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Addressing Sinful Pastoral Leadership

Truth in Love 319

Pastors are called to imitate Christ, to be gentle, to be lowly but also to be convictional and wisely shepherd people with the heart of Christ.

Jul 12, 2021

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast, I’m joined by Josh Zeichik. He’s a two-time graduate of The Master’s University, biblical counseling bachelor’s degree and master’s degree. He served as a youth pastor and a church planter in his local church, and he’s a certified member with ACBC. He’s married to his wife, Harmony. They have three kiddos. One of those kiddos is on the way and excited about that, Josh. He’s also a PhD student here at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where I serve, and that’s how we have gotten to know one another and become good friends even through that process. Listen, I’m excited about some of your doctoral work, and you’re talking about this particular issue. You are getting further and further in some of your research, and this has been a topic that you’ve thought about and talked through on a number of occasions. 

I want us to dig into it a little bit here today. This is certainly an issue facing the church today, which is thinking about abusive pastoral leadership or sinful pastoral leadership. I love the way that you categorize that. We don’t want to get caught in the fray of the multi-uses of abuse. Not that some of those things might not be appropriate, but you’re identifying this biblically—saying that it’s sinful pastoral leadership. Now, let me give a caveat before we start that I think is really important when we think about earthly authorities. We are not saying that pastors don’t have authority. Pastors have authority given by God, but that’s not to say that as human authorities, they can’t be sinful. Yes, they absolutely can, and those things need to be addressed biblically. We have been given ways to address sinful pastoral leadership, and I’m really excited that we’re able to address some of these issues and without being polemicized to one side or the other, but to address them the way that the Bible addresses it.

And I’m so grateful that we have a God who cares enough to deal with us in knowing our sinful patterns and sinful ways—that He would allow us wisdom from the Scriptures on how to deal with this issue that is becoming very prevalent even in the church. So, let’s start there. How do we know when there’s a problem? We might sort of think that there’s a problem in the church; maybe my pastor is being sinful in some of the ways that he’s doing things. We have to be very cautious when bringing about some sort of accusation against our elders. The Bible warns us against doing that, just as a one-off. We have to have multiple witnesses and so on. We have to be cautious, but it’s at least a legitimate question that we need to be asking. How do we know when there’s a problem? 

Josh Zeichik: Yeah, and I’m very passionate about this topic. I’ve seen this issue come up a lot in counseling. It’s a really prevalent issue. We’re seeing leaders, not necessarily pastoral leaders, but parachurch leaders and pastors falling from ministry as issues become exposed, and you’d like to think maybe these things wouldn’t have happened if someone had got involved at the early signs. Some of the key things I want to address ultimately with my doctoral work and even today is, we try to categorize things. I think Scriptures do this. I think there’s a difference between foolishness or preference. Sometimes people get very offended about preference issues. The pastor chose to go a different direction with the worship style of music. Okay, that’s not sinful pastoral leadership. That’s just a preference issue. Then we’re talking about foolishness; maybe they’re ignoring the concerns of some of the wiser folks in the church who’ve been around and know how a decision may affect the overall body. Again, this may not be sinful, but it’s certainly getting towards the foolish side of the spectrum.

But when we look at sin, pastors, yes, they need to be addressed as you mentioned, 1 Timothy 5:19, this idea of two witnesses. We don’t just bring an accusation against the pastor. They are unique in that sense, but in another sense, they are not unique at all. They are sinful human beings with the propensity to have evil unbelief in their hearts, as Hebrews 3 talks about, so they too are capable of sin, but we need to call it what it is, the way Scriptures call it, and we can’t call something sin that we just don’t prefer.

Dale Johnson: Yeah, that’s an important caveat and we have to be cautious even when there are things that we differ on relative to theological positions, and so on. With that in mind, I think that helps us to better categorize when something reaches the threshold of what we would call sinful pastoral leadership. What are some of those examples of sinful pastoral leadership? And what are some examples of non-sinful pastoral leadership? Pastors have to make hard calls all the time. Pastors have to make unpopular calls. My goodness, didn’t we experience that this past year in 2020 where guys had to make decisions on the fly. Nobody’s ever dealt with a pandemic to this degree before, and how do we navigate all the issues going on. There are hard calls. So how do we navigate that? What are some examples of sinful pastoral leadership to give us some ideas, some flesh on the bone, to understand what we’re talking about here?

