Real Sin. Real Forgiveness. Real Faith. Real Fruits of Repentance.
The topic of grace for the disgraced pastor is making its rounds. Again. The Christian Post has written an article about two pastors who were forced to resign their calls due public sin. You can read the article HERE, wherein Tullian Tchividjian and Chad Bird discuss how there is grace for disgraced pastors, something which no one denies. This comes on the heels of the scandalous actions and inactions of the Roman church in Pennsylvania. Now we don’t know if Tchividjian and Bird are deliberately being obtuse or if they really don’t understand the impact of what they did. The Editors at Gottesdienst have been clear about the issues: There are public consequences for public sin, and some sin because of the gravity of its offense bear with it a greater consequence. Nevertheless, there is forgiveness of sin for those who repent. Despite these facts, the accusations of being "anti-Christian” for holding to these consequences are still hurled against us.
We don’t think we need to rehash everything that was said before. But here is what needs to be said. We can hardly believe that it needs spelling out, but apparently it does. When men like Tchividjian and Bird committed adultery, they didn’t do this just in their heart or mind. They violated not only their marriage vows and their ordination vows, they defiled not just themselves, their spouses, and their own marriage beds, they shattered forever not only their own families' lives and future relationships, but they defiled their willing partners, and their husbands, and their marriage beds, and shattered those families' lives and future relationships. They sinned against their brothers in the office of the ministry, and tarnished reputation of all who bear that office. It breaks a trust almost beyond comprehension.
So while we're sure it was coincidental that this comes on the heels of the Roman church’s scandal in Pennsylvania, we don’t think it is without comparison. It is so easy for us to hear the word adultery and think abstractly about it, without giving thought to what that sin entails and who all is affected by it. Adultery is not the same as pedophilia, but the carnage that follows in the wake of both is just as vicious to all involved, it is just as demonic and destructive to the faith of all involved. So if we want to talk about real sin, let’s actually talk about the real nature of how it affects everyone involved and what it does to their hearts, minds, and faith. Let’s not abstract it so as to make it easier for us to deal with. Take a look at what effect this has had on the faith of those involved in the Roman church, and then know that this very effect took place around the circumstances of the adultery committed by Tchividjian and Bird.
This does not mean they can’t be forgiven, for Christ died for all sins. If they are repentant, their sin is forgiven. This is not under contention. As Tchividjian and Bird wrote, "If God is who we say he is, then real sin is also met with real forgiveness.” Nor is it simply the case that temporal sins have temporal consequences and punishments. This is, thankfully, now admitted by both parties. As Tchividjian and Bird wrote, "That doesn't justify destructive behavior, diminish the sting of consequences, or minimize the harming effects of destructive choices."
So let’s agree where we can. God is who we say He is. Real sin is met with real forgiveness. But it doesn’t stop there. Because real faith grasps hold of that forgiveness. And real faith bears real fruits of repentance. For
Don’t short circuit God’s work among us. Not emphasizing the fruits of repentance is not just to short circuit it but also to misrepresent it.
So in the case of Tchividjian and Bird, and others like them, what might this fruit look like? For starters, it would acknowledge that the fact that their continued public teaching of the faith, notwithstanding their many and great talents, needs to cease. It needs to cease for the sake of those they sinned against. Remember their sin of adultery was not simply a sin against God, but also a sin against their fellow man (the families involved, their brothers in the office, their parishioners and students). Fruits of repentance in the forgiven sinner display concern for the one sinned against. Fruits of repentance in the forgiven sinner are made manifest in prayer for those sinned against, that their faith will not be made a shipwreck by this sin. Fruits of repentance in the forgiven sinner do not stop with thanksgiving to God for forgiveness, but with that forgiveness look beyond it to make, as far as possible, restitution for what has been destroyed. Consider for a moment what the families, the parishioners, the fellow pastors in the ministerium go through every time Tchividjian and Bird write a book, post an article, or are highlighted in the news or on social media for discussing the depths of their sin and how much they are forgiven. That is shameful and anti-Christian for a forgiven sinner to thrust forgiveness in the face of those abused so that they can profit from it.
It needs to cease for the sake of the church. First that others are not encouraged by the popularity garnered by their restoration to do what they used to do only without the title. Second, that the church is not led into confusion over who is given to publicly preach and teach. We have enough of that already, we don’t need to add fuel to the fire. They have disqualified themselves from public teaching, their sin has a consequence. While we have no authority over them, as Christians we call on them to stop and will continue to tell other fellow Christians that they should not follow men who have disqualified themselves in this way.
So, are Tchividjian and Bird, and others in their situation, forgiven? Yes, if they are repentant, for repentant sinners are forgiven. They are saved by grace alone on account of Christ alone through faith alone. And yet, faith is never alone. The fruits of the spirit and repentance spring forth therefrom. May it be also with these men for the good of those whom they have wronged, for the good of the church at large and its reputation in the world, and for their own good also. This is how they are to use their many and great gifts. They are to employ their gifts in the places where God has actually called and put them: in their homes to repair the ruins and limit the further harm they can do to those they’ve already abused. As St. Paul wrote:
They would do it because they trust God and love their neighbor. In other words, they would bear fruits worthy of repentance.