I have personally heard many arguments over the last year to rationalize pastoral misbehavior, literal crimes, and bad ecclesiastical polity, whether in the past or present. Many of these excuses mix Christian doctrines such as repentance and church autonomy with our individualism and live-and-let-live tendencies, resulting in a modern Evangelical church marked by celebrity, concern for cultural power, and self-justification. Praise God that people still come to faith in Christ, the poor are fed, and those who hurt have wounds bound up. These activities are marks of the Spirit in the life of the church (Acts 2:42ff). However, the cries of those who have been abused, shunned, and driven out of the Church should cause every member of leadership, whether a pastor, elder, deacon, or teacher, to reappraise whether their actions, church structure, and personal biases exacerbate the abuses revealed by the #MeToo and #ChurchToo Movements or instead reflect the life-giving, healing Gospel itself. Each of these leaders must face the question: What if it happens at MY church?
Those who know my involvement in these issues have asked for a theological justification of removing pastors and other church leaders who either admit to, are convicted of, or are judged to be guilty of abuse or other unethical actions. It is a judgment of woe on the modern Evangelical church that such a jeremiad must be written in the first place. This post focuses on basic understandings of the spiritual and occupational calling of ecclesiastical leaders, both professional (pastors) and lay (deacons, elders, etc). The Bible clearly calls for those who are not fulfilling their duties to be removed under God’s explicit command.
Is the church a body that believes in forgiveness for sin? Yes! Praise God! But this blessed forgiveness cannot be perverted into letting leaders escape from accountability. Appealing to King David (who committed murder and rape) as someone after “God’s own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14) to excuse past “mistakes” and to argue for no contemporary accountability has no theological, ethical, or moral justification and represents a gross misapplication of Scripture. It does not glorify God to minimize, distort, misrepresent, or ignore sin.
I will consider exploring accountability, forgiveness, and the possibility of occupational rehabilitation in a future post. To be sure, whether an abusive pastor should regain the pulpit is a legitimate, yet complex, question. However, for now, let us focus on the basic question of whether even removing a church leader is legitimate and the reasons why it should be done.
Not a Job for the Faint of Heart
Pastors and other members of church leadership are unequivocally held by God to higher standards for character and action than church membership or leaders in the corporate marketplace (James 3:1). The ultimate ruler for determining the faithfulness of leaders in the church (ministerial or lay) is not ecclesial power, charismatic presence, or spiritual “effectiveness” but rather the model of Christ “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage but made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Phil. 2:6-7, cf. 1 Pet. 2:23). This is the final point of winnowing for actions of church leadership – are we modeling Christ’s servant hood in relationships and ministry or simply acting selfishly as “professional churchmen/women”?
When pastors fail to live up to God’s standards of leadership, resulting in emotional, sexual, or spiritual abuse, whether via active means such as victim blaming and cover ups or by passively withholding support and recovery resources, they have placed their own personal, ecclesiastical, and/or financial needs above those they are called to serve, shepherd, and protect. While the reasons for choosing to do so vary, the results are the same: victims, congregations, the holy Church itself are traumatized by these decisions and the Gospel is scandalized. This category of offense obviously includes the actions exposed by the #MeToo Movement but also includes far more condemned by the Bible. These general reasons are enough to justify disqualifying a pastor, but three specific actions call for immediate action on the part of a church body.
Eating Our Own
Jesus describes himself to the Pharisees in John 10 as the “Good Shepherd,” contrasting himself with them, the “hired hand” who “abandons the sheep and runs away” at the approach of the wolf. They are caretakers who “care nothing for the sheep.” In fact, Jesus is pulling here from Ezekiel 34, a famous passage on leadership read during Hanukkah. The passage is a diatribe applied against the 2nd c. BCE Jews who followed their leaders in abandoning their Jewish heritage to become more Gentile and gain political and social power. Jesus applies a devastating critique against the Pharisees’ leadership, who celebrated their Jewish heritage as evidence of God’s covenant relationship:
“‘Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally'” (Ez. 34:1-4).
“‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, therefore, you shepherds, hear the work of the LORD: This is what the Sovereign LORD says: ‘I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them” (Ez. 34:8-10).
The application of the passage is unambiguously clear: church leaders who use their congregations as a means to fulfilling their own selfish needs are worthy of being removed from their position of church leadership. Removal of church leaders is sanctioned not by social media, the “mob mentality,” or “divisive” members of the congregation asking for accountability – it is sanctioned by God himself! The basis for this determination is the “using” of people by those in a place of greater power. Referring back to Philippians 2, Jesus is the model for pastors and other leaders. He did not abuse his place as Son to fulfill his own selfish needs, as demonstrated in the Temptation Narrative of Matthew 4.
Therefore, pastors face a stark choice: will they be faithful shepherds or the “hired hands” as in Jesus’ accusation of John 10? This decision must be made each day, just as every Christian must choose to “die to sins and live for righteousness” because “‘you were like sheep going astray,’ but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Pet. 2:24,25).
The outcome of not following the wisdom of is clear: “For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice” (James 3:16). Furthermore, church leaders must remember that our work will be shown for its true value which “will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work” (1 Cor. 3:13). We have seen this truth fulfilled in the #MeToo and #ChurchToo stories, as well as in our contemporary responses to the stories. Many ministries and ministers have been discredited. Their attacks on victims and victim advocates demonstrate the base nature of their “good works.” As Paul said in Greek, me genoito! – “May it never be so!”
