Life Ministry

Pastoral Environment and the Fight for Holiness

My heart was deeply saddened yesterday when I heard about another resignation of a well-known pastor of a mega-church. This time, it was Tullian Tchividjian, pastor at Coral Ridge in Miami. This came about, he said, because of ongoing marital issues. His wife admitted to adultery. He developed an “inappropriate relationship” with someone in the aftermath of the news from his wife. God is grieved by this, that church will be greatly affected, and two people (Tullian and his wife) must deal with the destructive effects of sin. It breaks my heart. But I believe God is gracious and he can bring redemption to the darkest valley. I pray he does.

I’ve pondered this story a bit more deeply than other readers perhaps. I have a different perspective. Why? Because I’m a pastor.

Reading this as a pastor, I’m looking under the surface. I’m wondering what else was going on. I’m thinking about how it might have been avoided. I’m trying to see themes and trends and triggers that are plain as day in hindsight and might have signaled something like this was coming.

Now, hear me clearly, adultery is a human problem. People sin. Pastors are not exempt. What’s more is that sinners are responsible for their sin. We can’t shift blame elsewhere. Because of the gospel, we can own up to our sin and confess it, knowing that we have an advocate before God, Jesus Christ the justifier of the unjust. So yes, we are responsible for our sin, but the good news of the gospel is that Jesus takes responsibility for our sin on the cross.

And yet, as we learn to deal with failure, we learn that life is complicated. Sin is complicated—adultery is complicated—and there are always multiple factors and variables in play. This is a tension that, as Westerners, we would probably rather not acknowledge much less deal with.

While adultery is sin—and sinners are called to repentance—this does not mean environment is unimportant. You can’t make a plant grow but you can improve the environment, the conditions, so that the seed has everything it needs to flourish. No rain? Find a hose and a sprinkler. The same goes for people—including pastors. A quality, genuine, redemptive environment doesn’t guarantee spiritual fruit. But by God’s grace, it helps.

This leads me to ask: was there something about this particular pastoral environment that made holiness more elusive? More specifically, was there something about Tullian’s mega-church environment that was not conducive for growth? Holiness is hard because of our sin nature—the Spirit of God and the flesh oppose each other to keep us from doing what we want (Gal. 5:16). It takes work (Phil. 2:12-13). Throw us into a garden where the conditions are not optimal—or even good—and growth can be “more elusive.”

In Tullian’s case, he was in a mega-church environment that exalted him to celebrity status. Christianity Today, reflecting on what brought Tullian to the church in the first place, wrote, “[Coral Ridge] elders hoped that Tchividjian’s youth, vision, and name could revive the fortunes of the aging congregation.” This mega-church environment centered on the lead pastor’s personality, charisma, preaching ability, and energy. Sadly, this isn’t unique to this church. It’s a mega-church trend. Building around a dynamic, visionary, CEO-type. (This is what happened with Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill, though with a different issue and over a longer period of time.) No human can bear this burden. So the pastor grows into a celebrity and becomes isolated and beyond accountability. And when this happens, he’s vulnerable.

This is not just a mega-church trend. What about churches in different contexts that are smaller and relatively unknown? Like many mega-churches, a small church could still be centered on the pastor. Maybe not his personality or charisma or vision, but his ministry credentials, his administrative skills, his ability to be available to everyone all the time (or his sense of guilt to be so). He does all the preaching, all the counseling, all the hospital visits. He is “the minister,” the one “doing ministry.” No human can bear that burden. So the pastor becomes desperately needed yet at the same time, curiously, he’s lonely. He becomes isolated. Now, he’s vulnerable.

I don’t know all the reasons for pastoral failures when it comes to adultery or “inappropriate relationships.” The sinful nature is, of course, bent on desiring other things above Jesus. We are fighting not against flesh and blood here and I’m not making any excuses because sin is sin, sinners are responsible for their sin, and we repent and trust that Jesus has taken care of not just our sins, but us.

