It seems that the body of Christ thinks our witness to a watching world must involve covering up our sin. Multiple scandals (including Willow Creek) would appear to prove my point.
We think that the exposure of toxic Christian leaders is a stain on our Christian witness. We think that, since we preach transformation of lives by the work of the Holy Spirit, we hurt the name of Christ when we expose our hypocrisy publicly.
Calling the Church to Exposure
I would like to call the church to exposure. Because that is actually our greatest witness of Christ’s love. You might call it truth in advertising.
I recently read an article that had many good things to say about the failure of leadership in the church. One of the recommendations made by the author was that the church refrain from airing out its dirty laundry (the sin of our leaders) on social media. The author’s focus was on the gracious handling of a brother in sin.
Normally I would agree with the author. Matthew 18 is a clear step-by-step action plan for confronting the brother who has sinned against you. It does not include publicizing the failure of a leader in the church to the general populace. In all three steps there is a limit as to the exposure the offender faces thereby protecting the sinner’s privacy, limiting his embarrassment, and ultimately limiting his defensiveness to hearing criticism. The process is intended to bring him to repentance.
However, Matthew 18 does not necessarily cover the complications of boss-subordinate relationships particularly when there is an abuser in the mix.
- When a leader, who has the power to fire and effect your future job possibilities has sinned against you and has proven themselves to be toxic and abusive, it may be necessary to take a different approach.
- And though it provides general direction, it does not speak specifically to a leader in the church. As one commentator argues, it is directed at two brothers (sisters) who are on “equal footing.”
I think the most important question is how does the church seek justice and the safety of those under the thumb of a toxic leader in the church or parachurch organization?
In a recent firing of a pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, one of the pastor’s accusers (Jen Willems) went public with her criticisms when the church gave very limited information (and very slowly) to the public about the sexual predator.
Is it necessary at times for the church to be more public in our condemnation of a toxic Christian leader? Was Willems right? And can that exposure in itself be a witness to Christ’s kingdom?
I would agree with Willems (that it should be made public), but would like to suggest some principles for the airing out our dirty laundry to the watching world:
- The Gospel is Our Starting, Middle & End: The Good News of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross for the sins of the world must be the driving force behind every conflict resolution.
It is necessary that we recognize our sin had to be paid for by Christ. We are all failures in following Christ every day of our lives. That is why Jesus came. It was not to pay for our sins, then leave us to clean up our lives. Though He is continually transforming us into His likeness (making us more holy), we will not be holy until He comes again and completely transforms us.
The Gospel must affect how we think of ourselves (we are not self-righteousness), how we think of others (they will fail like we do), and therefore how we approach others (in humility).
And for the world to understand this Gospel, they must understand that Jesus Christ saves from sin, not our self-righteousness. The church, while humbly airing out its dirty laundry, is simply pointing to Christ saying, we are failures and will continue to fail. We are not holier than thou…this is why Jesus came. There is forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
When we hide that sin from the world, we are not giving Christ a good name but suggesting that we are saved by our holy deeds.
We do not share the failure of our leaders, despicable as they may be, without the caveat that we are righteous only because of Christ’s imputation, not our own sanctified living.
- God calls leaders to accountability: Leaders, when confronted, have two choices – humble themselves and seek forgiveness from those against whom they have sinned or face the biblical consequences.
It might surprise many Christians to know that grace can be embodied in consequence. We often believe grace means overlooking (ignoring) the sin of a brother. Some elder or organization boards believe that “covering the sin” of their leader is the “gracious” or “loving” thing to do.
However, when it comes to leaders in the church (and Christian organizations), they are to be held accountable for their rejection of the pearls of the Gospel according to scripture. And whatever scripture instructs God’s people is loving.
Paul gives instruction to Timothy that elders – leaders in the church – are to be publicly confronted when they reject the counsel of their brothers.
Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.
[1 Timothy 5:19-20 (ESV)]
This, to some, may seem ungracious. However, note that others will recognize the importance of leaders taking responsibility for their sin. So, not only is it challenging the leader, but others are being scared straight. I would add, it also gives vindication to the targets of their sinful behavior.
The Apostle John weighs in on leaders in his little letter to his “beloved Gaius.” He says,
I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church.