Josh Zeichik: Yeah, some specific examples. Pastors are often in charge of the finances or have a direct hand in the finances of a church. When you understand the pastor is now spending money designated for ministry on personal items. We start to call that embezzlement, right? There’s an actual term, it’s not just a feeling, it’s objectively wrong to take money out of the church for personal use, and you see that. You see sexual sin, a pastor getting involved physically, emotionally with maybe a counselee or another member of the church. These are clear sins, some of them—and you can distinguish between biblical sin and criminal sin, where again, a civil authority (even outside of the church) would say, this is wrong and charges will be pressed. When we get that kind of clarity, both from the Scriptures and outside of Scriptures in the civil authority structures, we know something has to be addressed. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, and I think this is really important. Just to sort of put some bumpers on this: A lot of churches don’t pay their pastors well. That’s not an excuse for embezzlement, but it would be an encouragement to me to say, churches, let’s take better care of our pastors. We don’t want to be a stumbling block in any type of issue like that, but pastors need to be held accountable. There should be expenditures that they can make that are for the sake of their job and their ministry, but certainly, there’s a caveat here. That’s one example. What are some other examples that you might give, and how do we distinguish that between non-sinful pastoral leadership?

Josh Zeichik: Yeah, I think harshness, anger. This is where I see this commonly, even in the resurgence of the church planting culture. There are just many young men who are very passionate for the Lord, and they want to grow His kingdom. They want to be a part of growing the kingdom. This is one where I do think it falls into this more gray area because people appreciate strong leaders, but strong leaders can lean, have a propensity, to harshness and what Scripture calls this wrathful instinct, right? This wrathful response. They’re supposed to be respectful, self-controlled, and managing things with this humility. Often, we’re finding that people are just getting very hurt because a pastor said something that maybe was a preference. Maybe it was just a hard call, maybe it was even the right call, but they did it in such a manner that did not exude love, kindness, a gentle pastoral spirit, and that’s what I’m regularly seeing in young pastors, especially. But then there are times, and I think you reference this during this whole season with Covid, quarantine, there’s a lot of things that are not sinful, but they’re maybe against our preferences. And I think every church saw just a split down the middle—masks, no masks, social distancing, no social distancing, coming back in person, staying home and doing everything digitally. Pastors had to make unique calls, individually for their local body, and I think we just have to work hard to believe the best about these non-sinful decisions, just them doing the best to exercise wisdom. 

Dale Johnson: And I appreciate you bringing up this issue of being harsh. We’re not saying that pastors ought not to be convictional, that there ought not to be a sense of urgency in the gospel work that we’re doing, there ought not to be some sort of vision, we’re not saying any of that. What we are saying is, we have to be cautious about being selfishly ambitious, thinking that the work is our own and that it needs to be done now today. That the timeline of the progress we have to as leaders give over to the Lord. Things don’t always have to get done on our timeline. Sometimes that breeds harsh realities and for the congregant who is sitting there sort of watching this, let’s be fair if we see a pattern of these things, we might need to address this, but we have to be cautious. We’re not saying that pastors ought not to be convictional and so on. But I think you make a great point about being self-controlled, being gentle, handling things pastorally. We have to know the difference between what God says is good, what God says is evil. Jesus, we see, was convictional, and He was willing to stand against false ideas sometimes very sternly. Paul did this as well. We’re not saying that is sinful, but we are saying we have to be cautious, especially how we handle those that God has entrusted to us.

Okay, let’s continue talking about this—and this is probably some of the most concerning things. Pastors are human beings, they’re going to sin, and they need to be called out on that certainly in a biblical way, as you mentioned from 1 Timothy, but what are some of the results that we’re seeing consistently from sinful pastoral leadership?

Josh Zeichik: I think what’s hard is, and again, I’m speaking potentially to more of a church planting culture. You have someone who becomes the one who established the church, they established the elders. If you’re not careful and you establish a group of men around you who are going to affirm the majority of your decisions, and we don’t get a lot of pushback, we don’t get a lot of challenges. We don’t get a lot of, “Okay, that’s the right decision, but did you communicate the right way?” And probing questions. If you don’t establish accountability—even as the senior pastor—around you, there’s risk there. For the congregant, I think we need to be careful, of course, not to call everything sin just what we don’t like, but when we do identify something that is hurtful, I think there is an appropriate methodology laid out in Matthew 18 to go one-on-one and talk.

I don’t think we have to wait for someone to have witnessed the harsh behavior to go and address that with our pastor and talk through that. I think you bring that up; you bring that second person in if it doesn’t go well one-on-one, that’s when the accusations can necessitate a secondary observer but what we want to do is make sure as pastors we’re putting people around us who we allow speaking into our lives, that we invite to speak into our lives and not wait until we’re five years into this thing, seven years into this church plant, and it’s too big to let go of, and then somebody just removes us because it’s overwhelming the amount of cases and hurt and damage we’ve done. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah. Because the thing that we ultimately want in our pastoral leadership is, we want something that supersedes us. We want something that carries on long after we’re gone, and that’s worth the investment of our life. We want to see the gospel continue. We want to see a solid church continue, so we always have to keep that in mind that this is the Lord’s work. Let’s talk for just a second about how people are responding. Now, we could think about a couple of categories here to how people are responding to sinful pastoral leadership. Certainly with the discussion that’s happening relative to abuse in the broader culture, this is something we can get swept up in. I think there are good ways to respond, there are righteous ways to respond, but there are also sinful ways to respond. How are some people responding to this issue of sinful pastoral leadership? 

