When Church Leaders Fail Us
By David R. Barnhart
Volume 29 Summer 2014 Issue 3
“Do not trust in princes, in mortal man, in whom there is no salvation. His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; in that very day his thoughts perish” (Psalm 146:3-4).
Moral failures by members of the clergy are neither new, nor are they limited to liberal churches. Sadly, moral indiscretions by the clergy are far too common in conserva- tive churches as well. Most media reports regarding clergy scandals tend to center on megachurches, high-ranking church officials, or leaders of large national ministries. Seldom, however, do we hear about clergy misconduct in smaller congregations, even though most moral transgressions by members of the clergy take place there. (And let me add— Seldom, if ever, do we hear, nor are we likely to hear, reports in the media about homosexual or lesbian clergy who regularly engage in perverted sex acts with their partners in the church parsonage. But that is a subject for another occasion.)
While moral failures by members of the clergy have occurred throughout the history of the church, today the internet and other sources of instant news are able to disseminate the information faster and farther than ever before. Over the past year, there have been an alarming number of reports concerning Christian leaderswhose ministries were damaged, if not utterly destroyed, after it was revealed they had engaged in inappropriate sexual activities, adulterous affairs, or had embezzled money from their churches.
How the Mighty Have Fallen
In 2006 the evangelical church was rocked when Ted Haggard, pastor of a large church in Colorado and president of the National Association of Evangelicals, admitted that he had engaged in homosexual acts over a period of several years. Many were even more shocked when Haggard reinstated himself and started a new church in 2010.
A recent article in the Orlando Sentinel, focused on four pastors from four megachurches in the Orlando, Florida area, who stepped down as leaders of their respective congregations during the past year, because they admitted to having engaged in adulterous relationships.
Especially alarming was a report in Christianity Today this past February detailing the arrest and conviction of David Cho, pastor of the largest megachurch in the world. Cho was sentenced to three years in prison for having embezzled $12 million from his church. His congregation in South Korea reportedly has over 450,000 members.
An equally alarming report this past March concerned the resignation of Bill Gothard, a well-known leader in the homeschool movement and president of the Institute in Basic Life Principles. Gothard was forced to resign after over 30 women on his staff accused him of sexual harass- ment. One of the women accused him of molesting her when she was 16 years old. While Gothard did not deny the women’s allegations, he said that there were never any sexual intentions on his part regarding their claims. Apparently his board of directors saw it otherwise.
The High Cost of Sin
Tragically, church leaders who are supposed to be the standard-bearers of decency and morality have, through their sins and hypocritical indiscretions, marred the witness of Christ before a watching world. Who knows how many lost sinners or weak Christians have turned away from the church in disgust after hearing reports of manifold transgressions by members of the clergy. These unconscionable acts by the clergy have inflicted unbelievable damage on impressionable youth and incalculable pain on the body of Christ. Herein lies the greatest calamity from clergy who violated God’s law and brought disgrace upon themselves as well as upon their congregations.
As Christians, how do we keep from becoming demoralized in a situation in which a trusted pastor has been caught in a web of deceit and immorality? The Bible delves deeply into this matter, and that is precisely where we should seek both counsel and direction.
Paul reminds us, “...there is none who is righteous, no, not one,” and that “...all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3: 10, 23). The Bible further says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Therefore, before casting stones at others, we need to remember that “only because of the forbearance of God” has He “passed over the sins we previously committed” (Romans 3:25).
Even so, those whom God has called to positions of authority in His Church have a responsibility before God to be “examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). God Himself set the standards high for those who accept leadership positions in His church, and Christians have every right to expect and demand that those standards be honored by their leaders (1 Timothy 3).
As Christians we are instructed not to build our faith or place our confidence in man.Christ alone is the only One upon whom we should build our faith and rest our hopes! The Bible declares— Thus says the Lord, “Cursed is the man who trusts in man, and who makes flesh his strength, and whose heart turns away from the Lord.... Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord and whose trust is the Lord” (Jer. 17: 5, 7).
Put Your Trust in God, Not in Man
Christians who place their trust in church leaders instead of Christ will inevitably face great disappointment if and when those leaders fail them. There is only one who never fails and never lets us down, and His name is Jesus! Therefore, we should constantly keep our eyes upon Jesus Christ, the solid, immovable Rock upon whom our faith will always rest securely.
While God’s grace is sufficient for all church leaders as well as for all Christians who fall into sexual sins or other moral failings, true repentance is the key in obtaining God’s grace-filled forgiveness and cleansing (1 John 1:9). Such repentance should include seeking the forgiveness of those who have been wronged and offering restitution whenever possible.
All sin comes with a price tag! Often the price tag carries with it penalties that spring from the very transgressions themselves, even though repentance was made and forgiveness was granted. These penalties may include broken marriages, broken relationships and broken health, to name but a few. But perhaps the greatest price of all is the personal loss of trust with others.
Church Leaders Who Commit Egregious Sins Should Seek Another Vocation
Church leaders who have violated the basic moral laws of God after being inducted into the sacred office of the ministry find it difficult, if not impossible, to win back the trust of their parishioners. Therefore, for the sake of all concerned, they should step down, recognizing they have disqualified themselves from further leadership roles in the church, because they can no longer rightly be looked upon as an “example to the flock.” Such an action is hard and painful for anyone who has given much of his life to full- time Christian ministry, but stepping down from a leadership role in the church is the right thing to do. More importantly, it is in keeping with biblical standards established by God for those who hold such an office in the church (1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1).
Congregations, church entities or ministries that choose to restore fallen leaders to their original positions of responsibility after they have committed egregious sins and immoral acts, run the risk of causing great harm to the flock, especially to the weak, young and vulnerable.
Paul could not have been more clear when he wrote: “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people” (Ephesians 5:3).
Several years ago I knew a pastor who had an affair with a woman in his congregation, divorced his wife of 40 years, married his mistress, and never missed a Sunday in the pulpit. His actions were known by members of his congregation and by his bishop, yet he was allowed to retain his position in the church. What sort of message does such tolerance of sin send to the body of Christ as well as to the watching world?
To be certain, we are instructed by God to love those who sin against us, forgive them from our hearts and uphold them in our prayers. But never ought we, as Christians, condone or sanction their immoral behavior, nor is the church to treat such transgressions as though they do not matter.
The Lord established a pattern of discipline for all who are part of His church, and that pattern needs to be followed, especially among the clergy and especially in an age in which the toleration of sin and evil has been woven into the very fabric of our society. The church should not operate by the standards of men but by the standards of God. May God help us all to be faithful!