Sin and Christian Leadership

Christian leadership is not something that is to be taken lightly – it carries heavy responsibilities.  Hebrews 13:17 says that leaders in the church – elders, pastors, ministers etc. – must give account to God for the souls in their care.  Because of that, we are commanded to obey them and submit to them (see my article “Death of a Baptist Church and the Necessity of Church Discipline”).

God has laid down strict guidelines as to what qualities are necessary to be a Christian leader (1 Tim 3:2-7).  It distresses me when I see what’s happening in churches today.  Many people are chosen as leaders at various levels simply because they’re keen and willing.  And, as most new converts are keen, they’re often chosen in spite of the warning that recent converts should not be leaders because it is too dangerous for them: “Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Tim 3:6).  And without the wisdom that comes from personal experience in the Christian life, and walking with God in obedience, how can such a man lead God’s people?

There is also an increasing number of women being given positions of leadership in the churches.  Paul gave clear and specific instructions that women are not to teach or to have authority over men but are to be silent in the churches (1 Tim 2:12-15; 1 Cor 14:34-35) – see my articles “Catherine Kroeger and Christian Feminism”.

Sins of the Leaders

The churches and individual Christians are being fleeced by so-called “Christian” leaders, televangelists, who are constantly bleeding them of their hard-earned money.  These men and women are nothing but charlatans, no better than the sellers of snake oil we see in the cowboy movies.  The world can see this quite clearly and they despise the Church for allowing them to continue; but gullible Christians continue to support them, in spite of the qualifications laid out so clearly and specifically in 1 Timothy 3:2-7.  Christians, rather, should apply scripture principles to these frauds to see whether they really are what they claim to be.  A simple test is whether or not the prophecies they make come true: “When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him” (Deut 18:22).  None of the televangelists to whom this prophecy be applied will pass the test. 

Another issue of great concern is that sin is treated so lightly in our evangelical churches today.  For example, sexual sin is becoming more common in the ministry.  Too many pastors have been caught up in adulterous relationships and divorcing their wives so they can marry their concubines; and others are involved in homosexual relationships.  Televangelists are the most public examples of these sins but it is not limited to televangelists; pastors of local churches, and even elders, are also increasingly involved in the same kind of sins.  Many pastors are also caught up in pornography. 

They seem to think that they won’t get found out.  But sin cannot be kept secret, especially, it seems, sexual sin.  Even if the guilty one tries to keep it secret, their peace departs from them and their sin is ever before them, even though they try to justify it, and their conscience is constantly agitated.  God’s word assures us: “be sure your sin will find you out” (Num 32:23).  And guilt gives them no rest: “The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are bold as a lion” (Prov 28:1).  If they are in a position of leadership among God’s people, God WILL ensure they are discovered.  Sometimes he allows it to go on for years – but the axe will fall. (See my article, “Pornography and Christian Web Sites”).

In the case of adultery or other actual active sexual sin, once discovered, they should immediately be stood down from the ministry, and then counseled by whatever authority there is in the church.  If they repent, wonderful – forgive them.  That’s what Christianity is all about.  But on no account should they ever be returned to the ministry – they’ve forfeited that privilege and responsibility – their sin has disqualified them.  Have them back in the pew, but never in a position of leadership.  They have failed the qualifications of being above reproach (1 Tim 3:2), temperate (1 Tim 3:2), and of being well-thought of by those outside the Church (1 Tim 3:7).  I’ve seen too many disasters occur when pastors who have sinned sexually, after repentance and evidence of a changed life, have done it again.  These qualifications are laid down by God for the leaders in his Church.  We disregard them at our peril.

It’s not uncommon anymore for “celebrity” pastors who’ve been caught in sexual relationships, or in crimes such as fraud and embezzlement, to express token regret and then move on to another congregation or denomination.  The old congregation doesn’t want to “persecute” him, and the new one is glad to have a big name, a drawcard, in their denomination.  This is a disgrace, and it brings contempt upon God and His Church.  The world isn’t fooled, and it mocks when it sees such hypocrisy.

Saul a Warning for Christians

King Saul disobeyed God ONCE – that was the end for him.  God rejected him from being king.  At first he tried to cover his sin by giving it a pious paint job (1 Sam 15:15, 20-21), but Samuel swept his hypocrisy aside and went straight to the heart of the matter (1 Sam 15:22-23).

God always sees through our hypocrisy and our cover-ups.  He’s not interested in our wicked attempts to justify our sin – he doesn’t care whether we make our sins look religious. He insists on obedience.  Rebellion is as witchcraft and idolatry to him.  Partial obedience is disobedience. 

It wasn’t until Saul’s sin was uncovered that he admitted to it (1 Sam 15:24-25).  But his confession was too late; he himself may well have been forgiven but he irrevocably lost the right to kingship.  Even though he confessed his sin against God to Samuel, and expressed a desire to worship the Lord, it was not accepted as sufficient to undo what he had done and for him to retain the kingship and to lead the people of God; God had torn the kingdom from him (for more about Saul’s sin, see my article “King Saul: the Fall of a Good Man”).

