Jesus, Help me to do no Harm

DO NO HARMOn June 21, 2015, after admitting to an extra-marital sexual relationship, Rev. Tullian Tchividjian announced his resignation as senior pastor of Coral Ridge PCA in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  This was devastating news for me.  Over a number of years, Tullian’s teaching, along with Paul Tripp, Ray Cortese, John Frame, J.D. Greear, Matt Chandler, Joe Novenson, Tim Keller, John Piper, Scotty Smith, Nancy Guthrie, and Elyse Fitzpatrick, have all been refreshing gospel voices for my soul.  Of these, as Billy Graham’s grandson, Tullian is one of the most popular.  His recent book, One Way Love, had a big impact in American Christianity.  In fact, we used this study last year at Surfside Presbyterian Church and a number of people in our congregation were deeply encouraged by the wonderful emphasis on the enduring love, incredible adoption, and glorious gospel freedom that we have in Jesus Christ – our Savior and Lord who has chosen us, called us, saved us, freed us, and holds us firmly in his ever gracious grip.  Tullian’s message – brought to life beautifully from the very pages of the scripture – has been a clear gospel bell ringing for so many of us who have been steeped in hopeless legalism.  Yet, sadly, at some point Tullian’s faith in Christ weakened.  He took his eyes off of Christ, stared at the idolatrous comforts that our world has to offer, and he deliberately and selfishly chose to numb his pain in the arms of those destructive idols.  It is a familiar story to us all.  It is an ancient story.  It is the story of Adam and Eve.  It is the story of David and Solomon.  And it is the story of us.

In the Hippocratic Oath, made by medical doctors, we find the latin phrase, “Primum non Nocere: First and Foremost, Do No Harm.” As I look at this particular story, I am grieved because Tullian’s sin causes harm. Not only does it cause harm to Tullian and his family, but it causes harm to all Christians, to all believers. That’s how sin is. It is never localized. It is never private. It’s not like a single shot from a handgun, it’s like nuclear bomb – and the fall out is always devastating. But just to be clear, I’m not just grieved over Tullian’s sin – I am grieved over all sin. I am grieved over mine.   And I am further grieved by the responses I am reading and hearing.  As the fallout continues from this high-profile fall, many articles related to Tullian’s sin are already being posted online, and I am sure more are forthcoming.  Just today I read an article titled, “7 Reasons Why High-Profile Leaders Like Tullian Tchividjian Fail.”   In posts like these, I read that Tullian failed because: he was too busy, he was too confident, he was too negligent, he was too lonely, he was too popular, he was too imprudent, he compromised holiness, he failed to strengthen weak areas, he minimized accountability, he ignored safeguards, and so on.   Now, many of these things may be true on some level.  But I must say that it deeply grieves me that we do not seem to understand the root of what really happened here.  Tullian’s sinful decision to pursue an affair was not ultimately a result of any of those things.  I can say without any doubt, Tullians’ fall was exclusively related to a weakened dependence upon Christ.  Tullian’s tragedy is the prospective tragedy of every Christian pastor: He forgot the very gospel that he preached. 

In Hebrews 12:2, the scripture tells us to “fix our eyes on Christ who is the author and perfecter of our faith.” Even now, as I write these words, my eyes are filling up with tears – because I know my own heart.  I know that I have in me the capacity to do the same thing as Tullian. I know I have the capacity to do great harm. I have the same weaknesses, the same idolatrous desires, the same selfishness – all of it.  This is not just Tullian’s story.  It is mine.  It is yours.  But for whatever reason – and not because there is any particular goodness in me – God has chosen to guard me from this kind of sin.  He has given me an incredibly gracious wife in Martha Jo.  He has surrounded me with vigilant and loving friends.  He has graced me beyond measure.  And he has taught me to get up every morning and – in some form or other – to whisper these words: “Christ help me to do no harm today as a pastor.  Rescue me.  Help me.  Guard me.  Hold me.  Feed me.  Save me.  Kiss me with grace.  Embrace me with love.  Tackle me with providence.  If I do no good, so be it.  Your goodness is plenty for all.  But help me to do no harm.  As you well know Jesus, I am a broken, insecure, weak, and evil dude.  If you choose to work through me today, praise God.  But please help me to do no harm. Help me to stay authentic, honest, open, and broken before your face.  Please, help to remember the gospel.”

If I had one thing to share with fellow pastors that may help them to avoid a failure of the magnitude of Tullian’s, I would not tell them to rely on accountability, or to avoid the opposite sex, or to avoid loneliness, or to strengthen weak areas, or anything of that nature.  Instead I would tell them this: Never, never, never, never, never forget the Gospel!  Fix your eyes on Jesus.  Repent continuously.  Call out to Jesus every hour.  And pray every morning, “Christ, by your sweet mercies, help me to do no harm today.

4 comments

  1. Pastor Melton,

    Tullian’s very public “fall” is not so unique. The number of pastors, preachers and priests forced to confess a sin in the glaring scrutiny of public anger and outrage is countless.

    So, why is Tullian’s “fall” somehow more calamitous to people in Myrtle Beach and specifically Surfside Presbyterian Church?

