Thursday, September 4, 2014

What Do We Do With Fallen Theologians?

What do we do with less than perfect (or downright problematic) theologians and Christian leaders?
Of course all Christians sin, but there is sin that would seem to disqualify a person for public ministry based on some of the implications of I Timothy 3:2-10 and the surrounding passage. There are also examples from the Old Testament with Eli’s sons and many others throughout scripture.

Over the past several months I have read several articles about John Howard Yoder, including a very good article in The Other Journal about Yoder and the problems of his legacy. John Howard Yoder was the most prominent advocate of Christian Pacifism during the late 20th century and one of the theologians that moved the modern study of pacifism and Anabaptist theology to the mainstream of Christian academic thought.

Yoder, from evidence that has been gathered over a long period of time, was sinning in a way that deserved some type of censure and real rebuke (and maybe legal prosecution.) The evidence says that Yoder sexually harassed women, exposed himself, and abused his power with female students. It is likely that he coerced women into having sex (which may have crossed the line to rape) although no charges were ever filed with police.

The Other Journal article and other blog posts have suggested that Yoder was, by his own definitions, violent against women in a way that his public theology was opposed to.  

The Other Journal article notes that Yoder used the Matthew 18: 15-20 passage to stop or hinder his victims from speaking out against him similarly to the way that Sovereign Grace Ministries and others have used the passage to stop public discussion of sexual abuse of children. Or how it has been used to terrorize victims long after the initial abuse by forcing victims to confront abusers and forgive them publicly while not holding the abusers accountable for actually changing their actions.

So what do we do with Christians that not only sin, but use church structures to hide their sin?

Social media and blogging are both blessing and curse in this regard.  While, social media and digital space can allow victims to be heard, the rise of very narrowly concerned ‘watch bloggers’ can lead to its own problems. It was at least partially blogging that forced the exploration of Yoder’s sin.  Long work by Recovering Grace eventually led to Bill Gothard being removed. And bloggers played key roles in SGM and a variety of Catholic sex abuse cases. 

But there are also bloggers that have raised concerns that have proven unfounded, and the recent case of the suicide of Ergun Canor’s son is a case where a watch blogger may have gone too far and possibly contributed to pushing an unstable teen over the edge. (Although in this case there has been a clear apology and some good introspection that we might be able to learn from.)

It does not take long to find someone that calls exposing sin gossip. However, my concern is that the meaning of the word gossip has become slippery. Is it possible to address issues of sin within a church without it being gossip?  Should church discipline only happen within a local congregation? Is there a place for censure or disassociation if there is not a oversight role (especially in the Evangelical world where church and ministry autonomy is a common practice)?  What about nationally known pastors and ministries that have a footprint that is far larger than their physical geography?

As Christians, I think we have a particular call to listen to the less powerful, the victim, the poor and the non-institutionally connected person. I have been aware of (and sometimes participated in) too many instances of institutional or personal cowardliness where something could have been done but wasn’t because of fear (of losing income, prestige, reputation, influence, etc.)

What I do know is that we need to find a way to hear victims, appropriately call perpetrators of sin to repentance (and assist them toward restoration), and we need to depend on God’s strength to allow us to overcome our fear and do the right thing, especially when it is hard.

I, also, think that ‘rules’ are not going to solve any of these problems.  There is no rule that will allow a person to know where the hard line is between real concern and gossip.  Our motives are always a little mixed.  Rules often keep the powerful in power instead of elevating the concerns of the powerless.

And after all of this, how do we appropriately use Yoder's theological work, which is an important voice for peacemaking, even though his personal life seems to counter his theological contributions?

So here is the start of some questions that have been troubling me and that I don't have answers to:

  • How do we build institutions that take the reality of sin into account better than some of our predecessors have done?
  • How do we appropriately use the theological work of flawed theologians? (And all theologians are flawed as this post rightly notes.)
  • How do we rightly value claims of victims and the less powerful while still protecting against unfounded claims?
  • How do we appropriately lead flawed leaders toward restoration and flourishing while not excusing ongoing sin?
  • How do we create institutions that value repentance and restoration over image and reputation?
  • And how do we deal with the sin of nationally known pastors, theologians or authors that our outside the scope of our own immediate circle of contacts?

