He Is Not A Pastor Any More

Credit: Richard Graulich/Palm Beach Post

Investigative journalist Julie Roys has alerted us all to news published in the Palm Beach Post that Tullian Tchividjian has planted a new congregation in Palm Beach Gardens, FL. This is news because Tchvidjian’s ministerial credentials were revoked by his PCA presbytery on the grounds that he committed adultery with one of his parishioners, an act which, in some states, might have found him facing criminal charges. After he was removed from the pastoral ministry by his presbytery he was very graciously given a position as an advisor/consultant by Willow Creek PCA in Orlando, FL. Only after he took that position did it emerge that Tchvidjian had committed adultery with yet another woman.

Deposed

Tchvidjian, who was pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, in Ft Lauderdale, FL, was deposed from ministerial office by his presbytery according to the PCA Book of Church Order (34.7), which says:

When a minister, pending a trial, shall make confession, if the matter be base and flagitious, such as drunkenness, uncleanness, or crimes of a greater nature, however penitent he may appear to the satisfaction of all, the court shall without delay impose definite suspension or depose him from the ministry.

His presbytery deposed him, i.e., removed him from office. When Tchvidjian committed adultery he knew that he was liable to removal from office. When he was ordained to the office of minister (in the PCA the office is also known as Teaching Elder) he took several vows. The third and fourth vows say,

Do you approve of the form of government and discipline of the Presbyterian Church in America, in conformity with the general principles of Biblical polity?

Do you promise subjection to your brethren in the Lord?

The seventh vow says:

Do you engage to be faithful and diligent in the exercise of all your duties as a Christian and a minister of the Gospel, whether personal or relational, private or public; and to endeavor by the grace of God to adorn the profession of the Gospel in your manner of life, and to walk with exemplary piety before the flock of which God shall make you overseer?

He violated these vows solemnly taken in before the church and before the face of God. Even more fundamentally, he violated God’s law repeatedly, namely the seventh commandment: “You shall not commit adultery” (Ex 20:14). He also violated the ninth commandment, “You shall not bear false witness.” For all these, he may surely be forgiven and received again in the church as a sinner justified and saved by unconditional grace of God in Christ (sola gratia), received through faith alone (sola fide). Of that there can be no question.

Contumacious

His standing before Lord, however, is not what is directly before us now. What is before us now is his status as a minister and his authority to plant a congregation and conduct himself as a minister to preach the Word of God, to administer the holy sacraments, and to lead and supervise the discipline of a congregation.

By acting in this way he has shown himself to be contumacious. Contumacy is the “stubborn refusal to obey or comply with authority, especially disobedience to a court order or summons” (Oxford Dictionary). There are courts (or assemblies) in Presbyterian and Reformed churches and the courts of the PCA have made a considered decision and he has defied those courts (session and presbytery). That is the definition of contumacy.

Abusive

We should take a moment to appreciate what he did to two of Christ’s lambs and how he spoke about it in the interview. He not only violated his marriage vows but he engaged in sexual relations with two women who were not his wife. In one case, as the news story details, the other person was a member of his congregation. This is not only immoral but it is shocking breach of professional conduct. His defense is that the other person was consenting but that ignores relationship he had to her. He was her pastor. A pastor is a shepherd of Christ’s lambs. He had a sacred trust to care for those lambs, to preach the law and the gospel, to care for, to protect them. Instead he chose to have sex with one of them. What happened to the lamb he separated from the flock for his own ends?

“The continuation of his career, while Steele said she was ostracized and her life floundered after their affair, was hard on her and her faith.

“The loss of my faith hurts and you can’t get that back,”

According to the news story, “The Sanctuary” is ostensibly a “a judgment-free congregation “ but what about Jesus’ judgment of those who cause a little one to stumble?

“but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt 18:6)

Small business people sometimes go bankrupt. After a time they might be able to start over. The church, however, is not a business. A minister is not a businessman. He is more like an Ambassador. He represents the King of Kings and the Kingdom of God. He is not a free agent. When an ambassador breaks faith with his king, he is not longer qualified to represent him.

Unqualified

The opening line of the Palm Beach Post story is telling: “Preacher Tullian Tchividjian told his congregation on a recent Sunday that he sees himself in a story from the Gospel of John.” Tchvidjian clearly fails to grasp the gravity of the situation. When challenged about what he did, he admits that he sinned but refuses to acknowledge the inherent abuse of the sheep. This is nothing but Narcissism.

Not only has he violated his vows, defied the church, and abused the sheep but he has taken upon himself an office he no longer holds. He says that he feels compelled to tell his story. That is the definition of Narcissism. This is akin to a physician who has violated the Hippocratic Oath and the law, whose credentials as physician have been removed, who then proceeds to open a medical practice. The word for this is quackery. In most places it is grounds for criminal prosecution. I am not calling for criminal prosecution of a former minister but the analogy should alert us to the gravity of the problem.

