Questions from my students: should we listen to the teaching of moral failures?
Throughout our lifetime, we will be let down by countless people we admire. Whether at a distance through the internet and television or up close and personal with our pastors and church leaders, there will come a time when we find out the people we look up to are not as they seem.
Scripture gives us numerous warnings about who to follow. “False teachers” is a common New Testament warning from several early church leaders (1 Tim. 1:3, 6:2, 2 Peter 2:1, Jude 1:3). Jesus used the term “false prophets” to describe those who “come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15). John, Jesus’ beloved disciple, adopts this term in order to call his congregations towards deeper spiritual discernment (1 John 4:1).
A careful reading of these passages will show the primary warning is in regards to their teachers’ content. Paul tells Timothy that these teachers will be obsessed with “myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations” (1 Tim. 1:4). John tells his congregations that they’ll know a false prophet when they omit the confession of faith in Jesus Christ alone (1 John 4:2). Similarly, Peter warns his churches saying the false teachers will “bring in destructive heresies [i.e. false teaching], even denying the Master who bought them” (2 Peter 2:1).
But what happens when the reverse is true? What happens when our leaders are preaching biblically faithful sermons filled with truth while they are — unbeknownst to their congregation — committing adultery? Or what about pastors that are arrogant or selfish, and yet they preach the gospel with great effectiveness? What if we meet one of our favorite teachers only to be caught off guard by their inappropriate behavior or prideful, religious countenance? What happens when the content is solid but their character is questionable?
Two key passages have helped me with this; one from Jesus and another from Paul, who both dealt with such situations, albeit in varying climates. Each passage brings out two different but related thoughts on this question of following the teaching of morally compromised people.
The first passage, from Jesus, comes from his discussion with his disciples before he denounces the Pharisees and scribes. He tells them, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Matt. 23:2–3). Notice that Jesus instructs his disciples to “do and observe” (“obey” is another way of translating that Greek word) whatever they teach. “They preach,” Jesus says — and he may be inferring they preach well — but they do not do anything they talk about. Jesus is not calling us to throw out good teaching with bad character. In fact, he’s showing us that some bad people will have great teaching. And we must be discerning.
Second is Paul’s famous comments from his letter to the Philippians, he says: “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Phil. 1:15–18).
What matters most to Paul? Christ being proclaimed. This is so obvious when reading the rest of Paul’s remarkable catalogue of work. The gospel, to Paul, is “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3) and the distortion of that message caused him to use his strongest language (Gal. 1:6–9). Who delivers that message is secondary to Paul. This is why, right before the passage quoted above from Philippians, Paul prays, “that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (Phil. 1:9–10).
Paul’s hope was for the church in Philippi to be able to “discern” so they could “approve what is excellent.” This should be our prayer with our teachers, pastors, and leaders. We must be deeply saturated with the Scriptures in order that we might be able to discern who is preaching Christ and who is not. However, we also must have the humility to know we will never learn from a perfect preacher. As Jesus would say further on in Matthew 23: we need not be preoccupied with giving people too much credit, because “you have one instructor, the Christ.”
A couple of closing comments and disclaimers:
First, of course we should aim to follow pastors who have outstanding character. There’s a plethora of biblical witness to the importance of character over anything else. The Living God’s number one priority with human life is to develop human beings to become the kind of people who think and live like Jesus Christ. I wouldn’t recommend attending a church with a morally corrupt leader. That’s not what this piece is saying. This is more about our various teachers we will run into through our lifetime. Throughout our Christian walk, we will read books, hear sermons, and sit in small groups with all kinds of people with all kinds of sin, and we need not spend hours inspecting their character before we listen to anything they say, for they may be speaking the very word of God into our life — and we cannot miss that.
Secondly, there is no such thing as a perfect leader. You could spend your whole life looking for a whole life. They don’t exist. Some leaders are faithful for a time and then stray, some have hidden issues with terrible consequence, but all leaders and pastors fall short of the glory of God. Perfection is an illusion. Find a humble servant who can teach the word of Christ with accuracy, conviction, and meekness. Follow them, listen to them, and remain ready to receive and obey, just as Jesus told you (Matthew 7:24, c.f. James 1:22). Read great books and learn from them, implement truth into your life and watch it change.
Third, if you find yourself in a congregation where the pastor is both biblically unfaithful in his teaching and morally compromised in his character, I would not stay there long. Seeing point #1 in this conclusion, I don’t recommend that anyways. However, many Christians stay in bad churches for too long and then wonder why they “all of sudden” lack faith in God. Who we follow is of grave importance and we must act like it.
The best teachers point to the Teacher, Jesus. When, in the first century, the Corinthian church was obsessively comparing their teachers, Paul rebuked them saying, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:5–9).
The preacher is nothing; God is everything. He will judge and hand out the wages. We must remain in fertile soil, receiving the implanted word of God from our various teachers, knowing that His word will never fade or come back void — no matter the messenger.