When Christ is not at the center of a church

I read a chilling article in Christianity Today that included this paragraph:

Cho said many leaders at [a large and prominent church] refused to read the Roys Report article. Some did and dismissed its findings anyway. Top leaders at the church became defensive, he said, and wanted to protect [the lead pastor].

The circumstances are so familiar. A pastor builds a successful church or ministry over time, he surrounds himself with leaders who admire him, and when the pastor is accused of impropriety, the leaders rush to defend him. In a secular organization, this wouldn’t be so surprising. It’s why organizations (wrongly) put up with productive jerks. (See the myth of the 10x programmer.)

I suppose Christian leaders import secular ideals of success from their experiences outside of the church. Why fire a CEO who is making the company profitable? Why risk losing a pastor who has brought in so many members? Or maybe it has to do with spiritual attack? I suppose successful pastors are frequently accused of things they are innocent of, so church leaders believe all accusations are false.

But in this particular case, the person accused of improper behavior wasn’t the lead pastor. In this case the concern seems to be that if the church gets caught up in a scandal, it will taint the reputation of the lead pastor. It seems to me that attitude is exactly backwards.

I should hasten to add that the story is literally one-sided since the journalist was not able to talk with any of the church leaders. Even so, the model ought to be David, who danced before the Ark of the Covenant in his undergarments. When his wife confronted him, David replied:

“It was before the Lord, who chose me above your father and above all his house, to appoint me as prince over Israel, the people of the Lord—and I will celebrate before the Lord. I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in your eyes. But by the female servants of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor.”

A pastor’s job is to point to Jesus. If he’s more worried about his own reputation, it doesn’t matter how many people he brings through the door. And if his followers begin to put him on a pedestal, it might be time to abase himself. To quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

[Authorities] are merely bearers of the authority of a community, bearers of an office, bearers of a word. They are not the office itself or the word itself. Even the prophets are what they are only as bearers of a word. But what happens if someone appears with the claim that he not only has authority but is authority; not only has a word but is the Word? Here our being is invaded by a new being. Here the highest authority in the world so far, the prophet, is at an end. This is no longer a holy man, a reformer, a prophet, but the Son.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center, “The Christological Question”, translated by John Bowden