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Why Are Christian Leaders Falling?

Dr. James Emery White
Dr. James Emery White
2021 8 Jul


Photo Credit: ©Juan Pablo Rodriguez/Unsplash 

I recently listened to the first installment of the Christianity Today podcast on the demise of Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church. It was excellent and is well worth the investment of your time.

But it’s not worth it just because of that one situation. It’s worth it because of so many other demises of late: Bill Hybels, Ravi Zacharias, James MacDonald, Darren Patrick, Tullian Tchividjian, Perry Noble, Ted Haggard, Carl Lentz… the list is gut-wrenching.

So… what is going on?

Here’s my take, and it’s only my take, but I offer it as one who knew (knows) many of the people on the list, with a ringside (and backroom) seat to much within evangelical leadership over the last 30 years.

1. Ability Over Character

First, there is a celebration of ability to such a rabid degree that it trumps character. Much of this is fueled by the internet which, I am far from the first to note, gives credit to verbal ability and visual appeal above all else. Sadly, the Christian community elevates someone who looks good/hip, is a preacher with sneakers (Google that if I lost you) and is gifted with rhetorical skill. What we do not seem to value, or at least care about on the front end, is character. As a result, we will elevate and celebrate those with ability without realizing that in so doing, we are letting them build a ministry on a house of cards. And those surrounding said leaders will often turn a blind eye to character issues because they are afraid of undermining what God appears to be doing through the individual, so they are often being enabled by their inner circle as well.

2. Eradication of Accountability

Second, there has been an eradication of accountability. It is now fashionable for church planters to remove any and all non-staff governance from their church, ask a group of pastor buds to set and then review their annual salary, and to have all staff and key volunteers sign non-disclosure agreements. To a degree, I get the sentiment. The vast majority of churches are hamstrung by structures that stifle the leadership gift. Further, accountability in many settings has become a euphemism for control. But what I see happening now in terms of the eradication of accountability is simply frightening.  Rather than unleashing the leadership gift, these structures seem more intent on providing a cover for bad behavior. I cannot stress this enough: many church structures, or more to point, the lack thereof, become a breeding ground for unchecked immorality and ongoing abuse.

3. Believing Press Reports

Third, in ministry you are constantly being put on a spiritual pedestal and treated as if you are the fourth member of the Trinity. In truth, those who follow you have no idea whether you have spent any time alone with God in reflection and prayer over the last six weeks. They do not know what you are viewing online. They do not know whether you treat your wife with tenderness and dignity. They just afford you a high level of spirituality. Here’s where it gets really toxic: you can begin to bask in this spiritual adulation and start to believe your own press reports. Soon the estimation of others about your spiritual life becomes your own. This is why most train wrecks in ministry are not as sudden or “out of the blue” as they seem. Most leaders who end up in a moral ditch had been veering off the road for some time. Their empty spiritual life simply became manifest, or caught up with them, or took its toll. Added to this is the sense of entitlement to pursue a shadow life that comes with the vaunted estimation of spirituality or import.   

And all three can, and should, be addressed in the life of leaders. But there is more on my heart.

“There but by the Grace of God Go I”

Before I share, let me begin 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 ever say is, “Oh, I would never commit that sin!” That is mere pride, and we all know what follows pride—a fall. This is why so many leaders, myself included, have often responded to leadership fails with, “There but by the grace of God go I.” And, of course, that is often true.

But there can be a danger in saying that of any and every leadership failing. I am nearing 60 years of age. With that comes a deepened awareness of personal character. Instead of responding to another leader’s fall with a “well, there but by the grace of God go I,” I am increasingly feeling – particularly when it comes to the deeply entrenched and egregious shadow lives being revealed – that “No, that is not a place but by the grace of God I would go.”

No, I would not molest a child.  

No, I would not intentionally cultivate women for sexual ends. 

No, I would not solicit naked photos from women who attend my conferences, set up private apartments for sexual encounters, or traffic women from other countries to meet my sexual desires—much less than invoke the name of Jesus to get them to remain quiet.

No, I would not give in to pride and anger to such a degree that I would curse and swear, threaten and berate, even attack and assault someone on our staff.  

Yes, I have my sin, but my goodness, I can – with every fiber of my being – say that “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 within me. The sense of conviction, the work of the Holy Spirit, the foundational fear of God… these are too real for some things to even be contemplated, much less pursued.

Why is this important to convey? Because a simple “There but by the grace of God go I” response to deeply entrenched and purposefully pursued shadow lives of extreme and severe sin is patently unhealthy for the body of Christ. It waters down the offense; it mutes the reaction. Instead, such things must be met with a horror and a repulsion, not a sense of identification. That trivializes and even, dare we say it, normalizes it. We must be as aghast at these things as Paul was when he wrote to the Corinthians:

“I also received a report of scandalous sex within your church family, a kind that wouldn’t be tolerated even outside the church: One of your men is sleeping with his stepmother. And you’re so above it all that it doesn’t even faze you! Shouldn’t this break your hearts? Shouldn’t it 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 assuredly, fall prey. But there is a line between the proclivity any Christ-follower has toward sin and a life that has seemingly abandoned even the most foundational attempt at restraint. Such abandonment is not part of the Christ life. It is not even part of the life of the average person who is not a Christ-follower.

I recently watched News of the World on a plane. It had me at Tom Hanks.  

The movie revolves around a young girl scarred by unimaginable tragedy. Her family of origin was killed by the Kiowa who then took her in. Her subsequent 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 dime a person—hence the title), is forced to take her under his wing and attempt to reunite her with what little family she has left. Along the way, men attempt to buy her for trafficking and sex, and even her eventual family ties her up with a rope. After discovering her situation and untying her, Hanks simply says, “But she’s only a child!”

There was such a basic decency about his character (as is true with most of Hanks’ films). Where others would have abused the child, profited from 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 wasn’t a perfect man, just a good one.  

And there is little excuse for Christians not being the same.

Sources

Mike Cosper, “Who Killed Mars Hill?” Christianity Today, June 21, 2021, read online

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, 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 Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.