    Atheists, and even many Christians, seem to enjoy using the word “hypocrite” to describe these types of events. Is that what this is about? Tullian preached marital fidelity but he failed to practice it? His “moral failure” disqualifies him as a pastor.

    But, few are using that approach with Brother Tullian.

    You follow a different track at the beginning of your post: “Primum non Nocere: First and Foremost, Do No Harm” as the focal point. “Jesus, help me to do no harm.” Nothing essentially wrong with that approach…but is that approach enough to keep pastors and people from sinning?

    The term I would suggest may be more applicable is “Simul Justus et Peccator”–a phrase that reminds us all of the reality of sin…and simultaneous presence of grace.

    The truth: the “law” has never been enough to keep people from sinning. The fear of hurting others is not enough to remove sin from our life. The desire to be perfect is not enough. Even the threat of public exposure as a “hypocrite” is not sufficient to keep people–even pastors–away from sin. The attention to Christ and the Cross is impossible to maintain consistently with perfect focus despite our best efforts.

    We are all human. We are all broken. No matter how hard we try–sin happens. And, grace is always deeper.

    “Simul Justus et Peccator.” Interestingly, the phrase was used in “Liberate”–part of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church mission. The church mission to “connect God’s inexhaustible grace to an exhausted world” was temporarily closed due to Tullian’s “moral failure” according to their website announcement.

    This leads me to wonder, who was the “person” the church focused on? If it was Christ, first and foremost, the “inexhaustible grace” is and always will be “open.” Should one person’s moral failure bring a mission to a halt? Why close a mission called “Liberate”? These questions are not asked in judgment, but to connect to the focus of your post.

    Now would seem to be the time “inexhaustible grace” is necessary. Could it be that the church–and all of the spiritual dissections by pastors/critics of Tullian–are focused on the wrong “Person”?

    Over the past few days I have read dozens of the same types of dissections to answer the question “What happened to Tullian?” Sadly, the majority of the writings reflect a harsh judgment of Tullian and lack of grace…even “disgrace”…from fellow Christian brothers and sisters. They all hint at a certain selfish pride in avoiding the same failures exposed in Tullian’s actions. They suggest, “I’m better focused, more self-controlled, I have a better theology and depend more on Christ.”

    Yet, sin is actually not nearly as complex as many writer’s continue to articulate.

    The truth. Pastor’s sin. People sin.

    I am not shocked at what happened to Tullian. My own expectations of others (based on reading the Scriptures) does not require placing them on pedestals to admire, celebrate, praise and then pounce on them when they fall from the heights of human expectations. What we know about each other in public–how we “act”–is not what God knows about us. I am reminded God knows our hearts. And, if my heart is any example of others, how could I perch others on peaks of perceived perfection when I know the truth…they are sinners, just like me and require God’s grace, through the blood of Christ. If I am damaged by Tullian’s failure could it possibly be my own failure to admit he is human…just like me?

    But, why would Tullian sin like this? Isn’t this worse? Could it possibly be that Tullian is just like us–you and me? Or, possibly a better question would be, “What makes him so different–so much better–to expect him not to sin?”

    If you believe we all sin, it is more likely Tullian did much more harm to his family, close friends and himself than the “church”–local or universal. Instead of judging or dissecting Tullian I have urged people to simply pray for him, his family and his church.

    He did not hurt me. His books, his sermons, his seminars helped me. What happened in his life did not change the positive, Spirit-led effect what he shared had on mine. I pain for him in this time–but I also know God has a plan for Tullian that is much deeper than what we now see. So, I pray for him. As so many times reflected in the Scriptures, what-comes-next is what will really matter in God’s purpose.

    In the meantime, I’ll keep praying. What else can people, distanced from the people and events, do? Prayer seems to be the first and best course.

    You wrote: “I can say without any doubt, Tullians’ fall was exclusively related to a weakened dependence upon Christ.” Words and phrases like “exclusively” and “without any doubt” are strong statements judging another person’s sin from a distance. Wouldn’t any sin simply be a turning away from–a rebellion–against God’s will and laws? I doubt he “forgot” the Gospel. He sinned…he rebelled. Again, why are we so shocked when another person sins–regardless of their calling?

    Sin happens, even to the “best” of us. Why? Because there is no “best” of us–we are ALL broken…including and not limited to Tullian, Billy Graham, RC Sproul, Tim Keller and Rick Warren. If one of these men is perfect–well, that would be a shock.

    The reality is that in God’s perspective, sin-is-sin. Disrespecting a person is equal to murder. The Sermon on the Mount helps to clear the air when we say, “Oh, I tell a lie every now and then, but I would never do that!” Our righteousness is not something to brag about, according to Christ.

    This truth heightens the necessity of grace (the “dependence upon Christ”), something Tullian was very strong in sharing in his words and writings and is now probably now understanding the depth of grace more than any other point in his life. And, I believe his “pre-fall” focus was correct–yet, he, like all of us, are not perfect and guaranteed that sin would happen at some point.

    But, isn’t adultery a “worse” sin?

    Worse that what? If God sees rebellion to His commands and laws as sin then the same grace that covers a lie is the same grace that will cover theft…pride…and adultery. Is grace somehow thinner and less available based on the sin?

