When Sin Fractures a Church
The following is a transcript of the audio.
A perceptive question has come in from a podcast listener named Matt. He asks, “In episode 313, Pastor John said there was one period when 230 people left his church and the church didn’t grow for years after that. What happened there, and what did you learn from the experience?”
Yeah. I often make clouded reference to that season in our church’s life. And it might be helpful to say a little more about it here and then just a few lessons at the end. This is very delicate. And I must be careful, because I suspect that people who were deeply wounded and deeply complicit in those events will listen to this podcast. And so I am going to start by saying: I don’t speak out of any remnants of anger or vengeance that I know of. My heart is corrupt and I am deceived often about myself, but as much as I know myself, my heart is right about this and I bear no one any lurking grudges. As much anger as there has been in the past, I want those to listen to this to hear that. I want to say to the people who listen, who know what I am talking about and were there and were involved: I don’t want to go to my grave with any bitterness or unforgiveness in my heart.
Here is what happened. Two of our staff members committed adultery together. And I was the person who discovered it. Only that discovery was circumstantial for several weeks. In other words, I couldn’t prove it. This is a horrible position to be in. I was profoundly convinced it was happening. The close friends of the couple were horrified that such an accusation would be made. They saw it as unjust and they saw the beauty of our staff unity being destroyed by me. And even if it never would be proved or never could be validated the staff unity would be destroyed. I mean, I had ruined it. And, believe me. I can understand their perspective. We had enjoyed something so wonderful together and here was John Piper making these accusations and undermining the very essence of what we had all loved for so long.
Now that went on for several weeks while tensions increased, not publicly. The church as a whole didn’t know it at this moment, but dozens did behind the scenes. And then in mercy to everyone they confessed unto an extended season of adultery. And you might think that this would reverse everyone’s feelings toward me, but things never work that way and for some I was seen not as now being truthful as gloating in my vindication. Then the process of discipline set in. The elders had long and careful, prayerful meetings and I believe we handled it in a right and biblical way. But whenever anything like this happens there are people who are always unhappy with the process and the attitudes of those involved and so it was disapproved in many ways.
And from a distance of 20 years now I am profoundly thankful for God’s grace in getting us through, because the two who were involved did not destroy their marriages. Their spouses were unbelievably gracious. There was restoration. Neither couple divorced. They are with their original spouse. And, to me, that is not owing to me. It is owing to God in his great grace towards all of us. And I thank him for it. But the hurt that was caused was simply profound and it came from many different angles. Some felt the discipline wasn’t handled lovingly enough. Some were simply crushed by a man that they had been helped by for so long. Some were angered that in the process we decided not to purchase an organ that we were going to purchase and they felt that was an unnecessary fall out of this. They felt my attitude wasn’t what it should be and on and on. The wounds were many and that is the reason we had this 230 or so people who left the church. And as I look back I don’t want to claim sinlessness in my attitudes. I did my best. I feel, in general, that we followed the biblical guidelines with the right spirit, but the heart is deceitful and I don’t want to bring about any barriers by claiming more than I should for myself.
Lots of good reconciliation has happened. People should be encouraged. I mean, I have been with the people. Lots of counseling happened. Lots of redemptive work happened and even more recently I have had meetings even to reaffirm that the air is cleared and we are able to face each other on the last day without any sense that we didn’t make this right while we were on the earth.
So what did I come away with? Let me just mention:
One, tend your heart. I am speaking to pastors, I suppose, now. Tend your heart and know the souls of your partners in ministry. Pursue anything that looks like a cooling or distancing. Go after it.
Number two, care for the wives of your staff and listen to them. Sometimes their intuitions are better than our discernments as to what might be happening in their spouses on staff.
Number three, follow the Bible in discipline lovingly and know that the devil will distort everything.
Number four, don’t walk away in the season of winnowing. We didn’t grow for four or three years. The fourth year became the year of turnaround. We didn’t grow at all. One was a year of weeping where we just did damage control. One was... and healing. One was... two were, I would say, two years of who are we, identification efforts. And then a fourth year where God in great mercy lifted the hand of discipline and we took off again. So if I had walked away during that time I have no idea what might become of Bethlehem. It just would not have been the thing for a father to do or a husband to do or a shepherd to do. It is not what you do when your church is wounded to walk away from them. And so don’t walk away.
Thank you Pastor John—and thank you for not walking away from the church in this season. This episode was based on a question from podcast listener Matt after hearing episode #313: “Marriage Challenges and Christian Ministry.” Be sure to check that out. Thank you, listeners for your attentiveness and excellent email questions, like this one from Matt. Please continue to send us your questions and email them to: askpastorjohn AT desiringgod DOT org. Tomorrow we’re back to talk about what a Christian couple is to do when the memories of past sexual mistakes haunt their wedding. Until then, I’m your host, Tony Reinke. Thanks for listening to the Ask Pastor John podcast.