When I was converted to Jesus Christ in 1974, I spent the first year and a half of my Christian life desperately denying what was in front of me for fear that I would be committing sin by acknowledging the obvious, that Christians sometimes commit incredible sins. Not growing up in a Christian home, this revelation was as new to me as I have discovered it to be to some in my ministry over the past four decades. When my wife and I moved to another church to go back to school to prepare for the gospel ministry shortly after we married, we found ourselves thoroughly confused. The pastor who baptized me chewed me out in the parking lot in front of some church members when I informed him that I was following his directive to enroll in Bible college. And what did he angrily yell at me for? For leaving the church to go to the Bible college, he advised me to enroll in. Thus began my efforts to understand Baptist pastors. And though I have been the pastor of two Baptist churches over the last 38 years, I am not persuaded I have made much progress in my quest to understand what makes Baptist pastors tick.
The church my new bride and I next joined was recommended to us by a fellow who seemed to be considerably more experienced in such things. The church was considerably larger than our previous church home, and it was growing at a fairly rapid pace. The new to me pastor was notable for his previous pastorate, which had been a rapidly growing church. After all, Elmer Towns wrote that his previous church had been one of the fastest growing in the nation. I wondered in passing why he left such a rapidly growing church but gave the matter no serious reflection. We were members under his leadership for one year before he left to become a missionary, and then we were there for two more years under his very kind successor. It was after our new pastor had left that I occasionally heard murmurs and comments about his past but paid no attention to them. After several years had passed and I left my first pastorate for my present pastorate, the rumors resumed, and I heard them now more frequently since I was situated in a vast metropolitan area and no longer in a farming community.
It was at my second pastorate that I also began to face the aftermaths of mishandled ministerial crisis management. My impression (though I am not an expert, not having grown up in church) is that misconduct was frequently handled by pastors in days gone by differently than is legally required today. In my state, I am identified as a mandatory reporter of any accusation made to me of misconduct by an adult with a child, regardless of its plausibility. Thus, if a ten-year-old who is known to be a liar says a certain Mr. Jones touched him inappropriately, I immediately pick up the phone and dial 9-1-1. State law forbids that I exercise discretion when I hear of such matters. I comply with the law. However, sinful conduct that occurs between adults is another matter altogether. And I must admit that pastors are somewhat frequently given unsolicited information that we cannot act upon. Simply because someone makes an accusation about a pastor in another church having an affair with a member of that other church is insufficient grounds for me to say or do anything. Such has always been my stance.
Things began to change somewhat when a ministry friend at my end of the state told me he was visiting a preacher acquaintance of ours at the other end of our vast state. Perhaps six weeks later I saw my ministry friend again, and he was very sad. The man he had visited was experiencing terrible grief in his church ministry because of his predecessor’s predecessor. But his predecessor’s predecessor was none other than my former new pastor! In the course of our conversation, and without names being mentioned (however, being a trained engineer I am clever about adding two plus two) I was forced to the conclusion that my former pastor was a serial adulterer, with his adultery body count numbering in the dozens. The rumors over the years sadly turned out to be true. It seems that the only place he did not soil his own ministry nest was the church my wife and I were in when he was our pastor for one year. My conclusion was confirmed when he admitted to committing adultery (again) at a subsequent pastorate, and yet again when a longtime friend of his and mine informed me of even more sordid revelations. Then an older church planter me he had to leave where he was presently attending because he observed all the signs that pointed to this same preacher grooming yet another woman with attention and flattery. And when he moved to another state he did it all over again! The history of this man is sickening. He is the Bill Clinton of the independent Baptists, leading anyone with a brain and heart to conclude that he is a sociopath and certainly not a Christian.
