Church Discipline, Contemporary Grace Style

Rick Phillips

I have so far refrained from public comment on the resignation of Tullian Tchividjian in light of his confessed sexual sin, limiting myself to praying for him and his family.  As one who has strongly criticized his theology, I wanted to avoid the impression that the personal failure of a leader automatically invalidates his teaching (or vice versa).  Only the Word of God proves our teaching.  Recent developments warrant comment, however, particularly as the actions of a theologically motivated community make clear its actual values and beliefs.  In the two-plus months since Tullian's resignation, we have witnessed the Contemporary Grace Movement (CGM) in action, applying their doctrine to one of its most prominent spokesmen.  It is not fair, of course, to ascribe these attitudes to everyone associated with the CGM.  But if I was a card-carrying member of the movement, or a pastor who frequently endorsed the "grace" and "liberation" teaching espoused by Tullian and company, here are three questions I would be asking myself and other leaders:

1.       Does pastoral godliness matter?  This question is fairly raised, given both Tullian's writings (including tweets) since his admitted sexual infidelity and now the response to it by his supporters.  For his part, Tullian has expressed an unwillingness to cease his public ministry, saying this would "undermine the very message" he teaches (one can only but regrettably agree).  This attitude has now been confirmed by Willow Creek Church (PCA) in Orlando, which just announced hiring Tchividjian to its ministry staff.  This a mere two weeks after Tullian filed for divorce, three weeks after he was deposed from the ministry, and a little over two months after he resigned his pastorate over admitted moral unfitness.  The apostle Paul's teaching that a pastor (and by extension, a celebrity preacher) must be faithful to his wife and above public reproach (1 Tim. 3:2) also does not seem to matter.  Perhaps because Paul's teaching falls into the category of law it is deemed irrelevant to the celebration of grace.

2.       Does the covenant nurture of women matter?  One of the more horrific moments in this affair was Tullian's disgraceful exposing (even highlighting) of his wife's sin before the national media.  Likewise, Paul Tripp's public article defending Tullian's divorce implied that the problem was her unwillingness to reconcile.  One may wonder why a private counselor would even publish such information about his clients (for the answer, see #3).  It certainly does not seem that the CGM emphasizes the duties of husbands to protect and love their wives, perhaps since teaching male obligation would under Tullian's doctrine amount to legalism.  Sadly, we are reminded of what happens not only when sin is given license but when our "glorious ruin" is celebrated: many vulnerable people, starting with women and children in the home, suffer from the tolerated sins of men.  Of all the people who should express concern about attending CGM churches, prospective wives may be among the first.

3.       Does the church matter?  By immediately seeking a ministry position, Tullian was showing little concern for the division and discouragement that would ensue in the church.  (By the church, I do not mean only Willow Creek PCA, but the broader church, including Coral Ridge and the PCA as a whole.)  Moreover, since the Bible requires good household management as a qualification for both elders and deacons, a church that was concerned for its people would not likely bring a man onto its staff just weeks after he filed for divorce and was defrocked.  Then comes the matter of the role of a celebrity counselor acting in the place of the established courts of the church.  Why was a private counselor the one to oversee Tullian's repentance instead of his presbytery?  With what authority did Paul Tripp publicly endorse Tullian's action to divorce his wife (in an article since taken down)?  The most likely answer seems to be that in the concern to minister to Tullian, biblical concerns regarding the church were pushed aside.

In observing this affair, I was perhaps most aggrieved by a statement that is itself wonderfully true.  After reading on Paul Tripp's website that Tullian's marriage is damaged beyond repair only two months after the sin was revealed, my eyes wandered downward to read his banner slogan: "Connecting the transforming power of Jesus Christ to everyday life."  Here, then, is a fourth question I would ask leaders of the Contemporary Grace Movement: what can a statement like this possibly mean in light of the "discipline" of Pastor Tullian?  For if we really believed that Christ has power not only to forgive and remove the sorrow of sin but also to transform and sanctify us from sin itself, it seems to me that the CGM's response to Tullian's scandalous sin would be very different. 

Now back to prayer...