October 25th, 2010
07:00 AM ET

My take: How to scandal proof your church

Editor's Note: Jonathan Acuff writes the blog www.stuffchristianslike.net and recently released the book "Stuff Christians Like." He writes for the Dave Ramsey Organization and lives in Nashville with his wife and two children. Follow him on Twitter @prodigaljohn.

By Jonathan Acuff, Special to CNN

Katy Perry is the greatest “pastor’s kid gone wild," ever. It used to be Alice Cooper and we briefly considered giving the title to comedian Daniel Tosh, but at the end of the day, Perry crushes them both.

Of course, we Christians know Katy Perry as Katy Hudson, the gospel singer. But even though she’s left our musical realm, we’re ready to take her back. She and fiancé Russell Brand could be Christian music’s Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. Think about it Katy, think about it.

Maybe I’ll spread that as a “Christian urban legend.” I’ll just start telling people that rumor until eventually enough people believe it’s actually going to happen, Katy Perry is coming back!

It wouldn’t be the first Christian urban legend though. We’ve had faith-flavored folklore floating about for years. (Christians hate using Snopes to disprove things. Look it up, that’s somewhere in the Old Testament.)

One of my favorite urban legends was the one about the Satanist and the pastor on the airplane. (Doesn’t that kind of sound like a “Satanist and pastor walked into a bar” joke?) In this particular urban legend, a pastor asks the guy next to him on a plane what brought him to town. The Satanist responds, “I worship the devil and was in town to pray for the destruction of pastors across the country.”

I don’t know any Satanists, but I have to assume they do have conventions from time to time. In Vegas, of course, you can’t hold a Beelzebub Ball in Branson, Missouri. But that urban legend seems way to crazy to be true despite the fact that I heard it a dozen different times when I was a kid.

But based on the number of big pastors that have been involved in some wildly public scandals over the years, you start to worry that maybe it’s true. Maybe someone is actively praying that. Or maybe we’ve just got some really unhealthy churches.

I tend to put my belief in the latter. I don’t doubt for a second that there’s opposition to ministries all over the world, forces of evil that make Christopher Walken’s “The Prophecy” seem calm. But I think we as Christians can do a much better job scandal-proofing our churches.

In fact, I think there are four ways we can keep scandal at bay in our congregations.

1. Create an environment where it’s OK for people to fail.
Sometimes, we Christians confess “safe sins.” We sit in small groups and say, “I’ve got to be real tonight. I want to be honest, I want to give it to you raw like ODB in the Wu Tang Clan.”

So you lean in expecting some deep honesty and instead someone confesses, “I don’t read my Bible enough,” or “I don’t do very long quiet times.” If you’ve got a big neon sin, if you’re struggling with porn or a drug addiction, it’s really hard to follow the “I don’t read the Bible enough” guy.

So you fake it a little. You shine things ups. You start to use what people call the “Christian F-Word,” which is “fine.” How’s your marriage? Fine. How’s your job? Fine. As Christians, we’ve got to make it OK to fail. Not to justify it or support it, but to allow an environment where grace reigns, not judgment.

2. Go first.
The challenge of creating an honest environment is that you have to go first. You have to throw yourself on the honesty grenade, which is difficult. Because when you go first, you don’t know the boundaries. You don’t know what’s acceptable or OK.

You have to step out into the gaping void of a conversation and be honest. But when you do, when you go first and share your story and your life, you give everyone in the room or your family or your community, the gift of going second.

You give them the opportunity to go second and follow your lead. They get to step into the space you’ve carved out with your honesty. We’ve got to give the gift of going second.

3. Hold pastors accountable.
According to the Bible, Solomon was the wisest person who ever lived. He asked God for and was granted more wisdom than we can possibly fathom. And he failed.

So why do we think our pastors won’t? Why are we surprised when we treat them like they’re perfect, never challenge their actions and then they fall? It’s classic “CEO Disease” or just another example of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

The pastor gets so big and successful that we don’t hold them accountable. We surround them with people who constantly tell them “yes.” We establish a different set of rules for them.

