And They’re Back! MacDonald and Tchividjian Restore Themselves To Ministry

By Anne Kennedy
Patheos blog
August 21, 2019

As I said yesterday, this week is full of all manner of little treats. Today let’s look at the completely un-astonishing and yet heartbreaking news that two people properly removed from ministry for the abuse of their pastoral offices and because of sexual sin, are going to leap back into the pulpit anyway, because of course they are, because what else are they going to do. Explains James MacDonald who has been out of the pulpit for what…fifteen minutes? If that:

“We have prayed to practice our biblical teaching on love and God has surely allowed us to be stretched. There is much we could say, as so much is not at all what has been portrayed. But we look to the Lord for forgiveness where I did fail as a leader and for vindication of false statements that will not cover forever what others have done,” he said.

Oh, I see, he prayed. #thoughtsandprayers I mean, I pray too and seriously, I am not getting what I want, which is for this person to retire completely from public life and devote himself to an obscure and quiet life in service to the poor. When he “looks to the Lord” “for forgiveness” do you think he’s looking very hard? Or does he have one eye closed? Because God forgives everyone who comes to him sincerely repenting of sin and clinging to the mercy of the cross, it’s the one prayer you can pray and he will always say yes—unlike all the prayers for more money and more people to hassle. But just because he forgives you—again, when you ask sincerely, with true faith and repentance, begging God not to weigh your merits and offenses, but pardoning you, because the burden of your sin is intolerable, and there is literally no health in you—it doesn’t mean you immediately get to go back to whatever it was that you were doing before, like, you know, when you were sinning. Oh, and he’s also praying for vindication, so yay!

“Our broadcast partners are our family now and we will be back soon w[ith] fresh messages from God’s Word. All free — all digital — all the time, as promised.”

Mmmhhhmmm. What a treat. Because there aren’t any other good resources out there. The internet is not literally stuffed with fresh messages from God’s word, all free, all-digital, all the time from people who haven’t made a scandal and a mockery of God’s holy church.

“Great days of triumph and victory always follow days of testing – we look forward to sharing with you in brand new ways – all the Lord has been teaching us and what His calling is for us,” MacDonald said.

Yeah, where is that? Where does it say that triumph and victory always follow testing? (And is MacDonald really suggesting that abusing the pastoral office is God’s testing?)  I’m racking my brain through all those tucked away Bible verses and I am not remembering where exactly it says that. Is he talking about heaven? The bit that I’m having trouble moving past is where Paul describes all the defeats and sorrows and beatings and discouragements and how it felt like God was trying to kill him but he held on anyway so that various people would be saved. I suppose Mr. MacDonald feels like that is what’s going on. Until he comes back to his pulpit, no one will know about “all the Lord has been teaching us and what His calling is for us.” But seriously, do we have to know? I wish we never had to know.

Ok, now on to the good stuff. That’s right, Tullian Tchividjian is starting a church. Yay!

Preacher Tullian Tchividjian told his congregation on a recent Sunday that he sees himself in a story from the Gospel of John.

Sure he does. That’s what the Bible is for—a cozy little place to find yourself. Not the divine revelation of a holy God who spent literally thousands of years trying to get you to think about him for a second rather than searching the text for yourself.

In the pa….ssage, Nathanael questions whether anything good can come out of Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus Christ that may have had an immoral reputation in biblical times. Likening it to asking if light can come out of darkness, Tchividjian said he knows from personal experience that the answer is yes. “I am standing here today because in my darkest moments, God never stopped holding onto me,” Tchividjian said. A few cries of “Amen” answered him from the congregation of roughly 60-80 people at the Hilton Garden Inn, which is serving as a spot for worship before they can find a permanent home in the area.

So, I wasn’t there, obviously, and it sounds like maybe the reporter wasn’t that biblically literate, so maybe there was a lot of stuff lost in translation, as it were, but this sounds like maybe Mr. Tchividjian is having trouble with the whole light-dark metaphor in scripture. See–and I’m gonna speak slowly and clearly because I guess this is really hard–Jesus is the Light. We are in the dark. We have to come out of the dark into Jesus’s light. We don’t get to stay where we are. Does Mr. Tchividjian think he is the something good that’s come out of Nazareth? Man, I really do not want to look up this sermon and listen to it, but maybe I’m gonna have to. This is a mess.

