of the class.

    Doug, my issue with Hemphill is that I would like to make sure his theology isn’t intermingled with his songs. It is a ggod thing in that once again my own thinking is being refined.

    Most of the posts on Hemphill I are in regards to the actual thinking itself and the ramifications of his presupposition. How it affects his “career” is a mute point. Obviously the theology, or lack thereof, hasn’t affected Joel Osteen nor should we expect it too as much of society is more concerned with having their ears tickled and told what to think than in investigating to discover what is right. (i.e. Oprah)

    Much like SG, I suspect that right thinking in theology is in the minority. I was actually pleasantly surprised to see the number of people who offered scripture, accurately no less, to counter what Mr. Hemphill proposes.

    Finally, it isn’t that singers have to have the exact beliefs as I do. However, as a Christian, I do expect them to be accurate on MAJOR points of doctrine, especially as it relates to salvation. I have said this probably 20 or more times on here: it is all about style vs. substance. This falls on the side of substance.

  10. BUICK wrote:

    If the musicians will come and start to play softly; while every head is bowed and every eye is closed, reach out to that person on your theological left and the one on your theological right, join hands and together start to hum “Kum-Bah-Yah”.

    Doug wrote: “Well, I guess I should have a strong opinion about this Joel Hemphill kerfuffle, but honestly I find it difficult to get overly worked up about it.”

    Seems as if this is the call for us to disregard our differences and join in harmony even if we can’t be in unity.

    I guess I am a discordant note. This is not about angels and pinheads. This is about THE most basic doctrine in Christianity. (Which is why it is called CHRISTianty and not Jesusianity or Godianity or anything else.

    Jesus said that if you’ve seen him, you’ve seen the Father. He said he and the Father are one. He said he was God in the flesh. If he isn’t, he’s a liar and should not be followed or adored.

    If Jesus IS God, the Joel Hemphill is a blasphemer. If Jesus IS NOT God, then I am a blasphemer.

    So Doug, you have trouble getting “overly worked up” about the deity/divinity of Jesus. I have trouble understanding why not. This is a big deal. This is a really big deal.

  11. Alan wrote:

    I’m trying to figure out which was more depressing to read - the article itself or some of the comments. As per usual, the article was well-written, a lovely job of stringing words together. And, there were points in it with which I agree. But, if we ever doubted just how dumbed-down the church is in these days when emotion and the show have replaced substance, this should remove all doubt. That something so basically fundamental, necessary, and critically important as the deity of Christ is just “kerfuffle” and not worth getting all that worked up over…it’s just powerfully sad.

  12. Ward Hodges wrote:

    The issue is not, “not getting worked up over the diety of Christ.” That, we should get worked up over. Doug’s point, it seemed to me was, does this some how taint Hemphill’s music in particular, or SG in general?

  13. plano wrote:

    Could it be semantics?
    I agree Christ was the Word, was with God etc… from the beginning, same substance as God, all the rest.
    However - I believe they are separate. I do not believe that makes me believe Christ is a non-diety.
    A couple of thoughts: when asked when He would return, Christ said (paraphrasing here) that no one knew but the Father. Also, if Christ IS God, then who was He praying to in the Garden, that the Cup be passed from Him if possible— but He submitted to the Father’s will. Lastly, was it not the Father who raised the Son from the dead?
    My point is not so much to argue one way or the other the Trinity but to say that its possible that God is the Father and supreme but Christ is still “God” in essence.

  14. BUICK wrote:

    If WardHodges (#12) has correctly framed the question, then I could not care (much) less about Hemphill’s music. I can evaluate the lyrics and the music for myself. Some of Kirk Talley’s music can still minister, even that which was written while he was a struggling/practicing homosexual. King David’s psalms were inspired even though all of his actions were not. JH’s music may be theologically sound, in the limited scope covered by a single song, even if he is not theologically sound. There is no reason for all of JH’s music to end up out back in a puddle of bathwater.

    And does it taint SG in general? I wouldn’t know why…anymore than his heresy taints all of Louisiana.

