by Loren Seibold | 2 December 2021 |
So, once again, this happens:
A man in a position of influence and trust does or says something harmful. Something a Christian—much less someone people look up to as a role model—shouldn’t say or do.
It shouldn’t surprise us anymore. This is a truth about human beings—all human beings: we do bad things. We hurt others. Good people do this. Well-intentioned people. Even those trained in spiritual guidance, regarded as spiritual leaders.
None of us sets out to be bad. But most of us are, to greater or lesser degree, a bit of a mess. We inherit bad tendencies, encoded right in our genes. We get damaged in the process of growing up, by what model and what we are taught.
On top of that, God made us free to make choices, which means we’re capable of making wrong ones.
Something I’ve always reminded my church members: there are no perfect families, no ideal lives, no sinless people.
That’s probably why the Bible makes such a big deal about forgiveness.
The two things that characterize God’s forgiveness are these:
First, it is available to anyone who sincerely wants it—the sincerity part being shown in the act of confession. It is not beyond God to forgive the worst person in the world who confesses his sin and wants to be forgiven. If we are to believe in God’s goodness, we must believe that God can forgive thieves. God can forgive murderers. God can forgive rapists. God can forgive prostitutes. (According to John 8, especially prostitutes.) God can forgive telemarketers who ring your cell phone in the middle of the night to sell you extended automobile warranties.
Second, it is complete. The penalty for sin is, in fact, erased by God’s forgiveness.
But (and this may surprise some of you) that’s not all that we’re talking about when we talk about forgiving people.
In some well-known scandals in which popular and charismatic pastors were known to have engaged in abusive behavior, their fans and followers have come on social media to protest that “God forgives this man, so we must forgive him and let him go on with his ministry.”
With the first two parts of that statement I comfortably agree. I have no doubt God forgives him. The sincerity of his confession to God is between him and God, so I have to be generous in my assessment of the state of his relationship with God, even if I have my private doubts.
Then, to the extent that I am able to evaluate his regret for his actions, I will forgive him, too—though not having God’s level of insight into him, I do so with a bit of reservation. That is, I forgive him, but I keep an eye on him.
However, that third part, that we must let him go on with his ministry, doesn’t automatically follow from the first two. He can be forgiven, but there is often the need for consequences.
I remember a church member who said to me once, “I get so tired of sermons about how we’re all such terrible sinners. I’m not a terrible sinner. I’m a pretty good person.”
Indeed, I’ve always hated when pastors demean all of humanity to make a point about sin—who say, “You are a wretched, horrible, evil creature, controlled by Satan, even if you don’t think you are.” I’m not sure any person, even a spiritual leader, has the right to say that. You and I are not “worms,” not “wretches” (old hymns notwithstanding) but beings of immense value to God.
Besides, most sin is between the individual and God, and the rest of us aren’t involved. “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
But all reflective people should feel, from time to time, a sense of guilt. And that’s a good thing. Imagine a world where no one felt guilty! Where no one would ever admit they had done wrong! How quickly we would destroy one another!
Yet there are reasons to suppose that while we can feel guilty enough to ask for God’s forgiveness, we may not understand our culpability sufficiently to be fully trusted.
That’s an entirely different matter.
You will remember a well-known pastor from Africa who had the reputation for being extremely conservative, devoted to a rigid and uncompromising brand of Adventism, who regarded himself as the savior of our traditional theology, and was never averse to scolding and demeaning others for their evil choices.
Then he was found to be carrying on affairs with several women, some young enough to be his daughter, while working in the most conservative conference in North America.
When confronted, he lied—until there was such incontrovertible proof that there was no longer any point in lying.
Yet so reluctant were his followers to let go of their idealized spiritual hero that even after he was caught and confessed, they drew a psychological line between his ministry and his own hypocritical actions. Some blamed the women. Others adopted a “God forgives him, so we must as well” defense.
People don’t like to see their heroes fall.
Thus he was hastily rebaptized and began preaching and writing and referring to himself as a pastor again.
But the rumors continued to circulate. His followers resumed the accusation that “All those women are liars.” But they weren’t. (Why do some people find it so hard to believe a woman who says she’s been sexually harassed by an important man?)
There is a school of psychology that says a lot of our problems have to do with too much guilt. And indeed it is true that some people have an unhealthy guilt; they feel the need for forgiveness, but can’t seem to accept it.
The opposite is shown in men like this: so convinced are they of their own importance, so desirous to be on the pedestal, that they are able to ignore their guilt—if they ever feel it at all.
I am tempted to say that those of their followers who can’t understand this have no one to blame but themselves when they are taken advantage of. But in fact, some of those they take advantage of, such as (in this case) young women, were guilty of nothing but being in his line of sight.
By the way, there has been no public ex cathedra statement from the General Conference about this man. The General Conference (GC) has spoken loudly and clearly against women being ordained, and our GC president is obsessed with condemning gay people; but his office has not issued a public statement about the ministry of Samuel K. Pipim.
There are some things a sinner just can’t work out while in a position of authority, particularly if it’s his authority that created the problem. Not infrequently, men who love power can’t handle it.
In our development of leaders, it seems to me, we are drawn to charisma, attractiveness, self-confidence, certainty, political acumen, energy, and results. We find people like that inspiring, interesting and entertaining.
