There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven—A time to give birth, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot what is planted. A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to tear down, and time o build up. A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. A time to throw stones, and a time to gather stones; a time to embrace, and a time to shun embracing. A time to search, and a time to give up as lost; a time to keep, and a time to throw away. A time to tear apart, and a time to sew together; a time to be silent, and a time to speak. A time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:1–8)
We are entering a time to mourn, a time to weep, a time to search, and it seems a time to tear apart. One text that captures such a time as this is Joel 2:15–17:
Blow a trumpet in Zion, consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly, gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children and the nursing infants. Let the bridegroom come out of his room and the bride out of her bridal chamber. Let the priests, the Lord's ministers, weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, "Spare thy people, O Lord, and do not make thine inheritance a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they among the peoples say, 'Where is their God?'"
[At this point in the sermon, Pastor John took a moment to address the children. He told them this little poem in order to help them process what was taking place:
When things don't go the way they should
God always makes it turn for good.
He then gave five stories about how God made good things come from what seemed to be bad circumstances:
- A splinter in your finger has to be removed, but it hurts to have it taken out. Sometimes things that hurt actually help us to get better.
- The story of Joseph in Genesis: "You meant it for evil but God meant it for good."
- John Bunyan's imprisonment and John Owen's "failure" to get him released actually led to the writing of A Pilgrim's Progress.
- A recent personal experience from Pastor John's life.
- The cross of Christ: betrayal, denial, and sin actually led to our salvation.]
Public Reproof for Public Ministers
I would simply like to develop a principle concerning public ministry and the sins of public ministers.
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, "If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews? (Galatians 2:11– 14)
"All" here means the "Gentiles" (v. 12) and the "party of the circumcision" (v. 12) and "the rest of the Jews" (v. 13). Peter was a very public figure and his behavior was having public ramifications. It was hurting the community. Therefore Paul's reproof was similarly public. "In the presence of all" (v. 14).
Public Ministers Lead by Their Whole Lives
Elders and deacons and other authorized public ministers of the congregation are public ministers with the biblical expectation that their ministry will be largely by example. For example:
Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:1–3)
Public ministers lead by their lives. This cannot be limited only to their righteousness and not to their sin. It would be entirely hypocritical if a public minister said, I lead by my example: all my good deeds I show; and all my bad deeds I hide. That is not an example; that is a counterfeit.
If we are going to say that our successes and their rewards are needful for the people to see, we must also say that our failures and their consequences are needful for the people to see. We lead by example not just when we succeed, but also when we fail. The one is attended with honor and we teach that others should imitate. The other is attended with dishonor and we teach that others should fear.
John Calvin and the reformers wrestled as much as anyone with these things. Calvin lays down this principle:
Just as [elders] show the way to others by the example of an honorable life, so, if they go wrong, it is right that severe discipline should be exercised against them as an example to all. For why should greater forbearance be shown to men whose faults do more serious harm than those of other men? (Commentary on 1 Timothy 5:20, p. 264)
We leaders cannot have our cake and eat it too. If we embrace the burden of public influence by example (as the Bible says we must), we must accept that burden of influence when our example goes wrong, and needs to be reproved. We are not honorable if we say: I will accept the privilege of leading people by example as long as I am praised, but I will not accept the burden of leading people by example when I am reproved. I will let my successes teach publicly, but not my failures.
Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7)
If you are to consider the faith and conduct of your leaders, I cannot believe you are to look the other way when our behavior falls short. The price of public leadership is public reproof for sins that call our fitness for public office into question.
But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13)
We leaders cannot accept this public esteem while we walk in the light; but then reject public reproof when we walk in the dark. Public ministerial leadership means we are to lead by our lives. That means we receive respect and esteem when we live uprightly, and we receive dishonor and shame when we walk in sin. We simply cannot say: "I will be public when I am good and I will be private when I am bad."
And do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them. (Ephesians 5:11)
And the exposing is in proportion to the seriousness of the sin and the extent of public influence in the sinner.
We know this also from the qualifications for elder listed in 1 Timothy 3. This list of qualifications implies that the church must judge the fitness of men for the eldership. But if it is biblical that the fitness of an elder for official public leadership be exposed, it must also be biblical that the unfitness of an elder for official public leadership be exposed.
For example, it says
An overseer, then, must be above reproach. (1 Timothy 3:2)
No elder can say with integrity: I accept the approval of this church for my qualities of being above reproach, but I do not accept the reproof of this church when I have fallen into reproach. You can't with integrity say: I am an influential, public figure as long as I do things that will get me praise; but I will not endure public scrutiny when I do things that will get me criticism.
Therefore the reproof and correction of a public minister extends as far as his influence may carry the harm of his sin. The more public the figure, the more public the reproof. The more widespread the influence, the more widespread the correction. The more extensive the potential harm of his sin, the more extensive the censure.