Who ordained him to the office of Pastor of “The Sanctuary”? Who called him to plant this congregation? To whom is he accountable? By whose authority does he purport to preach or function as a minister? When word of this church plant began to leak out some defended his behavior in planting a new congregation on the basis of his story, his gifts, and his personality. This is nothing but more Narcissism. Yes, he is a compelling public speaker and a colorful personality but those are not the gifts and qualities of a minister mentioned by Paul in 1 Timothy 3:2–7:

Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil (ESV).

Tchvidjian does not pass this test. He does not even demonstrate penitence for the ways in which he has defied the Word of God. What would a penitent person think? He would think: “I have sinned against God. I violated my oath of office. I’ve violated the trust of my congregation. I violated the trust of the congregation that tried to take me in. The church has spoken at the regional and local levels. I have destroyed the life of one of Christ’s lambs. Clearly pastoral ministry is not my vocation. I need to take up an honorable secular vocation.”

The story he should be telling is that of a former minister who was rightly made a layman by his church, the story of penitence wrought by grace. That story should be told quietly in a congregation where he is accountable to elders. That would be a great story but it is not his story.

Lawless

A rightly ordered Reformed and/or Presbyterian Church regularly hears the holy law of God expounded as the norm or guide to the Christian life. That will be problematic in “The Sanctuary” when the exposition of God’s law comes to the fifth commandment. How has Tchvidjian honored his presbytery or the session at Willow Creek by defying their just judgment? His relation to the seventh commandment is obviously problematic. “It was consensual” is not repentance. The eighth commandment creates problems: from where are these worshippers coming? At least some of them are coming from other churches. The ninth commandment also presents distinct challenges? Did Tullian tell the truth to Willow Creek? No. Is he penitent? No. James 2:14 seems applicable here: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can such faith save him?” There is a difference between mere profession and true faith. The latter produces fruit, evidence.

This is what the Reformed Churches confess:

So then, it is impossible for this holy faith to be unfruitful in a human being, seeing that we do not speak of an empty faith but of what Scripture calls “faith working through love,” which leads a man to do by himself the works that God has commanded in his Word (Belgic Confession, art 24).

The Answer

There are three parts to the Christian faith: Guilt (under the just condemnation of the law); Grace (God’s free favor, in Christ, to helpless sinners), and Gratitude, the Christian life lived, in union Christ, by grace alone, through faith alone. In the Christian life we acknowledge our sins, we turn from them, seek to die to them daily. We live to Christ according to his holy law not in order to be saved but because we have been saved by grace alone, through faith alone.

We do that in a rightly ordered, disciplined church where the minister’s personality and personal history is not the center of the story. Christ is at the center of the biblical story. His Word, not our story, is the norm.

Salvation (justification, sanctification, glorification) is free but those who have been graciously saved give evidence of that grace. They want nothing more to love their Lord and his people. They know what they are by nature (sinners), what they were (under wrath), and how rich is God’s free favor. The redeemed want to find themselves in a  congregation where all things are done decently and orderly. They want to find themselves in the church, not just a group gathered about personality.

Not every congregation that gathers and which calls itself “church” really is. During the Reformation there were more than a few start up congregations gathered around a personality. The Reformed churches called these groups “sects.” The Reformed Churches discerned three evidences to determine whether a congregation really is part of the true church:

  1. The pure preaching of the gospel
  2. The pure administration of the sacraments
  3. The use of church discipline

This list comes from the Belgic Confession (1561), art. 29. Does “The Sanctuary” possess the marks or evidences of being part of the true church or is it a “sect”? This is the question which those who attend “The Sanctuary” and all those who support it should ask themselves.

R. Scott Clark

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11 comments

  1. Tchividjian is so governed by his “lower” passions that his heart, soul and mind have become hardened to PCA governance. He brought to mind my recent rereading of Oswald Chambers’s March 23 devotion from My Utmost For His Highest:

    The natural man, or unbeliever, knows nothing about carnality. The desires of the flesh warring against the Spirit, and the Spirit warring against the flesh, which began at rebirth, are what produce carnality and the awareness of it. But Paul said, “Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). In other words, carnality will disappear…

    If the Spirit of God detects anything in you that is wrong, He doesn’t ask you to make it right; He only asks you to accept the light of truth, and then He will make it right. A child of the light will confess sin instantly and stand completely open before God. But a child of the darkness will say, “Oh, I can explain that.” When the light shines and the Spirit brings conviction of sin, be a child of the light. Confess your wrongdoing, and God will deal with it. If, however, you try to vindicate yourself, you prove yourself to be a child of the darkness.

    Tchividjian has chosen darkness over light, and selfhood over shepherding. “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.” And about those tattoos…!

    Over a decade ago our Christian (Disciples Of Christ) church’s pastor was a recently-chastened adulterer, and to borrow a marvelous line from a “worldly” novel out there, there was something about “Bob” that was like biting on tinfoil. He never could, nor did he strive to, connect with people in the congregation. When he talked with you, his eyes were focused beyond you, looking elsewhere – beyond church confines. After he wounded several congregants (most of them older), I confronted him about his façade; this was in the immediate wake of his never getting in touch with me to see how I was after I had a car wreck when my husband was out of town; he rejoined that he didn’t do so since he heard that I wasn’t hurt. (But he expressed admiration for my fine rental “wheels” in the parking lot!)