Guest post by Adam Shields 
Adam Shields currently writes at, is a stay at home Dad, and a part-time non-profit consultant.  Adam reads about mostly young adult fiction, science fiction/fantasy, history or biography and Theology and listens to a lot of audiobooks.
Follow him on Twitter @adamshields


  1. Interesting post Adam! I certainly do not have all the answers, but can offer some insights into my thoughts on your questions. There are several problems that contribute to allowing sin to continue with certain brands of evangelicalism. An overarching problem that I see is that many "stand alone ministries" and "churches" pop up without any true biblical (think the pastoral Epistles) oversight. An individual divines a supposed call, doesn't align with an established denomination or attend a seminary because of doctrinal issues and then decides to start his own church or ministry at the local YMCA or high school basement. It usually starts out with the pastor/leader and 3 or 4 families. The fellowship grows over time and a leadership model is developed out of necessity (not b design). The church/ministry continues to grow and when this happens the pastor/leader surrounds himself with his closest confidants. At this point, whether the pastor/leader realizes it or not, the church is centered on him and his ministry. As the pastor/leader goes, so goes his church/ministry. There is no oversight from a district council to check in and see the health of membership or the pastor. The model is totalitarian even if it maintains a certain benevolence. If the pastor falls into a mortal type sin (in these matters I think it is helpful to categorize sin. Mortal would be a sin in which the person committing it would do so purposefully and remain unrepentant even when approached; venial would simply be unintentional or purposeful sin in which the one committing is repentant.) Time and time again, when these standalone congregations rise to power and fame by the dynamic cult of personality present within their pastor/leader, they also fall when their leader falls...and try their best to cover up all of the behind the scenes shenanigans to save face to the public. This is the result of 80's mega leaders like PTL (Jim Bakker) & Jimmy Swaggart along with current pop-Christian leaders like Ted Haggard, Ergun Caner and Mark Driscoll. When these leaders fall into these public sins, it not only gives the faith a black eye, destroys and hurts both those covering for these people behind the scenes as well as the innocuous in the membership. I would argue that these leaders could have been exposed through their doctrinal teaches years before any moral failure or sin, but that is due to a lack of modern day Bereans who search the scriptures for discernment. In this church/ministry model the pastor/leader is not actually a shepherd but instead a business savvy CEO playing the part of a pastor. The cult of personality celebrity pastor’s credentials cannot be compromised for the sake of the church, so certain sin is hidden and/or ignored. Thus begins the festering and fall of the brand. I think it is important to keep this in the forefront when discussing the questions you brought to the table.

  2. 1. The best way to build institutions that take the reality of sin seriously is to have pastors and elders that are above reproach as Paul lays out in Titus and Timothy. This means that their doctrine too must fall into line with scripture. The pastor needs to understand that he is a shepherd to the flock, not a spiritual guru or life coach. The pastor must be trained and sound in doctrine. This also goes for the elders. Elders shouldn’t be selected by the pastor as mere yes men, but by the congregation and have term limits. The pastor should not be the face of the church, but instead Christ should be. If the pastors and elders doctrine is correct, then Christ will be the center of the preaching. Lastly the congregation should also be trained and encouraged unto discernment. The congregation should fear rebuking their pastor if he is wrong, nor should the pastor could should those who rebuke him. They should see each other as a check and balance, be humble. The pastor should also know their flock and should be accessible to them. A congregant shouldn’t have to have a “special in” to get time with their pastor. This is what a healthy, biblical congregation looks like. This congregation pictured takes sin seriously because they don’t lower the bar like the Pharisees, but instead see it correctly in its second and third uses.
    2. We can still utilize the work of “fallen” theologians the same as repentant theologians. Since you correctly profess that we are all sinners, we must approach all non-canonical texts with scrutiny and discernment. A chew the meat and spit out the bones approach. Some of their work could be redeemable while others are not. For instance, I own a Mark Driscoll book. Before we even get to the fact that he is mired in sinful allegations of plagiarism, verbal and emotional abuse as well as creating an atmosphere of fear, he is a Calvinist. Since I am not a Calvinist (I am confessional Lutheran), so therefore I already come to the text with my discernment hat on. Now, there are some things in his book I believe to be solid theology (if he did indeed write it) and even though he is facing a mountain of allegations, it doesn’t change the things I see as theologically correct in his book. In short, even if a pastor/leader falls to utter apostasy, it doesn’t negate the true things he wrote.
    3. Concerning the victims of these sins, it depends on how public the scandals are. For instance, if Pastor John Doe down the street has an affair, it likely won’t make the local news or hit the blogosphere. That doesn’t lessen the folly, but puts it in the perspective that the church, with its leadership should handle. If that results in the necessity for prosecution from the victim, then so be it. Things open up quite a bit when we are dealing with public celebrities in the church that claim themselves to be “pastor to other pastors” who write books and head conferences. These people are no longer subject to just their congregation, but to all whom they have reached through their variety of media and marketing outlets. Both situations (the small local church and the large mega-church) will incur spurious gossip alongside true testimony. It is the church leadership (and potentially the authorities) who will be responsible to determine what is hearsay and what is true. Repentance should be the result of both the Pastor leader who has fallen as well as the individual spreading true gossip.

