The email began very simply: “I am so discouraged.” The day before her pastor had resigned. Twelve years ago she had been brought back to the Lord by a pastor who seemed to be a godly man. Later he left his wife to enter the homosexual lifestyle. Then came a good pastor who was falsely accused of financial wrongdoing. Though found innocent, he left the church. Then came another pastor who wasn’t honest in his financial dealings. This led to a church split. Then there was yet another pastor with serious financial issues that he did not handle properly. Now he is gone. And the woman writing the letter is discouraged and depressed. Here is the heart of the matter:
Are these things typical of churches today? Are my expectations of having a loving church with a heterosexual, honest, committed, holiness living and preaching pastor too high?
She ends her note with these words:
I know that I go to church to worship the Lord, not the pastor. I know that if I keep my eyes on people, I will usually be disappointed, and I must keep my eyes only on Christ. I know these things. It doesn’t make me feel better. I have heard it said that the Lord allows us to have problems in our life so that we will yearn for heaven. That is certainly true because I have thought that I wish the Lord would come and take us all away where we can worship the Lord together happily. And then I wonder, how is heaven going to be such a wonderful place, when it will be full of people? Any encouraging words would be very much appreciated.
I think she speaks for multitudes of churchgoers who have been disappointed with their spiritual leaders. Though the email arrived a few days ago, it has taken on new urgency in my mind in light of the revelations concerning Ted Haggard.
A few thoughts are in order:
1) We should not be totally surprised when our leaders fail us. We all fail to one degree or another, and some of us fail miserably and repeatedly. We all have feet of clay.
2) That said, we must continue to hold our leaders to the high standards set in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Paul summed it up when he said that a spiritual leader must be “above reproach.” The Greek word describes a garment without any folds. When applied to personal character, it means that leader must be free from any secret or hidden pockets of sin. Said another way, it means that a godly leader has nothing hidden because there is nothing to hide. The Living Bible uses the phrase “a good man whose life cannot be spoken against.” Knox says “one with whom no fault can be found.” It means that no charge could be brought against such a person that would withstand impartial examination. Leaders are often attacked, their motives questioned, their actions criticized. While such things do happen, a leader who is truly above reproach will weather the storm because there is nothing about him which a person could say, “Aha! I gotcha.” This means no questionable conduct, no secret sins, no deliberately unresolved conflicts.
3. John Calvin offers a helpful distinction between the “ordinary vices” that are found in all men, even in those of the highest character, and those sins that give a man a “disgraceful name” and stain his reputation. To be “above reproach” does not mean sinless perfection, but rather a life of honor and integrity.
4. It’s true that heaven will be full of people, but they will be redeemed people, changed and transformed, and all of us will be transformed by the grace and mercy of the Lord. That’s a good thing because it means the heartbreak we feel over leaders who disappoint us will not last forever.
5. “Are these things typical of churches today?” In my experience the answer is no. The vast majority of pastors I have known have been decent, honest, hard-working, faithful men of God. I have yet to meet a perfect pastor, and I’ve known a few with serious problems, but most of them were men of high moral character who took their calling seriously.
6. “Are my expectations of having a loving church with a heterosexual, honest, committed, holiness living and preaching pastor too high?” Not at all. Most pastors I know fit this description.
7. I don’t know exactly what to say about the succession of pastors and the sexual and financial improprieties. On one hand, there are churches by the thousands where there is no difficulty for years, where pastors stay for a long time and leave under no cloud at all. And then there are cases where the church suffers through bad pastoral leadership for long periods. It does make one wonder if the church is not giving proper oversight to its pastors. This is a tricky area, but sometimes pastors get in trouble because they had no friends who were free to ask hard questions and hold them accountable for their answers.
8. On the larger point, we must not give up on the local church. There are times when we may need to find a new church. That’s not my recommendation, just a personal observation. When leaders have greatly disappointed us, we need time to heal. It is not wrong to grieve what has happened in your church or even to take a breather from any form of church leadership for a period of time. We all need a rest from leadership and a break in our service from time to time. As Vance Havner said, If we don’t come apart and rest for a while, we will simply come apart.
9. Times like these call for prayer and honest self-examination. I’m sure thousands of Christian leaders took a deep breath when they heard about Ted Haggard. What happened to him could happen to any of us. I cannot explain why he did what he did, but I am reminded of the English writer who remarked that there is no man who, if his thoughts were made public, would not deserve hanging a dozen times a day. To which I reply, only a dozen times? All we like sheep have gone astray, all have sinned and fallen short, and there but for the grace of God go I.
10. When Jesus said, “I will build my church,” he told us that the church itself is his creation. He is the General Superintendent of a building project that has been going on for 2000 years. Sometimes the Lord uses stones that under pressure crumble into dust. But the church goes on because it is built on the Rock that cannot be shaken.
11. We must not give in to despair. Let us join together and ask the Lord to raise up a generation of pastors who will lead with honesty, integrity, compassion, godly vision and Christlike character.
O Lord, give us pastors like that, and then give us churches to love and support them. Amen.