    So, if the issue is, should we start burning his music, records, 8-tracks and cassettes? No. And if I went off on a tangent, I ask the forgiveness of the AVFL community. I honestly thought I was on-topic.

  15. BUICK wrote:

    And, BTW, since God could speak to Balaam through an ass, He can speak to us through JH’s. But, in Balaam’s case, that didn’t change the nature of the instrument through which God spoke and, in the case of JH, the fact that he can write a song about a Gospel Ship does not change the nature of his heresy about the identity of Jesus of Nazareth.

  16. quartet-man wrote:

    #4 Tony and #10 Buick, great posts.

  17. Joe wrote:

    No, Ward-

    Please re-read what Alan has written, and what Doug has said.

    Whether or not this affects his music or our continued appreciation of same, can probably be considered a moot point.

    Doug has basically made this a non-issue, and many of the posters so far have agreed with him.

    THIS is what is so tragic. If there is not a Trinity, and if Christ was not God manifest in the flesh, then we are all sunk. We are helpless, hopeless, unransomed, unredeemed, unsaved, unforgiven, unreconciled, and unadopted. Our eternity is as dark and foreboding as it has ever been.

    And if so many who profess to be Christians actually can minimize this issue, then, as Alan wrote, the church has been so dumbed-down, it doesn’t know the difference between pure heresy and someone’s “personal theology”.

    This is way more than sad. It’s scary.

  18. Nonsgfan wrote:

    The proof of the downfall of modern christianity, is that people can say phrases like “i’m not getting worked up about it”, and really mean it. It REALLY doesn’t bother alot of people that Joel Hemphill denies Christ. It REALLY isnt a big deal to so many. The modernist view of “UNITY” is this……… “All you old folgies give up your beliefs and let openness reign instead of tradition”. That’s not unity, that’s chaos. You NEEEVER hear a modernist Christian say, “We’re going to give up our easy believism and ‘open-mindedness’, to succom to your traditionalists thinking”. Joel Hemphill is SOOOO wrong, and all of you Joel Osteen Christians aren’t bothered because you have no CORE foundation of beliefs. Your beliefs are based on “a better life”, or “better thinking”, or “a positive confession”. But there are no absolutes, no sure foundation. You FEAST at the table of “Relativism”, what may be right to me, may not be right to you. Whats wrong to you may not be wrong to me. In the words of my granny. “If it’s wrong for me to drink boy, it’s wrong for you too”. ANND to bring it to today… In the words of Ravi Zacharias..

    “How can you say there are ABSOLUTELY no ABSOLUTES”.

    Hemphill will go to hell if he doesn’t accept Christ as the son of the living God.
    Just because God will “USE” somebody doesn’t mean they are saved. He used Cyrus, Pharoah, Judas, and he’ll use the antichrist too. None of which are “saved” or Godly.

  19. Woody wrote:

    It’s a sad day when so many professed Christians (Douglas included) can not find it in themselves to be offended by blatant heresy.

  20. Ward Hodges wrote:

    # 17 - Joe

    Ok, I’ve followed your advice and re-read. I still think the doctrine is not the point of the post. Doug, says specificaly he’s making two points and neither of them are defending nor excusing JH’s heresy. And yes, it’s heresy; yes I’m offended; and yes, he should be called out on it. So, please don’t be sad for me. I’m not some willing to sacrafice truth on the altar of unity. Again, the question (statement) seemed to be more of how this affects the music and our perception of it. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s not necessary to expound further on the deity of the Lord Jesus. Send those posts to JH.

  21. Janet wrote:

    A cult has been described as any belief system that denies the diety of Christ. Pretty simple. It seems fairly obvious that Oneness Penecostalism and/or Hemphillism belong in that category. That’s very dangerous water to be swimming in.
    As far as separating the message from the messenger, it’s a fine line, (my apologies to the moderator!), the discussion of which could go on all day. Wouldn’t that be fun?
    I live in a part of the country that witnessed the beginnings of the Mormon church. A few years ago, a new Mormon temple was built in the area & the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performed for its dedication. Because of acts of kindness shown to their ancestors 100 years ago, the Choir also performed a benefit concert in the town that I live in as a thank you. My sister & I took our mother to the concert - it was breathtaking. Am I even close to being a Mormon? NO! However, I am secure enough in my faith & belief system to be able to appreciate a performance for what it is, without getting sucked into an abhorrent theology.
    Then again, I’m not your average girl!

