The “Third Way” of Biblical Repentance

If you follow the evangelical blogosphere, there are regular eruptions of moral outrage over celebrity pastors/leaders who continue in ministry after public sin is revealed. (Note — I have participated in my fair share of such eruptions and am lecturing to myself as much as anyone.)  I have been thinking that we often paint with broad brushes what are actually very different situations, and we don’t understand (or really believe) how the good news of Jesus speaks into them.

First, I want to point out that even the title “celebrity” is unhelpful. It has come to be broadly applied to any Christian leader whose books sell well or who has a large number of followers on twitter. I would just prefer the general title “famous.” “Celebrity” seems to apply a shallow crassness to their platform, and as someone who has a much lower platform than the typical famous male or female speaker but who hopes to continue to publish books that reach a larger audience, I really, really hope that there is a way to reach large numbers of readers without being perceived as selling your soul to peddle Jesus. I don’t care to become “famous,” but I do hope to be “influential.” I hope to influence many young women through my writings to a deeper faith in Jesus and a confidence in their understanding of the Bible.

I also know some figures personally who are labeled “celebrity.” I know some who have exploited their followers to further their name, but I also know some who are thoughtful, humble people. The label “celebrity” for that second group makes me feel sad for them as their genuine burden to disciple others is tainted as greedy or self-serving.

With that said, let’s take hypothetical Joe Celebrity/Famous/Influential Pastor who is overtaken in a sin that disqualifies him from ministry. I see these things repeatedly going one of two ways.

1) Joe Pastor makes a meager attempt at “repentance.” This usually means he simply said that he “repented.” But he does not allow himself examination by others around him. And if his own elders or denominational accountability push back, he walks away from them. By the force of his personality and cult-like followers, he is able to emerge among some new group and continue in “ministry” despite no evidence of the type of repentance that tries to repair with the one wronged or submit to authorities over them.

2) The second way I see this going is almost identical to the first. Until you get to the last sentence. For this guy, by the force of his detractors and those that follow them on Twitter or Facebook, he is not able to emerge among some new group and continue in “ministry.” Or if he does emerge, he is so damaged by his critics that he never gains traction. In this case, the force of personality of his critics overcomes his own force of personality. The critics win.

Neither of these are the goals. NEITHER ONE OF THEM. Neither reflect the gospel. The second at least in some ways reflects the Law, the unrepentant leader marginalized and unable to affect others in his sinfulness. But neither reflects our hope in Christ.

There is a Third Way, distinct from both the first and the second. And this Third Way doesn’t care if you are a celebrity/famous/influential leader. The gospel after all is for influential people as well as those who are not. God’s Third Way involves repentance in COMMUNITY, accountability in COMMUNITY, and restoration in COMMUNITY. The problem for celebrity/famous/influential leaders who are overtaken in a sin is that many people who are not in community with them suddenly desire to be a part of the process. The flip side of that problem is that such leaders often use the criticism of the general public as an excuse for not listening to the criticism and rebuke of those with whom they are actually in accountable community.

This all goes back to why I’m a presbyterian now. If you don’t have a real authority structure in place, it is very easy for a pastor to walk away from accountability and emerge in some new place. My denomination has a presbytery, which means my pastor is accountable to both elders in our church and other pastors in our denomination who live in our area. They are in community, and they hold each other accountable. My pastor in Seattle once told me that if I had a problem with him that I could go to his denominational overseers. He relayed a story of how that presbytery had overturned a discipline situation in another church when it became clear that a pastor had acted against a family in an abusive way. They rebuked that pastor and held him accountable. Knowing that my pastor took accountability seriously, that he was in a system with actual authority to rebuke him or remove him, was meaningful to me after my experience at Mars Hill. I know many of you do not share my convictions about presbytery, but these principles can be applied in groups without the denominational structure of the Presbyterian Church in America as well.

I say all this to reinforce that influential/famous/celebrity church leaders can be restored! Through repentance, accountability, and examination, they can be restored. The gospel gives us this hope. 

PETER, on whom Jesus built His church, gives us this hope! 

Peter denied Christ! Imagine a famous pastor today denying Jesus when ISIS comes to town. We would be horrified at his spinelessness. And many in the American evangelical blogosphere would never let him forget it. Forever he would be labeled a spineless pastor. If he tried to lead a congregation again, he’d be protested out of the pulpit. And that’s the guy Jesus built His church upon!

Peter’s accountability was Jesus. Peter ran in repentance to the very one he had denied when he next saw Jesus after the resurrection. Peter affirmed his love and commitment to Jesus and Jesus told him to re-enter ministry. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus said. The New Testament later gives instructions on accountability to each other now that Jesus has returned to heaven. It gives limits on who can and can not be a spiritual overseer based on their qualifications. Like Peter, we always have hope of restoration, but that restoration is possible only in the community in which the sin took place. Famous people can be restored as much as those unknown publicly. And they can say things publicly after they are restored as well. Let’s make sure we don’t allow the pejorative adjective “celebrity” to cause us to deny the hope of the gospel.

