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Truth and Consequences: Exposing Sin in the Church

By Bob and Gretchen Passantino

Copyright 1994 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino.
Answers in Action,

King David had a humongous problem. A problem that threatened to destroy his administration. This problem not only could destroy his career, but in doing so it could destroy the economic and social stability of the nation and leave it ripe for internal decay and external exploitation. He’d had tough problems before in his years as Commander in Chief, but this was the worst yet.

How was King David going to explain to his people that his affair with the wife of one of the army’s most successful generals had gotten so complicated that he was forced to send the general to his death in a hopeless battle so he could quickly marry the new widow to legitimize their child?

The ordinary people didn’t know how hard it was to run a country, to have multitudes depending on you for leadership. They didn’t understand how the extraordinary stresses leaders faced almost demanded extraordinary tension relieving activities. They didn’t understand how using all of one’s energies to run the country left one vulnerable to what the ministers called the “sins of the flesh.”

It was time for a damage control strategy meeting. King David called in his most trusted advisors for a top-level secret meeting. First to arrive was his court magician, Mike, who had parlayed a brief flirtation with the black arts into a national inspirational comedy ministry. He had been able to hide his four marriages, numerous affairs, and tall-tale telling for twenty years. He was sure to have some great ideas.

The next to arrive was Brother Jimmy, from Southern Judah. True, Jimmy wasn’t as well-liked anymore since that last police stop with the prostitute in his chariot, but he did have years of experience covering up his pornographic recreational activities. He could help devise a plan for keeping the worst details out of all but the most tacky tabloids.

The West Coast Kingdom Network contingent arrived later that day. Paul and Jan were sure to give David good advice on how he could appeal to the people with a powerful “word from the Lord” and take pledges for a new temple franchise at the same time. In addition, they brought suggestions from several West Coast ministers who had managed to overcome their bad PR to form new speaking platforms, and from other national ministers who were unable to attend because of their busy crusade schedules but who advised how to prosper in the midst of human suffering and poverty.

Last to arrive was Prophet Hal, brimming with ideas about how David’s “little problem” was actually a sign that the Messiah was near and that the people should be concentrating on the refurbishing of the temple instead of David’s personal life.

The top secret summit lasted all week. The media tried to crack security, but the usual “high level administration sources” were curiously silent. Nobody knew what was going on behind closed doors, except that the Jerusalem Kosher Pizza Hovel was making a fortune on late night deliveries.

When the king’s press conference was finally announced, media from all the world jammed the pomegranate garden awaiting the king’s presence. King David’s communications advisor, George the Greek, strode to the podium.

“Members of the press. I have a brief statement from the palace, then King David will give his statement. Copies of both statements will be available as you leave, as well as 8×10 glossies. Now, to the statement: ‘The palace announces that King David has instituted a new policy of cooperation with the armed services and chosen as liaison between the palace and the Hexagon Mrs. Bathsheba Uriah, whose late husband, General Uriah, sacrificed his life for his country in the recent battles supervised by Secretary of Defense Joab. This is a wonderful opportunity for this administration to confirm its commitment to supporting women in strategic leadership roles. In an effort to further reduce the national debt, King David has additionally decided to marry Mrs. Uriah so that she can perform her duties without salary. Thank you.'”

The murmurs of the reporters had started to die as King David walked briskly out the palace door, into the garden, and to the podium, flanked by his advisors. The morning sun glinted from the special highlights applied to his hair. No shine reflected off his carefully powdered cheeks and forehead. He turned his best side to the press artists and gave the magic smile that had won him the popularity of the people.

“My fellow Israelites. Today marks the beginning of a new era in God’s kingdom. After careful consideration and agonizing self-sacrifice, I stand before you fully prepared to continue my responsibilities as the Lord’s servant according to the Lord’s calling. There have been rumors about my relationship with Bathsheba, wife of the late General Uriah. I tell you in all sincerity today that these rumors are vicious and are tearing down the trust relationship I worked so hard to build. A man in my position expects attacks from the Enemy, and Satan has been working overtime on this one. Sometimes all it takes for a war to be lost is for the people to lose trust in their leadership because of evil rumors and destructive gossip. Well, I think better of you all than that. I know you will reject any such malicious talk and not believe anything you hear unless it comes from my lips.

Over the years, God has used me in mighty ways to further his kingdom. All of you know how as a young boy God gave me the power to kill the giant Goliath with my little slingshot. And those of you who’ve read my best-selling biography know the words God directed the prophet Samuel to speak when he anointed me as king. I waited patiently for the old administration to finish its term and for King Saul to die before I took office. Israel has never been so prosperous or so safe as it has been under my rule (by God’s grace, of course).

