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What Is Happening to Our Pastors?

“In our disappointment and confusion, it is easy to grasp for explanations that are quick and quantifiable; as if the problem was simply a lack of accountability. We assume that if these leaders had stronger and more committed friends, pastors, and elders around them this would have never happened.”

He came over to my house a few times when I was in high school. This was rare in the church I grew up in. Having a pastor in our home was something special. Especially when it was a pastor of some stature. He was that. I remember him taking a genuine interest in my family’s life, in me and in my parents. He may have been fairly new on staff, and we were long time members, but his personal care and engagement made us love him. In college, when I embraced the call to pastoral ministry, he was often on my mind and heart. Years later his name popped up again in my life. I don’t remember who first told me, or why, but I remember the shock and sadness I felt. This pastor I had so revered, admired, and adored, had left his wife for another woman. It felt impossible to believe. I remember immediately going online, not to dig up dirt, but genuinely hoping to find that it wasn’t true. Sadly, it was.

After several years in ministry, I have found these stories to be all too familiar. Some have been more personal than others, but all of them have provoked deep grief in my heart and I do not grieve alone. I have spoken to fellow believers devastated by the moral failings of pastors they trusted and admired. People feel lied to, abused, and manipulated in the very community called to be grounded in truth, love, and faithfulness. Inevitably the question always comes, “How could this happen?”

In recent years this question has been broadened. A pastor’s fall no longer impacts the local church alone (if it ever did). We live in the era of celebrity pastors whose platforms of influence stretch far beyond the walls of their local congregation, and who shake the earth when they fall off their pedestals. Their books are best-sellers and their sermons are heard online around the world. In recent months one such figure has ignited the evangelical blogosphere and twitter murmurings, Tullian Tchividjian. But it wasn’t long ago that Mark Driscoll was the tip of this spear. Their behavior has been well documented, the age of social media has made sure their sins would be unveiled before all. As a result of their sin, churches have collapsed, conferences evaporated, and, most importantly, lives have been deeply wounded. Again, the question that plagues us is, “How could this happen?”

In our disappointment and confusion, it is easy to grasp for explanations that are quick and quantifiable; as if the problem was simply a lack of accountability. We assume that if these leaders had stronger and more committed friends, pastors, and elders around them this would have never happened. Pride is part of the story as is autonomous, totalitarian leadership structures, but these fail to address the deeper, systemic issue. We need to recognize the log in the eye of the church as a whole. Mark Driscoll and Tullian Tchividjian are merely the most visible fruit of a very sick tree; a tree whose roots are drinking from a poisoned well.

In short, the church has embraced a form of power that is antithetical to the way of Jesus, and her pastors stand on the front line of this destructive reality. We have succumbed to the temptation Adam and Eve were seduced by in the garden—believing that dependence upon God is a place of scarcity and hindrance, while autonomy is a place of flourishing and fulfillment. We have embraced the way from below, which James tells us is marked by “jealousy and selfish ambition” (James 3:13-16). James claims that this way from below is employed by the world, the flesh, and the devil. As a “way,” this path is the great temptation we face as the people of God today, maybe especially because of how broad and well-travelled it is. Ironically, we are tempted to choose this path for the sake of achieving a kingdom-minded goal. We are easily convinced that this path is virtuous by telling ourselves the ends justify the means—that this way will help us get things done for God.

However, James makes it clear that when we believe the power of God’s kingdom always aligns with our gifts, abilities, talents, resources and know-how, we are actually seeking control apart from God. That is how the demonic, the flesh, and the world operate, not God’s kingdom. When we accept this power system, we turn to those who have the greatest gifts, the most impressive skill sets, and the obvious resources to lead. We put our confidence in those who can make things happen, get things done, and who impress everyone as they do it. We accept the lie that giftedness is synonymous with sacredness, and as a result we embrace people who may have the world’s anointing rather than God’s; who walk in the way of the dragon rather than the way of the Lamb.

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