Thursday, 14 April 2016

Why you, preacher, should not commit adultery

I want to write to friends in Christian ministry – especially to the many men I know whose income comes from Christian people, whether simply from the offerings in an independent church, from denominational funds, or channelled through a mission or other parachurch agency. I want to write to you who are called to minister God’s word, preaching his gospel and shepherding his flock, and I want to urge you not to commit adultery. I know that at this very moment some of you are being tempted in this direction, and I fear that some of you will fall.

There are so many reasons I can think of for writing in this way, so many motives I could bring to your attention. But I want to focus on one, because it is the one that never occurred to me during my trajectory into sin. I have to confess that I was conscious of most of the others; I am aware that that is a pretty grim confession as it makes clear how wilful and high-handed my sin was. 

So, I am not writing to tell you not to commit adultery because of the offence to Jesus Christ that such sin would be. You are aware of the appalling blasphemy and peril of wilfully sinning against his precious blood that cleaned you up, but I am not writing about that. I’m not writing to urge you not to grieve the Holy Spirit by using your body – his temple – in a way which utterly rejects his presence. I’m not writing to remind you of the desperate spurning of the Father’s eternal love that such an action would represent. 

I’m not writing to press on you the awful impact of such unfaithfulness on your own local church, and perhaps on many other people who look up to you in wider circles. Of course, real converts to Jesus won’t simply fall away because you do: rather, they will see through you and your sin. But they will be desperately disappointed and hurt, and some may suffer real spiritual damage and set back over this. And there will be those who are as yet uncommitted who will make this THE excuse for their not coming to Jesus. Some will even cite your example as part of their own pathway to adultery. They will give account for that one day, to the extent that it is a shallow, fake excuse; you will, to the extent that it isn’t. And the young people in the church who you have known from little kids will be hurt the most. But I’m not writing to you about all that. 

I’m not writing to you about your own marriage and family. Of course, in the state you’re in right now, your wife’s love and commitment may not be meaning much to you. Believe me, one day you will see this phase of your life with less astigmatism. If you commit adultery you will be running headlong into catastrophic breakdown in your marriage. Before it is discovered or confessed, the secret act itself will already mean that nothing will ever be the same again with the woman to whom you made your vows; discovery will take you into as yet unimaginable fear, shame and misery as you face break-up and divorce, or a long, hard and frequently painful road to putting things right. Whether divorcing or “saving it", you are going to put the woman you promised to love and cherish through as great an emotional pain as you can possibly inflict. And your children, who have probably already put up with a lot due to your ministry, will put up with a whole lot more. From being pedestal-placed preacher’s kids they will become the pitied, and possibly suspect, failed-preacher’s kids. And, though they already knew you and your weaknesses and the issues in your marriage and behaviour like no leader or member of your church knew, they will in future see you in a whole new light and you will run the risk of losing them completely. But I’m not writing to you about that. 

I’m not writing to you about the risk to your own personal life, your mental and physical health, and your eternal salvation. It isn’t my aim to impress on you the appalling sense of free fall that can come over you when everything is in breakdown. I needn’t talk about the hours sitting in a practically empty room with a tube of Pringles and a bottle of whisky, when the distance between being a well-known, respected preacher and living as a drunk on the streets suddenly seems incredibly narrow. I am not talking about the slow, uncertain and insecure struggle to totally reinvent yourself, finding some kind of job in midlife, with the one skill set in which you feel moderately confident now utterly valueless and irrelevant. I am not warning you about the perils of actually surviving and making some money, when ex-pastors find themselves starting to live by precisely the materialistic, or promiscuous, or plain idolatrous lifestyle that they warned against for so long. I have friends who were great preachers and able theologians who are now living as practical atheists. I know of others who have ended up simply denying all they once stood for, slipping from orthodox Christian faith through liberalism to agnosticism or even some tailor-made mystical or pagan nonsense that will give them a philosophical excuse to carry on random sex. I could never manage that - I was always strictly orthodox in my sinning, so I know what it is to carry around in my head and conscience the truth I preached for 20 years, and yet live in total disobedience to it. I know the semi-madness of that incoherence, and I know the fear and dread that goes with it, but I’m not writing about that. 