We don’t seem to screen them as carefully for humility, caution, truthfulness, good character, and insightfulness. Those just aren’t especially exciting qualities in leaders.
In places of power certain strong, self-confident men seem to thrive—and some of those men lose touch with who they are supposed to be, who they set out to be. I don’t know precisely the psychology of this, but it seems to me there is a hubris that drives such men. The word that keeps popping into my mind is “entitlement.” “I am so effective, so charismatic, so important, that things can’t go on without me. Yet I have so much stress, so much energy, so much responsibility, that one woman isn’t enough for me. I am entitled to some extra sex on the side.”
Or with others, “My salary isn’t commensurate with my value. I am entitled to slip a bit more into my pocket.”
When such men are caught, some wiggle and squirm and lie. But should that become impossible, they may fess up and ask us and God for forgiveness. Which all of us should be happy to grant.
And then some of them want to just take up where they left off, as though once they’ve said they’re sorry, everything is restored to what it was before.
I don’t believe that’s always possible.
Even when such men repent sincerely and promise to work on their problems, I hesitate to put them back into positions of trust, for this reason: there are certain characterological problems that can’t be safely addressed in the setting that created them. I doubt the best way for a compulsive thief to overcome his kleptomania is to put him to work in a bank, or for a child molester to be a nursery school teacher. In fact, they should never again be put into those positions.
Who and when?
I don’t know precisely where the line should be drawn in all situations. Can some pastors and teachers continue after a breach of trust? Probably.
But I have some pretty strong opinions about those who shouldn’t.
If a person has abused a minor, he should never be given responsibility for children or families with children ever again.
Some years ago a major west coast conference hired a man to be summer camp maintenance man, who was known to have a conviction for sex with a minor. The conference leaders argued that he had repented. Through prayer God had healed him, and he would never do it again.
But of course he did. To the youth director’s child. For years. It cost the church millions. When he was forgiven the first time, it should have had the added consequence that he never be trusted around children.
And this: if a man lies repeatedly about what he did, he should not be given responsibility again. We may forgive him over and over, but we should never trust him again. I forgive Samuel Pipim, but his traditional Adventist theology doesn’t make up for a demonstrated willingness to tell untruths repeatedly to preserve his power and access to women.
Here’s another: if a person maintains his entitlement even after he has been caught and repented, I question whether he should be restored to a position of trust.
Some years ago a pastor of a major church fell into an affair with a younger woman. To his credit, he and his paramour confessed. He was dismissed from his ministry with the church, however. What bothered me was that even years afterwards he would tell people that he’d been badly treated, that he was irreplaceable and should have been allowed to continue his ministry. That was, to me, evidence that he shouldn’t be a pastor again: his entitlement showed a lack of insight into what happened and the damage it did.
The last was also true of Burnett Robinson, who just days after his moronic comment about raping one’s wife was exposed to the world, posted on his Facebook page a self-justifying post (since removed) that made him seem unfairly treated.
I’m addressing ministry and authority figures because a minister in that situation has been in our Adventist news lately. But the principle of forgiveness with consequences applies to all situations. If a man beats his wife and children, they may forgive him, but should never again stay in the same house with him. If a man has stolen money from his company, he should no longer be given access to the cash drawer. If a person constantly fails to do his or her job, and can’t seem to learn the importance of showing up on time and working hard, eventually a smart employer will say, “I can’t have you working here anymore.”
Forgiveness, but with consequences.
Forgiveness is important. At the very least, it frees the wronged person from a lifetime of resentment. At its best, it also brings peace to the one who wronged them.
But forgiveness does not mean forgetting. It means remembering the wrong that was done and, while ceasing to be mired in resentment, to take adequate measures to protect yourself and those around you, as well as the organization that gives one power, authority and a salary.
I’m quite certain that all of these people I’ve referenced can be forgiven by God, and should be forgiven by the rest of us. Someday, at the resurrection, they’ll be changed in a moment, in the blink of an eye, and I’ll gladly spend eternity in heaven with them.
But in the meantime, we would be wise to forgive carefully, and insist upon consequences to those who have the potential to do irreparable damage.
- You should not be surprised that I use the male gender in this piece, since I’m talking mostly about pastors. Have you seen a female pastor do any of these things? And yet they are prohibited from full recognition by the denomination. Go figure. ↑
- To its credit, the Ohio Conference has done so. “Women have been accusing Pipim of predacious sexual behavior for nearly three decades. Pipim denies many allegations, and repeatedly frames others as infrequent and consensual moral falls. However, the allegations indicate a repetitive pattern of spiritual manipulation and predatory behavior against those who are most vulnerable, least able to defend themselves, and least in a position to seek prosecution for rape or sexual harassment. Especially so, given his self-professed global ministry as a speaker, youth mentor, and writer. The Ohio Conference supports the January 16, 2021, action of the Columbus Ghanaian Seventh-day Adventist Church because the pattern of allegations violates membership reinstatement requirements as outlined by the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, p 67. The Ohio Conference unequivocally warns the public against inviting Pipim as a speaker, using his books or materials, or placing him in a position of spiritual authority, leadership, or influence over others.” ↑
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today magazine and website.