  22. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    The comments here are following a fairly predictable path.

    If the lyrics of Hemphill’s songs are sound, there’s no reason to discard them. The revelation of his beliefs can cause you to look at them in a different light, though.

    My choir was rehearsing “Jesus Built This Church On Love” this past Sunday…pure coincidence…and I glanced at the byline…hmm…Joel Hemphill. Seems like a good song to me…then I saw the line “trying to row in a different way” and I wonder what he meant by that.

    Still, whatever he meant doesn’t change what I believe the song means. A songwriter, as Doug has said in his fourth paragraph, doesn’t define how the song will be taken.

    On the other hand, if a singer/songwriter/preacher or whatever is making no secret of their unorthodox beliefs, writing books to further that view and then defending those views on the internet, etc., they should naturally expect Christians to denounce their views.

    I don’t see how a Christian who has studied scripture and believes it to be true can just *shrug* about this notion Hemphill is laying out there.

    Jesus was God. It’s not mere semantics.

    Are any of you old enough to remember all the kerfuffle over Michael English’s fall from grace? Imagine how much greater the uproar would have been had he gone on the internet and said, “And furthermore, adultery isn’t a sin. That only applied in the Old Testament.”

    I think some Christians delight in their own cleverness to the point that they sometimes get confused. When scripture is as clear as freshly Windexed plate glass on an issue, they’ll pat themselves on the back when they manage to pull seemingly contradictory scriptures together. Sometimes, they don’t keep those theories to themselves, and they dig a deeper hole when they try to defend their wrong opinion rather than admitting scripture is clear on the issue.

    That’s what Hemphill has done in this case.

  23. BUICK wrote:

    DBM, well said, clear, cogent and not vitriolic. Thanks!

  24. Aaron Swain wrote:

    I find it interesting that the first verse of his newest song, Gold City’s “I Cast My Bread Upon The Water,” says: “Well I picked up the Good Book, and took me a long look. I believe in each and every part.”

    Each and every part? I guess he missed the part about God The Father, God The Spirit, and God The Son.

  25. Edie wrote:

    Hey Aaron,

    Joel Hemphill’s “newest song” was on a live Hemphill project in the ’80’s and also on Candy’s first solo record. It’s an old song, but a good one!

  26. quartet-man wrote:

    David, I’m not much youger than you and I remember. He got flack for saying he had made mistakes instead of saying sin.

  27. Dan K wrote:

    This is not an issue of whether Mr. Hemphill writes or sings songs, while denying the deity of Jesus Christ.
    This is really a symptom of what the Bible called “a falling away in the last days.” How ANYONE could claim to serve God, and proclaim His good news, while denying God’s word, is amazingly unbelievable and destructive.
    I, for one, cannot promote this lifestyle, or the lifestyle of people such as Ray Boltz who similiarly has chosen to turn from Christ and return to sin.
    This is NOT right, no matter how you try to gloss it or justify it with flashy words or ideologies.
    In Southern speak, you can put all kinds of make-up on it, but if it is a pig, it is a pig.

  28. paul moore wrote:

    in responce to post #21, nice to know im in a cult. i did not know that . i feel so enlightened now thanks so much.

  29. Elaine wrote:

    Just learning about Joel Hemphill from a person who has decided to be swayed by his teaching not his music. I find no reason to be swayed myself by his music or his teachings. Nor would I for anyone so persuaded of their superiority to the brethren of faith who have the Spirit of Christ in them the hope of Glory.

  30. Chris wrote:

    I get a bit annoyed by those who look down on other Christians who challenge long-held assumptions. Mr. Hemphill is trying to get across that the early church was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy which already had a doctrine of a trinity. Some of the early church fathers brought the ideas of Plato and Socrates into Christian thought and it influenced doctrine.

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