The Man Is the Message: The Case for Character
By Loren Seibold | 29 January 2021 |
Those who have followed the saga were gratified by the news that the Columbus Ghanaian Church recently parted ways with Samuel Pipim, erstwhile pastor, evangelist and self-identified “wounded eagle.” Pipim has been known for years to be a serial adulterer, all under his authority as a popular speaker and author. But even after the wounded eagle was given a chance to fly again, he flapped his way back into the same problem he’d had before.
What surprised many of us (and reminded us not a little of followers of a well-known American political figure), is how many came to his defense, even after the revelation of fresh trespasses. The defenses were as tortured as QAnon’s of Donald Trump: that he didn’t do it at all, but if he did he was set up by liberal white Adventists who couldn’t stand either his conservative message or the exaltation of a black man; that it was all a set-up, and there was a hidden story that would soon come out. That none of us is perfect enough to pass judgment on him. That he should be forgiven again, and carry on his ministry.
And this: it happened only because so many women were throwing themselves at him like sex-crazed nymphomaniacs—well beyond the moral resistance of even a mighty man of God.
But the commenters’ most scathing rebuke was saved for the Ohio Conference, which had asked people not to promote his books. Even if he did it, some replied, it wasn’t his books that were having sex with those women—so the books can safely be read, used, and distributed!
There are holes in this logic big enough to toss a dashiki through. But as one African told me, “He is our man in America, and he cannot be discredited.”
Can character be ignored?
There is a theory abroad right now, popular in the fetid moral climate of the Trumpian era, that the truth of the message stands apart from the character of the messenger. This notion has astonishing durability among Christians, and is rarely put to any more rigorous biblical test than “Well, King David was a sinner too!”
Jesus couldn’t have been more clear that character is as important as message—that what a man does must demonstrate what he says. Take Matthew 7:21-23:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
It happens again in Matthew 25, when Jesus sends away people who claim to be his followers “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.
Let us footnote Jesus’ “You didn’t do good for the needy person” with “In fact, you encountered a young woman who needed spiritual guidance, and instead of helping her, you used your authority over her to pressure her into having sex with you.” Wouldn’t the moral of Jesus’ story still apply: “Whatever you did to these young, vulnerable women reflects how you would have treated me had you encountered me as a young, vulnerable woman”?
Which is precisely why Jesus makes the condemnation he does in Matthew 18:6:
If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.
This passage isn’t just about minor children. It’s about anyone who is weak and/or vulnerable—such as a young African college student who goes to a pastor she admires for counseling after a youth meeting, and is forced into sex with him.
The first thing you will have to do is convince me, after studying these texts, that a man who would take advantage of young women under the color of his authority as a spiritual leader, and who lies about it and is only repentant when he is caught, is someone who should instruct us in spiritual matters—even through his books.
Biblical concepts of character
Scripture exalts good behavior with words like righteousness, justice, holiness, and concepts like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and hundreds of exhortations to honesty and integrity. Can one who says the right words bypass the requirements to follow his own instructions?
The Bible says that Satan is a believer. We have evidence from Matthew 4 that he knows the Word! Undoubtedly he could preach a good sermon if he wanted to, and perhaps write a powerful book, laying out all the things that conservative Christians want to believe. But that doesn’t mean we should follow him. Underneath the scholarship and skills is a liar. That is to say, the messenger matters as much as the message.
Near the close of his 40-day wilderness retreat, when Jesus is nearly starving, Satan suggests that he miraculously make his own bread. There is nothing wrong with Jesus making bread. Yet Jesus refused—because it was Satan who was asking him! Later, when preaching to the 4,000 and the 5,000, Jesus did precisely what he had refused to do for Satan: he miraculously made bread! He did it because now he was doing it to help others, not in response to the evil one.
In 1995 a mathematics prodigy named Ted Kaczynski wrote an essay opposing modern technology, which was published in the New York Times. Some scholars thought that buried in his manifesto were critiques of industrialization that ought to be heard. Why isn’t Kaczynski teaching in universities? Because he’s also a serial killer, who sent dozens of bombs to high-tech leaders, killing three. Even when his ideas are mentioned, it is always with the proviso that this man is an insane murderer.
Samuel Pipim isn’t Satan, or a serial killer. But the point is that character matters, not just the message. I wonder what Pipim’s defenders would say if their own sons forced sex on young women, and then said, “But Mom, Dad, it’s okay. I believe the right things. I say the right things. I even preach and teach and write the truth. I just don’t act on it! You said that was forgivable when Samuel Pipim did it. Why is it wrong for me?”
You can say “Do as I say, not as I do,” but the example is more powerful than the words. Jesus was the incarnation of his message. He was, according to John, the Word of God transformed into flesh, which means that the instruction God had given, Jesus lived.
