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MOCKINGBIRD: The Shaky Theology of a Hyper Grace Movement

MOCKINGBIRD: The Shaky Theology of a Hyper Grace Movement

By David W. Virtue, DD
January 8, 2019

Within Christendom, any number of movements have arisen over time that on the surface appear orthodox, but on further and deeper examination miss the mark.

One movement that is gaining some traction is Mockingbird, a loosely knit group of Episcopal clergy that highlights grace as the defining message for today's post-Christian youth.


Although the organization claims no denominational affiliation, David Zahl (son of Rev. Dr. Paul Zahl) is an Episcopalian and licensed lay preacher, serving on the staff of Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. He founded Mockingbird with the help of Jacob Smith, an associate priest at Calvary -- St. George's in Manhattan. The Episcopal Church has embraced this movement and has given it financial support. Mockingbird raises some $360,000 a year to support a staff of four.

The mentor of this movement is The Rev. Dr. Paul Zahl, a conservative Episcopal priest and former president of Trinity School for Ministry, (Ambridge) and a former priest at All Saints, Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase. Mockingbird's website claims to average about 70,000 unique visitors a month.

According to David Zahl, "Mockingbird was started in 2007 in NYC, by a bunch of friends and colleagues who were interested in reaching out to young adults who had been "burned by the church. Many of us had grown up in mainline churches and had watched our friends drift away, or in some cases, get pushed away. We noticed that many of them ended up in New York, a place we love (my hometown). Anyway, it soon morphed into something else altogether, something much more exciting and larger in scope."

A blurb from their website says Mockingbird is a non-profit organization devoted to connecting the message of God's grace with the realities of everyday life in fresh and creative ways. "We do this primarily, but not exclusively, via online resources (www.mbird.com), publications and conferences."


Zahl, the elder, was once an influential Episcopalian, a former seminary president, and a parish priest at All Saints, Chevy Chase, Md. before he suddenly dropped out of sight, abandoning his friends and moving to Florida where he has remained largely anonymous and absent from the Episcopal Culture Wars.

In a video, Zahl explained what he had done and the motivation behind it. "When the Church became divided over homosexuality...I began to feel the theological acrimony was in fact a part of what was taking me away from the deepest commitment when I entered this Christian world."

Zahl wrote a book about grace that did not reflect on any problems, focusing only on the power of love and defeating the power of judgement. "Grace is one-way love, grace is when you are loved not on the basis of any of your givens from someone else to you, it is the whole business of life...it is being loved in this way. We have to get out of church politics. We need to bury the body...anger not only kills our witness but kills the protagonist. Theological anger has the blessing of righteousness. Judgement kills, grace always makes alive. We need to bury the body, and stop being people in the morgue looking at the corpses. We need to move away from hurtful catharsis."

A priest long resident in the diocese of Washington who sat in the pews at All Saints and listened to Zahl's preaching, told VOL that Zahl's sermons were nearly always about grace, heavily laced with illustrations from movies of the 40s and 50s. "Certainly it was Zahl's main theme, but the fundamental problem was that he made grace sound like something we can confer ourselves. We forgive people who are at fault and the result is that they are both transformed and everlastingly grateful to us. What Zahl failed to realize is that only God through his Holy Spirit can confer grace. He may use us as its channel, but it is not under our control."

A.W. Tozer once made the observation that sometimes what makes someone a heretic is not what they say, but what they don't say.

Ironically, Zahl got his ideas not from Martin Luther or his studies at Túbingen University, but instead from the late Malcolm Marshall rector of St. Margaret's Church, an Episcopal church in Washington. "I was sensitized to this by having at an early stage come under the influence of that rector myself---with catastrophic consequences," said the priest who knew him.

Zahl's abandonment of the Culture Wars over pansexuality and later homosexual marriage was also an abandonment of St. Paul's clear teaching about confronting heresy. The apostle specifically condemns those who purported to have "another gospel" -- (Gal. 1:7) and in a memorable passage Paul opposed Peter (Cephas) to his face because he stood condemned over eating meat with Gentiles, fearing the party of circumcision. The early apostles did not vie away from confrontation when it was necessary.

