“For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” ~ 1 Corinthians 5:12-13
This past week I had the privilege of praying with people from a church in crisis. When I write “crisis” I mean “CRISIS!” Massive debt, leadership transitions, information being communicated from all sorts of different parties…the situation is a mess. At the heart of it is really poor, unbiblical leadership choices which are leaving behind a wake of confused, hurting, incredible, wonderful Christians who are now left to piece together what went on and how they are to deal with the fall-out. The court of public opinion in many ways has lumped everyone in the scenario into different groupings: the leaders who sinfully did wrong, the leaders who watched the sin continue but did nothing, the staff and leaders who didn’t know what was going on “but should have”, and the congregations who desired to serve the Lord but are now seen as naive. It causes one to wonder: How did things progress so far? Was it a lack of accountability? Poor leadership structure? Lack of transparency? Leadership attitudes of entitlement? Yes. And more. At the end of the day it was an incredible reminder to me of the responsibility we have when we lead congregations and how also one day, regardless of what happens on earth, us leaders will give account before the Lord. Were we good stewards with what God entrusted us with or were we charlatans? Were we good shepherds with the flock we were to feed well and care for or did we act like hirelings out for our own profit and self-preservation?
Where is grace in all of this? What role does repentance play? What do we do when our brokenness and bad decisions on are display for the world to see? What should our next steps be? In 1 Corinthians 5, the apostle Paul makes a startling statement regarding how we are called to judge those inside the church. For many, this goes completely against the church culture they grew up with where it was beaten into them Jesus saying, “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” (KJV Matthew 7:1-3…And yes, I purposefully used the KJV version). Who is right? Jesus? Paul? Is this a conflict of teaching? No. Without getting too deeply into it, Jesus is talking about an attitude of superiority or the “haughty spirit” where one sees others as failing without taking into account our own failings and frailty. We are to examine ourselves daily! Martin Luther wrote, “our Lord and Master Jesus Christ . . . willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” This means followers of Christ are in constant reflection, seeing their failings, and bringing them to Jesus for forgiveness and transformational change in living. When this happens we are able to approach each other with the same standard we use for ourselves because we will be living in a constant state of grace. Which is why Paul also wrote, “Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself.” (NLT Galatians 6:1)
Which is it Paul? Are we to help that person back on the right track or cast them out? I guess one should/could ask, “In 1 Corinthians 5:13, what makes the person to be considered ‘wicked’ so that they are removed from the body of believers?” When we look throughout scripture the answer is anyone who refuses to repent. That is, anyone who is sinning, is aware of their sinning, has had others come to them to talk to them about their sinning and yet still refuse to turn from that sin and be restored to Christ (while still claiming to be a Christian). THAT is the wicked person who needs to go. That, is what being wicked is: choosing to remain apart from God while championing our own sinful independance and glorying in it. That is what we as believers need to be judging amongst ourselves.
In our current culture we attach the word “judge” to always be negative. “You’re so judgmental!” would summarize how we understand the word “judge” to be. But there are positive aspects of judging. For example, when we are at an ice cream shop we like to look at the products before us and we “judge” which ones looks most appetizing. After we purchase our ice creams, we begin to taste them and examine them on the basis of flavour, texture and richness. We “judge” which of them are bad and which are good (in our opinion). In the future, we remember “the good” and place our order accordingly. In this example, is judging bad? Do you feel “bad” for the “rejected” flavours? No of course not! It’s pretty subjective and so my friends may have judged the variety of ice creams and come out with a list of “acceptable” flavours different than mine.
What about another example where judgment is not so subjective or flexible like when we have suffered injustice and our case is brought before a judge we pray he does make a righteous judgment? We hope and pray our lawyer will plead our case and the judge will render a favourable verdict on our behalf. Should he do that we would be pleased that he had “judged.” When it comes to God and the people of God, there are truths that are not subjective and are rooted even deeper than human law. For example, Jesus says unequivocally, that people will know we are his disciples by our love. How we love is a defining marker of his followers. Therefore, when we look around at our church family, we should be examining how love is being displayed among and by the people of God. First, we aim the question at our own person: “How am I doing at loving others and showing them love?” THEN, we ask ourselves to reflect more fully on the church family: “How are WE doing at loving others and showing them love?” This is a GOOD judgment to ponder and make!
