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.
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.”
“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.
Fred Antonelli, Ph.D., LPC is a former senior pastor of 23 years, a crisis marriage & family therapist, author and founding director of Life Counseling Center, Inc. with offices throughout the Eastern Shore of MD and DE.