In the last few weeks the Reformed-ish world has been rocked by allegations against two ministers, one very visible, very well known and the other with somewhat famous name but relatively well known. In the first case, this minister, Tullian Tchividjian, has confessed to committing multiple counts of adultery and has been removed from his office by his presbytery. In recent weeks, however, he has spoken in a non-denominational church, appeared on a website for “ex-pastors” and is reported to have a new book in the works. There have also been new, detailed accusations against him by other women. These accusations have included some documentation that lends credibility to the charges but they have not yet been adjudicated by any ecclesiastical or civil court. The session of Willow Creek Church, from Tchividjian was fired has issued a statement in support of those who have come forward and calling him to desist from any kind of vocational ministry.
Rather, inasmuch as he is truly repentant and in accordance with his membership vows, we would urge him to immediately return to his church of membership, submit to its leadership, and pursue healing and renewal through repentance in the context of his local church to the glory of God and for the good of the broader Church and her witness to the world.
The wisdom and righteousness of this instruction from his session is self-evident.
Only days ago news broke that another pastor, Tom Chantry, has been indicted, in Arizona, on charges of molesting a child two decades ago. He is not actively serving his Wisconsin congregation pending the outcome of the trial.
In both cases we have obligations to the victims and alleged victims as well as to those against whom allegations have been made. These are somewhat different cases. In the first, we know that there has been a pattern of infidelity and deception. The allegations fit the pattern that has already been acknowledged. Nevertheless, there have yet to be ecclesiastical charges or a trial. Until then we cannot know with certainty the truth of the new charges.
In the second case, there has been no acknowledged or even charged pattern of abuse or misconduct. The charges may be true—the authorities believe they have enough evidence to go to trial and, given the limited resources in a prosecutor’s office, that fact has some weight. Nevertheless, prosecutors do err. Further, I am old enough to remember cases in the 1980s and 90s where child abuse was falsely alleged and the lives of innocent people were ruined. Nevertheless, we have a duty to the alleged victims to see to their well-being in any event. In any event, whether the charges are true or false, counseling and special pastoral care are in order.
What we may not do, however, is to confuse charges or an indictment with a conviction. These are two different things.An indictment means that a prosecutor has enough evidence to go to trial. A trial presents the opportunity for the prosecution and the defense to make their cases from the facts and from the law. A conviction means that the prosecution has made its case, met its burden of proof and that a judge or a jury has agreed with them. An indictment is only the beginning of a long process.
There is a class of advocates for victims, whose work I have admired, who have taken it upon themselves to act as prosecutor, judge, and jury and who have convicted both men in what can only be described as internet mob justice. These cases illustrate both the power of the internet as a medium by which victims and potential victims can call attention to their plight and get help but also the dark side of the internet where charges and indictments instantly become convictions. In this regard, the mob is quite like the so-called “Pizzagate” matter. Add Speculation to conspiracy theories, which are impervious to evidence, to the internet mob and before long someone is firing rounds into a business. In other words, innocent people can get hurt.
Every adult must have some rudimentary knowledge of the civil court system either from jury duty or perhaps only from television crime dramas. For those not familiar with confessional Reformed/Presbyterian polity, there are detailed processes established to adjudicate charges and to protect the rights of both the accused and the accuser. We have assemblies and courts of original jurisdiction and multiple assemblies and courts to hear appeals.
There five remedies for these impulses and ways to prevent (more) innocent people from getting hurt.
- Care. Make sure that victims of abuse and potential victims are receiving all the care they need. That must be done immediately. We have a biblical obligation to look out for the little ones (figuratively and literally), whom Christ has entrusted to us. Remember, in the heat of internet combat there are real lives, real people at stake whatever the outcome of any civil or ecclesiastical trials.
