Yesterday, I finished a 17-year ministry at Southern Hills Baptist Church in Sioux City, Iowa. Our attendance was the highest it’s been in a long time. I did what I’ve done week after week, Sunday after Sunday, since August 28, 2005: preach a text of Scripture.
After church, we had a potluck dinner and enjoyed warm fellowship. Members expressed love for my wife and me, sorrow that we were leaving, and prayers for our future. We received a basket of cards with some generous gifts and messages that made my wife cry. It was a wonderful way to wrap things up.
What I didn’t receive was a standing ovation.
Yesterday, Matt Chandler stood before his congregation to admit to inappropriate text interactions with a woman other than his wife and to announce he was taking a leave of absence. He claimed the messages were not sexual or romantic, but he withheld any further details.
With that in mind, I’m not addressing Matt Chandler’s sin (or whatever other words he used to describe it). Reading about his imbroglio just got me thinking.
In the accounts of Chandler’s actions, I looked for one thing and, sure enough, saw that after he confessed to his congregation, the church gave him an ovation. Another pastor stood to “define the narrative” by telling them what their ovation meant, and then congregants gave Chandler another round of applause.
I am annoyed at this response. I’m an old codger, so I am authorized to do “get off my lawn” rants. When did it become appropriate to give standing ovations to those who have committed disqualifying (or near-disqualifying) sins in ministry?
You might remember Jules Woodson’s public story of sexual abuse. After years of denial and evasion, the pastor who had abused her years earlier stood before his large congregation and gave a sanitized version of his “failings.” He received a wildly supportive standing ovation.
More recently, another pastor stood to confess an affair (again, putting it in the best possible light), and the woman involved came forward to tell the truth. She accused the pastor of statutory rape and some of the ugliest actions imaginable. Of course, the pastor still got a standing ovation.
We can only hope that both of those churches came to later regret their actions. Nonetheless, they honored and applauded abusers. In doing so, they heaped condemnation on survivors and added to their suffering.
When a church leader stands to confess sin, it’s a time for lament and a time for tears. Repentance requires honesty, humility, and sorrow, not managing appearances, controlling the narrative, or hiding the facts.
The fault often lies more with leadership than with congregants. These “confessions” are often staged to put the fallen pastor in the best possible light. Facts are hidden. The full story isn’t told. The blame gets shifted to someone else. Excuses are made. All told, the pastor or church leaders control the story to cast the confession in a heroic light.
It’s textbook manipulation. Unfortunately, in many megachurches—and elsewhere, too—people are conditioned to see their pastors in near godlike terms, so when he confesses a sin, they jump to a redemptive narrative and respond with enthusiastic applause.
But it has to stop. We should not applaud confessions of sin. Ovations serve no spiritual purpose, and in these situations, especially, they only cause hurt and harm.
If a sinner is genuinely repentant, he doesn’t want applause. If he isn’t genuinely repentant, he doesn’t deserve it. In most cases, a church has been given only a part of the story or a sanitized version of it—typically the one most favorable to the pastor.
Yes, these churches love their preachers. As a pastor, I appreciate that. They want to believe the best of and for their leaders. That’s a natural and even honorable desire. But standing ovations for misbehavior are not acceptable.
We do not applaud sin. We do not cheer it. We grieve over it.
So save the standing ovations for the football field.
Dave Miller is the senior pastor of Southern Hills Baptist Church in Sioux City, Iowa, and editor of SBC Voices.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.