This past week, a number of stories came out in my local newspaper reporting on and analyzing the arrest of a local pastor. He has been accused of placing and monitoring video equipment in the female bathrooms at the church. If you haven’t read the articles, don’t worry about not knowing the details. I’m not going to address the specifics of that story, but it has burdened my heart so much that I feel a need to reflect here in my semi-public space what these moral failures reveal about God, humanity, and the state of the church.
The story is all too common
Including this story, a total of three significant church leaders have been arrested for sexual misconduct of some kind in Lafayette in just the past three years. People are well aware of these stories happening all over the place. These stories happen in the Catholic Church. They happen in Protestant churches. They happen in small towns and in large cities. They happen with local pastors and national figures. The stories are all too common especially when we consider that the Bible says this about those who would be leaders in a church.
Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. — 1 Timothy 3:2-4
Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. — James 3:1
As an individual and as a pastor, I am sickened when I hear that another leader has failed in this way not only because behavior like this is clearly prohibited in the Bible but also because these failures are easily preventable. I literally feel it in my gut when I think about some church leader violating God’s Word and the trust of the people.
At the same time, I admit that I’m freaked out by it. As one pastor after another falls to this and to other temptations, I seriously begin to worry about myself. What can I possibly do to prevent falling prey to the same temptations? Am I prone to falling in the same way? Am I prone to falling in a different way? Is it from a prideful heart that I want to judge other leaders who do fall to those temptations?
It shouldn’t be common among us at all
The sad reality is that sin happens, no one is immune, every one needs grace, but the wonderful promise of the Bible is that living a life of integrity is not only a calling but also a privilege, a gift for all believers.
Consider these two verses from 1 John:
This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. — 1 John 1:5-10
There are three things to note here. First of all, no one has the right to claim to be without sin. Those who do are fooling themselves. Secondly, all sin, regardless of what it is, can be and will be forgiven for anyone who will confess those sins. Thirdly, and this is the most relevant part for our conversation, those who walk in the light are they who enjoy both fellowship with people and cleansing from sin.
John is writing to make sure that everyone knows that no one is perfect. However, he clearly says that God’s work is more than forgiveness. God’s work is purification. In other words, God is at work to gradually eliminate sin from your life, and those who walk in the light are the ones who receive that gradual purification.
Going a little deeper, John says in chapter 3:
All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.
Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister. — 1 John 3:3-10
Even though we can’t say we are free from sin, we can’t claim to belong to God if we continue in sin. Periodic sins are to be expected, but habitual sin, particularly the kind of sin that reveals an unloving heart, is proof of the devil’s work in that person. Therefore, if some pastor, church leader, or in fact any other human being has a habitual sin that displays an unloving heart (as almost all sexual sin does), John would conclude that the devil had been at work in him.
The bottom line is that even though sin is everywhere, those who claim to be followers of Jesus (regardless of position in the church!) are expected to live lives of love and purity, and if you claim to be a follower of Jesus yet have any habitual sin in your life, you need to get it under control or you will be just as guilty in God’s eyes as anyone who’s ever been arrested for any of these sins.
So why does it happen?
I can’t tell you specifically why any sin ever happens, but the Bible leads us to understand how any sin develops in a person’s life. It comes from the heart.
For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come‚—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. — Mark 7:21-22
When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. — James 1:13-15
Sin crouches in the soul, in the heart waiting to come out at an opportune time, and there’s one thing that lets sin stay there, under the surface of our lives until it gets an opportunity. What is that one thing? Darkness.
Remember what John said in chapter 1 verse 7?
if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin.
The antidote to the problem of the heart, to the problem of sin, and even to relationship problems is walking in the light! Therefore, I conclude that if someone has a sin problem or a relationship problem, it’s because of walking in darkness, but if we want to walk in the light, it requires not only that I myself live in an environment of light (especially the relationships I maintain), but it also requires that I allow the light to shine on me. The antidote to sin is to let the light shine on me and to walk with others who likewise let the light shine on them.
If that’s the case, then there are two simple reasons why people fall into sin. They keep their hearts in the dark, and they keep their friends in the dark.
Let me explore those thoughts with you for a moment.
A darkened heart
Simply put, a darkened heart means that a person has gone for a long time without meditating on the Word of God. David would say in the Psalms:
I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. — Psalm 119:11
and he would also say:
Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path. — Psalm 119:105
A heart that is not filled with the Word of God is a darkened heart. Now, that doesn’t mean I think pastor Bob or any of these other leaders were not reading their Bible. I’m sure they were actually spending a great deal of time in the Bible, but it’s one thing to read, and it’s quite a different thing to absorb it. Two more passages are relevant to this:
Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. — James 1:23-24
But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash. — Matthew 7:26-27
When sin comes to the surface, it’s because the penetrating light of God’s Word wasn’t allowed to shine where the sin was hiding. Those who block a part of their heart from the light of God’s Word are creating a sin incubator inside themselves.
The Bible speaks of two different kind of “darkened” friendships–friends who choose lives of darkness and friends I choose to keep in the dark.
