With disappointing regularity Christian leaders from the conservative evangelical world fall from grace. True, the great majority of such leaders do not fall. It is those who fall who hit the headlines.
I have been the son of a pastor from the day I was born and a pastor myself for the last 30 years and more. The conservative evangelical world is my world and I feel these things deeply from the inside.
Over the years and particularly in the light of recent revelations, I have reflected on the fall of Christian leaders.
1. I am sad
i. Because it brings into public disgrace the worthy name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
When a pastor leaves his wife to go off with his lover or disguises his abuse as ‘spiritual discipline’, or, more commonly, commits adultery, the great and wonderful name of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, is brought into public disgrace.
If Christian slaves were to behave so that God’s name and the teaching of the apostles were not slandered (1 Tim. 6:1), how much more should pastors.
ii. Because it causes Christians to stumble
Jesus said: ‘If anyone causes one of these little ones [that is, those who believe in me] to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung round their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea’ (Matt. 18:6)
God forbid that we should cause a little one, a fellow Christian, to stumble. And Christians are made to stumble when leaders fall. The behaviour that causes it varies. Some Christian leaders are economical with the truth. So it’s OK for me to be so, too? Some flirt. So it’s OK for me to flirt? Some Christian leaders are greedy and some fleece other Christians. So it’s OK for me to be on the make? Deeply inconsistent, let alone abusive behaviour from Christian leaders, especially pastors, has an incalculable, adverse impact on those directly affected, whom we must do everything we can to support.
iii. Because those who had suspicions did not have the courage to challenge
The Lord Jesus modelled an openness of friendship with a few close followers. They knew His heart, even though, obviously, there was never going to be sin to discover in Jesus. Nonetheless Jesus challenged His opponents and asked if any could prove Him guilty of sin (John 8:46).
How much the more should fallible Christian leaders be willing to invite such challenge. And if they fail to invite it, mature Christians around them must still be prepared to ensure they are accountable and to challenge them where reasonable suspicions arise or genuine allegations are made.
iv. Because of a lack of clear repentance
God alone knows the heart of each one of us and ultimately He is the judge of everyone’s secrets (Rom.2:16). However, when there seems to be a lack of clear repentance, it is a grievous thing and only prolongs the pain of everyone involved. And it contradicts the gospel that has been preached by such people over the years.
My wife and I lived for nearly 20 years in the Republic of Ireland during the period when it seemed that every week there were fresh revelations of terrible historical abuse within various Roman Catholic institutions. The awfulness and the pain of this wicked behaviour was often magnified by an initially defensive, self-justifying position, followed by a grudging, gradual retreat through various stages of inadequate apology. It seems that some of our fallen leaders have learned nothing from history. They only exacerbate the problem by their refusal to come clean, confess all without reservation or excuse, beg for forgiveness and seek God’s grace to do some good in God’s service in whatever time is left in their lives.
Wonderfully, sometimes, this can happen. Think of King David and Psalm 51.
v. Because of the fearful prospect of judgment on unrepentant offenders
The apostle Paul, writing to professing Christians, said: ‘We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due to us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.’ (2 Cor. 5:10)
This is not to negate the grace of God or the assurance of salvation. But it is to warn of our inescapable accountability as Christians for our attitudes and actions. We must shudder at the fearful prospect of God’s judgment on unrepentant offenders.
2. But not surprised
i. Because of the sinfulness of the human heart
The human heart is by nature wicked and deceitful. We know the Scriptures:
Genesis 6:5 – ‘The Lord saw … that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.’
Jeremiah 17:9 – ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?’
Mark 7:21 – ‘It is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come…’
The regenerate person has the presence and power of the Holy Spirit to enable them to say no to ungodliness at any given moment. But if anyone claims to be without sin they only deceive themselves.
Within each Christian believer the battle between the sinful human nature and the Holy Spirit rages without respite from the moment of regeneration to the moment of death.
I have been a Christian for over 50 years by the grace of God. But I daily battle with sin and am regularly plagued by foul thoughts. Sure, the Christian only needs to be born again once in a lifetime. But every day of their lives they need to fear the Lord and repeatedly turn from evil.
This applies to the maturest Christian leader as much as to the newest Christian convert. I know I am as capable of sin as any fallen Christian leader. Therefore I do not trust myself and try to watch myself like a hawk.
‘Watch your life and teaching closely’, says the elder statesman, Paul, to the young church leader, Timothy. In that order: life first, teaching second. And both, closely. ‘Persevere in doing this’, says Paul, ‘because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.’ (1 Tim. 4:16). This is not merely godly wisdom. This is divine command.
ii. Because the devil has always seemed especially to attack Christian leaders
Maintaining steady faith and a clear conscience are vital for all Christians, but especially for those in leadership. Sadly, from the earliest days of the church, some Christian leaders rejected these and made shipwreck of their faith. They were handed over to Satan, deliberately placed outside the warm and protective embrace of the church family, to learn not to blaspheme, not to dishonour God’s name. This is what happens in a spiritual war zone (1 Tim. 1:18-20).
3. Some things to reflect on
i. The fear of the Lord must have a central place in Christian living
When in Deuteronomy 4:10 the Lord referred Moses back to the national Bible convention at Sinai, He reminded him that He had said: ‘Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so.’
