Why do Christian leaders fall?
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I recently listened to the first episode of Christianity today podcast about the disappearance of Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church. It was excellent and well worth the investment of your time.
But it’s not worth it just because of this situation. It’s worth it because of so many other recent deaths: Bill Hybels, Ravi Zacharias, James MacDonald, Darren Patrick, Tullian Tchividjian, Perry Noble, Ted Haggard, Carl Lentz…the list is heartbreaking.
So what’s up?
Here’s my point of view, and this is just my point of view, but I’m offering it as someone who knew (knows) many of the people on the list, with a place at ringside (and in the back room) for many in evangelical leadership over the past 30 years.
1. Ability on character
First, there’s a celebration of ability to such a rabid degree that it trumps character. Much of this is fueled by the internet which, I’m far from the first to note, gives credit to verbal ability and visual appeal above all else. Unfortunately, the Christian community raises someone who looks good/trendy, is a preacher with sneakers (Google that if I lost you), and is gifted with rhetorical skills. What we don’t seem to like, or at least care about at first, is the character. As a result, we will uplift and celebrate those with ability without realizing that in doing so we are letting them build a ministry on a house of cards. And those around said leaders will often turn a blind eye to character issues because they are afraid of undermining what God seems to be doing through the individual, so they are often activated by those around them as well.
2. Elimination of Liability
Second, there has been an eradication of accountability. It is now fashionable for church planters to remove all non-personal governance from their church, have a group of bud pastors set and then review their annual salary, and have all staff and key volunteers of non-disclosure agreements. To some extent, I understand the sentiment. The vast majority of churches are crippled by structures that stifle the gift of leadership. Moreover, accountability in many contexts has become a euphemism for control. But what I see happening now in terms of the eradication of accountability is just scary. Rather than unleashing the gift of leadership, these structures seem more concerned with providing cover for bad behavior. I cannot stress this enough: many church structures, or more accurately the lack thereof, become a breeding ground for unchecked immorality and continued abuse.
3. Believe News Articles
Third, in ministry you are constantly placed on a spiritual pedestal and treated as if you were the fourth member of the Trinity. In truth, those who follow you have no idea if you have been spending time alone with God in reflection and prayer in the past six weeks. They don’t know what you are watching online. They don’t know if you treat your wife with tenderness and dignity. They just offer you a high level of spirituality. This is where it gets really toxic: you can start basking in that spiritual adulation and start believing your own news stories. Soon, others’ assessment of your spiritual life becomes your own. This is why most train accidents in the ministry are not as sudden or “out of the blue” as they seem. Most leaders who find themselves in a moral abyss had veered off course for some time. Their empty spiritual life simply became manifest, or caught up with them, or wreaked havoc. Added to this is the sense of entitlement to lead a life in the shadows that accompanies the much-vaunted estimation of spirituality or import.
And all three can, and should, be addressed in the lives of leaders. But there is more to my heart.
“There, but by the grace of God I will”
Before I share, let me start by saying that I write this with what I hope is a healthy sense of humility. I am only too aware of the sin in my own life. I have often written that one of the worst things you can say is, “Oh, I would never commit that sin!” It’s just pride, and we all know what follows pride: a fall. That’s why so many leaders, myself included, have often responded to leadership failure with, “There, but by the grace of God, I’m leaving.” And, of course, that’s often true.
But there can be a danger in saying this about the failure of all leadership. I’m approaching 60. With this comes a deep awareness of personal character. Instead of responding to another leader’s downfall with a “Well, but by the grace of God I will”, I’m feeling more and more – especially when it comes to the deep rooted and blatant dark lives that are revealed – that “No, this is not a place but by the grace of God I will go.
No, I wouldn’t hurt a child.
No, I would not intentionally cultivate women for sexual purposes.
No, I would not solicit nude photos from women who attend my lectures, set up private apartments for sexual encounters, or traffic women from other countries to satisfy my sexual desires – let alone invoke the name of Jesus to keep them quiet.
No, I would not indulge in pride and anger to the point of cursing and swearing, threatening and reprimanding, or even attacking and assaulting any of our staff.
Yes, I have my sin, but my God, I can – with every fiber of my being – say “No, there but by the grace of God, I would not go.” There are some things that basic character and a relationship with the living God through Jesus inhibits in me. The sense of conviction, the work of the Holy Spirit, the basic fear of God…all of that too real for some things to even be considered, let alone pursued.
Why is it important to transmit? Because a simple response “There, but by the grace of God I go” to deeply rooted and willfully pursued shadow lives of extreme and grievous sin is patently unhealthy for the body of Christ. This mitigates the offence; it cuts off the reaction. Instead, such things are to be met with horror and revulsion, not a sense of identification. This trivializes it and even, dare we say it, normalizes it. We must be as appalled at these things as Paul was when he wrote to the Corinthians:
“I also received a report of outrageous sex within your church family, a kind that would not be tolerated even outside of the church: One of your men is sleeping with his stepmother. And you’re so above it all that it doesn’t even bother you! Shouldn’t that break your heart? Shouldn’t that bring you to your knees in tears? » (I Corinthians 5:1-2, Msg)
Yes, I can be tempted by sexual sin. I can be tempted by any number of sins. And, most certainly, fall prey. But there is a line between any follower of Christ’s propensity for sin and a life that has seemingly abandoned even the most basic attempt at self-restraint. Such surrender is not part of the life of Christ. It is not even part of the life of the average person who is not a follower of Christ.
I recently watched world news on a plane. He had me at Tom Hanks.
The film revolves around a young girl scarred by an unimaginable tragedy. Her family of origin was killed by the Kiowa who then took her in. His next Kiowa family was killed by soldiers. Hanks’ character, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (a former Confederate soldier now traveling from town to town reading the news for a penny a person – hence the title), is forced to take her under his wing and attempt to reunite with this little family he has left. Along the way, men attempt to bribe her for trafficking and sex, and even her prospective family ties her up with rope. After finding out about her situation and untying her, Hanks simply says, “But she’s just a kid!”
There was such basic decency about his character (as there is with most Hanks movies). Where others would have abused the child, taken advantage of the child, turned a blind eye to the child, the character played by Hanks sought nothing more than to protect, understand and love the child.
His character was not a perfect man, just a good one.
And there are few excuses for Christians not being the same.
Mike Cosper, “Who Killed Mars Hill?” Christianity todayJune 21, 2021, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founder and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the assistant professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His last book After “I believe” is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookstore. To take advantage of a free Church & Culture blog subscription, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.