In the 1990’s then-president Bill Clinton is alleged to have said, “Character doesn’t matter” after the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal came to light. He asked voters to focus on his track record and effectiveness in office in deciding whether to vote for him or George H. W. Bush in the upcoming presidential election. Skip the question of character he argued, only the results count.
In the realm of politics and elections I find such logic disconcerting, but not surprising.
In the realm of church leadership, I find such logic antithetical to the gospel message.
If there’s an area of leadership where character counts more than in a church setting, I can’t name it. Yet even there celebrity status and quantifiable results often outweigh character. Increased giving, growing attendance, new church plants, conversions and baptisms, book sales and budget numbers met are difficult positives to ignore.
In the political venue, voters cast a ballot to declare their decision. In Clinton’s case, voters proclaimed character did matter after all and Bush won the election.
In evangelical churches with congregational style leadership, members may influence whether a pastor with questionable character remains on staff, but the authority to make such a decision usually resides with the elder board. In elder-led churches where members don’t vote and have little say in church administrative and financial decisions, only elders can require a pastor to resign or leave.
When incidents of suspect character and sinful behavior come to light in an evangelical church, elders, usually unpaid volunteers with family and job responsibilities, bear the responsibility of deciding how to deal with the issue and the decision’s consequences. Some denominational structures provide regional or national support for local church leaders, but non-denominational elder boards carry the load alone.
Spend a few decades in evangelical churches, and you’ll likely see your church’s leaders weighed down by such a burden. Several have been in churches I’ve attended. Issues addressed included misuse of church credit cards, money stolen from the offering, manipulation through anger, unrepentant hearts when confronted with a character flaw, gambling, questionable behavior with members of the opposite sex, and probably many other things I never heard about.
When the elder board took a strong stand in these situations and declared character important, damage was generally limited to those directly involved in the situation. When elders wanted to retain the pastor/staff person more than they wanted to address the character/sin issue, the circle of injured people enlarged – twice to the point of including the entire congregation and once to the point of splitting the church.
Confronting someone about character and sinful behavior issues is never easy, but nowhere is it more important than when church leaders are implicated. The recent sexual abuse allegations in the Roman Catholic Church and Sovereign Grace Ministries demonstrate both the incredible difficulty and the immeasurable importance of facing issues head-on rather than wallpapering over them. Sin swept under the rug rots and poisons the atmosphere; sin exposed to light, repentance and forgiveness loses its stench and power to harm (2 Corinthians 7:9).
When character is more important than a church leader’s track record, elders will demonstrate their care for the flock (I Peter 5:2) and take care of the sheep (John 21:16) by confronting the lapses in good judgment or outright sin. The goal of church discipline is to lead a fallen one to godly sorrow, repentance and restoration (2 Corinthians 7:9), but the process can’t begin without courageous godly people seeing the fallen as a fellow sinner in need of correction instead of an untouchable celebrity.
Elders, show your character by valuing good character in the pastors you oversee. Model your resolve; demonstrate your commitment to high standards. Jesus so instructed and the flock is watching (John 21:15-17).
How have character issues been addressed in your church? What has been your experience as a congregant or leader?