One of the most indelible moments of my college years was Jimmy Swaggart’s publicly televised apology after he was photographed consorting with a prostitute and was exposed to the world.
Oh, what a show it was. “I have sinned against You, my Lord,” wailed Jimmy, tears flowing down his face, as he conveniently failed to confess any actual specifics about what his sin was.
Jimmy was suspended from the ministry and eventually defrocked by the Assemblies of God, only to get caught again with a prostitute in 1991. Oops! But no matter. Today, Jimmy Swaggart Ministries is still up and running via the SonLife Radio Network and the SonLife Broadcasting Network. Because in contemporary American culture, celebrity preachers caught in serious sin never really disappear from “ministry.”
Now I don’t know about you, but I can tell you that the sins of Jimmy Swaggart – and, concurrently, PTL’s Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker – made life tougher for me as a Christian. Where once I could just share the gospel or defend the faith with unbelievers in a straightforward way, the Swaggart/Bakker scandals put an end to that.
After those men did what they did, I forever after had to contend with unbelievers who reacted to a simple statement about Jesus Christ with (rather justified) sneers on their faces and snark on their tongues.
“Why would I want to be a Christian?” they’d ask me. “You’re all just a bunch of frauds and hypocrites at heart. You steal checks from little old ladies to line your own pockets. You run around with prostitutes while you preach sexual ‘purity.’ Jesus doesn’t change anybody’s life. You people are no better than anyone else. All you Christians do is use the name of God for money and power. No, thanks.”
It was a hard pill to swallow. Somehow, just replying, “Well, most Christians don’t do those things!” didn’t seem to cut it. I knew they had a point. After all, if the visible Christian leaders turn out to be frauds and swindlers and adulterers, what does that say to the world about every other Christian? Wouldn’t it be natural for unbelievers to conclude that regular Christians, being lower on the spiritual totem pole than our leaders, might be even worse than their leaders? It was a very hard pill to swallow indeed.
And I wondered if Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker ever realized that one of the worst repercussions of their sins and arrogance was the fuel they gave unbelievers to disparage Jesus Christ and the entire witness of His church.
This all came to my mind yesterday afternoon when I received word that Tullian Tchividjian had resigned as pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church after confessing to an extramarital affair.
I’ve interviewed Tullian a number of times on the radio, talked in person with him, shared a few phone calls and texts. I don’t know him very well, but I’ve always enjoyed interacting with him. I particular liked talking theology with him, since I have long shared his interest in the law-gospel distinction. And as a virulent opposer of antinomianism myself, I made a point of doing one entire show with Tullian about his views on law and grace, simply because he’s long been accused of being an antinomian. I’ll say now what I said after that very in-depth discussion: I do not believe Tullian is an antinomian.
But now we know, by his own admission, that he is disqualified from ministry for another reason: Adultery. (As an aside, I find it a bit ironic that some out there are trying to connect Tullian’s “antinomianism” to his adultery. Wouldn’t a true antinomian, having violated the seventh commandment, play the “grace card” to the hilt in order to hang onto his ministry at all costs? Instead, Tullian immediately resigned when confronted with his sin. But I digress.)
In his public statement, Tullian said that after learning his wife had an affair, “Sadly and embarrassingly, I subsequently sought comfort in a friend and developed an inappropriate relationship myself.” He noted: “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.” Earlier in the statement, he said he resigned “due to ongoing marital issues.”
I commend Tullian for resigning. Many men in his position would have tried to hold onto their ministries, but he did the right thing. He should get credit for that. Yet I think it’s also important to examine the statement a little bit. When you commit adultery, and Tullian knows this, it isn’t merely “sad and embarrassing.” It’s a very serious sin, a breaking of the marriage covenant, a direct violation of God’s commandment. Those readers who would reply with the tired “I’ve looked at a woman with lust, so I’m just as guilty,” don’t even go there. Heart lust – while definitely a sin — is not the same in actual practice and effect as physical adultery, on a lot of levels. Just talk to somebody who’s been the innocent victim of physical adultery, whether spouse or child. It ain’t the same.
And Tullian knows it is not the same. That’s why I wish he would have used the word “adultery” in that statement, not “affair.” I wish he would have used the word “sin” in that statement, not “inappropriate relationship.”
And hearkening back to my point about Swaggart, I wish Tullian would have noted that he realizes his sin will have huge reverberations, not only for his family and his church, but for other individual Christians and churches across America — because it will. I wish he would have just flat-out told us how very, very sorry he is for that.
Most of all, I wish he would have somewhere cried out with his own version of, “Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, So that You are justified when You speak And blameless when You judge!” (Ps. 51:4) – some kind of acknowledgment that his greatest sin of all was against God Himself. Isn’t that response why we all continue to glorify God for the life and testimony of King David? David was an adulterer and had his lover’s husband killed, but it was his beautiful repentance afterward that stands as an example to God’s people for all time.
