When a prominent pastor is forced out of the pulpit in the midst of scandal, scrutiny, or wrongdoing, the body of Christ winces. “Not another one.”
As more preachers gain national (and global) followings through books, podcasts, and other resources, the fallout around disgraced leaders extends across the church at large. Christians are left to reckon with how or whether they will continue to engage their past teachings.
America’s largest chain of Christian bookstores, LifeWay Christian Resources, decided to stop selling titles by former Harvest Bible Chapel pastor James MacDonald after his termination this week, taking down all 58 of his items from its website.
LifeWay, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), will also no longer print the books MacDonald released over the past three years through LifeWay Press and B&H Books, including Lord, Change My Attitude Before It’s Too Late;Think Differently, Act Like Men—The Bible Study; and The Will of God is the Word of God Companion Guide.
Previously, LifeWay has pulled titles from Mark Driscoll and Jen Hatmaker and books about heaven tourism due to doctrinal standards. Individual churches have also opted to no longer make resources by their former pastors available, as Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale did with Bob Coy’s popular sermon podcast after he resigned due to a “moral failing” in 2015.
But the decision of whom to continue to read, listen to, learn from, and support is often left up to individual believers. Christians understand that none are without sin, and God uses imperfect vehicles to convey his perfect gospel—but when do their personal shortcomings affect the message they teach?
CT asked several Christian leaders to weigh in on whether we should continue to study works by fallen pastors. (The magazine had leaders respond to the same question in 2014.) Their answers are below:
Jeff Crosby, publisher of InterVarsity Press:
As a reader, I come to any and all published works both classic and contemporary knowing that individual authors have proverbial “feet of clay,” just as I do. However, as a publisher, when a pastor-author has been credibly accused of or acknowledged wrong-doing in her or his leadership context, in particular, I believe we have an obligation to take the time to carefully and thoughtfully discern whether the published works should continue to be made available and act on what we discern even if it means lost revenue. Wherever possible, we monitor the leading and judgments of the church council, elder board, or session that has oversight of the pastor and take that into account in our decision-making.
Daniel L. Akin, president and preaching chair at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary:
If we are looking for perfect resources to consult in our study, the only one available is the Bible. Having said this, some pastors have sinned in such a way as to make it difficult to use their resources once their sin has come to light. This is true historically as well as in the contemporary setting. Sometimes we can separate the wonderful truth of a work from its fallen author. Sometimes we can’t. This is a wisdom decision and a judgment call. In my own life there are some books that now remain on my shelf and not at my study table. For me, sometimes the nature of the sin is such that I simply cannot read the author the same way or receive the help I once received. This, however, does not cause me to stop praying for them and wanting God’s best for them.
Wendy Alsup, author of Is the Bible Good for Women? and former deacon at Mars Hill Church:
It depends. If a pastor is under church discipline and leaves rather than going through a biblical process of restoration, then I believe they are not trustworthy to teach, not according to Scripture. I would be careful with their past works. If David had not humbly accepted Nathan’s correction, our understanding of his writings in Scripture would be very different today. But pastors may humbly respond to discipline as David did, accept responsibility for their wrongdoing, and work to repair with those they have harmed. We may have something to learn from them, but that would be down the road.
Ken Sande, president of Relational Wisdom 360 and founder of Peacemaker Ministries:
For me it would depend on the type of work and the timing and reason for being forced from ministry—or to put it another way, on how great the contradiction between the author’s books and life. Thus, if I had relied for years on a systematic theology book written by a pastor who stumbled late in his career, long after he wrote the book, I’d probably keep using it, although with some sadness. But if I bought a new book on marriage by a pastor who was discovered to have been unfaithful to his wife for many years, I’d probably throw it in the garbage.
Glenn Packiam, associate senior pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs:
We have to think carefully about the content to discern in what way it is connected to its context and to its “carrier.” For example, if the books or sermons distill truth that is confirmed through many voices of wisdom and has been stewarded by the church through many centuries, then we may think of the flaw as being in the “sower” and not in the “seed.” Keep reading or listening. But if the books or sermons emerge from the same theological ecosystem that produced or nourished or enabled their sin, then it is more bad fruit from the same bad root. In that case, it is worth not only setting aside those books and sermons but challenging that particular theological worldview by putting it in dialogue with other theological perspectives. We would need to rethink presuppositions and premises, not just principles.
Gregory E. Ganssle, philosophy professor at the Talbot School of Theology:
This question requires that we make two distinctions. First, we distinguish the content of the teaching and the content of that person’s character. Someone who has been disqualified from ministry through moral failure should not be regarded as a model. That person’s teaching, however, may include helpful content. Second, regarding the content, we need to distinguish the topics being discussed. We may consult the person on issues that are more removed from issues of character. The closer the topic is to what it means to follow Jesus faithfully, the more hesitant we should be in continuing to use the person’s teaching.
Scott Sauls, senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville:
My personal belief is yes, if a “fallen pastor’s” work is congruent with the grace and truth of Christ, and if it is of value to the body of Christ, then grace allows and might even insist that the work can still be esteemed and benefitted from. Otherwise, we would have to omit Peter’s letters and sermons from the New Testament because he fell twice—denying Jesus three times and then becoming xenophobic with the Gentiles, as told in Galatians 2. And what about all of those psalms written by David before he fell with Bathsheba and murdered Uriah, abusing his power in multiple ways? We should continue to use those, for sure. Or Moses who struck the rock in anger and Solomon who became a womanizer? Indeed, we should still read the books of Moses and Solomon’s Proverbs. … Yes, I do believe that valuable material produced by leaders who have fallen can still be of value, even when said leaders are for good reason removed from their positions. God’s grace and truth is not bound by our sin and failure.