But in the North American church, we seem to be quite adept at centering ourselves around our leaders. We cultivate pastoral environments that make holiness elusive for pastors—the people who are to take the lead in modeling a gospel-shaped life. And anytime we center our communities of faith on a pastor—even a very good one with much to offer the church—and not the Person of Jesus Christ, that pastor is doomed to fall.

We (pastors), too, are great sinners in need of a great Redeemer and we need help. Surely there is something churches (including the pastors) can do to help pastors fight for holiness, see fruit, and finish the good fight of faith. In my next post, I’ll look to the Scriptures to find out just how we can do this.


A TED Talk That Raises More Questions Than It Answers

In this five minute TED talk, commentator David Brooks provides some penetrating insights into the human condition. The contemplative listener will rightly respond to Brooks’s talk by asking, “Well, how does that happen?! How do I experience that salvation? Where does that forgiveness come from? I am powerless to wrestle with my sins and win! O, who will deliver me from this body of death?!”

There’s only one answer. Unfortunately, he doesn’t give it.

Watch his short TED talk now.


Bo Pelini, Self-Deception, and the Gospel


In a closed-door meeting just a few days after he was fired as head coach at Nebraska, Bo Pelini addressed the Husker players. On Thursday the Omaha World Herald released an audio recording of that meeting. (Warning: the audio on this link contains extreme profanity.) Pelini spoke with the team for about 30 minutes and insulted Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst several times. Pelini did not speak well of the university, the administration, or the leadership culture in the athletic department.

If you know anything about Nebraska football and Bo Pelini (and I don’t expect readers of this blog to know anything), you quickly realized that this audio only confirms the exact reason why Pelini was fired: he had an arrogant, unprofessional, disrespectful, and vulgar disposition.

A member of our church (a Texas A&M fan) said to me before Pelini was fired, “He’s a jerk. Your fans are so nice. You don’t need a guy like that.” Yes, Pelini lost some big games by a lot of points. Coaches can’t do that and live to tell about it. But more than that, Pelini does not reflect the type of person an institution of higher education wants to employ, even a football coach.

This brings up an important point. Pelini was known not only for drama on the sidelines, but for crafting a dramatic (and well-rehearsed, it seemed) “us-against-the-world” plot-line throughout his tenure. This post-firing speech, no doubt taken to heart by so many impressionable student-athletes in that room (and for good reason: they loved their coach), was simply the narrative’s denouement. To change the metaphor, it was the Mt. Everest of the Bo Pelini experiment at the University of Nebraska. Mountain top experiences are usually good things. But this final climb to the summit had all the ice and frost bite and anger and heartache of Everest without any of the glory.

But this was about more than a frustrated former employee. It was about more than a coach who blows a gasket every now and then and has a bit of vitriol for his ex-boss. It was about more than approaching sports and coaching with an “us-against-the-world” attitude (which is a bad way to approach sports and coaching but that’s another post).

This was about the “exceeding sinfulness of sin,” as the Puritans used to say. Sin is horrific in its power to deceive the one it devours. Sin is blinding and the more one is entrenched in sin, the harder it is to see that you are actually blind. Pelini had opportunity in front of his players to say, once and for all, he screwed up. That he had not lived up to his own values of class, professionalism, accepting personal responsibility, and so on. That he had not treated people—superiors, referees, players, and others—with honor, dignity, and respect. But he did not. He blamed others. He defended himself. He exaggerated his virtues. He exaggerated the faults of his foes. He did whatever he could to protect and justify himself. Pelini couldn’t see what, it appears, everyone around him had been seeing for years both on and off the field.