Instead, we need to surround our pastors with people who love them enough to tell them things they don’t want to hear. To challenge them and embrace the Biblical model of iron sharpening iron.

4. Look out for Aaron lies.
No one wakes up on a Tuesday and says, “I think I’ll wreck my whole life, throw away my ministry and destroy my marriage.”  We all take small steps toward the big, dumb decisions we make. And along the way, we justify the things we’re doing with the craziest excuses and lies.

Like Aaron telling Moses that he just threw gold in a fire and a calf magically popped out, we’ll create wild lies. We’ll say, “Oh that, that’s just what guys do!” Or, “That’s not an emotional affair, I just have a flirty personality. That’s nothing.”

We’ll pile lie upon lie until eventually the whole stack topples over. Scandals should never really surprise us. There’s a veritable ginger bread trail of lies the whole time. Seek truth and celebrate truth and don’t for a second accept that golden calves magically appear.

I don’t know what will happen with the latest scandal. I don’t know that minister. I don’t know that church. But I do know we’ll keep having scandals if we keep creating environments where people can’t be honest and we act like our pastors are perfect.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jonathan Acuff.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Opinion

soundoff (279 Responses)
  1. JayD

    Nice post. It took me until I was 27. My parents were not "church" people by any stretch of the imagination, I had no indoctrination just a long search. After turning down science and religion as cheap ideas for real explanations I came to the cross. I realized it wasn't about a set of rules and regulations, it was about what God had already done for me.
    It was not about religion but about a relationship.
    It seems to me that none of us have a clue about finding the truth. We start out good and then our personal preferences, and pride get in the way and instead of looking at both sides we have a tendancy to only seek out things that support "our side". Discernment is not for the weak.
    Thanks Prodigal Jon for an honest look with a bit of sarcasm, I need to learn how to give the gift of being second.

    October 27, 2010 at 2:33 pm |
  2. C

    I think you guys miss the point. He's not preaching to anyone except the Church itself. He's a Christian pastor and author, and he's freely admitting that the Curch is full of faults and needs to change to embrace those who have made mistakes. Aren't non-Christians always saying that we're hypocritical? Acuff is acknowledging that and saying that we need to be less so. You guys are saying "Well, Christians are awful and scandalous." Yes....that's what Acuff's saying....so what's the complaint??

    October 27, 2010 at 1:41 pm |
  3. DrDR

    Jesus is alive. True or not true? And on the side of those who believe that he walked the earth, gathered a following, taught & healed, was crucified, THEN rose from the dead...there are those who relate to him and are being changed by that loving relationship. As Jesus' followers gather together and organize we have been erratic at best at how faithful we've been in our relationship to Jesus and others. I get that, since that's the story line of my 34 year marriage. Jon's blog offers advice that's fun to read and might actually help us remember that the whole point, really, has been to try to snuggle closer to Jesus and live more like him. Not much chance that logical arguments will supply me with a "Sixth Sense" reinterpretive framework that explains away the positive trajectory of my life since I gave my allegiance to Jesus when I was 16.

    October 27, 2010 at 10:47 am |
    • Reality


      You actually gave allegiance to those who rewrote the life of an illiterate, preacher man aka Jesus and embellished and "mythicized" it into a story of godly impregnations of a virgin, atonement theology, deity and resurrection.

      The con artists' names? Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John along with the "necessary accessories", Pilate and Constantine.

      October 27, 2010 at 11:45 am |
  4. Laz

    Wow, a few of you have waaaay too much time on your hands, and issues to deal with.

    I can only hope we put as much passion and effort into helping our fellow man as we do trying to sound smarter than everyone else on a CNN blog.

    This argument can not be won. Oh, in your mind you may think "Aha! There...I showed them!!!" But you didn't advance your stance at all. Either side.

    When this life is over, we will all find out one way or the other.

