Something I’ve heard a lot from Christians lately, and especially from Church leadership, is that one bad pastor shouldn’t cause someone to leave the faith. This, of course, comes from the slew of scandals that have plagued the Church lately, pastors like Mark Driscoll, Brian Houston of Hillson, Carl Lentz, the list goes on. And it’s easy to just dismiss these incidents as not representative of the Church and easy to distinguish for a true believer. But when someone leaves the Church over scandals like these, the response is often something along the lines of they probably never had a real faith in God in the first place, they replaced the worship of God for a celebrity pastor. While there are cases where that’s true, it’s problematic to just make blanket statements like these about people leaving the Church, and let me explain why.
I do want to say here that I will give a few examples, so trigger warning for anyone who has experienced abuse by the Church. But I also want to encourage you to seek out those hurt by the Church, and those who left the Church, and hear their stories. It may surprise and shock you. And it may even change your view of those people.
We all know that church attendance has been going down. It’s been on a steady decline for a while now. But what we keep hearing from those in leadership is that the fault lies primarily on the people who have left the Church. And even beyond that I’ve heard several lies around this, like they just want to sin more (really?) and to gain street cred (from who?). All in all this just creates an us versus them mentality. So that brings us to why saying just one bad pastor shouldn’t cause people to lose faith or leave the church can be problematic.
First, what you’re basically saying, or what people are hearing, is that pastors don’t have to be good people. They can misuse money, be hypocritical, have affairs, but it’s the message of God that matters. In theory, yes, God is God regardless of how humans act. But I hope you can see why that doesn’t sit well with many people. Church leadership should be held to a higher standard, that’s actually clearly stated in the New Testament (Titus 1:5-9, 1st Timothy 3:1-7). With the amount of churches being planted, and popping up in big cities especially, it’s easy to find pastors who aren’t qualified to be a pastor. But a new believer, or a new church member, may not be able to tell this easily. I, personally, attended a church led by a celebrity pastor, not because of them, but circumstances put me there. From all accounts he was a great guy, charismatic, and had a booming church. But guess what. He wasn’t actually that great of a guy.
He regularly yelled at and demeaned his pastoral staff. He inflated numbers. And he didn’t even have a seminary degree or any biblical training, leading to some pretty terrible sermons. My wife and I left that church hurt. Every time since then that we’ve entered a church, we have a hard time trusting the lead pastor. So I know very well how hard it is to believe that one bad pastor is the exception. Instead, it often feels like the norm. And along with that, it’s hard to believe that no one else knows this. Why did no one warn us about this bad pastor? If everyone else, including other churches and pastors just accept this, why should I trust them?
Second, it’s rarely just one person. It’s a church. It’s a system. It’s a collection of believers that has failed someone. For example, a story I’ve heard too many times to count now, is about a woman getting kicked out of a church for either of two reasons: divorcing her husband or becoming pregnant out of wedlock. And when you look further into the story you find that the husband was abusive. Or that the father also attends the church but has no ramifications. But the church gives the wife or mother very specific directions on how she needs to atone for her sin. And then when she rightly refuses to be controlled by a pastor, the entire church turns against her. And now she has no one. Did just one person fail her? No. Her pastors, elders, deacons, friends failed her. Even more so, this often happens in small towns. When you have a community of a few hundred people, most of which attend one church, your whole world just betrayed you. You have nowhere to go, no one to turn to. And when you feel the world has failed you, it’s easy to feel that God has failed you.
Third, if you grew up in a church that doesn’t follow the Bible, you may not even know that the hurt you’ve experienced isn’t what God wants. For so many people they’re kept in a bubble of like minded Christians, or people who claim to be Christian. Just like I mentioned before, this isn’t uncommon in small communities where no one leaves or has any idea that other churches might be different from theirs. They’ve lived their whole life believing that their family, friends, and pastors love them and are telling them God’s truth. A friend of my wife was diagnosed as bipolar. Unfortunately, her church didn’t believe in diagnosing mental disorders. Instead, they tried to exorcize a demon out of her. So she was left with a choice, leave her church and Christian community to get help, or stay in an abusive church.
But it’s not hard to see that if this is your upbringing, and your “loved” ones are just telling you that you’re demon possessed, the world starts to get a bit confusing. And if, because you’ve never known other Christians, you assume all churches will just try to exorcize you, why would you attend another church? If we’ve grown up in a good church, we know that God is perfect and humans aren’t. If you’ve been controlled by a bad church, you’re probably told the Church is the direct, unquestionable hand of God. So you’re left with the option of abuse in church, or leaving the faith, at least according to what you know.
Fourth, not everyone has a strong faith. And that’s okay! As Christians we grow our faith as we live out the Gospel. So if a major problem causes someone to lose faith, we need to help them heal, not blame them. No one has a perfect faith. It would be arrogant of any Church leader to say that all Christians should have enough faith to weather anything. But as we’ve seen, hardships cause people to lose faith. The loss of a child, divorce, failed businesses, and all sorts of things. If a pastor or church’s action is causing those new to the faith, or those struggling with faith, to leave, the pastor, the church, the people of God need to do something. We, as Christians who know the Gospel, need to stand up and say, no, that’s not what God looks like. Your trauma is real. Your feelings are valid. It may not be easy to trust God right away, but what you experienced was not God. Let me help you and show you Christ’s true love. And by the way, you don’t necessarily have to say that directly, sometimes it’s best to just show it through your actions.
Lastly, it’s not just that someone makes a mistake. Whether you’re a Christian or not, we all know that people aren’t perfect. The problem is, so often, pastors and church leadership are treated as infallible. And that has caused lots of issues. Look at Mark Driscoll, he was forced out of one church only to start another. Where is the accountability in that? As Christians, or people struggling with the question of faith, we don’t expect perfect people. We want people to admit their mistakes and grow. We want people held accountable for their egregious misuses of power. When the leader of a church supports the deranged lies of a politician trying to ignore democracy, and the organization and congregation just go along with it, well that’s a problem. And if the congregation is courageous enough to confront a pastor of wrongdoing, a good, honest pastor would admit their mistakes and change, or maybe even step down. But the stories we hear most aren’t like that. We see pastors who abuse the weak, misuse money, do the exact actions they preach against, but then are protected by their organization.
If, as a non-believe or Christian, you see that pastors can mess up as much as they want without repercussions, but it’s your job to figure out who the good and bad pastors are yourself, why would you stay in Church?
Christian Sex Talk (@christians3xtalk) is run by a married couple that wants to open up the conversation around sex as Christians, asking any and all questions but always coming back to the Bible.