On June 21, 2015, after admitting to an extra-marital sexual relationship, Rev. Tullian Tchividjian announced his resignation as senior pastor of Coral Ridge PCA in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. This was devastating news for me. Over a number of years, Tullian’s teaching, along with Paul Tripp, Ray Cortese, John Frame, J.D. Greear, Matt Chandler, Joe Novenson, Tim Keller, John Piper, Scotty Smith, Nancy Guthrie, and Elyse Fitzpatrick, have all been refreshing gospel voices for my soul. Of these, as Billy Graham’s grandson, Tullian is one of the most popular. His recent book, One Way Love, had a big impact in American Christianity. In fact, we used this study last year at Surfside Presbyterian Church and a number of people in our congregation were deeply encouraged by the wonderful emphasis on the enduring love, incredible adoption, and glorious gospel freedom that we have in Jesus Christ – our Savior and Lord who has chosen us, called us, saved us, freed us, and holds us firmly in his ever gracious grip. Tullian’s message – brought to life beautifully from the very pages of the scripture – has been a clear gospel bell ringing for so many of us who have been steeped in hopeless legalism. Yet, sadly, at some point Tullian’s faith in Christ weakened. He took his eyes off of Christ, stared at the idolatrous comforts that our world has to offer, and he deliberately and selfishly chose to numb his pain in the arms of those destructive idols. It is a familiar story to us all. It is an ancient story. It is the story of Adam and Eve. It is the story of David and Solomon. And it is the story of us.
In the Hippocratic Oath, made by medical doctors, we find the latin phrase, “Primum non Nocere: First and foremost, Do No Harm.” As I look at this particular story, I am grieved because Tullian’s sin causes harm. Not only does it cause harm to Tullian and his family, but it causes harm to all Christians, to all believers. That’s how sin is. It is never localized. It is never private. It’s not like a single shot from a handgun, it’s like a nuclear bomb – and the fall out is always devastating. But just to be clear, I’m not just grieved over Tullian’s sin – I am grieved over all sin. I am grieved over mine. And I am further grieved by the responses I am reading and hearing. As the fallout continues from this high-profile fall, many articles related to Tullian’s sin are already being posted online, and I am sure more are forthcoming. Just today I read an article titled, “7 Reasons Why High-Profile Leaders Like Tullian Tchividjian Fail.” In posts like these, I read that Tullian failed because: he was too busy, he was too confident, he was too negligent, he was too lonely, he was too popular, he was too imprudent, he compromised holiness, he failed to strengthen weak areas, he minimized accountability, he ignored safeguards, and so on. Now, many of these things may be true on some level. But I must say that it deeply grieves me that we do not seem to understand the root of what really happened here. Tullian’s sinful decision to pursue an affair was not ultimately a result of any of those things. I can say without any doubt, Tullians’ fall was exclusively related to a weakened dependence upon Christ. Tullian’s tragedy is the prospective tragedy of every Christian pastor: He forgot the very gospel that he preached.
In Hebrews 12:2, the scripture tells us to “fix our eyes on Christ who is the author and perfecter of our faith.” Even now, as I write these words, my eyes are filling up with tears – because I know my own heart. I know that I have in me the capacity to do the same thing as Tullian. I know I have the capacity to do great harm. I have the same weaknesses, the same idolatrous desires, the same selfishness – all of it. This is not just Tullian’s story. It is mine. It is yours. But for whatever reason – and not because there is any particular goodness in me – God has chosen to guard me from this kind of sin. He has given me an incredibly gracious wife in Martha Jo. He has surrounded me with vigilant and loving friends. He has graced me beyond measure. And he has taught me to get up every morning and – in some form or other – to whisper these words: “Christ – primum non nocere – first and foremost, help me to do no harm today as a pastor. Rescue me. Help me. Guard me. Hold me. Feed me. Save me. Kiss me with grace. Embrace me with love. Tackle me with providence. If I do no good, so be it. Your goodness is plenty for all. But help me to do no harm. As you well know Jesus, I am a broken, insecure, weak, and evil dude. If you choose to work through me today, praise God. But please help me to do no harm. Help me to stay authentic, honest, open, and broken before your face. Please, help to remember the gospel.”
If I had one thing to share with fellow pastors that may help them to avoid a failure of the magnitude of Tullian’s, I would not tell them to rely on accountability, or to avoid the opposite sex, or to avoid loneliness, or to strengthen weak areas, or anything of that nature. Instead I would tell them this: Never, never, never, never, never forget the Gospel! Fix your eyes on Jesus. Repent continuously. Call out to Jesus every hour. And pray every morning, “Christ, by your sweet mercies, help me to do no harm today.”