Why Men Like Me Shouldn’t Be Pastors

Why responding to the scourge of pastoral malpractice in evangelicalism starts in the pulpit itself.

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.

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My Trouble with Interactive Bible Teaching (on Sunday)

Three reasons to save those questions and comments until after the class.

Here’s a thought I’ve been sitting on for several years and haven’t been able to get rid of—Sunday morning Bible teaching should not allow for mid-sermon or mid-lesson comments from the congregation/class. This may sound weird because most evangelical churches don’t welcome comments from the congregation in the middle of the sermon, though I have seen that. On the other hand, very many Sunday school lectures, classroom Bible studies, and other church teaching times do allow for members to interject their own thoughts in the flow of the class time. I think this is a mistake that (usually) doesn’t serve the purpose people assume it does.

I realize that saying that a Bible lesson should not stop for contributions from those in the class sounds to some incredibly elitist and anti-democratic, maybe even sub-Protestant! But my thinking here is not that regular church members are incapable of shedding light on theology or spiritual wisdom. Far from it. Rather, it’s that the actual practice almost always, at least in my experience, benefits the person speaking far more than it benefits the others in the class. In other words, interactive Bible times that muddle the distinction between a teacher’s teaching and members’ teaching tend to obscure helpful truth for everyone.

Let me offer three brief arguments from this: one argument from Scripture, and two from experience/reason.

The Scriptural argument is that in the New Testament, “teaching” is not just something that incidentally happens in the church. It is a spiritual gift that invokes both authority and competency (2 Tim. 2:22). This is why the Holy Spirit intentionally gives teachers to the body of Christ (Eph. 4:11). The kind of teaching that God uses doesn’t happen spontaneously by aggregating the insights of the whole congregation. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there is some divinely engineered IQ or temperament that makes some people teachers and others people not. Any kind of person can teach (though there’s good reason for restricting a congregation-wide teaching role to men). But the one who teaches must be competent to teach, and that competency can be recognized specifically rather than generically.

When a person stands up, for example, in Sunday school to offer their two cents on the topic, they are, in a real sense, briefly assuming the role of teacher. There are contexts where I think this kind of contribution is totally good and valuable–midweek Bible study groups for example. But those groups differ than the Sunday morning class time in two important respects. First, those Bible study groups are groups rather than classes, and most people (in my experience) can intuit the difference between facilitator of group discussion and a teacher. Second, a Sunday morning class time is created and facilitated by the church itself, which means that the church leadership implicitly endorses the teaching competency of the class leader. A person who stands to offer a lengthy riposte or addition to the teacher is, likely unwittingly, functioning as an un-vetted, unaccountable teacher—something that I sincerely don’t believe the New Testament recognizes.

Finally, a couple arguments from experience. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a mid-lesson comment from a congregant during a Sunday school lecture or class that was genuinely helpful. I could be wrong. But I also don’t believe that I’ve ever given a mid-lesson comment that was actually helpful. In fact, as I look into my own heart, I can see that the vast majority of times that I’ve felt the need to interject in those times I have done so because I wanted the other people in the class to think I was insightful. Not only is this unhelpful for the other people in the room (who don’t care how smart I am), but it’s actually spiritually counterproductive for me—since motives matter and desiring the praise of other people is a snare (John 5:44). My guess is that this is a common motivation in these kinds of incidents. Wouldn’t it be helpful for the spiritual health of people like me if classes simply set aside enough time after the end of the lesson to ask questions and give feedback?

Second, I think one service the church should be offering Christians is a deeply counter-cultural reordering of our epistemology. What I mean is that the age of the internet has ruthlessly democratized information so much that a lot of people struggle to cultivate and apply wisdom merely because there are so many voices in their head (social media, Google, cable news, etc). A church teaching time that doesn’t make a sufficient distinction between the person with the competency and gifting to engage with Scripture and communicate truth clearly to the Body, and the people who stand to benefit from the Spirit’s gift in that person, is a time that reinforces the death of expertise and the myth of crowdsourced wisdom. Hierarchy is not a swear word, and there’s a lot that evangelicals can do to be salt and light in a wisdom-starved age.

