How to Handle Scandal – a Biblical guide for Christian leaders today

Scandal.

It’s been with God’s people for thousands of years. You might say it began with Adam and Eve scandalously eating the forbidden fruit. Then there was Abraham’s scandalous habit of trying to save his own skin by allowing local warlords to take his wife into their harems to bed at will. Or the most notable example in Scripture: King David seducing Bathsheba, getting her pregnant and then killing her husband rather than face up to what he did; the nation found out anyway.

Didn’t anyone in the Bible ever try to head off scandal before it became full-blown?

At least one person did. In 1 Samuel 2, Eli the high priest and his sons served in the tabernacle of the Lord, charged with administering the sacrificial offerings the people brought and leading them in the ways of the Lord. The problem wasn’t with the people. It was with Eli’s sons. They mistreated the offerings and they mistreated the people.

First, they were greedy for material goods:

Eli’s sons were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord. Now it was the practice of the priests that, whenever any of the people offered a sacrifice, the priest’s servant would come with a three-pronged fork in his hand while the meat was being boiled and would plunge the fork into the pan or kettle or cauldron or pot. Whatever the fork brought up the priest would take for himself. This is how they treated all the Israelites who came to Shiloh. But even before the fat was burned, the priest’s servant would come and say to the person who was sacrificing, “Give the priest some meat to roast; he won’t accept boiled meat from you, but only raw.”

If the person said to him, “Let the fat be burned* first, and then take whatever you want,” the servant would answer, “No, hand it over now; if you don’t, I’ll take it by force.” (1 Samuel 2:14-17.)

In addition to their material greed was their sexual lust:

Now Eli, who was very old, heard about everything his sons were doing to all Israel and how they slept with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting. So he said to them, “Why do you do such things? I hear from all the people about these wicked deeds of yours. No, my sons; the report I hear spreading among the Lord’s people is not good.(1 Samuel 2:22-24.)

Eli’s sons rejected their father’s rebuke – their father who was also their high priest – and found themselves under the wrath of God in consequence. (1 Samuel 2:27-36, 4:1-11.)

Hope for the Scandalous

The lesson from these first few chapters of 1 Samuel is not merely that scandalizing God has dire consequences. The lesson is also that there is hope for the scandalous, even those who scandalize from positions of church leadership:

  • The pastor who enrolls with a website that facilitates people hooking up to have an affair.
  • The seminary professor who sleeps with students semester after semester.
  • The television and online preacher who hoards the donations called for incessantly in every broadcast and podcast, using the donations to live a lifestyle of wealth and fame.
  • The famous pastor, speaker and writer who is discovered to have plagiarized in the most recent book.

The hope for church leaders caught in scandal is not that they are let off the hook merely by virtue of being leaders. That would essentially be another instance of saying “Rules are for peasants.” To the contrary:

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. (James 3:1.)

Yet, as the passage goes on to note, this is not a judgment demanding perfection:

We all stumble in many ways. (James 3:2.)

So where did Eli’s sons go wrong? If everyone is prone to stumble then what’s the big deal?

It is in their rejection of a Godly rebuke and effort to guide them back to his ways. Their rejection, even more than their sins of greed and lust, showed they did not belong to God in the first place.

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. …

They [false teachers] went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us. (1 John 2:15-16, 19.)

Where then is the hope of those who belong to God and are caught in error? It is in Christ, who sometimes acts through fellow believers to turn his people away from sin:

My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20.)

Those entrusted as pastors and teachers of God’s people are held to a high standard, but are also given the opportunity to repent and change in response to a fellow believer giving Godly correction. Yet too often such correction is spurned by the one needing correction.

The lesson from Eli’s sons is that their condemnation under God’s wrath  not only after they reveled in their lifestyle of sin but also after rejecting a Godly correction. If they had accepted that correction and repented of their sin they would have escaped the wrath of God.

That’s how you know who is of God and who is not. The one who rejects God’s ways never belonged to him in the first place. Jesus said:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:21-23.)

“Evildoers.” A strong word for those who appear religious but do not belong to Jesus.

