Last August, Daniel Mattson wrote a heartfelt essay for First Things entitled, “Why Men Like Me Shouldn’t Be Priests.” Mattson made a gut-punching case that the sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church owed, at least in great part, to another, persistently ignored crisis: Unrepentant homosexual priests. The presence of large numbers of same-sex attracted, sexually active priests had severely undermined, Mattson argued, the church’s moral authority on sexuality, and blunted its ability to enforce chastity and (consequently) protect vulnerable seminarians and laypeople from abusive situations. “If it is serious about ending the sex scandals, the Church needs to admit it has a homosexual priest problem and stop ordaining men with deep-seated homosexual tendencies,” Mattson writes. “The first “Uncle Ted” scandal was “Uncle Ted” becoming a priest.”
Mattson writes from a position of bracing honesty and realism. He is same-sex attracted and struggles with the sin of homosexual activity. Near the conclusion of his essay he relates a story about going to confession to tell a priest about a recent sexual sin with another (anonymous) man. To Mattson’s shock, the priest dismisses the confession and tells him to “get a boyfriend” and that “the church will change.” Mattson soon found out the priest who heard his confession was gay.
I’m not Catholic, but Mattson’s connection between systemic failure in the church and besetting sin in the pulpit feels very right to me, especially this week. On Monday the Houston Chronicle rolled out a brutal expose on sexual abuse and cover-up in Southern Baptist Churches. Two of the common threads running throughout the Chronicle‘s many testimonials are churches’ ignoring credible allegations of abuse and the abusive pastors’ ability to find new ministry even after losing their churches. That should sound familiar.
To what extent does a church or denomination’s inability to identify and respond to a pastor’s besetting sin set the table for abuse, cover-up, and scandal? If Mattson is right to suppose that Vatican indifference to homosexuality in the priesthood emboldened abuse and incentivized denials—and I think he is—could indifference to repeated sins by pastors be part of a similar dynamic in evangelical churches? One answer to that question also happened this week. James MacDonald was fired by Harvest Bible Chapel after a near decade’s worth of serious accusations of bullying, arrogance, and deception came to a head. The “head” was a hot mic that captured MacDonald making shockingly crude and hateful comments about his critics in the media.
On this side of the controversy, it’s extremely difficult to imagine that MacDonald’s fitness for pastoral ministry was clear until only recently. The question weighing on my mind in the aftermath of MacDonald’s fall is the same one that’s there after almost every report of a dynamic pastor’s exit from ministry: Why did it take whistleblowers and journalists to identify disqualifications that should have been obvious to those with the biblical mandate to do so? The answer may be that whistleblowers and journalists are less dazzled by charisma, smarts, and strong personality than the average evangelical churchgoer. But it could also be that, as Mattson observed in the Catholic church, there is in evangelicalism a complacency with sin in pastoral ministry that in many cases bottoms out in things like denial and cover-up.
In 2016, Barna released a report on cultural attitudes toward pornography. The survey found that 41% of Christian laypeople believe a pastor should resign if he is discovered using porn. Pastors were asked the same question, and the results were stunning: Only 8% of pastors agreed with this. The immense gap between the beliefs of laity and pastors strongly suggests an element of self-defense has come into play.
A question that most evangelicals aren’t asking but should is, to what extent does a pastor’s porn struggle affect his ability to protect himself from temptations to abuse? To what extent does it affect his ability to respond well to an allegation of sexual abuse against someone in his church? Comparably, to what extent does a pastor’s ongoing lapses into anger, whether at home or church, compromise his ability to receive criticism and accountability? Note that I’m not asking about a pastor who is clearly addicted to porn or clearly enslaved by selfish rage. I’m talking about the pastor who has installed measures of accountability in his life, is warring against sin, making progress and experiencing victory, but succumbing occasionally to temptation. Such a description should in no way disqualify a Christian from membership in the church or from lay service. But the epidemic of abusive (sexual and otherwise) pastoral leadership that we see demands a sober consideration whether there are certain kinds of besetting sins that the church should accept as part of the normal daily striving for sanctification among members, but reject as disqualifying in most measure for pastors.
I come at this question sincerely because, like Mattson, I see myself as someone who should almost certainly not be considered for pastoral ministry. My besetting sins are no match for the means of grace that Christ has poured into my life, and I praise God for his work of progressive holiness. But their particularities are of such a nature that I do not believe I could or should (now or in the immediate future), without reserve, shepherd a church, especially through a crisis that would call on mature, proven intuitions.
(I should say that I am not passing any sort of critical judgment on men who have struggled with pornography or any other sexual sin in the past and are now pastors, nor am I saying that it or any comparable struggle permanently disqualifies a man from ever being a pastor. My point is not to lay down an absolute, extra-biblical rule, but to provoke consciousness of the relational responsibilities of a pastor.)
Some will read the above paragraph and think I am either confessing to an extreme bondage or else arguing that pastors should be sinless. Neither. Both interpretations betray how thinly many Protestants, evangelicals in particular, think about the church and pastoral leadership. Nothing is more commonsense to me than the idea that few men are qualified to be overseers, and that the ones who aren’t qualified should be able to have a hearty confidence in the leadership of the men who are.
In other words, it should be obvious from the way Christians “do church” that pastors aren’t merely smarter, better-spoken, stronger-personality versions of everybody else. Rather, those who are qualified for the “noble task” of pastoring are men who have been both especially equipped and especially preserved. There are men who have not spent years trying to gain victory against lust. There are men who do not lapse periodically into emotional outbursts that wound and intimidate others. There are men whom God has kept, by his grace, “above reproach” in the qualifications of an elder. These are the men who should be leading God’s church—not me.
I fear that in the Reformed evangelical subculture I live in, this reality has become obscured. It’s become obscured by the financial aspirations of seminaries that lead to “recruiting” which indiscriminately encourages certain personalities to train for the pastorate. It’s become obscured by a defunct theology of vocation that still leads many to believe that professional ministry is a place for real Christians and the pews are for the B team. And of course, it’s become obscured by an infatuation with leaders who draw crowds, sell books, and promote brands, rather than leaders who labor faithfully in the obscurity that often aids holiness.
This isn’t the only way we must answer the scourge of sexual abuse and pastoral malpractice in evangelicalism. There is so much more that needs to be said and changed. But we must start somewhere, and the first place accessible to reform is the church itself and the men who watch over it. We need more than Christians willing to receive the power and privilege of an overseer. Yes, the church needs pastors. It does not need pastors more than it needs qualified pastors. The costs of this getting this wrong couldn’t be higher—or more apparent.