The Problem with Cool Church

The spiritual danger of grabbing souls by their insecurities

In my older teens and early 20s I attended a midweek worship service put on by the student  ministry of my hometown’s megachurch. I did so because I was a pastor’s kid at a small, aging, rural Baptist church, and I wanted to go to a church service with people closer to my age. That service was the epitome of “cool church:” Dimmed LEDs, tasteful fog on the stage, Coldplay-esque guitar solos, and a couple hundred teenagers and twentysomethings. It bore little resemblance to the dusty, green-carpeted, and piano-driven service I was at Sunday after unremarkable Sunday. Best of all, the people at the megachurch service were young, attractive, and on Facebook. Cool church felt like it was for me, and for the people I wanted to like me. It was a powerful experience.

This is why I can’t be flippant or judgmental toward the minister and the church featured in this New York Times piece. When the pastor tells the Times reporter, “If we aren’t making people laugh, what are we doing? What is the point?” I know what he means. He’s not being ridiculous. He’s not trying to mock the church or Christianity. He’s asking why church of all places shouldn’t be a place where people feel good. It’s a good question, one that many evangelicals, to their shame, merely scoff at and refuse to answer.

Cool church often begins as an effort to meet a real need. The problem of Christians who turn the cosmos-exploding truths of Christ into pretenses for being sullen, angry, and boring is a problem as old as Jonah. Many traditional evangelical churches are stunningly joyless places. Cool church is never joyless. It cannot be, since the premise of cool church is that we ought to be happy when we’re there. There were legitimate reasons that I wanted, as an 19 year old, to be at a megachurch on Tuesday evenings if I had to be at my Dad’s church on Sunday mornings.

The liturgy of cool church demands that I enjoy it. That’s why the preaching at the midweek service was always 30 minutes or less. Don’t get me wrong: There were faithful preachers in that space, and the Word never returns void. But there’s an internal logic to why the sermons at cool church are almost never longer than a sitcom. Cool church isn’t nearly as concerned with the content of the sermon as it is with the experience itself. Everything flows perfectly at cool church; the music team always picks the right “response” song (the sacrifices of God are a contrite spirit and minor chords), the preacher is always the right amount of funny, and the order of worship never leaves you too little time to hang out in the foyer or too much time with just your thoughts.

Why is this so powerful? At least for me, I think the answer is that cool church let me hang onto my insecurities while I pretended to forget about them. It is almost impossible to overstate how important “cool” is to the typical American teen. It is the end-all, be-all. If you’re cool, nothing else matters; if you’re not, nothing else matters. Compounding this is the fact is that every facet of American culture mythologizes adolescence and connects happiness to perpetuating it as long as possible. The ethos of cool church is a throng of worshipful 18 year olds who don’t particularly care what the New Birth means. What they really want is to know they’re not weird and destined for eternal loneliness. Cool church is powerful because it appears to relieve the tension between the absolute claims of the gospel and the far less cosmic but far more throbbing need we have to be cool kids.

For well-meaning people who really do care about reaching their generation of Jesus, the temptation to grab adolescent souls by their insecurities is severe. For one thing, it sure looks like it works. Cool church will never struggle to draw a crowd. In some places and seasons it’s the only kind of church that can draw one. Secondly, because evangelicals have grown to rely on the vague language of subjective experience rather than the concrete words of Scripture, cool church sounds biblical and healthy. “I had an encounter with Jesus” is an incontestable sentence, right? “I felt God tonight.” Who can say you didn’t? And maybe you did. That’s kind of the point, isn’t it? In the insecure heart, where the promises of Jesus have not taken root and where the temporary and trivial minutia of adolescence have been mistaken for existential crises, forms of Christian worship can be cathartic. And that catharsis is easily confused for faith.

I can vividly remember the circle of friends that I worshiped with at the megachurch service. The vast majority of them no longer attend any church. One of them divorced after only about a year of marriage, and remarried soon after. One now identifies as agnostic. In almost every instance, I only know of the current state of their life because of social media. We fell out of real contact some time ago. The friendships, the worship music, the preaching, and the praying that had felt so real and so forever nearly a decade ago have mostly fallen like seeds on a rocky path. Back then, we would have sworn that it was Jesus we were meeting with every Tuesday night. Sworn.

