When church leaders fail to live up to the standards we expect of them, how do we respond? What lessons do we take away when a prominent pastor is disgraced?
The Village Church in the United States announced over the weekend that their senior pastor, Matt Chandler, would be taking an extended leave of absence due to an inappropriate online relationship with another woman. While the decision was both “disciplinary and developmental”, the statement also clarifies that:
The messages were not romantic or sexual in nature, the frequency and familiarity of the messages crossed a line. They revealed that Matt did not use language appropriate for a pastor, and he did not model a behaviour that we expect from him.
When a leader stumbles…
Sadly, even leaders in Christ’s church make mistakes. That really goes without saying because we are all broken, fallen sinners in desperate need of God’s forgiveness. But at the same time, the Bible outlines that those who aspire to be overseers are to be “above reproach” (1 Tim. 3:2) and will be “judged more strictly” (Jam. 3:1).
What’s more, the Scriptures also clearly — and helpfully — outline what we should do whenever a leader’s conduct comes into question. The apostle Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 5:19-21 are especially apt:
Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.
I charge you in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favouritism.
The Application of Biblical Principles
To their credit, it seems that Matt Chandler and the leadership team at The Village Church followed these appropriate steps. According to the statement:
- Matt Chandler listened and prayerfully considered the concerns which had been brought to him.
- Matt Chandler then immediately shared those concerns with both his wife and his fellow elders.
- The eldership then “commissioned an independent law firm to conduct a review of Matt’s messaging history across social media platforms, cell phone, and email” to ascertain a comprehensive and objective assessment.
- Matt Chandler then willingly submitted to the process of discipline and development that the eldership constructed.
All in all, it seems to have been a model response to a tragic situation. People are sure to quibble about such and such being done better, but leading a church through these kinds of situations are notoriously difficult. And it’s important to remember that — unlike the leaders at The Village Church — we don’t have all the information.
What Can We Learn?
It’s really good to stop at this point and reflect on what we ourselves can learn from this tragic situation. I would like to suggest five things:
First, flowing out of Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 5:20, the reason why a leader who sins is to be rebuked publicly is “so that others may take warning”. As such, this is a timely and sobering reminder as to how pastors in particular communicate online, and especially with members of the opposite sex. For as Paul says earlier in 1 Timothy 4:12, teaching elders in particular should “set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.”
Second, we should all — leaders and laity alike — take heart the warning that, “There but for the grace of God go I”. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:12, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” It would be incredibly easy to self-righteously look down on Matt Chandler and think, “That could never happen to me”. But the truth of the matter is, it could! And so, we need to be all the more diligent in resisting our deceitfulness produced by our own pride.
Third, we must resist the temptation of being judgmental. There’s a perverse delight that one can take in the downfall of a respected and influential leader, because it puffs ourselves up. But it is the polar opposite to love (i.e. 1 Cor. 13:6). And it was also the attitude of the Pharisees who zealously condemned the adulterous woman in John 8. Just to be clear, Matt Chandler was graciously preserved from anything like that happening, but has publicly acknowledged his failure to speak and act as a leader should.
Fourth, it is a time to grieve and mourn. Grieve because a faithful servant of God has fallen into sin. And mourn at the damage this does to the name of Christ and the well-being of His church. In his commentary on 1 Samuel, Dale Ralph Davis writes this about the prophet Samuel mourning for Saul after he lost the Israelite kingship (see 1 Sam. 15:35).
Was there not something proper in Samuel’s grief? He was not upset over a lousy bowling score or because someone had side-swiped his car or because he had only a three-bedroom house. Rather he was distressed over the spiritual disaster of a promising instrument of God, over the welfare of God’s people, over their condition and security.
Do we ever mourn over such matters? Do we mourn or gossip over the sins of others? Do we ever sorrow over the unbelief in the churches and among the professional ministry? Do we ever grieve over the biblical and ethical ignorance among professing believers? Does anything ever move us, aside from our own comfort and security?’ There is something commendable, instructive, in Samuel’s distress’.
And finally, fifth, we should all re-commit ourselves to prayer. Prayer for Matt Chandler and his future potential ministry. Prayer for The Village Church as they navigate this incredibly difficult time. And pray for ourselves, that not only will we also not fall into the same trap, but that when a similar kind of situation occurs, the leaders of our churches will act with the same kind of wisdom, grace and integrity.
Photo: Jesse McKee/Christianity Today