Let me lead off this post by saying that in my involvement with the SBC, I’ve seen some of God’s great servants doing great service to our Great God under the SBC banner. It is easy to look at the problems and despair – I’ve been at that precipice – and become one of those anathematizers! There are some serious problems in the SBC and they need to be dealt with, but they are not the majority. We cannot focus on the problems, as significant as they are, and then assume that they are the whole of the denomination.
- I’ve seen entity leaders and their staff working with integrity and passion to accomplish the work of God.
- I’ve seen Asagen Sagna (you know him by another name) among the Bayot people in Senegal, going from home to home, village to village, telling the biblical story, and knowing that this strategy – the adoption of unreached people groups – is being repeated throughout the world.
- I joined in a prayer group with a seminary president and a few pastors and laypeople as we prayed for revival and renewal at the SBC’s amazing prayer time this year. Seven thousand or more people on their knees (literally or figuratively) calling out to God for help.
- I’ve been to ERLC conferences on current issues where strong biblical stands are taken with both moral clarity and compassion.
- I’ve had opportunities for interactions with some of our leaders, enough to realize that a denomination that has leaders like Thom Ranier, Jason Allen, Jeff Iorg, and the inimitable Frank Page, is uniquely blessed. That is not to make any statement against the others, just an observation of my personal interaction with these men.
- There are men like my friend Ken who are the heart and soul of the SBC. Ken is the pastor of a small church in a small town near me. He will never be a celebrity, but he is faithful. His wife got sick and died, he remained faithful. When anything happens in his little town, it doesn’t matter what church the people are in, they turn to Ken. Look at his stats? You will not be impressed. But if you know what he is doing in that little town you will be glad that he is a part of the work we are doing. Men like Ken are backbone of the SBC!
Having said that, I’ve also seen something in the SBC recently that needs to change.
The Tubbs Miller Method of Sin Management
Will you forgive me in advance for this illustration? Before our dog (Tubbs) took the one-way trip the vet, he would go into the back yard to do his business. After he was done he would turn around and kick and scratch a little to cover over what he’s done. A couple of blades of grass and a little dirt – that’s all. I never understood why. Did he think kicking a little dirt and grass on the “mound” would hide it?
Evidently, several SBC institutions think that the Tubbs Miller method is the way to handle sin and scandal among their leaders. Deal with the sin? No. Repent? No. Clean it up? Never. Let’s just scratch a little grass and dirt over it, sign a confidentiality agreement and be done with it. Pretend nothing stinks.
I received a video a couple of days ago that has been making the rounds. The president of a Baptist college was caught on video at his home with another woman. He retired for “health reasons” and was the subject of many articles about what a great man he was and about the “miracles” that had happened at that school during his tenure.
Would that this college’s failings were unique, but unless you’ve been under a rock the last few years, I need not recount to you the gory details. Such foibles are common, and that school’s method is not rare either. Hide the sin. Fete the sinner. Sign a confidentiality agreement. We do with sin what Tubbs did in my backyard. Scratch a few blades of grass over it and hope no one notices the smell.
Enter Ashley Madison
Now come the Ashley Madison revelations. I said the other day that this is going to be a storm and it appears that it might be more than that. Hurricane. Tsunami. You pick your own over-wrought metaphor. Ed Stetzer has said publicly that as many as 400 church leaders (including pastors, deacons and elders) could be resigning this weekend across America (not just the SBC). I’m assuming that Ed knows more than I do about this, and I know way more than I ever wanted to. A friend contacted me about a week ago about this and it has consumed a lot of my time since. To review:
- An email can be on the site for many reasons, some (perhaps) innocent. Don’t jump to conclusions.
- If the email appears with details such as address, and amounts spent by credit card, it’s much harder to declare innocence.
- This info is now public. The hackers are criminals and should be prosecuted, but the facts of Ashley Madison are coming out. Social media is abuzz and now the national media is on the story.
- Evidently, there is a real problem with moral sin in the American evangelical church, even among the leadership – in churches, colleges, and other convention entities.
So, how are we going to handle this? What I’ve seen so far falls into three general categories.
