Tomorrow I begin a sermon series on the topic of grace. It’s been on my mind a lot recently. But the meaning of the word is contested, not in terms of its dictionary definition, but in how it takes shape in a community, especially among leaders.
This is illustrated most recently by the news that Tullian Tchividjian was coming back to pastoral ministry, launching a new church. He is coming back from a high profile scandal. Christianity Today summarizes:
“[Tullian] was forced to resign as senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in northern Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2015 after acknowledging that he cheated on his wife. The couple later divorced.
A year later, he was fired from an administrative job at Willow Creek Presbyterian Church in Winter Springs, Florida, after leaders there became aware of another, earlier sexual tryst.”
The nature of Tullian’s sin is contested. He argues that it was a purely consensual relationship. But many counselors believe any sexual relationship between a pastor and a congregant introduces a power dynamic that brings it under the category of abuse. The woman with whom Tullian had the relationship says that he abused his position of power over her.
Tullian, for his part, is marketing his church, The Sanctuary, in the language of grace:
“The Sanctuary is a judgment-free zone where people can come as they are, not as they should be. A place to find love and laughter and hope and healing and acceptance and forgiveness and mercy and help. Sadly, churches tend to be the scariest places, rather than the safest places, for fallen people to fall down and for broken people to break down. The Sanctuary strives to be different.”
I resonate with these words, and these words resonate with the gospel, but within Tullian’s context, something seems off. The Episcopal priest Paul Zahl says that “Tullian’s personal experience, as bad as you want to make it out, has qualified him (and qualifies him brilliantly!) to preach the Gospel.” Is that true? Does Tullian’s “experience” qualify him to return to the pastorate? Should we celebrate Tullian’s return to pastoral ministry as a triumph of God’s grace? Should his critics “extend grace” to him by supporting his return to ministry?
One of those critics is Tullian’s brother Boz. I’m familiar with Boz because of his role with GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environment). A report from GRACE was instrumental in our decision as a church to restrict funds giving through a mission’s organization that had a poor record with dealing with abuse on the mission field. Boz described clergy abuse as follows:
“Adult clergy abuse is when a ministry leader uses his position to identify, groom, and engage in “consensual” sexual contact with someone in his congregation or under his influence. There are no exceptions to this kind of dehumanizing objectification, exploitation and betrayal.”
This kind of behavior disqualifies Tullian from pastoral ministry. That’s not to say he can’t be a productive member of society, or that he can’t find forgiveness, but that given the seriousness of his error, his role needs to change.
We have here two differing accounts of grace. For Tullian, his sin magnifies God’s grace, and qualifies him for ministry. For Boz, grace is shown in taking sin seriously, demonstrating care for the abused, and protecting the church from potential further abuse. Tullian’s sin disqualifies him from ministry because it minimizes sin and puts the flock at risk.
If I were in Tullian’s camp I would point to two heroes of the faith in my defense: David and Paul. David slept with Bathsheba and then murdered her husband. Yet, he continued in his role as a King and his psalms of repentance magnify God’s grace. Paul, also, was shown incredible grace. He presided over the persecution and murder of Christians. He referred to himself as the worst of sinners. And yet God showed him grace and called him to be an apostle. In fact, the difference between Paul’s life before and after his encounter with Christ made him a particularly good messenger of the gospel.
But we should always be wary of comparing ourselves, or our pastors, to David or Paul. God used these men in unique ways for his glory. A pastor isn’t a king or an apostle. Paul himself established qualifications for ministry, for who could be a leader in the church. Amongst those are the following qualifications:
- Above reproach (1 Tim 3:2)
- Faithful to his wife (1 Tim 3:2)
- Have a good reputation with outsiders (1 Tim 3:7)
Church leaders aren’t squashing grace by insisting that pastors and elders meet these qualifications. They’re ensuring that the message of grace goes out unhindered and they’re demonstrating grace to the flock by protecting it from moral error.
God’s grace is merciful and forgiving. He gives his people second, third, fourth, and fifth chances, and on and on and on. His faithfulness is magnified in our unfaithfulness, his grace is magnified in our sin. But God’s grace is also protective and just, and sometimes hard. God’s grace protects the vulnerable from the strong. God’s grace never minimizes sin – it atones for it. God’s grace removes the consequences of final judgment, but it doesn’t always remove earthly consequences. To the repentant sinner who comes home, God opens his welcoming arms, and the church should, too, but that doesn’t mean such a man is qualified or ready for a position of spiritual authority.
I think this is the full understanding of grace that Boz understands and to which I subscribe. I can’t pretend to know where Tullian stands with God. But I worry that his view of grace is too simple, that it ignores too much and that, as such, in can be used, as Paul warned, as a license for sin.
TULLIAN TCHIVIDJIAN’S UPSIDE DOWN CHRISTIANITY (First Things)
Tullian Tchividjian Is Back. So Is Scrutiny About His Past Infidelity. (Christianity Today)