Does Conservative Theology Empower Abuse?

Here are three things that I believe are true and that are important for honest people to admit:

  1. It is a moral travesty when religious people or organizations use their beliefs, influence, or infrastructure to hurt, control, or manipulate other people.
  2. Theologically conservative organizations have been guilty of doing this, many times, often with disastrous, multi-generational consequences.
  3. For people who believe in things like inerrancy, the exclusivity of Christ, and the necessity of the local church, the costs of using the faith in this sinful, abusive way are exponentially higher, and thus, it is a greater tragedy when it is those people who engage in it.

All these points are, I believe, completely true. You won’t find me denying any of them. As someone who was raised in theologically conservative evangelicalism, I don’t think there’s any question that all three points are correct, and further, that theologically conservative evangelicals like me should be in the business of confessing them and working accordingly.

But here’s something I’ve noticed. I’ve noticed that, for what feels like a growing number of younger professing Christians (whether they use the word evangelical or not), there seems to be a 4th statement that holds a lot of weight with them. You could put it something like this:

4. Because theologically conservative institutions and people have been guilty of this abuse, it follows that theologically conservative doctrine empowers and facilitates such abuse.

I completely reject this statement for many reasons, most of which would probably be easy to guess for readers of this blog. But what’s interesting to me is that this 4th statement is, for a lot of young religion writers, so self-evident and so important to their worldview that to deny it amounts to nothing less than an instinctive valuing of theology and ideas over human beings at best, and at worst, an ambition to likewise abuse, control, or manipulate others with our religion. Arguing with this 4th statement is almost always construed to be really arguing with the first 3. The only reason (they say) that someone would dispute statement 4 is because they’re really living in denial of statements 1-3. Either you don’t really believe that theologically conservative churches or institutions have hurt others (in which case, you’re simply in denial of reality), or else you don’t believe that such hurting actually matters.

There’s a lot going on here in this dynamic. Part of it is understandable. If you’ve been hurt by theologically conservative churches or people, it’s not hard for a reasonable person to understand why the theology you encountered in those settings might seem endemic to what you suffered. But is that the only reason this dynamic endures? I don’t think so. I think something else is happening as well, and it’s something rooted not in authentic experience, but in an ideology-driven, nakedly political equivalence.

Here’s a strong example of what I’m talking about:

https://twitter.com/d_l_mayfield/status/877246876340199424

If you read through the thread for the context, you’ll discover that what’s being talked about is a missionary who abused children, and was (allegedly) protected from exposure by people and institutions connected to his mission. Mayfield’s “main” takeaway from the story is that fundamentalism–by which she means the conservative theology of both the missionary and the people who protected him–is inherently abusive. The implication is that if the missionary or the institutions over him weren’t fundamentalist, if they weren’t all aligned together on a particular side of the doctrinal scales, such a cover up would either have not happened or else not happened to the extent that it did.

Mayfield is hardly the only representative of this belief. Almost anytime there is a scandal involving theologically conservative evangelicals, a reliable group of voices tend to make the same point, either explicitly naming Calvinism, or fundamentalism, or complementarianism, etc etc. The message is always the same: These incidents happen because people are victimized by traditionalist theologies or churches.

What’s going on here? After all, the notion seems logically faulty on its face. The Roman Catholic Church is hardly a bastion of “fundamentalism,” yet it endured one of the most widespread abuse scandals in modern history. The vast majority of abuse cover-ups do not occur within the context of any religious community, and the common factors shared by such scandals are almost always more related to power structures and financial control than to worldview. You have to assume that progressive evangelicals like Mayfield who lay such harm at the feet of fundamentalism know this. So why make the connection at all?

One theory: Attributing endemic abusiveness to theology is a handy way of avoiding doctrinal arguments, and of marginalizing theological opponents.

After all, if fundamentalism empowers and enables abuse, if it’s the theology of choice for those who want to coerce and harm others, why on earth would you need to spend time figuring out if the Bible really says what the fundies claim it says? Why waste precious seconds thinking about what’s true when you can know for certain that those who believe opposite of you do so for nefarious, ulterior motives?