19 Responses to The “Third Way” of Biblical Repentance

  1. D. Lee Grooms March 12, 2016 at 4:40 pm #

    I wonder what, if anything, the desire of an individual for a large(r) audience can tell us about our theology and ecclesiology. I'll admit that my experiences have led me to be suspicious of this desire, but I'm not sold on my suspicions being well-founded or Godly—I doubt my doubts. And I feel the desire in myself in some respects, and am not sure what to do with it beyond acknowledgement.

    That said, the Body is so very large, and has but one head. How the rest of it functions holds a lot of mystery for me. Just a few of the questions which arise:

    -Since many of us can read and listen to teachers across miles and time, with whom we have no relationship, who are they to us?
    -Are there messages today which God intends be received by thousands or tens of thousands from one person, for the good of the whole Body?
    -If so, what are the effects of this view on that one person? How do they understand themselves, and how do they understand their relationship to the thousands or tens of thousands?
    -Is God equipping others in the Body with the same message, to minister more broadly and deeply?
    -If so, are we tuning them out to tune in to the one person, and failing to listen and be vulnerable on a more intimate level because of this?

    Clearly, God used teachers like Peter and Paul to communicate His Word across both distance and years, so there's good precedent for very public teaching outside of direct relationship. Still, there's lots to examine about the desire for a larger audience. It's hard to be “with” an audience; an audience in many ways is an entity we communicate and minister “to.” That dynamic shift can have a big effect and potentially undercut God's intent for His people—teachers and students alike.

  2. D. Lee Grooms March 12, 2016 at 4:46 pm #

    I realize I didn't engage the aspects of repentance in Wendy's thoughtful post—the underpinnings of the phenomenon even before/without a scandal raise tons of questions for me. Once there's a stumble and a process of restoration, there are other questions, but those only arise at all for me because of the larger phenomenon. The fact is, I don't know, have a relationship with, or serve under the authority of any of these folk so far.

  3. Wendy March 12, 2016 at 5:03 pm #

    It is a phenomenon — this world in which notoriety is easily gained and rarely lost. As to your first question, who are these teachers we read and listen to from afar to us, I believe strongly for myself that they are just people with no authority in my life and I without any authority in theirs. I have authority in my community. And the people with authority over me are in my community. I have about the same relationship with living authors/speakers that I have with dead ones (unless I know them personally). It could be Beth Moore or Elisabeth Elliot. Never met either in person. Neither has authority. I read from them, agree with some, disagree with others. I think a real mess occurs when people let a teacher be an authority in their life without real relationship.

  4. Wendy March 12, 2016 at 5:16 pm #

    Your other questions speak into something I've noticed about the particular topic of women's voices in the church that I am burdened about. I have noticed several times other writers publicly or privately burdened about similar themes. It clearly is not MY message or MY burden. It seems to be the Spirit's, and in my opinion He is moving in many ways privately and publicly to refine the Church. I think if a famous minister has a good message, it will resonate best because it is not his own. He may be good at explaining it, which is generally why someone becomes famous in ministry — the way they explained something made sense to many people — but it is not a truth he invented and he likely can quote many old authors long dead who believed similarly.

  5. D. Lee Grooms March 12, 2016 at 5:24 pm #

    Wendy, I realized (partially through our 140 characters or less conversations) that, while I don't think I'm suspicious of restoration, my bells go off when teachers in a restoration process return to church/ministry leadership or professional work quickly. Measures of “quickly” are undoubtedly arbitrary, but I found that I usually look for a time span of rest from this kind of work that's measured by the year, not the month or week.

    Of course it's possible I'm wrongheaded about that (Peter gets restored pretty quickly!), but I can't think of a reason why God would be in a hurry to get someone “back in the saddle.” That's generally not how He works in Scripture (years are a very common measure of time for His work), the party being restored is at no disadvantage for being discipled and ministered to by steering clear of ministry/church “work” for a time, and the Body is (I believe) well equipped to deal with the temporary absence of any individual's gifts if that absence is for the purpose of God's work and restoration.

    I fear for anyone whose identity requires them being in a specific role in the Body, or for the people around them who may (believe they) need them to be in a specific role. The risk for idolatry, subtle or gross, is high in that kind of situation, and I've experienced some of the damage it can cause. Which may make me more cautious than necessary, but it's usually not restoration that gives me pause—it's speedy timelines for restoration.

  6. D. Lee Grooms March 12, 2016 at 5:28 pm #

    On an individual's burden vs. the Spirit's: I think I agree 100%, and since it's the Spirit's (one hopes), my question is perhaps best understood this way:

    Do messages from the Spirit require one person to grow a larger audience, or will they, because they're from the Spirit, be replicated across the Body (through many teachers and smaller audiences)? Can I trust the Spirit with the latter, or does the audience need to hear from the one person?