    October 27, 2010 at 10:45 am |
  5. J

    Oy! Luke, you're killing me here... 🙂 "Why do we breathe through the same hole that we eat and drink though? Imagine how many souls would be saved if we had a blow hole just like other mammals such as whales and dolphins. And that’s just on earth!" Sure, we CAN breathe through our mouths, but we do have a "blow hole"...it's called our nose. The nose of humans is the part analagous to the blow hole of cetaceans. Please stop using bad science to defend your viewpoint, it's not serving anyone. As a zoologist, trained at a reputable state University, specializing in animal behavior and neurobiology, this kind of misinformation makes me cringe a bit. And this from a disciple of Christ, who would love it if you would believe and repent and submit to God's lordship in your life.

    October 27, 2010 at 9:27 am |
    • Luke

      You must be a really bad Zoologist. Your nose and mouth connect, therefore you can choke on food. Whales and dolphins cannot choke if food becomes lodged in their throat. You make me cringe.

      October 27, 2010 at 1:19 pm |
  6. Kerry

    i think this is relevant to both the original topic of this article as well as the painful responses from some here in the comment section:


    October 27, 2010 at 9:20 am |
  7. Becky

    All the intellectual and theological arguments on here are making my head spin (but not 360 freaky way :). So I thought I would do my part to dumb down the arguments and give both groups of thought something to laugh at. I would rather be the fictional Forest Gump than Darwin or, dare I say it?, C.S Lewis. I am a simpleton, one of the dumb downed masses you want to enlighten, and I choose silly mushy love over knowledge. If you wish to test your intellectual prowess, speak at my level.

    October 27, 2010 at 2:16 am |
    • Sum Dude

      we love you Becky! (there. How's that?)
      I know how you feel. I've run into that myself, just not here.
      Here's a hug: ((((Becky))))

      October 27, 2010 at 6:33 am |
    • Becky

      Um, not sure I want a hug from all the posters on here. But thanks for the nice thought.

      October 29, 2010 at 2:27 am |
  8. Erica

    @Zach- that is the truth.

    I think that the church as pictured in the early chapters of Acts would receive a very different reaction from today's critics than the Catholic Church (and others!!) of today. THAT love, worship, service, and community- not winning intellectual arguments, having the most warm bodies occupying the pews on Sunday Mornings, or beguiling the World into tolerating our beliefs should be the goal for which we strive.

    October 26, 2010 at 7:48 pm |
  9. Maggie

    Great blog Jon! I totally agree! We all need accountability...even more so those in authority in our churches!
    1 Cor. 1:18-31
    8For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written:
    "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate."[a]

    20Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.

    26Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29so that no one may boast before him. 30It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31Therefore, as it is written: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord."

    October 26, 2010 at 7:32 pm |
    • Sum Dude


      That's a clever bunch of words written by a very clever con-artist. It says that God will use lies and what does not exist to destroy the truth, among other things.
      Written to dispel accusations and avoid accountability, I'm sure it looks good to you...

      October 26, 2010 at 11:53 pm |
    • Cam

      Awesome! Written by Paul, a person who at one point participated in killing people for their religion. He was a young rabbi and was present at the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. On the way to persecute even more Christians he had a vision and message from Christ and became a follower of Christ. Why would this rabbi leave everything he knew and obviously loved to go around and "con" people into following something he knew was false?

      People die for things they believe in everyday...they don't die for things they know to be false. (Unless they have a mental illness...which from his writing we can be certain Paul didn't)

      October 28, 2010 at 9:33 am |
  10. Lucius

    John has some great observations in his article. Christians sin (*gasp*) and should be more open about it, not pretend to be saints to coverup the fact. Acknowledge the sin then share how God fixed it.

    October 26, 2010 at 5:48 pm |
    • Sum Dude


      As if that would ever happen! The threat of silly disapproval keeps them from admitting what they have done. Get a clue.

