Walk the Line

Mr Johnny CashI’ve probably worked on this post in draft form for the last two-and-a-half years. For whatever reason, the things I wanted to say never all fit together the way that I wanted them to, so I’ve allowed some version of the post to languish in my drafts folder for way too long.

As I’ve been working as pulpit supply for a Presbyterian congregation in another city, the burden of pastoral responsibility has felt especially heavy. One aspect is that I’m a full two hours away from the church, and if something happens it’s not like I can get there all that quickly. Another aspect that has weighed very heavily on me is the church’s history.

The pastor of this little congregation stepped down last year. I had met him several times though mutual friends, and he had invited me to fill the pulpit for him while he took some vacation time. Because I’m passionate about preaching I said yes, and enjoyed meeting the members of the congregation. When I got the call that he had left the ministry and was asked to fill the pulpit I gladly acquiesced, despite my reservations.

I had reservations for one massive reason: the out-going pastor had a well-deserved reputation as a tyrant. “Heavy-handed” doesn’t begin to cover it.

I think we’ve seen enough of tyrannical pastors. The actions of men like C.J. Mahaney and James MacDonald sicken me. The fact that Mahaney has very likely taken part in covering up abuse sickens me even further. While I can’t speak to the absolute veracity of all of the charges, I can say this—I believe the victims. I believe them because you rarely see this much smoke without some sort of fire.

Those of us whom Christ has called to the ministry of Word and Sacrament have a very explicit calling—we’re called to be shepherds not tyrants. The flock of God deserves careful, gentle oversight. We’re not called to beat Christ’s sheep. What I’ve seen as the pulpit supply for this little church that has extended their kindness to me is a congregation of the Lord’s people who have been beaten up by a minister who was far too enamored with his own authority. As far as I’m concerned a man who would beat on Christ’s church is no different from a man who would beat on his wife.

I know that it’s fashionable  now to talk about the responsibility that members bear to their pastors. But brothers, what about the responsibility that the pastor bears to the members?

Remember, brothers, that we will be called to give an account for how we cared for Christ’s people.

**Author’s Note, 3 May 2013: Well, it seems like in the past hour this post is getting an unusually large amount of traffic by way of SGM Survivors. If any of the folks heading here from there would like to offer their thoughts on a way forward for SGM, I’d love to hear about it in the comments box!**

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9 thoughts on “Walk the Line

    • You’re very welcome. And I should offer my apologies for not writing anything before this. On the other hand, some things are just so horrific that they defy being put into words.

  1. I’m not very familiar with the SGM situation — I guess I have heard rumors here and there on the internets, but I haven’t pursued the story — but of course the Catholic Church has been rocked with its own abuse scandals in recent years, and it sounds as if this has some common threads, and I suppose that’s why you tagged me.

    I agree wholeheartedly with you that Christ’s ministers are called to be gentle shepherds for His flock, after His own heart. Jesus came to save and to heal and to serve — not to lord over people or throw around His authority, though He certainly had that. He Himself gave us His model of leadership: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25–29) Anybody who wants to serve Christ’s flock should remember that.

    We Catholics believe that Christ invested His Apostles and His Church with authority over His flock — but the Church and her servants are supposed to be shepherds, not tyrants. Certainly there have been many who have failed in that, just as there have been among Protestants. But I still see the Church to be a shepherd, a protector, a teacher. I am very thankful that in our most recent popes we have had men who have exemplified Christ’s service.

  2. I saw your tweet…I had read this post the other day and was caught by surprise, only because I have had a very high opinion of James MacDonald in the past and did not know of the issues you had described. I still would like to know more about the situation before commenting more fully. BUT–

    I can say this much…I know you would not share idle gossip about men or women of God. And there are times when we must speak truth, even when it ruffles the feathers of the flock. Or of the shepherds for that matter. If I can say one thing I have learned over the years in that regard, is that we are ALL accountable. All the time. Someone can teach Truth and be solid in the Word but not be living the life. It does not make their teachings false, but in a certain way it is nevertheless spreading a lie. And, sadly but surely, that drives many away. King David was reprimanded one time in Sacred Scripture (I believe it was with the issue of taking the census, which apparently was for ego’s sake and in a sense to pat himself on the back) that his disobedience would “give others occasion to blaspheme.” And for that God stopped him. Cold. The lesson? God shares His Glory with no one. When we begin, even subtly, to take it for ourselves, we can harm others, sometimes irreparably. And I will be the first to say I must look within my heart, and say with the Apostles, “Lord, is it I?”

