How should we react to the teaching ministry of someone who we find out to have been scandalously sinful? On various occasions in my life, men from whom I have learned have been shown to have behaved in just such ways. What should my attitude be to all that I have learned? What should yours be in similar situations?
Well, after a detour last week for our Family Service, we're back to our short series on the Articles of the Church of England called 'What Christians Believe'.
These Articles are 39 short statements of doctrine, or teaching, to which we are committed as Anglicans, but above all because they're faithful to the teaching of the Bible. Now I know that this series can seem like a bit of an effort. But it's well worth it. So make the necessary effort to take this teaching into your heart and mind. We're only going to do this once. Don't miss out. As I said last year, going through them a few each year is useful, both because they help us to get a grip more fully on a wide range of aspects of our faith, but also because they make us focus, once in a while, on significant issues that otherwise we might neglect. So they help us to have a more thought through and rounded grasp of the faith and the life of the church, of which we're a part if we've put our trust in Jesus, who is the head of the church which is his body.
You can see sermons on all the previous Articles from 1 to 25 on church.org.uk. And today we come to Article 26, which has the rather splendid if daunting title, 'Of the Unworthiness of Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament'. And it deals with exactly the kind of questions that I raised at the start. So although it might, at first sight, seem rather left field and not altogether relevant to daily living, in fact if we're committed members of the church, and the church is central to our lives, as it should be, then these issues are highly relevant and have a real week-by-week as well as long term impact on our lives. So it's very helpful to have them clear in our minds.
To that end, I've set out this Article 26, in somewhat modernised English, on the outline that's on the back of the service sheet. And you'll also see there the headings that I'll work through so that we can figure out the significance of this for us and for the church. Here's the modernised article, which is fairly lengthy so bear with me.
The title of the Article (this is the original version) is this:
Of the Unworthiness of Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament
Then here's the Article itself, modernised:
Although in the visible church the evil are always mingled with the good and sometimes evil people possess the highest rank in the ministry of the Word and sacraments, nevertheless since they do not do these things in their own name but in Christ's and minister by his commission and authority, we may use their ministry both in hearing God's Word and in receiving the sacraments. The effect of Christ's institution is not taken away by the wickedness of these people, nor is the grace of God's gifts diminished, so long as the sacraments are received by faith and rightly. The sacraments are effectual because of Christ's institution and promise, even though they may be administered by evil men.
Nevertheless, it belongs to the discipline of the church that investigation be made into evil ministers. Those who are accused by witnesses having knowledge of their offences and who in the end are justly found guilty, should be deposed.
So, what's that all about? Well my headings spell out and I hope, clarify the important points. Here's the first:
First, IN THE CHURCH THERE WILL ALWAYS BE A MIXTURE OF GODLY AND UNGODLY PEOPLE.
Jesus taught in a parable to that effect, about the weeds – that's the ungodly – that grow among the wheat – that's the godly. It's in Matthew 13.24-30:
"[Jesus] put another parable before them, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in the field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, "Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?" He said to them, "An enemy has done this." So the servants said to him, "Then do you want us to go and gather them?" But he said, "No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn."'"
Article 26 uses strong language when it speaks of 'evil ministers'. But that only reflects the language Jesus and the Bible use about us. So 1 John 3.8 says:
"Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil …"
So we must recognise that in the church there will always be a mixture of godly and ungodly people. That's the broad principle, and it has a narrower application. So:
Secondly, SOMETIMES MINISTERS, EVEN SENIOR MINISTERS, ARE UNGODLY IN THEIR BEHAVIOUR.
When we have the Spirit of God through faith in Christ, and so are new men and women in Christ, we still have sinful nature lurking not far from the surface of our lives, and warring against our new, Holy Spirit filled and directed nature. Jesus talks of that sinful nature as evil welling up within us. So this is what he says in Mark 7.21-23:
"For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."
No minister is exempt from the truth that if we allow our sinful nature free reign, and do not walk in step with the Holy Spirit, then we will find our lives enslaved to and dominated by evil – even if it is respectable evil in the eyes of our culture. If we have never in reality put our faith in Christ and so received the Spirit, then we have no new spiritual nature to fight against our sinful nature, and Jesus simply characterises us as evil. That is the ultimate direction of our lives apart from Christ. And holding office in a Christian denomination doesn't exempt anyone. It can just provide a handy smokescreen.
There are some striking examples of these principles among the Old Covenant people of God. King David, though the author of large tranches of the Scriptures, was an adulterer and a murderer. Caiaphas, who was High Priest in the time of Jesus' earthly ministry, acted in an evil way in pursuing the death of Jesus.
J.C.Ryle, as David has often pointed out, wrote a piece called, "The Fallibility of Ministers". He warns us against any hero-worship of a favourite preacher or theologian. Any one can wrong, and everyone does. As Ryle says, "great ministers may make great mistakes." In fact that article is an appendix in our staff Guidebook, by way of a salutary warning.
So don't be in any doubt about the fact that sometimes ministers, even senior ministers, are ungodly in their behaviour. Yes, I know my title is senior minister! And yes, please pull me up without hesitation if you ever see such behaviour from me. None of us is immune. But …
Thirdly, THE POWER OF GOD'S WORD DOES NOT DEPEND ON THE GODLINESS OF THOSE WHO COMMUNICATE IT.
Caiaphas the High Priest illustrates vividly this point. John in his Gospel recounts how the spiritual power of Jesus' ministry was confusing the religious leadership. John 11.49-53 takes up the story:
"But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, 'You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.' [And John comments:] He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. So from that day on they made plans to put [Jesus] to death."
