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Why do church leaders fall? Because we’ve placed them on unbiblical pedestals

Why do church leaders fall? Because we’ve placed them on unbiblical pedestals December 8, 2020

It shouldn’t be a surprise to those drawn to the ministry that the bar for church leadership has been set incredibly high. The Bible clearly outlines the personal qualities necessary for someone to be a minister of the gospel.

Yet, a number of well known leaders in Christian ministries, including Carl Lentz, Jerry Falwell Jr and Bill Hybels have been the subject of scandals and allegations of inappropriate behavior in recent years. Why do so many well-informed priests and pastors talk-the-talk but fail to walk-the-walk? Why do church leaders fall and how should the Church respond?

Unbelievable? tackled this question with Professor Karen Swallow Prior and RC Sproul Jr. Swallow Prior experienced the fall out of the abuses of power by Jerry Falwell Jr at Liberty University, while Sproul Jr saw his ministry come to an end when his past improprieties were revealed. 

Servant’s Entrance

I think one of the problems with the well-intentioned goals of those who want to lead people to Christ and shepherd a flock is that they adopt a secular rather than biblical leadership model. They measure success by the size of their facility, number of seats filled and amount of tithing. Sadly, their bottom line ends up looking more like a sales commission than a Great Commission. 

Leaders in God’s Kingdom need to measure success by a completely different set of metrics. They need to be content ministering to a mustard seed size church, where the number of parishioners is limited by a narrow gate and whose financial status is measured in copper coins and not dollars. The success of a church should be determined by the number of poor and not prosperous, prodigals and not powerful, contrite and not comfortable. A flock that can only be successfully shepherded by a servant and not a superintendent. 

Jesus clearly distinguished how leaders in the City of God should differ from those in the City of Man: 

“But Jesus called them to him and said: ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.’” (Matthew 20:25-28)

Anyone who goes into ministry needs to think very carefully about how they plan to build up the church because the pathway to citizenship in God’s Kingdom begins at a cross where we meet a suffering servant and not a CEO. Jesus said He came to serve, not to be served and we dismiss His leadership style at our own peril. The world tries to tell us that power and authority gets us in the front door, but Jesus made it clear that we enter God’s Kingdom through the servant’s entrance.

Public Eye

Pastors and priests are in the public eye, which is both a blessing and a curse. It creates opportunities for expanding gospel witness but also can be an advertisement for Christian hypocrisy. John Chrysostom (349-407), one of the great figures in Church history, was forcibly kidnapped and made Bishop of Constantinople. He didn’t want the job because he recognized that it was a high-profile position that would be scrutinized by both believer and unbeliever alike.

“They who occupy the highest seat of honor are in the first place plainly visible to all, and if they err in the smallest matters these trifles seem great to others: for all men measure the sin, not by the magnitude of the offence, but by the rank of the offender.” (John Chrysostom)

We need to remember that the higher we build the ministerial pedestal, the farther the fall. So, maybe we need to rewrite the job description and make the priority a servant’s heart and not a golden tongue. If we lead by building ourselves up we miss the far more powerful witness of allowing ourselves to be emptied. We should be known by what we have surrendered for others and not what we have acquired for ourselves. It is very difficult to abuse the power of a servant.

We cannot leave our leaders to carry this burden alone, but must come alongside them every step of the way. Once again Chrysostom weighs in:

“Thus the priest ought to be protected on all sides by a kind of adamantine armour, by intense earnestness and perpetual watchfulness concerning his manner of life, lest someone discovering an exposed and neglected spot should inflict a deadly wound: for all who surround him are ready to smite and overthrow him: not enemies only and adversaries but many even of those who profess friendship.” (John Chrysostom)

The bar has been set high for Christian leaders because it is a perilous business to save drowning souls when you have a millstone tied around your neck. 

Reasons for a Fall

We need to be very careful when we offer excuses for fallen leaders because they have violated a biblical mandate and the greater the leader, the greater the responsibility. Just because it is a high-risk position doesn’t mean we can offer excuses for high-risk behavior. However, I believe it is still useful to ask if there are situations that make a pastor more vulnerable to falling from grace.

In the show, Justin Brierley mentioned that evangelical leaders may be victims of their own success. High profile leaders often become successful because they are risk-takers and that very tendency may cause them to take risks in other aspects of their life.  

