The highly publicized scandal of the Rev. Jesse Jackson fathering a child out of wedlock–at the very time he was counseling the President about marital infidelity–has rightly left many people reeling.
It is one thing to stumble morally. But rushing in as another’s “spiritual advisor” while involved in the very offense as one’s counselee rises high on the hypocrisy index.
Naturally, scandals involving ministers fuel skepticism about all people of the cloth. Are all or most of them involved in such deceptions, pretending to be one thing while doing another?
As one who knows a great number of ministers personally, I would answer with a categorical, “No!” Most ministers are people of integrity who strive very hard to live their creed. Yes, some stray in ways that violate the trust of their congregations, their spouses and their God. But it is the exception rather than the rule.
This is not to say that ministers, or other believers, are sanctimonious saints who never do any wrong. They are sinners saved by grace, like all who follow the Crucified and Risen One. They sometimes snap at their children, eat too much or harbor bitterness, lust or greed.
But there is a big difference between struggling to bring one’s inner life under the sovereignty of Christ and acting out one’s impulses. As Jesus said, “Out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Mt 15:19).
Still, it is far better to keep your garbage in the kitchen than have it strewn on the streets. The first is an offense against oneself and one’s God. The latter hurts others and imperils the witness of the church.
Paul, the great partisan of grace, was emphatic the church could not ignore flagrant violations of its moral ideals (1 Cor 5:1-13).
In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus speaks to similar concerns. The essence of Jesus’ counsel was to address moral indiscretions privately if possible, though not to ignore or rationalize them. Both the integrity of the church and the spiritual health of the offender hang in the balance.
Does this mean ministers and others who act in destructive ways are “damaged goods,” of no value to God or God’s kingdom? Absolutely not. Our God is an expert in salvage and restoration work.
Consider King David or the Apostle Peter. Both perpetrated shameful betrayals. But by God’s grace they became–as author Ernest Hemingway put it–“strong at the broken places.” Such restoration requires repentance, restitution for wrong and a period of rebuilding shattered trust.
One can only hope this will be true for the Rev. Jackson and for others whose bad judgment has imperiled a lifetime of good work.
Bob Setzer is pastor of First Baptist Church, Macon, Ga.