    I read the last portion of your post speaking to the various practices, prayers and people you have to help you avoid the same type of failure(s). That’s good. But, isn’t it likely Tullian had the same? I would suggest that you, like me, like all others, will sin, sin and sin some more regardless of our own efforts.

    So, what is the takeaway from all of this?

    Could it be, possibly now, in the aftermath of this publicly acknowledged sin is when God’s plan for Tullian may actually be fruitful for the Kingdom? If so, instead of attacking Tullian–and any/all sinners–what are “we” going to do? How do we respond? Forgiveness or judgment? Condemnation or love? Tullian has choices, as each of us when we sin or see other’s suffer a fall.

    Could it be what follows sin is even more significant than the sin itself?

    This is not a defense or offering any excuses for Tullian’s actions. He sinned. But, I know this: I will sin, too. And, grace is still available and necessary in my continual repentance and struggle to stay focused on Christ.

    Perhaps instead of reducing and dissecting Tullian’s failures we simply need to pray for him, his family, the Church and the Kingdom. And, instead of differentiating ourselves from his flaws we should admit we are no better–we just simply do not have the same amount of press exposure and public outrage when we sin.

    Thank God for grace…and being hidden in Christ!

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    1. Simul Justus et Peccator, I agree with all you have said here, save two things:

      1) The Far Reaching Impact of Sin.
      I cannot back down from asserting that Tullian’s sin, just like mine, does hurt other Christians, even Christians in Myrtle Beach. Tullian had a very public ministry and his sin has profound public impact. This was true of Moses, David, and Peter. In fact, this truth is traced all the way back to Adam, whose seemingly private sin had incredible public impact – on me, my children, and the whole world. As I said, sin is like that. The shrapnel goes every where. I do love Tullian and I will continue to pray for him. I didn’t seek to attack him, only to say that no law or safegaurd can keep us from this kind of failure. Only Christ can protect us.

      2) All Sin is Exclusively related to Unbelief
      I do also think I can safely say that Tullian’s sin is exclusively related to taking his eyes from Christ. I say this as the scripture teaches, and Tullian himself has often said, that all sin is exclusively related to unbelief. That is the core of all sin – Tulian’s, mine, Adam’s, everyone’s. I also felt that I was careful to place myself as a sinner on Tullian’s side of the equation. I am no better than my brother. My heart breaks for him, just as it does for my own sin. Yet, I realize that, as a public pastor with a public ministry, I have the potential, just like a physician with a scapel, to do great harm to others. Like it or not, in many ways Tullian was my pastor, and his sin hurts me. Not because he is my Messiah, but because he is my brother. I love him. I hurt for him. And I hurt for those that he has hurt. I pray for him to respond in repentance. I pray for humility. I pray for his marriage to be reconciled. I pray for restoration. But I also soberly pray that Christ would keep me, as a pastor, husband, and dad, from a sin of this magnitude.

      Finally, you pointed out that we are all sinners, and rightly so. Everything I do and say is colored with my sin. This article is no different. If I, any way, unwittingly communicated self-righteousness or judgment against Tullian, please forgive me. I’m a bonehead, a prideful jerk, and a insidiously crafty sinner – and yet I rest in the knowledge that Christ’s love and grace is greater than all my sin.

      Jesus, help my unbelief.

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  2. Thank you, Pastor Melton, for your thoughtful reply.

    You write very humbly and with compassion. I was not criticizing you (or anyone) but simply pointing out a possible flaw we all share: our expectations of others.

    Faulty expectations of pastors, a church, church members, the Bible or even God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit can lead people down paths of legalism or liberalism, both missing the truth of the Gospel. This has been evidenced in many of the discussions referencing Tullian’s sins.

    I agree. Whenever we think we know it all or can do it all is when we have truly stepped away from Christ. Legalism and a deeper, more introspective examination of our selves is not the answer to avoiding sin–the Gospel is the answer, keeping our eyes on Jesus. And, this is our challenge–to live for Christ in broken flesh in a broken world simultaneously as sinners…and saints: “Simul Justus et Peccator”

    I too believe sin can be as you described, like shrapnel. It can hurt many, even the innocent. But, as the phrase “Simul Justus et Peccator” suggests great harm has come from the same flesh where great healing and preaching of the Gospel also resided. Neither one should be ignored or diminished–only accepted as part of God’s ultimate purpose.

    And, that is true for all, not just for Tullian.

    As you note, the Bible is full of fallen faith heroes. I am actually more interested in what Tullian does now than ever before. His response to his own sin can speak much more loudly than all of his previous books, sermons and seminars.

    Whatever happens, I am trusting God’s plan.

    Simul Justus et Peccator – In praise of God’s amazing grace!

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  3. Thanks Tim, especially for the grace. We all are sinners, it is just so damaging when someone we trust to teach us falls. I’ve bee through too many to count. It has taught me to place my trust in Jesus alone, not any man in the way that it rises to a level of idolatry.
    I agree with your thoughts, and theirs. Nothing wrong with supporting your dependence on Christ with practical helps, in His strength.

    Like

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