Sproul Jr also discussed the contribution of an evangelical Christianity that creates a ‘brand’ where charismatic leaders are elevated to the level of media personality and the gospel becomes a cult of personality. This is a problem that even afflicted the early Church, when Christians focused on the messenger and not the message. 

“For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:4-7)

Sadly, when the focus of a ministry is maintaining a brand, then the one being branded gets neglected. As Sproul Jr stated, branded pastors end up receiving faux love for a faux image and the little boy or girl inside gets neglected and seeks intimacy outside of the confines of the illusory world they have created. 

Sproul Jr said we shouldn’t be surprised when leaders fall, but we have been blinded by a “thin Christianity” where we believe that accomplished leaders have enough Jesus to keep them above reproach. We reduce Jesus to a holiness helper and forget that our pastors need the cross just like everybody else. 

Restoration or Redemption?

Should a fallen church leader be restored to their former position? Do they still have a role in ministry? I am personally conflicted because I believe they have violated a trust that may disqualify them from a similar position. However, I also recognize that the power of the gospel is found in a truly repentant person who puts themselves under the mercy of Christ. We cannot be like the rest of cancel culture and make fallen leaders into pariahs, because if we do, we are telling the world that there is Good News for some but not others. 

While the language most often used is restoration, I think it is more useful to think in terms of redemption. Restoration implies that a leader can be returned to a similar position. The problem is that the gospel is about redeeming sinners and not restoring saints. Exactly how that redeemed life looks in a ministerial sense is up to God and not man. 

Fallen leaders may not be restored to their previous leadership position, but they still remain witnesses to the power of a God who saves wretches like us. I think we need to make our focus the gospel message of redemption and not the mechanics of restoration, because a pastor brought to his knees is a more effective witness than one propped up on a podium. 

Don’t Forget the Victims

Swallow Prior made the important point that in our zeal to restore and rehabilitate the one who has fallen, we often forget those who have been victimized. We need to make sure their voices are heard and their concerns addressed. Religious establishments need to make sure they have mechanisms in place to not only prevent abuses of power, but also to allow victims to be heard without consequence. 

Swallow Prior appropriately wants to let victims lead the discussion. However, we need to be careful it doesn’t turn into an eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth because Jesus still calls us to turn the other cheek, pray for our enemies and forgive more than we think is possible. 

Forgiveness is not forgetfulness. Sin has consequences, but true healing will only occur when forgiveness is offered. Our sins should be openly displayed and nailed to the cross, but freedom only comes when we let them die with Jesus.

Redefining Sainthood

Brierley discussed the sadness we often feel when a prominent leader falls. He mentioned how he considered Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, a saint and how disappointed he was when he heard about his abuse of power. We all have Christian thinkers and writers we admire, people who are especially gifted at revealing God’s truth. We may even consider some of them saints. However, we set ourselves up for disappointment unless we redefine what it truly means to be a saint. Philip Yancey, influenced by the writings of Frederick Buechner, offers a new formulation in his book Soul Survivor:

“A new definition for a saint: a ‘life giver’ who makes others come alive in a new way, a garden variety human being through whose life the power and glory of God are made manifest even though the saint himself may be standing knee-deep in muck.” (Phillip Yancey)

The late Father Benedict Groeschel expands on that definition by suggesting that saints are everyday people who are just more acutely aware of how short they fall of God’s holiness:

“A saint is just a sinner who is more repentant than most of us.” (Benedict Groeschel) 

I think we would be better served if our Christian leaders made it clear they were sinners in need of a Savior rather than human saviors in search of sinners.

God’s Power Found in Weakness

As long as we are sinners we will continue to have fallen Christian leaders but that shouldn’t prevent the Church from keeping the Body of Christ healthy. While we have the Medicine to treat sinful disease, we are still called to institute preventative health measures so that the Church can be a hospital to a hurting world and not just one more site of infection. 

My greatest growth as a Christian occurred under the direction of a pastor who fell. During that time I found myself rethinking the validity of everything he had taught, but had to conclude that human frailty doesn’t negate the effectiveness of the gospel – it  actually makes it more powerful. 

“But he said to me: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

As Christians, we cannot sweep these revelations under the rug but must address them head on. We need more conversations like the one between Karen Swallow Prior and RC Sproul Jr in order to better understand the problem and find our way forward.  

Listen to Karen Swallow Prior and RC Sproul on when leaders fall

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