This week, Matt Chandler, pastor of the Village Church and president of Acts29 announced that he was taking leave of absence from preaching and teaching at the Church. The reason given was that he had been direct messaging a female on social media and had been confronted about this by one of her friends. An investigation had been conducted and the conclusion was that the messages didn’t show a sexual/romantic relationship but that the messaging was unguarded, included coarse humour and therefore was inappropriate.
You can watch Chandler’s own statement here.
I have significant concerns and reservations about this. It does have the feel of something stage managed. If the action taken was disciplinary, then the standing ovation seems inappropriate, despite the way it was spun. I’m not convinced that the person submitting to discipline should be making this kind of statement in this kind of context and I certainly do not think that he should be making what comes across as a defiant, Thatcheresqe commitment to be there for the next 20 years. Thatcher and Johnson perhaps offer us good warnings if we ever think we can just keep going on and on.
I agree too that the language is rather vague and woolly. First, of all if disciplinary, then no, it’s not just a leave of absence. That’s dangerous language because it then creates smoke around any break or sabbatical or stepping back that pastors might take for all sorts of good reasons. If you have had to suspend a member of staff or elder then say so. Secondly, yes it does leave things open to all kinds of speculation. That I think is a product of the staging of something for wider public consumption. I don’t think that you and I need to know the details of what the issue is. However, I do think that the church members need to be properly informed. There again, I would suggest that discipline of this nature should be something that the church members are actively involved in not passively hearing announcements about.
However, I want to say something now about the responses to the news. Sadly, we’ve had far too many of these kinds of announcements over the past few years and sadly there’ll be more to come. We do need to learn how to respond well. So, for that reason, I think one of the big lessons we need to learn quickly is that whilst there may be more to a story than we’ve heard and whilst we cannot and perhaps should not assume that we’ve heard the whole story it is often both unhelpful and unnecessary to speculate further.
For this reason, I’m not convinced that Aimee Byrd’s post here is helpful. The speculation is that there must be something more going on, something deeper and darker. The result is that the post includes speculation that the other party is therefore a “victim.” It is of course possible that they are a victim. We simply do not know. We also need to be aware of the potential for grooming, manipulation and abuse when unequal power dynamics are in play. However, I don’t think we should always assume that. If hierarchies in the workplace or position in the church lead to inequalities that mean the one with power is always abusive then that pretty much makes any relationship impossible. Indeed, ironically it makes the Billy Graham rule even more necessary.
My main point though is that we do not need to speculate. There doesn’t need to be something else going on for there to be a problem here and for it to be right for the elders to step in and take action.
The only time we took the action of full church discipline at my last church and asked the members to vote on removing someone from membership involved an inappropriate relationship. The man concerned had planned a holiday with a female work colleague. They were going camping and were taking the one tent. He insisted that the friendship was platonic, the tent a matter of convenience and nothing physical was going on. He was warned by two other elders not to do anything that might give the impression of evil. He lashed back at them that they must have dirty minds. When I met with him I insisted that this was not merely a matter of giving an appearance. The relationship itself whether or not it had moved into anything physically sexual was wrong because he was prioritising time with the other woman and acting things out with her that should have been for him and his wife. In that respect, I argued that whatever else may or may not have happened, we did not need to speculate. The action of heading off on holiday not only indicated concerns about the relationship but very clearly crossed the line in terms of faithfulness. It was adulteress.
Now, to be abundantly clear, I’m not saying that in Matt Chandler’s case that the activities described amount to adultery, that they had crossed the line. Again, I urge against speculation. Rather, what I’m saying is that when we think about our relationships to others (and that includes with people of the same gender) that it isn’t a binary choice between something that is romantic/sexual and something that is platonic. There are other ways that a relationship can be unhealthy, unhelpful and therefore potentially sinful.
There are ways in which prioritising one friendship could become damaging to your marriage. However, it may not just be a marriage that is damaged. What if the relationship is one of “father/daughter”? If that relationship arises out of a need for the older man for something he perceives as missing to be fulfilled then consider how unhealthy that is both for the parities involved, for the man’s own children and potentially for the woman’s father. If a pastor is prioritising one relationship in the church, then what impact does that have on other church members? If the lead pastor prioritises a relationship with one staff member, then how does that affect the rest of the staff.
Further, if an elder is prioritising conversations with one member of the church male or female about the life of the church, pastoral issues, decision making etc over conversations with all of the elders together and church members’ meetings then that has an impact on plural leadership and healthy body ministry.
Then, there’s the question about openness and transparency. We have been told that there was coarse joking. Now, one person’s edgy humour is another’s coarse talk. And we don’t know what this was. However, I would gently suggest that coarse or not, the idea of a shared private joke closed off from wife, family, wider church is not healthy either.
So, in terms of the case here, let’s be careful not to get into speculation -especially of the speculation primarily suits whatever agenda we are particularly attracted to. Let’s deal with what has been shared publicly. There is enough there to cause us first of all to cry out and pray for all involved in this. Let’s also be reminded again to guard our own hearts and minds.