Jesus held religious leaders responsible
Holy Week is a good time to meditate on the responsibility of church officers to protect the sheep God has entrusted to our care.
If you read the account of the week following the Triumphal Entry (what we celebrate as Palm Sunday) through to the Last Supper in the Upper Room, Jesus’ arrest later that night on the Mount of Olives, then the Crucifixion on what we celebrate as Good Friday, you know Jesus intensified His confrontation and condemnation of the church officers until they killed Him. They didn’t kill Him because He wasn’t tactful or peaceable. They killed Him because He left them no other option. He intensified His condemnations of them until there was nothing left for those who refused to repent than to kill the prophet calling them to it.
Jesus wasn’t coy or nuanced that week. He started the week by cleansing the Temple and this couldn’t have been a more direct condemnation of these men. The next morning on His way back into Jerusalem from Bethany where he’d spent the night, Jesus was hungry and looked for fruit on a fig tree he was passing. Just like the priests, though, the tree was fruitless, so Jesus cursed it (Matthew 21:18 ff.)
Continuing on into Jerusalem, Jesus returned to the Temple and cared for God’s people by teaching them there. Jerusalem and its Temple were the eye of the storm. The church officers confronted Jesus, asking by what authority He had thrown over their money tables and now fed the people?
Jesus refused to tell, but He did this all by His Father’s authority (Matt. 21:27).
He then told a story about two sons who both received orders from their father. One son said “yes” and did “no” while the other said “no” and did “yes” (Matt. 21:28-32). Again, our Lord condemned the church officers, publicly declaring them to be worse than “tax collectors and prostitutes.”
Jesus went on to tell the parable of the vineyard owner whose tenant farmers refused to pay him his profit. When he sent his servants, they abused them. When he sent his son, they killed him.
There is no ambiguity. The Sadducees, Pharisees, scribes, and elders were refusing to give God the profit due Him from His Own vineyard (Matt. 21:33-42). Finishing this parable, Jesus declared:
Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.
How did the church officers respond to these parables?
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them. When they sought to seize Him, they feared the people, because they considered Him to be a prophet. (Matthew 21:43-46)
Jesus continued to stoke the fire by telling the parable of the king who sent out invitations to his son’s wedding feast and those receiving his invitations refusing to respond. Again, it was the Jews and their church officers Jesus was condemning.
The next chapter of Matthew (23) is entirely given over to Jesus’ white-hot excoriations and condemnations of the church officers. He describes the scribes, priests, and elders to the people:
[The scribes and Pharisees] tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.
Then He turns to the church officers themselves and addresses them directly:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. …You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!
Note the specifics of Jesus’ condemnation of church officers:
- They will not help carry the burdens of the souls under their care.
- They don’t bother with justice and mercy and faithfulness.
- They are blind guides.
There are many applications of Jesus’ condemnations of church leaders that we could profitably make to our churches today, but I want to single out one area where the application is very much needed right now. This is the abuse of our church’s women, children, and youth by men under the authority of us as church officers.
I know a number of pastors who are faithful to teach the duty of husbands and fathers to guard their homes. These men make a habit of pointing out that the sins that develop within the father’s home are the husband and father’s responsibility. Husband and fathers are appointed by God to be the guardians of their households. Full stop.
But these men never seem to see or acknowledge any responsibility they have for the sins of their Household of faith, the Church of the Living God.
Covenant succession’s double standard
Let me go a step further and sew the point on with an iron thread.
The father’s responsibility for the sins of his household is the central thesis of that movement many of you know as “covenant succession.” Consider Rob Rayburn’s essay popularizing Lewis Schenck’s book all marked up and sitting on the desk next to me right now titled The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant. A main thesis of both Schenck and Rayburn is that God requires the wife and children of men under consideration for ordination to church office to be believers. They declare that the fact that children of the covenant who grow up not to believe disqualify their father from holding church office proves that he failed to carry out his covenant obligations to and within his household. It’s plain and simple, they say. Then they are zealous to condemn any church that allows a father with a child who doesn’t believe to continue to serve as a church officer.
Now without stopping to examine the claim that any church officer who has an adult child who has apostatized should repudiate his ordination, for the sake of argument, let’s accept their premise that the sins of the home and its members are the responsibility and prove the sin of the home’s father in carrying out his duties there. Where does this take us concerning the sexual abuse of women, children, and young people in the church?
It’s long been recognized that, when the Apostle Paul refers to the church as the “household of faith,” he thereby places the souls of this household under the care of this Household’s fathers who are the church’s officers known as pastors, elders, and deacons. Like the scribes, Pharisees, and elders of the people of God in the time of Christ, pastors, elders, and deacons today are the guardians of the Household of Faith. Like the scribes, Pharisees, and elders of old, it is our duty to feed and protect the souls God has placed under our care. As church officers, we are our brother’s keeper.
Where do the women, children, and young people of God’s Household today need more watchcare than the rampant physical and sexual abuse they suffer at the hands of their youth leaders, teachers, pastors, elders, piano teachers, gymnastics coaches, choir directors, uncles, grandfathers, brothers, and fathers?