1. Denial Ain’t Just a River in Egypt Response – It wasn’t me. Identity theft. Big mistake. And there is no question that some innocent folks will get caught in the net. Vile people will use this as a chance to embarrass their enemies. That is despicable and should be prosecuted. Here is my advice to you, my friend. You know whether you did it or not. If you didn’t sign up, fight it. But if you did, you know it, and the evidence is going to prove it. You really can’t avoid responsibility here. Denial isn’t going to work.
2. The Jimmy Hoffa Response – Hoffa just disappeared one day and was never heard from again. That has happened here as well. A name simply disappears from a website and a twitter account disappears. Where’d Buford go? No one knows. I’m guessing if I were caught in such a circumstance, that would be my tendency – I’d want to move to Alaska and see if the Cornelia Marie would take me as a greenhorn.
3. The Ultimate Response – No cute name here – nothing funny about this. I have been made aware of at least three suicides related to Ashley Madison, and there are rumors of more. Men who are used to being honored as spiritual leaders, as men of God, may not be able to handle the shame and humiliation of the revelations and will be tempted to take the selfish way out. This will be the ultimate tragedy of the Ashley Madison saga.
How Should We Respond?
How should the church respond to Ashley Madison revelations? It is interesting to me that in discussions, people have tended to default to the extremes. When I have complained against the “hide and cover” strategy that seems to be in such vogue, the response is to assume that I am endorsing the humiliation strategy adopted by some so-called “discernment” blogs, who seem to rejoice at the opportunity to eviscerate other believers publicly. Perhaps that would be a better name than discernment blogs. These evisceration blogs embrace destruction. Nothing seems to make them happier than publicly holding up other Christians to ridicule, humiliation and degradation – all in the name of Christian love and accountability.
Why would we assume that there is no middle ground between cover-up and evisceration? Why would people think that when I say the confidentiality agreement and cover-up solution isn’t working that I am advocating public shaming? We can disdain one without embracing the other. It won’t be easy but it must be done.
Hiding sin and covering it up solves nothing. It poisons the institution (church, school, entity), and it creates cynicism, doubt and even rejection of the faith among the young people who witness it. Do you think the young people at those Baptist colleges who have witnessed the hypocrisy of adulterers (and they generally KNOW what’s really going on folks – they aren’t dumb) being feted as spiritual heroes are not going to be damaged? Are we willing to live with the fact that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of broken young lives which are the spiritual detritus of the brazen hypocrisy of the leadership of Southern Baptist schools, churches, and other entities which refused to deal with sin, but instead hid it, covered it, and through confidentiality agreements were complicit in it after the fact?
Public shaming and evisceration is just as wrong and equally unhelpful. Have you ever heard of anyone repenting of their sin and being restored to Christ as a result of their public shaming from an evisceration website? Has that tactic ever produced anything but bitter fruit? By their fruit you know them.
What does the Bible say about this topic?
Galatians 6:1-3 – Confront the Sinner Gently
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Galatians 6:1-3
It is helpful to start here. There are several points to be made.
- When someone is caught in sin, we confront. We do not cover up. We don’t seek to scratch a few blades of grass over our mess and hope it doesn’t stink. Confidentiality agreements that are designed to hide sin and avoid responsibility are not the biblical way. Perhaps, at the end of a biblical process of repentance, some form of cooperative agreement of confidentiality may be in order, but I think it is safe to say that most of these are designed to avoid dealing with the sin rather than to aid the process of spiritual healing.
- The purpose of confrontation over sin is never “exposing” it, embarrassing sinners, or anything else. It is restoring the sinner. If I am acting out of any motive other than a true heart for restoration, I’m sinning. Let’s admit we’ve seen a lot of confrontation, especially on social media, where people’s claims that their desire was to restore the sinner rang empty and hollow. You do not restore through evisceration and humiliation. 2 Thessalonians 3:15 defines the proper attitude. “Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” Brotherly love is required. Without it, confrontation becomes evisceration too often.
- Spiritual people need to be doing this restoration. There are few things trickier than dealing with the confrontation of sinners – it seems to run contrary to the work of the Spirit, the fruit of the Spirit. How do we confront sin in “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc.” For the love of God, leave confrontation in the hands of spiritual people who will carefully operate in the Spirit instead of in the flesh while performing the confrontation.
