When Pastors Go Rogue

Rogue-NationThe church always exists in some culture, somewhere. Prior to the new heavens and the new earth, the church will never be free of the influence of the prevailing culture where it finds itself. Because we’re in the culture, because we are a part of it, it is difficult to see the ways in which we’re being influenced by it. Nevertheless, it is not as if we have no way to criticize the surrounding, prevailing culture and to see some of the ways in which we are being influenced—especially if those ways are contrary to the faith. We have the Scriptures, God’s Holy Word. It was certainly given in its own times and places nevertheless, it is still God’s Word, inspired by the Holy Spirit, who operated in and through the human authors. God’s Word is sufficiently clear so that we can know what we must believe and how we ought to live as a consequence.

One way in which the church seems to be presently influenced by the prevailing culture is a certain lawlessness in the way that discipline is administered. It is not as Scripture does not speak clearly both to the necessity of discipline and its process. Matthew 18:15–20 is one of the clearer passages in Scripture about how the church ought to function. The various church orders of the Reformed churches have more or less cut and pasted this passage:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. (Matthew 18:15-20, ESV)

Our Lord could not have been clearer. There are basic assumptions and steps to reconciliation:

  • There is a clear moral standard by which righteousness and sin can be judged
  • Sin is the transgression of the moral law
  • An assessment that a sin has been committed
  • Private correction
  • If he refuses bring witnesses
  • If he refuses tell the (visible, institutional) church
  • If he refuses, treat him as an unbeliever

This is the divinely-ordained pattern that the church orders follow but it is not always the pattern followed by the church’s officers. There is always a temptation to take short cuts. We live in a fast-moving culture but the biblical process is slow, messy, even cumbersome. The temptation is to cut to the chase.

During the Kennedy administration Jackie O’s hairstyle became all the rage. Under the Carter Administration it seemed that everyone was “born again.” During the Clinton administration it was cigars. These fads were just symbols of the influence of the ruling class upon the rest of the culture. It’s not entirely clear what is the fad of the current administration but, judging by current events, it might be lawlessness. Public officials are not above the constitution they are charged to uphold and defend but one might not know that by the spate of recent news stories.

By analogy, pastors and elders are not above the clear teaching of Scripture. When they face church members or problems that seem difficult, they might be tempted to take things into their own hands, to achieve the ends that seem right to them. We have a polity (a form of government) in our churches but we aren’t supposed to have politics in our churches—not in the sense of campaigning for votes, manipulating the truth or persons. Dealings in the church are to be above-board and honest. They must be scrupulously so. We’re to conduct our business in the spirit of the 9th commandment, by telling the truth and trusting the Lord for the outcome.

We operate openly and honestly, even to our own discomfort, because we are ministers, not masters. Jesus is the Chief Shepherd. We serve him and his interests, not our own. Distinguishing between interests is essential to preventing church polity from descending into church politics. Behind the temptation to fudge the results of the process is the assumption that the Lord wants what we want, that our will is the Lord’s will. That’s a big assumption and if we’re talking about providence, we cannot know that until after the fact.

There’s another factor that lies behind the spirit of the age: subjectivism. Do you watch the news and ask yourself, “How can they do that? What about the Constitution?” There are theories of constitutional interpretation that are prevalent in universities and law schools that deny that the constitution (or any body of laws) has any objective, fixed meaning. These theories teach, in essence, that the constitution means whatever we say it means. This is a form of subjectivism, the denial of the existence of objective reality and truth and the denial of the intent of the author. It’s lawlessness. We will not be limited by what the authors intended. We will not be limited by what the words actually say or meant when they were written. We will do what we will do. The key verb here is will.

The church is also influenced by subjectivism. Things that were once regarded as fixed and binding are now regarded as fluid and negotiable. Yes, Scripture, confession, and church order do give a process for handling our difficulties but we tell ourselves that our circumstance is different, that those norms don’t really apply to our situation. We begin to act as if we are a law unto ourselves. It’s not that hard to do. After all, who wants to be the bad guy and point out that the emperor, as it were, has no clothes? If everyone else thinks that x is a good idea, who am I to say it isn’t? Maybe I’m wrong?