Pelini provides us with an extreme case study of how easily and powerfully we can be deceived. We miss the point if we read or hear this and say, “I can’t understand how he didn’t see this! He got what was coming to him.” Instead, this case study should teach us. It should expose our own self-deceptiveness and tendencies to self-protect and self-justify. What would an audio recording of your thoughts sound like? You might not have as many expletives as Pelini, but no doubt there are voracious and dastardly self-defense strategies and tactics being developed and implemented every hour. No doubt you are deceiving yourself and loading up ammo ready to aim and fire on whoever will challenge you in order to justify yourself and dish out judgment and condemnation. Your spouse. Your child. Your boss. Your neighbor. Your small group leader. Your sibling. Your therapist. Be thankful you don’t have a platform like Pelini and a hundred college students with smart phones inside your head.

The only answer—and this is not a trite answer—is the gospel. Through God’s grace in the gospel, I see myself for who I really am. The layers of sin’s deception start to peel back. I realize that my biggest problems are inside of me, not outside of me. The gospel tells me I am more flawed and broken than I ever dared believe. How do I know this? The gospel tells me that God’s own Son, Jesus, died for me. He died for me not as an example but as a substitionary sacrifice. I would have no hope without his death. He died in my place because I deserved to die. I—you—deserved to die because I—we—assaulted God by trying to be God. You see, when we deceive ourselves into believing that our problems are outside of us and not inside of us, and that others are to blame and we are justified in our thoughts, words, and actions, we play the role of God and judge. One of the prime hallmarks of sin is that it deceives us to believe we are our own god.

The gospel shows us that we cannot be our own god and we’re doomed if we try. The gospel shows us that it is not “us-against-the-world” but rather “God-against-the-world.” In our attempts to justify ourselves, we have rebelled against God and find ourselves at odds with him.

But there is also good news in this gospel: we are more loved and accepted than we ever dared hope. The gospel reveals that God is not only against the world, but that he loves the world and he sent his only Son into the world to die for us. Jesus was willing to die and he died because we deserved it. On the cross, Jesus bears the entire punishment we deserve for our self-deception—our playing God. And he also provides the perfection you and I—and Bo Pelini—need for true and lasting justification. Jesus gives us all his beauty and goodness and obedience in return for all our ugliness and badness and disobedience. Astonishing.

What does this do in my life? It frees me from having to protect and justify myself. Why? Because in God’s eyes, I’m justified. There’s no more need to defend myself. The Creator loves and accepts me! Now, I’m free to admit my faults because they are ultimately not a threat to me anymore. God has forgiven me and is in the process of changing me and will one day bring final deliverance. Now, I’m also free to cry out with the psalmist, “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults” (Ps. 19:12). I can admit I don’t know myself as well as I should. There are hidden sins in me that want to stay covered. In fact, I’m partly blind to some of my worst sins. That’s how sin works. But as the gospel takes deeper root in my life, these “hidden faults” become more evident. As the gospel goes deeper and I actively seek out areas of self-deception in order to put them to death, self-deception begins to wane. Slowly, but surely, by God’s grace, it wanes.

This 30-minute audio recording is about Bo Pelini, sure. But it’s also about you and me. It’s about self-deception. It’s about the gospel. Let this final, tragic episode in Pelini’s time at Nebraska help you see that sin is exceedingly sinful because it inclines us to self-deception. Even more, let it help you see that the gospel is exceedingly good because it opens our eyes to who we really are, who Jesus really is, and what he has done to provide us true, lasting justification.


Stand On Your Head for Joy!

I get the privilege of preaching God’s word to our congregation every so often, about once per month. When I preach, I will do my best to post a snippet from my manuscript (it will not always be exactly what I say!) here on the blog with a link to the full audio. In my first two weeks at Grace Chapel, I preached twice. Here’s a portion of my first sermon, “A Father and Two Sons” from Luke 15:11-32.

So Jesus leaves the story open-ended. What will the elder brother do? He ends it there to leave the Pharisees and us longing something—for a true and better elder brother. An elder brother who would leave the presence of his Father and the comforts of his home in heaven to go on a rescue mission and sacrifice all he has to bring his Father’s lost children home. You see, Jesus is the elder brother we need and long for. He gave up his heavenly inheritance and paid our debt. He was stripped of his heavenly clothes, hung naked on a cross, and died thirsty, so we would be clothed in the best robe and enjoy a feast fit for a king. And God is the real prodigal in this story. He is the one who is radical, extravagant, seemingly wasteful in his generosity.

