Here we are again, evangelicals, in the New York Times. Many have now seen that Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church and president of the Acts 29 church planting network, confessed to having an “inappropriate online relationship” with a woman and is taking an indefinite leave of absence.
You can watch his confession before the church here:
It is extremely vague and leaves concerned believers and unbelievers with many questions. The way that this is presented is that the problem is that Chandler’s DM’s with this “other” woman were too “frequent” and “familiar,” and there was some “coarse joking.” The concerns from the elders were not that the messages were “romantic or sexual.” Are any of you scratching your head thinking that the way this is framed is descriptive of platonic friendship? It could even be healthy friendship. His wife and her husband reportedly knew about this messaging.
Obviously, we do not have the whole story. And there has to be more to it. There’s warranted reasons to say this. First of all, the NYTimes reports:Read more: What Matt Chandler’s Confession Says About Women, Friendship, & the Gospel
In response to questions from The New York Times, the church said that the woman in the lobby had confronted Mr. Chandler in February, and that it had hired a boutique law firm, Castañeda and Heidelman, to conduct an investigation. The church declined to share a copy of the report, “because we want to honor the request of the woman Matt was messaging with not to be in the spotlight,” the church said in an email.
The church declined to say whether Mr. Chandler was being paid during his leave from teaching and preaching.
So, this has been brought to their attention six months ago, and then investigated behind the scenes by a hired boutique law firm beginning in May. As quoted in the article:
Rachael Denhollander, an advocate for sexual abuse victims who has pushed for increased transparency in the denomination, said that the church did itself “no favors” by not making the report public.
“It is always best practice to release the result of the independent assessment,” she said. “It is the best protection for everybody.”
They can release the report with the woman’s name and any identifying details redacted to protect her identity. The excuse doesn’t hold up.
Here’s the deal: A pastor of a megachurch does not get asked to take a leave of absence for mere “frequent” and “familiar” messaging and some coarse joking. I mean, I can see a warning if things look beyond the pale of friendship or if there was ungodliness in the joking. But going public and a leave of absence? Is he going to humiliate his wife and family over this? Is he going to risk his reputation and that of a supposed friend for this? Is The Village Church ready to make headlines again during such a time of sexual scandal in the church over this?
There is either more to it, or The Village Church is sending a dangerous message about women, friendship, and the gospel.
Think of all the money spent on this investigation already. Think of the church offering plate footing that bill. Think of the six months the church has been kept in the dark, while it was happening. Think of the way Chandler gets to control the narrative, over the victim, in telling it to the church. Think of how nothing is mentioned about the power dynamics at play in this relationship or the pain all this is causing her or her family. Think about the silencing of this woman. She isn’t even prayed for. Think of how the witness of Christ is not mentioned. What is going on here?
And think of how this framing of the relationship will affect women in the church. It yet again sends the message that men, especially pastors, cannot have healthy siblingship relationships with women. Be careful not to talk frequently with us! Be careful not to be too familiar with us! Be careful not to joke around us! You will not be above reproach. Look what happened to our beloved Chandler!!
The confession itself, in its vagueness, is spiritually and relationally harmful to women. It is not victim-centered. And worse, it is a horrible witness to the gospel.
I wrote a book about this called Why Can’t We Be Friends? The first half of the book unpacks all the stumbling blocks for men and women to have healthy friendships, and why we are in the shape that we are as a church. Not everyone can be friends. But we are called to growth. So the last half builds on what friends do, our honorable call as sacred siblings, and the privileges and responsibilities that come with it. I include some excerpts from it in my argument below.
The way that we relate to one another sends a message about who we are—to one another, and to the watching world.
Redemption isn’t merely about avoiding sin; it is about making something holy, set apart for the worship of God—nothing less. Our great news is that we have been made holy in Christ and we get to enjoy communion with our holy God and one another. Holy people are called to holy relationships. Our communion with the Triune God makes us outgoing in our love for others. So what does it tell the world when evangelicalisms’ most beloved pastors send the same underlying message about friendship between the sexes as Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally—and the church respects them for it?
If the church can’t even answer and model the friendship question between men and women, why would unbelievers want us to tell them about holy communion with God? Is the Lord really good, or is he cruel, saying that we “have purified [our]selves by [our] obedience to the truth, so that [we] show sincere brotherly love for each other, from a pure heart” and are to “love one another constantly,” because we have been born again with an imperishable seed, “that is, through the living and enduring word of God,” while at the same time contradicting this with the message that our sexual urges prevent us from even sharing table fellowship in the middle of the day, offering a ride to someone if it is convenient, becoming too familiar with one another, or messaging on social media? If we can’t be trusted to have integrity in common decency, then our souls are far from purified and we certainly cannot have a sincere or fervent love for one another.
But we, who “have tasted that the Lord is good “(1 Peter 2:3), have been called “out of darkness into His marvelous light.” We “once were not a people, but now [we] are the people of God” (1 Peter 9b-10a). This is what we want the world to see, right? This is the truth, right? In that case, we are urged as God’s people living in the fallen world “to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul” and to keep our behavior excellent in front of the watching world so that they will look at us in wonder and not be able to help themselves from glorifying God in response (1 Peter 2:12).
This is the bottom line. We claim to have a different allegiance, a different agency and purpose, and a different love than the world offers. Outsiders should sense that they really are on the outside of holiness and godly love when they see this in action. They should see that we aren’t just talking talk and building a false image. The values of the world should be contrasted to the values of God’s people in our relationships. They are looking for this.
God is revealing something to his church right now with all these headlines and we better listen up.
Thriving communion produces thriving communities. The quality of our relationships in God’s household and the way we advance God’s mission together is a powerful testimony to the real fruit of the gospel.
The Village Church and Matt Chandler had a chance to show this to the world in being fully transparent about the nature of Chandler’s actions, sharing the findings of the report, and stating how far of a chasm that is from the quality of Christian love and friendship—especially between men and women, the severe spiritual damage it does when a pastor abuses this, and how they are caring for this woman (they can start by not referring to her as “other”). Maybe the reason we see so little true repentance from leaders in the church is because they have missed the beauty all along.
As artist Makoto Fujimura says, without an appreciation for beauty, culture loses its appetite for truth and goodness. He even proposes that repentance itself is provoked by an encounter with the beautiful. Of course it is! Once we encounter Beauty, we see how ugly sin is, we abhor it, and want to shed it off. We desire Beauty, especially in our marriages and in our friendships. What is that but Christ himself? And Christ in one another? This is our framework for relationships and for confession. This is what we want the world to see in his church.