The news story first broke in June 1987; the one when my former senior pastor confessed to an adulterous affair. Assemblies of God pastor, Jim Bakker, received the mainstream press’ attention that year for his alleged sexual misconduct and financial misdealings, but Gordon MacDonald’s admission rocked the conservative Protestant world and mine.
MacDonald pastored one of the largest churches in the Boston metropolitan area when we moved to Massachusetts for my husband’s legal studies. From the few strong evangelical churches in the area, we selected Grace Chapel in Lexington as our home church. For two years we listened to Gordon’s exemplary preaching on Sundays. For one year I and hundreds of women benefitted from his wife’s teaching leadership of the weekly women’s bible study.
In 1984 Gordon resigned and became the minister-at-large for the relief organization, World Vision. Little over a year later he took over the Presidency of the collegiate student ministry organization, InterVarsity Fellowship (IVF). While at IVF, an anonymous letter sent to religious publishers exposed the illicit relationship; MacDonald admitted to the affair and resigned.
Jimmy Bakker’s fall from his highly visible perch on the PTL (Praise the Lord) television program and network seemed an inherent, but distant, risk of flying high. His was a case of fame and personal power inflating the non-existent invisibility screen some prominent leaders expect to protect them. When it doesn’t, they feverishly spew hot air to re-inflate and backpedal like a rabid spin instructor. Tammy Faye’s long eyelashes added a measure of comic relief to the sad drama of a man of God trying to save face like a politician caught in a sexting scandal.
But Gordon MacDonald? He spoke at Wheaton College’s special services week in spring 1976 before I matriculated, and the series spawned the then-popular book, Magnificent Marriage. For years I had looked up to him, trusted his guidance, read his wise words, and gladly called him pastor. We never met, but his humble heart and desire to know God shone through his preaching and writing.
but we know prominent Christian leaders aren’t trees that fall silently in the woods.
The admitted affair ran from late 1984 to early 1985, and Gordon initiated a restoration process before his misconduct became public. Later he commented that he wished the situation could have been dealt with in private, but we know prominent Christian leaders aren’t trees that fall silently in the woods. He repented and confessed, then requested and received discipline from a council of church elders who held him accountable for his behavior and relationships.
After the affair was disclosed, Gordon demonstrated a humble and contrite heart like the broken King David in Psalm 51. He didn’t take a defensive posture, try to inflate the shield, blame the other woman, blame his wife for not meeting his needs, minimize his culpability, claim he was having a mid-life crisis, or try to wriggle out of the truth. He faced it head on, admitted his sin, and choose a path toward potential restoration of ministry. For two years he moved out of the spotlight, pulled back from publishing and preaching, and spent time with God. He pursued the spiritual disciplines to help him examine his heart, understand his weaknesses, and accept his humanity.
In Rebuilding Your Broken World, he describes the foundational principle for restoration as “the premise that individuals who have misbehaved must present themselves before God in openness and acknowledge responsibility and accountability” (italics in the original.) He expounds on eighteen “Bottom Line” principles to address in order to be restored and finish the race well. I thought Gordon’s response would become the Christian norm, but I’ve not seen anyone follow this path since.
No matter the patterns we bring from our family of origin, our personality, the circumstances, or the relational dynamics, falling on our knees in repentance and confession is the only way to find true healing and restoration. Politicians can, and admittedly we expect them to, plug in the public relations machine, spin a tune, and claim like comedian Flip Wilson, “The Devil made me do it.” They aren’t expected to go the “accept responsibility” route, but men and women of God are.
The Bible doesn’t sugarcoat our human frailty and propensity to go astray or let it slide when it happens. Read the story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11 and 12; then study David’s expression of remorse and guilt in Psalm 51 penned after the prophet Nathan told a heart-rending story of a poor man’s single ewe lamb to convict him of sin. That’s our pattern, our model, and Gordon MacDonald eventually followed it.
God in his grace and mercy has restored him to ministry. In 1989, MacDonald became pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Manhattan, and returned to Grace Chapel in 1993 as Senior Pastor, though without unanimous support of the congregation. He and his wife, Gail, now in their 70’s, continue to invest in the lives of younger people through an intensive discipleship ministry held in their home. Gordon speaks, writes, and travels the world to help others become aware of their vulnerability to sin and finish well.
MacDonald gave in to temptation in the one area he felt the most secure–his relationships. His dalliance was a painful way to unveil his Achilles heel, and it cost him–like David whose infant son with Bathsheba died, and whose son, Absalom, publicly lay with David’s many wives. But MacDonald has reaped the long-term benefits of facing the painful truth, confessing sin, making amends, and relying on God’s grace to restore relationships.
Each time a news blurb reveals a prominent Christian leader’s abuse of power, pedophilia, unscrupulous financial dealings, sexual affairs, addictions or whatever sin snared them, I pray they’ll choose the healthy trail less travelled. Few will, but we all win when they do.