EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK: The Pastor’s Pivot: Are We Restoring Our Pastors Too Quickly?
The answer is yes, and it will take will and wisdom to change
Editor’s Note: Most Saturdays we will feature this “Editor’s Notebook” column. MinistryWatch President Warren Smith will offer his opinion on stories in the week’s news or, sometimes, offer a behind-the-scenes look at how and why we do what we do.
OPINION–This week, Brian Houston—the head of the scandal-ridden Hillsong movement—announced he is forming a new church just months after pleading guilty to a DUI charge in California.
This story reminded me again of just how often disgraced pastors make a quick comeback to ministry.
The examples are, like the demons in Mark 5, legion. Just months after Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church spectacularly imploded, Driscoll moved to Arizona and started a new church. Other similar stories include Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker, Todd Bentley, Johnny Hunt, and Carl Lentz. These are all men who have behaved in ways that have biblically disqualified them from ministry who continue to serve in ministry, sometimes with very little time passing from the time of the fall to their restoration.
This week’s story caused me to search scripture and reflect on the necessary and sufficient conditions for restoration. Scripture does not have a succinct, step-by-step cookbook for such matters, but neither is it silent. It does offer a few guidelines and principles.
Public figures, including celebrity preachers, are adept at the “non-apology apology.” They sound like this: “Mistakes were made.” Or perhaps like this: “If I did anything to offend you, then….”
True confession takes full responsibility. “I did it! I made the mistake. I sinned.” True confession is not a box you check so you can move on. It is a lament. The words of Isaiah are a guide. “Woe is me. I am an unclean man, with unclean lips.”
True confession is specific. It names the sin and thereby gives healing to the person sinned against. Statements from lawyers, crisis management PR firms, or risk management departments of large ministries usually do not meet this requirement.
The fallen leader should go away. How long? I don’t know, but long enough to heal. Moses murdered a man in Egypt and went away for 40 years before returning to lead his people out of Egypt. Saul was an accomplice in the murder of Stephen before he had his Damascus Road experience. He then also went away. We don’t know how long, but it appears that at least 11 years (and possibly as many as 15 years) passed between his conversion and his first apostolic journey with Barnabas.
To go away for weeks or even months simply does not fit the biblical pattern or model.
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The word “repentance” means “to turn from.” It means to go in a new direction. One sign that a “restored” minister has not repented is this: he puts himself back in the situation from which he came.
It’s interesting to me that this principle is better understood by secular institutions than by Christian ones. Wall Streeters who violate securities law are often banned from trading securities for life. Lawyers and accountants who have been convicted of crimes are often prohibited from practicing their crafts for life, or for very long periods. The secular law requires them to “turn from” their old way of life and create a new way of life.
No one is beyond redemption and restoration, but redemption and restoration does not mean that our humanity has been repealed. Redeemed pedophiles, murderers, swindlers have a role in God’s Kingdom, and can be used mightily. Thanks be to God for that!
But restored pedophiles should not work with children. Reformed swindlers should not be in charge of financial matters. The temptations are simply too great. We should implement equally prudent, practical restrictions on celebrity pastors who come back from scandal. That is what “turning from” really means.
A Crisis of Accountability
Will we heed these principles? Regarding that question I am, as the old saying goes, a short-term pessimist but a long-term optimist. I’m a short-term pessimist because the vast majority of our churches and Christian institutions simply do not have the structure or the will to implement these simple, biblical safeguards. That’s a huge problem.
But I’m a long-term optimist because organizations who fail to reform can’t and won’t survive. No individual, organization, or culture can ignore these principles forever without that individual, organization, or culture destroying itself.
I’m also hopeful because the scandals that have wracked evangelicalism are beginning to stir some among us. Organization such as ECAP (the Evangelical Council for Abuse Prevention), GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), and even MinistryWatch are a part of that stirring.
So just as restoration was possible for the murderers Moses and Paul, and for the adulterer David, so is restoration possible for evangelicalism and our institutions. Jesus promised us that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church. So reformation is indeed in our future.
But we must also remember that Jesus promised to preserve his church, not (necessarily) my church. If we resist the principles Scripture has so plainly set before us, reformation will be the work of those who replace us. History will be a harsh judge.
And history’s judgment will be the least of our worries.