The Elephant in the Church

The real unspoken matter in the room isn’t sin—it’s a double standard.

A group of about 50 pastors, teachers and counselors congregated in Annapolis, MD on October 17—but this wasn’t a leadership forum. It was more like an AA meeting, in which Christian leaders opened up about their own mess-ups and mistakes.

Among them were bestselling author and pastor Ed Gungor, pastors Ted and Gayle Haggard and Ruth Graham, daughter of evangelist Billy Graham—all of whom told their stories through the good, the bad and the ugly.

Where there is no safe place to heal in the Body of Christ, there arises not a higher standard, but a double standard.

Ruth Graham says about the event, "Each one [of us] had a story–we all do–some are messier than others but they are all messy–like mine. So many shared from their pain, their hearts–not for the sake of themselves but to showcase the outrageous grace of God."

These leaders were there to talk about something Christian leaders have struggled with for a long time: How can the Church restore its “fallen” leaders? How do we reconcile the Christian theology of a reign of grace with the practical need to hold a higher standard for our leaders? And what might a New Testament model look like for Christlike, follow-through care for those who have fallen into sin?

These were the questions on the table at the Roundtable on Life-Giving Leadership—which is now spurring more roundtables like it across the country.

At the tip of the spear on this subject are Ted and Gayle Haggard, pastors of St. James Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Many know of Ted Haggard’s journey from president of the National Association of Evangelicals and mega church pastor of New Life Church to the sexual scandal uncovered in 2006. After years of intensive recovery in his ministry and marriage, Haggard is eager to bring this truth-filled message of restorative healing to the forefront of the Church’s mission today.

According to Haggard, the restorative process that was initially put together for him seemed “confusing, counterproductive and at times, even hopeless.”

Accountability is a buzzword often thrown into the conversation of sin and recovery, but perhaps an even better word is “advocacy.”

“Actually,” Haggard says, “There were no provisions for restoration, only removal.”

The Haggards have worked hard throughout the past seven years in re-establishing—through clinical Christian counseling, deep family commitment and devotion to the Bible—a stronger foundation upon which they are building their lives, faith and ministry.

The Haggards may be a well-known story of sin and recovery, but there are many other Christians in ministry struggling under the same weight of sin issues and leadership responsibility. And the question then becomes: How can the Church reach and restore them?

One answer to this question, echoed by many at the leadership roundtable, involves a new way of understanding the Old and New Testaments. For many years, the combination of the Old and New Testaments have come to be interpreted as modern evangelicalism.

But we cannot take the Old Testament law and New Testament grace and somehow amalgamate it together and expect there to be a clear perspective on Christlike restoration. Rather, this should be a thoughtful and intentional exploration.

Our solution to the sin problem is not the law. The law can actually create an atmosphere for sin by leaving no room for grace and love. Hebrews 10:1 says, “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.” These good things are the redemptive grace and agape love of Christ that was paid for on the cross. So Paul declares in Romans 7:4 that “[we] also have died to the law through the body of Christ…”

Knowingly or unknowingly, modern evangelicalism has not fully subscribed to the death of the law—leaving an inevitable punitive effect for leaders and lay people alike who fall into sin.

Sadly, in many cases, when it comes to restoring a fallen leader, the offender’s depiction of evangelical denominational or church discipline, feels more like John 19 where the Jewish leaders request for all the men next to Jesus on the cross to “have the legs broken [as well].” This is a far different response than Jesus’, saying to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you, go and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11).

The result of this law-driven approach to sin is not pretty. Because of this, the evangelical culture dictates that when our worse moments befall us, we must hide. There is a real doubt that we will be lead home safely through our struggle.

This dynamic is evident when we watch national leaders fall. At first, we fall in love with the image of who they are. Then when that image is destroyed, we want them punished.

Perhaps this tells us more about us than it does them. Where there is no safe place to heal in the Body of Christ, there arises not a higher standard, but a double standard.

The evangelical mindset needs to move away from reactive judgment and center itself on true agape—or Christ’s unconditional love—when it comes to restorative healing. If we are to cultivate healthy Church leadership for the future, this is something our next generation of Christian leaders desperately needs to examine.

Accountability is a buzzword often thrown into the conversation of sin and recovery, but perhaps an even better word is “advocacy.”

In the end, accountability does not change the inner person. However, if you have an advocate, someone who stands as your defender and protector during your struggle, then that relationship becomes a safe place. And the model looks more like Jesus—who does not merely stand by to call us out when we fall out of line, but actually provides support and loving redirection along the way. This kind of advocacy actually makes accountability work better.

We should be accountable for one another rather than to one another. If I’m accountable for you through advocacy, then there are no limits to my friendship and care with you—regardless of your offense. An advocate will support you and be sympathetic with you. They will be a faithful ally with you during your struggle providing for you by way of Christian love and grace rather than just requiring line-keeping accountability to you.

As we commit to being a more transparent Church community, we must learn and not deny what Martin Luther called, “simul justis et peccador.” This Latin phrase describes the curious state of a believer as simultaneously a saint and a sinner.

No one should have to feel fearful and alone in Christ’s community. Jesus did not leave people in this condition, rather He lovingly advocated for them to be set free from their sin. Likewise, we should be free to live without hiding our “shadow side,” by acknowledging it and bringing it into the light of Christ every day of our lives.

In short, the evangelical community’s emphasis on the law has created, as a byproduct, a culture of fear when it comes to confessing personal sin. Yet it’s time to create a new culture where transparency is encouraged, safety is assured and agape love is practiced.