Nor am I writing to you about the utter social emptiness that can hit you as your friends and colleagues drop you. As I have written before, there will be those who write, and those who don’t. To this day, there are those who ignore my messages, refuse my friend requests and generally give me the cold shoulder. I am not condoning their behaviour – though I know that I used to be pretty much as ungracious. In that context it is easy to give way to bitterness, and it is that bitterness that can make it easy to live, or excuse our living, in a state of worsening backsliding. It is a lethal whirlpool that can suck you down to hell, while all the time you self-justify by complaining about the injustice/heartlessness/hypocrisy of your erstwhile friends. It is horrible, but I am not writing to you about that.

No, I’m not writing to you about any of that. I’m writing to you about something else. I’m writing about the situation you may find yourself in if, by God’s amazing grace, you come out the other side of the grand canyon of sin into which adultery will throw you. 

I think many of us ministers who sinned sexually did so in a context of wider issues. Tiredness, disillusion, financial pressures, marital struggles, relationship tensions with church or mission colleagues – a general malaise in and with the ministry which combined with spiritual backsliding to leave us frankly uncaring about the consequences of sin. One Christian leader even suggested to me that adultery was a mode of “ministry suicide” – just about the only way definitively to escape a treadmill.

These “wider issues” are no excuse for sin, of course. But I mention them because they may be one reason why losing this job, this career, this calling, doesn’t carry much weight at present. And you may even want shot of it. And that is what I wanted to write about. 

Let’s suppose that, like I did, you do this evil thing. And let’s suppose that, by God’s shocking grace, you emerge the other side as a Christian. You may find yourself in a church in broadly the same circle that you have ministered in. You were known there. But you will never be what you were. Even the whole business of “going to church” will have to be relearned and reinvented. A lot of that humbling will do you nothing but good, but over time, as your spiritual life is re-formed, you will find yourself feeling again and again your inability to relate to what is happening around you. Your mind will be like a Formula One engine with no power train to connect it to the road. You will feel like an athlete who can never run. 

In my case, and every case is different, after the slow road (while still overtly not living as a Christian) via village Anglicans and then anonymous attendance at a distant FIEC church, I had a time back as a professing Christian in an independent Baptist church where I was well known. I then remarried and, by virtue of my new wife’s church involvement, now find myself in the Salvation Army. At the time we married I had very low expectations of what I could/should/would be able to do; my only desire was to love her faithfully and assist her in living out her calling. But I have been gradually coming alive. And the very circumstances into which God has placed me are reminders of past hopes, past preparation for ministry, a past sense of calling and purpose. Sarah’s unanticipated appointment to the Salvation Army training college in Camberwell not only took me back uncomfortably to wonderful days in South London 30 years earlier, but her role teaching the very disciplines in which I had worked in colleges and seminaries all over Brazil seemed like a particular pointed providence. The Salvation Army is at one and the same time a lovely gracious body which encourages and is open to new starts among those who have slipped very, very low. It is also a holiness/Arminian movement whose doctrines I respect, but which I cannot fully subscribe, and that might appear to place a natural limit on my usefulness within the organisation.

As I say, every case is different. Your trajectory after adultery will not be the same as mine. You cannot presume that there will be a way back to God in your story at all. (Even though, wherever you are right now, there is a way back to God, and you know it, don’t you?) But supposing you do come back, what then?

After the initial howling pain has shifted into the past, after your children have graciously put together some new level of relationship with you, after you have got comfortable in a Christian meeting again, after you have reinstated the long-lost rhythm of Bible reading and prayer and even read some theology again, you will wake up and remember. 

If you were ever really called to the ministry at all, you will remember what it is to preach the gospel. I don’t mean get up on your hind legs and give a talk in church. I mean that, whether it was one to one, in a small group or in a big congregation, you knew what it was to bring a word that came from the throne of heaven, portrayed the beauty and love of Christ crucified, and called for repentance Now. You knew what it was to feel yourself held at the intersection of the only three moments that matter – Christ’s past coming, his future judgement and the day that is called Today, and to be the herald given by God for these people in front of you.  You knew what it was to see, to sense, God at work, to know that this word now was making impact, that lives were being challenged, that grace was breaking in, that the silence and power were from the Holy Spirit of God, that you were a mere mouthpiece in what God was doing, and that he was doing what he loves to do. You knew that not everyone was called to do this, and that every calling was of great value to God, but you also knew that this was what you were made for and you had to do it and do it to the best of your ability. 

And you blew it. But then one day you are spiritually awake again. And, each morning, you are off to (in my case) sell granite worktops or take photographs. And, though you enjoy those jobs in a way, you know that you are not going to do the one thing you were really created for. You know you have put yourself into a permanent bypath.  And that sensation isn’t going to go away, or diminish with time, like the first screaming terror of adultery-discovered. This is going to go on and on, for the rest of your life. 

