In the past month, two prominent pastors have had their private sins publicly exposed: Bill Hybels and Art Azurdia—one nationally known and whose fall was front page news, the other known only inside of evangelical circles and his fall reported largely on social media.
Both demonstrated conduct contrary to the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3, conduct that disqualifies them from being elders. Both committed adultery, and the fall of both men will obviously bring shame on the name of Christ.
But there is one huge contrast between these two situations—namely, how their respective churches responded.
In the case of Hybles, the accusations against him were not handled biblically and the potential harm for not only the families involved but for the church herself has been increased by that failure. In the case of Azurdia, his church followed the Biblical pattern for situations like this, and while his conduct will certainly cause some to question their faith, his church has mitigated that in large part by their adherence to scripture.
First Timothy 5:17-20 instructs churches how to respond to immorality among elders. Paul connects the privilege of being paid for ministry to living a life above reproach. For those that serve well as elders, they are worthy of honor. But for those who disqualify themselves from ministry, they are worthy rebuke.
It’s that instruction to “rebuke” (vs. 20) that is key. If an elder is found in sin, it is critical that he be rebuked publically. This is more than simply a show; the public rebuke should have the function of making people fear. Other pastors who hear of it should fear. The congregation should fear. Even the elect angels should feel a little tremble in their feathers.
Paul does not spell out the exact method of this rebuke. That is left to wisdom and local circumstances. But the non-negotiables include a clear statement that the elders of the church have found a pastor to be unqualified, they have reached that decision through due process (vs. 19), and that people hearing it should be afraid. If any of these are missed, then the church is not handling accusations biblically. But if all of them are followed, the inevitable spiritual harm that comes upon a congregation whose pastor has sinned is mitigated. The authority of Scripture is verified and vindicated, even if the man who preached it is shown to be a hypocrite. But if the church does not follow these instructions, then the hypocrisy of the pastor is enabled to infect the souls of the sheep.
With that in mind, consider the statement put out by Willow Creek (Hybles’ former church). [They have since taken down the statement from their website, but it was up and active for at least a week]. The church said over the years they had received several accusations of sin against their pastor. They did not adequately receive those charges, despite coming from multiple sources. And then the statement says, “We now believe Bill entered into areas of sin related to the allegations that have been brought forth.”
The statement does not describe what exactly (or generally) the sins were. And by using language like “entered into areas of sin” it waters down the accusations—what does “entered into areas of sin” even mean? In fact, by calling them “allegations that have been brought forth” the church is confessing that they did not follow the instructions of 1 Timothy 5. Taken together, this statement is going to cause of confusion (are the accusations true?) and create a general sense of obfuscation. It is not going to result in fear.
On the other hand, Trinity Church of Portland released a statement concerning Azurdia’s sin. They call it “a sexually immoral relationship with a woman from outside of the church.” They say that they investigated, Azurdia confessed, and the accusation is true. They say he is removed from ministry according to 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, and “we grieve the shame this brings to the Gospel and the sorrow it brings to God’s people.”
Azurdia went on to release his own statement where he confesses to the sin, regrets the harm he has caused his family, and recognizes that each day will bring new evidence of how his betrayal will harm others. He ends with an appeal for people to see the power of the gospel in how his church has responded to this.
The bottom line—when a pastor disqualifies himself because of immorality, his church needs to investigate, and then rebuke. They need to rebuke him publically, clearly, and directly. Trinity Church did this, and the result is an example of trusting the power of the Bible in trying times. Willow Creek substituted mamby-pamby language of “entering into areas of sin,” which does not create the effects of rebuke or of fear.
I hope your church never needs to investigate an accusation against an elder. But if they do, I hope they realize that by following the instruction of 1 Timothy 5, they won’t be able to fix a bad situation, but they will be able to trust the gospel through their trial. This not done with language designed to protect the elder, but rather with clear and forceful language, wielded to instill fear in the hearts of those listening.