Still, no matter the dubious exegesis, there is just that one little disqualifying problem that Mr. Tchividjian is going to carry around with him for the rest of his earthly life, which of course does not keep him out of the Kingdom of Heaven if he is truly repentant, but does make him particularly suitable for a quiet, obscure, unknown life serving the poor.

Across Christian denominations, it’s generally the professional and moral standard that clergy refrain from sexual contact with parishioners, said Nancy Duff, the Stephen Colwell Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary. “Typically one really would need to abide by, ‘You don’t have sexual relations with members of your congregation,’” Duff said. “It’s not wise. It’s not professional. There’s a difference in authority between the pastor and the parishioner.” Those relationships can too often destroy churches and lead to abuse, Duff said, though she added the propriety of the relationships can depend on a variety of factors, such as age and marital status.

AND THE BIBLE…the Bible says not to do this. I mean, I really appreciate that even Princeton Theological Seminary knows this is really bad, that relieves my mind enormously. But we can know it is wrong on account of the whole Bible saying over and over and over and over and over again not to do this. You may not have sex with anyone who is not your wife. Ever. When you do have sex with someone who is not your wife, and your marriage falls apart, of course you can be forgiven, of course you can go to heaven, and if you are an accountant, or a truck driver, or a baker, or a computer programmer, or basically any job except just the one, of course you can go back to work the next morning. But if your job is to stand in a pulpit and preach…oh never mind.

Through a spokesperson, Tchividjian said his “infidelity in 2015 was completely wrong, morally and ethically.” But, he said, there was no element of abuse in that or the other affair.

The word you’re looking for there, Mr. Tchividjian, isn’t “morally and ethically” it’s sinful. The thing you can say…and I’m just gonna cut the whole prayer in because it saves time…is:

Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against your holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and apart from your grace, there is no health in us. O Lord, have mercy upon us. Spare all those who confess their faults. Restore all those who are penitent, according to your promises declared to all people in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, that we may now live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of your holy Name. Amen.

Anyway, Mr. Tchividjian is thick into his new job, and it must be suiting him just fine because

Vickie Diamond, a Sanctuary regular, said she isn’t bothered by the situation that led to Tchividjian’s resignation at Coral Ridge. “I trust that God has done amazing work in his life,” Diamond said, singling out current wife Stacie Tchividjian “as the evidence of the changes in his life.”

So I guess the amazing work God is doing isn’t a godly, righteous, and sober life. Because if it were, Mr. Tchividjian wouldn’t be trying to tell Ms. Diamond anything on a Sunday morning. He would be at the back of an unknown soup kitchen. We would never know the amazing things until heaven and then we would absolutely rejoice over them. The thing is, eternity is really a wretchedly long time. The few minutes you don’t get to exhibit yourself in this life may seem like they’re killing you, and, indeed, they are a certain and painful death, but they are absolutely not as bad as having a metaphorical, or literal, millstone slung around your neck and being cast into the never-ending sea of death because you couldn’t get over yourself. Seriously, if you read the Bible, which, I know, I know, is super hard to do, Jesus is more than a little irritated with teachers, in particular, who lead the sheep away from, him, the Shepherd. Ms. Diamond has an eternal soul. What she knows about Jesus and the Bible should be lots more important to Mr. Tchividjian than him being able to share all the amazing work God is doing in his life with the world. So important to him that he creeps away and is never known in this life by anyone but Jesus who—and I know this is hard to imagine—is actually sufficient even in this life for the love and comfort we each so desperately need.

But that’s just not on the table, because Mr. Tchividjian thinks that the world needs—I can’t believe I even have to type this out—a “different kind of church.”

Reactions to his writings and speeches made it clear to Tchividjian that there was a spiritual appetite for a different kind of church, one that is a “safe place for broken people to break down and for fallen people to fall down.” He said he heard from many others about “crash and burn stories” of their own.

