By now most of you have read the sad news regarding (former) Pastor Jack Schaap of the megachurch, First Baptist Church of Hammond, IN. On July 31, 2012, he was removed from his position as Senior Pastor for having sexual relations with a 16 year old girl from his church. Obviously, this event has tragic consequences for this young woman, Schaap’s family and this local church, but it raises the question of how a minister could be so “successful” while entwined in a pattern of sin, lies and a double life, much like Oscar Wilde’s John Worthing.
Jack Schaap became the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in 2001, succeeding his father-in-law who passed away. In 2005, under Schaap’s leadership, First Baptist expanded their church to include a 7,500 seat auditorium, and in July 2006, Church Report magazine ranked First Baptist 24th of the 50 most influential churches in the United States. It would appear that, at least numerically speaking, Schaap was a successful pastor. Moreover, the shock and hurt expressed by members of the congregation speak to how they experienced blessing from Schaap’s ministry.
But how can this be? How can someone committing this kind of violation and covering it up be used by God to expand the Kingdom and bless others with the gospel? While I stand well outside the Independent Baptist theological circle, I don’t deny the diversity of the Kingdom and God’s willingness to use a variety of theologies to draw humanity to Himself. Nevertheless, there is a significant difference between theological diversity and ongoing, unrepentant sin in the life of a pastor. So, how is it that unrepentant sin and blessing can flow from the same pastor? A turn to church history may be helpful as a guide in answering this question.
The first edict of Emperor Diocletian, 303 AD, was aimed at the Christians. What followed was a wave of brutality that only ancient Rome could deliver. Scriptures were burned. Christians were tortured. Traitor became a technical term used of Christians that gave up copies of scripture or the location of other Christians when facing the threat of torture.
In 305 AD the persecution had spread over into North Africa, and a new problem began to grow from within the church. The Donatists were a group of bishops and church members that chose to separate themselves from the Church universal because the Church chose to forgive and restore those bishops that elected to be traitors rather martyrs. They argued that the sacraments and ministry of these bishops were rendered ineffective due to their apostasy. Therefore, they separated from the tainted to ensure purity of the blessing of God.
St. Augustine began his ministry as an ordained priest in 391 AD, and his mission to combat the Donatists began soon thereafter. Augustine wrote several books tackling the Donatist’s argument that sacrament, Word and blessing were compromised by the traitor bishops and their prodigy. Augustine’s thesis was the effect of the sacrament is independent of the holiness of the minister. Through Augustine’s efforts, Church councils and the conquering Muslims of North Africa, the Donatist controversy became an artifact of church history, however, the principles propounded by Augustine remain.
The efficacy of Word and Sacrament is not dependent upon the ministers, but their power rests in the Holy Spirit and the covenant of God with His people. The powers of this world and the structures of power were upended by Jesus’ victory over sin, death and the cross, through his resurrection. God humiliated himself for the love of His people, and He continues to embarrass himself by using broken, fallen, unrepentant sinners to advance His Kingdom. So, should I sin that grace may abound? Certainly not. We should neither fear for the Kingdom or the Church because of the sinful failure of one or many ministers, nor should we commit the opposite logical fallacy that ministry blessings are evidence of God’s presence with a particular man or woman.