There are shades of Marcionism in the writings of Zahl that cannot go unnoticed. The separation of law and grace was Marcion's principal work. And according to a modern critic, "Marcion did not find his main thoughts in Paul but rather assimilated Pauline thought into his."

Zahl's abandonment of his friends for his new found understanding of grace did not stop the Episcopal culture wars. Over time as the fallout from the Gene Robinson consecration took hold and orthodox clergy were forced out of the Episcopal Church and property wars heated up resulting in the formation of the Anglican Church in North America, Zahl retreated to lick his wounds, becoming the driving force behind the formation of Mockingbird.

A priest I knew who was briefly at Calvary/St. George in New York City where the Mockingbird movement first took hold, told me that his assistant priest was once confronted by a woman seeking salvation. He told her she was already saved (by grace) and if she had problems, she should see a therapist. That is hardly in the vein of New Testament Christianity.

Zahl himself is more nuanced. His book, Grace in Practice, is a challenging call to live life under grace -- a concept most Christians secretly have trouble with, writes Zahl. He contends that no matter how often we talk about salvation by grace, in our "can-do" society we often cling instead to a righteousness of works. Asserting throughout that grace always trumps both law and church, Zahl illuminates an expansive view of grace in everything, extending the good news of grace to all creation.

Tragically our relativistic/permissive society has become a natural breeding ground for antinomianism and therefore ‘grace’ has inevitably become ‘cheap grace.'


Some now believe, as does this writer, that Zahl has gone too far in his understanding of grace, pitting it against both the law, in the face of legalism and Pharisaism, and antinomianism which holds that under the gospel dispensation of grace, the moral law is of no use or obligation because faith alone is necessary to salvation.

Take for example the definition of gospel as Mockingbird defines it. "We stand in the tradition that sees the Gospel as just what the word means: Good News. Specifically, the Good News that "Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners." (1 Timothy 1:15). The Gospel is a proclamation, rather than an invitation or command, yet it always addresses sinners and sufferers directly, i.e. you and me. People have gone wrong throughout history when they have reduced this Good News to its effect on those who have heard it, e.g., peace, love and understanding. These are wonderful things, to be sure, but they should not be confused for the Gospel itself, lest it become a means to an end, rather than an End in itself."

There are two inherent problems with this statement. If the gospel is not an "invitation" then the ministries of the Wesley's and Billy Graham soaked in the message of "whosoever will" is made null and void. Jesus said, "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). On the issue of "command" the apostle Paul was explicit: in Acts 17:30, Paul on Areopagus says; "In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent." There is nothing passive aggressive about the apostle's declaration of war against sin and those who refuse to repent. True evangelism, according to the Great Commission given by Jesus in Matthew 28:18--20, is a matter of making disciples: first, in the narrow sense of calling men and women to believe in Jesus and, second, in the broad sense of teaching them to observe all things that Jesus has taught His people.

But that is not the message of Mockingbird. Mockingbird is not simply evangelical lite, it borders on heresy and what some theologians call hyper grace which downplays sin and judgement in favor of a happy God.

Two missing elements in Mockingbird theology is any talk of sanctification and transformation.

Sanctification (not to be confused with justification) is the process of being made holy through repentance. Once the sinner is justified through faith in Jesus Christ, that faith must produce outward results, which is good works.

It is significant that when Archbishop Robert Duncan was elected to lead the Anglican Church in North America, he did so, proclaiming "the transforming love of Jesus Christ" as a faithful expression of Anglicanism. Transformation is not part of Mockingbird's arsenal of words.