So if the Church keeps a man in leadership who has seriously sinned, they could be asking for trouble.

Christians sometimes think they can repeatedly sin, say sorry to God, and everything is OK again.  An elder in the church of which I was a member came home from work one night and told his wife he was leaving her.  He gave her no good reason and she was understandably totally shocked and devastated.  We found out later that he was having an affair with a young woman.  Eventually they married and a few years later, when the dust had settled, the new couple started attending a church.  He is now involved with some kind of ministry and is full of zeal for Jesus, I’m told.

Meanwhile his real wife – and in God’s sight he has no other (Matt 5:32) – has been so overcome by it all that she no longer attends any church and, as far as I know, makes no profession of faith anymore.

But the whole thing seems suspiciously like it was engineered by the husband from the beginning – commit the sin, wait it out, then come back to church and take up where he left off, only with a different wife.  But God is not deceived, and he will not be mocked (Gal 6:7).

I’m not saying the man isn’t forgiven or that he is beyond God’s forgiveness; Jesus assured us that all sins can be forgiven (Matt 12:31).  And I’m not saying the man isn’t genuinely sorry or that his repentance was fake – that isn’t for me to know but is a matter between him and God.  And his church also needs to be brought into the matter too so that they can make the appropriate response.  But he has blood on his hands because his first wife has turned away from God as a direct result of his infidelity.  Who knows whether she wouldn’t still be professing faith and serving God if he had remained faithful to her?  It is not a situation that I would care to be in.

It’s a sad indictment against churches today that they’re not clear and strong enough against sin.  Instead of disciplining a wayward member as the New Testament directs (1 Cor 5:1-13), sin is either brushed under the carpet or treated lightly, and the sinner continues on as if nothing much had happened, all the time unaware that they face the judgment of God.  (For a fuller discussion of this kind of thing, and a living example of how sin was committed and the church leadership did not respond biblically, see my article “Death of a Baptist Church and the Necessity of Church Discipline”).

It is also common for Christians to think they can sin in any way they want to and then just come forward at the next Crusade or altar call in the church, and re-dedicate themselves.  My wife and I were once “counselors” at a Harvest Crusade held in Newcastle (Australia).  The large majority of people who came forward for direction after responding to the call made from the pulpit were teenagers and young people who were re-dedicating their lives to Christ.  For some of them it was re-re-dedicating themselves.  This is a very dangerous practice – not that giving one’s life to Christ is dangerous; such a deed is at the very heart of what we are to do in order to become Christians, and is what we aim for when proclaiming the gospel.  The danger is in thinking that we can keep sinning and re-dedicating our lives to Christ at the next church meeting.  Such practice is taking sin lightly and is no better than simply tempting God; if we have this attitude we have no guarantee that he will hear us.

The warnings Paul gives throughout the whole of Romans chapter 6 should make us tremble lest we become guilty of sinning that grace may abound (Rom 6:1).  However while we are not encouraged to sin but rather are warned against it, we can be thankful for God’s promises of forgiveness and mercy.

One of the most abused passages of scripture, I fear, is 1 John 1:9 “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”.  Praise God it’s there because we certainly do need it.  What a relief to know that when we sin, all we need to do is confess it to God, and we’re cleansed.  But that verse is not a license for us to follow our lusts and desires – it’s a life-line that God throws out to us when we’ve fallen in the quicksand.  It’s a verse to give us comfort when we fall, not to give us comfort when we jump.  Saul tried it and look where it got him.  Each temptation is to be treated as having serious consequences – and we never know what those consequences will be.

When the kingdom was again threatened by the Philistines, “when Saul enquired of the LORD, the LORD answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets” (1 Sam 28:6).  In desperation he found a witch and asked her to bring Samuel up from the dead, thus he added sin to sin, rebellion to rebellion, and compounded his guilt.  If only he had humbled himself before God, as wicked King Manasseh did (2 Chron 33:11-13).  Manasseh is another example of a sinner being forgiven upon sincere repentance; yet the consequences of his sin still fell upon Israel, the result of which was that the kingdom was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar and his Chaldeans (2 Kings 24:1-4).  Despite his being forgiven, restoring the worship of the LORD to the kingdom, and removing the idolatry, Manasseh’s sin was specifically mentioned as being the reason for God judging Israel (Jer 15:4).

A Warning to Pastor and People

Sin cannot be left alone; it must be faced and dealt with.  If you don’t put sin to death, it will destroy you.  You cannot sin with impunity.  Yes, God will forgive you if you repent, and he may well also deliver you from your sin’s consequences.  But you can’t afford to take the risk.  You may bring trouble and sorrow upon those you love, those in your circle such as church or social group, and even people unknown to you.  Be thankful also that Christ has paid the penalty for your sin and for the sins of humanity. 

“He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning.  For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil.  Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.  In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God” (1 Jn 3:8-9).