Grace for the Disgraced: Showing Forgiving Mercy to Former Ministers
In light of the numerous scandals that have erupted over the last five years alone with regard to church leaders, my friend Chad Bird and I co-authored the following article that we hope encourages, provokes, and enlightens the conversation so that ultimately all eyes are fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.
Over the past five years, we have seen more Christian leaders (including ourselves) exposed for their sin and deposed from their positions than at any other time in recent history. Allegations (and in some cases, admissions) of adultery, addiction, and various forms of abuse have rocked worlds, shattered lives, broken hearts, ended marriages, and split churches. Each case is distinct, but all of them are tragic, scandalous, and destructive in one way, shape, or form.
Obviously we can’t speak to the incidents themselves (except for our own, which we have done elsewhere), nor would we want to. We don’t have all the facts. And we definitely don’t believe everything we read online (and neither should you). In some severe cases, illegal offenses such as sexual, physical, or financial crimes have taken place. In those criminal situations, it is up to the state to prosecute and punish. But what we do know is that these things happen inside a complex framework of falleness that only God can fully know and understand and that in all of these situations, real people are involved—children, churches, families.
These real people include the leaders themselves--both men and women. And, in this article, it is their struggle with the aftershocks of their sin that we want to discuss. The ones that dominate media coverage are so-called “celebrity pastors,” but most are largely unknown outside their communities. Famous or not, however, when they have been “found out,” most now live isolated and ashamed inside the consequences of their self-inflicted wounds.
We know this all too well. We’ve bled from those same self-induced injuries. And, because our stories are relatively well-known, many of these former ministers have reached out to us. Now, on their behalf, we reach out to the church.
The Vandalism of Shalom
Sin, as Cornelius Plantinga put it, is “the vandalism of shalom.” It corrupts things. It breaks things. It separates things. It toxifies things. It twists things out of shape and unravels the fabric of our lives and the lives of others. In this sense, every individual act of sin has communal repercussions. This is why when one person sins, every person suffers—including the one that sinned. Of course, everyone experiences a different dimension of suffering. The ones sinned against experience the suffering of betrayal and injustice, hurt and confusion—just to name a few. The one who sinned experiences the suffering of guilt and shame and regret and, oftentimes, ostracization. Both experience loss at various levels.
But, and here is the uncomfortable kicker: the Gospel is for both parties. The good news of God’s unconditional love and outrageous mercy has always and forever been for sufferers, regardless of whether the suffering is self-induced or caused by someone else. If the good news of God’s forgiving and restorative grace isn’t for everyone, then it isn’t for anyone. In fact, it bears noting that the scandal of Christianity is not that its adherents sometimes commit atrocious acts, but that the founder of Christianity willingly died for them. Yes, Christ’s forgiveness includes the worst offenders you can think of. And, consequently, so should ours.
Despite the fact that we are told “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19), when a Christian leader takes a dive, people comment, people speculate, people report, people talk, people tweet, people blog. But people also watch. How will a group of forgiven sinners handle a fellow sinner who needs forgiveness? Is the Christian community a safe or scary place to bottom out?
How Will the Christian Community React?
To be clear, we’re not talking about Christian leaders being restored to his or her position of leadership. In each of the cases that we’re aware of, these leaders have needed to step down and step away from leadership in the church—maybe for a time, maybe forever. Again, we can’t say. That’s God’s business, not ours. We can, however, assume that in each case something was amiss personally and privately long before everything blew up publicly and that takes an extended period of time to be explored, discovered, and thoroughly dealt with.
What we are talking about is how a community that is built on the reality of grace and forgiveness can be a place of grace and forgiveness for even the most disgraced Christian. Because if there's no mercy afforded to leaders by their fellow sinners, then there won't be any for you either—at least not here and now.