The fact that Caiaphas hated Jesus and worked to kill him didn't prevent God from speaking through him – though Caiaphas was completely oblivious to the fact that it was even happening. He thought he was talking brutal political expediency. But God spoke the gospel through him, all unwittingly.
There's a different though equally striking example of this principle in the apostle Paul's Letter to the Philippians – which is why I chose it as one of our Bible readings this morning. Paul is in prison for his faith as he writes this, and so unable to be directly involved in ministry out in the world, though he hears what's going on, and how others are taking advantage of his enforced absence. But he says (this is Philippians 1.16-18):
"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 defence of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice."
Clearly that is not even a grudging acknowledgement, but rather a joyful recognition that the gospel can progress even through preachers whose motives are frankly evil. The power of God's Word does not depend on the godliness of those who communicate it.
The simplest possible example of that would be the public reading of Scripture. However evil the life of the reader, the truth and living power of the Scriptures in the hands of the Holy Spirit is not affected one jot. So here are three points that flow from that.
One. Ungodly ministers are still Christ's ambassadors. We don't need to see into their souls but we do need to test what they say to make sure that it is, as the founders of this church put it, "sound Scriptural and evangelical truth".
Two. This principle applies to the sacraments as well – that is, baptism and the Lord's Supper. So for instance, if you were to discover that the minister who baptised you was an evil man, you would not need to start worrying about whether you were baptised or not. The baptism comes from God, not from him.
Three. The question is whether we believe and obey God's word when we hear it – whoever we hear it from. The finger points back to us. The heart and life of the preacher is one thing. What about ours?
Then my next main heading is this – so:
Fourthly, APPROPRIATE DISCIPLINE DOES NEED TO BE EXERCISED IN THE LIFE OF THE CHURCH.
The inevitable existence of evil in the life of the church must never be an excuse for collusion with it, or toleration of it. You can find the fundamental teaching on this from the lips of Jesus in Matthew 18.15-17. These are the principles of discipline in the church that Jesus lays down:
"If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector."
In other words, treat him as if he were an unbeliever. That is, love him, but don't put him to work in the church as if he were a Christian; and if he is doing such work in the church, then remove him. Appropriate discipline does need to be exercised in the life of the church.
Fifthly, UNGODLY MINISTERS SHOULD, AFTER A PROPER PROCESS, BE REMOVED FROM OFFICE.
The apostle Paul's Letters to Timothy and Titus about their church leadership ministries have much wisdom from God that relate to this. Here are some snippets. In 2 Timothy 3.5, he speaks of those …
"… having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power."
And he tells Timothy:
"Avoid such people."
In Titus 3.10-11 he instructs:
"As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned."
It is an inevitable implication of such an instruction to 'have nothing to do with' such people, that if they are in church leadership, they should not be permitted to continue.
Four further points flow from this.
One. This relates to issues of character and behaviour.
Two. False teaching is a different but equally important issue.
Let me give you an illustration of this that I heard about just last week. I get a briefing every now and again that helps to keep me up to date with what's going on around the Anglican world. A few days ago the latest one hit my inbox. And it told me of the sorry saga of the appointments to the post of the Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome. That might seem somewhat distant but stay with me because it's so relevant for our situation here in England and for what we're thinking about. I quote:
The Anglican Centre in Rome is the Embassy of the Worldwide Anglican Communion to the Roman Catholic Church. It's Director is effectively the Archbishop of Canterbury's Ambassador to the Vatican … Last year the Centre's director [who is named] was forced to step down after only a year in office, following an undisclosed allegation of sexual misconduct, and the Governing Body took swift and urgent steps to appoint an interim director to restore the mission's theological reputation and diplomatic standing. [So that's very sad, but at least appropriate discipline was exercised. The report continues …] The Interim Director is [he is also named]. The Governing Body of the Anglican Centre in Rome no doubt carried out all the necessary due diligence to ensure [the Interim Director's] impeccable record of sexual behaviour and moral probity. What a pity they didn't delve into his theological orthodoxy.
He denies the physical resurrection of Jesus.
And this direct quote from his teaching, among others, is given by way of a sample. So I quote:
The Resurrection of Jesus ought not to be seen in physical terms, but as a new spiritual reality. It is important for Christians to be set free from the idea that the Resurrection was an extraordinary physical event which restored to life Jesus' original earthly body … [The Gospel accounts …] are not historical records as we understand them. They are symbolic images …
End of quote. He is at least up front about what he believes. That is a flat contradiction of the apostolic faith – and so of God's word. So replace one Director whose behaviour is said to be ungodly with another whose teaching is ungodly is to replace evil behaviour with false teaching. Or to put it another way, that is out of the frying pan and head-first into the fire.
Character and behaviour are one thing. False teaching is another. Admittedly they are very often related – idolatry and immorality are yolked together throughout Biblical history. But they're different. They are also both spiritually deadly.
Three. False teachers do not communicate the word of God but contradict it. Back in Titus 1.9, the apostle says:
"He [that is, an elder – a senior leader in the church] must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it."
And four. We should all watch our lives and our teaching carefully. We all need to hear the apostle Paul's words constantly ringing in our ears and penetrating deep into our hearts – this is 1 Timothy 4.16:
"Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers."
Let's bow our heads to pray.
And let me pray a modern version of a prayer from the old Book of Common Prayer service of ordination:
Almighty God, giver of all good things, by your Holy Spirit you have appointed various orders of ministry in your church. Look in mercy on your servants who are called to be presbyters; fill them with the truth of your doctrine and clothe them with holiness of life, so that by word and example they may faithfully serve you in this office to the glory of your name and for the upbuilding of your church through the merits of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.