In one very telling exchange between Paul Zahl and Tullian Tchividjian, (grandson of Billy Graham) he was defrocked as pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida for adultery. He became a leading voice in the movement some refer to as Hyper grace. He was befriended by Zahl, who practiced “one way” grace with Tullian. In a tribute to Zahl, Tullian proclaimed that Zahl stuck with him through it all, never judging him.

Zahl’s article makes the following contention: “I would go so far as to say 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.” Really!

What of the Biblical call for repentance — admission/confession/transformation. So, King David’s case was quite different from Pastor Tullian’s.

As bad as we want to make it out or as bad as the facts show the case to be? His Presbytery defrocked him. We are not making out anything to be bad, but acknowledging the action of the church, which said it was really bad.

Zahl stuck with him through it all, never judging him.

Zahl’s article makes the following contention: “I would go so far as to say 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.” Really!

Later Zahl wrote this; "This is because everything Tullian thought he had, and everything he thought he was, got pulverized. Everything on which he had prided himself got pulverized. Tullian got turned to dust."

Notice the passive voice? He was the one doing the pulverizing to others. Let's be clear about that. The Rev. Dr. Mark Jones (PhD, Leiden Universiteit), a theologian/pastor observed on reading this; "We can look at Zahl's article and come away with an almost shocking revelation, namely, that sin is actually a resume enhancement, not a resume killer. The Scriptures go to great lengths to speak about the personal piety of pastors. But for Zahl, Tullian is more qualified to preach the gospel, not because of his piety but because of his impiety. This sort of biblical ethic is extremely dangerous, and I would say that Zahl needs to repent for even hinting at this idea."

"Let us sin that grace may abound! We will be better preachers ("qualified brilliantly") when we've preyed upon married women, destroyed families, and caused pain to our flock!"

Does the world need Tullian, as Zahl suggests? According to the Liberate movement which embraces hyper grace, the world needs Jesus.

Zahl adds, "What the world needs now is the pulverized residue of a life forcibly taken, in the school of hardest knocks both self-inflicted and imposed by the world."

Writes Jones: "There are ministers who really have been harmed by the world (e.g., beaten for their faith) and know how to effectively minister to others. They are gifts to the church. They, of course, are images of our Savior who was truly pulverized by the world. For the sake of the Church, Tullian needs to shut up, not make a comeback. He needs to live a quiet, godly life. But this type of brown-nosing, virtue-signaling, Scripture-denying madness from Zahl is an attack upon Christ's bride and also an attack upon Tullian."

Contrast those shocking and hopeless words with Paul's words in Titus 2:11-12: "For the grace of God has appeared . . . instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age."

Paul, in writing to Timothy (1 Timothy 3:2-7) says this; "Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil."

Tullian committed adultery (at least) twice, hid them both, threw his wife under the bus for separating from him when she discovered the second affair, wrangled a job with some naive pastors while being stripped of his credentials by his presbytery, then fled accountability when his original affair became public, got remarried when he had no biblical grounds to do so, and now apparently seeks reinstatement to the office of elder (i.e., wants to preach).

If Tullian is "qualified brilliantly" because of his sins, what does that mean for the One who was tempted in every way that we are, yet without sin?

Zahl embraces all this. If Zahl was a true friend of Tullian, he would be faithful to Tullian's soul. He would quit the sycophancy and repent for making it sound like the church needs Tullian, when in fact it is Tullian who needs the church, says Jones. Zahl demonstrates an incomplete gospel proclamation.

The hyper grace movement constantly stresses depravity and forgiveness, with little or no emphasis on the transforming power of God's grace, an emphasis notably made by Archbishop Duncan at the inauguration of the ACNA. The movement loses sight of God's regenerating work in salvation. It paints the sinner into a helpless corner and makes God's grace a drop cloth.

We need to understand God's grace as Paul describes it in Colossians 1:13, "For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son."

Zahl's hyper grace teaching demonstrates amnesia about the reality of sin and is defective precisely at the point where the cross intersects with man and his sinfulness and the real grace of God which is greater than all our sin, and which, in turn, calls for a fulsome repentance.


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