It was a strange tweet to see yesterday morning.
Welcome to the valley of the shadow of death…thank God grace reigns here.
— Tullian Tchividjian (@PastorTullian) June 21, 2015
I assumed that he or someone close to him had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and so I promptly tweeted a reply that sympathised and sought prayer for him. And then I read that Billy Graham’s grandson, Tullian Tchividjian, had resigned as the pastor of a Florida megachurch after admitting an adulterous relationship.
It was distressing news to wake up to. Tullian is the latest high-profile pastor in the US to fall from grace and find himself on the front pages for all the wrong reasons.
Tullian issued a statement saying that his wife had had an affair and that while he had taken a sabbatical to heal his marriage he had “sought comfort in a friend” and developed “an inappropriate relationship” himself. Kim, his wife, issued her own statement saying that her husband’s reflected his own views, not hers, and asked for respect for their family’s privacy.
It is a desperately sad situation, in many ways – not just for the family and all that is involved in the breakup of a marriage with three children, but also the collateral damage to the church and to the reputation of the gospel. “Oh no, not another one” is a common despairing reaction.
Tullian is the fourth megachurch pastor to resign in recent years in Florida alone, for what is usually called ‘an inappropriate relationship’ but biblically is just called ‘adultery’. Of course, many in the secular media and wider public love this kind of scandal – it allows them to luxuriate in sexual titillation and at the same time rejoice in charges of Christian hypocrisy.
The trouble is that Christians can fall into the temptation of schadenfreude too. I had had an interesting exchange with Tullian and his ‘Liberate’ ministry last year. Without really being aware of who he was, I had written a review of his book, One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World. It wasn’t entirely uncritical. Little did I know what it was like to step into the murky world of the American mega-church pastor. The congratulations from those who seemed to want to hang Tullian out to dry were matched only by the cries of those who saw me as some kind of right-wing legalist who had no idea of grace. To be fair, there were many who did not fit into either category but who were glad to get an outsider’s perspective. Sadly, the popularity of that article only served to indicate the truth of the truism that the best way to draw a crowd is to start a fight.
So you might expect a degree of schadenfreude from me. In that case you will be disappointed. I feel gutted and saddened at the whole situation. My critique of the book is not proved true by Tullian’s fall, any more than it would have been proven false by his continued ministry. Surely sorrow, discouragement and prayer can be the only appropriate responses for the Tchividjian family?
There are, however, surely some lessons that we can learn from the never-ending stream of failed ministries in the megachurches and Christian media circuit. It’s not enough just to repeat the usual talk about privacy, redemption and forgiveness and then to move on without having learned any lessons. If the fruit of the Spirit includes faithfulness, we need to ask why so many preachers of faith don’t show that and why so many advocates of grace end up denying the very grace that bought them.
One major concern is the way that the Church has come to reflect the culture – not just in matters of divorce, adultery and abuse, but also in other areas. There are honourable exceptions to this, but it seems that the American megachurch tends to reflect the American corporation, rather than the biblical concept of the church. Corporate churches tend to be run like corporations, with corporate boards, corporate facilities, consumer mentalities and corporate leaders with corporate salaries.
There is also the danger of trying to develop a brand mentality, finding a unique selling point that can then be marketed and sold. I’m sure that this is often done with the best of motivations, a genuine love for Christ and a desire to communicate the gospel, but it will always end up in disaster. I remember with horror being handed a glossy leaflet (also in Florida) with the word ‘Sonship’ having the copyright symbol after it. You can’t copyright sonship. You can’t brand and sell grace.
The trouble with the corporate model of church is that it leaves the CEOs (otherwise known as ‘senior pastors’) as a combination of business manager, advertising guru and celebrity personality. And that is a very lonely and isolating position. Maybe a return to a more biblical pattern of church, with elders and preachers as ‘under shepherds’ and answerable to the wider church, rather than the stakeholders (shareholders?) of the local corporate church entity, might provide a better context for accountable ministry.
I found it intriguing that although Coral Ridge is a Presbyterian Church of America congregation, it was reported that Paul Tripp, a well-known Christian author, was the man flown in to deal with the situation. Why? Why can’t local church elders and the local church presbytery not deal with the situation according to the normal rules and procedures they have? Celebrity discipline doesn’t really work. Are networks really better than ordinary churches?
Leaders will always have clay feet. But maybe churches should be real biblical churches, exercising church discipline and not just aping the corporate structures and celebrity leadership styles of the world around. Meanwhile let those who think they stand, beware in case they fall.