Interview with

Founder & Teacher,

Audio Transcript

A perceptive question has come in from a podcast listener named Matt. He asks, “In episode 313, Pastor John said there was a period when 230 people left his church and the church didn’t grow for years after that. What happened, and what did you learn from the experience?”

Painful Season

I often make vague references to that season in our church’s life. It might be helpful to say a little more about it here, and then offer 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.

Therefore, 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 often deceived about myself, but as far as I know, my heart is right about this and I bear no one any lurking grudges. There was anger in the past, but I want those listening to hear that there is not anymore. I want to say to the people who listen, who know what I am talking about, that I don’t want to go to my grave with any bitterness or unforgiveness in my heart.

Broken Unity

Here is what happened: Two of our staff members committed adultery together. And I was the person who discovered it. But 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 me as destroying the beauty of our staff unity. If it could never be proved or validated, the staff unity would be destroyed. I had ruined it.

Believe me, I can understand their perspective. We had enjoyed something so wonderful together, and here came John Piper making these accusations and undermining the very essence of what we had all loved for so long.

Slow Recovery

This went on for several weeks while tensions increased, though not publicly. The church as a whole did not know about it, but dozens behind the scenes did. Finally, in mercy to everyone, the two confessed to an extended season of adultery. You might think this would reverse everyone’s feelings toward me, but things never work that way. Some saw me not as being truthful but as gloating in my vindication.

“Tend your heart and know the souls of your partners in ministry.”

Then the process of discipline set in. The elders had long, careful, and prayerful meetings. I believe we handled the situation in a right and biblical way. But whenever anything like this happens, some people are always unhappy with the process and the attitudes of those involved, so they disapproved in many ways.

Twenty years later, I am profoundly thankful for God’s grace in getting us through. The two who were involved did not destroy their marriages. Their spouses were unbelievably gracious. God worked restoration. Neither couple divorced. They are still with their original spouses. And that is not owing to me. It is owing to God in his great grace toward all of us, and I thank him for it.

But the hurt they 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 that was an unnecessary consequence of this. They felt my attitude was not right, and on and on. The wounds were many. That is why we had this 230 or so people who left the church.

God Healed

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. However, the heart is deceitful. I don’t want to create any barriers by claiming more than I should for myself.

Lots of good reconciliation happened. People should be encouraged. I have been with the people. We did lots of counseling. We did lots of redemptive work. Even recently, I have had meetings to reaffirm the air is clear and we will be able to face each other on the last day without any sense that we did not make this right while we were on the earth. Let me share four lessons I learned.

Four Lessons

First, tend your heart. I am speaking to pastors 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.

Second, 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 among their spouses on staff.

Third, follow the Bible in discipline lovingly. Know beforehand that the devil will distort everything.

“When your church is wounded, it is not right to walk away from them. So don’t walk away.”

Fourth, don’t walk away in the season of winnowing. We didn’t grow for three or four years. We didn’t grow at all. The first year was a year of weeping, where we just did damage control and healing. Then we spent two years on who we were, making identification efforts. And then, we came to a fourth year. At that time, God mercifully lifted the hand of discipline, and we took off again.

If I had walked away during the difficult time, I have no idea what might have become of Bethlehem. It just would not have been the thing for a father or a husband or a shepherd to do. When your church is wounded, it is not right to walk away from them. So, don’t walk away.