What about those people getting up again? What about those people being fed by the word of Christ? By proper exposition? By a church that properly administers the sacraments and enacts godly discipline? A safe place? Really? A pastor who is, because of his notorious and scandalous sin, disqualified from ministry, is going to be able to provide a “safe place?”

This year, Tchividjian said he preached twice to sizable crowds at hotels in Jupiter and Palm Beach Gardens. “It was after that second gathering, large gathering, that we concluded this is exactly what we need to do,” he said. The Sanctuary has been in the works since then. Tchividjian said he’s cultivated an environment that is informed by his own experiences and struggles, as well as the testimonies he’s heard on the road.

The “Sanctuary.” That’s what it’s going to be called. In the Annals of Christian Irony, which I hope will be my next published work, this gets to be chapter one, and maybe also chapters two, three, and four. And look what a treat! He has “cultivated an environment that is informed by his experiences and struggles.” What are those struggles? Failing to struggle against sin? Failing to actually Not break up someone else’s marriage? Failing to be an under-shepherd for the sheep? Here’s the absolute heartbreak:

“The loss of my faith hurts and you can’t get that back,” she said. Steele said she is sickened and angered at the thought of Tchividjian leading another church.

No kidding. We all should be. Every single one of us should be sickened and angered by this. Mr. Tchividjian most of all. Unhappily, he doesn’t get it:

“Some people think that I should just shut up and crawl in a cave and never come out because I’m not qualified to be leading spiritually in any way because of everything that I went through and everything that I did,” he said. “Other people champion it because they go, ‘It’s about time that churches are led by people who know what it feels like to, you know, fall on their face and be in the gutter.’” Steele said she’s still waiting on a genuine apology from Tchividjian. There’s no remorse or repentance, as far as she can see. “Repentance, the biblical word, means to turn around, to change direction,” Steele said. “He’s been going in one direction.”

The scandal of these two self-made pastors engaging in the sordid business of self-restoration is so grievous, so tragic, for the whole church. We all, as a body, Christ’s own body, get to drink out of the cup of their ruin.

There are two images of Christ’s body that I have clung to over the last few years as we have watched the Celebrity Pastor Motif spin out into the catastrophe we should have known it would be. I hinted at it in my devotional, which I am, I promise, trying to edit and get back out there for all of you who are wishing you could get it for less than $70. Read about the Levite’s Concubine, thrust there over the threshold, brutalized and dead, and then watch her failed lover carve her up and send her around to all the tribes of Israel–a sordid, gruesome, sickening sacramental indictment of their sin and rebellion. Then leap forward to St. Paul’s description of the church, the Body. You can’t cut bits off without it hurting, says Paul. You can’t say to one portion “we don’t need you.” And yet that is the nature of the church. There is always a cutting off, a painful breaking of one bit there, another one over here. Abusive behavior like this breaks and ruins a living organism, a body that doesn’t enjoy being ripped open. We are not the Levite’s Concubine any more than Mr. Tchividjian is a light in the darkness—Jesus is. But in joining ourselves to him, as the church, we partake in his suffering. We all drink out of the cup of his salvation. It is a stark, terrible, ruinous death that ultimately brings life. All things, says Paul, work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose. The good is that every single scrap of broken flesh is going to be reincorporated into the perfect mystical body of Jesus himself. God is going to use all this scandalous sin to glorify himself, just as he used the wickedness of the world to bring about the salvation of the world on the cross. Which is what Mr. Tchividjian is trying to say, what he wants to say. He is longing for it. He is grasping for it. But it is not his work. It is the work of God who mercifully brings about the broken body of Jesus in each of us. If Mr. Tchividjian would endure in his own soul–for a time–the terrible cutting apart of the church that he himself has wrought, he would get a taste of God’s true glory. Grace isn’t cheap. It is the most costly gift ever given. I’m praying that he and Mr. MacDonald will change their minds and really and truly answer God’s call–step out of the pulpit.


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