By David Hegg
As a member of the clergy the past months have been gut-wrenching. We have all watched as men in positions of religious power have been exposed as predatory hypocrites. Men masquerading as Christ-followers on both sides of the Reformation divide have been exposed, and parishioners and pundits alike have called for appropriate action and increased accountability, and rightly so.
But, the fundamental questions remain. How did this happen? How did the president of the Southern Baptist Convention — the largest Protestant denomination in the country — remain in power so long after tragically mishandling a case involving the rape of a young woman at an institution under his leadership? How did the pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, certainly the most influential Protestant churchman of the last 30 years, involve himself in sexual deviance for so long, even as his personal kingdom continued to thrive?
And how did the leaders of his church fail to act, even when the facts were undeniable? And how were hundreds of Roman Catholic priests protected by the church as they continued molesting and abusing thousands of children?
While inappropriate sexual behavior ravages our society, it is even more despicable when promulgated by those charged by God to preach and practice sexual purity. Add to that the heinous abuse of power demonstrated when those in positions of religious authority use it to manipulate and seduce women and children into sexual activity, and you reach an even deeper level of debauchery.
How does such treachery happen? That question speaks to the issue of accountability. But when we ask why does this behavior occur, what we’re really talking about are issues of the heart.
Simply put, no amount of accountability can prevent sinful behavior on the part of someone whose aberrant sexual desires have been fed while hiding behind a well-maintained facade of piety. But make no mistake. God hates sin, and those who hide behind his Name while intentionally transgressing his law will suffer his discipline, or worse.
In every case where behavior violates the basic rights of others, we often hear about extenuating circumstances. Powerful people find all manner of ways to excuse their aberrant activity. They’re stressed, fatigued, misunderstood, or maybe they have been abused, maligned, or victimized themselves. But here’s the truth. What happens to us certainly can put huge challenges and obstacles in our way. They will bear influence on us, but — and get this — they are not determinative. Regardless of what we’ve faced or felt, unless we have been rendered unable to make our own choices, we are still responsible for the choices we make and the things we do.
Perhaps the best-known Old Testament scripture is the beautiful depiction of God as shepherd found in Psalm 23. The care of the shepherd for his sheep is expressed in ways that show his heart of love for those he leads, feeds and protects. But one phrase holds the key to understanding how those who work for God can end up disobeying his commands.
In verse 4 we read, “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Here’s the simple yet profound truth. The religious leaders making tragic headlines have stopped following their shepherd down the paths of righteousness.
At some point, probably gradually, they started telling themselves an alternate story. They started believing their own lies. They slowly determined that obeying their lusts was a better option than keeping their promises to God and their people. While their shepherd was pointing out the paths of righteousness, they chose another path, and at that point, became unbelieving believers.
Sadly, we’re all susceptible to this delusion. And while we might conjure up some sense of moral superiority when we hear how the mighty have fallen, the better response is to search our own hearts. Never forget, whatever you believe should make you a better person. And when what you believe stops driving better behavior, you’ve really stopped believing it.
After all, hypocrisy feeds on the lies we tell ourselves, no matter who we are.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident.“Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.