Why are so many Christian leaders falling? In a blog post on Crosswalk.com, pastor, professor, and writer James Emery White suggests three explanations: the celebration of ability over character, an eradication of accountability, and the fact that leaders today are often put on a pedestal and believe the press reports about themselves. White’s assessment seems accurate, but I believe there’s a deeper cause underneath these reasons. It’s a heart issue (see Matthew 15:8, 18-19; Ephesians 4:18; etc.) and a sovereignty issue.
For many years in my teaching and one-on-one discipleship I’ve used a graphic developed by Campus Crusade for Christ, now known simply as Cru, that contains three circles, each representing a person’s life. You may be familiar with it. The first circle, the “self-directed life,” contains a chair in the center, representing the throne of someone’s life, with “Self” on the throne and directing all that person’s interests. Christ is outside this circle. The second circle, the “self-directed religious life,” is the same as the first except Christ is within the circle, along with all the other interests of this person. Though this person might call themselves a Christian, they are still the lord of their life. In the third circle, the “Christ-directed surrendered life,” Christ is now on the throne, and he is directing all this person’s interests.
Living (and leading) as a Christ follower means living in that third circle—knowing and following the will of God. That takes surrender—total abandonment to God, forsaking the false security of meeting our own needs by our own means. Surrender demands faith in a God who will never fail us. It is an act of the will.
When Christian leaders minister out of the second circle, they may find temporary success, but they are in for an eventual fall. But Jesus was the perfect example of someone who lived in and led out of the third circle.
Near the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus said he had accomplished everything the Father had given him to do (John 17:4). Up to that point, what had he accomplished? He was unsuccessful in winning the Jewish leaders and most of the Jewish people over. He didn’t cure all their diseases or put an end to any of the regional conflicts. Some expected him to free the Jewish nation from Rome, but he didn’t get that done either. Even his closest followers still argued over who was greatest, and most of them ran and hid at Jesus’ most desperate hour. Yet, Jesus said he had accomplished everything the Father had given him to do.
What Christian leaders think we should make happen or what others might expect of us may be diametrically opposed to what God has given us to do. Earthly accomplishments and success in God’s eyes may be two very different things.
Christ followers live in this world and yet we do not abide as citizens of it. While we can enjoy this world God has made, the things that attract us and excite us the most should be heavenly kingdom stuff. Paul is a great model for us in this. Read the first half of Romans 1, for instance, to see his priorities and passion. Fellow leaders, we’ve been called to serve the King of kings, not ephemeral kings. We’re called to glory in Christ Jesus in our service to God (Romans 15:17), not fall for fame and fortune and everything that goes with it.
In three featured articles in this issue, we juxtapose two kinds of leaders: surrendered, third-circle leaders like Sam Stone who lived and led in humility, submission, and high integrity . . . and several failed leaders who apparently did not. We do not wish to throw stones at leaders who have fallen—we should be praying for them, their families, and their ministries—but we certainly want to discover any takeaways from their failures that will benefit the kingdom.
Like many others who were blessed to have a relationship with Sam Stone, I am a better person for knowing him. When I worked at Standard Publishing as associate editor of The Lookout some 30 years ago, Sam’s desk as editor of Christian Standard was about 20 feet and in easy eyesight and earshot from mine. Though he was soft-spoken, I overheard some of his conversations and saw him do his work and interact with others. His humility and integrity made a huge impression on me, and I began trying to live and lead more like him.
I believe Sam was the epitome of a leader who modeled Paul’s advice: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). I hope I can be that for others.
I’ll close with a prayer I heard from a young leader: “Lord, let the size of my platform never grow bigger than the size of my character. Let the size of my character grow no matter the size of my platform. Let the size of my character be my concern and the size of my platform be yours.” I believe Sam would have proclaimed a hearty Amen!