Regarding the first group of “friends” the Bible teaches that people who hang out with wicked people will themselves fall into destruction:
Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither‚ whatever they do prospers. Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction. — Psalm 1:1-6
In our world today, this can happen outside the context of “friendships” and in the context of entertainment. With technology, it is possible today to enjoy the “company of mockers” while being completely alone. The values of the world can seep into a person’s life simply by osmosis. If a person is hanging out with wicked people, watching wicked shows, or otherwise regularly soaking in a godless culture, that person will be corrupted by it.
Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm. — Proverbs 13:20
Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.” — 1 Corinthians 15:33
However, a person can have the greatest, most godly friends in the world, but still have darkened friendships by simply choosing to deceive, lie, or otherwise keep them in the dark. A person can have darkened friendships by simply never opening up and confessing to them his sins, temptations, and struggles. By avoiding the vulnerability of confession, he never reaches the point of growth that is supposed to come when godly people are with each other.
As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. — Proverbs 27:17
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. — James 5:16
Therefore, we can say that a great deal of sin is simply the result of a darkened heart living with darkened relationships. What then, shall we do to move from darkness into light?
Moving from darkness to light
Paul gives the people of Ephesus a severe challenge in his letter to them:
Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
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. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person‚–such a person is an idolater‚–has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible‚ and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said: “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
Be very careful, then, how you live‚–not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. — Ephesians 5:1-16
Paul attacks sexual immorality, impurity, and greed (three things rampant in our culture even among church leaders), but he attacks them from the standpoint of light and darkness. He tells us that those who belong to God are “children of light” and should work to “expose” the darkness wherever it may be found. In other words, Paul’s charge to followers of Jesus is that they live in the light.
So before we ever address the specific questions raised by any specific scandal, I want to turn the questions to you and to me. Let’s ask these self-evaluating questions:
- Is there any area of my heart where the light of the Word of God is not currently shining? Is there any area where I am knowingly avoiding the light of God’s Word?
- Are there any regular relationships I maintain (with people, Internet, or other media) where there is no light?
- Is there any area of my heart that is in the dark from other people? That is, for each attitude, behavior, temptation, and thought that’s true of me, is there at least one person who knows me well enough to know about it and to call me on it when they see it?
If you have darkness in your heart or darkness in your relationships, you are likely to fall to temptation. Deal with it now before it’s too late!
Some Questions for times of Scandal
Now, I’ve already covered a lot of information above because I’m convinced that to have good answers to any of these questions, we need to have a solid background on the way sin works in a person’s life. If we understand how sin works, then we can begin to figure out some answers.
How can a pastor or church leader do something like that?
The simple answer is that sin works in the lives of a pastor just like it works in anyone else’s life. But the scary thing is that if sin can work in someone who “knows the Bible” as well as pastors claim to, then we must conclude that Biblical knowledge doesn’t get you very far when it comes to conquering sin. Bottom line, if a pastor can let the darkness rule in his heart, how much more vigilant should all of us be about the darkness in our own hearts!?
How can I ever trust another pastor or church?
Here are a few really challenging truths that taken individually are fine, but when combined shake us up:
- Humans fail us.
- God doesn’t fail us.
- God appoints leaders from the pool of humanity for his purposes.
- Sometimes those leaders fail.
Can we trust a God who lets humans prone to failure serve as leaders for others? Can we ever be good enough for a God who only accepts humans who are above sin?
These are hard questions for which the only possible answer is “Grace.” God gives us grace when we don’t deserve it, and if we want to receive grace from God, we must be willing to show grace to others. We are called still to punish evil through church discipline and public courts, but even in the midst of discipline, we are called to be people of grace and forgiveness.
So, when the rubber meets the road when it comes to trusting God and trusting the leaders he puts in place, my advice is this:
- Trust God more than anything else. He calls leaders into position for his purposes, he calls you into a church fellowship for his purposes, and he places you in life circumstances for his purposes. Trust that his overall plan is good. Trust his purposes and trust him.
- Trust the Word of God more than any other human. Understand the Word so clearly that you can discern sin in your life and in the lives of others from far off.
- Trust the Grace of God. Understand that no one is too far gone for Jesus. Approach sin in yourself and root it out. Approach sin in others and root it out.
- Trust people who trust what you trust. If someone demonstrates that they trust what you trust, trust them too. If someone proves that they don’t trust God, his Word or his Grace, then address their sin because you trust Grace.
- Don’t ever trust someone who hasn’t demonstrated the preeminence of #1-3 in his or her life.
- Don’t ever blindly trust an organization just because of what that organization claims to be. Get involved, do some investigative work, learn what you can, talk to the leaders, interview people who might know something, and then commit to be part of helping that organization get better at doing #1-4. Commit to being a problem-solver rather than either a leech or a troublemaker.
I hate sin. I hate when God’s people fail to represent His name well. I hate when leaders violate the trust of their people. I will do whatever I can to prevent it in me and in our church. But you must know this, if I fall, if you fall, if anyone falls into sin, God’s grace is strong enough to not just forgive but to cleanse and to heal broken people, God’s Spirit is strong enough to rebuild broken churches, and God’s promise is that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from his love.
Will you join me in being people of the light who will not tolerate sin in ourselves, who aggressively but gently address sin in our fellow disciples, and who lavishly display both grace and truth to all, even those outside the faith?