While reading the Christmas story again last week, I was struck by a phrase in Matthew 1:19. After Mary was discovered to be pregnant – presumably with another man’s child – Joseph her fiancee had several choices to make.
Because he was “a righteous man” – a man who thoroughly kept the Mosaic law – he intended to break off their betrothal because she had been sexually unfaithful to him. According to Deuteronomy 22:23-24, Joseph had every right to not only “divorce” Mary but also to insist that she be stoned in order to “purge the evil from Israel.” Scripture seems to indicate that most men in Joseph’s situation would have had Mary executed.
But Matthew tells us that Joseph was guided by a different spirit. The ex-taxman writes that Joseph “did not want to expose her to public disgrace” so he decided to “divorce her quietly.”
He did not want to expose her to public disgrace. How unlike our culture. How unlike our media. And sadly, how unlike Christ’s church.
I’ve been reading Gayle Haggard’s book Why I Stayed recently. As you may recall, Ted Haggard was the pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs – a mega church of 14,000 – as well as the president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Some unflattering news surfaced about him a few years ago, and Pastor Haggard resigned from both his positions. Many women – even Christian women – would have left Mr. Haggard at that point, and would have been biblically justified in doing so. But Gayle chose to stick it out with her husband, thus the title of the book.
The story of her relationship with Ted makes for fascinating reading, but I was far more interested in the latter half of the book. Gayle describes the way that prominent Christian leaders, the church’s governing board, and their friends treated them during this time, and although she maintains a gracious, non-vindictive spirit throughout, the same cannot be said for the believers involved.
The Haggards – including Gayle, who was innocent of wrongdoing – were treated in a humiliating way by the church they founded in the basement of their home. Within a week of their departure, all traces of their ministry at the church had been purged. People who knew them were interviewed so as to find more “dirt” on them. Both believers and non-believers were able to say anything about them they liked but the Haggards were not permitted to reply. They were even told they had to leave the state of Colorado which meant that their children had to leave behind their friends and schooling.
No matter what they did, it was eventually misinterpreted. No matter what they said, it was flagrantly disregarded.
Pastors are fond of preaching on the fact that God can use anyone, even a liar like Abraham, a murderer like Moses, an adulterer like David, and a hothead like Peter. But let that same pastor fall into sin and he will be tarred, feathered, and blogged about ad infinitum, often by people who are his own teammates.
Phil Keaggy, who has long been my favorite Christian male artist, co-wrote a song with Sheila Walsh called “It Could’ve Been Me.” The song always makes me think and can bring me to tears. (The song is found on the CD Way Back Home and is available on iTunes if you’re interested.) After describing the fall of a Christian leader, Keaggy’s powerful chorus nails each one of us to the wall:
But it could’ve been me,
I could’ve been the one to lose my grip and fall.
It could’ve been me
The one who’s always standing tall.
For unless you hold me tightly, Lord,
And I can hold on too,
Then tomorrow in the news
It could be me, it could be me.
Just four chapters after Matthew 1, the grown-up Jesus said in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). When Mary “fell” – which is what Joseph thought until the angel enlightened him – Joseph chose mercy over vindictiveness. Mary’s pregnancy undoubtedly caused her to lose her local reputation as a virtuous woman. It might even have ended her chances of ever marrying anyone.
But although we now know the back story, neither Joseph nor the folks in Nazareth did at the time. A modern love story would probably tell us that Joseph married Mary anyway, but as a keeper of the law, he couldn’t bring himself to do that … until God told Joseph that Mary was not only his soul mate but also the mother of the promised Messiah.
When pastors are forcibly terminated from their churches, they suffer many losses: their jobs, their income, their houses (in some cases), their careers (potentially), their marriages (sometimes) and most of their church friends. And though they’re almost always innocent, their family members suffer those same losses.
But just like Mary and Ted Haggard, they also lose their reputations, whether the charges made against them are valid or not.
I find it ironic that pastors, who are conduits of God’s grace to scores of sinners throughout their ministries, cannot find that same grace when someone accuses them of wrongdoing.
May I urge you, not only at this Christmas season, but in every season of life, to be gracious toward every sinner who comes into your life, whether it’s a woman pregnant out of wedlock or a pastor who has been forced to leave his church because our Lord Jesus Christ suffered public disgrace that we might become recipients of His grace.
That’s why II Corinthians 8:9 is my favorite Christmas verse: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”
May God give us the ability to treat wounded Christian leaders with the same grace that Christ has shown us … because only grace can lead us home.
I wrote this article six years ago. It was among the first ones that I published. It’s still relevant today.