    I know that question isn't very settle-able; it's just one that occurs when I think of audiences if we believe God is at work.

  7. Wendy March 12, 2016 at 7:52 pm #

    I agree with so much of what you are saying. The risk of idolatry. The Spirit's power to get His message across with or without a particular public personality in the mix. The alternate idea is what if someone has seen their sin, turned away from it, and gone in a new direction, humbled themselves under authority and so forth, and some audience says, “We value your teaching and would like to hear from you.” I'm uncomfortable, if authority structures have approved someone to speak, with shame projected on the person for speaking. It seems to communicate that there is still some shame and condemnation left for us to bear personally despite what Christ bore on the cross. That's my main concern around this.

  8. Anonymous March 13, 2016 at 12:25 am #

    The church was not built on Peter but on Christ. Check the Greek.

  9. Wendy March 13, 2016 at 1:17 am #

    I disagree. The Greek seems clear to me.

  10. Cory March 13, 2016 at 6:53 pm #

    My Catholic family members are always touting that the Catholic church is the only true church because it was founded by Peter. I would appreciate any help understanding this divisive issue and how to counter it. Your comment above brings up so many questions. My heart sunk as I read it. The church is built on Christ, not Peter. What do you mean? Maybe a blog post or two? I am a long time follower and appreciate you sharing your heart and knowledge. You often get me thinking deeply about subjests in new ways and push me to study for myself. Thanks, Wendy.

  11. Cory March 13, 2016 at 6:54 pm #

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. Wendy March 13, 2016 at 9:03 pm #

    Cory, I think the problem with the Catholic church is that they attach to this verse an apostolic authority that passed down from Peter (who they consider the first pope) down to the current pope. That apostolic authority then allows the current pope to make broad decrees that are not in Scripture, and those decrees are elevated to the status of divine authority. In contrast, while Jesus says He will build His Church on Peter, His meaning is clarified by what happened next in the New Testament. This building on Peter wasn't exclusive. You could also easily say that He built His church on or through the foundations laid by Paul as well. Clearly, both Paul and Peter lay the gospel foundation among the growing church from Acts on forward. But the extension of apostolic authority that wrote Scripture did not extend past the final writing of Scripture. The canon of Scripture is set, and apostolic authority to speak with divine authority has ended. This is a bad teaching not just in the Catholic church that thinks people can still speak today with an authority equivalent to Scripture.

  13. Cory March 13, 2016 at 11:48 pm #

    Thank you Wendy. This is very helpful.

  14. Anita March 15, 2016 at 3:36 am #

    It's true that the “celebrity” status has gotten so out of hand in this world. It infiltrates so many places that I yearn to walk away from anything that even remotely smells of putting someone on a pedestal.

    While I agree with your third way of repentance, I would like to voice some caution against putting all the blame on the person who has sinned and include some level of responsibility for the community in which the offender is involved. I have also seen community mishandle their responsibility in loving, rebuking and restoring the offender.

    Having suffered at the hands of an unloving community without a sin even being the issue, perhaps more leaders would sin less if the community in which they lived were kinder, gentler, and more genuinely caring to begin with.

    I know that may sound harsh. 🙁 I don't mean to sound that way. Maybe it sounds a little harsh because I haven't yet experienced the kind of community that Bible describes as being healthy. I'm in the middle of God's work in my life in terms of community and my biases toward it. I haven't yet come to a resolution in this discrepancy.

  15. Wendy March 15, 2016 at 10:56 am #

    That's a good point, Anita. The community around a repentant sinner is often like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son. But that is some of the point of this post — to hope for and receive genuine repentance, and rejoice as the angels do when it happens.

  16. Valerie March 15, 2016 at 3:26 pm #

    Was it not Peter's faith declaration rather than his person which prompts Christ's response? Peter is a “stone” (petros) and faith like his — as evidenced in his declaration that Jesus was the Christ (Matt. 16:16) — is part of the “bedrock” (petra) or foundation of the church which Christ is building. That is how I understand the exchange between Jesus and Peter at this point, Catholic church aside. Paul seems to argue against laying any other foundation save what has been laid — namely Christ (1 Cor. 3:4-17). Your thoughts?

  17. Wendy March 15, 2016 at 5:19 pm #

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  18. Wendy March 15, 2016 at 5:40 pm #

    I think everyone is thinking about it too hard, at least in the context of this post. I simply quoted the gist of Matthew 16:18 (as all modern translations at least agree) to reinforce that Jesus used Peter in ministry after a very serious sin of denying Jesus. Jesus said strong, affirming words to Peter after Peter's repentance and turning back toward Jesus after serious failure. That is the value, in this context, to quoting Matthew 16:18. Peter was in fact foundational (i.e. important and well-used in instructing young churches in the gospel, not the theological foundation of the Church). As I said in an earlier comment, the rest of the New Testament clarifies what Jesus meant by this phrase as we see how Peter was and was not used to build the Church.

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