    I’ll never forget how he actually looked me in the eye and flatly stated that he disliked his pastoral chaplaincy duties. I rejoined that perhaps he should look for another line of work, adding that he was a fine theologian; perhaps he should teach? “Not enough money in it,” Bob shot back. He continued to sow discord for another year or so before he was told by the elders to pack his bags.

    (I try to remember/pray for Bob’s very quiet, cowed-into=hyper-submissiveness wife…)

  2. Dear Dr. Clark,
    I am grateful our Lord established, in His Word, clear statements distinguishing the true Church from sects and cults. (Sects and cults are grievous snares of God’s vanquished enemy; I confess I was attracted to personality cults. In cults and sects I found license to sin.)

    But submitting to, serving in, and obeying Him in His true Church produces praise and worship of Him in His true Church; He protects His sheep in every station. As I learn to live according to the ‘faith of obedience’, His Spirit in me guides and instructs me to display whose I am.

    We are the people He redeemed for His own possession, who are zealous for every good work. Whether we sweep the sidewalk, prepare the Lord’s Supper, arrange the flowers, care for children in the nursery, administer the Gospel, administer the Sacraments, or administer Church discipline we are His sheep. He has given each of us His Word and His Spirit to guide and instruct us how to live in His New Creation, Glorifying His Holy Name.

    I praise Him as His Spirit establishes His New Creation through each of His True sheep. We are blessed He established His true Church for His Remnant in our generations.

  3. Is Mr. Tchividjian still a member of any PCA? If so, would this not be cause for discipline?

    Although certain areas of discipline (such as Sessional discipline of a lay person) may rightly be done in strictest confidence (rather than publicly), surely his Session would make a public statement regarding such behavior, to protect others from his sinful conduct.

    If he is not a member, has he been excommunicated? If not, what has occurred regarding his membership? Is discipline even being administered?

    • David,

      As far as I know, after contacting the pastor at Willow Creek, Tullian has simply walked away from them. In the article they re-iterated their judgment that he ought not to be in ministry.

      There are different practices regarding those who simply walk away from church. My view is that they should be disciplined whether they reply to attempts to contact them. There other schools of thought, however.

    • It appears by the PCA BOCO, Excommunication is required in situations such as these. Although it is possible Mr. Tchividjian is now considered a lay member, the public nature of a Teaching Elder being deposed for a very public scandalous conduct warrants follow-through from his Session/ Presbytery. As noted in the BOCO:

      34-8. A minister under indefinite suspension from his office or deposed for scandalous conduct shall not be restored, even on the deepest sorrow for his sin, until he shall exhibit for a considerable time such an eminently exemplary, humble and edifying life and testimony as shall heal the wound made by his scandal. A deposed minister shall in no case be restored until it shall appear that the general sentiment of the Church is strongly in his favor, and demands his restoration; and then only by the court inflicting the censure, or with that court’s consent. The removal of deposition requires a three-fourths (3/4) vote of the court inflicting the censure, or a three-fourths (3/4) vote of the court to which the majority of the original court delegates that authority.

      34-4. a: When a minister accused of an offense is found contumacious (cf. 32-6), he shall be immediately suspended from the sacraments and his office for his contumacy. Record shall be made of the fact and of the charges under which he was arraigned, and the censure shall be made public. The censure shall in no case be removed until the offender has not only repented of his contumacy, but has also given satisfaction in relation to the charges against him. b. If after further endeavor by the court to bring the accused to a sense of his guilt, he persists in his contumacy, he shall be deposed and excommunicated from the Church.

      32-6. a: When an accused person shall refuse to obey a citation, he shall be cited a second time. This second citation shall be accompanied with a notice that if he does not appear at the time appointed (unless providentially hindered, which fact he must make known to the court) he shall be dealt with for his contumacy (cf. BCO 33-2; 34-4). b. When an accused person shall appear and refuse to plead, or otherwise refuse to cooperate with lawful proceedings, he shall be dealt with for his contumacy.

      30-4: Excommunication is the excision of an offender from the communion of the Church. This censure is to be inflicted only on account of gross crime or heresy and when the offender shows himself incorrigible and contumacious. The design of this censure is to operate on the offender as a means of reclaiming him, to deliver the church from the scandal of his offense, and to inspire all with fear by the example of his discipline.

      We are all sinners. This is not regarding “being a sinner”, but rather behaving as he is he is opposed to the good work of Christ’s Bride in his life, and he is in direct violation of the vows he has taken. I pray Mr. Tchividjian is humbled by God, and works to become restored to a good standing in the body of Christ.

      Semper reformada, spe perenni!

  4. Do you know Tullian personally? Or do you know the answers to your questions regarding his reinstatement as a pastor?

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