Responding as a pastor to Matt Chandler’s leave of absence

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Responding as a pastor to Matt Chandler’s leave of absence

August 30, 2022 - Jim Denison, PhD

© By Soho A studio/stock.adobe.com

© By Soho A studio/stock.adobe.com

Matt Chandler’s leave of absence from The Village Church (TVC) made Christianity Today the day it was announced and has been headline news across the evangelical world. I responded to it in my Daily Article and have continued to consider its implications for us as pastors.

Today, I’d like to share a pastoral reflection that is more than three decades in the making.

A prophetic moment I will not forget

In 1988, Rev. Bill Weber resigned from Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas after admitting “personal improprieties.” At the time, I was a faculty member teaching philosophy of religion at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. The next Tuesday, the speaker for our chapel service began his message by pointing to Rev. Weber’s resignation and describing the devastation such personal failings can bring to the body of Christ.

I assumed he was going to continue to condemn such sins and upbraid those who commit them. But he did not. He stopped for a moment, looked at the packed auditorium, pointed his finger at us, and said, “There but for the grace of God go you.” Then he pointed his finger at himself and added, “And there but for the grace of God go I.”

It was a prophetic moment I have never forgotten.

While we should respond to Matt Chandler’s story with such honesty and humility, our secular culture will not. When a pastor’s private failings are made public, our fallen society is swift to condemn.

Christianity never promised that Christians would never sin. (The opposite is actually the case, as 1 John 1:8 reminds us.) Nothing about the TVC story changes anything about the gospel. But it’s human nature to conflate a movement with its leaders and to condemn the former for the sins of the latter. And when we would rather not consider the moral claims of Christianity, we are quick to dismiss them by pointing to the hypocrisy of those who claim to keep them.

It’s far easier to “shoot the messenger” than to consider the message.

“No creature is hidden from his sight”

At the same time, it is true that Christian leaders are held to a higher standard. The New Testament is replete with moral prescriptions for those who lead and teach. God judges us more strictly and invites the church to join him in such accountability.

So, given the damage our private sins do to the public reputation of our Lord, coupled with the biblical expectation that you and I will live in ways that honor our Savior and our faith family, what are we to learn from this tragic story?

This principle above all others has been resonating in my spirit: there is no such thing as “private” sin.

Scripture repeatedly tells us so. Jesus warned us, “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be made known” (Luke 12:2). David thought he had concealed his sin with Bathsheba, but the prophet Nathan exposed it to him and ultimately to the world. We are told, “The eyes of the Lᴏʀᴅ are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Proverbs 15:3).

This text should be emblazoned where we can see it daily: “No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).

When we think we are “getting away” with so-called private sin, here’s what is likely taking place in reality: Satan is waiting until a time when exposing our sin will do the most damage to us and those we love and serve. He is waiting until we climb so far up the ladder that our fall will damage the most people. He wants to use our failings in the most catastrophic manner possible, so he allows our cancer to grow until it is even more deadly.

“The word of the Lᴏʀᴅ was rare”

Here’s another factor: our so-called private sins are affecting the people we love and serve, whether they and we know it or not.

We read in 1 Samuel 3, “The word of the Lᴏʀᴅ was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision” (v. 1). Here’s why: Neither the priest Eli nor his sons were close enough to God to receive a word from him (cf. vv. 12–14). Thus the nation suffered from the sins of its spiritual leaders. It can still be so today.

Our work is urgent and eternal. Scripture warns: “As wax melts before fire, so the wicked shall perish before God!” (Psalm 68:2). We will all stand in judgment one day before Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10). Our calling to prepare those we influence for that day is eternally significant.

Consequently, our soul’s health bears consequences far beyond ourselves. If our private sins are grieving or quenching the Spirit, he cannot work through our preaching and personal ministry as he wishes. Those who hear us will be impoverished as a result.

“He must increase, but I must decrease”

Here’s what this article means for you and me: we must deal with our so-called “private” sins now. We must confess them immediately to our Lord with a repentant spirit, claiming his forgiveness and his grace (1 John 1:9). If we need to make amends to others, we must do so immediately as well (Matthew 5:23–24).

Then, the next time we are tempted with sin we believe we can commit without consequence, we need to remember that Satan hates us. He would never offer us something attractive without intending evil that outweighs the apparent good.

As the old saying goes, sin will always take us further than we wanted to go, keep us longer than we wanted to stay, and cost us more than we wanted to pay. If right now you’re thinking this statement doesn’t apply to you, of all people it applies most to you.

The ultimate answer is to focus so fully on Jesus that his Spirit fills and empowers us (Ephesians 5:18), molding us into the character of Christ (Romans 8:29) and manifesting his “fruit” in our lives (Galatians 5:22–23).

To that end, let’s close with this: today is the day on the liturgical calendar when the church remembers the beheading of John the Baptist. The forerunner of the Messiah was famous for his courage in the face of adversity and his willingness to speak truth to power, commitments that cost him his earthly life but gained him eternal significance and reward.

What he said of Jesus was the key to his godly character and should be our life motto: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

Oswald Chambers noted, “It is the work that God does through us that counts, not what we do for him.” John knew this to be true.

Do you?

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