Leaders, Sin, Holiness and Grace

5 September 2022

6.6 MINS

Some thoughts on fallen Christian leaders. How should we respond to scandal and public expressions of repentance?

I have written numerous articles about dealing with Christian leaders who have fallen, for the simple reason that sadly many Christian leaders do fall. But with each new case of this happening, it is always worth revisiting biblical principles that must be kept in mind.

Two key biblical themes of course involve the call to be holy as God is holy, and the grace and mercy of God when we do sin. As always we need to hold both of these truths of Scripture together even though they may seem to clash. And often Christians will latch on to one while excluding the other.

We all know of Christians who in Pharisee-like fashion are so very quick to condemn. In their self-righteousness, they happily and speedily point the finger at the fallen brother, but never seem to consider that they too could just as easily fall, certainly given the right circumstances. They forget Paul’s command to ‘consider themselves lest they also be tempted’ (Galatians 6:1).

And then there are those Christians who basically seem to wink at sin and know little about the biblical call to holiness. They can sometimes glibly say, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’. Yes, that is certainly true — we are all capable of falling in so many ways. But we cannot use that as an excuse for disobedience and sin.

Or worse yet, they will intone, ‘Well, we are only human’. Of course we are, but God’s people are called to something higher. Jesus actually said that we are to be perfect as our Father in heaven is (Matthew 5:48). That is a very high standard indeed.

Most of you would know about the latest case of a fallen leader that has rocked the Christian world. In America, the Texas mega-church pastor Matt Chandler has stepped down for a period. As one report puts it:

The Village Church pastor Matt Chandler announced on Sunday that he had an inappropriate online relationship with a woman and is taking an indefinite leave of absence from preaching and teaching. The relationship was not sexual or romantic, Chandler told his church, but the elders believed the frequent and familiar direct messages exchanged over Instagram were “unguarded and unwise” and “revealed something unhealthy in me.” Chandler said he agreed with their assessment and was grateful for the spiritual oversight.

It is not my intention here to go into all the ins and outs of this particular case. I simply want to look at some broader issues about sin in the church — especially involving leaders — and how we should respond to it. I have already written various pieces on church discipline, so those articles should be taken into account here as well.

One thing that is always worth keeping in mind is the seriousness of sin, and the greatness of divine forgiveness. Both must be fully affirmed and held on to. And we must always begin with ourselves, and not just think about this in terms of others. We are all sinners and we are all in need of God’s grace moment by moment.

Extraordinary Mercy

The other day I was thinking about a famous passage in the Gospels. When Peter asked Jesus how often he should forgive a brother who sins against him, Jesus replied, not “seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21). We should be willing to keep on extending mercy and forgiveness to others.

But sinning against a brother of course is also sinning against God (all sins are ultimately against God). So that means if God wants us to be eager and willing to forgive others, how much more is God eager and willing to forgive us? He wants to forgive us far more than we think. That is good news given how often we daily sin and blow it and cause grief to our God. REAL good news.

It is with this mindset that we can look at cases like Chandler’s. And to help me further tease out all this, let me briefly mention two recent articles which have both dealt with his case. It is not so much that they take two opposing points of view. The two authors would likely basically agree with each other, but they do bring some different emphases to bear on this matter.

The first piece comes from Australian pastor Mark Powell. He speaks of “Matt Chandler and the Grace of God”. He thinks the situation was handled well and we should be thankful for that. He writes:

“All in all, it seems to have been a model response to a tragic situation. People are sure to quibble about such and such being done better, but leading a church through these kinds of situations are notoriously difficult. And it’s important to remember that — unlike the leaders at The Village Church — we don’t have all the information.”

He goes on to list five helpful things we can all learn from this sad case, which I here simply present in outline form:

First, flowing out of Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 5:20, the reason why a leader who sins is to be rebuked publicly is “so that others may take warning”.

Second, we should all — leaders and laity alike — take heart the warning that, “There but for the grace of God go I”.

Third, we must resist the temptation of being judgmental.

Fourth, it is a time to grieve and mourn.

