Amy Simpson: When Moral Boundaries Around Christian Ministries Become Incubators for Sin

Once a man planted a garden. He watered it well and was delighted when shoots emerged. As weeks passed, those shoots grew into plants. Every day he watered and weeded, and his garden grew until one day he was ecstatic to see plants bearing fruit and vegetables. Now I can take a few days’ rest, he thought, content in knowing his efforts would produce a harvest. He left the produce to ripen on the plants.

A few days later, he went to his garden and was dismayed to see that what he had hoped to eat had already been eaten. On every plant was evidence of hungry rodents and rabbits who had raided his crop. So he decided to erect a fence.

A few days later, the man again went to his garden and saw the same thing. So he put up another fence, another, and another. Every time he checked, he found vermin had raided the garden. Finally he realized critters could go over, through, or under each fence. So he built a brick wall over a 10-foot-deep concrete foundation. He was sure nothing could get over or dig underneath. Then he confidently stayed away, giving the garden plenty of time to ripen undisturbed.

Weeks later, he climbed the garden wall and was horrified to find it was choked with weeds, the ground cracked, the plants wilted, and worst of all, his crop gone. The only thing left standing was his wall.

He looked closer and realized his garden was still full of critters—he had failed to clear them before building the wall. Furthermore, his wall had blocked out weeks of sunlight. Trusting in the wall’s protection, he had forgotten to tend the garden, failed to realize he was blocking the sun’s rays, and completely overlooked the greatest threat to his garden: the animals who had been inside all along.

How many Christian leaders trust in similar walls—carefully built boundaries erected to protect us from threats to our moral well-being, to manage messy relationships, or simply to manage our time?

How many more will tragically discover that those walls not only will fail but that they can encourage internal decay?

These days, many churches are trying to recover from the pain and disillusionment of learning their leaders had well-honed and long-indulged appetites for power, pleasure, and profit. Many of these fallen leaders had strict rules and boundaries—often well-publicized—in place to preserve and protect their moral well-being. In 1989, after he is alleged to have begun abusing his position as pastor and engaging in inappropriate sexual encounters, Bill Hybels wrote a chapter called “How to Affair-Proof Your Marriage” in the book Christians in a Sex-Crazed CultureIn it, he advocated for adhering to boundaries for protection. And he wrote, “Recently, a pastor of a major church was exposed in having multiple adulterous relationships. When I asked him how this could have happened, he replied that he had created an environment where he had to answer to no one.”

In another article, he wrote an often-quoted story illustrating his own need for accountability, even in small things. When a staff member called him to task for parking in a “no parking” zone, he affirmed, “I’m not the exception to church rules, nor am I the exception to sexual rules or financial rules or any of God’s rules. As a leader, I am not an exception; I’m to be the exampleThat’s why we all need people like my staff member to hold us accountable in even small matters. Because when we keep the minor matters in line, we don’t stumble over the larger ones.”

But for all Hybels’ talk about the value of boundaries, he found his way around both the standards he spoke of and the accountability he affirmed he needed. In investigating and responding to allegations of his misconduct, Willow Creek’s church board wrote, “Bill acknowledged that he placed himself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid. We agree, and now recognize that we didn’t hold him accountable to specific boundaries.”

Hybels is hardly the only example of this. In 1999 James MacDonald wrote of the “moral fences” he had established in response to hearing of “the moral failures of the late ’80s.” Though he focused on sexual temptation in the article, the “boundaries of behavior” he put in place reveal a reliance on external safeguards that failed to protect him from alleged abuses of power and financial corruption.

So what happened? Why do these boundaries fail to protect some leaders and their congregations from sin? Every case, like every person’s story, is different. No single answer can explain the totality of the problem, particularly when sin is pathological. But among the many cautionary tales we can read in these stories, the inadequacy of boundaries may be the most counterintuitive. After all, some may look at such stories and implore us to strengthen our boundaries, to tighten the external controls we put in place to manage human behavior. But our well-meaning boundaries come with at least three major inherent flaws.

Laws Encourage Rebellion

I don’t hear many people talk about this first problem, even though it is baked into the gospel and obvious from the dawn of humanity. Paul wrote about it in Romans 7, in his discussion of the limited power of God’s law.

I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. … I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. (Rom. 7:7–10)

In the following chapter, he goes on to explain that the law was powerless to save us “because it was weakened by the flesh” (Rom. 8:3).

The law, he says, not only reveals our sin but actually increases our desire to sin.

If you doubt this, open a package of M&Ms, put them out of reach on a high shelf, and tell a kid not to eat any of them. Then walk away but secretly watch while that kid gets creative. Better yet, place the candy in a locked box, tell the kid not to eat any of them, put the key in their pocket, and ask them to concentrate on something else. Guess what they’ll be thinking about all day?

As long as we are the guardians of our own boundaries—and ultimately we are—we can find ways around them.

For more biblical evidence, we need look no further than the Garden of Eden. With a world of pleasures and provisions surrounding them, Adam and Eve found themselves partaking of the one fruit they were forbidden to eat. How many times had they circled that tree, staring in fascination?

Here’s one important thing to remember about boundaries: We already have boundaries in God’s law. God’s law is good but cannot save us. If those boundaries are not enough to transform us and inspire obedience, because our sinful nature lives in rebellion against them, why do we believe our own rules will be enough to decrease our desire to sin?

Establishing our own boundaries, then relying on them to protect us from sin, comes from the same impulse that created the system of extra-biblical laws Jesus confronted so harshly: “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matt. 23:4). Rather than commend these religious leaders for their boundaries, Jesus confronted them with the truth about their condition before God: “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matt. 23:27–28).

Consider the example of former youth pastor Gary Welch, who was sentenced to 55 years in prison for sexual crimes. In discussing child sexual abuse in the church, he said, “It’s very important that churches and anybody has boundaries and guidelines. And our church did. I just chose to ignore them.”

For another example, witness Bill Gothard, whose many rules about dating relationships, sexual purity, and modesty may have fueled the desires behind his alleged abuse of young women. Or Ted Haggard, who “seemed to have a need to push boundaries.”

“The human heart is so inveterately proud and unsubmissive that it often uses religion and morality to express its rebellion,” wrote John Piper—who, though he took an eight-month leave from Bethlehem Baptist Church in 2010 for “a reality check from the Holy Spirit,” has not experienced a ministry meltdown like these other figures. “As Romans 10:3 says, ‘In seeking to establish their own righteousness, they would not submit to the righteousness of God.’ The pursuit of righteousness can lead to perdition.”

The fact is, rigid systems don’t work. They may even lead us right into the sin we’re hoping to avoid.

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Source: Christianity Today