Josh Zeichik: I think the quickest is just to leave the church. If they’re hurt, and they’re offended, they will leave. Others will stay and just start to normalize and, in a sense, authorize bad, sinful pastoral leadership. They will stay because the pastor told them to. It’s God’s man; I can’t not obey them. I think those are often the extremes, and I would say there’s a better way. A better way would be to humbly, graciously start to follow the process of Matthew 18 with your pastor, just like you would anyone else. And I do want to just note that there are pastors out there who are being accused of sinful pastoral leadership on a regular basis and even being removed from their churches, and they aren’t the problem. People can call pastors sinful just for disagreeing with them, just for handling things differently than they would have over a theological difference that’s minor. Jonathan Edwards, I believe, was kicked out of his church at one point over the issue of baptism. All that to say is, I don’t want to call everything sinful pastoral leadership, but when it’s truly there, Matthew 18 lays it out. It’s so hard for people that I’ve worked with to want to confront their pastor. It’s just a scary thing. It’s like talking to a parent or a boss. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, and I think we need to acknowledge that. That’s certainly true. We’re not trying to get congregants sort of up in arms. I do think we have to see the destructive patterns that are happening here, and this is much as an encouragement to pastors who struggle in this area to just be vigilant to make sure that you’re putting proper accountability around you, that you are open to these types of critiques and these types of confrontations. That also helps to foster a good culture of care within your church, especially when you’re approachable on these types of issues to acknowledge that you are sinful as anybody else and that you need correction on some of these things at some point and that there are better ways that you can say things to people as well. All good cautions. Let me finish by asking this, what are some of the biblical principles that, maybe we could say it like this, just help to inform the way that we should respond to simple pastoral leadership. These are guiding principles from the Scripture that we would see as non-negotiable that really help us know the God-honoring ways we respond to these types of sinful pastoral leadership. 

Josh Zeichik: I think one of the key passages that is actually informative is a passage to pastors out of 2 Timothy. It says to flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. That youthful passion in context is mostly talking about avoiding arguing, avoiding contentious fighting over silly things. He goes on in verse 24 to say that the Lord’s bondservant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach (that means we have to speak truth), patiently enduring evil (that means we have to speak truth even when we may be rejected or reacted against in a sinful way), correcting his opponents with gentleness. We’re speaking not just to the truth but the manner in which we communicate the truth.

I think, in a sense, the congregant needs to know how to lovingly confront their own pastor and be willing and brave and courageous enough to bring something to the forefront if needed. Again, I think Matthew 18, is the model here. We go one-on-one. When things don’t go well, especially in the issue of harshness, if they respond to that one-on-one with more harshness, that’s when you have to involve another elder, you have to, because they need to see that. I do recall being in one context where it was a he said, he said moment. The individual was arguing that their pastor was just very unkind, very aggressive with them and they ended up bringing another elder into the conversation and you have three parties there. The pastor ultimately slams his mug down on the table at Panera and walks out. The congregant looks at the eye witness elder and says, “Well what do you think now?” And that was the turning point. That was the turning point where that other elders’ eyes were opened, and they were able to see, “Yes, this is a problem that we have to address.”

Dale Johnson: Josh, this has been really helpful. Just contextually for us to even have a conversation like this. And listen, our knee-jerk reaction is going to be to say, you know, well every pastor is following sinful pastoral leadership. Please don’t hear us say that. We are saying that we need to be vigilant about these things. The Bible even addresses that these types of things are possible. But it doesn’t mean that we need to keep pastors from being convictional. It doesn’t mean that we need to be as congregants hyper-vigilant about all the issues that might come up. We need to endure some things with grace. This is just a part of the conversation that we have to be careful.

And listen, what we’re guarding is not our personal preferences. We all ought to be guarding the gospel, and that’s something that we can agree on. Even if we’re addressing a pastor who’s responding with sinful pastoral leadership—an appeal to the gospel and helping them to see that there ought to be some common ground even in a place like that. I think this is helpful, at least as a starter discussion in how we can respond. I pray that pastors will hear this and not hear, we’re not trying to say don’t be convictional, but we’re saying have the heart of Christ to be gentle, to be lowly, to be convictional, right? Not to back down on truth, but to do it wisely as we shepherd people well with the heart of Christ. That’s really the ultimate goal. Josh, thank you for helping us think through some of these categories and even some of the caveats biblically. I’m looking forward to the work that you’re going to do in a doctoral perspective, and maybe in not too many years, we’ll be talking about a book that you’re releasing on this very subject. So, looking forward to that. Thanks, brother, for being with us. 

Josh Zeichik: Yeah, thanks Doc.