Reflections on Fallen Church Leaders

on June 18, 2024

The 1980s Southern Baptist conservative resurgence co-leader Judge Paul Pressler’s obituaries this week highlighted the charges of sexual predation of young men publicized since 2017.  How should we consider his legacy?

I knew and had admired Judge Pressler. My Facebook post of a 2013 picture with him describes him as “my Southern Baptist hero and friend.”  I first met him at conservative gatherings in the 1990s. Already I knew of his reputation for successfully co-leading the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. His success inspired me, as a young United Methodist reformer. I enthusiastically read his 2002 book A Hill on Which to Die: One Southern Baptist’s Journey.

Over the years Pressler was always very gracious and encouraging. Once he organized a panel on Mainline Protestant church reform and invited me to speak about United Methodism. Later I asked if he might serve on the board of my organization, which he considered and declined, with kind and appreciative words.

Although stories about Pressler evidently were widely known to others, I was shocked when in 2017 news articles reported that a longtime Pressler male associate filed civil suit against him. The litigant alleged that Pressler, then a Bible study leader, had raped him at age 14, and across 24 disturbing years they were sexually involved, including a 2004 hotel room fracas for which the younger man won an earlier civil suit and financial reward with a nondisclosure agreement. The man’s 2017 litigation amid publicity prompted other young men to come forward with their own stories of being sexually targeted as adults by Pressler. Pressler decades ago was fired as church youth director, and was asked by another church to leave after inappropriate behavior. President George H.W. Bush nominated him to a position, but Pressler failed the FBI investigation. It’s a horrifying story, especially to many of us who had been unaware and assumed Pressler was uniformly admired in conservative Christian circles.

Pressler denounced immorality in society and theological compromise in the church. His stances, given his private behavior, obviously are amazing.

When I shared Pressler’s saga with an office colleague, he remarked that the story recalled influential Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, who brilliantly crafted a Christian pacifist school of thought. But in his later years Yoder was exposed for, though his church leadership, sexually exploiting scores of women, for which he faced church discipline. Revelations continued after his death, and he, as pastor and theologian, reportedly exploited over 100 women.  Somewhat like Pressler, he crafted his own private theological justification for the gross misconduct. Yoder’s many followers, including theologian Stanley Hauerwas, continue to ponder the impact of his vast moral failures on his theological legacy. It’s confusing to honor an advocate of Christian nonviolence who was an epic sexual predator.

A revelation in recent days adds to this conversation. A Texas megachurch pastor publicly confessed to “inappropriate sexual behavior with a young lady” over 35 years ago.  The victim says she was age 12 when it began. Robert Morris was a young and married pastor who visited in her family’s home. The pastor claims the family forgave him decades ago and approved his return to ministry, where he has since lived in “purity.” The victim, now age 54, denies this claim. Sadly, the police were never involved.

It’s my observation, anecdotally, that conservative churches, where members prioritize the church as their chief community, often try to manage these situations of gross misconduct on their own, without law enforcement.  Mainline Protestant congregations, where members typically less prioritize the church, and are less trusting of church authority, are quicker to involve law enforcement. In my view, law enforcement should always be involved when felonies are committed. The church, as a voluntary community, should internally discipline church employees and members for consensual noncriminal behavior. But the church has no vocation for adjudicating explicitly criminal behavior. Misdeeds against children and minors should especially involve the civil authorities from the start.

Perhaps one lesson from these stories is to avoid idealizing the church and its leaders. Fallen human nature and depravity are not barred by the church’s doors. And no leader should be accorded too much trust or given too much deference. Nor should any leader or group be conflated with the church. The church is the mystical Body of Christ whose members are known fully only to God. And leaders who share our own convictions do not merit lower standards.

Fortunately, I have other Southern Baptist heroes and friends. But it was very sad to learn one whom I knew for years did not merit admiration. The hearts of all men and women are eventually made known, in this world or in the next.  We can only be patient, discerning and hopeful.

  1. Comment by Tim on June 19, 2024 at 9:34 am

    All leaders of all churches both Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic need our prayers. Satan tries to destroy our leaders first.

    But if these people fail and abuse others, law enforcement should be called period.

    In ancient Rome when the generals would come back to Rome after great victories and paraded through the streets of Rome a slave was put in the chariot with the general that would whisper in his ear, “you are only a man.”

    What every pastor, preacher, priest needs to say when people try to lift him up on a pedestal is, “To God be the Glory, not me.”

  2. Comment by Andrew on June 27, 2024 at 11:13 am

    Mark I know its a little different but I have been listening to an audio reading of Genesis. Its been a while since I read it so it was an interesting experience to hear it read as a whole document rather than snippets. I was rather shocked at the centralization of sex in many of the stories. From Noah and his sons to the attempted entrapment of Joseph – sometimes what we see as immoral is glossed over and sometimes the consequences are subtle but present and sometimes they are devastating. I actually find the story of Abram and Sarai amusing – in that essentially God’s command to Abram is to have relations with his wife (both of them elderly even for their time) to procreate an heir – and when it doesn’t work with her initially – Abram comes up with his own plan. But all in all this Achilles heel for humanity does not deter God from choosing and leading humans to accomplish his purposes in the world. Should humans aim for holiness – absolutely but in these instances we don’t seem to be able to forgive and reconcile sexual sins – so many other sins never go addressed in the same manner but are just as ‘offensive’. Just some random thoughts.

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