This is precisely what I mean when I talk of things like “polarization.” The essential characterizing of polarization is not that people disagree with each other. It’s that they use such disagreement as the grounds for attributing the worst possible motivations to those on the other side. You don’t need to be told how often this happens in politics. But it happens a lot in theology as well, and especially in a culture that increasingly prioritizes personal narrative and “my story” as the only authoritative touchstones for knowledge and truth.

Engaging both Scripture and the world honestly means allowing for two things. First, all human beings are sinful and, apart from preventative grace and normal means of restraint, all of us tend to seek our own good at the expense of others. This is a Christian doctrine, not a challenge to it. The idea that people in our theological, political, or social tribes are somehow less prone to this tendency, or the idea that those outside our tribes are more prone or are somehow inevitably given to it, are both heretical ideas. There is no hint in Scripture that people who know the truth are automatically more holy because of it. In fact, Jesus taught something close to the opposite.

But a second thing is also true. Objective truth is real, and human beings who behave wretchedly are not automatically wrong about everything they believe because of it. “The people who believe this hurt me” is not, in fact, an actual evidence against an idea. It’s only evidence against a person. We all live beneath our  best ideals, and this fact does not actually mean our ideals are false. This is why “fundamentalism empowers abuse” is not only wrong, but deeply deceptive. It implies that a theology’s truth claims are irrelevant compared to how its practitioners behave. It’s true that the world knows we are Christ’s because of our love, but that doesn’t mean the world will know who Christ is because of it. There are realities above and beyond our daily obedience of them.

Again, the three statements I laid out at the beginning are totally true, and I believe them. We have to humbly accept our own failures, and those of our tribe. But statement #4, while increasingly popular in a “post-evangelical” age, is not honest thinking. It may engender a lot of empathy in a narrative-oriented age, but its fruit is merely polarization and shoddy thinking.

Pandering to Millennials

My friend and Mere Orthodoxy editor Jake Meador linked to this blog post on Twitter, and the following couple of paragraphs are too good to not share:

The other day I read another of those articles that irritate me. The ones about how the church is failing millenials (sic) by being terribly outdated, and how it needs to modify it’s message to appeal to the younger, hipper crowd…

Look, I am a millenial, albeit on the side of that demographic in danger of being too old to count as the current “it” age group. And I can tell you exactly how to get millenials in your pews. You tell them that their moms and dads were horribly wrong and misguided, and that they are actually much better informed and more correct than their parents. Just like they’ve always suspected. And then you explain that, actually, Christianity is exactly what all the cool people they want to like them say it should be. And they will come, because that is a brand that sells. Who doesn’t want their youthful arrogance stroked and the social cost of their faith removed?

This is incredibly important. The author isn’t lobbing grenades at millennials, by the way; he’s criticizing instead the people who’ve industrialized a superiority complex, the same one that attends every generation, in order to gain members. Millennials are not the only young adults in history to want to hear how much smarter they are than their parents. But they very well may be the first generation to actually be pandered to in this way by institutional Christianity.

It’s true when we’re talking about church, and it’s doubly true when we’re talking about Christian culture. How much blog content in the evangelical world falls under the category of, “Personal Narrative of How I Realized That My Parents/Church/Mentors Were Wrong About _______”? Of course, many of these stories are true and helpful. But quite a few of them read as if the entire point of having these kind of discoveries isn’t to find truth, but to relish the joy of finding out the old fogies were in error.

When I think about my generation of Christians, the biggest concern I have is not that we will wholesale abandon orthodoxy or the local church. Jesus will build his body and not even the gates of social media can overcome that. No, my biggest concern is that the we millennials will construct the idea that ours is a “chosen generation,” that the saints who came before us are obstacles to be hurdled and those who come us after will look pretty much like we do. My fear is that even in all the gospel-centered gospel-centeredness, the impulse within American evangelicalism to pander to the generation that currently defines cool will relapse us into a cultural captivity, one that may not be as obvious as fundamentalism but may be deeper and darker.

Here’s an idea. For every article you read this week on why the older generation of evangelicals was totally wrong about X, read 3 things written 100+ years ago. For every TED Talk you listen to, listen to 2 more sermons by a preacher who probably doesn’t own a smartphone. Preach to yourself that what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery” must be avoided at all costs. Immerse yourself in the timeless and be moderate with the contemporary.