- We act in gentleness. Need I say much more. Gentleness. Meekness.
- Stay humble. That is the key. Don’t start thinking you are God’s avenging angel to correct the church. Don’t think you are a bigger deal than you are. One thing is certain – pride is a one-way street that leads to destruction.
The main point here is that confrontation ought to be done carefully and gently. But it nonetheless must be done. If one is caught in sin, he or she must be gently confronted.
Dear boards of deacons or elders, dear trustee boards, I know you have the best interests of your institution at heart. But when a grievous sin has taken place, you have marching orders from God. He did not command you to hide the sin in a shroud of secrecy. Your duty to God and to your institution is to seek to lead the sinner to repentance and restoration, not just to try to minimize the damage. Sin causes damage. Ugly, nasty, dirty damage. Your job is to be a part of God’s process in fixing that damage, not to inhibit that work by covering it over.
Matthew 18:15-17 Levels of Repentance
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
We can debate all of the applications of Matthew 18:15 another time. Does it apply to blogging? Is it limited to confrontation within the church? My only reason for bringing it up is that it shows a gradation of repentance. Repentance can take place simply between two people, or it can happen in a smaller group, or at times that repentance can be public.
Does a sinning pastor need to stand before his church to repent? What about a college president? Is it okay for some sins to be confessed and repented of privately and kept that way. It is impossible to write simple rules to govern this, but I would say the following.
If a sin is private, it can be confessed privately. But if a sin has become public and if it involves a serious dereliction of duty as a leader – pastor, president, or other responsible position – it may demand public admission of failure and repentance. I know that if I failed morally, I would feel the need to stand before my (soon to be former) congregation and admit my failure and beg their forgiveness.
Knowing precisely how public confession needs to be is more art than science. The principle I was taught in my youth is not a Bible verse, but it has some wisdom in it. “Confession should be as public as the sin.” If the sin is between the two of us, keep the confession there. But if it is in the public domain, the confession ought to be as well. Seek wise counsel – people more concerned with God’s glory and the good of the people of God than in simply appearance management and institutional protection. Pray, Consider things carefully. But realize that our highest duty is to God and to his glory.
Such confession need not be specific. “I have sinned. I’ve broken my covenant with my wife and failed in my duty to God and to this church.” Details are not only unnecessary, they probably cause greater hurt. Acknowledge guilt and seek forgiveness, but there is no need to play to the prurient interests of people. Jerry Springer is not our model.
One more thing. No matter how wicked the sin, once there is repentance the onus is on the church to forgive. Those who refuse to forgive the sinner are themselves offending the God who sent his Son to the cross for the remission of sins. There are few things that Jesus was more harsh about than those who want to receive God’s forgiveness but refuse to extend it. Sinners find grace in Christ and they ought to find the church to be a place of grace as well.
I just looked at the word count and realized that this is becoming another one of my over-long posts. So, I’ll bring it to a close. There is more to say, either in the comments or in a follow-up post. Let me highlight the key points I want to say.
- Southern Baptists need to abandon the all-too-common practice of hiding sin in our fallen leaders.
- Saying that is not an endorsement of the evisceration blogs. There is a middle ground which we must seek.
- Churches, schools and entities have a biblical responsibility to gently and lovingly confront the sin of fallen leaders, both hoping to restore them while also maintaining a standard of holiness.
- To cover up sin as has often been done is a sure way to create cynicism among Christian young people who see fallen leaders honored in spite of their sins.
- Confession and repentance are God’s solution to sin. There is no other solution. Cover up, denial, and deception are not solutions. They are generally little more than gasoline on the fire.
I love the SBC and I maintain that the vast majority of pastors are faithful men of God. Our deacons are servants. Our people love their Savior. Our entities are full of people who want to make Jesus known. But there are some problems out there. Recently, I have heard all too often of the cover-up strategy. It’s a bad one and we need to rethink it. No, I’m not advocating the evisceration option. We need not publicly shame and destroy people. But sweeping sin under the carpet, hiding it, pretending it isn’t real – that just isn’t the way.
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Why would we not try that route?