    That is why your post was, and is, so very important. It of course goes without saying that we must pray for these men and their families. They themselves are the ones who will ultimately suffer the most here. But the idea that others of us cannot speak out, sparingly and carefully to be sure, knowing that it might be us next, is a fallacy. Sometimes we must.

    Within the Roman Catholic Tradition where I happen to worship, we had a tremendous priest a few years back with a huge following and strong teaching ministry. He however was all but what one might say “movie star status” after a time. Father John Corapi, the priest in question, had a weekly international television program on EWTN, and after I wrote to him he helped me personally by sending me a DVD set of his teachings on the Catechism, totally free of charge, which normally cost the public $300. He did not have to do this–he simply did. And I still am grateful.

    But–behind the scenes–he, at least apparently, was dabbling in drugs, much sexual activity, and God only knows what else while railing heartily against these and other things. He admitted that they were part of his past and it was an integral part of his testimony. But the public was not aware that they were still a part of his current lifestyle. When he was found out he was immediately removed from public ministry and given the choice to either be obedient to his Religious Order or resign. He chose the latter and started a very angry and rebellious campaign and pseudo-teaching organization in order to attempt preserving his following. At least for then, that was quite apparently more important to him than remaining true to what he had taught for 20 years.

    Needles to say, it caused a huge scandal, and on top of that some people stayed loyal to him as a person instead of to Christ, the Word of God, and the Church. And bad feelings ensued on both sides of the delicate issues at hand. Eventually he disappeared totally from the radar screen, and I surely pray often that he is doing okay or at least will be one day, but no one, or at least very few, know for sure what is happening with him at this moment or even where he is. But those who dared to speak up about him were roundly accused of speaking against God, and it caused a cavernous division among two groups of sincere people, both who loved God . That is the fruit of “rock star” pastors very often, sadly.

    All to say I trust you, and know that your post was not shared lightly or in the spirit of gossip in any way. And it is all right, and even necessary, to both pray and speak out at times. As long as we do both.

    Please keep on sharing as God allows and leads you to.

  3. One footnote–I am not as familiar with the SGM situation but know that no Christian group is immune, and reading some of the comments of the “survivors” causes me to hurt for them. It is sad when good people are caught in such a crossfire. And certainly not what our Lord ever intended. We all must lay aside our egos, starting with the leadership within the body of Christ. If not everyone pays. Again obviously you did strike a needed chord. And I am glad you spoke out.

  4. Thank you for speaking out on spiritual tyrants. The sad thing about these tyrants is they really don’t care about what happens to the heart/soul of these beaten down sheep.

    • Julie, I only wish I had gotten something on this subject up here sooner. After several years in the military, my reaction to this sort of abuse is for my high view of justice to kick in, and then I start mentally planning to do violence to the perpetrators. I have zero use for abusers of women and children.

      It’s probably good that I’ve not said or written anything up to now. I don’t think anybody here could afford my bail.

  5. For the individual leaving comments under the handle “SGMSupporter”:

    As a general rule, just about anything goes in the comments area of this blog—except for those things noted in The Comments Policy.

    However, I do not and will not tolerate insults, jibes, ad hominem arguments, or veiled threats. I certainly don’t tolerate the sort of abusive vitriol that you have spouted and are continuing to spout against Deb and Dee (of The Wartburg Watch), or against the folks that have suffered spiritual abuse, or who have come forward to report sexual abuse at the hands of SGM pastors. (As an aside, what sort of self-professed Christian uses the sort of abusive language that you do against victims of rape and molestation? Have you no shame? Do you not fear God?)

    Furthermore, the fact that your initial comment languished in moderation for several hours does not give you the right to leave me more than 20 additional comments disparaging my character and questioning whether or not my father might have been, to use your words, “a large sheepdog.” I have a limited amount of time that’s taken up primarily with studying. This evening I was traveling for 4 hours in order to reach the city where I will be preaching this Lord’s Day.

    Henceforth, your comments will go directly to the trash, from whence they shall not return.

    Let this be a warning to other trolls—I will not tolerate this sort of behavior at Southern Reformation.

"I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve." (Romans 16:17-18) Please read "The Comments Policy."

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