Author Name Withheld
Let’s be honest. High-profile Christian leadership failures and the resulting controversies have devastated the global church of Christ in the past three years. (And devastated is not too strong a word to use.) The exposure of deceit and duplicity in the personal lives of recognized Christian leaders has caused overwhelming shock and grief in the church and has greatly contributed to ridicule and cynicism toward the church by the watching world.
More people than ever, it seems, are prone to believe that Christian leaders are motivated purely by self-indulgence and self-interest. At the very least, there is more skepticism and suspicion in the minds of the populous about how few spiritual leaders they can trust.
Of course, astute people of faith know that a consistent strategy of the evil one through the centuries has been to discourage belief in Christ by discrediting Christian leaders. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus warned his disciples, “You will fall away . . . for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered’” (Mark 14:27). Jesus was quoting Zechariah 13:7 to prepare the apostles for the impact his crucifixion would initially have on their faithfulness. The arrest, illegal trials, scourging, and brutal death of Jesus caused his followers to fall away and be scattered.
Can you see the broader application of this principle? The figurative destruction of the moral character of spiritual shepherds has had the same effect on many followers of Jesus in the 21st century. Shepherds have been struck down by their own hand and the sheep are being scattered. (See “Recent Leadership Scandals” at the bottom for six examples.)
Paul Lundquist, a former missionary with Wycliffe Bible Translators, poses a relevant question for us as we seek God’s wisdom about what we can learn and how we must respond to these tragic and all too prevalent Christian leadership failures:
In any institution or assembly there are always a few people whose behavior cries out for judgment, and recalcitrant transgressors must be fired, excommunicated, exiled, impeached, imprisoned or what-have-you. No community has ever been free of lethal contaminants. Even Jesus had Judas among his 12 disciples. But it seems that there is a certain point, a critical mass of corruption, beyond which you can no longer pick the few bad apples out of the barrel but have to start over with a new barrel. In 1900 engineers reversed the course of a Chicago River that had made a sewer of Lake Michigan and filled the city with stench and disease—but in 1986 no one could decontaminate Chernobyl. That city had to be abandoned in haste. I wonder: Is the state of evangelicalism today, in the form practiced by its biggest churches, more like Chicago of the 19th century or Chernobyl of the 20th?
If we are to reverse the curse and the course of the high-profile Christian leadership failures in recent years, we must learn some vital lessons and make some ironclad determinations to protect the integrity of the faith communities represented by our Christian institutions, churches, and ministries. Here is a partial to-do list:
1. Value the Prophetic Voices Among Us
We live in an age of permissiveness and tolerance. Everything is shifting radically to the left these days. Right and wrong are determined, not by consulting the absolute truth in the Word of God, but by what feels good, what seems right, what is allowed by law, or what is politically correct. And those who raise a dissenting voice on moral issues are considered public enemies to be censored by social media, shouted down in public assemblies, voted out of office, ridiculed by comedians, or boycotted.
The Old Testament prophet had a dangerous calling. The writer of Hebrews said prophets had been “tortured. . . . Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated. . . . They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground” (Hebrews 11:35-38). So, what was their crime? The prophets had only two items on their job description: (1) Foretell the future (which was not what made them unpopular); (2) Confront personal and national sin (which caused them to be both resisted and resented).
But without prophetic voices, many will be doomed in this life and damned in the greater life. We do not need fewer prophetic voices. We need more and louder and more eloquent and more winsome voices that will confront the power brokers and influencers of our generation inside and outside of the church.
We need people such as Nathan, who confronted King David about his deceit, manipulation, bullying, sexual sin, and murder by saying, “You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says” (2 Samuel 12:7). We need people like Jesus, who confronted the teachers of the law and Pharisees by saying, “Woe to you . . . you hypocrites! . . . you blind guides! . . . you snakes! . . . you brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matthew 23:13-39). Even as I copy this passage, I am struck by how totally foreign these words sound compared to the way we relate to leaders overtaken by sin in the church today. We must not be timid about wearing the prophet’s mantle when it is necessarily redemptive. We need to pray, “Father God, give us ears to hear our contemporary prophets and hearts to esteem them highly when they speak for you!”