For those who do belong to Jesus, here’s how to handle scandal: when correction comes, embrace it (James 5:19-20); repent and turn to God for guidance (James 1:5); humble yourself before God, who will lead you to heights of glory. (James 4:10.)

That’s the way to handle scandal.

***

*The law given to Moses by God required the priests to burn the fat before anyone could eat the meat of the offering. (Leviticus 3:16.) Eli’s sons rejected the people’s plea to follow these sacrifice ordinances, and thus willfully violated God’s law.

***

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22 Responses to How to Handle Scandal – a Biblical guide for Christian leaders today

  1. Great article, but raises the practical question of what process fallen ministers need to go through before being restored to the ministry God (presumably) has called them to. Do they simply repent confess and carry on? Are they permanently disqualified from ministry as some would teach? Do they need to take time out, or time out working under a wiser more mature (and less compromised) ministry? Is there a way to sort out the psychopaths and narcissists (Jesus’ ‘evildoers’?) attracted to ministry by the power and acclaim? I believe a psychopath or narcissist can be saved, after all narcissists are the ultimate in broken people, but ministry in the church is another matter.

    • Tim says:

      I think restoration is unique to each person responding to Christ’s call to repent. So it might be a return to ministry or it might be a life-long ban on returning to it.Perhaps they never should have been in leadership in the first place (a situation I think is more often true than friends of those scandalous leaders would like to acknowledge).

      • Pastor Bob says:

        GOOD answer. Another thought is that of: Case by Case. The judge looks at eh whole situation,a ll available information and makes a decision. The one who will arbitrate will go therough the same process.
        In the first instance, the legal judge is somehweat limited, more objective than subjective. But when evaluating the church leader, more subjectivity comes into use, since it is very hard to quanify “grace,” “faith,” and “spiritual discipline.”

        It is never esy to make these determintions, correct your honor?

        • Tim says:

          Absolutely. Even with the limitations for a legal proceeding there is still some discretion to exercise as appropriate for each individual case.

      • Yes Psychopaths are good at pulling the wool over real sheep’s eyes, and powerful friends would never see the psychopathic side of them.
        Raises a question about someone like Yoder who provided the basis for modern Christian pacifism, but turns out to have been a serial abuser. Perhaps he was a saint with feet of clay who heard from God. But what if he was simply a psychopath able to come up with really clever and convincing arguments, because that’s what psychopaths do. What are movements like that to do about their theological basis? Is any of it from God? Does it just need to be brought to the cross and refined? Could God raise up an earnest (is that possible?) psychopath or narcissist because they are people strong enough to break down tradition?

        • The defining traits of such people are that they only care about themselves, usually at the expense of others, so I don’t see how they could surrender to God without surrendering their psychopath or narcissistic selves. Nothing is impossible, with God, but psychopaths or narcissists aren’t strong, not in that sense, nor are they ‘earnest’. They would ‘break down tradition’ only if it had a personal pay-off. They wouldn’t care about serving God.

  2. Kevin Mason says:

    My experience with people in roles of spiritual leadership (pastors elders, etc.) is that one’s willingness to behave in a scandalous manner is inversely proportionate to one’s willing to subject themselves to correction after the scandal. Those who are willing to commit sin are the least willing to sincerely confess their sin. Yet, they will express worldly remorse after being caught.

    In some churches, (usually smaller churches) the matter is usually handled closer to the biblical model, but in large churches, the person’s status is a factor to whether there is a public confession or a cover up. I was on a church elder board where the senior pastor was caught doing things he should NOT have done (one involved a brothel while on a mission trip and the other involved multiple incidences of misappropriating church ministry funds.) in both cases the pastor pretended he did not know what he did was wrong and the matter was swept under the rug. Those who brought the matter before the elders were accused of creating division, conflict and worst of all… embarrassment for the pastor. It was a good lesson on the ungodliness of church politics when personality and popularity supersede holiness.

    • Tim says:

      You have personally witnessed some of the worst, then, Kevin. Thank you for being a witness and a wise voice in the presence of scandal.

    • That’s disgusting, though I won’t say I haven’t heard of similar myself. A few years after his retirement I found out that the minister who served the church I grew up in had been having an affair with a woman forty years his junior for a decade. Every week he’d stood up at the pulpit and preached. I still can’t believe it. And when my husband tried to speak out against the appalling financial practices of a local Christian charity they labelled him a troublemaker and forced his resignation.

