John Ortberg and the Pitfalls of Pastoral Discernment


When we consent to our calling as ministers of the gospel, we assent to be public imitators of all it proclaims.

John Ortberg’s resignation statement as senior pastor of Menlo Church, given all that transpired, provoked more sadness than surprise. I never knew Ortberg personally. Professionally, I appreciated his contributions as a writer and thinker and ministry leader. Many pastors aspire to the kind of reach Ortberg enjoyed, though few of us ever achieve it. This is perhaps its own blessing.

The cause behind Ortberg’s resignation was disconcertingly public. Ortberg allowed his son, who admitted being attracted to children, to serve as a volunteer with children. Social media furiously fluttered, drew hard lines, and lobbed rocks. Some cited 1 Timothy 3 expectations for leaders. The story has it all—family conflict, high profile missteps and miscalculation, obfuscation, and blind loyalties. As Menlo’s motto on its homepage reads, “Nobody’s perfect. Anything’s possible.”

The fierce reactions found fuel from the combustibility of call-out and cancel culture. It’s been painful to read. As a pastor for 35 years with my own laundry list of mistakes, I recall Jesus’ words. “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7). Nevertheless, actions have consequences. Pastors are sinners to be sure, but when we consent to our calling we assent to a high standard—public obedience atop pedestals and in fishbowls—on display not for show (Matt. 6:1), but as examples to imitate, like it or not (1 Cor. 4:16, 2 Thess. 3:9, Heb. 13:7). High, public standards mean certain failure, an opportunity in itself to exhibit the high calling of humble repentance and recommitment. We do not lower standards for the sake of preserving and performing a …

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