How Should We Respond When Leaders Fall?
If you have read the Bible, you know that leaders can fall. And if you understand human nature, you realize that no one is untouchable and that all of us have the capacity to blow it badly, often to the shock of those close to us. “I can’t believe he (or she) did that!” At the same time, the Bible is very clear that ministry leaders are to be examples, to be “above reproach,” to have a “good reputation with outsiders,” to be morally disciplined and spiritually sound. We should expect better of them, shouldn’t we?
After all, the Christian message is that Jesus not only forgives but that He also transforms, making us into “new creations” in Christ. (see 2 Corinthians 5:17) This applies all the more to those in leadership positions. They, above all, should be living examples of the transformative power of the gospel, able to say to their people, “Follow me, as I follow the Messiah.” But if so many of them are falling, what does that say about their Savior? Is He unable to keep them? Does the gospel really work?
Some have concluded, “People are going to do what they do. You can’t blame the Lord for their decisions. But this is why I have left the church. I don’t trust people, especially leaders. That’s my issue. These Christian leaders have given me very little reason to trust them any time soon.”
Scandals a Dime a Dozen
Truth be told, it would be one thing if we heard about a scandal involving a major church leader once in a blue moon. The exception would prove the rule. These are godly men and women who are true to their faith and whose lives point people to the Lord. That’s why it is so rare to see any of them fall.
But these days it feels as if the reverse is true. Scandals feel like they’re a dime a dozen. Who will be the next famous minister to be exposed for some kind of sexual sin or financial corruption or other kind of moral failure? Which Christian group will be next?
We expect preachers to be different than others — at least, we used to. We expect people who are entrusted with sacred work to emulate morality and godliness. We expect people with the title “Reverend” before their names to live reverent lives.
A Christian friend of mine recently told me about one of his coworkers who was unusually resistant to the gospel. One day, my friend found out his story. When he was a little boy living in Italy, on two separate occasions, he found the local Catholic priest having sex with a woman (in fact, a different woman each time). Once, it was in an empty field near the boy’s house, and another time, it was in the priest’s own home (the boy’s mother had insisted he bring some food to the priest at a time he was not expecting visitors). That was it for this kid. From that day on, he did not believe. Who can fault him? “So much for religion!”
People Fail, But Jesus Didn’t Fail
I do understand why these scandals have been so devastating. I understand how they have driven sincere people out of the church. (All the more is this true when they themselves were victims of sexual abuse and, rather than church leaders helping them and disciplining those who sinned, they blamed the victims and protected the guilty. How the Lord must hate all this!) I understand how these failings — so many of them, in so many different Christian groups and organizations — cause people to mistrust Christian leaders — or their message or their God or all of the above. Yet here too, there is more to the story.
Although at first glance what I’m about to say might look like a convenient theological copout, it is absolutely true: People may have failed — influential people with spiritual authority and power — but Jesus didn’t fail. To the contrary, He died for our failings, pouring out grace and offering forgiveness. And He will judge us for abusing that grace. But, to repeat, it is not the Lord who failed.
Jesus and Paul Warned About “Wolves”
In the Hebrew and Greek languages, the same word is used for “pastor” and for “shepherd.” That means that Jesus the Great Shepherd is also Jesus the Great Pastor. It also means that every pastor is a shepherd responsible for the Lord’s sheep. Be assured that He is jealous for each and every lamb! That’s why He gave His disciples this warning:
Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. — Matthew 7:15–20
Paul issued a similar warning to a group of elders he had mentored and trained, speaking to them with great passion during the last hours they had together. He said:
Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. — Acts 20:25–31
Notice in particular those words: “Be shepherds of the church of God, which He bought with His own blood.” Jesus paid the ultimate price for His sheep — for you and for me — and He expects the pastors, His appointed shepherds, to do their jobs well. This is a matter of life and death.
And notice how strongly both Jesus and Paul warn about these ferocious and savage wolves who will infiltrate the flocks. Watch yourselves as leaders, says Paul, and watch yourselves as believers, says Jesus. Danger lies ahead!
If Jesus and Paul Warned Us of Wolves, Should We Blame God When They Bite?
Can we then blame Jesus if we failed to heed His warnings and one of these wolves bites us? Can we blame Paul if one of these leaders fails to do his duty? Obviously not. Jesus and Paul did everything they could to stop the bleeding before it even happened. Others failed in their mission and let the wolves come in (or, worse still, became wolves themselves).
But,” you say, “that’s the whole problem. God is God, and He could have stopped these wolves from touching us at all. I was just an innocent sheep, trusting my pastor. Little did I know that he was a sexual predator.”
To be perfectly candid, I cannot relate to what you lived through, and perhaps I would have lost all faith in God had I experienced this same kind of deep spiritual, emotional and physical trauma.
God Gives Us the Power to Make Choices
But I can say this: Because God gave us free will, He allows evil things to happen every moment of every day. He doesn’t stop every drunk driver from hitting innocent victims. He doesn’t stop every abusive husband from beating his wife. He doesn’t stop every despondent woman from aborting her baby. He doesn’t stop every madman from declaring war. And He doesn’t stop you from leaving Him. Or denying Him. Or cursing Him. Or mocking Him. Or running back into His arms.
Almighty God, the Maker of heaven and earth, gave us free wills, urging us to choose life but not forcing us to. Yet because He is God, in the midst of our human sin and rebellion and failing, He works out His will, bringing joy, freedom, healing and redemption. The sooner you realize that He is not your enemy, that He is not the one who abused you, that He grieved for you and with you as you suffered pain and shame, and that He is here to help you and restore you even now, the sooner your life will turn for the better.
Jesus the Great Shepherd will take care of His sheep, and if you will simply confess to Him (even by faith), “Lord, I know You didn’t fail me,” your healing can begin. Multiplied millions have found this to be true.
(Excerpted and adapted from Why So Many Christians Have Left the Faith: Responding to the Deconstructionist Movement With Unshakable, Timeless Truth.)
Dr. Michael Brown (www.askdrbrown.org) is the host of the nationally syndicated Line of Fire radio program. His latest book is The Political Seduction of the Church: How Millions of American Christians Have Confused Politics with the Gospel. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.