Friday, March 17, 2023

Too Hot to Handle: Crashing and Burning

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

We’ve all seen it, and seen it many times: a Christian in the public eye crashes and burns. He (or she, recently) confesses to the commission of one sin or another, usually an affair of some sort, and follows the confession by taking a time-out from the affected area of service (or leaving it altogether), announcing that the family needs “healing time”, and so on and so forth.

Tom: I bring this up because it’s happened again, IC. I’m not going to mention the name; the details are unimportant and likely unprofitable to pore over. But you and I have discussed the situation a little, and I wondered about your thoughts on how such things should be handled biblically. There aren’t many apostolic scandals recorded for us in the New Testament, are there …

Immanuel Can: No, there aren’t.

Forgiveness and Consequences

Plenty of Old Testament characters went down on that score, though. It’s like you said in your “broken windows” post: some sins are just more lastingly consequential than others. Mess with sex, and you’re likely to have life-long fallout of some kind, no matter how quickly and even sincerely you may repent. God’s forgiveness, or human pardon, or escaping the practical consequences are not always the same things.

Tom: Amen to that. Yeah, I will cop to having that issue on my mind a bit recently. People you love do things they shouldn’t and you wonder, “Can he come back from that?” I don’t mean, of course, “Can he come back career-wise?” or “Will he ever be happy again?” but at some point your track record — well, let’s say your track record as a Christian at least — begins to impact the way in which the Lord can use you in the future.

Here’s a dilemma for you: In a local church setting, if a gifted Bible teacher sins and repents in that way, it seems obvious to me the elders should sit him down for a while, not because he is unforgiven but for a multitude of other reasons we can get into if you want. I’m not even ruling out the possibility that they should just not use him publicly again at all — that’s for each local church to decide based on the circumstances. But more and more these days we have people operating their own “ministries”, be it on internet through YouTube or via their own websites, or through publication, or music, or public speaking; and all of these can have tremendous reach with next to no accountability.

Bad Ideas and Worse Ones

IC: Indeed they do. Tom, what do you think a good procedure looks like, in view of restoring a fallen believer to a position of trust? Or is that too hard to say? Is it something that can only be decided based on the specifics of the case?

Tom: Good questions, all. Well, if a man or woman on their own mission is not accountable to your local church in some way, I’m not sure you have much to say about what they do. I know there are denominations that have discussed this issue online (I think it was Rod Dreher who originally raised the issue, and everyone and his mother weighed in), but the remedies they proposed are worse than the disease, I think. They involve basically merging with the denominations and creating some kind of overarching superstructure … sort of like Big Government, and we know how well that works.

In the case of the person you and I were talking about, he seems to have taken himself out of the mix for now, and I can’t claim to think that’s anything but a great idea. But not everyone caught in a transgression can be counted upon to act humbly and penitently.

Those “Indispensible” People

IC: That’s the problem. When everybody tells you your ministry is “wonderful” and “changes lives”, and that you’re a “great speaker” or “specially anointed by God”, it’s hard for a talented man not to start believing it’s at least somewhat true. Then, when he falls into sin, he may not feel his transgressions ought to be overlooked, but rather that they ought to be fairly quickly forgiven, and that he should be able to go forward with the ministry that everyone assures him has always been “essential”, and that “only he can do”. But he forgets the broken window. And he forgets that if there was anything really done by his ministry, it was by the Lord, not by him; so he’s not actually indispensable — though he can hardly convince himself of that.

Tom: That’s the thing about indispensible people — they’re not. I had the same experience about five years ago. I’d always been told at work that “We can’t do it without you”, and “If you leave, I’m leaving right behind you”, and all the usual rot. I was off sick for six months and nobody missed a beat. If you think a badly-run American corporation can pull that off, do you think the kingdom of God is likely to be left in the dust when a few of its subjects slip up? Not likely. God is sovereign, and will accomplish his purposes without any of us if he has to.

But our egos like to kid us that God can’t fulfill his purposes without us in there using our marvelous gifts for his glory. That’s our problem, unfortunately. Nobody’s kidding the Head of the Church.

Just Not the Same

IC: I was in a situation like that once. I was advising a very talented young man who had fallen into some undefined family trouble, the nature of which was not yet known. I begged him to go and work it out, to deal with his issues, before he even thought of continuing with his ministry. I reminded him that I and several others were willing to step in for him and hold the line until he returned so he could be free of any concern about leaving his ministry in the lurch. And the minute he said to me, “Well, that’s very nice of you; but we all know it’s just not the same when I’m not here”, I sensed it was the end of his ministry. You just can’t think something like that and not have the Lord teach you who is really doing the work. Pride goes before destruction.

Tom: Yes. That’s quite a story, but I think his reaction is far too common.

Back in the Saddle

Okay, so let’s say the fellow we were originally talking about has genuinely repented and doesn’t care what happens to him so long as the Lord’s agenda is served. That’s actually a pretty good place to be. Is there any place for him in service down the road a ways?

IC: I think so, don’t you?

Tom: I do, but I’m not sure how far down the road that is. I mean, the week — no, the very next day — after you confess your sin publicly and commit yourself to a new way of ordering your life, if you ask me for the official responsibility of driving the church lawn mower, I’m all in. I say go for it. You have my full support. If you covet the responsibility of setting up tables at the next Sunday potluck, I will say, “You’re on, brother!” If you tell me you really feel the Lord is calling you to visit the local old folks’ home and serve the lonely and sick, I can probably buy into that too. In fact, I guarantee you that if you love the Lord, no matter what you’ve done, you will never lack for an opportunity to serve while I’m around. I’ll be right there making room for you.

But if you’re asking me to put my name or, more importantly, the Lord’s name, on the next thing big-deal public teaching ministry you’re itching to be involved in, along with all the ego-stroking and money that goes with it, I must admit I’m going to be a little cautious. And I should be.

Let’s be real, IC; not one of these guys ever wants to drive the church lawn mower, do they.

Can a Saved Person Really DO That?

IC: No, it would seem not. Though I think we have good reason to say there would ultimately be more honor for them in doing that than on pressing their way back into some prestigious role. It depends on from whom you want to get the honor, though.

Tom: Absolutely. Do we have to do the thing where we debate whether someone who would do this kind of stuff is even saved at all, or can we take it as read that even people who love the Lord Jesus can do incredibly stupid, self-destructive things at times? I know there are people who argue the former …

IC: Now, there’s an issue that really can only be settled on a case-by-case basis. I shouldn’t be surprised if both were sometimes true, and if an admixture of motives were quite possible as well.

Tom: Right, and in any case, if someone is confessing and repenting in front of you, it seems like bad form to judge what’s in his heart without evidence. These days the usual move when one has been disgraced is to head for the hills, or for some more liberal congregation where sin is either ignored or even enthused over. To have someone sticking around seeking forgiveness is unusual, I think.

Accountability: The Impossible Dream?

But that’s in a local church situation. Other than the fact that Christians tend to show our support by opening our wallets and our disapproval by closing them, can you see any way that big public figures in influential parachurch ministries can be held to account by the Body of Christ unless they choose to be accountable? I can’t.

IC: No, I can’t either. Which means that if they’ve got followers, they can continue their “ministry” indifferent to the censure of mature Christians and in independence from the Spirit of God. What’s left is surely not really a “ministry” at all, is it? Rather, it’s become the vanity project of a charismatic individual who is operating without safeguards.

Restoration of a fallen servant of God is to be expected. We’re all sinners by original nature, and all in need of frequent forgiveness. But that’s quite a different situation from the person who covers his own sin, and believes he’s actually in need of no repentance.

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