Top Comments

85,134

AmericaGisfree commented…

This article speaks directly to my experience not so long ago. I served in my home church to a certain capacity then when I fell into temptation and sinned, I found myself very very alone and rejected within what we call our "household of love". My own church family. They did not know what to do with my sin, therefore they did not know what to do with me. A real, live, hurting, now wounded soul....
The word accountability said to me that now I was "under" someone else's authority... I knew because I now had to meet yet another persons standards of righteous living, I was going to fail again! This became one more burden to bare, the FEAR of "when" not "if" I would fail this person too!
I like the new perspective Dr. Antonelli offers here.
The new term, "Advocate"....
As I went through some very very dark days during my healing process, there was an advocate in my life. Sadly, I can only speak of ONE ADVOCATE! Most everyone else had fled from my life for one reason or another. Mostly their own fears ...
The voice of this "advocate" was the only voice that kept me from taking my own life many times.... It was this voice that told me I was in right standing with Christ, it was this voice that went to the mats for me in my defense with some of the leaders involved in my case... It was this voice that kept encouraging me to grab on to the Grace that was given me at the cross.... NEVER ONCE DID THIS ADVOCATE DETER ME FROM USING MY VOICE AGAIN FOR MINISTRY....
This voice knew that if Gods truth resonated louder than the voices of my accusers, then I would rise up and live again in right standing with Christ !
The TRUTH has the capacity to mute thousands of lies, if we only DARE to get uncomfortable and get our hands dirty as we reach into the pits of hurt and self destruction in order to snatch our own brothers and sisters from the claws of sin.
You and I may be the only voice of truth they will hear in the midst of lies.
Thank you Dr Antonelli for your voice! :)

76 Comments

85,134

Anonymous commented…

85,134

AmericaGisfree commented…

This article speaks directly to my experience not so long ago. I served in my home church to a certain capacity then when I fell into temptation and sinned, I found myself very very alone and rejected within what we call our "household of love". My own church family. They did not know what to do with my sin, therefore they did not know what to do with me. A real, live, hurting, now wounded soul....
The word accountability said to me that now I was "under" someone else's authority... I knew because I now had to meet yet another persons standards of righteous living, I was going to fail again! This became one more burden to bare, the FEAR of "when" not "if" I would fail this person too!
I like the new perspective Dr. Antonelli offers here.
The new term, "Advocate"....
As I went through some very very dark days during my healing process, there was an advocate in my life. Sadly, I can only speak of ONE ADVOCATE! Most everyone else had fled from my life for one reason or another. Mostly their own fears ...
The voice of this "advocate" was the only voice that kept me from taking my own life many times.... It was this voice that told me I was in right standing with Christ, it was this voice that went to the mats for me in my defense with some of the leaders involved in my case... It was this voice that kept encouraging me to grab on to the Grace that was given me at the cross.... NEVER ONCE DID THIS ADVOCATE DETER ME FROM USING MY VOICE AGAIN FOR MINISTRY....
This voice knew that if Gods truth resonated louder than the voices of my accusers, then I would rise up and live again in right standing with Christ !
The TRUTH has the capacity to mute thousands of lies, if we only DARE to get uncomfortable and get our hands dirty as we reach into the pits of hurt and self destruction in order to snatch our own brothers and sisters from the claws of sin.
You and I may be the only voice of truth they will hear in the midst of lies.
Thank you Dr Antonelli for your voice! :)

85,134

Kandace commented…

I can relate to many things you have shared as my sin was publically exposed in our church. I wanted to leave but both my husband and I felt the Lord was asking us to stay, be healed and walk out my repentance in the midst of those I wounded. Thankfully my husband offered me mercy and has been by my side every hard step of the way. Most in my church have not known what to do with me as well. I could share many hurtful things andwas alsotempted to take me life in the beginning. However, God's grace broke though. He is teaching me to love those who have judged me or just didn't understand what Grace in Practice looks like. God never promised me that I could sin and everyone would forgive me but He did promise me He would never leave forsake or leave me. During my darkest days of losing trust and the favor of man, I found HIM in a way I had never known. I needed the approval of man broken off my life and though the way it happened was not the best way, God used it. I now have no one to impress.....my life is an open book. A few have stuck by me and have loved me through this, most have shunned me. It has been 9 months since God pulled the rug out from under me and I am THANKFUL. My marriage is on the right track and we see more healing every week. Just a few days ago a 20-something young man from our church told me that he was so "blown away by what you have allowed Jesus to do in your life." He went on to say that I gave him a new understanding of the power of the blood of Jesus and what it means to leave our sin at the Cross. This brought me to tears and I give God theglory for it!
I am also learning that though I may have a "right" to be angry or I have the "freedom" to express my hurt, it is sometimes better to forgo those rights and freedoms for the concern of other believers. Bottom line, Jesus knows, Jesus cares and He is fully capable of placing me where He wants in His timing. For now, I just want to learn and soak in the restoration He is giving me and my family.

85,134

AmericaGisfree commented…

Kandace, what am encouraging story and how exciting to see Gods purpose develop as you have very humbly and submissively allowed Jesus to come into your life and heal you :)..
It's not easy by any means to get on the spiritual surgery table but you did it! And your still doing it!
God final answers are always best and even though your husband endured the pain with you, my story is different in that respect. But I don't doubt that even through that abandonment, God still has the best days ahead for my love life.
All I can say to you is thank you for your bravery to stay in the church until u heard from God and not the human voices telling you to leave. You never know why HE had you stay or for what purpose, but it seems it was more for someone else's spiritual growth and benefit than it was for you....
I remained in my church for one more year trying to prove to my pastors that I was back in "super spiritual" mode again, so I could be reenstated in all the hats I wore!
I also, have no desire to prove my worth to anyone anymore :)
I am thankful :)
Stay blessed and congratulations on your journey!

85,134

Fabmaclen commented…

well put. wise thoughts.

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