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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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:
- The pure preaching of the gospel
- The pure administration of the sacraments
- 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.