Let me tell you something: we all need to be ashamed of ourselves. We yip and yap about how men who don’t have their own families in order should resign their offices while we turn deaf ears and blind eyes to those suffering abuse in the household God gave us responsibility for. We have the audacity to blame the fathers of the blood household without blaming ourselves who are fathers of God’s Household.
It’s scandalous. By what right do we demand the accountability of fathers of the home for the sins of the home, threatening to discipline and yank their ordinations for those sins, while sitting pretty as peacocks over these very men and their children whom God assigned us to guard and protect?
This is hypocrisy.
We are culpable for our ignorance
Yes, I know male pastors, male elders, and male deacons will protest, justifying themselves by saying things like, “How was I to know? I’m not living in the home! I don’t see what doors are opening and shutting during the night!”
How pathetic. Has it not occurred to the men making such excuses (and an almost-infinite variety of others) that it is the father’s duty to know? The captain of the ship is asleep when the first officer runs her aground and the captain’s career is over. Finis.
Nevertheless, when incest, sexual abuse, wife-beating, and all kinds of filth occur under our authority, we blame the father without taking one tiny bit of blame to ourselves. This ought not to be.
From many years experience going back to the first church I served and my first year of service in that church, it’s often very easy to spot abuse. If, that is, you have the will to. The faith to. Let is be stated clearly, though, that only pastors and elders who have eyes to see will see. And what a help they find it to remember they have been ordained to protect the souls of their church’s sisters, sons, and daughters!
Jesus condemned the church officers of His time for refusing to lift a finger to help the sheep carry their heavy loads. Do you dare to hold office as a father of God’s household while refusing to find and expose the rape of the young girls of your church perpetrated by their choir director, piano teacher, uncle, brother, or father?
Remember our Lord’s warning:
For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. (Matthew 7:2)
You condemn a father for the sin in his home and yet excuse yourself for the sin of your church? You protest you’re innocent because you didn’t know about it?
It is your duty to know about it and to do anything and everything to protect these precious women and their children about whom Jesus warned:
It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to him through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble. (Luke 17:1, 2)
Pastors who don’t warn against incest and rape and wife-beating and sodomy and fornication and viewing naked flesh on screens in our homes are responsible for the incest and rape and wife-beating and sodomy and fornication and viewing naked flesh on the screens of the church’s homes, as well as all the wickedness that results from viewing nakedness on those screens. Since they live under our authority and listen to and watch us, can we expect the fathers of the households of our churches to do any better of a job in their households than we do as fathers of the Household of faith?
Holding religious leaders responsible today
Please allow me a modest proposal: let every pastor who claims to be shocked by someone else exposing wife-beating and incest and sexual abuse of children and young people in the household of faith God has placed him over admit he failed and resign his ordination. You may think this is a bit severe, but I’ll bet a bunch of pastors who have been yip-yapping about the failures of the fathers in their church would suddenly become expert in anticipating vulnerabilities, taking preventive measures, diagnosing, seeing, and exposing a whole bunch of oppression and perversion and injustice they heretofore claimed not to see or hear or know about.
Yes, I hear all the objections. But really, are we going to stoop so low as to argue there is no responsibility on the part of the fathers God has placed over His Household of faith that parallels the responsibilities we tell fathers they bear in their own homes? Do we really not see that God held Eli responsible for his son’s sexual abuse of the women of the church (1 Samuel 3:13) even after Eli had warned his sons against those abuses (1 Samuel 2:20-25)? Are we prepared to stand before God to give an account for the incest in our church and claim we knew less about the incest in our church we live in the midst of than the Apostle Paul knew about the Corinthian church he did not live among (1 Corinthians 5)?
I tell you the truth. All of us know much more about the private sins of our sheep than we let on. Much more. And there’s even more we would know if we simply probed. If we just loved our sheep and their lambs enough to visit them regularly, asking them questions and warning them day and night, house to house, with tears. The Apostle Paul did it. Why don’t we?
You who judge the fathers of your church, do you not judge yourself? You who blame others, do you not blame yourself? You who rebuke others, do you not rebuke yourself?
Honestly, if we hear one more pastor justifying himself by blaming the fathers and young people and girls God has called him to guard and protect, let’s tar and feather the man. Presbyteries will sprinkle their holy water on him absolving him of all responsibility, but let’s not help them with their dirty work.
When we run into men who specialize in not seeing the sins of anyone but those outside their churches, let’s rebuke them. Let’s call them false shepherds. Hirelings. By now, we should all be tired of church officers who claim they never knew about the sins that dwelt under their noses for decades inside their church.
Pastors who know absolutely everything about the money of their church and the architecture of their sanctuary and the color scheme of their office and the word count of their latest book and the registrations of their conferences and the numbers they ran in worship last Sunday and the distinction between classic and historic Reformed Trinitarian theism while claiming to be shocked—absolutely shocked, I tell you—when the Apostle Paul writes and shames them publicly for being proud while the incestuous are seated at the Lord’s table beside them are not just back in Corinth. They are here among us. They are us. We are the ones who are proud while the incestuous eat the bread and wine we are administering to them.
We don’t fence the table and we don’t see the incest, yet we’re so very proud that we don’t allow any man whose adult child is not a believer to stand next to us administering the sacraments with us.