No one ever had to say of Jesus, “Do as he said, not as he did.”
The man is the message
Is Samuel Pipim the incarnation of his words? He preaches a very conservative message about family: about obedience, purity, and women submitting to men. On sexual matters he blasts homosexuals, offering them no quarter from God’s wrath. His books evince little mercy—except for himself, the poor, wounded eagle.
Again, the Bible doesn’t separate man from message. For example, Matthew 7:17-18:
Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.
Or, as James said, can a spring put out both potable water and dirty water? (James 3:11). My mother had her own version of that when I spoke unkindly: “What’s in the heart comes out.”
This is to say that the man’s message—that sin is black and white, that homosexuality is horrible, that women must be subservient to men, that he has a special place as God’s messenger because he and he alone delivers this truth—is a flawed message if it comes from a corrupt heart.
And the reason is very simple: it doesn’t work for him! If I told you I had an infallible system for beating the stock market, but I was living in the back seat of my car, you would probably doubt that my system was very good. If a man says he knows God’s plan for everyone’s life, but he himself can’t keep his zipper up when he’s out of his wife’s line of sight, I would suggest that his teaching is unsound.
The shadow message
Something I’ve learned in my old age is that though a man may say one thing, he may mean another. For some, their real truth lies in the chiaroscuro shadows of what they say forthrightly.
If a man says, “Homosexuality is a horrible, promiscuous evil,” it may be his way of diverting attention from his heterosexual promiscuity.
If he says, “God wants us men to be strong, to bring the women in our world under submission,” he may be speaking in service of his bringing young women who are not his wife under submission to his desires.
If he’s very insistent that there’s a slippery slope between good and evil, and that one must be cautious lest they be pulled over the edge, perhaps he’s hinting that he himself has a hard time keeping his footing on the top side of that slope.
If he says that he’s a special messenger from God whose work is singularly important, he may want us to also think he’s entitled to privileges that others don’t have.
And as for the excuse that women are throwing themselves at him, the psychodynamic concept of projection ought to be explored.
So to those who say “Let’s continue to use the man’s books, because in them he says what we want to hear,” I ask, “Why must we accept it from a man who has shown that it has done him no good?”
Seriously, people: is Samuel Pipim the only person from whom we can hear the gospel?
One of the frequent responses I’ve read is, “Yes, he’s fallen. But don’t be so unkind! God forgives him. So should we.” There, at least, we agree.
What I can’t accept is the implication that each time he is forgiven, he starts over with a blank slate. There is no doubt he can be forgiven repeatedly by God. But his problems have done so much damage that he ought not to be allowed to continue to do damage. As far as I know, there is no spiritual formula that says that if a man has said some truths, or helped some people in some way, he gets a pass to hurt others.
This reflects a calculus in the evangelical Christian electorate for the past five years: if our president appoints conservative judges, we award him get-out-of-jail-free cards for any other ethical breaches he indulges in.
Yet let’s look at this more closely. If a man was caught stealing from his employer’s cash drawer, the employer doesn’t say, “You have made me so much money through the years, it’s okay if you’re a thief now and then.” Maybe if he does it once, he can be reinstated. But by the second time, though his employer may forgive him in his heart, only a uncommonly stupid person would defend this man’s right to access the cash register.
Nor does it work for Samuel Pipim. Just because he has written books where he identified some sins, or has given advice that some find helpful, or has inspired someone to do better, should he be allowed to ever be in a situation where he could be taken for a role model?
No one is expecting Samuel Pipim to be a perfect man. God forgives a repentant man, and we should, too. But that cannot restore him to spiritual leadership—indeed, to any position where we must rely upon his self-control. He has proven himself unable to keep his promises, and should never be placed in a position of trust.
It’s true that some of the Bible characters weren’t perfect people. King David did some terrible things. Yet he had a quality that I don’t see in the subject we’re talking about here: he wholly and deeply repented, and turned his back on sin. A third of David’s Psalms are odes to his repentance.
For five years we Americans have listened to a national leader whose supporters even admit is a bad man: dishonest, vulgar, irreverent, venal, selfish. But they thought he had such good ideas, and they believed he did so much good, that they ignored the vile character of the man himself. Evangelical Christians adopted him as their patron saint for merely appointing conservative justices to the court, even though he makes not even a tepid pretense of Christianity, and displays none of the fruits of the spirit.
In retrospect, it isn’t clear that Donald Trump’s ideas were very good. But even if they were, his “leadership” has coarsened us. We have become a less moral people, a divided, angry, thoughtless people. Mercy has faded, replaced with coarseness, anger, hatred of the other.
Failure to attend to character in our religious leaders will do the same thing. Like it or not, we become like them. Let us push aside leaders like this one, and raise up new ones who not only know about the Lord, but actually know the Lord.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today website and magazine.