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After serving more than two years as president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF), Gordon MacDonald last month tendered his resignation. In a statement released to the press, IVCF Board Chairman James Kay said MacDonald resigned “for personal reasons, having been involved in an adulterous relationship in late 1984 and early 1985.”
MacDonald, 48, took the reins of the ministry to college students in January 1985, after serving three months as minister-at-large for World Vision U.S. Prior to that, he served for 12 years as senior pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts, a church known for its commitment to missions. He has also been a member of the Christianity Today, Incorporated, board of directors.
The IVCF board did not know of MacDonald’s moral lapse when it selected him as president. Asked in an interview why he did not inform the board at that time, MacDonald said, “I have no good answer for that.… The same distorted and deceived mind that got me into the [adulterous relationship] was causing me not to think clearly.… I suppose I was in that very naive perspective that says, ‘This is going to be covered, it’s going to go away.’ ”
Earlier this year, MacDonald said, he told three IVCF board members about his adultery. “It was their initial decision … that I should keep on [as president],” he said. He did not inform the full board until he tendered his resignation last month.
MacDonald said he submitted himself to the discipline of three trusted Christian leaders in January. He said the three-member council pronounced him guilty of adultery, acknowledged his repentance, advised him to cut back on his speaking engagements, and required that he account to them spiritually on a regular basis.
“I had hoped … the tragedy in my past would have been over and buried,” MacDonald said, but in recent months information about the affair began to spread, partly through anonymous letters sent to several Christian publishers. MacDonald said his 25-year marriage has remained solid through the ordeal (see accompanying interview).
The IVCF board elected one of its members, retired advertising executive Thomas Dunkerton, to replace MacDonald. At the same time, the board appointed a presidential search committee, and Dunkerton said he expects to remain in the post for only about six months.
As president, Dunkerton said he will seek to implement the plans put in place by MacDonald and his staff. He cited as one of his priorities the shepherding of Urbana ’87, a world missions conference sponsored by IVCF. He said this is a crucial time for recruiting young people for the mission field, since many who became missionaries after World War II are reaching retirement age.
A Talk With The Macdonalds
In the following interview with CHRISTIANITY TODAY, Gordon MacDonald and his wife, Gail, discuss the events that led up to his resignation from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) and what lies ahead.
When did your problems with adultery begin?
Gordon: In late 1984, I permitted a friendship to become immoral. The woman was not involved in InterVarsity or in any of my pastoral ministries.
When I came to InterVarsity, I was working to dissolve that relationship. In the early stages, I didn’t feel the liberty to talk to anybody about it. I experienced God’s forgiveness, and I decided to keep going [as IVCF president] as long as he would permit me.
You have said there is no excuse for what you have done. In addition, you have insisted that sin be called sin. What factors contributed to the adultery?
Gordon: It was a number of things. From about 1982 on I was desperately weary in spirit and in body. I was working harder and enjoying it less.
Satan’s ability to distort the heart and the mind is beyond belief. I assume the responsibility for what I did; I made those decisions out of a distorted heart.
In addition, I now realize I was lacking in mutual accountability through personal relationships. We need friendships where one man regularly looks another man in the eye and asks hard questions about our moral life, our lust, our ambitions, our ego.
Why did you feel it was necessary to resign?
Gordon: Early last month, someone sent a series of anonymous letters to several Christian publishers. The letters called me an adulterer and said I ought to be gotten rid of. A friend told me about one of the letters, and I knew there was no longer any protection. Gail and I decided I had to resign and free InterVarsity from having to live with this pain.
In our public statement, Gail and I emphasized three things. First, that I am terribly sorry. Second, that our marriage has always been strong, and it’s stronger today than ever. The third thing is that we are going into quiet and we have no plans for the future until God gives us some sense of direction.
Gail: It’s important that people understand that Gordon has been a person of integrity for the 25 years that we’ve been married. I will not dwell on that short period of time when he fell into sin.
What have you done to restore your marriage relationship?
Gordon: It’s not as much finding things to do as it is taking the necessary time, because for people in ministry, the work is never over. Jesus withdrew to lonely places and prayed. Luke 5 implies that he withdrew often, and he apparently renounced work and turned aside from the visible needs of people. In Christian ministry, we need to find the discipline to turn away from responsibilities or activities for a period of time.
We also have begun to cultivate friendships on a much deeper level than in the past. And I have deliberately cultivated the friendships of three or four godly men. I want people to know how dearly and deeply I love my wife and how painful it is to live with the fact that I have hurt her so badly.
If you could speak to the many people who have been influenced by your ministry, what would you say?
Gordon: First that I’m terribly sorry. I wish they would forgive me, would understand that what I wrote and said came from the Holy Spirit working through me, and that they would not set aside the truth of the books I wrote because of what happened. Also, that they would take a hard look at what happened to me and resolve that it won’t happen to them.
Do you hope to return to public ministry?
Gordon: I have no plans for the future, and I have no pretensions about returning to ministry. I would love to once again serve the Lord in some capacity. But that has to be initiated by others. If people feel I have learned and have something to say that they want to hear about, then I will respond to that. But I don’t plan to initiate anything.