Before you excoriate me, I am not saying that Tullian isn’t crying out to God in private. Surely, he must be. Surely, he has apologized to his family and to his church. I wouldn’t want to and don’t need to know all the details of those gut-wrenching, private moments. I am praying for Tullian and his family. I do wonder, however, why he was out on social media for several days before the scandal broke, tweeting lines like “God alone is a perpetual promise keeper” and “One thing is certain: I am hyper about grace!” I can tell you that if I’d been in his shoes, knowing what was coming down the pike, I wouldn’t be out tweeting … anything.
But the Tullian scandal really needs to be put into context, as I believe it is merely part of a larger pattern in 21st-century American evangelicalism.
Today, the pastoral sin scandal belongs to Tullian Tchividjian. But not too long ago, it was Mark Driscoll (and a bunch of other megachurch pastors whose names aren’t as well known). The year before, it was David Loveless (once the pastor of one of America’s “10 Healthiest Churches.”)
Within the last few years, we’ve also seen massive sex scandals within Sovereign Grace Ministries, leading to a class-action lawsuit over rampant child sexual abuse in that church organization. We’ve seen the resignations of Bill Gothard and Doug Phillips over sexual misconduct. We have the Josh Duggar molestation scandal. And anybody remember Ted Haggard, former head of the National Association of Evangelicals?
And who will be next?
Here’s the truly disconcerting reality. For every famous Christian “name” who has scandalously sinned and fallen, statistics tell us that we have myriad pastors and Christian leaders across America who have committed the exact same sins. We just don’t read about all of them in the news. Some of them even get away with it. And remember, in most of these cases, we’re talking about pastors, the men whose characters have to be absolutely exemplary (per I Timothy 3 and Titus 1) even to serve in their positions in our churches.
So again, if so many of the visible Christian pastors and leaders are frauds or swindlers or adulterers or sexual abusers, then what does that say to the world about Christians? What does that say about Jesus Christ, when we are His ambassadors on earth?
I would contend that these scandals communicate exactly the opposite of what we want to proclaim to the world. They’re actually telling the world that this Jesus we preach doesn’t change lives. And they say that the unconverted may actually be better people with better character than those who name the name of Christ.
But is this what we want the world to think of Christianity, of our pastors or of us? That the risen Jesus isn’t God? That He can’t and doesn’t change lives? That we’re all a bunch of frauds? Sexual reprobates, all? Swindlers? Hypocrites? People who preach grace just so we can claim it as an easy out when our darkest secrets are revealed?
We constantly lament the state of the world, the moral cesspool in which we’re increasingly living, the corruption we see all around us. But why in the world would unbelievers look to American evangelicals for a solution when we have so much dirt and so much sin in our own house?
You may say: “What Tullian did isn’t my fault. I’m not responsible for the sins of Jimmy Swaggart or Ted Haggard or Bill Gothard.” True enough, but I Cor. 12:26 also reminds us, “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it.” Isn’t that true? Jimmy Swaggart’s time with prostitutes wasn’t my doing, but you’d better believe I wasn’t unaffected by his sin when I tried to witness. Many of us also bear direct or indirect responsibility if we prop up pastors who scandalously sin, turning a blind eye to the sins of men who have no business being in public ministry and yet persist, unconfronted. We also bear responsibility if we commit the same sins as these men and then hide them.
But there is nothing new under the sun, as we know, and God’s people have faced such chastening before. In the Book of Amos, God comes down hard upon His people for their apostasy and for ignoring His discipline. “I gave you absolutely nothing to eat in all your cities … I also withheld the rain from you … I struck you with blight and mildew … I sent plagues like those of Egypt … I overthrew some of you.” And in each case, the Lord says, “yet you did not return to Me.”
What about what the Lord said in Jeremiah 4:22? “My people are fools; they do not know me. They are senseless children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil; they know not how to do good.”
These words are not just ancient stories. They describe us, too. We are no better! As God has brought our leaders’ sins to light in ever-increasing numbers over the last few years, isn’t it obvious that all these scandals aren’t just some weird coincidence? Are they not an indication that God is exposing this sin for a purpose – to warn us to repent and return to Him?
We are full to the brim with religious activity, religious events and conferences and websites and Tweeting and Facebooking, but it is all empty and meaningless if our hearts are far from our God! And given the number of church scandals these days, isn’t it obvious that that is our main problem? Our hearts are far from God.
So let there be a season of weeping and mourning. Given where we are now, it’s our only appropriate response. And please, let’s not exploit this need for private and collective repentance by calling for another stadium event or special conference. In the privacy of our homes, our rooms, our closets and our churches, let us go before the Lord and rightly acknowledge that “judgment begins with the household of God.” Let us admit that we fully deserve that judgment, and then let us plead for mercy from the hand of our great and gracious God. Let us ask Him to forgive us, to cleanse and renew us, and to make our hearts completely His, demonstrating our repentance by living holy, upright and godly lives.
We know, after all, that He loves us. We are His people and the sheep of His pasture. And when we come to Him in repentance, He will not cast us out.
“If you, Israel, will return, then return to me,” declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 4:1)