  3. Bev Murrill says:

    I have been involved in helping work through several leadership scandals over the past 30 years and there is a tried and true measuring stick that can be applied.

    If a leader falls morally and immediately confesses to their spouse, elders, governing board, etc., it’s highly likely that person can be restored, possibly even to ministry at a later date.

    If a leader has to be confronted with their moral failure before they acknowledge it, there is some chance that they can be restored to ministry but it is unlikely.

    If a leader will not acknowledge their moral failure without incontrovertible evidence against them being shown, they have no chance of restitution. This last type of leader has to have physical evidence in every case. They may have to acknowledge one failure but will continue to deny others, unless/until evidence for those failures is also produced.

    As has been said, there’s no text book answer, but lying always proceeds these kinds of moral issues, and if you’re lying to yourself, no one can help you be restored, not even God, until you begin to tell yourself the truth.

    • Kevin Mason says:

      Bev, your guidelines can also be applied to leaders with ethical failing. Our mission organization removed a leader after is was discovered he has embezzled funds from the organization and swindled property from a member of the organization. When confronted, he took the financial record books for the organization and refused to return them and then said we could not prove any of the claims. He failed to remember all the emails and photo-copies of the records. he eventually returned most of what was stolen a week before his criminal trial when the evidence was shown to be undeniable. He then went to work for another mission organization where he did the same thing and was eventually removed from that organization. what is most saddening and infuriating is that failed leaders often misuse the bible in a blasphemous attempt to hide their sins and intimidate those who hold them accountable.

      • Bev Murrill says:

        I agree absolutely, Kevin, and that is why I referred to moral failure rather than sexual sin, because there are so many versions of broken leaders and their loss of integrity, but their chances of repeating their sin can so easily be seen based on how and when they come clean.

        Your story is gutting. My heart is broken by the number of leaders who find themselves unable to hold to the tenets of the One whom they follow. God help us.

    • Tim says:

      Bev, your breakdown of responses is very helpful. Thanks for your insights.

  4. Jeannie says:

    Really good post and comments again today, Tim. Christian leadership is a huge responsibility. Too bad it so often turns into pride and unaccountability. The consequences and the ripple effect can be devastating.

    • Tim says:

      I think sometimes it’s a matter of people being overwhelmed by celebrity, not knowing how to handle it whether on the small scale of international fame. this type of thing can go to one’s head, and it’s something I’ve had to guard against in my own life. Not that I’m internationally famous but pride can spring up even in small ponds.

      • Jeannie says:

        Yes, that’s true, Tim. Yesterday our pastor preached from Romans 12 and he used the Message paraphrase to bring out the impact of some of the teaching there. Two points he highlighted were “practice playing second fiddle” (v. 10) and “Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great Somebody” (v. 16). In fact there are SO many practical tips in that chapter on how to be humble and let position or ego get the best of us, whether it’s among few or many. Paul must have known all too well what the temptations are.

      • Kevin Mason says:

        How do pastors become celebrities? usually when the flock becomes overly enamored with the pastor and transfers the praise and worship of God to the pastor. It is one of Satan’s more effective means of feeding the pride of a pastor. Some pastors may remain humble, Others like the praise and and begin to modify their teaching and actions to increase the supply of pastoral praise. Those that excessively praise (worship) their pastor are also willing to overlook the sins committed by the same pastor. They will call it “Christian love” when it is better stated as “pastoral love”.

        Tim, I am glad you are aware of it and I pray that you do not succumb to Satan’s bait. It is an easy trap to fall into. I heard a pastor once tell his congregation that if they liked what was preached, don’t thank him or praise him, thank and praise God instead.The pastor wise to cut off at least one potential source of pastoral pride.

  5. Reading this post and all the very pertinent comments brought to mind Jesus’ words to the scribes and Pharisees: “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look fine on the outside but are full of bones and decaying corpses on the inside. In the same way, on the outside you appear good to everybody, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and sins.” Matthew 23:27,28 (GNT) He had some very strong words to say about what would happen to them if they continued like it!

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