That is not the end of his story. His story is still being written and with tragic consequences, including sexual infidelity by one of his children and also by those young men employed by him over the years as young staff members fresh out of Bible college. I am hard pressed to think of someone near my age who once worked for the guy who has not subsequently admitted to sexual misconduct at some point. I certainly recognize that sexual infidelity is not something only Baptists are faced with. I am old enough to remember the fall of President Reagan’s former pastor for inappropriate conduct with a church member he was counseling. As well, most of us my age remember the terrible publicity surrounding Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Ted Haggard. Some of you reading this may even be aware of the controversies surrounding Aimee Semple McPherson almost a century ago, who founded the Pentecostal Foursquare denomination and led the Angeles Temple near Echo Park in Los Angeles. However, just because such conduct takes place among other groups does not mean it is excusable in our movement. Additionally, I am sure you are discerning enough to recognize that I do not deny that sinful behavior can be forgiven. No one that I know disputes that. However, there is great evil afoot in our Baptist circles, and it is being advanced as a means of manipulating the gullible at the expense of our God-given message that Jesus Christ saves sinners from their sins rather than in their sins, Matthew 1.21.
In this second in a series of musings about the reasons some of those who are younger leave our movement, let is pay attention to how we handle sin in our ranks, especially how we react to sins committed by those who are supposed to be under-shepherds of God’s flocks but who use their positions to violate the sheep. How do we as pastors deal with such sins as have been committed in Florida by prominent pastors, in the Chicago area by prominent pastors, in the Bay area of California, and also in Southern California? Do we say nothing? Do we do nothing?
I was converted in 1974. Growing up in a secular home, my parents surprisingly took my brother and me to church four or five times during my mid teens. I remember the experiences vividly. I remember that Baptist pastor, as well as his name. I remember that in the small town where I went to high school, a town where no secrets were safe, everyone in my high school knew that pastor was cheating on his wife. If you think I paid any attention to that man’s gospel sermons, with all his talk about being saved from your sins, you are a bigger fool than he was. I scorned him. I derided him. I despised him. I had no respect whatsoever for him. How could I after what he had done? Perhaps he was a factor in my slide into atheism while in engineering school. So my musings about infidelity in the ministry come from my impressions, the impressions of a young person who was aware of the cheating being done by the preacher he occasionally listened to.
Do I think a pastor who cheats on his wife can and should be forgiven? Of course, I do. Do I think a pastor who cheats on his wife with dozens of different women should be forgiven? Yes, but that is not the issue that faces our movement. The issue that faces us is why a man who has already confessed to committing adultery while in the gospel ministry is still in the gospel ministry. And don’t give me any nonsense about the gifts and calling of God being without repentance. Romans 11.29 is not a passage that is properly applied to the call to the gospel ministry and the qualifications that must be maintained to serve as a spiritual leader. Another distortion that is making the rounds is the assertion that not even adultery is grounds for divorce. I suspect such a position is used by adulterous preachers as a way of keeping their disappointed wives from leaving them for their infidelities. That is nothing short of wresting the scriptures to avoid the consequences of committing adultery. It is wickedness.
Here is one of the problems we must come to grips with, as I see it, in our movement. This matter of sexual infidelity is routinely seriously mishandled, even by good men who are faithful to their wives. How so? We are allowing prominent men who are credibly accused of very serious sins to hold themselves unaccountable to their congregations or anyone else because of some warped notion of pastoral leadership, when the Apostle Paul very specifically clarified the church’s authority to address the sins and charges of sin in the life of a pastor, First Timothy 5.19-20:
19 Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses.
20 Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear.
This passage shows that a pastor is certainly subject to the authority of the congregation he serves, with Matthew 18.16-20 showing that there is no greater authority on earth to deal with sins in a congregation than the authority of the local church. I remember my days in Bible college when one teacher taught that a pastor was not subject to the authority of the church he presided over. I thought the notion was laughable at the time, but I have seen since then that it is a more widely held belief than I had thought possible. Pastors, we need to be ready to advise congregations that seek our input so deacons and other lay leaders will know how to deal with serious sins by their pastors. And then there is our response as pastors to this evil of restoring sexually promiscuous preachers to positions of spiritual leadership, even to recommending them to churches that have no knowledge of their previous sins. Just last week a pastor told me of a conversation he had in the office of another pastor about yet another instance of adultery that led to a resignation. During their discussion my friend said the other guy received a phone call and proceeded to recommend to another church the adulterous man they had been discussing!