And finally, fifth, we should all re-commit ourselves to prayer.

Responding to Repentance

Good stuff. And American pastor Dave Miller wrote an article titled, “Stop Applauding Pastors Who Publicly Confess Their Sins”. It is a hard word but one that is worth hearing. He says in part:

When did it become appropriate to give standing ovations to those who have committed disqualifying (or near-disqualifying) sins in ministry? You might remember Jules Woodson’s public story of sexual abuse. After years of denial and evasion, the pastor who had abused her years earlier stood before his large congregation and gave a sanitized version of his “failings.” He received a wildly supportive standing ovation.

More recently, another pastor stood to confess an affair (again, putting it in the best possible light), and the woman involved came forward to tell the truth. She accused the pastor of statutory rape and some of the ugliest actions imaginable. Of course, the pastor still got a standing ovation.

We can only hope that both of those churches came to later regret their actions. Nonetheless, they honored and applauded abusers. In doing so, they heaped condemnation on survivors and added to their suffering. When a church leader stands to confess sin, it’s a time for lament and a time for tears. Repentance requires honesty, humility, and sorrow, not managing appearances, controlling the narrative, or hiding the facts.

The fault often lies more with leadership than with congregants. These “confessions” are often staged to put the fallen pastor in the best possible light. Facts are hidden. The full story isn’t told. The blame gets shifted to someone else. Excuses are made. All told, the pastor or church leaders control the story to cast the confession in a heroic light.

It’s textbook manipulation. Unfortunately, in many megachurches — and elsewhere, too — people are conditioned to see their pastors in near godlike terms, so when he confesses a sin, they jump to a redemptive narrative and respond with enthusiastic applause.

But it has to stop. We should not applaud confessions of sin. Ovations serve no spiritual purpose, and in these situations, especially, they only cause hurt and harm. If a sinner is genuinely repentant, he doesn’t want applause. If he isn’t genuinely repentant, he doesn’t deserve it. In most cases, a church has been given only a part of the story or a sanitized version of it — typically the one most favorable to the pastor.

Yes, these churches love their preachers. As a pastor, I appreciate that. They want to believe the best of and for their leaders. That’s a natural and even honorable desire. But standing ovations for misbehavior are not acceptable. We do not applaud sin. We do not cheer it. We grieve over it. So save the standing ovations for the football field.

Accountability

Both of these pastors offer us biblical truths that we must take seriously. But let me close by offering one very practical bit of advice to help church leaders — and all Christians — avoid the pitfalls of temptation and sin. In their new volume A Radical, Comprehensive Call to Holiness, Joel Beeke and Michael Barrett spend nearly 500 pages dealing with this vitally important issue.

While the entire volume is so very worthwhile, let me just offer two brief paragraphs on the crucial matter of the “means of human accountability”:Call to Holiness book

In our individualistic age, we tend to view our spiritual lives as our own concern and no one else’s business. One of the best ways to prevent backsliding or arrest it early in its progress is voluntary accountability with a friend who is willing to ask hard questions on a regular basis and to lovingly administer warnings and rebukes when he sees you starting to slip in a particular area of temptation (Heb. 3:13, 10:24-25; Prov. 27:5-6).

Also, your church has a responsibility to correct you privately, to rebuke you publicly, and even to remove you from membership if you do not repent of your sin (Matt. 18:15-18; Heb. 13:17). The aim of such correction is to restore you from your fall and help you bear your spiritual burdens (Gal. 6:1-2). Love your elders for their efforts to help you. Forgive their imperfections of how they do it (Ps. 141:5). Christ Himself is present in church censures, sovereignly disciplining you, so let exhortations drive you to Christ (Matt. 18:20; 1 Cor. 5:4). It may very well save your spirit on Judgment Day (1 Cor. 5:5).

We all need God’s grace and the help of our brothers and sisters to keep us on the narrow path. In the case of Chandler, let’s keep him in our prayers. And please pray for your own leaders, and one another, thanking God for His matchless grace — and for His absolute holiness.

___

Originally published at CultureWatch. Photo by Inzmam Khan.

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