What Do We Do With the Teachings of Fallen Ministers?
The Church has always been marked by controversy, but recently, the broad Reformed Evangelical community has been faced with what seems to be an excessive number of incidents, sparked by the failings of our leaders. Nearly a year ago, in a very public manner, Mark Driscoll resigned from Mars Hil Church in the face of charges against him for plagiarism, bullying, and pride, and the multi-site church he had built went with him. Around the same time, C. J. Mahaney and Joshua Harris came under scrutiny when the public became aware of mishandled sex abuse charges related to a youth worker at Sovereign Grace Ministries. More recently, Tullian Tchividjian became the fourth high profile pastor in Florida to resign this year after confessing to having an affair.
Now, after the initial feelings of hurt and betrayal that the moral failings of our leaders ellicit, our initial response is to find ways to prevent such scandals from replaying in the lives of our leaders. Much ink has been spilled analyzing where each of these situations went wrong and how they could have been handled better at an earlier time to prevent the later scandals. While there are things in such conversations that we would do well to heed, we must admit that these situations are here to stay, no matter how much we say about them. Despite our best safeguards, there will always be leaders who fall because of their own struggles with sin.
I would like to suggest that there is another question we should also be asking; what do we do with the teachings of fallen leaders? Few people are publicly asking this question, because the answer seems obvious: we no longer use them! Why would we listen to what such sinful people have to say? Such a sentiment makes sense to our culture. In our individualist society, those in authority over us are expected to earn it. The fallen leaders of our churches have clearly not earned it and do not have the right for us to heed what they say. The biblical response on the part of other church leaders of removing those in sin from Church office seems to reinforce our assumptions. Since so many of our cultural assumptions are influencing how we approach this question, let's move it out of our own day and put it into a different cultural context that might be able to speak to our own. Our time is not the only one to be faced with fallen Church leaders; that issue is as old as the Church itself, and many have asked the same question we are presently asking, but they came to a very different answer.
If we think our own struggles are difficult enough, they come across as elementary compared to what the early Church faced. During centuries of government sanctioned persecution, particularly under the reigns of Domitian and Nero, there were those Church leaders who caved in to the fierce pressures of society and publicly denied their faith in Christ. Before we begin to judge them, it is hard to imagine remaining firm in your convictions when your fellow believers are being torn assunder by beasts in the circus and you are facing torture until you deny your faith. Some capitulated to the fierce pressure, and if it we were in similar circumstances, it would be hard to blame them. After the tumultuous centuries of the young Church, Christianity was finally legalized by Constantine in 313 AD. Once the persecution ceased, some of these bishops who had denied the faith publicly wanted to return to the Church. The question facing the early Church was what to do with these lapsed leaders and with whether or not their ministries were valid in the first place. Had those who had been baptized by them truly received a valid baptism? Did their teachings still have anything beneficial to say to the Church? There was a group who took the same side we do now, that the former ministries of lapsed leaders are invalid, and they were called the Donatists.
The Donatists saw those preists and bishops who had denied the faith and handed the Scriptures to the pagan authorities as "traditores" (traitor), the title applied to Judas Iscariot (Gonzalez: The Story of Christianity 174). As a result, all sacraments administered by them were considered invalid. Anyone who had been baptized by a lapsed bishop or priest must be rebaptized, if they expected to have a valid baptism. Their attitude towards lapsed bishops in repentance betrayed an assumption that once fallen from grace, one could not be restored. There was no margin of error. Anyone who fell could not be one of God's elect. They had no conception of penitent Christians (especially in leadership) who could struggle with sin.
So how did the Church respond? While there were various leaders in the Church who stood up to denounce them, the most famous figure, especially in evangelical circles, was St. Augustine. He wrote two treatises attacking the movement. He had three main arguments that he utilized against the Donatists (Catholic Encyclopedia). The first was a matter of history. The second was comprised of theological proofs. Finally, he argued from the inconsistencies of the Donatists themselves. While all three of these arguments are interesting and worth investigating, this articule would be far longer than intended and stray beyond our original question if we followed all them. For our purposes, we want to learn from St. Augustine a biblical response to the former ministries of those church leaders who have fallen in our own day. As a result, we will only focus on the second line of argument (biblehub.com as an excellent article summarizing Augustine's two treatises which proved invaluable in preparing this article).
The most important part of Augustine's doctrine against the Donatists was his emphasis on "one baptism", as taught by the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians. "There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all" (Ephesians 4:4-5 ESV). As baptism is a gift from God, its efficiency, its validity, comes from him, not the administer. For Augustine, to require those who had been baptized by "traditores" to be rebaptized was to introduce another baptism and deny the power of God in the sacrament. While we are not presently discussing baptism, Augustine gives us helpful insights here that we can work with.