2. Scripturally Align Our Leadership Qualifications
Israel wanted a king. The nation envisioned a leader like Saul, who was “as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else” (1 Samuel 9:2). But Saul turned out to be a leadership loser. He was insecure, willful, greedy, jealous, resentful, violent, and unjust. God gave Israel what they wanted for their first king, but God gave them what they needed for their second king. David was “a man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). And that pure heart was what qualified him to lead God’s people to experience their best days.
What do we look for in church leaders today? People skills, good looks, eloquence, charm, a commanding presence? Is the church an assembly of God’s people in Christ or a stadium with a star celebrity whose gifts and charisma attract a crowd? Beware the church whose pastor lives lavishly, uses a ghost writer to publish his best-selling books, leads lots of cruises, majors in fundraising, and/or is interviewed by Oprah.
What qualifies a spiritual leader? The prophet said of Jesus, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). He was humble and lowly in heart. He was the Good Shepherd and those of us who serve as leaders in his church are undershepherds. All of the qualifications for church leaders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are character qualifications. Only one qualification has to do with giftedness, and that involves being willing and able to teach.
So, let’s realign what we prefer in our leaders with the Word of God and go for a pure heart and a servant spirit more than personality type and giftedness. We need to pray, “Father God, give us discernment as we look for the right stuff in the godly leaders we need in this generation and as we disciple the next generation who will take our place of leadership one day.”
3. Balance Leadership Encouragement with Leadership Accountability
The writer of Hebrews admonished Christians to “remember your leaders . . . [and to] consider the outcome of their way of life and to imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7). A few verses later the writer instructed us to “have confidence in [them] and submit to their authority . . . so that their work will be a joy, not a burden” (13:17). These are the practical ways we encourage our spiritual leaders and generate confidence in them for the demanding task of serving the church.
In too many churches, vocational and volunteer leaders are taken for granted. That should not be. Instead, church leaders should be received with gratitude. Periodically, do or say something to personally and practically appreciate those who serve the church. Most leaders are significantly edified by a compliment or encouragement or a thoughtful act or gift. Younger ministry leaders often can feel vulnerable and exposed. At such times, our presence and verbal reassurances are deeply appreciated expressions of support that can bolster their confidence.
At the same time, accountability is needed. Many fallen and failed Christian leaders did not have accountability partners. They did not have a true friend—someone to speak into their life and tell them the truth, whether they wanted to hear it or not.
I was a confident Bible college freshman. In fact, I’m pretty sure I crossed the line into arrogance. One of my mentors noticed that about me, and so one day, as I strutted down the hall, he called me into his office and said, “Little brother, you have everything it takes to be a flash in the pan.” My first response was to become defensive, but my thoughts later that day were more objective. He apparently saw a shallowness and superficiality in me that needed correction. From that day on, I remembered those words when I was tempted by pridefulness. His imposition of accountability made me more self-aware and more consciously humble.
Recently I preached a message in which I zealously scalded another world religion and impugned the character of its founder. The next morning, when our team reviewed the worship service, a young minister on staff carefully, almost apologetically, confronted me by saying my spirit in that part of the sermon came across as angry and unloving. What if there had been people from that faith visiting our church that day? Instead of reacting defensively, I said (after quick reflection), “You are right. My sense of justice dominated my better spirit of grace in that moment.” It was humbling for me in a good way.
The young pastor approached me the next day and said, “I can’t believe the way you responded to my corrective criticism yesterday. It was a teachable moment for me. You taught me a lot by your humility.”
Accountability is good for us as leaders. It should be embraced, not shunned. It will make us better. It will cultivate the opportunity for Christ to be formed in us. Without accountability, our blind spots will remain unknown to us, and probably even grow over time. We need to pray, “Father God, please provide our leaders with people in their faith communities who will both encourage them, to build their confidence, and provide accountability, to keep them humble.”
4. Pray for Cleansing and Revival
This decadent river of Christian leadership failure will not be reversed naturally. It will require a supernatural force . . . an act of God . . . the intervention of the Holy Spirit in leaders’ hearts . . . a miracle of healing and empowering grace. Christians must pray hard personally and corporately for forgiveness and renewal. Pray for leaders to recognize and resist the lures of ego, power, popularity, sex, and money. Pray that leaders will be open and honest, without any secrets from their wives and children. Pray for leaders to have inward brokenness that God will mightily use them and develop their ministries to be deeply, broadly, and perpetually impactful. Pray for leaders to adopt this wisdom:“For this command is a lamp, this teaching is a light, and correction and instruction are the way to life” (Proverbs 6:23).Pray for leaders to be more intentional about how they program their minds, specifically by governing what gains entry to their brains through their eyes and ears.
