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Can We Really Know Our Pastors?

A prominent megachurch pastor falls from grace. Did his celebrity have anything to do with it?

Tullian Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham, has resigned his pulpit after confessing to having had an extramarital affair. More:

He released the following statement to The Washington Post, saying it was on behalf of him and his wife:

I resigned from my position at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church today due to ongoing marital issues. As many of you know, I returned from a trip a few months back and discovered that my wife was having an affair. Heartbroken and devastated, I informed our church leadership and requested a sabbatical to focus exclusively on my marriage and family. As her affair continued, we separated. Sadly and embarrassingly, I subsequently sought comfort in a friend and developed an inappropriate relationship myself. Last week I was approached by our church leaders and they asked me about my own affair. I admitted to it and it was decided that the best course of action would be for me to resign. Both my wife and I are heartbroken over our actions and we ask you to pray for us and our family that God would give us the grace we need to weather this heart wrenching storm. We are amazingly grateful for the team of men and women who are committed to walking this difficult path with us. Please pray for the healing of deep wounds and we kindly ask that you respect our privacy.

Tchividjian, 42, has been married to his wife, Kim, since 1994 and they have three children. Rob Pacienza, executive pastor of Coral Ridge, provided the following statement from the church to the Post:

Several days ago, Pastor Tullian admitted to moral failure, acknowledging his actions disqualify him from continuing to serve as senior pastor or preach from the pulpit, and resigned – effective immediately. We are saddened by this news, but are working with and assisting Pastor Tullian and his family to help them through this difficult time, and asking people to join us in praying that God will bring restoration through this process and healing to all involved.

Many have considered Tchividjian (pronounced cha-vi-jin) a rising star in evangelicalism, especially in Reformed circles. He is the fourth Florida megachurch pastor to resign after having affairs, including the son of megachurch pastor Joel Hunter.

Coral Ridge Presbyterian is a very influential church. This is big news. And it hit one of Tchividjian’s congregants hard, disillusioning him with the idea of the megachurch:

I don’t want to be presumptuous or speculative, but I can’t help but think that such an environment only feeds that sickening desire within us to have renown. Let’s face it, we live in a culture that can arguably best be described by the phrase, “Cult of Personality.” I admittedly was hesitant to go to Coral Ridge, and have oftentimes been hesitant because I’ve wondered if that had something to do with it. Whether it’s the latest celebrity vocalist or someone like Perry Noble, Steven Furtick, Troy Gramling, Joel Osteen, you name it – the cult of personality is everywhere. It’s their sinful inclination to be worshipped and our sickening sinful inclination to worship anyone other than God. I love Coral Ridge, but as much as I hate to say it, we are probably going to look elsewhere because we just don’t really want to be there. It really is painful. And I think we need to find something smaller, with pastors who don’t seem inconvenienced or too busy to talk to you.

I certainly agree that the megachurch model is pastorally problematic, but that doesn’t seem to me to be a plausible reason to explain Tchividjian’s fall. Or rather, to clarify, I don’t think that a small church would solve the problem. Sure, you will be able to “know” your pastor, in the sense of being on more personal terms with him, but how well can you really know who he is, ever? How many times have you read stories of priests and pastors revealed to have been abusers, and their congregants expressing shock that the man they thought they knew wasn’t the man at all?

The Minneapolis-St. Paul canon lawyer Jennifer Haselberger, who blew the whistle on that Catholic archdiocese’s corruption, says that despite having been charged with criminal conduct related to covering up sexual abuse, and despite having seen its archbishop and one of his assistant bishops resign under fire, the archdiocese continues to lie to its people about what’s really going on at the chancery. Excerpt:

When you are in a hole, the only way to get out of it is to stop digging. The Archdiocese needs to stop perpetuating the deceptions of the past and most of all it needs to stop trying to convince Catholics in this Archdiocese that things are not as bad as they seem. There are not 825,000 Catholics in this Archdiocese. There weren’t before the Nienstedt administration, and there certainly aren’t now. We have not created a safe environment for children and young people, and if we continue to base our ‘improvements’ on recommendations developed through flawed processes we never will create one. And, don’t claim to be cooperating with any investigations or legal processes unless you are absolutely sure that the evidence is going to support that claim.

I don’t think that this culture of deception is ubiquitous in the Catholic Church. However, I think the actions of this Archdiocese call into question the statements and actions of other related entities. After all, the Archdiocese has now been criminally charged for failing to protect children during a period of time in which they consistently passed the annual USCCB audit designed to measure the Archdiocese’s efforts in creating a safe environment for young people. Surely this calls the entire audit process into question. And, we know now that the Archdiocese reported only a percentage of the priests who had committed acts of sexual abuse to the John Jay College research team tasked with investigating the causes and context and nature and scope of the problem of sexual abuse by clergy in the Catholic Church. The National Review Board has said repeatedly that it does not comment on or investigate individual cases. Perhaps it is time that it starts.

Haselberger, who is in a position to know, warns that there are some other dark revelations about the archdiocese yet to come out.