So now younger brothers and elder brothers can relate to God through grace. It’s a gift. We receive it by faith. No one is too bad to receive it and no one is good enough to earn it. Jesus is directing us to himself. He’s saying, you don’t have what takes. You need to trust in a God who is recklessly generous. A God who is wastefully extravagant. A God who shatters your categories of sin and righteousness. And the only way to get to him is through his Son, who provides both the perfect obedience and payment for sin we need.

Some of you might be saying right now, “Okay, I’m already a Christian. I get it. I’ve already received grace. What am I supposed to do?”  Well, Jesus doesn’t say, “Go and do likewise.” He is directing us to himself. So if that is your reaction, let me humbly suggest that you guard your heart from a spirit of legalism: be astonished by grace! Second, let me ask you to consider: if this is your attitude, have you encountered grace in the first place? This grace should astonish you and fuel your faith!

Martin Luther once said, “If I could believe God was not angry with me, I would stand on my head for joy!” If you want an application, maybe try that as one this morning!

Listen to the whole thing.


Why I Changed My Mind on Romans 7:14-25

Romans 7:14-25, is a controversial passage. As controversial as they come (well, maybe behind the one on tongues). Good, Jesus-loving Christians divide over what Paul is talking about. In case you are unfamiliar with the argument, there are three main views:

  1. Some believe that the “I” in the passage is Paul speaking autobiographically as a Christian, describing his Christian experience of struggling to obey the law.
  2. Others hold that the “I” is Paul speaking autobiographically of his non-Christian experience.
  3. Still others advocate that the “I” is Paul writing, from his present Christian perspective, as a non-Christian Jew living under the Mosaic law.

I used to be a staunch advocate that Romans 7 describes a normal, Christian (i.e. regenerate) experience (position #1). Last summer, I wrote an exegetical paper on Romans 7. As I studied the passage and began to write the paper, I changed my mind. Now I believe that in Romans 7:14-25, Paul reflects on his experience as an non-Christian (i.e. unregenerate) Jew under the law (position #3).

In the end, the main reason I changed my mind was due to the context of Romans and what Paul is arguing for as a whole. On the micro level, I cannot believe that the man who so firmly believes he is united to Christ would describe his Christian self as “of the flesh, sold under sin” (7:14). To hold to the regenerate position directly contradicts what Paul spent chapter six and the first part of seven explaining: that is, Christians are no longer slaves of sin (6:14, 17, 18, 20).

On the macro level, if we think about the wider scope of Paul’s letters, it would be strange for Paul to write this particular section (vv. 14-25) as a regenerate person with such an enormous emphasis on adherence to the law of Moses. It is true that the law reflects God’s nature and character, but this emphasis from Paul would actually push against the exact thing he teaches elsewhere: freedom from the burden, curse, and power of the law (7:1-6; cf. Acts 13:39; Gal. 3:10-14; 5:1-12; Col. 2:14). Simply, in Romans 7:14-25, Paul does not sound like his “normal” Christian self as he is portrayed in the rest of the New Testament. He sounds more like a Jew who senses the absolute hopelessness of banking on the law for salvation (cf. Peter’s remarks in Acts 15:10).

There are so many applications for this passage (I direct you to the paper’s link below for the ones I’ve found). One of the most prominent is that though Christians do struggle with sin, the struggle is simply not described in Romans 7. Romans 7 looks at sin from the perspective of slavery and defeat. This is not the Christian perspective on sin.

So there you have a couple very brief reasons I’ve changed my mind on one of the most controversial sections of Scripture. If you’re curious and/or have a free half-hour, you can read the whole paper.