      October 26, 2010 at 11:48 pm |
    • Lucius

      @ Sum Dude
      I know it is not likely to happen. Humans hate revealing that type of stuff (I, a human, speak from experience). But I can dream can't I?

      October 27, 2010 at 6:08 pm |
  11. Zach

    Wait...those who speak against biblical Christianity's "religion" should read James 1:27. Who would be against helping orphans and widows in distress?

    October 26, 2010 at 5:35 pm |
  12. D-Bo

    "A just cause is not ruined by a few mistakes."

    "To live without Hope is to Cease to live."

    – Fyodor Dostoevsky

    October 26, 2010 at 5:32 pm |
  13. Really?

    Why does it anger so many people when someone writes something good and honest? Jon made a great point and y'all have to shred it to pieces. Can't u just be happy that someone is trying to make a difference? Yes there are Christians that are judgemental and rude, but there are non-Christians that are the same way. I go to an amazing church (www.journeyon.net) that strives to do these very things that Jon wrote about. We are bunch of jacked up people and we will always be screwed up. I personally love that I worship a God that allows me to be human and fogives me and loves me back unconditionally even when I turn away from Him.

    October 26, 2010 at 5:23 pm |
    • Sum Dude


      His list is unworkable and unrealistic. The biggest scandals rarely come to light. Just because someone "believes" does not automatically make them honest or ethical or anything like that.

      October 26, 2010 at 11:44 pm |
  14. Kara

    Jon Acuff rocks.

    October 26, 2010 at 4:30 pm |
  15. billp

    Stop selling snake oil to the gullible and go out of business now. That would do the world a service and reduce the chance of further scandal.

    October 25, 2010 at 11:45 pm |
  16. Blessed Geek

    "According to the Bible, Solomon was the wisest person who ever lived."???

    According to the Bible, you should brush your teeth twice a day.
    According to the Christian gospel, three wise men appeared at Jesus' birth.

    October 25, 2010 at 9:22 pm |
    • Mike, not me

      According to the Bible the three wisemen did not reach Joseph and Mary's home until Jesus was about 2. Don't buy into the nativity sets.

      October 26, 2010 at 8:56 am |
    • Ginger

      According to the Bible:
      God So loved the world that he gave his one and only son, so that WHOEVER believes in him will not die but have eternal life with him.

      God does not care what we've done, said or will do....all that counts is that we see that he loves us. He loves us so much he laid down his life for us.

      therefore semantics are not an issue, all that really matters is him.

      October 26, 2010 at 5:30 pm |
    • Muneef

      According to the Quran the wisest of all prophets was Lukman the wise "Lukman AlHakeem. Solmon was a very Powerful King he was the Magnificent.

      October 26, 2010 at 8:51 pm |
    • Arcadia Steve

      As we approach Christmas, let's remember that there is a great deal of linkage among the world's faiths, all wrapped up in the Bible, which I consider a piece of "world literature", not the sole property of any one group. Of particular interest is how each organized religion goes through phases of initial persecution, ascendancy and acceptance, then corruption, persecution of non-believers, and decay, followed by a new installment/Messenger. For example, the "magi" or three wise men were, of course, priests of the Persian Zoroastrian religion, whose prophecy told them to look to the West under a star to see the return of their Prophet, Zoroaster. We know about Zoroaster as the monotheistic religion (Ahura Mazda) of the Persian Empire – remember the story of "Daniel in the Lion's Den" and how Daniel helped the king (shah) interpret his dreams. Also, in the New Testament, the Book of Revelation story about "the Church" in the future (i.e.., hundreds of year after Christ) and the tribulations it endured, its eventual corruption, and revival/replacement with a new pair of messengers (yes, it says dual messengers, not one) is not necessarily about the Christian Church. If one were to consider that, as an offshoot of Abraham's legacy/covenant, that Islam is "authentic", this story much more closely matches the history of Islam (Muhammad and his son-in-law Ali being the key figures). Per the story, after 1,260 days (i.e., prophetic years), the two figures are restored, which could be interpreted in 1844 as the Founders of the Baha'i Faith (The Bab and Baha'u'llah). The point here is not to give a lecture or state flippantly that "you can read anything into it that you want", but to caution that one's world views are greatly influenced by culture, tradition, and a fear of "the different". For example, if someone wanted to learn about the possibility "reality" of Jesus, he might want to ask a Jewish, a Christian, and a Muslim scholar what are their thoughts, then decide for himself which "claims" make the most sense.