Now, all of us have our little imperfections. Take my magician advisor here, Mike. He got in a little trouble a while back for using exaggeration and embellishment in his comedy routine, and he learned a lot about God’s forgiveness for his moral lapses, but he’s still going strong — he didn’t let those little things keep him from the ministry God called him to. And look at Brother Jimmy. I think people appreciate the struggles he goes through with demons. It isn’t easy to keep on preaching against pornography when demons are harassing you at every turn with the stuff. And my dear friends Paul and Jan, along with the dozens of ministers God has prospered through their crusades, they know that when God entrusts you with 30 million pieces of silver, Satan can tempt you to use it for personal gain. And yet they allow the Lord to use their mansions, chariot limousines, Nile barges, and jewels as an inspiration to their “partners” to give even more to the Lord’s work so everybody can prosper just like them.

Frankly, we’re all sinners. I apologize for being merely human. I don’t want you all to think I’ve gone Holy-wood on you — I would never do that. In fact, I think my human shortcomings should reassure you that I haven’t forgotten what it’s like to be struggling with sin. I’m just a simple country boy who’s been called by the Lord to the most important leadership position in His kingdom, and my communications team just hasn’t caught up to the big league yet.

I’m proud to announce my marriage to Bathsheba, and her appointment to liaison with the armed services. I know this move will strengthen our nation, save us tax money, and restore in you the confidence you once had in my administration.

I close with advice from my dear Brother Hal here, who years ago wrote prophetically that demonic activity, Satanic temptations, and even the moral failings of Israelite leaders are a sign to rejoice because the Messiah is right around the corner. I am confident that Brother Hal and his wives, as well as my wives, join me in encouraging you — The Messiah is Coming! Rejoice!”

As King David gazed out over the media crowd his smile broadened into a grin. The glazed eyes, the vacuous smiles, the reporters’ blank notebooks all testified to David’s triumph. God’s kingdom was saved!

Exchanging Truth for Lies

When the Church allows compromised Christian leaders to explain away sin, compromise truth, and sin with impunity, we exchange truth for lies. We become no better than idolaters, people whose credulous adoration of compromised leaders fulfill what Paul calls exchanging “the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man . . . exchang[ing] the truth of God for a lie” (Rom. 1:22, 25). Our recasting of King David’s story from 2 Samuel is a lie, but sadly, it represents a popular attitude in the Church today toward sin in Christian leadership. Unfortunately, although most Christians sincerely want truth and want to follow biblical ethics, we too often listen to such lies from our leadership and instead of denouncing sin and demanding accountability, we parrot excuses like those given here and allow compromised leaders to continue in leadership.

Biblical Accountability

The Bible clearly states that Christian leaders should be accountable both to the Word of God and also to God’s people, whom the leader serves. Among the requirements Paul describes for a Christian leader are that he be “blameless,” and “of good behavior” (1 Tim. 3:2). A Christian leader must “have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:7). This does not mean that the Christian leader is simply good at covering up his sin. Christian leaders must display integrity and honesty — they must prove themselves worthy of Christians’ trust.

One would think that our outspoken faithfulness to truth telling would extend to telling the truth about sin within the Church. And yet at this point many Christians shrink from truth telling, instead hiding behind empty platitudes such as “don’t judge;” “forgive and forget;” “don’t shoot your own wounded;” “look at all the people who came to the Lord through this ministry;” etc. Sadly, we have unbiblically acted as though telling the truth contradicts biblical concern for a sinning Christian leader.

Christians who cry out, “It’s wrong to judge,” are ignoring the context of the passage (Matt. 7:1-2), which does not forbid judging, but instead insists on judgment according to God’s word. In addition, a judgmental criticism of judgement is self-refuting. If it is wrong for a Christian to publicly criticize a Christian leader whose testimony is false or who is immoral, then isn’t the critic also wrong for publicly criticizing the Christian? Paul points out this contradiction among some Jews, saying, “You who say, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” (Rom. 2:22). One who speaks English to utter the sentence “I can’t utter a word in English” has refuted himself. Aren’t those who accuse Christian investigative journalism of being the “Christian Gestapo” themselves acting Gestopo-ish?

Assuming that integrity and accountability exclude compassion unfairly brands truth telling as “shooting” and ignores that “the wounded” have been wounded by their own sin.

Christians who excuse false testimonies and immorality by pointing to the “fruits” of a ministry deny Paul’s forceful argument in Romans 3:8 that to do evil that good may come is slanderous and contrary to biblical ethics.

To equate forgiveness with absolution from personal responsibility is to cheapen biblical forgiveness and to deny biblical justice.