- Seek justice. In the second case the civil authorities have made an arrest (in July) and have announced an indictment. The judicial process is underway. Mr. Chantry has an attorney and the state shall have to meet its burden of proof. In the Tchividjian case, it is imperative that these charges be addressed by the courts of the church. Since he is no longer a minister, these charges should be addressed by his session. If they are true, he should be placed under the appropriate discipline. After all, it is not as if our Lord has not told us exactly how to proceed. We have relatively detailed instructions in Matthew 18. We also have the example in 1 Corinthians 5. Contrary to the case that was argued to me by one advocate for the victims, there is not a shred of evidence in Scripture to suggest that Matthew 18 is intended only for minor offenses but that 1 Corinthians 5 teaches that the charged must be excommunicated immediately, without due process. That is utterly contrary to the language and intent (spirit) of the law of God and of these two passages. I only mention this interpretation in case this is a view that is being taught to or by victim’s advocates. Two wrongs not make a right. We may be certain that were these advocates charged with offenses they would want all the protections that due process affords, namely counsel, a right to face one’s accuser, a full hearing of the relevant facts, and a right to persuade jurors or a judge of the right interpretation of the facts and the law. It is essential for both the accused and the alleged victims that justice be done. Upon a conviction, the victim is vindicated and the sins or crimes of the accused properly addressed. Upon acquittal, the righteousness of the accused is upheld and false charges are repudiated. There is, even if only upon appeal, some resolution.
- Wait. Civil and ecclesiastical justice takes time. Just as it takes months or even years for a civil process to come to completion so it is in ecclesiastical procedures and often for the same reasons. Indeed, ecclesiastical bodies have fewer financial resources and so fewer people must do even more work. Further, this is a fallen world. It is hard to find the truth. We all must face what Van Til called the noetic (intellectual) effects of sin. People (both the accused and alleged victims) lie. Documents are unclear. Memories are fuzzy. Laws are ill-considered or contradictory. Judges have bad days. Juries make mistakes. Prosecutors err. Defense attorneys fail. There are countless obstacles that ecclesiastical and civil justice must overcome. Nevertheless, the Lord has instituted procedures. He has not instituted, nor has he promised, instant or perfect justice in this world. Indeed, the psalms are replete with lamentations about why the unrighteous seem to get away with their crimes in this life. Karma is a myth. Of course, justice will come, for both victims and impenitent, unbelieving perpetrators either in this life or the next.
- Pray. Those of us on the outside of the civil and ecclesiastical bodies properly involved in these matters do not know all the facts. Most of us do not know the alleged (or real) victims or the alleged perpetrators. However much fun idle speculation and internet mob justice might seem, it is neither godly (see below) nor wise. God does know, however, all the facts. He has known them from all eternity. He is perfectly wise and perfectly just. This is just the instance in which we should pray, “Your will be done.” God works through civil and ecclesiastical processes. Let us pray that happens in these cases.
- Observe the ninth commandment. God’s moral law has 10 words or commandments. On the internet, however, the ninth commandment, takes quite a beating—as do the others. The substance of the ninth commandment is to tell the truth. Indeed, the ninth commandment is intended, in the first instance, for judicial procedures. It applies well beyond civil and ecclesiastical trials, however. It applies to the internet. I have addressed that application repeatedly in this space. See the resources linked below. It is sufficient here to urge those who are concerned for the victims, and the alleged victims, as they should be, to observe the ninth commandment. They are not more righteous than God. Their concern for the well-being of victims and potential victims does not excuse them from the obligations of the ninth commandment. It says: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Like it or not Tchividjian and Chantry are our neighbors. We explain it thus:
112. What does the ninth Commandment require.
That I bear false witness against no one, wrest no one’s words, be no backbiter or slanderer, join in condemning no one unheard or rashly; but that on pain of God’s heavy wrath, I avoid all lying and deceit as the very works of the devil; and that in matters of judgment and justice and in all other affairs I love, speak honestly and confess the truth; also in so far as I can defend and promote my neighbor’s good name.
I am well aware that some seek to hide their crimes and sins behind the ninth commandment. During the Federal Vision controversy both self-described Federal Visionists and their defenders invoked the ninth commandment repeatedly to quell theological criticism. Such is an abuse of the ninth commandment. Public sermons, articles, and books, are proper subjects for public criticism. The ninth commandment, however, applies specifically to these cases when it forbids condemning people “unheard” or “rashly.” These two men have yet to be given an opportunity to make their case. To condemn them, in these cases, before they have been heard and their cases properly adjudicated is a classic violation of the ninth commandment.
That is God’s holy, immutable law. The good news is that Christ obeyed and died for liars and slanderers just as he graciously saves adulterers and abusers for the sake of Christ through faith alone. We must repent of our slander just as adulterers and abusers must repent of their sins. We must all turn to Christ in true faith and consequently walk in a manner worthy of the Christian calling and bear fruit in every good work (Col 1:10).