Among the many reasons people are leaving institutional churches, there is one that runs deeper than them all.
John MacArthur says it’s because “they deconstruct the Bible to give room for their pet sins and tolerances.”
The Gospel Coalition says it’s because we have church hurt, because of poor teaching, because we have a desire to sin and want street cred.
And Matt Chandler says it’s because “deconstruction has become some sort of sexy thing to do” for people who understood Christianity only as a moral code.
Let’s assume they are correct and imagine that those of us who have left institutional churches read a Kevin DeYoung article from The Gospel Coalition about Beth Allison Barr and repent. Suddenly, we stop wanting to do sexy things, renounce street cred, end our desire to sin, understand what penal substitutionary atonement really means, forgive the churches that hurt us, and become complementarian, young earth creationist inerrantists once again.
There would still be one problem. We don’t trust church elders anymore. And during yesterday’s service, the elders of The Village Church in Highland Village, Texas, demonstrated exactly why.
To rewind, the controversy began when the church’s teaching pastor, Matt Chandler, suddenly took a leave of absence on Aug. 28, confessing to sending “unwise” messages on social media to a woman in the church.
He told the church at the time: “Several months ago, a woman … met me out here in the lobby, and she had some concerns about how I was using the DM function on Instagram to message with one of her friends. At the time when she brought it up, I saw no issue with it. My wife knew about it. This woman’s husband knew about it. And so I kind of pushed against that not being OK. She said some things in that conversation, though, that were really disorienting for me.”
He added: “The accusations brought up some concerns that although my DMing with this woman was not romantic, nor was it ever sexual, it was unguarded and it was unwise. And the way that played itself out was in a kind of frequency and familiarity that is not wise for someone in my position.”
The ambiguity of the elders and a letter from a friend
Many people were rightly confused at the time about why Chandler was put on leave. Based on the information Village Church elders shared, this could have simply been a normal friendship rather than an abuse of power. But there was no way to know. Aimee Byrd wrote at the time that the confession was “extremely vague and leaves concerned believers and unbelievers with many questions.”
“Many people were rightly confused at the time about why Chandler was put on leave.”
But a week later, Chandler’s friend Preston Sprinkle sent a letter to his Patreon supporters claiming that after speaking with Chandler twice, “The church’s messaging framed it in some pretty negative terms that could be misconstrued.” According to Sprinkle, “The ‘coarse joking’ was jokes about alcohol … and the big issue was that his DM relationship seemed too ‘familiar’ for someone that he didn’t know terribly well in person.”
Sprinkle said: “To be clear, the woman he was messaging wasn’t at all offended and told Matt, ‘Don’t you dare apologize; you did nothing wrong!’ It was the woman’s friend, who lives by a very strict Billy Graham type of rule, that was offended that Matt was DMing a married woman (even though Matt’s wife and the woman’s husband were fully aware of it).”
Whatever happened between Chandler and this woman, the Village Church elders thought it was serious enough to put Chandler through a process that was both “disciplinary and developmental,” and that included being removed from the pulpit for three months. Yet they have given their church and the public virtually no specifics.
During the next three months, Chandler posted on Instagram that he was spending time at his river cabin, practicing Jiu Jitsu, “chasing bull elk through the mountains of Colorado” while talking about “Jesus, marriage, kids and the dark things than can plague men.”
He added: “There is something about hunting that replenishes my soul.”
The return of the pastor
Village Church elders sent out a letter last week saying: “Matt has completed everything asked of him” and saying they “have been encouraged by his posture throughout.” Then they announced Chandler would be returning to the pulpit the next Sunday, Dec. 4, which happens to be the 20th anniversary of the day Chandler became their pastor.
But the elders wanted to make sure that people understood the timing was purely coincidental: “Although we did not work toward this date as a target for Matt’s return, we did not think it was appropriate to delay Matt’s return to avoid it falling on the anniversary. We decided to stay true to the plan for Matt to return when the goals were met, and we embrace the beautiful coincidence of the timing.”
Demonstrating why we don’t trust church elders
From the very beginning of the controversy, Village Church elders have demonstrated why they can’t be trusted. Even assuming Chandler’s innocence, pastors who are supposedly submitting themselves to their elders’ discipline shouldn’t get to announce their discipline from the pulpit, frame the expectations for the congregation to forgive, play down the accusations without giving any real details, and receive a standing ovation from their church.
