A couple of Sundays ago, I was made aware of two churches that lost their lead pastors to disqualifying sin. In my travels around the US the last few months, I have heard story after story of church leaders failing in major ways. These church scandals have lead to heartbreak, division, and in some cases the dissolution of entire churches. As I have been visiting churches, I have seen some that have responded well to these challenges and there are a few observations I have made that I would like to share.
There are no heroes
There is a common saying, “Never meet your heroes.” Perhaps what is more accurate is: “There are no heroes.” The reason you are not supposed to meet your heroes is that anyone who you look up to will always seem better when you don’t know them. Movie stars, musicians, and even famous pastors are just men. They are sinners. And at their very best, they will live a life in which they quickly repent of non-disqualifying sins daily. Some will fall into disqualifying sins, but repent and be restored to their churches, and maybe even in some cases to ministry. At their worst, disqualified pastors will sometimes refuse to repent and either abandon the church, or even worse, continue in church leadership.
Even the world says, “Never meet your heroes.” Even the world recognizes that people are always worse than they seem. We as Christians should be at least as wise. We should not be surprised when our leaders fail. We believe in the Gospel, which begins with the need for salvation because we are sinners. Our pastors and other church leaders are sinners.
So how might a church, or a member waste their church scandal? Certainly, abandoning the church, or the faith would be a great waste. The Gospel says that we are sinners, in need of salvation. That salvation comes through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. When we look at the sins of others and say, “That hypocrite! How could anyone do that!” we are forgetting the Gospel. If you have never had an affair, or molested a child, praise God. Seriously, praise God, because it has nothing to do with you. And it is wrong to sin (abandon the church) and refuse to repent of that because you see someone else sin and refuse to repent. Instead, we ought to humbly acknowledge that if it were not for the grace of God, we would fall into the same scandals. And in the many cases where our church leaders remain faithful, we should praise God.
Praise God for faithful leaders
Given the above realities, it is an amazing, miraculous, grace of God that any of our church leaders endure and remained qualified. If you have a pastor who regularly repents of non-disqualifying sins thank the God that gives him the strength. If you have a pastor that has taught God’s Word for 20 years without committing a disqualifying sin, praise the Lord! Every time a pastor accepts rebuke or confrontation and turns from sin, praise Jesus. Churches all over the world are being pastored by faithful men that you have never heard of. They don’t make the news, no one talks about them on Facebook, and that is amazing. God deserves praise for their service and leadership. Don’t forget, if your church is going through a scandal, there are likely several faithful leaders who are bearing the burden of an individual. Look for those leaders, praise God for them, and support them as much as you can.
It would be a waste to become suspicious of all pastors, or to assume all church leaders are hiding disqualifying sin. For whatever reason, American culture is always on the lookout for reasons to dismiss and abandon people. A news story breaks of a pastor visiting a prostitute and our culture says, “That’s how all pastors are.” A church covers up sexual abuse, and our culture says, “This is just how churches handle abuse.” This cynical, suspicious attitude is not appropriate for God’s church. God is working in his church with and through pastors and leaders. He deserves praise for that.
It’s OK to learn from hypocrites
One of the hardest things for church members to face in the wake of a church leadership scandal is trying to understand what to do with the fallen leader’s past ministry. What if you came to Christ under a pastor who is now disqualified? What do you do with all that you learned from him?
While a leader’s failure should no doubt cause us to look over their teaching to see if they were unfaithful in doctrine, I don’t believe we should dismiss all of their teaching. This is a message from the mouth of Jesus himself:
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.” (Matthew 23:2-3)
Jesus elsewhere called the Pharisees and scribes hypocrites (Matthew 15:7-9). They were men who were worshipping God in vain. All of their “good works” and teaching did nothing for their own souls. However, Jesus did not say to dismiss them outright. He said to “do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works that they do.” The truth is, your fallen pastor proved himself to be a hypocrite (especially if there was a sin that was hidden and ignored). But God really does use crooked sticks to make straight lines. It would be a waste to discard good teaching from sinful men. If their teaching came from the Bible, it carries a unique weight that should not be ignored.
The messengers fail, but the message never fails
The reason we can still learn from hypocrites is based not in those fallen teachers, but because of the message they taught. Years ago, a pastor in Stacey’s childhood church was caught in disqualifying sin (which was covered-up for years). This was of course a crisis for their church, and no doubt for the faith of many of the members. However, Stacey’s youth pastor told her something she never forgot: “The messengers fail, but the message never fails.”
The message of God never fails because it is unlike any other message. God’s Word is special because it is living and active (Hebrews 4:12). So, that word, when taught and understood is alive in itself and when taught is accompanied by the power of God. The power of God comes to change our minds and our lives. God does that, not teachers. And every failure that we see in the church has its origin in us, not in God’s Word. This truth should cause us to cling to God’s Word more during a scandal, not less.
Not long before he died, Jesus said to Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). The Church is not just an organization. The Church is an institution ordained by Jesus, equipped with a living Word, and guaranteed to succeed. However, for the time that amazing institution is filled with sinful people, including its leaders. So, until Christ returns, we are going to have to constantly be dealing with sin, both in our own lives and in the lives of others. But there is hope! Christ died for sins, even the sins of fallen pastors.
I heard once the story of a pastor that fell into disqualifying sin. He was removed from his leadership position at the church. But, he repented. And though he never pastored at that church again, he remained a member the rest of his life. He learned from his replacements, and loved his disappointed members. I don’t know exactly how everything played out, but every time I have heard of this former pastor, he was spoken of fondly. For now, none of us has the hope of not sinning at all. None of us knows for sure that we won’t fall into disgraceful sin. But we all have the hope of forgiveness. No one wants a church scandal. But when they do come, let’s not waste them acting like the world. Let’s learn from them, be humbled by them, and long for the day when we can gather together without sin.