Many years ago, I was preparing a sermon and decided to use a story I had read to illustrate a point.
There was just one problem: the book that told the story was buried in a box inside my garage. Should I fish out the box and find the book?
I decided to tell the story from memory … and did just that the following Sunday.
Several days later, the pastor who wrote the book that was buried in my garage sent me an email. He gently chided me for getting the story partly wrong.
Evidently he had been searching for his name online, found the manuscript of my message which was posted every week on the church’s website, read what I wrote, and decided to correct me directly.
I apologized to him for not getting the story completely accurate and learned a valuable lesson: when you refer to people by name – especially Christian leaders – you better tell the truth.
Since God “does not lie” (Titus 1:2), Jesus is “the truth” (John 14:6), and Jesus told the Father “your word is truth” (John 17:17), we can conclude that truth is extremely important to the Holy Trinity … and must characterize the lives of Jesus’ followers as well.
But during times of stress in churches, truth often becomes a major casualty … and even Christian leaders have been known to lie at times.
Let me share two fictional scenarios to illustrate my thesis:
The first scenario involves Pastor Bob who is struggling to manage the behavior of his youth pastor, Larry.
Larry has started avoiding worship services, causing most young people to follow his example and not attend, either.
In addition, Larry has been skipping staff meetings, which are mandatory.
And the pastor has received reports that Larry swears on youth outings … bashes Pastor Bob verbally whenever he can … and doesn’t agree with Pastor Bob’s vision.
Pastor Bob finally confronts Larry, who promises to change but quickly reverts to his old ways.
Pastor Bob doesn’t want to fire Larry because he is adored by both the parents and the youth … but Bob also knows that Larry deserves it.
So Bob goes to the church board … describes the situation … gains board approval … calls Larry into a meeting with the board chairman present … and fires Larry on the spot.
However, Bob is petrified by the potential fallout. He’s worked hard to build the congregation and is concerned that if he tells the truth about Larry’s departure, people will blame Bob and leave the church in protest.
So Bob persuades the board to give a generous severance package to Larry as long as he keeps his mouth shut … the old “cash for silence” routine.
The following Sunday, Bob tells the congregation that Larry “is no longer our youth pastor” … but Bob avoids saying why.
However, six perceptive individuals corner Bob after the service and say, “Bob, tell us the truth … why is Larry no longer here?”
Knowing that Larry has been paid to stay quiet, Bob replies, “Well, Larry wasn’t really happy here, and some parents were upset with his performance, so Larry and I mutually agreed that he would leave. That’s really the size of it.”
Those six individuals will now get on the phone … start sending emails … and repeat Pastor Bob’s untruths all over the church.
Some of those lies will make their way back to Larry … who will become livid that Pastor Bob didn’t tell the truth that Larry was unilaterally fired.
But Larry has been squashed like a bug and has no forum to rebut Pastor Bob’s inaccuracies.
The second scenario involves Pastor Bob and the church board two years later.
Two members of the eight-person board – Marshall and Stu – have become upset with Pastor Bob. His crime?
He refused to marry each of their daughters because they weren’t marrying Christians.
Feeding off each other, and with their wives and daughters threatening not to attend church anymore, Marshall and Stu decide together that Pastor Bob has to go. But they know that the other board members don’t care about their issue.
So they spend several lunch hours trying to create charges against Pastor Bob that will sound plausible and stick.
After several weeks of comparing notes, they decide on the following charges:
*Pastor Bob is not the right man to reach a changing community.
*Pastor Bob has been in the church too long and is past the point of effectiveness.
*Pastor Bob can’t manage his family well because his youngest son was suspended for skipping school.
And just in case those allegations don’t work, they add one more they can pull out of their back pocket without needing corroboration:
*Pastor Bob has been mismanaging church funds.
Over the next few months, Marshall lobbies three board members to see things his way. Stu does the same with the other three members.
Eventually, two board members agree with Marshall, and one agrees with Stu, so the board has five votes to terminate Pastor Bob … and in the end, they vote 6-2 to fire him.
The church board is gravely concerned about the fallout after they announce Bob’s departure, so they decide to fortify their charges against him, adding several more.
They then meet with Bob … ask him to sign a separation agreement in exchange for a six-month severance package … but won’t answer one question that Bob asks:
“Why specifically am I being dismissed?”
Marshall mutters something about “it’s time for a change” and Bob walks into the night … stunned and abruptly unemployed.
After the board makes their announcement to the church, the spin begins: Bob could no longer manage his family … he mismanaged church funds … some people suspected him of having an affair … the staff no longer respected him … and on and on.
In fact, sometimes the board members change their story depending upon who they’re talking with at the time.
But the truth was that all of their “charges” were really pretexts because Marshall and Stu were angry that Pastor Bob hadn’t married their daughters.
Marshall and Stu knew the truth, but they didn’t dare tell the other board members or Pastor Bob. That wouldn’t have sounded “Christian.”
Wounded and depressed, Pastor Bob withdrew from public life until two months before his separation agreement was set to expire.
He started applying for open pastoral positions inside his denomination, but four months and thirty-two applications later, he had not received one positive response from any church.
Then one day, out of the blue, a friend from his former church called Bob. He told Bob that his reputation inside the church was in tatters … that it was going around that Bob’s son was on drugs, that Bob had stolen church funds, and that Bob had had an affair … none of it true.
No wonder Bob couldn’t generate any interest within his denomination!
The lies had done their work.
Believe me, what I have just written happens far more than it should inside of God-loving, Bible-believing Christian churches.
It evens happens in theological seminaries.
In the late Frank Pastore’s book Shattered, the former major league baseball pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds relates a story that still bothers me.
Frank (I spent an evening with him once) taught at my college and seminary. A group of leaders wanted to “overthrow” the school’s president.
Frank was invited to participate, but he refused, making him a “loose end” that knew too much. The result?
Frank writes, “So they put a kinder, gentler hit on me – character assassination by slander and gossip. To my face they acted as though nothing had changed. But all the while, they were destroying my reputation.”
Frank’s ministries suddenly evaporated. And then he was dismissed from the school in the middle of a semester … and his son’s scholarship was pulled.
Understandably, Frank didn’t want anything more to do with ministry or the church again for a while … although he eventually became the host of a Christian radio program that perfectly suited his talents.
But here’s what I want to know:
Why do Christian leaders who claim to know and believe the truth sometimes resort to lying?
Why do some Christians tolerate the lies without calling out the leaders?
I’ll write more about slander in the church … including ways to stop it cold … next time.