A headline in People magazine ominously asks, “Man of God -- or Murderer?” The recent article tells the story of a United Methodist pastor in Pennsylvania charged with the murder of his second wife, potentially facing charges for the murder of his first wife.
But that’s not all: A man killed himself in this pastor’s study because the pastor allegedly had an affair with his wife!
As I read the article, I felt a dread bordering on sickness, because I could imagine how others would read it. Critics and skeptics -- whose confidence in Christians and the Church had been eroded by countless stories of embezzlement, adultery, and sexual abuse -- will see this story as more evidence that Christians (United Methodist clergy in this case) don’t practice what they preach.
That we Christians face a crisis of trustworthiness in the larger public forum is clear. Consider Gallup’s annual "Honesty/ Ethics in Professions" poll. People were asked, “How would you rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in these different fields —very high, high, average, low, or very low?” Only 50 percent of respondents ranked clergy high or very high. Only one-half of Americans surveyed think that clergy have high or very high standards of honesty and ethics. Clergy ranked eighth behind nurses, pharmacists, medical doctors, police officers, engineers, dentists, and college teachers.
In general, Americans trust their nurses much more than they trust their pastors.
Does it matter if society trusts Christians and clergy? Does integrity count? You bet it does! Consider the warning to all who would teach the faith to others in James 3. Listen to Jesus’ critique of hypocritical religious leaders in Matthew 23.
Most convincingly, hear what Jesus says in Luke 17:2: “It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” The literal meaning of Satan, after all, is “the obstacle.” Sure, it matters to Jesus that we are people of integrity. How can we share the good news if people do not trust the messenger?
The truth is that we are all sinners -- every last one of us -- and in recent decades, public sentiment and discourse have embraced that truth. “Nobody’s perfect,” we remind each other, as if fulfillment consists in knowing our sin is no worse than anyone else's sin. But Jesus doesn’t call us to settle for a life that’s no worse than others. He calls us to the abundant life of grace, repentance, holiness, and perfection in love, the life in which we’re freed for joyful obedience.
We United Methodists are people of grace, and we should always extend grace, mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation to our sisters and brothers in Jesus Christ whose sins become painfully public. We ought to show Christ-like compassion to all whose lives are unraveling. At the same time, we should seek to experience and model grace in its fullest expression -- that sanctifying grace, as John Wesley called it, that leads us “on to perfection.”
At every annual conference, the bishop asks a series of questions, “the historic examination,” of all who seek ordination. The questions include: “Are you going on to perfection? Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? Are you earnestly striving after perfection in love?”
Well, are we?
I know the skeptics and critics will read the People article as further proof that Christians are hypocrites. However, I pray that we will read it as a call to renewed commitment to live as the body of Christ -- beautifully held together by encouragement and accountability -- allowing all its members to experience the sanctifying, perfecting grace of Jesus Christ.
When we claim his holy name and proclaim his holy word, integrity matters.
The Rev. Jonathan Jonas is senior pastor at First United Methodist Church of Marion, Va., in Abindgon District.