I was recently reasonably ill. Not very ill – I was quite clear that I wasn’t dying! – but ill enough to spend a night in hospital and have a fair battery of tests. It made me stop and think. Despite so much happiness in my new marriage, and much pleasure from so many good things in life – travel and food and music and books and film and mountains and photography – I lay there at one stage really thinking through whether I would actually prefer to be dying, simply because of this. When you have fully woken up to your original sense of calling, the weight of the disqualification that adultery brings seems utterly unbearable.

I am not saying I can’t bear it. By God’s grace I am pressing on. I try to explore any and every pathway to spiritual usefulness and fruitfulness, and I guess this blog is part of that. But nothing prepared me or warned me about the deep, inward angst of feeling that my life is now doomed to be a continuous, steady waste where nothing is actually what it could and should have been, and where I have thrown away the years of my maturity in ministry – the strategic years, the weighty years, years where with language and cultural knowledge under my belt in Brazil I could have been speaking into the spiritual chaos with some helpfulness.

That is what I am trying to write to you about. If you commit adultery, you can’t count on getting back a spiritual life at all. You may disappear without trace in the swamp of sin that your new “freedom” and exclusion from the church open up to you. But if the initial pain is got through and you do come back, don’t think that that will be the end. You will be forgiven, you will be back among Christian people, you will be useful. But regrets… boy, you’ll have a few.

If you are being tempted, my dear brother, THINK!

Friday, 1 April 2016

The Sally Army and Me - BBC One and on iPlayer

It was with some nervousness that we sat down to watch the first instalment of this six part documentary in which Paul O'Grady gets initiated as a volunteer with the Salvation Army in various facets of its work. I don't think we need have been nervous. Although I'm not a natural P O'G fan (to be honest, the radio goes off when he comes on) I thought his personableness came through well, and his own background, crossing paths as it has with the SA at various points, made him a perceptive as well as entertaining subject. 

On top of that we have Jo Moir, who more than holds her own next to the "big star." We all knew she made good television from watching BBC Alba's Bean a' Mhinisteir (Wife to the Minister) a couple of years ago, and she seems even better this time around. Confident, warm and natural, with a winsome clarity of communication that can laugh but stands no nonsense, Jo is a great gift and we should be thankful for her involvement in this series. 


I hope that the other five programmes take us further. Number one perhaps dealt with two of the best-known/practically caricatured elements of SA life - brass bands and the homeless. It will be interesting to see how it goes from here. And not just on the "actvities" level either, but in spiritual content. There appears to be a genuine interest in Paul O'Grady that somehow goes beyond mere professional or feigned curiosity.


As ever, the biggest howls of complaint come from within the Army. This time mostly from those who see the involvement of Paul O'Grady as in some way a slap in the face for people of LGBTQI orientation who would like to be more involved in the life of the movement. This saddens me. To the best of my knowledge, Paul O'Grady is not a Christian - he makes no claim to be. He is making a TV programme about being a volunteer. That situation is unique, and it is one that TSA has entered into knowingly - probably with some trepidation at the highest level (not just nervousness on our sofa!). That situation has precisely nothing to say to the daily life of the Army in its normal activities, where its commitment to Jesus Christ, to the truth of his gospel, and to established standards of Christian behaviour all come into play. 


The most disappointing part of the complaint this time around is the (utterly predictable) single issue prism through which all must be refracted and judged. No one is complaining that Paul O'Grady is not a Christian. Nobody is asking that he affirms the Doctrines of TSA. His non-commitment to Jesus is no issue at all. The only issue that carries weight is that (I understand) he is attracted to people of the same sex and this Isn't Fair.


The Salvation Army is a network of local Christian churches with a wider network of social welfare activities which are supported by government and public funding. At its heart it is a Christian body; you have to be a Christian, and a Christian of a particular type and doctrinal commitment to belong. Not all Christians are welcome, for a variety of reasons. It shares those aspects of its inclusivism and exclusivism with many other Christian bodies, of course. It has allowed an avowed agnostic to make a documentary series; I think this was not a mistake, though I may be proved wrong over the coming weeks! But the real issue is whether Jesus Christ and his gospel will be seen and heard. 


Please pipe down with the perpetual harping on about sex and let's see if the Spirit will work through this documentary! That's what I'm praying for. 


Catch up with the series on iPlayer: