NOTE: Thank you to Dr. Ryan Denison for writing today’s Daily Article. He is the Denison Forum Senior Editor for Theology and has written more than four hundred articles for Denison Forum.
On Sunday, Matt Chandler stood behind the pulpit of the megachurch he helped build for the first time in three months. The popular pastor took a leave of absence in August after it was revealed that he had engaged in an ongoing exchange of direct messages with a woman who was not his wife over Instagram. The messages were not sexual or romantic in nature, nor were they kept secret from his wife, but the elders at his church still deemed them to have “crossed a line” due to “the frequency and familiarity” of the “coarse and foolish joking.”
The elders were quick to add, however, that they did not consider the messages enough to disqualify Chandler from ministry. Rather, they were an indication that there was “unhealth in his life.”
Details were not offered regarding the process Chandler went through in order to be restored to his position of leadership. However, those who decided initially that he had failed to meet the “higher standard” to which leaders are held felt he was ready to return.
Fittingly, his sermon focused on the nature of sin and reconciliation with the Lord.
Working from Ephesians 2:13–17, Chandler framed the promise of Christmas as a chance to be reconciled to God. He noted, however, that it is only after we take responsibility for our sins that such reconciliation is possible.
Chandler’s response, as well as that of the elders and other pastors at his church who restored him, stands out all the more because of another high-profile pastor who returned to the ministry in recent days.
A “repugnant” restoration
Johnny Hunt was president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 2008 to 2010. Prior to that, he had served as pastor of a megachurch in Georgia. He stepped down from public ministry for a time in 2010, citing health reasons, and eventually went on to serve as senior vice president for evangelism and leadership of the North American Mission Board.
However, the investigation into sexual abuse claims in the SBC published earlier this year found that the real reason Hunt stepped down was that he was credibly accused of having sexually assaulted the wife of another pastor earlier that year. He never told his church and went to counseling in secret after the event but was forced to step down from his ministry positions in May of this year following the publication of the report.
Initially, Hunt denied any wrongdoing. But after it became impossible to avoid, he admitted to the affair and likened himself to David, quoting Psalm 51:4: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.”
Despite the egregious nature of his mistakes and his attempts to conceal them, four of his prominent friends in the ministry declared last week that they felt like he was ready to serve once again. They likened him to the man left for dead in the parable of the Good Samaritan, largely ignoring the fact that the woman he assaulted has a far greater claim to the role of victim in that story.
Not everyone agrees, however, with their assessment of Hunt’s worthiness to return to the ministry.
Bart Barber, the current president of the SBC, stated “I would permanently ‘defrock’ Johnny Hunt if I had the authority to do so.” However, because Baptist churches embrace a greater degree of autonomy than many other denominations, there is little Barber can do to bar Hunt from returning if there exists a congregation willing to accept him.
Of course, as Barber pointed out, the four men who chose to reinstate Hunt did not have the authority to do that either: “The idea that a council of pastors, assembled with the consent of the abusive pastor, possesses some authority to declare a pastor fit for resumed ministry is a conceit that is altogether absent from Baptist polity and from the witness of the New Testament. Indeed, it is repugnant to all that those sources extol and represent.”
At the same time, Scripture is filled with examples of people God used despite their often-catastrophic failings.
So how should we judge who is fit to return and who is not? And how do those same lessons apply to the sin in our own lives as well?
We are not entitled to keep what our sin has lost
C. S. Lewis once wrote of God’s redemption, “Whatever you do, He will make good of it. But not the good He had prepared for you if you had obeyed Him. That is lost forever.”
Even the most well-intentioned people can fall into the trap of offering cheap grace when we forget that every sin we commit has consequences that can be forgiven but never fully erased. As we look at the cases of Matt Chandler and Johnny Hunt, what stands out most is that Chandler seemed genuinely humbled and grateful for the opportunity to stand in front of his congregation and teach from God’s word on Sunday.
By contrast, in the video announcing his return to the ministry, what stood out most is that Hunt and those who said he was worthy of coming back acted as though he was entitled to his position of leadership. While they spoke of the counseling, introspection, and accountability he has gone through in recent months, they treated it as a foregone conclusion that once that process was done, he could be restored to his former authority and prominence.
One of the pastors, Mike Whitson, went so far as to cite Galatians 6:1 in his description of what that restoration process is supposed to look like. But while some of what he said applies, he added to Scripture the conclusion that the process should ultimately result in putting people back “to doing what they were doing before the breach and add to them added responsibilities because they are more keenly aware of the pitfalls that lay ahead.”
Friends, that’s just not how it works.
When it comes to serving the Lord, we do not get to choose our calling, and we are in no way entitled to keep it when our sin renders us unqualified to do so.
Can the Lord redeem our mistakes and still use us to advance his kingdom? Absolutely, but it has to happen on God’s terms rather than ours. And that’s just as true for you and me as it is for megachurch pastors and denominational leaders.
Billy Graham’s greatest fear
Few ministers embodied that principle of deference to the Lord and an acute awareness of the threat posed by sin as well as Billy Graham did.
In writing about Matt Chandler’s initial decision to step aside back in August, Dr. Jim Denison remarked that “Billy Graham’s greatest personal fear was that ‘I’ll do something or say something that will bring some disrepute on the gospel of Christ before I go.'” Dr. Denison then noted that “the less you share his fear, the more you need to.”
Do you share that fear today?