Before we turn to the pertinence of Augustine's comments for our own discussion, we need to take a brief excursion and explain why we can use a discussion on baptism as a parallel to our own discussion of the preaching of the Word. In magesterial Protestantism (the spiritual descendants of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli), God imparts His saving grace to us through the preaching of the Word and the administering of the sacraments (baptism and the Eucharist or Communion). The biblical defence of this comes from the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), Christ commanded the apostles (and by extension, us) to make disciples of all nations. What follows explains how we make disciples. We "teach them to observe all that [Christ] has commanded" (preaching the Word) and "baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (administering the sacraments). Calvin taught in his Institutes that these are the primary functions of the Church, to proclaim the Word of God and give the sacraments. Since the preaching of the Word and the sacraments have parallel functions, we can adapt what is said regarding the baptism of lapsed Church leaders for how we are to handle the past preaching of lapsed leaders. Whether or not Augustine would agree is another matter. For the purposes of our discussion, the Protestant framework allows Augustine to speak to us on this issue.
Let us now return to Augustine's argument. The text he utilizied for his context also speaks to ours. Though baptism plays an important role in the passage from Ephesians 4, it is not the only mark of the Church's unity Paul provides in the context. In v. 4, he also mentions our "one hope". In his epsitle to the Colossians, he defines what he means by hope. "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister" (Colossians 1:15-23). This is a glorious text that could be studied for a lifetime, and we would never fail to discover more glorious truth in it. For our purposes, we should find what we came here for, and that is what Paul means by the word "hope". The keyword shows up at the end of the passage in v. 23, "the hope of the Gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven." What is it that has been proclaimed in all creation? That Christ is the Creator and Lord of all and that in His death and resurrection, He showed Himself as victorious over even sin and death. And how is that our hope? In His death and resurrection, He has overcome our greatest enemies and we are reconciled to Him, our Creator and good Lord. Back in Ephesians 4, Paul states that this is the one hope that all believers share, just as all believers share one baptism.
Though it may seem that we have run far from our initial question, we have now been brought back to it. The fallen teachers we are talking about are not heretics, are not deniers of the faith, but are proclaimers of the one hope we have in Christ. We are still to hold our leaders and teachers accountable and Paul gives the qualifications of a pastor (1 Timothy 3:1-7). We are not trying to find an excuse to keep unrepentant leaders in office, but are asking what we are to do with their past teachings once they have fallen into sin. They have proclaimed the "one hope", just as Augustine defended those who shared in the "one baptism" against the Donatists. If Augustine could argue that a baptism was valid because of the work of Christ rather than the merits of the administer, then surely, the proclamation of the good news of Christ is valid, despite the merits of the administer. The power of the Gospel to transform does not come from the preacher with his charisma and upstanding morals, but from the work of Christ Himself.
We do our leaders a disservice when we see them as perfect people, to be put on a pedastal. And we do a disservice to those who have fallen when we assume that their sin is who they always were and always will be. To be so quick to condemn our fallen leaders is to miss the point of what they have always told us. They have proclaimed the Gospel hope, that Christ is the Creator and Lord of all who, in His death and resurrection, defeated sin and death so that we might be reconciled to Him. Our leaders do not just proclaim this hope for us, but also for themselves. Christ's passion and resurrection conquered the sins that have brought too many of our leaders down. And while we cannot just shrug at sin and look the other way, we are also called to be gracious, to share with them the Gospel hope so that they might turn from their sins. And where did we hear that Gospel hope first? From these same leaders who need to hear it themselves.
And so to answer the original question, why wouldn't we keep the rich treasures that we have been given to us by our leaders, despite their faults? Their flaws of their lives do not show they have been preaching a lie, but that they forgot to listen to themselves. They don't need to search for hope elsewhere, but merely have to turn back to their own sermons and writings to hear the hope that they need, and those teachings can still be beneficial to us. The history of the Church is marked by those who have fallen, but before their falls, have given us rich treasures. One example that comes to mind is Tertullian, who first gave us the language of "Trinity", defined true orthodox Christianity against many heretics, and who laid the groundwork for the teachings of St. Augustine, who has served as a helpful guide in this article. Near the end of his life, Tertullian tragically fell into a heresy of his own, but that does not negate the great work he did. It is up to God to judge what to do with these leaders, but for us, any teaching that proclaims the lordship of Jesus Christ over sin and the grave is worth holding on to. Anything less is a failure on our part to see the power of God in the hope of the Gospel, to overcome the sin of even those who have let us down and failed. In fact, it is a functional denial of the truth of our Gospel hope when we act as if it is not for those who have let us down, and is its own form of heresy, its own Donatism. Let us not join in their failure to see the greatness of the Gospel proclaimed. To conclude with another statement by the Apostle Paul, "Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice" (Philippians 1:15-18a).