This year has been another year marked by headlines of church leaders being removed from their leadership positions due to misconduct. However, this year the stories have been even more notable because of the prominence of many of these pastors and also the nature of the misconduct. These abuses of power and misconduct hurt not only the victims and the community and circles where they occur, but they can also injure the name of Christ and the testimony of the church, as these stories can lead people into cynicism and be used as arguments against the Christian faith and Christ’s people.
I have been often been asked for my perspective on these situations, and something I have noted is that I have been very aware of these sorts of stories throughout my time following Christ and serving him in vocational ministry. I have read these stories from a distance, but have also encountered it with people I have known — including people who have influenced and impacted my life. In many ways I am surprised when another story comes out, but unfortunately, I am not shocked by it. I hope that doesn’t make me sound callous or cynical. I would say that whenever a story comes out, I am grieved for the various people who have been hurt through the misconduct. I pray for them and sincerely hope those close to the situation ensure the victim(s) is cared for in whatever way is needed.
As I have reflected on Scripture and the history of the church, I have recognized that leaders (including the people of Israel and God’s people before the coming of Christ) have been falling and abusing/misusing their power through the history of the church. These reflections have led to three principles I think are important to keep in mind as we hear these stories and process what they mean for the church and for us.
God Has Not Failed
Because people often view a pastor as a representative of God, there can be a temptation to associate the person with God. Therefore, if a pastor (or someone in authority) hurts or disappoints someone, they may think that God has hurt or disappointed them. We need to remember that each individual is responsible for his or her own actions and people fall into sin due to their own being and weakness. We read in James 1:13-15: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (ESV). Paul makes it clear in 1 Corinthians 10:13 that the temptations faced by the leader are temptations that are common to humans and God had provided a way out, but this way out was not exercised.
Therefore, when you see a Christian leader fall, do not think that God has failed; a sinful person has chosen to enter into sin and hurt others and themselves in the process. This individual may bring God’s name into repute in the world, but we must look to the God who has never failed, the God who is able to save us from our sins, and the God who will make all things right when Jesus returns. May the choices of a sinful person who needs Christ not overshadow the Savior.
God Has Been at Work
When a minister is removed from his position due to a sinful act, those who have been influenced by the person’s ministry may wonder whether it nullifies the person’s ministry. This might be as simple as deciding whether or not to get rid of the books the person wrote to as drastic as thinking what God has done in your life as a result of the ministry of the person is no longer true or valid (for example, if the person led you to Christ or baptized you, you might question the validity of your conversion or baptism). This is when it is helpful to think about church history, particularly the fourth and fifth centuries and the teaching of Donatists. This group held that the moral failure of a minister invalidated their work, with particular reference to baptism (this occurred in a time when the church was persecuted, with this group believing if a minister baptized you but later turned away from the faith, your baptism was invalid). It should be noted that the teaching of this group was rejected, with the church stating the moral character of the minister does not determine the validity of baptism. I think we can apply this principle to other elements of faith, not just baptism.
Therefore, the misconduct of a leader is not like a penalty in a football game in which what happened is now erased – God had been working through this person’s ministry even if there were improper motives and conduct. What a person meant for evil, God might use for good. In Philippians 1:15-18 Paul talks about people who preach the gospel out of envy and rivalry – improper motives – but he then notes that he rejoices whenever Christ is proclaimed. God can use the preaching or teaching of one who is not practicing what he or she preaches to speak to the hearts of others and convict them of their sin. It is a good reminder that true gospel ministry happens through the work of the Holy Spirit, not through the efforts of any humans.
Now it might make sense to no longer read this person’s work (as there is no shortage of books and resources out there – of the making of books, there is no end….) and I likely wouldn’t cite the person in teaching, but this does not mean their work and the insights they have given to you are no longer true. It is never about the person but about the work of the Holy Spirit.
God Calls You to Seek Him
I recently read Sustaining Ministry: Foundations and Practices for Serving Faithfully, a book by Sondra Wheeler that looks at ethics for pastors and ministers. She talks about the place of rules and boundaries that can prevent misconduct and the abuse of ministerial power – and some of the factors that might make these situations more common in pastoral ministry than in other professions. Something that she notes in the book is most of these situations do not happen because people planned for them to happen – while some people might get into ministry with sinister motives, most enter into the ministry (and go through a long-road of preparation and face some big challenges in ministry) because of a genuine desire to serve God and help people. Most misconduct comes as the result of “wandering” – this is not to excuse these actions (they are abuses of power), but to recognize that a minister often begins to make choices that lead him or her away from proper conduct and dabble in “gray areas,” pushing known boundaries. Rarely is it a one-time indiscretion — it is tied to a variety of bad choices which put the person in that situation, and most only recognize what is happening when it is too late. The bottom line to remember is that each choice we make shapes us and can lead us towards God or away from Him.
Therefore, there is a call by God to seek after Him continually. Paul tells Timothy to watch his life and teaching (1 Timothy 4:16), and this is a truth that every minister – and every Christian – should heed. There are warnings in Scripture not to wander and examples of leaders and figures who do – which implies that we are tempted to turn away from God. May we never say “this would never happen to me” or “this would never happen to them” when we read these stories. May we not simply look at policies and procedures that should have been in place or trust in these to prevent such situations from arising in our context. We can’t trust ourselves or even our rules (as the law has no power), but must put ourselves in the context where we are in fellowship with God and watching our hearts (Proverbs 4:23). Wheeler specifically mentions prayer and accountability for ministers – they need those, but we all need to stay close to God and pursue Him.
My Contribution and Challenge
I recognize that there have been many articles written about these situations on how to think through and process these situations, so I want to make it clear that I do not write as one who has the answer. Rather, I wanted to share some truths that I have found helpful in hopes that they help your process these situations and also call for us to watch out own lives and be in prayer for our elders, deacons, and pastors, that they may continue to lead godly lives as we are called by God.