Tullian Tchividjian, grandson of Billy Graham and former pastor at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, has had quite the slide.
Last year, after an embattled tenure, Tullian resigned as pastor at Coral Ridge. That he was not a match for the former stomping grounds of D. James Kennedy was hardly surprising; he was in trouble from day one.
That his resignation was prompted by the admission of an extramarital affair, that was the killer. He claimed that he had an affair after his wife had an affair of her own. (Note: That justifies nothing, and Tullian knows it. That one spouse breaks his or her end of a covenant hardly gives license to the other party to indulge in immorality.)
Unfortunately, that wasn’t Tullian’s only affair.
And while Willow Creek Presbyterian Church promptly fired Tullian after revelations of the additional affair were confirmed, that begs a larger question: why on earth did they hire him so soon after his resignation from Coral Ridge? Why did they hire him at all, even if it was for a non-pastoral role?
Over the course of my adult life, I’ve seen more church scandals–high and low profile–than I ever wanted or hoped to see. I’ve seen church responses to the scandals ranging from (a) allowing the pastor to remain in the office without so much as a suspension, (b) forcing the pastor to resign and take a sabbatical, (c) firing the pastor, who subsequently returns to ministry after some time off, and (d) firing the pastorand later excommunicating him (and his mistress) after he flat-out refused to break off the affair. I’ve known one church staffer who, unbeknownst to the rest of us at the time, was molesting children. I’ve seen the case of Ted Haggard, a mega-church pastor who was forced to resign in a gay sex scandal. And that says nothing of the television ministers–from Bakker to Swaggart–who gave the Church a black eye.
Almost every time something like this happens, I hear a large number–I would suggest a majority–of Christians insist that, if the pastor is “repentant”, that he should be allowed to return to the office.
Allow me to shoot that idea full of holes. And heregoes…
For one thing, we need to understand this crystal clear: marriage is a COVENANT. Sex is the act of that covenant. Covenants are binding as long as the parties both live. Breaking that covenant is a very big honkin’ deal. I’ve often stated that sexual sin is the gift that keeps on giving, and that is true. But adultery is that on steroids.
When any Christian–especially a pastor–breaks his or her marital vows by having sex with someone else, it means that a number of things have happened.
(1) He or she has capitulated to a longstanding wave of lust. That may or may not include porn, but that doesn’t matter. That lust has driven such a one to flip that switch. If someone tells you “it just happened”, there is a eight-letter word for that which is deeply-rooted in our agricultural heritage.
(2) He or she has overridden every Biblical warning against adultery. Perhaps they rationalize it in terms of, “God will forgive me…just look at what He did for King David!”. They aren’t thinking straight, as they are ignoring the warnings of Solomon in Proverbs. You might note that Solomon was born to Bathsheba whom, you guessed it, David had taken as his wife after killing her husband to cover up the affair. And if you are familiar with the story, David’s life was just short of Hell on earth for the rest of his life: the first child with Bathsheba died, his family was hit with rape and murder scandals, one of his sons would mount an insurrection and publicly have sex with all of David’s wives, even his successor–Solomon–would indulge in sexual license beyond all recognition by marrying hundreds of foreign women, and this would lead to the civil war that led to a divided kingdom that would ultimately lead Israel to ruin.
To make a long story short, sin has consequences. And it isn’t simply David. Every time a car bomb goes off in Israel, just remember that all of that started when Abram took Hagar as his “wife”.
(3) He or she has thrown all regard for all that is good out the window. I’ve seen a pastor–a FATHER OF FIVE–leave his wife for another woman. You think they weren’t impacted by that? You think his “repentance” will just make all things well? (Oh, and he didn’t repent. If I see him in person, I will have to fight the urge to tell him to do what Dick Cheney told Pat Leahy to do on the Senate floor.)
When the former pastor at my church confessed to an affair with the secretary, I saw grown men cry over their misplaced trust in him. His (now ex) wife was in my small group. She handled everything like an exemplary Christian who got burned. And let me tell you, we all wanted to burn the pastor at the stake. And yes, they have a teenage daughter. Wanna bet money that she’s having more struggles than the average bear in her cohort?
Don’t get me wrong, God forgives sin. Thank GOD that God forgives sin, even sexual sin, even adultery. Because even those of us who haven’t broken our marriage vows in the flesh have almost universally done so, in the words of Jimmy Carter, in our hearts. Marriage doesn’t make the war against lust go away, although it CAN make fighting that battle easier. We would all do well to be reminded that the physical acting out of that adultery begins with lust. Jesus laid that on the table in a sermon that, taken at face value, tells us how woefully short of the glory we all are. Thank God for forgiveness of sin.
At the same time, forgiveness of sin hardly implies the removal of all consequences. While your sins will not be counted against you on judgment day, it is also true that the Law of Sowing and Reaping shall not be up for repeal in the foreseeable future.
How does this speak to the pastor who has fallen?
For one thing, there are specific Biblical requirements for deacons and elders (which include pastors). I Timothy 3 is very clear on the matter:
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
So just from that small passage, we have some pretty high requirements:
(a) Above reproach;
(b) husband of one wife;
(g) able to teach;
(h) not a drunkard;
(i) not violent but gentle;
(j) not quarrelsome;
(k) not a lover of money;
(l) must manage his own household well;
(m) must keep his children submissive with all dignity;
(n) not a recent convert;
(o) well-regarded by outsiders.
Can a pastor who has broken his wedding vows meet such requirements? Can he ever be above reproach? Can he ever be respectable? Will he be well-regarded by outsiders again? (Or will his preaching again breed contempt among outsiders?)
Those are hard questions that demand more than pat answers. It is not merely enough to say, “Well…he expressed repentance.”
What I’d like to see in such a pastor, in a resignation letter:
Some of you might be wondering if I ever will go back to the ministry. The short answer: probably never. The Biblical qualifications for this office are very high, and, arguably, my own terrible choices have made it likely that I may never be properly qualified for that office. And quite frankly, that would be a mild penalty to pay for my failures. It is time for others more capable to take that baton. You don’t need me casting additional scandal on the Gospel. Shame on me for putting you in that position.