We have got to stop this nonsense of recommending adulterers to be pastors of churches! It is more important for us to be loyal to the Savior and His cause than to be falsely loyal to a traitorous ministry pal. As well, we need to embrace Biblical convictions about this matter of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Whatever your personal stance on divorce happens to be, please make sure you recognize that there were four grounds for divorce in the Mosaic Law and that our Lord spoke to only one of them (strongly suggesting He had no quarrel with the other three). Thus, the notion that there are never grounds for divorce in the Bible is simply unsustainable. Even if you and I disagree about this topic in general, you have to agree with me that the perverse and malevolent notion that is advanced by adulterous pastors that their wives have no recourse when confronted by their ongoing infidelity would be the only place in scripture where God offers an offended party no recourse. How dare pastors put up with that nonsense without strongly and vocally opposing it for what it is, a demonic attempt to cheat on your wife without paying the consequences. As a Baptist by conviction, I endorse the liberty of Pastors to develop their convictions about the issue of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. However, I would urge upon every preacher two books written by a Baptist pastor and legitimate scholar, David Instone-Brewer, Divorce And Remarriage In The Bible and Divorce And Remarriage In The Church. I assure you that until you have read those two books you have likely not sufficiently studied the topic, regardless of the position you end up embracing.
I know that my new pastor (as I will continue to refer to this scoundrel) seems to have engaged in adulterous behavior in every ministry he has been involved in since he left the church where I was a member. Why did his wife not divorce him? Why did his wife not publicly show him to be unqualified to serve in ministry leadership positions? Has she no obligation to the cause of Christ her husband so damages? As well, why did his grown sons not demonstrate loyalty to the cause of Christ by insisting that their father never again serves in the pastorate after dozens of adulterous affairs? If his adult children are real Christians one should expect them to side with the Savior against their father’s wicked conduct. Then there are those church members such wicked men preach to. How many teens will have to listen to such men as I had to listen to that pastor when I was a teen? And how many families are such men allowed to destroy by such wicked conduct before they are stopped? Does no one who is Christ’s under-shepherd consider the families of those women who are cheated with, families who will never again trust a pastor or seek pastoral counseling to deal with serious problems?
Have you ever given thought to teens in a church leaving and never coming back because they have discovered their pastor is an adulterer, or they have discovered that their pastor has covered for an adulterer, or has invited an adulterer to preach at their church, or has even gone so far as to take steps to rehabilitate a man guilty of dozens of adulteries? And what about the young men who serve as pastors in our movement? Can you criticize a young man for leaving to escape the company of men who passively and spinelessly tolerate adultery? Then there is the matter of training young men for the Gospel ministry while subjecting them to men who have a filthy reputation. How can a pastor send support to a college that seeks to rehabilitate men who have dragged the Gospel ministry through the muck? How can you allow a singing group from such a school come to your church? As well, how dare Bible colleges recruit to enroll in their school by using telephone calls from young women to high school boys? Have you ever listened to one of those conversations? It is preying on the fantasies of young lads to arrange a phone call from a very pleasant sounding young woman who suggests that they might be friends if he enrolls in her school. Such tactics are shameful and border on pimping. I would go through the roof if I ever found out my daughter was employed in such a way.
In my musings, I wonder what I might have done if I had known of my new pastor’s wicked conduct when he was still my pastor and I was in my second year in the Christian faith, just a babe in Christ. Perhaps it was God working providentially to protect me that I did not know what that man had done and would do until I was mature enough to know what to do about his conduct. I know what to do now. I have nothing to do with the man. I have nothing to do with his son’s attempts to rehabilitate him. I have nothing to do with any preacher training school that has anything to do with overlooking the wicked behavior of those with large reputations. I speak against it. I stand against it. I write about it. And if you want to hold on to your young people, both those in your churches and those young pastors in your movement, you will do the same. Forgive? By all means. Restore? Not hardly. I agree with Charles H. Spurgeon, who commented that a man who has fallen into sexual sin in the ministry has demonstrated clearly that he does not belong in that position.