Christian Leadership

The objections against revealing a Christian leader’s sin seem to imply that it is possible for one to have a valid Christian ministry or profession, and yet have a private life of corruption. However, the Bible explains that it is not possible for one’s sinful conduct to have no negative effect on one’s profession of godliness. Titus 1:6-8 summarizes the same qualifications for a Christian leader Paul gave in 1 Timothy 3, but goes on to condemn one who says he believes, and yet whose works deny his profession of faith:

“To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled. The profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work” (1:15-16).

To attempt to combine immorality with godliness to produce spiritual fruit is completely contrary to scriptural teaching. In fact, Paul ranks it with “profane and vain babblings” and warns Timothy to avoid “contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim. 6:20).

In addition, Jesus openly rebuked Peter when Peter argued against Jesus going to the cross (Matt. 16:22, 23). Paul writes Titus that it is the responsibility of the church to hold the leader accountable for his sin: “Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13). Paul also commands Christians to rebuke sinning leaders publicly, “Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear” (1 Tim. 5:20). Paul took his own advice, as recorded in Galatians 2, and publicly rebuked Peter “before them all” (Gal. 2:14).

If we neglect to uncover sin within the Church, we rob the Church of the integrity it should expect from its members. The Church becomes weak through compromise, and the leader becomes weak because of his or her immorality. Fallen leaders betray the trust of those they lead. Maturity in the Lord, which is an essential part of qualifying one for spiritual leadership, can be confirmed only by an established pattern of resisting sin and walking faithfully with God, family, and others.

First Thessalonians 5:21-22 commands us to “test all things,” and Paul commended the Bereans for “searching the scriptures” to test what he himself had taught them (Acts 17:11). The Christian whose life is characterized by truth telling must support spiritual leaders whose lives exemplify Christian maturity, and must hold those leaders accountable. If a Christian leader is chosen whose life is bound by immorality, the Christian has the obligation then to expose that sin publicly since the leader is public and his actions impact the church he leads.

Fallen leaders damage the trust relationship established between them and their followers, a relationship mirroring the trusting relationship we are to have with the Lord. In addition, they break the trust relationship Peter tells us to have with the world; that is, we are to live so that even the world will note our trustworthiness and be unable to speak against us, but will, instead, glorify God (1 Peter 2:12).

It is unethical for Christians to cover up for leaders who have achieved their position through false qualifications or stories, or who are living immorally. Can the Church claim a higher ethical standard than the world when we adopt a “code of silence” worthy of the most pernicious organized crime conspiracy or even some suspected invisible satanic ring?

Some people in society have a greater responsibility for honesty and integrity than others. This does not mean that it’s less wrong for one person to lie than another, but a public leader has a greater responsibility because the consequences of his failure have greater ramifications. A lay person who has a mistaken medical opinion will not affect the lives and health of as many people as a doctor with a misunderstanding of medicine.

An individual in a position of public trust surrenders his privacy regarding his suitability and trustworthiness. He has asked the public to trust him for specific reasons or qualifications. Those reasons and qualifications are open to public scrutiny. If the leader is trustworthy, they will withstand examination. If he is not, close examination will reveal their inadequacies. Christians who are committed to truth must preserve this fundamental right and obligation to know in whom they are asked to trust.

Forsaking Lies for the Truth

The examples of Jesus and his disciples’ commitment to truthfulness and integrity give us our model for holding our Christian leaders accountable. If we do not expose false testimonies and revisionist histories, especially when they are propagated by Christians, then all truth claims and all historical knowledge comes into doubt. We can have no certainty of the truth of Christianity or the objective reality of the resurrection. In the first century, the apostle Paul could claim that the resurrection “was not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26). Should Christians be so careless with the truth that we need to hide our corrupt leaders “in a corner” to preserve the faith rather than speak the truth and call those corrupt leaders to repentance and reconciliation? God forbid!

Good discernment and moral accountability should be practiced among believers. The Old Testament establishes this pattern. Instructions concerning false prophets in Deuteronomy 13:1-5 assume the prophet arises from the congregation of Israel. The passage admonishes the people to banish idolatry from their families, “If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend” (v. 6). Deuteronomy 13 instructs the Israelites how to practice good discernment within their own communities: “you must inquire, probe and investigate it thoroughly.” If the community is idolatrous, it must be dealt with publicly (v. 14). Psalm 50:18 states that one who sees a crime and doesn’t report it has moral culpability.

The New Testament continues the theme of good discernment within the believing community, most notably when the Bereans test Paul’s teachings (Acts 17:11) and the Thessalonians are commanded to test all things (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22). Judgment is not excluded, but unrighteous judgment is, as Jesus declared: “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment” (John 7:24).

