Today’s article was sparked by a question from a long-time reader of the site. “With the sad removal from ministry of yet another prominent pastor, I’ve been wondering how we are to view their ministry retrospectively. What do we do with their books? With their sermons? With their tweets and blog posts?” He told of a Christian bookseller who has been left with entire boxes of titles by an author who was removed from ministry. Would it be wrong to try to sell them? Would it be right for him to take the loss and to throw them away? The questions remind me of a gloomy photo snapped outside what was formerly Mars Hill Ballard’s building, a photo of a dumpster filled to overflowing with rain-drenched copies of Mark Driscoll’s A Call to Resurgence.
What do we do with material associated with a leader who has since justly been removed from his position after committing some act or pattern of disqualifying immorality? What should we do? I am not convinced there are crystal-clear and perfectly objective standards here, but let me tell you how I think it through, especially as it pertains to purchasing, reading, reviewing, or recommending books.
The first thing that must be said is that immorality does not negate truth, even truth that is in the books of leaders who have fallen. What was true when the pastor had a good reputation is true when he has a poor reputation. This means that a book does not suddenly transform from orthodox to heretical on the basis of the author’s immorality. What was true before is true now, what was brilliant before is brilliant now, what was mediocre or muddled before remains mediocre or muddled now. The leader’s actions have no effect on the objective truth or error of his material.
But then we must also say this: Immorality negates the qualifications of the author. When it comes to Christian leaders, our concern must be for character far more than ability or any other quality. I recently dedicated an entire series of articles to Christian character, explaining that while Christian character is meant to be displayed by all Christians it must be exemplified by church leaders. In almost every case, the leaders who fall are local church pastors or elders and called to exemplify such character. A Christian leader needs to acknowledge that his qualifications are inextricably bound up in his character. If it is proven that he lacks godly character, his local church is right to exercise God’s authority by removing him from positions of influence. It stands to reason that the rest of us, those of us who are beyond that local church, do well to follow the lead of its elders.
Also, not all disqualifiers are the same. Some disqualifiers are rightly seen as permanently ending a leader’s ministry and this is especially the case when the leader is unrepentant or when he flees from the authority of his church or denomination. But there are other disqualifiers that can be addressed over a period of time under the care and authority of a local church in such a way that the leader can return to positions of influence.
Then I think of another factor: A book is closely associated with its author. Recommending a book is usually tacitly recommending the book’s author. After all, to learn from a book is to learn from its author. To commend a book is in some way to commend its author. In the case of a man who has fallen, others have been caught up in his fall and often damaged by his actions. Recommending a book by an abusive pastor may be unkind to those he has abused and may subtly cast doubt on the judgment of his local church. It may be that the way to love others, and especially those hurt by the fallen leader, is to keep a distance from his material.
On a similar note, a book reflects its author. A marriage book written by an adulterer probably reflects his lack of self-control, a leadership book written by an abuser probably reflects his domineering, a doctrine book written by an apostate probably contains the seeds of his apostasy. Choose very carefully who influences you.
And here is another factor: A book is a means to pay an author. To purchase a book is to give money to its author. Though authors usually make only a small portion of a book’s purchase price, the fact remains that there is a financial transaction between the author and reader. In this way, purchasing a book by a fallen pastor is a means of offering him monetary support.
Let’s add this: Without immoral men we would have to gut the Bible. Think about a Bible that excised every word spoken or written by an adulterer. We would have to remove every word spoken by Abraham and Jacob, just to start. Then we’d have to get rid of most of the Psalms and Proverbs and, of course, Song of Solomon and Ecclesiastes would have to go as well. If we expanded from adultery to other serious sins, we’d have to remove Isaac because of his repeated deceptions, Peter because of his denial of Jesus, Jonah because of his disobedience to God’s revealed will, and Samuel because of his protection of his wayward sons. Soon we’d have almost no Bible left. I will grant that these men were speaking and writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and, therefore, not the ultimate authors of their words, but the fact remains that God has often chosen to use fallen and immoral men. I don’t really know how this one factors in, but felt it was right to mention it, even if only to show the complexity of what might seem like a straightforward question.
In the end, exercise wisdom, heed conscience, and take cues from the local church. Consider all of these factors, trust that God delights to give you wisdom, carefully heed conscience when it calls or accuses, and be willing to follow the cues of the author’s church or denominational authorities.
As for me, I find it difficult to read books by authors who have disgraced and disqualified themselves. Depending on the kind of immorality he displayed, I may even get rid of his books. We of all generations are so blessed by good books that I see little reason to even consider ones written by leaders who have made a trainwreck of their ministries. I can’t think of a single category of book that needs the work of a fallen author. There are other great books on leadership, other ones on marriage, on prayer and suffering and Christian living. I do not need to rely on the books of those who have justly been removed from ministry. Neither do I need to read or recommend them.
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