Kirby J. Hensley was a lifelong illiterate who, despite never having read the Bible, became a self-educated Baptist minister. A construction worker by trade, in 1952 Hensley felt compelled to plant a house of worship in his own garage. His motivation was not from spiritual conviction, however. Hensley was aggravated by the tax exempt status of churches. Yet, by 1962, his new church had been incorporated and recognized by the IRS as a tax exempt entity.
This apparent contradiction is explained in Hensley’s own words: “I just want to raise all the hell I can, and get all the kooks and what-have-you as churches; then they (the government) will have to tax them all.”
Under normal circumstances, a confession like that would disqualify anyone from leading a legitimate spiritual movement of any kind, especially since the outrageous and the absurd seemed to be the regular currency of Hensley’s public life. (e.g. In the 1980s, Hensley proclaimed himself the King of Aqualandia and sold citizenship documents for $35.) Yet the effects of his deleterious “ministry,” both intentional and not, have borne out a measurable impact.
Wikipedia’s submission on Hensley’s organization is insightful enough:
The Universal Life Church is a non-denominational religious organization founded in 1962 by Kirby J. Hensley, under the doctrine: “Do that which is right.” The Universal Life Church advocates for religious freedom, offering legal ordination to become a minister for a small fee, and in many cases free of charge, to anyone who wishes to join. The ULC has ordained ministers from a wide range of backgrounds and beliefs, including Christians, atheists, Wiccans and pagans, and people of many other faiths. The ULC’s popularity stems in part from a rising interest in having friends or loved ones host weddings, a trend which has attracted a range of celebrities to become ordained including Adele, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ian McKellen, Conan O’Brien and Steven Tyler, among others.
Hensley’s theological contribution, “Do that which is right,” was a construct for making one’s own opinion seem religious, which explains why many atheists have become ordained ministers of the Universal Life Church. However, the ULC’s most enduring legacy may not be this shapeshifting doctrine. It may just be the never-ending ordinations.
According to The Knot, a popular wedding publication, the ULC had ordained approximately 18 million people by 2009, and it is possible that number has doubled in the subsequent decade with the growing popularity of using friends and family members to preside over couples on their wedding day. Yet what is one man’s credentials is another man’s punchline: “I was ordained online.”
Hensley’s intent to legally diffuse ordination by flooding the so-called religious market with “all the kooks and what-have-you” has also introduced the attending consequence of watering down what was once a universally regarded institution of the Church. Even the usually unsympathetic New York Times, in 2015, wrote critically of the ULC that it “pumps out ordinations at an assembly-line pace, almost mocking a process that usually requires years of seminary study.”
More than coincidence, when in the Book of Judges, chapter 17, the Bible begins to define a period of Israel’s history that was both God-less and violent, it explains the random and irregular ordination of a priest by explaining, “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.”
This ego-centric and humanistic lifestyle is presented by God’s Word as destructive and void of real meaning. Instead, we are personally taught to “not conform to the pattern of this world, but [to] be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)
Unfortunately, many young Christian couples today are being shaped by the cultural trends, rather than weighing the testimony of their choices. Yet people of faith should be more intentional, avoiding any unwitting union with the likes of Kirby J. Hensley.
The Biblically considerate couple, instead, might ask:
Does where/how we get married matter to Christ and His Bride? Is it possible that we could be – unintentionally – aligning our behavior more with unbelievers who have profited from abusing the Church more than we are showing union with our own family of faith? What does “personalizing” our ceremony say to a culture that regularly diminishes Christian marriage and demeans the servants of Christ? Is the ordination making our vows “official” a meaningful credential or just a punchline?