And by mercy and grace and forgiveness, we’re not talking about being soft on sin, sweeping bad behavior under the rug, or minimizing the consequences. Sin is not theoretical. It happens in real time with real people and real consequences that must be really dealt with. No vertical condemnation (Romans 8:1) does not mean no horizontal consequences. But, and this is even more important, the inescapable reality of horizontal consequences does not mean the presence of vertical condemnation.
If God is who we say he is, then real sin is also met with real forgiveness. In fact, if what we know about the Gospel has any bearing on actual life, then redemption—not retribution—ought to be our deepest longing. It is the only thing that has a shot of making any difference, or bringing about genuine healing for everybody. The cross of Jesus shows us that God is serious about sin and we should therefore take sin seriously. But (and this is the part that often seems missing when scandal in church leadership happens) the cross also shows us that God is serious about redemption, restoration, and forgiving sins and we should take that seriously too.
Three Days Away from a Tabloid Headline
The grace of God is not reserved for the “well-behaved.” Yet that is the message we send every time the word “fall" is used in reference to someone who is by nature already fallen. These people are sinners, just like everybody they ever led. That doesn't justify destructive behavior, diminish the sting of consequences, or minimize the harming effects of destructive choices. But if we're only okay with preaching grace in theory, but not when someone—even an esteemed leader—is actually in need of it, then perhaps we should all take a sabbatical. As someone once said, “People love it when preachers say they are broken just like the rest of us, until that preacher does something that the rest of us broken people do.”
Sadness, grief, and prayer are understandable responses to a scandal in the pastorate, but surprise or shock is another matter. Shock reveals the fact that somewhere along the way we’ve come to believe that there is a fundamental difference between church leaders and church goers—that somehow leaders are less sinful. But, while there is a functional difference between church leaders and church goers, there is not a fundamental one. The idea that congregants and clergy don’t struggle with the same things is a misconception. Pastors are human beings with all of the same flaws, fears, and sinful tendencies that the rest of humanity has. They don’t live outside the bounds of reality or human nature. Our friend Jacob Smith once said that all of us are three bad days away from becoming a tabloid headline, and most of us are already on day two. All have fallen short, even our clergy. That goes for every denomination and theological persuasion under the sun.
It is anti-Christian to remember people primarily by the scandalous things they've done. We love to whittle an entire life-story down to a single season. Then, with the authority invested in us by the state of self-righteousness, we proclaim, “This, and nothing else, is who you are.” But the truth is, all of us (including disgraced Christian leaders) are more complicated than the singular narrative by which most people identity us. We have done very bad things, very good things, and plenty of cocktails of them both. Sadly, most people remember only the bad. Thankfully, we have a God who remembers only the good. And the only good he remembers is the good that Christ has done for us, in us, and through us. So, if we want to reduce our life story down to one adjective, if we want to whittle our biography down to a single word, then let it be this: Beloved.
How can the church make it clear to clergy, trapped inside the shame-filled prison of their sins, that they too are Beloved?
More than Lip Service Forgiveness
One could hardly imagine a greater discrepancy between the typical response to “fallen” Christian leaders and what we saw in that Charleston courthouse just over three years ago. The world stood slack-jawed as members of the Emanuel AME church lined up to speak forgiveness to the white man who murdered nine of their fellow black church members in cold blood. And not just lip service forgiveness either: people were speaking both law and gospel to the killer. As Nadine Collier, daughter of Ethel Lance who was gunned down, said, “You hurt me, you have hurt a lot of people. But I forgive you.” You'll notice that these ladies didn’t wait for a display of repentance or sorrow to issue their statement. Grace came first. As our friend David Zahl has said, “Unconditional love doesn't wait for the correct response; it produces it.”
This unconditional love is purposefully blind. It’s blind to whether its recipient stood in the pulpit or sat in the pew. It’s blind to whether the sin hurt many or only a few. It’s blind to the fake hierarchy of big sins and little sins that is the working assumption in many religious circles. Unconditional love is blind to everything but the ones who stand there—or lie there—broken, shamed, guilty, and dying to hear even a single voice that says, “I love you. I forgive you. I see you as one for whom Christ died.”