“From the very beginning of the controversy, Village Church elders have demonstrated why they can’t be trusted.”
In Sunday’s restoration service, at least four more patterns emerged that those of us who have left institutional churches are all too familiar with.
They frame their identity as wise decision makers
Complementarian elders love to talk about how wise their decision making process is.
“We hold elders to a higher standard. Why? Because the Scriptures hold elders to a higher standard,” lead pastor Josh Patterson said.
Notice how the natural, expected response for the congregation would be to consider the elders to be at a higher standard than they are, rather than living in ways all Christians should be expected to live.
He continued, “The plan the elders created was created prayerfully. It was created through a robust study of the Scriptures. It was created over time. And it was created with other trusted voices and counselors.”
How was the plan created over time when the entire restoration process lasted only three months? Were they sitting on the information and allowing him to preach while they came up with their plan? This description does nothing to reveal any of those details. All it serves is to impress us with the elders’ process without giving us any real information.
After Chandler walked on stage Sunday to a standing ovation, he said: “I love our elder board. They love the word of God. They love Jesus Christ. And they love me and my family, and not because I can preach. And what a gutsy — I almost used another word and then I’d have to sit down again.”
“How did the woman feel? How did her friend feel? None of us know because neither of them have been heard from.”
At that point, everyone burst into roaring laughter. How did the woman feel? How did her friend feel? None of us knows because neither of them have been heard from except supposedly through Sprinkle’s comments to his Patreon supporters. After the laughter died down, Chandler continued, “But what a gutsy, godly group of men.”
Then after the elders, all men, gathered around Chandler to affirm him, Patterson said: “I’m not patting us on the back. What I’m saying is he has bound our hearts together, that this group of men is a unified group of men around the beauties of the gospel. We have different stories and different backgrounds and all kinds of differences that make our unity even more beautiful. And we are ferociously committed to the Lord and to this church. … It’s just an honor for me to serve with you men.”
If a pastor has to say, “I’m not patting us on the back,” he has to know deep inside they’re patting themselves on the back, especially while wallowing in how wise they are.
They frame their decision making as God’s sovereignty while sharing virtually no specifics
Patterson said: “I don’t feel any hesitation. I don’t feel any trepidation. I feel excitement. I feel eagerness. I feel deep, deep gratitude for our loving Lord, who has shown himself to be mighty in our church. And here’s what I mean when I say that. He has shown himself to be mighty in his grace. He has shown himself to be mighty in his love. He has shown himself to be mighty in his pursuit. He has shown himself to be mighty in his seriousness about our hearts and our lives. He has shown himself to be mighty in his discipline. He has shown himself to be mighty in his care.”
When Patterson says he’s going to explain what he means, one might expect that finally we’re going to get some specifics. But instead, he mentions God being mighty in grace, love, pursuit, seriousness, discipline and care. What does any of that mean about Chandler’s specific situation?
For conservative evangelical Calvinists, hearing words about the mighty sovereign working of God gives them an emotional high off the thought of God being high and lifted up. Notice how the church immediately began clapping and cheering at the mention of the word “mighty.” They assume talking about God in lofty language of sovereign love is something to get excited, eager and grateful about. Who could be against making much of God? God is the one impossible for us to idolize, right?
Their addiction to the hierarchy of the “God most high” keeps their eyes focused on their elders’ vision of an all-controlling, all-supreme God who loves them by working through the decisions of their elder board, which is a group exclusively of men who brand themselves as being at a higher standard than the congregation.
They downplay their sins
Is Chandler really repentant when he’s joking: “And what a gutsy — I almost used another word and then I’d have to sit down again”?
Apparently, the entire reason he had to step aside was due to “coarse joking.” And here he is, just a couple minutes into being restored, making a joke with a silly innuendo and then laughing about having to “sit down again.”
“Was it a process of discipline and development? Or was he just having to sit in timeout for three months because a woman overreacted?”
So was it a process of discipline and development? Or was he just having to sit in timeout for three months because a woman overreacted? In either case, is it something to joke about, especially when the women involved might be listening?
Patterson said they had to “work through some challenges.”
When Chandler spoke, he said: “I very much know that the Christian life’s a marathon. And there are times in that run when you’re uphill in the snow and not sure if you’re going to make it.”
