Believe it or not, fascinating sources of information and precedent can be found in our GARBC archives. When challenging dilemmas cross my desk, I often look into our historical records for guidance. For instance, did you know that the Baptist Bulletin used to publish names of pastors who were guilty of moral failure? Churches would report when their leaders succumbed to pastoral ethics violations, thus disqualifying them from ministry. As a service to all of our fellowshipping churches, we printed notices such as these:

  • “In view of conduct unbecoming a Christian and a minister of the Gospel, this Association hereby withdraws the hand of fellowship from. . . . ”
  • “The Rev . . . has voluntarily surrendered his certificate of ordination because of his admission that he has engaged in conduct unbecoming a minister.”
  • “This is to certify that due to conduct unbecoming a Christian and a minister of the gospel, the name of . . . was dropped from the rolls of our church and the hand of fellowship withdrawn by action of the church at a business meeting. . . . ”

The Bulletin editors were careful to print such information only at the request of a church, but the practice generated a good bit of controversy. Dr. Paul Jackson, then the GARBC national representative, responded by proposing a “Policy on Pastoral Discipline,” discussing the issue during the June 1965 GARBC Council of Fourteen meetings. The minutes read, “Dr. Ketcham (R. T.) pointed out that there is confusion amongst Baptist ministers and Baptist churches on how to discipline a pastor. It is not the ordaining church. It is the church of which the man was member when he committed the act, which should do the disciplining. Churches should never drop the names of these three men from their rolls; even when they request it, because then they have no basis upon which to discipline them. If a church can’t or won’t discipline a man then a state association or group can.”

After review, Dr. Jackson and the council concluded during a subsequent meeting that an alternative approach was more appropriate than the Bulletin announcements. A letter summarizes the council’s conclusion, which was communicated to the churches by an official mailing.

Two recent news items are causing churches to ask similar questions today. How should we handle the account of missionary children abused by a missionary who was ordained and sent by a GARBC church? When discovered, his pedophilic offenses were not reported back to our churches (see the July/August 2011 issue of the Baptist Bulletin). This is exactly the sort of tragic sin that must be named among our fellowshipping churches, but a second news story reminds us of how the reporting and disclosure process can have legal complications.

The Illinois Appellate Court recently affirmed a jury verdict in excess of a quarter million dollars against the senior pastor of The Moody Church in Chicago, Erwin Lutzer. He was accused of sending letters to leaders of Hope Church describing the alleged misconduct of its pastor (who had been ordained by Moody Church and previously served on its staff). After Moody Church revoked that pastor’s ordination, Lutzer informed the pastor’s current church, believing this was his Biblical responsibility. But this specific incident was viewed differently by the court.

During the resulting court case, the pastor of Hope Church testified that as a result of the letters sent by Lutzer, the membership of Hope Church diminished, the church could no longer employ the pastor, and the pastor was unable to find other employment. A jury found Pastor Lutzer liable for “false light invasion of privacy” for sending the letters. The court ordered Lutzer to pay a money judgment of $276,306, which Lutzer appealed, but the Appellate Court affirmed the jury’s verdict. (See the Appellate Court’s full written opinion on the Court’s website here.)

How is the church to respond?

These two recent cases show both sides of the issue—the peril of not reporting a minister’s crimes, and the possibility of civil action where one minister sues another. Many questions are raised in my own mind:

  • Is it appropriate to publicly identify a pastor who has disqualified himself from ministry? What disqualifies a pastor—temporarily or permanently?
  • Should civil or criminal illegalities be reported differently than violations of the pastoral standards of 1 Timothy 3?
  • Under what circumstances should a man be restored to the ministry after serious sin? What are the limits to restoration?
  • Whose responsibility is it to announce a pastor’s moral failure? The ordaining church, the sending church, the “denomination,” the ministry organization? Who should receive such announcements—all of the churches in our association?
  • How much detail should be included when offenses are publicized? What is the danger of generic phrases like “moral failure” when the sin is especially grievous?
  • Are there times when it is the better part of Christian grace to say nothing or to state things only in vague generalities?
  • If a court enters a judgment against a church, denomination, or ministry organization for “invasion of privacy” or a similar civil offense, does this send a message discouraging those groups from communicating information about the disqualification of a pastor?

These cases of pastoral misconduct raise questions that deserve answers. Procedures need to be developed that would result in appropriate action. Concealing information, which could lead to repeated offenses by the offender, is not correct. Neither is communicating information in a careless manner, without using careful scrutiny and correct procedures.

These are not simple issues. David Gower, a Chicago area attorney (and the son of our former Baptist Bulletin editor), recently summarized the Illinois Appellate Court decision in a summary for DeBlasio Law Group. His advice is important for us to consider. “It is critical for the leader of any organization to know when it is legal to disseminate private information. Even a well-intentioned letter may subject the sender to liability for invasion of privacy.”

I received a suggestion from Aaron Blumer, pastor of a GARBC church in Boyceville, Wis., who publishes the SharperIron website. Aaron spoke of the need in our circles to agree on appropriate responses to ministerial disqualification, and appropriate actions to be taken by churches. Aaron asked, “Should a group of leaders be assembled to work out how matters of the violation of pastoral ethics should be addressed and communicated?”

Determining the correct response requires wisdom that comes only from above. The danger of doing or saying the wrong thing is counterbalanced by the danger of doing or saying nothing. And in that lies the dilemma!

John Greening is national representative for the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches.