Opinion by Jim Denney
This is going to be different from the usual sort of post I write for this blog. Recent headlines have triggered memories and emotions from a long time ago. I don’t need to mention the headlines. You’ve seen them, too.
But those memories?
A long time ago, I had a friend. Call him Pastor Smith. He led a large church in a major American city. Pastor Smith was a dynamic speaker whose preaching attracted many new people to the church. His message was biblical and evangelical. In person, he seemed charming and genuinely humble.
I knew Pastor Smith for more than ten years, and I got to know him well — or at least, I thought I did. I would have bet my life on Pastor Smith’s integrity. And I would have lost that bet.
One day, a friend called and told me a scandal was about to become public. A number of women had filed a lawsuit against Pastor Smith. My first response was denial and disbelief. It couldn’t possibly be true. I knew this man. I trusted him.
But it was true. Within weeks, the scandal was a front-page story in the newspaper.
Two of the women suing Pastor Smith were friends of mine. I learned that a number of people in the church had known about Pastor Smith’s sexual exploitation of women in the church — and they had covered it up. They didn’t want to discipline Pastor Smith. They just wanted to hush it up and pressure Pastor Smith to move to another church.
They didn’t care if he claimed more victims at another church. All they cared about was keeping the scandal from blowing up at their church.
I met with Pastor Smith after the scandal broke. He said, “Jim, what I did was wrong, but at least the relationships I had with these women weren’t sexual relationships.”
“What do you mean? They weren’t sexual relationships? If nothing sexual took place, then why are you being sued by these women?”
He hemmed and hawed, and finally explained what he meant. I’ll spare you the lurid details, and just say that he used the same verbal dodge that President Clinton used when he said, “I never had sexual relations with that woman.” What Pastor Smith did with these women was definitely sexual — but he wanted me to go out and tell people it wasn’t.
He also said, “At least I wasn’t going out and meeting prostitutes.”
That statement jolted me. I didn’t know how to answer it at the time, but I later wished I had said, “No, what you did was worse. You preyed on women in the church when they were hurting and vulnerable. You exploited women who came to you for counseling. If you’re going to commit adultery, better you do it as a business transaction with the prostitute then sexually exploiting women in the church, the Bride of Christ.”
I wish I had said that to him. I wish I had thought of it at the time. So let me say to you what I wish I had said to him.
If you are a pastor or a church elder or someone in authority in the church, and you are committing sexual sins against the people in your care — STOP.
Stop right now. Repent of it. Confess it to someone in authority. Resign your position. Never seek a position of authority in the church again.
If you, as a leader in the church, have had a sexual relationship outside of your marriage, you are disqualified from church leadership. Read the qualifications for church leadership in 1 Timothy 3, especially verse 2: “Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable . . . .”
There is no wiggle room, no compromise, no exception in that verse. I’m not saying you can’t serve God. I’m not saying you can’t be forgiven. I’m not saying you’re washed up as a Christian. But I am saying that you are no longer qualified to be a leader (“overseer”) in the church. That’s what the Bible clearly says.
If you have been in an immoral relationship with a church leader — STOP.
Stop right now. Repent of it. Confess it to someone in authority. Seek counseling. It doesn’t matter whether your relationship with that church leader is mutual and consensual, or if that church leader is a manipulator and a predator. The relationship must stop. The sin must stop.
No matter how you may rationalize it, no matter how the church leader may excuse it, it is sin and it must stop.
If you know of a church leader who has engaged in this kind of behavior, don’t make excuses for him. Don’t defend him. Don’t try to get a “fallen” church leader back into the pulpit. Don’t blame or attack his sexual partners. Yes, they are responsible to God for their own actions. But in many cases, they are victims of a church leader — a spiritual authority figure — who manipulated them into thinking their sin was “no big deal” or that “God will understand and forgive.”
The church is the Bride of Christ and the apostle Paul said, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the Word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:25-27).
I hope any church leader reading these words would think seriously, soberly, and fearfully before daring to tempt the Bride of Christ to sin.
Note: Battle Before Time, the first book in my newly revised and updated Timebenders series for young readers, has just been released in paperback. Click this link to learn more.
And if you’d like to learn more about how to write faster, more freely, and more brilliantly than you ever thought possible, read my book Writing In Overdrive, available in paperback and ebook editions at Amazon.com. —J.D.
Jim Denney also blogs at Writing in Overdrive and Walt’s Disneyland.
If it’s the same church I think you are talking about, I am disheartened by the leaders and the coverup. Although some of what you share I have not know about, so it may not be the same church. However, no matter the church, any inappropriate behavior needs to be taken seriously and not swept under the rug. I have been triggered by what is happening at our church. All leaders need to be above reproach and hidden sin be brought to the light. Denial can be pretty steep as to the brevity and seriousness of any sin. So sorry you are going through this.
Thanks, BeaconsOfLife. There was a front-page story in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago—a huge scandal at a major megachurch—that brought back all the memories and emotions of what took place at my church years ago. I probably should have made the timeframe more clear in the post, but the events I’m talking about happened in the early 1990s. It was the first time I had ever felt that sense of disorientation and unreality that comes with finding that someone you thought you knew was someone else entirely. I thought “Pastor Smith” was the most godly man I knew, then I discovered he was a predator and a master manipulator. It was like being in the Twilight Zone, but in real life.
Thanks again for your kind note! God bless and inspire you! —J.D.