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For many years Dennis Rader was a respected member of his Park City, Kansas, community. By all appearances he was a good husband and father and was an office bearer and president of council in his local Lutheran church. For a long time he installed home security systems for ADT and later became his community’s dogcatcher in a public safety role. What no one could see, however, was that Rader harbored a whole panoply of deviant sexual attitudes and practices. Vastly worse, Rader turned out to be the BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) serial murderer who killed at least ten people—mostly women—in the Wichita and Park City areas of Kansas over a period of many years. In a sick twist, some of the people for whom Rader installed those ADT home security systems told him they wanted this due to their fears about the BTK killer.
One hears of such travesties now and again. Needless to say the sense of numbing shock and sheer disbelief that a fellow church member, neighbor, and friend was secretly a ruthless and remorseless killer was profound in the communities most closely affected by such a scenario.
As most readers of the RJ blog know, the Christian Reformed denominational community was recently similarly shocked to learn that a retired CRC pastor, David Zandstra, was arrested for the 1975 killing of a precious little 8-year-old girl while Zandstra was the pastor of the CRC congregation in Broomall, Pennsylvania. Zandstra went on to pastor several other congregations before retiring from the Fairfield CRC in California in 2005, some thirty years after his heinous crime back in Pennsylvania.
Since this news broke in July, many of us have heard from former parishioners in these congregations who cannot square the pastor they remember with the murderer whose mug shot has now been in the news. People are asking probing questions. If the man who conducted my wedding was a secret killer of children, does that taint my marriage? He baptized my children. He celebrated the Lord’s Supper. He preached God’s Word. Is all of that retrospectively tainted now? Invalidated? Did his performance of baptisms not really “take” since he was at that very moment such a horrible hypocrite and secret murderer?
For the last decade or so I have taught the Capstone integrative seminar at Calvin Seminary. The second half of the course has students work through a ministry Case Study scenario that I provide them. Sometimes students find the scenarios (all based on well-masked true ministry situations) to be a little too “out there.” “Could something like this really happen?” they sometimes ask. Most of the time I assure them that the real-life situations they may actually face some day may make even some of Capstone’s tougher Case Studies look like a cake walk.
Indeed, for some years I have presented a scenario in which a congregation becomes aware that their former pastor had been carrying on an adulterous affair with another woman for essentially the entire time he had served as their pastor. In the scenario this pastor had been gone for about 4 years by the time the news of his ongoing adultery broke but it rattled the congregation deeply. In the Case Study scenario people wonder about the validity of the marriages and baptisms he conducted and wonder if any of those need to be re-done.
My fictional Case Study involves adultery. The true case we recently heard about involves the murder of an innocent child. Arguably and once again real life tends to outstrip what we think would be possible to take place.
Those with a little background in theology have sensed by now, however, that what we are trafficking in here goes back to something known as the Donatist controversy in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Then, too, it would be revealed from time to time that a certain priest was guilty of some terrible sins. Not “sins” in the sense that we are all sinners saved by grace and forgiven over and over by God for all those times we lapse into an episode of bad behavior. No and again, we are talking about more woeful and persistent patterns of sinning. And people back then likewise asked if such a priest was capable of performing the sacraments that would be valid, that would “take.”
No less a theological genius than Augustine of Hippo weighed in on the Donatist crisis. Augustine’s answer was that the validity of a sacrament did not depend on the human person performing it but depended ever and only on the God who was active in the sacrament via the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit that performs the true sacramental action and this cannot be thwarted due to the weakness of the human intermediary through whom the Spirit works. This is of course not meant to diminish the genuine concerns here and it is certainly no excuse for any priest or pastor to indulge sinful patterns or appetites since God will work through them anyway.
But Augustine’s answer did remind us of the sovereignty of God and of the fact that for all the attention we pay to spiritual leaders and the very human aspects of Christ’s Church, we are finally and in the end all dependent on God alone. God’s grace, God’s will, God’s actions are key. It is a message that the former parishioners of David Zandstra need to cling to and build their hope upon. But really this is a message for all of us who again and again run into the often woefully inadequate ways people sometimes run a given church or how people sometimes behave in a given congregation. We cling to the hope that God in his sovereignty can rise above all that and get God’s work done.
As we sing in the song “There Is a Redeemer,” we must repeatedly thank God “for leaving your Spirit ‘til the work on earth is done.”