How do we keep these things from happening?

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This weekend, the news broke that Tullian Tchividjian resigned as pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, after admitting to an extramarital affair in a statement provided to the Washington Post.

There’s so much that could be said about this issue, and no doubt, much of it will be in the days (or hours) to come. Some of us will make the mistake of reading most of it (not that all the commentary will be bad, but because most of it won’t be necessary). So, naturally, I’m writing something related to it that I hope you’ll actually read and find helpful.

Although I’ve met Tullian, shared emails periodically and had a couple of Skype calls (for an interview a couple of years back), what I know of him mostly comes from his books and preaching. I’ve never attended his church, so I don’t know what the culture is like there in terms of the whole creepy pastor-celebrity worship thing that sometimes happens in churches with pastors who have a large platform. I don’t know what his accountability structure was like at his church, but I do know from what we see in the Post article that there was some form of authority playing an active role in his life, one looking out for his good—and not merely his platform.

So please don’t read this as someone trying to do armchair detective work and pinpoint “the real problem”. I don’t want this to be assumed to be a rant that comes across like the self-righteous boasting of the Pharisee who prayed, “Thank God I am not like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). And likewise I don’t want to offer the despicable “nobody’s perfect/we all make mistakes” sentiments you often see when a high profile Christian is found to be engaged in disqualifying sin.

So why I am I writing this then?

Honestly, I think I mostly want to address one question: How do we help ensure these sorts of things don’t keep happening? This sort of sin is heartbreaking on every level: It’s awful for the people involved. It’s devastating to a local church. It hurts so many people on so many levels, both inside and outside the church. And we need to treat it as such. And one of the best ways to do that is to figure out how we protect our pastors, our fellow church members, our friends, our family, and ourselves from crossing that line we’re all only one or two wrong decisions away from.

Now, here’s the first thing we need to remember: Sin isn’t a problem for “celebrity” Christians alone. Sin is no respecter of a person’s anonymity or notoriety. So we can’t say point a finger and say, well, of course XYZ happened—look at the size of his or her church, platform or whatever. Nor do we point fingers at theology in general. While sometimes the sins we see committed (or we commit) are the outworking of a deficient theology, the problem can’t be neatly pegged on a theological system. After all, as we’ve seen, it’s possible to learn directly from Jesus and still fall prey to the fear of man and be guilty of hypocrisy (Galatians 2:11-14). So while it’s tempting to say that sin is the result of being too light on law or too free with grace or something like that, we need to look at a different area of our lives. The problem we face is certainly a theological one, and there’s no one answer to the problem, but I wonder if it’s helpful to consider our view of the place of the church in accountability?

More pointedly, how do we answer these two questions:

Who really knows us? If you’re in a North American evangelical church with a congregation larger than 200, there’s a good chance that you can easily hide if you so choose. You could come every single week, sit in the same seat, and leave again without ever being noticed. It’s possible to do this (in fact, I know of one church in my city that’s known for being the church you go to if you want to hide, which I’m sure is not the leadership’s intention whatsoever). And if you’re a pastor, it’s possible to set up your entire life in such a way that you never, ever have to deal with the people who are (allegedly) being shepherded by you. While it might be convenient, perhaps even appealing, there’s a pretty significant problem with this set-up: if no one knows us, there’s no one to protect us from ourselves.

Now, make no mistake: letting people know you is risky. It means you actually have to let them know you. They must know things about you, and not just what you’re looking at on the Internet. After all, we have CSIS and the NSA for that (hi, guys). We need to have people who can ask us about just about anything in our lives—and expect a real answer. If you don’t have someone who’s willing to call you out when you’re full of crap, you might have a problem. Speaking of which…

How highly do we esteem ourselves? How we see ourselves is just as important as anything else. If we act as though we are somehow above certain sins, we’re almost certainly going to fall to those very things. Bloggers know where I’m coming from on this: If someone doesn’t read my blog today, am I going to lose my mind and check my stats incessantly? How do I react when others experience greater success than me? How do I react when people leave my church and go to the one down the road? Do I actually believe that if Jesus is to increase, I must decrease—or do I just affirm it with my lips all the while thinking I’m a pretty big deal? All of this, though, is just an expression of autonomy—which is really just a polite way of saying “I worship myself.”

I’m not exaggerating when I say we’re all only one or two wrong decisions away from being in a similar situation as any number of Christian leaders who’ve committed adultery, become domineering or otherwise abused their authority. I don’t wonder, “How could this have happened?” when I learn about adultery among pastors or any of the other sins we see being committed. I grieve over them because I know exactly how they happen. It just takes one decision. It happens in an instant, and happens in the heart long before it happens in the body. That’s one of the things I love about people who know themselves well: they’re not naïve enough to assume they couldn’t do something similar, and so are intentional about being faithful, God-honoring men and women (in every sense).

And this is one of the things that terrify me about the advice I see offered in leadership circles. It’s the whole, “Nobody gets your struggles/leadership is lonely/you’re a snowflake” thing. Which, incidentally, is the same kind of stuff someone trying to tempt you into sin will say to you (as many a woman or man knows). The problem, of course, is it’s complete bunk. It not only sets up the pastor as being somehow in a different class than other believers, but it leaves him without the protection that comes from being a part of the body.

Which brings me back to something sorely lacking within evangelical churches today: accountability. Is this the only issue? Nope. Like I said, when it comes to sin in general, and sin such as adultery in particular, it’s a lot more complicated than just accountability. Nevertheless, it is an issue. The gospel doesn’t just save us from sin, but saves us into community. And among the many ways community helps us is to protect us as people know us. To continually call us all to live in light of what Jesus has done and continues to do in our lives. Is accountability a perfect failsafe? Nope. But you and I need it nonetheless—desperately. Likewise, we need to carefully consider how we would answer these two questions: Who really knows us, and how highly do we think of ourselves? The answers to those may make a world of difference for ourselves, our churches and the world around us.

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