It’s been a publicly bad year for pastors. It’s not only Ravi Zacharias and Hillsong New York pastor Carl Lentz, it’s regular, everyday ministers who are not doing well; caught up in spiritual abuse, dabbling in sin where they know they shouldn’t, and walking (or being asked to walk) away from ministry.
The hammering reports of the moral failure of public leaders are disheartening, but it’s even more disappointing when pastors and leaders in your own church suddenly resign. In the age of social justice, our first response is to try to remedy the situation by calling for punishment and removal. We want to know the pastor is sorry and repentant and the hurt people receive care. We want to feel like we have done the right thing in response to the pain that their sin has caused.
Though I cannot stress how important these actions of justice are, having watched a few churches reel and recover after their pastor’s sins were exposed, I wonder where the gospel fits into the moral failure of our pastors. Though forgiveness and reconciliation is a long and bumpy road that cannot be rushed, Jesus is the friend to sinners, the gracious king who draws near to us in our ugliest state. But it seems that when our spiritual leaders fail us, the church begins to act like Jesus is not a friend to sinful pastors.
Culturally, justice has never been in higher demand, but as Micah 6:8 teaches us, we are called to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Doing justice is not enough in the kingdom of God; it must always be accompanied with mercy and humility. We must move beyond our culture’s focus on justice that punishes and toward a Godly justice that seeks to restore the broken-hearted.
Cultural vs Kingdom justice
Our culture responds to moral failure by canceling; mistakes are something from which we do not recover. Their ministry is over; that church is finished; their books are no longer being published. Justice always requires rectification—setting things right, but our culture almost exclusively associates justice with punishment. Punitive justice is swift, harsh and the easiest response, even when it is wrong. It is tidy to lock up a perpetrator or ask a pastor to resign, but it does nothing to heal the wounds of those perpetrated. While punishment is a necessary component of justice, it is not the whole picture of biblical justice. Setting right what has gone wrong in the kingdom of God goes beyond the execution of the law and endeavors the work of restoration: to repair what was broken.
Restorative justice is a kingdom-bringing justice. It does not merely punish but pursues and anticipates redemption and reconciliation. Where our culture cries for punishment, Christians must cry for restoration. Punitive justice leaves those who have been hurt wanting for something that is lacking; we must aim to restore the personhood of those wronged as well as the wrong-doer. In a new creation kingdom, the people of God live under new creation principles—life coming out of death, sins removed as far as the east is from the west, relationships reconciled, abundant and scandalous grace. We are messengers of the gospel and ministers of reconciliation in God’s new creation kingdom that forgives the murderer has mercy on the repentant. Our gospel, our Kingdom and King, cannot be so small that we settle for our culture’s punitive system and stop our pursuit of justice at punishment. As Micah directs us, our justice should be marked by a love of mercy and deep humility, not merely pursue justice that punishes.
The mercy of the gospel
In the gospel, we are given a vastly different set of resources in which we can expect sin, failure, brokenness, and also respond to it with more than a dismissal from service. What makes the church the church is not perfection, it is mercy: the willingness to pardon sin no matter how grievous or offensive. Our failures are the location for magnifying the beauty and strength of the gospel. Therefore, how Christians respond to moral failure reveals what gospel we truly believe: is it one of hope and mercy or is it one of shame and judgment?
Jonathan Edwards argues that “God has no pleasure in the destruction or calamity of persons or people. He had rather they should turn and continue in peace. He is well-pleased if they forsake their evil ways, that he may not have occasion to execute his wrath upon them. He is a God that delights in mercy, and judgment is his strange work.” But more often than not, mercy is not at the center of my heart. I want to know the pastor is sorry for what they have done, want them to prove their repentance, tell them the depths of their wrongs. While truth-telling and repentance are essential, I wonder at what point truth-telling becomes shaming, driving in an unnecessary knife. Our God is rich in mercy, and as his people, it is imperative that we cultivate hearts that are willing to move past punishment towards what our Savior cherishes most.
When a pastor disappointed their people, many people are caught with the realization that they have been expecting perfection from them. We want our pastors to be super-Christians living out the gospel in the fullest possible terms and giving us the hope and inspiration to do so too. But pastors are just people, which is why approaching their fatal flaws with humility is so important. We often begin to believe our leaders to be impenetrable to sin as if they have matured out of it. But we know that they have not. They are human beings, no different from you or me but tasked with the incredible challenge of leading other sinners. But our biblical and church history is full of these sinners who lead God’s people— sinners who are actually the saints of God, not because of their perfection but because of how they returned to the Lord after their failures.
David would have been finished in today’s culture, not celebrated as one of the great kings of Israel. Paul never would have been allowed to preach after murdering believers who went before him. The church has always been messy and sinful, but in the face of failure, God’s mercy and grace become more tangible, strange, and beautiful than ever. We see in Adam and Eve, our first failing leaders who were punished for their sin, the heart of God for fallen leaders; he sends them on with a covenant of grace, not a covenant of works that depended on their ongoing perfection. We too participate in a covenant of grace through Christ, and in it, we must be willing to embody a kingdom that is not only just, but merciful and compassionate and humble as well. If these promises throughout scripture stop in the name of pastoral failure, our faith is nothing, our gospel powerless, the risen Christ defeated.
The way through our disappointment with our leaders today is to practice the gospel—this is what it means to be a saint. Though that might sound simple or trite, our gospel is simple: to show grace to the sinner, to love the outcast, to care for the weak. Pastors are sinful people too, and they need grace. Grace is not saying, “it’s ok” or minimizing the wrong they committed. Justice is not dismissive of wrongs and pain. Grace says, you hurt me, but I forgive you. The gospel is big enough for you to not be perfect. In our disappointment, we can find comfort that though we are grieved and hurting, we do not lose hope. Our God is a god who bring beauty out of ashes.