Jesus expelled the money changers from the temple, denounced the Pharisees and scribes, and rebuked the teachers of the Law. He reprimanded Peter in front of the other disciples (Matthew 16:22-23). Paul followed Jesus’ example and named false teachers in the Church (2 Timothy 2:14-19) and openly criticized Peter (Galatians 2:11,14).

Paul warns that false teachers will arise within the Church, “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). The false teachers of Jude are said to “have secretly slipped in among you” (v. 4).

The Biblical Pattern for Accountability

When immorality occurs in the Church (Titus 1:15-16), the Bible says to deal with it truthfully and constructively. The procedure for public leaders caught in false teaching or immorality is to be rebuked publicly “so that the others may take warning” (1 Timothy 5:20). A congregation member who sins privately against another Christian is not to be exposed publicly unless he persists in sin, in which case he is to be rebuked before the church and we are to “treat him as you would a pagan or tax collector” (Matthew 18:15-17). Paul follows this in 1 Corinthians 5:3-12 concerning the Christian who persisted in his sexual immorality, and affirms that judgment belongs to the Church: “I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present . . . . What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. Expel the wicked man from among you” (v. 3, 12).

Christian leaders are accountable to God’s people, whom the leader serves, and should be “above reproach,” “respectable,” and “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2). A Christian leader must “have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:7). A Christian leader who is a false teacher or immoral should be rebuked to encourage reform (Titus 1:13), and cannot dichotomize his ministry from his life, expecting God to bless his preaching while privately he sins; he is “disqualified for every good work” (vv. 15-16).

Telling the truth about false teaching or immorality in the Church corresponds with the ethics and truth characterizing the Church. The Church is “salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13- 14) only if characterized by truthfulness (v. 11) and righteousness (v. 16). Each Christian leader has an obligation to “hold firmly the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9). No Christian is happy when false teaching or immorality arise, but we cannot neglect responsibility, doctrinal and moral accountability.

Christians sometimes are uncomfortable with criticism within the Church because they wrongly assume that public criticism, because it is painful, is also destructive. On the contrary, the “pain” of biblically conducted confrontation produces individual growth (1 Timothy 4:16), encourages others to Christian maturity (1 Timothy 5:19-20), promotes Church strength (Ephesians 4:15), and preserves the Church’s reputation in the world (1 Peter 2:12).

A Call for Christian Integrity

The consequences of compromising biblical truth and ethics are devastating. Like an insidious cancer, lies and immorality eat away at the church. Tender believers lose their faith, the associates of the sinner fall into sin themselves, non-believers mock the church and reject the gospel. While covering up for a compromised leader, or tolerating sin in the midst of the congregation may appear at first glance to be loving, compassionate, and “good PR,” in actuality it is like a lung cancer patient continuing to smoke.

We cannot condone continuing sin within the Church. We must expose it, deal with it biblically, call sinners to repentance, and then extend the forgiveness, discipleship, restitution, and restoration offered from God’s Word.

Sadly, Mike Warnke’s problems are not unusual in the Church today. When we began ministry in 1972, we had already experienced some of the duplicity too prevalent among Christian leaders. Gretchen had quit working on one ministry’s newspaper because the editor, who was also an evangelist, kept making advances to her, suggesting that the burden of his ministry caused him to need special comfort. Bob, who is nearly blind in one eye, had struggled with what to say when a traveling evangelist prayed for his healing and then announced to the audience that Bob was healed — but he wasn’t. As new Christians, we assumed that these were isolated instances and that the Church wouldn’t ordinarily tolerate such moral compromise.

Now, almost twenty years later, we’ve worked on numerous investigative pieces regarding compromised Christian leaders. Crying Wind, Alberto Rivera, John Todd, Michael Esses, Joey LaVey, Lauren Stratford, Troy Lawrence, Mike Warnke, Bob Larson, and dozens of others have come under temporary Church scrutiny for their ministry and moral lapses. Many were completely defensive when challenged, and many responded much like our fictional King David. No true confession, no real repentance, certainly no biblically mandated restitution and restoration. Tragically, most of them continue in active ministry.

The Christian Church cannot compromise forever by covering up and excusing sin within its leadership. Continued toleration of immorality will transform the Church into what Jesus described as white-washed graves — pristine on the outside, and full of rotting flesh and decaying bone inside.

The true biblical story of King David is quite different than what we created here. In 2 Samuel 12:1- 14, Nathan rebukes David for his sin with Bathsheba, and God attaches consequences to David’s actions that follow him throughout the rest of his life and reign as king. But most important is David’s response to God’s rebuke through Nathan. Let each of us join David in his confession before God:

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are proved right when you speak
and justified when you judge.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.

Create in my a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will turn back to you
(Psalm 51:1-13)