The happy news this past week about Charles and Anna Stanley, and their determination to seek reconciliation in their marriage, calls to mind our own need for reconciliation with a few of our readers.
Mr. Stanley, pastor of First Baptist Church in Atlanta, one of the ablest Bible teachers of our time, and a theologically conservative leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, was the subject of a cover story in WORLD four weeks ago that produced more mail than just about any story we have published in our 10-year history. The story featured Mr. Stanley's refusal to step aside from his pastoral role in spite of a separation and pending divorce from his wife of 40 years.
Some readers, including a few who are prominent in Southern Baptist leadership roles, told us WORLD's story was right on target and very much needed. These folks said that when prominent Christian leaders resist the same checks and balances that normally apply to lesser people, the message is sent that a double standard exists. "It's unthinkable," one pastor told me, "that a pastor of a smaller church, say 150 to 200 people, would stay in the pulpit when his marriage was falling apart around him. Why should big-steeple people get a special deal?"
The administration of church discipline, of course, is not WORLD magazine's assignment in God's kingdom. A number of readers have argued that we had no business mentioning the story at all-that there are God-appointed agents in Atlanta and the rest of the Stanleys' church structure who are fully competent to deal with the situation. Several letter writers have said they could see no difference between our story and what might have appeared in National Enquirer.
So the arrival of good news from the Stanleys is an appropriate opportunity for us to thank God just as publicly as we stated the problem before-and perhaps also to explain briefly why we think it is appropriate to do both.
The Stanley story, from its beginning, has not been nearly so much about a wounded marriage, and especially not about divorce (which now it appears will not occur), as it is about accountability and leadership in Christian circles.
It is a clear biblical principle that to whom much is given, much is required. From the early requirements for priests in the temple (Leviticus 21) to the apostolic standards for leaders in the New Testament church (1 Timothy 3), the issue has always been the same: Such people are to be "above reproach."
If God had wanted his leaders to be perfect, he could have said they had to bring perfection to the table. But only Jesus has those credentials. God looks instead for people who are "above reproach," suggesting their records cannot regularly leave unanswered questions in the minds of the very people they are to minister to.
There are three ways to be "above reproach."
The first, and best, is to stay there in the first place. That doesn't mean living a perfect life. It does mean getting an early handle on God's grace, running from temptation, and consistently claiming the power of God's Spirit to live a holy life in a terribly sinful world.
The second way to be above reproach is to take a time-out when brokenness comes. God's leaders regularly take hard hits-some through sinful choices, some by personal carelessness, and some unavoidably because of the onslaughts of the evil one. But, in such cases, a little time away from the pressures of leadership is called for. It's like the quarterback who takes a hard lick while dropping back to pass, and falls down stunned for a few moments. Because he's a leader, he begs to stay in the game. But a wise coach benches even his star for a few plays, just to make sure all is well. Nobody knows that better than those of us who, like the Stanleys, have taken some of those same hard personal blows ourselves. There is a time to head for the sidelines; the bench is for our good. God can-and does-put us back in the game, in his own time.
A third practical way to get above reproach is simply to let the facts speak for themselves. That's where media reports like WORLD's story on the Stanleys come into play.
A decade ago, the Christian media failed miserably on this front in the case of the Jim Bakker scandal. Rumors were widely circulated that the Bakker "ministry" at PTL had some big cracks in its foundation, but Christian reporters left it to the secular media to call Mr. Bakker to account. It's not seemly for us, we said then, to get involved in such stories-as though our wishing them away would make them disappear.
The line between formal church discipline as outlined in Matthew 18 and informal accountability of the sort I'm talking about here isn't always easy to establish. But when a Christian leader makes wide use of print and electronic media to win the support of the Christian public well beyond his own local church, that same Christian public has a right to know what's going on in that leader's life. Such public knowledge is precisely what will keep that person interested in staying "above reproach."
The length and cover position of WORLD's story on the Stanleys, which offended some readers as overkill, may be subject to question. But our account, which was more about the issue of leadership than the issue of divorce, was accurate and went out of its way to avoid tawdry sensationalism. Such self-critical reporting will always be an essential part of our witness to a cynical and skeptical world.