On Pastoral Failings and the Fallout

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When I was a college student in Romania, I served a church in a farming village near the Hungarian border. One of the leaders was an older man who lived next door with his wife. He was the keeper of the keys to the one-room church building. He led prayer meetings, gave the tone for congregational songs, and kept the fire going in the stove at the center of our sanctuary. We all called him Grandpa, because he treated us young people like we were his spiritual children. He had the kind of relationship with God that, when you talked with him, made you feel like you’d just been with someone who had just been with Jesus.

One day, our conversation turned to fears for the future, and considering the fact he was getting up there in years, I expected him to mention the fear of losing his loved ones or the fear of a terminal illness. Instead, he looked right at me and, with a pained expression marked by watery eyes, he said: What I fear most is doing something that would embarrass my Lord and bring shame to his people.

That answer bothered me at the time. Surely this fear was misguided—a leftover of legalism, perhaps. Why fear sin when we’re under grace?

I believed this fear was also irrational. Here was a man in his 70s, whose walk with the Lord was evident to everyone. I couldn’t imagine him falling into a sin grievous enough to bring shame upon the church he loved so dearly. His answer bothered me because it seemed so groundless.

Fast forward nearly 20 years. His answer doesn’t bother me anymore. In fact, the older I get, the more that fear makes sense to me. It is not groundless. Neither is it faithless. It is inoculation against spiritual pride and presumption.

Truth be told, that man of God knew himself better than I knew him. He knew that we do not “graduate” from sinful struggles on this earth. Never do we reach a spiritual plane where we are totally untouched by the traces of former rebellion. He knew the stories of men and women who stumbled into sin after lifetimes of faithfulness—failures that cast a long shadow over many years of fruitfulness, tainting even the good years of faithful ministry.

Scripture gives us example after example of men who finished poorly. David’s adultery left his family in shambles. Solomon’s appetites turned his heart to idols. Asa fell prey to a prideful spirit that kept him from relying on the Lord when he grew ill. Hezekiah’s pride left the kingdom vulnerable. Moses’ moment of faithlessness kept him from the Promised Land.

In recent months, we’ve seen a number of Christian leaders acknowledging their complicity in immoral or unethical behavior. In each of these cases, sinful patterns in the present have caused a reevaluation of ministry fruitfulness in the past. Tragic, isn’t it? Perhaps the evil one is not interested in sidelining older leaders because he wants to stop them from future ministry; instead, he wants to stain their reputation so that all the fruit from their past becomes spoiled as well.

To be clear, sin does not erase the good fruit of people in the past. The psalms David wrote when he was truly a man after God’s heart still minister to us today. We can praise God for the ways someone has blessed us, and we can be deeply grieved by the ways that same person has disappointed us.

Still, sin does affect our view of the past. That’s why I now have a better idea of what my Romanian “Grandpa” felt when he shared his fear of slipping up in his later years. He was wise. He was not presumptuous. He didn’t see himself as a member of a saintly class of Christians (the way that I viewed him at the time). He saw himself as a follower of Jesus who remained vulnerable to sins and temptations. He knew that sins in his future could undermine the credibility of his Christian witness in the past. That’s why, as he approached the valley of the shadow of death, he prayed fervently to escape the shadows of sin that would bring disrepute to God’s people.

Brothers and sisters, we will waste the sense of profound grief we feel if recent revelations lead us to judge rather than repent. Public revelations of private sin give us all the opportunity for repentance and renewal.

As Eric Geiger has pointed out, the apostle Paul urged Timothy to “pay close attention” both to his “life” and his “teaching.” Stumbling into personal sin or falling for false doctrine—both are ways we can finish poorly. “Persevere in these things,” Paul wrote, “for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

Let’s not waste these painful moments of sin and sorrow. Let’s not presume that we are above a fall. Instead, let’s persevere with a holy stamina in life and doctrine, so that Jesus is exalted and his people are edified.

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