The gathering was to hear God’s words. But that was only a means to an end. The end was to fear the Lord all the days that we live on the earth. If in our Bible conventions, in our regular Sunday preaching, there were more emphasis on the fear of the Lord, would that not help limit the fall of Christian leaders?
ii. Humility and gentleness need to taught and modelled by Christian leaders as the true hallmarks of Christ-like maturity
It is all there in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The humility of Christ. The need to have the same mind as Christ. Gentleness that should be evident to all.
Supercilious attitudes, caustic comments and sharp, bantering tongues are not marks of Christian maturity. They are sins to be repented of.
iii. Severity to the body is of no value in promoting godliness
The apostle Paul could not be clearer – ‘severity to the body… [is] of no value in stopping indulgence of the flesh’ (Col. 2:23). Zero value. Zero. When a Bible teacher so blatantly contradicts this crystal-clear teaching in his pastoral practice, why are the alarm bells not heard ringing?
iv. Most leaders do not fall
Let us maintain perspective and a sense of proportion, awful as the behaviour of some leaders is. Let us rejoice in the lives of men like Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Stott and Dick Lucas, well known in their day but who remained faithful to the end.
v. All leaders share the same fallen human nature
It doesn’t matter whether you are educated in a state school or a private school, come from the wrong side of the tracks or from a privileged background, are free church or Anglican. All Christian leaders share the same fallen nature.
vi. Pastors should never be put on a pedestal or treated as celebrities
There is great danger in being considered a prestigious pastor of a strategic church. Words like ‘prestigious’ have no place in Biblical Christianity. God will not give His glory to another (Isa. 48:11).
There is great danger when members of churches are proud to have such gifted and high-profile pastors. What churches need is not pastors who are ’celebrities’, but pastors who cultivate warm, open, reciprocal, transparent, mutually accountable relationships.
Far too often it seems that the church has been squeezed into the mould of the world and its celebrity culture. We cannot have a conference without a big name and glossy promotional material to draw the crowds. A church with a celebrity preacher as its pastor may have growing numbers, but does it have growing love and maturity?
‘Celebrity pastors’ are more likely be riding for a fall since the pastor is easily treated as above criticism. What he needs to be is above reproach. Otherwise there is fertile ground for abuse to grow and for pastors to fall.
Christians only have one celebrity and His name is Jesus.
vii. There is a risk of simplistic analyses of why pastors fell
‘The problem was “muscular” Christianity.’ True, physical training does have some value, but training in godliness is what really counts. That is always the case.
‘The problem was “intellectual” Christianity.’ True, the mind matters. We should use the one God gave us. But cleverness counts for nothing. What God values is faith like a little child’s.
‘The problem was … ’ Fill in the blank from your own observation. But the reality is almost always more complex.
viii. Snobbery cuts both ways
What makes ministries aimed at private schools questionable while ministries aimed at inner-city council estates are OK? Those in private schools may be privileged in this world’s terms, but, in terms of spiritual [dis] advantage, how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.
The challenge for both kinds of ministry is to end up integrating converts into local churches where there are no dividing walls of hostility, be it class or race or anything else, but all are one in Christ Jesus; churches where no believer looks down on anyone and the only one we constantly look up to is Jesus.
ix. The truth of Scripture still matters
There is still such a thing as truth and error. Scripture can be correctly handled or incorrectly handled. To point out incorrect handling is not a bad thing. It is a good thing. But it should be done gently and humbly since no preacher can claim that they have never handled Scripture incorrectly.
The truth that the Lord Jesus bore my sins in His body on the tree, the righteous in the place of the unrighteous, is not a ghastly form of powerplay or the use/ sanctioning of abuse, but the precious heart of the gospel. Christ crucified. The Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me. That is a truth I hope I would willingly die for.
x. Trial by social media is a cruel thing
I don’t post on social media for a variety of reasons. I don’t follow it much. But it seems to be a place where some Christians set themselves up as judge, jury and executioner, with much selectivity of material, often out of context, and with little room for listening patiently and impartially to both sides of a story.
Some of the ostensibly Christian posts I have read were censorious if not slanderous, self-promoting and Pharisaical – ‘I am glad I am not as others…’
Rather – ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.’
Every time a Christian uses social media there should surely be an unmistakable flavour of grace and graciousness, the aroma of Christ. And treating others as we ourselves would like to be treated, every time, every Tweet, every comment, every post. And a deep concern for justice for all, without exception.
xi. Repentance is vital and needs to be constant
Martin Luther rightly discerned that the whole of the Christian life involves repentance. Some of our fallen leaders seem to have forgotten this. We all do well to remember the necessity of renewing before God’s throne a daily fresh repentance and a daily fresh dependence on the Lord.
And repentance goes hand in hand with forgiveness.
Christians are those who have repented and found forgiveness. Christians should be people who freely forgive all who repent. Christians need to be those who constantly seek fresh forgiveness for fresh sins and renewed strength to keep fighting the good fight of repentance and faith.
And we know where to go for help.
‘Since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.’ (Heb. 4:14-16)
John Samuel is senior minister of Duke Street Church in South West London.