He continued: “I said on the 28th that really the situation disoriented me. It scared me. I’m a man who’s very serious about his life and doctrine and that I didn’t see what I didn’t see. It really was disorienting to me. And I said I needed to understand that. It revealed some unhealth in me. And so the elders’ care plan involved a couple of intensives. And I actually went and even got a neurological exam. I don’t know if you were around for that. But I actually don’t have a right frontal lobe. I had a tumor taken out 13 years ago and radiation and all that. So we needed to like, is there something wrong with my brain? And so that’s the work I’ve been doing over the last three months. Some intensives with some experts and then, is my brain OK?”
According to the Village Church statement of faith, “Christ’s death is a substitutionary and propitiatory sacrifice to God for our sins. It satisfies the demands of God’s holy justice and appeases his holy wrath. … Therefore, we want all that takes place in our hearts, churches, and ministries to proceed from and be related to the gospel.”
So where is the substitutionary and propitiatory sacrifice language in Chandler’s statement? If what he did was sin, then according to their theology it would have to be processed through the substitutionary and propitiatory sacrifice of God appeasing God’s holy wrath.
When it comes to the sins of others, Chandler and the Village Church elders speak clearly about eternal conscious torment and the penal substitutionary atonement of Jesus. But when it comes to Chandler’s sin — whatever it was — they call it “challenges,” running uphill in the snow, and downplay it as disorienting and scary.
While I totally empathize with Chandler’s brain tumor, there is no room in penal substitutionary atonement for brain tumors. Our humanity is never taken into account through atonement theologies that demand punishment for every thought and action.
If Sprinkle’s letter to his Patreon supporters was an accurate depiction of what happened, then why would Chandler be getting a neurological exam over innocent DM’s?
And since Chandler received a neurological exam, why didn’t he share whether the results suggested his DM’s were sent due to his missing right frontal lobe or not? In the end, nobody saw the substitutionary cross like their theology says. Instead, everyone felt sorry for and celebrated Chandler and the elders.
They silence those who question their decisions by processing their feelings in light of the gospel
If Patterson has any pastoral sensibilities, he had to know there were people in that room who have hesitation and trepidation about what happened with Chandler, about how quickly Chandler was restored, about the timing of the restoration with his 20th anniversary. So by Patterson saying “I don’t feel any hesitation. I don’t feel any trepidation,” he is downplaying those concerns by attempting to lower the hesitation and trepidation of others in the room. And when he goes on to contrast those concerns with rejoicing in God’s sovereignty, he’s implying that those who have concerns about the elders’ decisions are not trusting and rejoicing in God’s sovereignty like the elders are.
Chandler added: “And I don’t have ‘Here are the eight takeaways.’ I don’t have that for you. I just honestly feel like I’m fresh out of surgery or something. Like it’s a little too tender. I’m not sure how it moves just yet. But I think in time, all that the Lord has done and accomplished, I’ll be able to vocalize if the Lord wants me to. I mean some of that stuff just needs to be mine. It needs to be my wife and I’s.”
In other words — in case you have any questions or pushback — he has no real specifics to share, he’s really sensitive right now, God has accomplished everything through the elders’ decisions, and the details need to remain private.
Women are nowhere to be seen or heard
In addition to the specific details remaining private, Chandler and the Village Church elders seem to think it’s important that the women remain absent.
The woman who confronted Chandler is nowhere to be seen or heard.
“It’s just a bunch of men controlling things and talking about how amazing their authority is while deodorizing the stench of it all with references to the gospel.”
The woman who Chandler DM’d is nowhere to be seen or heard.
Not a single woman is an elder. So not a single woman held any authority in processing Chandlers’ situation.
It’s just a bunch of men controlling things and talking about how amazing their authority is while deodorizing the stench of it all with references to the gospel.
If you want to know why so many of us no longer can submit ourselves to the authority of all-male elder boards, it’s not because we want to do sexy things, have street cred, desire to sin, were poorly taught, have church hurt, or want to have our pet sins and tolerances.
We simply don’t trust these men anymore.
Rick Pidcock is a 2004 graduate of Bob Jones University, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Bible. He’s a freelance writer based in South Carolina and a former Clemons Fellow with BNG. He recently completed a Master of Arts degree in worship from Northern Seminary. He is a stay-at-home father of five children and produces music under the artist name Provoke Wonder. Follow his blog at www.rickpidcock.com.
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