Heavier Than an Albatross
Jesus specifically addresses those who choose to hurt others via his millstone judgment, called a “triple tradition” passage because it occurs in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Jesus addresses those who would cause “little ones,” understood both as children and Christian believers, to sin, declaring that it would be better for such a person “to have a great millstone tied around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt. 18:6). Jesus pronounces, “Woe to the person through whom the scandal comes!” (Mt. 18:7). Millstones were large stones (usually several feet across) used to grind grain, leaving one to wonder about the difficulty of even moving one and carrying out such a sentence! While it must be stated that victims of pastoral misconduct are obviously not guilty of sin (those in abuse situations are by definition not able to consent for such actions), the thrust of all three of the gospel authors is clear – a great judgment is due to the church leader who uses their position to truncate, hinder, or deflate the growth of faith of those under their spiritual charge. The rhetorical nature of this passage with its extreme language and punishment convey its intent to speak to the worst examples of human behavior. Any clergy or lay leadership that puts aside concern for a congregation member’s spiritual condition has ultimately failed at the charge given them by God himself, namely to instruct people “in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:25).
The outcome of not following the wisdom of removal of such leaders who value their needs over everyone else is clear: “For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice” (James 3:16). Furthermore, church leaders must remember that our work will be shown for its true value which “will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work” (1 Cor. 3:13). We have seen this truth fulfilled in the #MeToo and #ChurchToo stories, as well as in our contemporary responses to the stories. As Paul said, me genoito! – “May it never be so!”
While it should be elementary to remove church leaders who have broken the laws of society, we have seen churches shrink from the task of accountability on a regular basis. Among the activities “overlooked” by leadership are abuse of every sort, reporting of illegal activities, financial embezzlement, and misuse of resources. I am intentionally leaving the questions of traffic tickets and lesser crimes aside and focusing on “major crimes.” While the biblical standard for church decisions cannot rest solely on the laws of society, the New Testament writers clearly understood that the church has a responsibility to abide by them.
“Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to the governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s salves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor” (1 Pet. 2:12-17).
Ignoring the law is not an option. Preferring private church discipline over that of the state cannot be implied from this and other similar passages. Looking the other way due to the “giftedness” of church leaders is not a valid ecclesiastical or legal defense. There is no verse in the Bible that makes abuse acceptable in the light of “discerned” spiritual maturity, time lapse, personal charisma, or position. Rather, Scripture teaches that such actions are evidence of spiritual immaturity – “A quick tempered person does foolish things, and the one who devises evil schemes is hated” (Prov. 14:17).
Some leaders have abused the legal definition of innocence for spiritual purposes, arguing that the lack of conviction or the decision of prosecutors to not bring charges due to the statute of limitations means they should not be removed or held accountable for past actions. While it must be acknowledged each situation is unique, a pastor or church leader must be to held to a higher standard of accountability. Whether or not a jury of peers chooses to convict, the question is whether the underlying activity meets the biblical standards. Leadership must not be content to act “only as one escaping through the flames,” meaning someone whose works don’t pass muster (1 Cor 3:15). In the church of Corinth, Paul gave the church the rights to expel members, even to “hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” on the basis of their actions (1 Cor. 5:5). The church does not have to rely upon the determination of the courts to enforce church discipline or deny a pastor employment.
Just as it would be foolish for a corporation to install a convicted embezzler as CFO, it is likewise foolish for a church to hire, promote, or employ someone convicted of offenses directly related to their job. That is the definition of unwise. Pastors or leaders who break the law should be removed for their positions.
The requirements outlined in the Bible for pastors and other leaders are clear:
- Accepting higher levels of accountability – James 3:1
- Refraining from using their spiritual position for their own ends – Ezekiel 34:10
- Safeguarding the growth in faith of their congregation – Matthew 18:6
- Obeying the law – 1 Peter 2:13
The job of a pastor or church leader is tough – constant demands, conflict with parishioners, lack of personal relationships and loneliness. Pastors and church leaders need our love and support as much we need theirs. However, these issues do not give license to do the sort of actions that have come to light. In order to protect the sheep from more harm, the Evangelical church must remove pastors who have fallen into the demonic trap of self-serving religious leadership. Failing to do so will deepen the trauma and create more victims, reject God’s command to remove leaders who do harm, and disobey the current laws of our society.
I personally continue to pray for both the victims and the church pastors and leaders caught in the cycle of violence, shame, and fear. When Jesus inaugurated his ministry in his hometown of Nazareth he proclaimed he was anointed to proclaim “good news to the poor,” “freedom for the prisoners,” “recovery of sight for the blind,” and to “set free the oppressed” (Luke 4:18). This is my hope for all sides of the issue. May anyone who feels poor of spirit hear the Good News of Christ. May anyone who feels chained by their past find the freedom from pain. May those who are confronted by victims see with the eyes of the Good Shepherd. May those who feel oppressed when they walk into a church have their spirits set free to worship and know Christ.
If you are affected by the scourge of abuse I pray that you find resources and people to help. I pray that you might experience what God says to you personally,
“In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you” (Isaiah 49:8).
If you are a leader or member of a church dealing with this issue, I plead with you,
“Come, let us return to the LORD. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds” (Hosea 6:1).
May the Lord be glorified in his bride, despite our flaws.
Charis to all