      November 4, 2010 at 5:57 pm |
  17. tagnga

    @ Luke;
    You wrote; “Maybe you should reread your bible. It calls for the systematic destruction of all non-Christians” exactly where in the bible, is that found?

    October 25, 2010 at 8:36 pm |
  18. hds2010

    You're all either 80-year-old men who just discovered the internet, or college students. Why isn't anyone freaking working? It's Monday. Go be productive members of society. This whole argument was like Mad Libs, I could fill in the responses before I saw them.

    October 25, 2010 at 6:58 pm |
    • Luke

      some of us are capable of doing more than one thing at once. I have 4 monitors at work, and this just resides in one corner of one screen.

      October 25, 2010 at 7:09 pm |
    • NL

      and some of us can type really quickly.

      October 25, 2010 at 11:43 pm |
    • Hds2010

      And some of you are losers who check this blog 40 times a day. You're the reason employers install internet monitors.

      October 26, 2010 at 8:43 am |
    • Frogist

      Janet Jackson says I get paid to do this....

      October 26, 2010 at 5:55 pm |
  19. Mike, not me

    Defination of what Atheism is and is not.


    October 25, 2010 at 4:41 pm |
    • Luke

      This is edited. Watch the full debate and also other debates.

      October 25, 2010 at 4:50 pm |
    • JohnQuest

      I have watched the whole debate, what struck me was, they never agreed on the basic principles, what is God, what does it mean to exist. I got the impression that they were not talking about the same thing, the part about absences of evidence they never agreed on what type of evidence would be acceptable to either. Without these basic understanding agreed on it is impossible to get to a conclusion.

      You are right this has been edited.

      October 25, 2010 at 5:05 pm |
    • thoughts with accent

      That was hilarious!!

      October 27, 2010 at 3:11 am |
  20. ChronicleStudios

    I really find it amusing that after all of this mindless debate that comes up on articles like these, that any Christian is surprised or offended. If evolutionists want to argue constantly, trying to convert us to their beliefs just as they accuse us of doing, then let them. Don't play their game. The bible says: "there is a time to speak and a time to refrain from speaking". Most of the time, arguing with a person who will never change their opinion about something is only giving them what they want. They want you to get flustered and angry, they want you to lash out so they can catch you in a loophole. Don't give them that. Just because you are completely sure about something doesn't mean you have to take every opportunity to fight for it. Sometimes fighting for it is the wrong thing to do, as the bible verse states.

    And for all of those embraced-by-the-primate-people out there... if you don't like the article, don't read it. If you don't like our opinion, don't talk to us. What are you getting out of bashing another person? "Matters of taste are useless to argue upon." is a quote I live by. It works much of the same way here.

    If you have something to say to me, go ahead, but I promise you I will NEVER get angry or offended at you. I will NEVER let you get under my skin like you want to. The end.

    October 25, 2010 at 3:36 pm |
    • Luke

      No one wants to get under your skin. They want you to learn. What does embraced by the primate people out there mean?

      October 25, 2010 at 3:44 pm |
    • JohnQuest

      ChronicleStudios, it has been my experience that non believe will change their ideas about life if presented with evidence, even an idea that there might be evidence someday is enough for most. After thousands of years looking we are at least honest enough to except the fact that God does not exist. If I am proving wrong then I will have to ask God, why did it/he/she allow for an intellect and then get irritated when we use it. Dear God there is no evidence to support the idea that you ever existed, you are the creator don't blame your lack of evidence on me.

      October 25, 2010 at 3:52 pm |
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