Resignations seem to be all the rage in the Christian world these days. Just recently I was reading an article about one such resignation and the 'you may also like' section read almost like an obituary of half the world's church leaders. I most certainly did not 'also like'. It is a difficult and disconcerting issue which is as much unavoidable as it is uncomfortable.
Even if our insatiable desire for gossip finds this infuriating, a lot of the time we don't know many details about these incidents. Nor do we necessarily need to. (A Christian version of Hello! magazine is one of the last things we need – and besides, we all know that if it is gossip we want then we need only ask anyone's prayer requests.) Speculation in these scenarios is almost certainly misguided, morally questionable, and definitely not helpful.
However it may be just as misguided to simply sweep these kinds of situations under the carpet as if nothing ever happened. News of scandals and resignations is not unimportant. These stories are embarrassing, yes, but they are also sobering, sombre and incredibly significant. In the light of this, I seek to offer some short reflections which could bear some general relevance. I hope my words do not come with any judgment or insensitivity. Rather, I hope that they can be honest, maybe a little bit insightful, and possibly even edifying.
1. Sad but timely reminders
People sometimes say that it is encouraging when church leaders fail. Although it definitely cannot be stressed enough that our leaders are only human, I still struggle to get on board with this. Whether by a leader or not, sin is still sin, and it is never encouraging – it is sad. It is also scary. It is scary because (on the whole) we respect our leaders. Therefore whenever I read of a fresh scandal or resignation, my mind goes into overdrive: 'If someone so highly-esteemed as [insert name here] can be ensnared in such a way, then how much more might I?!' This is of course flawed thinking, because regard does not reflect discipleship any more than Christian fame indicates faithfulness. Nonetheless, when these kinds of stories surface, they hand us sad but timely reminders to check our own lives; to remain in Christ and continue to follow hard after him with humility, reverence and integrity.
2. Fallen from grace?
When high-profile leaders of any kind resign from their positions, we often talk of a 'fall from grace'. In the idiomatic sense, this certainly applies to most situations: a loss of authority and prestige almost always takes place. But a fall from grace in this sense does not at all necessitate a fall from grace in a Christian sense. Just a cursory glance at the Bible and church history shows us that time and time again, Christian leaders mess up. Does this make them any less Christian? No. Does this disqualify them from the grace of God for salvation? Absolutely not. They may fall. But it does not have to be a fall from grace. The heart of the gospel tells us that when we screw up there is mercy and forgiveness should we humble ourselves to seek it. Religious leaders do fall, but never so far that the grace of God cannot catch them (should they choose to let it).
3. Trust the Chief Shepherd.
There is such a rich abundance of 'shepherding' imagery in the Bible that I sometimes think it must be an absolute farmer's dream. We have the Lord as our Shepherd and Jesus as the Good Shepherd, as well as religious leaders with shepherding roles. Because of this, it is useful to distinguish between the 'Chief Shepherd' – God – and his 'under-shepherds' – church leaders. This distinction is invaluable, because we can so easily get sucked into trusting our under-shepherds more than we trust the Chief Shepherd. We may become so enamoured by someone's charisma and caught in a kaleidoscope of 'vision' that we don't even realise we have set up for ourselves a series of idols. In the face of this, scandals and resignations can send us reeling back to reality: we are jolted sharply back into (re-)locating our hope in God and not any of his workers. He is the one truly good shepherd. He is sovereign, he is faithful, and in him and him alone do [should] we trust.
4. Strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered?
I have heard this axiom flying around a lot recently. It has its biblical roots in Zechariah 13:7 and significantly Matthew 26:31 as Jesus predicts the disciples' desertion. Out of these contexts however (as it is all too often taken), people use it to mean that 'if the leader falls, then those around him/her will too'. Well, not so if your security rests ultimately in the Chief Shepherd as opposed to any under-shepherd. It can be remarkable to see the ways in which Christian communities can come together in times of adversity: praying, yes, but also stepping up to radically serve each other in miraculous love and humility. When churches are earthed in righteous soil, this is nothing but a natural overflow of their normal state of being. Though they face difficulties they will not despair, for they know that their Chief Shepherd is with them – even when their under-shepherds aren't.
5. God loves his people.
God dearly loves his people. This is no trite platitude. Though times of trouble may loom and despair deride the hope of the faithful, the Christian community found in Christ can confide in this: God loves his people with a depth and authenticity that no man can measure. So we rejoice in the hardest of times and indeed delight in his love and grace. Malpractice might mock us and resignation make a misery of our human authorities, but we may stare it in the face and declare that we shall not be moved. We are the Church of Christ standing in the love of God and the gates of hell shall not prevail against us.
Whilst all of this is true, it is still a difficult and distressing thing to be caught up in these situations. Resignations may rightly rock us, as evils are exposed and uncertainty abounds. These are perplexing and saddening experiences in which all too many Christian communities across the world are (or have been) entangled. Yet they are also opportunities to be amazed by grace. God is faithful and showers us with unfathomable kindness and mercy. The challenge for us all is to fall further into his arms, to draw deeply out of these experiences; to accept God's discipline and move freely on to love him, serve him, and magnify his most mighty name.
Archie Catchpole is a student at London School of Theology.