The revolution must begin there! Through passionate prayer, we must both lead and sustain this reversal of the negative perception of Christian leadership! We need to pray, “Father God, we ask for pure hearts and clean hands so that you can work through us to be catalytic leaders for a revival of true holiness in your church in our generation.”
5. Understand the Difference Between Restoration to Fellowship and Restoration to Leadership
If a Christian leader, as a matter of conscience, is convicted of secret sin and comes forward voluntarily to confess—seeking forgiveness, counsel, and prayer—then restoration to both fellowship and leadership is possible. But if a Christian leader lives with the secret sin for months or years, and only “repents” when they are exposed by others, they may be restored to fellowship, but I believe they should not—for their soul’s sake—be restored to leadership.
The best indicator of future performance is past performance. It is not the only indicator, but it is the best indicator. The capacity to compartmentalize secret sin, particularly sexual sin, long-term can make ministry leadership too great a temptation. The broken covenant with God, with a spouse and family, with the trust of a church family that is only acknowledged because of exposure by others is too deep an offense. Forgiveness and restoration to fellowship is commanded. Forgiveness and restoration to vocational ministry leadership is not commanded.
We need to pray, “Father God, give us the heart to forgive and restore those who have failed and fallen to full fellowship in the church of Jesus. We pray for the backbone to protect the sacredness of the high calling of the ministry, and we pray for the wisdom to discern what balancing grace and truth requires in the moment. In the Name that is above every name, the Name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.”
Recent Leadership Scandals
In her “Top 10 Stories of 2020,” Julie Roys, who hosts The Roys Report, investigated and documented several leadership scandals that rocked the evangelical world, including these 6:
Ravi Zacharias Exposed:
Christianity Today reported on the allegations in written and verbal testimony from multiple sources that provided “much evidence” that the late apologist was a sexual predator. Ravi Zacharias International Ministries conducted their own independent investigation, which found “credible evidence” that Zacharias “engaged in sexual misconduct over many years.” (See “Still Learning from Ravi Zacharias: How Do We Respond When a Role Model Falls?” by Brett Seybold.)
The Fall of Jerry Falwell Jr.:
At the beginning of 2020 published reports of Falwell’s financial misconduct and bullying surfaced, but the Liberty University president seemed invincible. However, in August, a video was posted online which resulted in allegations of sexual misconduct and alcohol abuse. His board forced him to resign. Multimillion-dollar lawsuits have since been filed by both Falwell and the university.
Willow Creek Church Scandal:
After multiple females stepped forward to accuse senior pastor Bill Hybels of sexual sin, he simply denied all the charges and promptly vanished from sight. In the months since, Hybels’s spiritual mentor and Willow Creek co-founder Dr. Gilbert Bilezikian was accused of sexual abuse by a longtime church member. Wheaton College, where “Dr. B” taught for two decades, rescinded his title of professor emeritus following reports that he had also abused female students there.
James MacDonald Expelled:
Despite being disqualified for public ministry by the elders of Harvest Bible Chapel, James MacDonald recently returned to Chicago and secured a multimillion-dollar arbitration settlement from Harvest. He maintains a website accusing the church of running a “campaign to destroy” his reputation. MacDonald’s son has returned with him to plant a new church despite reports of their bizarre and bullying behavior.
John Ortberg Resignation:
John Ortberg was considered a champion of sex abuse victims because of his role in exposing Bill Hybels in 2018. That changed when it was revealed Ortberg failed to protect minors at his church from a volunteer who had admitted to him an attraction to children. Later, Ortberg’s transgender daughter revealed the volunteer actually was Ortberg’s son, who continued to serve in children’s ministry without the church elders’ knowledge and consent.
Turmoil at Hillsong:
In November, Hillsong Church global senior pastor Brian Houston fired Hillsong NYC celebrity pastor Carl Lentz for “breaches of trust” and “moral failures,” which Lentz later confessed included an extramarital affair. Lentz has since moved to California with his wife and children to begin intense therapy.