When the Pastor Falls: Lessons from Church Scandals & Blind Loyalty

“Why People Stick by Scandal-Plagued Pastors” by CNN’s John Blake is a brief foray into the blind loyalty that many knowing parishioners maintain toward their scandalized pastors.

Sue Thompson, a public speaker herself, has been burned before. She explains that followers often build a “spiritual firewall” around their pastors so that reasonable suspicions and legitimate accusations are simply shut out. These firewalls are built partially out of powerful fears that create irretrievable loyalties. For these parishioners, Blake says, “to accept such a pastor’s guilt . . . would lead them to contemplate another possibility: Is my life-changing event just as fraudulent as the pastor who inspired it?”

Harvard Divinity School professor Jonathan Walton suggests that scandalized pastors often manipulate their congregations by raising the banner of persecution and stirring up an us-against-the-world spirit. These same pastors have often conditioned their people over time to view every sign of opposition as a stamp of approval. When their secret sins start slipping out, they simply fly the flag higher and rally the troops.

Sociologist Shayne Lee highlights another possibility: some people stay because they like “watching a train wreck every Sunday morning.” These folks may not be as blindly loyal to the pastor as some, but they still “see scandal as a spiritual spectacle. They view themselves as participants in a cosmic struggle.” The unfolding drama exercises a magnetic pull and injects spiritual adrenaline into their lives. The spectacle might be undeniably horrifying and wildly hypocritical, but it’s exciting nonetheless.

Churchgoer Thomas Kirkpatrick, still attending Atlanta’s New Birth Missionary Church pastored by embattled Bishop Eddie Long, is choosing to discount the devastating allegations against Long as well as the fact that Long recently settled with his four accusers rather than continuing to deny their claims. Why this undying loyalty? Because the message is more important than the messenger, says Kirkpatrick. “There are people who we trust with our lives every day, like doctors, who do all sorts of things, but we don’t question them. This is our spiritual medicine. We come here to get what we need and then we leave.”

Janet Shan experienced the complete implosion of Chapel Hill Harvester Church (also in Atlanta) after Bishop Earl Paulk lied repeatedly about the multiple sexual allegations leveled against him, allegations that were later proven (and then some). After initially standing with fellow loyalists in denial, Shan started to grow suspicious as the accusations mounted. Eventually she left as the church imploded. The after-effects? “I didn’t go to church for a year or two,” she said. And the takeaway? “I’ve lowered my expectations for pastors.” Sue Thompson formulated a similar moral to her own story:  “The message must be disconnected from the messenger.”

These “lessons learned” are completely understandable: they overflow from a deep and poisonous spring of hurt and betrayal. But are they true? Should we lower our expectations of pastors and disconnect the message from the messenger?

If anything, the American church desperately needs to raise its expectations of pastors and leaders. I’m not advocating the naive, judgmental perspective that demands that our leaders be flawless figureheads and untouchable celebrities whose every move is scrutinized as we criticize their vacations and overanalyze their children and make their wives miserable. I’m not talking about raising the bar. I’m talking about reaching for the bar that’s been graciously and immovably set for us (Acts 6:3-5; 1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 5:1-4). I’m talking about engaging in the kind of biblical and theological stretching that enables the community of faith to strain toward the standard of Scripture instead of atrophying right along with the “Christian” subculture.

In an age of scandal with unprecedented potential for publicity, it is absolutely imperative that our church leaders stand “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6, 7).

And what about the message-messenger disconnect? Is this conceptual divorce a right response to the epidemic of pastoral compromise? Such a disconnect between the word and the herald is only valid if we’re talking about ultimate validity or intrinsic power. Your homegrown conversion is not falsified by the hypocrisy of your parents, and your spiritual transformation does not forfeit its power or stonewall its momentum because of the apostasy of your mentor. God can deliver his message through the stubborn (Jonah 1-4), the selfish (Philippians 1:15-18) and even the scandalized (1 Kings 11:1-8; Ecclesiastes 2:1-11). By all means: “Let God be true though every one were a liar” (Romans 3:4).

But much more loudly, the Scriptures remain adamant that the message must not be disconnected from the messenger. “You then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law.” Indeed, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:17-24). Jesus himself sounds less direct, but only if you miss the satire: “Practice and observe what they tell you — but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Matthew 23:3). Is not the day of judgment hastening, the day in which every teacher and elder and pastor will face the “stricter judgment” (James 3:1)?

The message of the gospel is inextricably linked to our conduct. We are the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 6:15-20), and we adorn or we eviscerate the gospel with our behavior (Titus 2:10; Galatians 2:11-21). You can play a classical melody with a punk-rock harmony, but you won’t sell many tickets.

With our leaders, the responsibility is multiplied. Why else does Paul vociferously defend his reputation to the Corinthians? “Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? It is in the sight of God that we have been speaking in Christ, and all for your upbuilding, beloved” (2 Corinthians 12:19).

When does the gospel advance with power? When Christ’s undershepherds can join together with one voice and humbly declare to his flock, “You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers” (1 Thessalonians 2:10).

May it be so, for the message of Christ and the Christ of the message.


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