Except you aren’t wrong. God’s Word isn’t that complicated. There is a revealed pattern. We know it and it’s binding. It’s not negotiable. We did not invent it and we cannot change it. God gave it to us. He commanded us to obey and apply it to our particular circumstances. Our problems aren’t that unique and if we tell ourselves differently, well, we’re kidding ourselves.

Consider this: if the law isn’t fixed and objective, then perhaps the gospel isn’t either? That’s not good news! Well, if we won’t have a fixed, binding law, how can we turn around and claim a fixed, objective gospel promise that covers all our sins? Perhaps there’s a sin that the gospel didn’t envision? Of course that’s just a lie from the pit and so is the story we tell ourselves about our church difficulties, that God’s Word doesn’t really speak to them.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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4 comments

  1. Agreed, good article. One of the constants through history seems to be an assumption of the uniqueness of the age. To paraphrase an old expression, Folk 2000 years ago were still Folk like us, while understanding their cultural context can be helpful, the clear teaching of Scripture in passages like this can’t be ignored.

  2. Hey, Scott: is it your sense that there is a historic Reformed confessional consensus that treating him “as a Gentile and a tax collector” means treat him “as an unbeliever”? That is, is there an understanding that excommunication necessarily entails a judgment that the excommunicated person is, in fact, unregenerate? Presumably, the Matthean expression means at least that the church treats him as an outsider, i.e., as one whose contumacy makes him indistinguishable from unbelievers outside the visible church. Just wondering your thoughts on this.

    • Hi Fowler!

      Yes, I think that’s how it’s been taken. I’ve not done any work on this but I did some quick searches. Calvin wrote:

      Let him be to thee as a heathen and a publican. What is here added as to heathens and publicans confirms the interpretation which I have given. For heathens and publicans having been at that time regarded by the Jews with the greatest hatred and detestation, he compares to them unholy and irreclaimable men, who yield to no admonitions. Certainly he did not intend to enjoin them to avoid the society of heathens, of whom the Church was afterwards composed; nor is there any reason at the present day why believers should shrink from associating with publicans. But in order that he might be more easily understood by the ignorant, Christ borrowed a mode of expression from what was then customary among his nation; and the meaning is, that we ought to have no intercourse with the despisers of the Church till they repent.

      Pierre Viret, in his Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed (ET publ. 1548) wrote:

      As towchinge the herte, the churche leaveth it unto the judgmente of God, which only knoweth it, but yet nevertheles sye hath more care then the civile magistrate, & can not admit, nor receive a manne into her companie whiche at the leaste will not confesse with his mouthe by the whiche he doeth testifie the christen herte that he hathe, it may wel be that often times the herte doth not agre with the confession of the mouthe, and that the confession be fained as it was in Simon Magns Ananias, & Saphira, but it sufficeth unto the churche that a man shewe her out ward testimonie of the herte, for she can not judge whether it be fained & hypocritesh or faithful wherefore she can not caste out him whiche commeth unto her with anye testimonie of faieth, for if his testimonie be fained she leaneth the judgmente unto God whiche shall discover it in his time, but to receive any person without open testimonie of repentaunce & faieth, she can not without doinge againste the word of God, for when the dogs & swine do openlie shewe them felfe, such by their workes, and be not covered with shepe skines, why should she not judg them? She hath none excuse nor resonable cause for to receive them seing that God hath given her the judgmentes of such things, & that she hath the mean so to do, & therfor when a man declareth him self manifestlie sclaundetous, & a rebell unto the ecclesiasticall correction & discipline, the last remedi that the church hath is to excommunicate, that is to saye to open unto him that she taketh him not for any membre of Christ, nor worthi to be in the compani of the faithful, nor to communicate the Sacramentes, which Jesus Christ hath give her unto [note] the which ought none to be admitted buter disciples but oughte to be rejected, and deprived of them as a publican, and a panim, or as a Jewe or turke, whiche the faiethfull will not receive, into their communion, but doeth hold him as an Apostata, & enemy of christian religion, & when he is so rejected from the church, [note] he is in the handes of Sathan for to aflicte [note] him, & is seperated from Jesu Christ after such [note] sorte that if he do not reknowledge his faultes, amend him selfe, and laboure to reconcile him selfe, unto the churche, he is utterly loste and dampned, for in as muche as the churche hathe bounde him he is bounde, seinge that Jesus Christe hathe given it that power, by the ministration of his worde, by the whiche [note] also he is unbounde, if he reknoweledge his faultes, & be received againe into the church by penaunce.