The problem of maintaining authority in an anti-authoritarian age is one whose difficulty is not sufficiently appreciated. No society can exist without authority. Yet  in a free society, authority, to be meaningful, must be credible. I’m not exactly sure how the various strands of Protestantism see these things, but for Catholics and Orthodox, the priestly authority of a validly ordained priest does not depend on his personal characteristics. Here, though, “priestly authority” means the ability to administer valid sacraments; it does not mean that ordination confers wisdom or holiness upon the ordinand. Still, the presumption is that one’s priest and one’s bishop are trustworthy stewards of their authority. All churchgoers — Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox — share this general sense of respect for ecclesial authority, in the person of the pastor or priest.

In my own case, I was so badly burned by the things I learned in the Catholic scandal that even as I find it necessary to recognize and to accept ecclesial authority, I remain radically skeptical of ecclesial credibility. Do you appreciate the difference? My skepticism is self-protective, and comes from having seen up close and personal how diabolical some in the priesthood, especially in the episcopate, can be regarding telling outright lies to conceal their own sins, often grave sins. Let me be clear: I’m not telling you to be as skeptical as I am, only pointing out that it is possible to believe in authority, in a bare-bones sense, without accepting that the bearer of that authority is personally credible. I had to learn to do this to hold on to my faith.

This is very hard to do, and it explains, I think, why so many Christians refuse to think about church corruption, and why it’s easy for clergy to do bad things right under the nose of their congregations: because so many people want to believe the best about their pastors, and without always knowing what they’re doing, refuse to see what’s going on right under their noses. It’s not only in churches, but in most other institutions. We don’t really want to know what the CIA is doing, for example, because knowing it would make us responsible. We don’t really want to know what the NSA is up to, because we want to believe that our government is trustworthy, and always looking out for our best interests. We don’t really want to hold Wall Street accountable, because what we would discover if we started digging, seriously digging, could undermine our confidence in the capitalist system. We don’t really want to know if our police force is corrupt, because if you can’t trust the guardians of the law to be lawful, where does that leave you? And so forth.

The thing is, though institutions of government might be corrupt, we have to have government to get by. Same with market institutions. True, if things got extremely bad, there could be a revolution, but even in that unlikely case, the old institutions would have to be replaced with new ones, simply so society could function. It’s not that way with religion, not anymore. As a believing Christian, I hold the church to be the most important institution in society. But I don’t think most people, even most Christians, do. We have become so individualized in our religious thought and practice that if the institutional church disappeared tomorrow, I think many Americans, and probably most Americans, would not think of it as a catastrophe.

It’s like this: you need the government, the police, and the market to be there to get on with your life. If any of them disappeared, there would be chaos. Not so with the churches. I mean, I believe that the disappearance of the churches would mean the ultimate death of any society, but that is almost certainly a minority opinion in America today, and in any case it is by no means an obvious conclusion.

I wonder if the clerical leadership in the various churches understands this. Charles Taylor, as you know, said that ours is a “secular age,” not because people don’t have religious faith, but because in our time, they perceive religion as a choice. You can’t escape it, in fact, because in secularity, there is no way to avoid the knowledge that it is possible to live with a different faith than the one into which you were born, and even possible to live without faith at all. This is what makes the blindness, the folly, of clergymen like those that run the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul, so tragic: they have no idea how fragile their position is in a postmodern society.

I have Orthodox friends who raised their kids in a good parish, and still the kids, as adults, left the faith. It’s hard even under the best conditions for people in our aggressively secularist culture to hold on to the faith. There may never have been a time in the history of the church in which the authority of the church depended on the credibility of its ministers. I’m not speaking in a theological sense, but in a sociological one. Theologically, the authority of the Bible, or of the institutional church, does not depend on the personal credibility of individual clergy. I want to make this clear. But that is not how it works in practice. If ordinary people come to believe that the church is a racket, they may lose their faith entirely, or at least may lose any sense of connection with the institutional church. And that is a prelude to losing the faith entirely.

In the past — and the not-too-distant past — the churches would be able to count on the general presumption of Christian faith in society to give them cushion from scandals. That, and an unwillingness of the media to report on many scandals involving the clergy. That’s gone, and we’re seeing the results. I often wonder if it is possible to maintain authority in an increasingly transparent environment, one in which the sins and failings of those in authority — in government, in the military, in the police, in business, and in the church — are known to all. I think it’s difficult but still possible for most institutions, if only because the alternative is unthinkable.

But not the church. I can’t be certain if this is a general principle, or if I’m improperly universalizing my own experience, but my sense is that people within the leadership class of churches have an exaggerated sense of their own importance, and the security of their position. No church — Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox — can ever have a clerical class that is free from sin, and to expect that is to be childish. We have a responsibility to be mature about these things, and not to be too scandalized by them. I have learned this the hard way.

What we can expect, and must expect, is for that leadership class to take holiness seriously, to take their responsibility before God and the people of God seriously, and to police themselves as if they believed the faith they profess were true. As Scripture says, “You will know them by their fruits.”



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