I write this understanding that I am NOT a perfect leader and I do NOT show love perfectly. I make many, MANY mistakes and am blessed with a Board and a church family that constantly offer grace and love to me. Upon observing this large church family in crisis it became clear that most, if not all, of their leadership issues came from not judging as Paul recommends. An even more basic observation could be that the leaders never asked themselves the questions: “How am I doing at showing love and care to others?” and “How are WE doing at showing love and care to others?” Had they asked this and acted accordingly their current crisis would have been completely avoided. In fact, if most of us were honest with ourselves, the majority of our relational issues would be completely avoided or resolved if we asked ourselves about how we were doing in the “love” area.
Of course, the most important question to ask ourselves (especially as leaders) is, “How are we glorifying God?” I love the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s opening question: “What is the chief end of man?” Answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” This is a theme throughout scripture — to watch one’s life closely so that you are honouring the Lord and glorifying him (Deuteronomy 6). Everything was made by God for God to worship God and point others to Him. To that end, as Christians, as Christian-leaders, shouldn’t that be the FIRST question we ask? “Are we glorifying God? Are the decisions we are making bringing honour to Him?” If we were honest, it is both a sobering and softening question for anyone who is serious about living their lives for King Jesus. Perhaps it’s in this question that the pride of leadership finds itself righteously crushed and holy perspective regained. Followed up with honest reflections about loving others and actively following through, we simply cannot go wrong.
So what do we do when we have fallen short in leadership? What is the path back? Transparency. Humility. Confession. Repentance. I have heard it said from numerous leaders in this particular church situation previously mentioned that the path to restoration was long and complex. No. It isn’t. You know what is long and complex? Trying to massage truth in order to help yourself not look so bad. Trying to spin things so your leadership decisions don’t look like sinful drives or incompetence. Trying to discern what the bare minimal exposure of truth can be so that you don’t have to reveal the entire debacle and still claim you are being honest. That’s what takes a long time. That’s what takes a TON of energy and effort. The exposure of truth, being broken and contrite before others, takes a TON of courage but it is actually quite quick in it’s execution. “We were wrong. We made these mistakes (name them plainly). We sinned. This is how we will move towards restitution and reconciliation. This is what we will do in the future to correct our path. Please forgive us. Please show us grace.” Then comes the part we all hold our breath on — will grace be given? Will forgiveness be offered? I’m not sure. That’s up to the other person. But in putting the truth before them they can now make an educated decision about how THEY will follow Jesus in biblical forgiveness. Then they can decide what forgiveness + godly accountability looks like. Then they can reflect on the value they assign to transparency. But unless those confessions come forward…business cannot continue as usual and there is no path to health for the future. Once leadership sin is out there for all to see yet remains unacknowledged by leaders, all they are doing is wearing “the emperor’s new clothes” and with trust broken, no movement forward can be had. And God certainly is not pleased. And God’s people won’t be blessed. And God’s Bride remains broken.
I believe in grace for fallen leaders who repent. I am not sure what the future looks like for this church leadership team as each scenario is unique. One thing is for sure though, without transparency, without repentance — TRUE repentance where its not crocodile tears but heart-rendered actions toward change — the downward spiral of crisis will only get worse. It’s so counter-intuitive to our human nature to move on godly pathways because in order for things to get better the ugliness of our sin needs to be exposed! The world says, “Bury it! Don’t let anyone see that! They’ll never accept you again!” but God says, “Expose it! Let me bring it to the light…then you can be free and you can have life and there is grace for the heart open before the Lord.” And, somehow, trust is restored or at least it begins to be rebuilt. Because at the end of the day, we all need and desire grace and love. We all need and desire to be accepted with our faults and failures with hope for future transformation. Then we begin to transform and grow into something beautiful through the power of Christ in us. People don’t want or need perfect leaders — they want and need leaders who are being perfected.
Please pray for this church I purposefully haven’t named. They need your love as they feel very alone and attacked right now. And maybe, just maybe, we will see a miracle where public shame gets turned into God-glorifying holiness. O God, let your glory fill the earth! Let your church rise up and shine for Your glory and Yours alone. Amen.