  3. 4. Flawed leaders can be restored depending on the gravity of the sin. Some sins have greater consequences than others. This is where it is helpful to have a solid ecclesiology in place, but even ecclesiology (as seen in the RCC sex abuse scandal) can fall victim to cover up for the sake of the brand. This is something that my denomination, the LCMS, is struggling with. Many pastors that are seeking reinstatement after being cleared to pastor again are having a hard time getting placed in a church. It’s a tough situation.
    5. We create institutions that value repentance when the institution is most concerned with preaching Christ crucified for you, which means preaching sin and all that goes with it instead of the pop-culture rock show life coach sermons. We need to stop with all the relevance talk and get back to Jesus for us in his life, death and resurrection.
    6. If the pastor is nationally known, then scrutiny will come nationally. It’s neither right nor wrong, but simply fact. If what they are saying or doing is sinful and against scripture, they should be humble and repent. If there is proof of sin and they fail to repent they should be removed from office and put under church discipline.

    Sorry for the length…I got a bit carried away.

    1. Thanks for the comments, Jonathan. What I find interesting in the case of Yoder, is that he had an ecclesical community that should have dealt with him. And he was investigated twice while he was alive. Once because the investigation was in regard to his work as a professor at a Mennonite college the actual work of calling him to account seems to have been dropped when he moved to Notre Dame. And then a second time he was censured, but brought back into community again without there seeming to be a real change of behavior.

      But in both cases the investigation was not public so he was able to continue to abuse outside the community and even inside the community things were not known enough to protect those that would be abused.

  4. Also, I had a really bad typo in my second comment. It should have read...

    "The congregation should NOT fear rebuking their pastor if he is wrong, nor should the pastor COLD SHOULDER those who rebuke him. They should see each other as a check and balance; be humble. The pastor should also know his flock and should be accessible to them. A congregant shouldn't have to have a “special in” to get time with their pastor. This is what a healthy, biblical congregation looks like. This congregation pictured takes sin seriously because they don’t lower the bar OF THE LAW like the Pharisees, but instead see the LAW correctly in its second and third uses.

  5. You raise some interesting points, Jonathan, particularly in regards to freelance ministers and ministries and their need for accountable/Biblical structures. I see the current situation as similar to the early church in many ways. Paul rebuked and exhorted church leaders to deal with bad teachers and unrepentant sinners all the time, but there was no over-arching structure or denomination. Oftentimes, these people would simply church hop like they do today--only they could get away with it a lot easier back then.

    In regards to people labeling raising awareness "gossip," I think that there is a lot of work that could be done in this area. What I see in the Bible is that someone, like Paul, had no qualms about stating the sinner's name and issue, but it was always done in order to protect the church and hopefully restore the individual. Gossip is saying something negative about someone in order to make yourself look important or simply make someone else look bad. Even in our "watch blogging" or other such public outcry, we need to maintain the sanctity of the individual. That fallen theologian is a person for whom Christ died.

  6. The early church was not really structured because it couldn't be though. It was illegal and under constant persecution. It was secretive and held in private homes.

    I certainly agree with you in regards to gossip. As with most things we take it to both extremes. There are those who refuse to reprove, rebuke and exhort where it is needed as well as those who fall victim to shameless self promotion. Both of these extremes should repent.

  7. So, I wrote this awesome comment and then Blogger freaked out and it disappeared.

    Here's the gist. There's no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think this lecture from Thabiti Anyabwile is helpful in this discussion. He is a black pastor, whom loves the theology of Jonathan Edwards. This is controversial for some since Edwards owned slaves. Does this gigantic blind spot make everything Edwards thought wrong?

    Here's the link:

    I think the questioning of things we learned from fallen men comes from our tendency to believe things because so-and-so said it, rather than that God said it. If we believe it because Yoder said it, when the vile nature of Yoder's sins comes to light, it will cause us to pause. It will cause us to question. And those questions will be traumatic. If he was so jacked up personally, maybe he was wrong here too. Maybe everything you believe about God is wrong. But, if we believe it because God said it, and it was Yoder who helped us see it, the pause will not need to last as long. The questions will not be so traumatic. Because source of our belief is the Word of God, in whom there is no deceit or shifting shadow. We should "test the spirits (1 John 4:1)" and see if it is from God. We have professionalized the pastorate/theologian. And we tend to trust professionals. They are professionals after all! (Circular, huh?). Pastors are not professionals. They are shepherds, subject to the same dangers as the sheep. Same temptations. Same sins. We should hold them in honor, but at the same time, allow them to be human. Jesus is the only perfect shepherd. May the fallenness of our under-shepherds only cause us to yearn more deeply for the Chief Shepherd who never will let us down or cause us to question whether what He says is true.

    1. I think you are right that we should not throw out everything.

      Edwards is another good test case. Slavery is one of the issues that I have really thought about as a good example of theological blind spots. (Mark Noll have a very interesting book called the Civil War as Theological Crisis that I think blows up some of the common ideas about how widely the church thought about slavery.)

      But I think it does become more complicated when we are talking about people that are alive and still ministering.

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