That love is like the voice of God at the beginning of Genesis: it creates. For the ones who reside in the darkness of guilt, it says, “Let there be the light of hope for them.” For those who are dying to taste even a drop of mercy, it says, “Let the waters of absolution flow into that parched heart.” Unconditional love comes to that person whose life has been uncreated, and speaks creative words of life once more. And God sees that it is good. He sees that it is very good.
Solidarity with the “Unclean”
The greatest gift the church can give to former ministers is to treat them, not as those who once preached in front of a congregation, but as those who stand with them now at the foot of the cross. The preachers become those preached to—by the very ones to whom they ministered. Sheep become shepherds to the former shepherd. This is admittedly a challenge, but a challenge that rests at the heart of the Gospel itself. For the Gospel knows no gradations of sin, no categories of clergy and lay, no scales of fat and skinny wrongs. All the Gospel knows is Jesus crucified and risen for everyone. As in the parable that Jesus told, everyone gets paid the same, whether they worked in the vineyard all day long or only an hour, whether they harvested two grapes or two thousand, whether they led a work crew or took a smoke break every half hour. The owner of the vineyard, out of his mercy, writes everyone the same paycheck, signed with the blood of Jesus. It’s the paycheck of unearned, undeserved love for all in the vineyard, no matter who they are or what they’ve done. In that way, grace is karma’s worst nightmare: we get the very opposite of what we deserve.
If the church truly wants to stand apart from the world, it will stand alongside those who have been disgraced. It will risk being falsely attacked as “soft on sin” because it knows how hard life is when guilt and shame are one’s only companions. Rather than shooting its wounded, it will pick them up and carry them to safety, to rehab, to repentance, to whatever it takes to make them whole again. While the world drinks itself drunk on outrage of every kind, the church will exercise outrageous grace and scandalous mercy that doggedly refuses to give up on those ensnared by evil. In other words, the church will be exactly the kind of church Jesus established. Not a gym for spiritual muscle flexing but a triage for the wounded, where moral insurance isn’t checked at the door, but all are welcome and treated, no matter who they are or what they’ve done.
When a leper approached Jesus to ask for healing, our Lord did an astonishing thing: before he spoke, before he healed, before anything else, “he stretched out his hand and touched him” (Matthew 8:3). He touched the untouchable. Solidarity with the unclean preceded anything else. That’s the church’s calling. Before we preach, before we teach, before we do anything else, we stretch out our hands and touch the sinner. Embrace the outcast. Put skin in the game of mercy. By doing that, we open up incredible opportunities for healing. Healing not only for the one wounded, but also for the community as a whole. A church that is built on the reality of grace and forgiveness for everyone (even the most disgraced Christian), is also a community that experiences its own healing when it embraces rather than ostracizes fallen leaders. The medicine of mercy works both ways, for the giver and the receiver. It heals individuals and community. The church, in forgiving others, experiences the power of that forgiveness in its own life. It sees in the face of the one who is disgraced the image of itself. A fellow member of the same body of Christ who is gasping for the rare mercy of unconditional love. And when that love is expressed, rather than leaving the community with less grace, it fills the church with more.
The Rare Mercy of Unconditional Love
If the angels of God rejoice over one sinner who repents, then the church of God joins the angelic chorus when it throws a party over the restoration of one of its own. It’s right on the Father’s heels as he runs out to welcome the prodigal son. It too weeps tears of joy on his shoulder. And in the grace-filled, joyous embrace, there is healing for all. There is a feast for all. For he who was dead is alive again. He who was lost is found. Let the world shake its head and walk away in disgust, but let the community of God gather round the disgraced and become friends of that sinner. And in so doing, bear witness that Jesus established a church big enough and gracious enough for all.
And, who knows, by doing so, the church might also come to realize that the one who is touched, who is welcomed, who is healed, bears the exact same image as ourselves. We and they, along with every single person in this wrecked and fallen world, are the same: we’re all gasping for that rare mercy of unconditional love.