      Natha.
      The churche is then verye rigorouse and hathe a power muche moore to be feared then the swerd, of the magistrate for it can punish but the body, but that of the church sleaeth the soules, how doth this then agre with that whiche Jesus Christe hathe sayed, that he was not come for to destroye or lose, but [note] to save, is the church of anye other nature then Jesus Christer head?

      Phyly.
      No. But the evell do kill and damne themselves in rejectinge the blissinge of Jesus Christe, whiche is presented and offered unto him by his churche, & therfore the church doeth not dampne him, but onelye declareth unto him his damnation & rejecteth him as damned, not to the intente that he should so be, but to the intent he should not be, but he knowing his damnation, and seinge him selfe deprived and shutte out of the companye of Jesus Christe of the Angels and of all saintes, and forsaken of all the faiethfull, mighte be the more ashamed and confounded, and the better feele the judgemente of God upon him, to the ende that by this meane he mighte be moved to repentaunce that he should not perishe eternallye, for this same oughte wel to astony him, seing him felt bound by the churche which hath suche power by the keyes which Jesus Christe hathe given her, that whatsoever [note] is bound or unbounde in the earth by her, is bound or unbound in heaven.

      Natha.
      Then is the excommunication rather a medicine and a remedie, then a death & damnation.

      Phylip.
      Accordinge as everye man doeth use it to his profit, for it is the last remedy of the churche the whiche she doeth use as a corsey towardes sinners, that can not be holpen by other remedies, if the sinner perceive the vertue of this excommunication, and amend him [note] selfe as the poore Corinthien did, it shall then serve him for a medicine of health, but if he perseiver obstinate in his malice, without reconcilinge him selfe, unto the churche, he abideth bounde and dead in his sinnes, and not withstandinge that if he woulde reconcile him selfe unto the churche, yet she will not receive him by & by before that he shal have [note] shewed open testimonie of his repentaunce forto take away the sclaundre he hath made, and for to give example unto other, & therfore accordinge to the deservinge of the offender, the church doeth enjoine them some maner of penaunce for to testifie their repentaunet & for to prove whether it be fained or true, & also to give terror unto the sinners that the ecclesiastical discipline come not into sclander if she shoulde over lightly receive the sclaunderours, and so this paine is not like unto that whiche is imposed by the civile magistrate but is rather an open testimonie of repentaunce for to satisfie unto the churche and not unto God, for towarde God there is no other satisfaction suffitiente but that of Jesus as it hath bene sayed manye times alreadye but as I am bounde to satisfie unto my neighboure that whiche I owe him: even so am I to the church, if I have made offence, & as the satisfaction that I make unto my neighbour is not sufficiente to take awaye my sinnes towardes God, if God by his mercye do not pardon me: even so of the satisfaction that I make unto the churche whiche serveth not but to entertaine her discipline, and to avoide sclaunders, and yet nevertheles he that would refuse to make suche satisfaction for the edifyinge of his neighboure whom he hath sclaundered or offended, when he hathe the meane and occasion so to do: doeth declare him selfe unworthye to obteigne pardon of God for so doinge is a certaine testimonie of the infidelitie and the rebellion of the herte.

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