[3 John 1:9-10 (ESV)]
Diotrephes was surely a toxic leader…acting like a dictator and wounding the church. He was most likely hurting the witness of the church to the watching world. John makes clear to the church that the church is not to put up with such a one. And he outed Diotrephes to readers in many churches in the first century and in society for centuries to come.
Notice how Paul calls Peter out publicly. The Apostle Peter (Cephas) was being unduly influenced by his fear of what his fellow Jews would think when he was eating with Gentiles. In that Jewish culture, they were expected to stay away from Gentiles.
But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
[Galatians 2:11-14 (ESV)]
Paul saw the horrible witness to the Gospel Peter was being and it says he called him out in front of everyone. Peter was being a hypocrite and Paul made clear to all that was not acceptable.
Again, this may seem harsh and we may be tempted to explain it away somehow, but there is an important principle: The effect leaders have on their flock and the watching world calls for greater accountability than for the average congregant member.
- Calling out Leaders is a Witness to the Unbelieving World: Our witness to the world involves admitting and expressing sorrow for our hypocrisy.
It is interesting that the world seems to give greater leeway to leaders and the church, in general, does as well. Why else would the Roman Catholic Church leadership continue to hide and simply transfer their pedophile clergy? Why have numerous Protestant church leaders, like Bill Hybels (Willow Creek Church), been protected by other leaders?
But, one of the most devastating charges the unbelieving world levels against the church is that we consider ourselves “holier than thou.” They see the church covering up sin and attribute it to hypocrisy…and that is exactly what it is.
Though we may enjoy saying the church is full of hypocrites in a general way, we often become very defensive when we are challenged for specific hypocrisies.
Rather than showing the world we cannot admit wrongs and disguise it as giving grace to the sinner, why are we not rather being the first to admit the wrongs done in Jesus’ name? Why must our leaders get caught first and plastered on the front pages of newspapers and Facebook? Why are we not bringing them to account publicly like Paul and John did?
Boz Tchividjian, a former sex crimes prosecutor who leads GRACE, an organization that works with victims of abuse in Christian institutions, was quoted in the NY Times on Sunday, “So many victims within the evangelical world stay silent because they feel, if they step forward, they’ll damage this man’s ministry, and God won’t be able to accomplish the things he’s doing through this man.”1
It has taken four years for Bill Hybels to be called out. Meanwhile, his targets have been suffering shame and fear. So often it takes the secular news to air it out, giving even more credence to the unbelieving world’s view that Christians are just a fraud. Instead of admitting their sinfulness, for which Jesus died, they are more interested in covering it up.
- If you are a leader, you must be shaking in your boots by now: Who can stand up to this kind of scrutiny?
Each of the confrontations we have seen in the passages above have been a bit different. And the circumstances are a bit different as well.
Paul, in 1st Timothy 5, tells the church to publicly confront elders who fail. But, that happens only after the elder refuses to admit wrong. This elder has likely been confronted more than once and given the chance to repent and seek forgiveness, but has refused. It is time to bring an end to his influence in the church and the hurt he is causing.
John, in 3rd John, tells the church to get rid of a leader. But, again his transgressions are many including rejecting the authority of the Apostles which involves rejecting the Word of God. His actions are hurtful to other people and he is not taking responsibility for those actions. It is time to bring an end to his “nonsense” and save others from his meanness.
Paul, in Galatians 2, calls out Peter publicly. Peter’s sin was having a very evident impact on the new Jewish believers, Barnabas, and the Gentile believers. Paul confronts him immediately that it might be clear it was not acceptable behavior. Peter is hurting the witness of Christ at that moment, and it needs to stop.
Remember the Gospel
Leadership is not a walk in the park and should not be taken on lightly. But, this article is not calling on the church to publicly denounce every sinful action a leader takes. Circumstances and the leader’s response to confrontation determines when and how public a leader’s sin is made.
Grace brings accountability – it protects others from a leader’s sin – but, it also provides forgiveness and healing. A leader who genuinely seeks repentance and forgiveness should not live in fear of those who would make his sin public (unless of course, they have broken the laws of the state).
But, leader’s unrepentant sin should not be covered up. It should be exposed. And the leaders who coverup, beware.
- Laurie Goodstein, “He’s a Superstar Pastor. She Worked for Him and Says He Groped Her Repeatedly.,” The New York Times, August 5, 2018, sec. U.S., https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/05/us/bill-hybels-willow-creek-pat-baranowski.html.