When Christian Leaders Fail
I recently read Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Set during the bloody French Revolution, Dickens writes, “La Guillotine . . . was the sign of the regeneration of the human race. It superseded the Cross. Models of it were worn on breasts from which the Cross was discarded, and it was bowed down to and believed in where the Cross was denied.” The guillotine has been retired as an instrument of death, but the same bloodthirst has persisted into the 21st century.
When public figures fail, social media vultures are quick to circle, eager to sink their teeth into the fresh carcass. In the early stages of the #MeToo movement, Christian leaders were ousted in bulk portions (including several that hit close to home for me). In the days since, the vultures’ feast has settled into a steady diet. Seemingly every month or two another Christian leader is toppled for words or actions contrary to Christ-like behavior. Tragically, this cycle has become so common that I fear many Christians have become desensitized to the wreckage left in the wake of these failures.
Does it Matter?
When a notable Christian leader has a public moral failure, the response is often a variation of the sentiment, “If the failure of people causes you to drift away from God, then your faith was in people and not in God.” Indeed, God is equally sovereign and holy when his self-proclaimed followers fail and when they are faithful. At the same time, this response is unintentionally selfish and self-serving.
First, the response is inevitably spoken by a person of strong faith. “If your faith is deterred by human action, then it’s a weak faith,” may be a true statement, but the proper response in such a situation is not simply to cast aside those of weak faith (Romans 14:1-23).
Second, there is a tendency to adapt the rules on the fly. As the Church, we repeatedly hammer on the importance of representing Christ well. We are lights in the dark world, ambassadors of Christ, reflecting the image of Jesus for all to see. When we fall short in these roles, however, there is a collective shrug, “Well, it’s not about us anyway.” The way we represent Jesus to the world is vital and praiseworthy when we succeed, but trivial or indifferent when we don’t. All the praise, none of the blame. There is a reason the Bible asserts that teachers are to be judged more strictly than others (James 3:1). Those who represent Christ in a public leadership capacity have immense potential for both good and evil.
Younger Christians are abandoning the Church at alarming rates. There has long been a narrative that when these young Christians graduate from high school, they are simply ill-prepared and thus blindsided by outspoken atheist college professors. But this explanation again seems to shift the responsibility away from the Church (at least in part) and place it on “the world.”
What’s lost in this commonly assumed narrative is that the high casualty rate of young believers also exists among those attending private Christian universities where (presumably) no atheist professors are present. Also, the Church “dropouts” themselves rarely give this “big bad college professor” narrative as a major reason for abandoning Christianity. According to LifeWay’s most recent research, the primary causes have to do with the actions or failures of those within the Church.
In other words, it is not only that an unbelieving world is pulling young Christians away from the Church; it’s that the actions of the Church are repelling them or causing them to question what they’ve been taught. The moral failure and hypocrisy of those within the Church is far more devastating to the faith of the younger generations than any philosophical arguments by atheists outside of it. The failure of Christian leaders may not hinder Christians of strong faith, but it does impact, often in profound ways, those with a less stable faith.
What Can Be Done?
Hypocrisy in the Church has been around for as long as the Church itself. The apostle Paul was speaking on this same issue 2000 years ago. What has changed, however, is that social media can now broadcast these failures to a wider audience. Whereas past Christians may have been let down by a local Christian leader or mentor, now such failures become national news. Christian leaders will continue to fail, but the way we approach these failures makes a difference. Here are five ways Christians should respond when their leaders fail:
- Examine ourselves. Don’t allow our words or actions to give anyone cause to question the God we serve.
- Have honest conversations. Don’t dismiss another person’s disillusionment by saying, “If you had a faith in God as strong as ours, then the sinful deeds of man wouldn’t impact you!” Rather, walk with people and guide them to that level of faith.
- Hold leaders accountable. All Christians should be held accountable, but the unique position of leaders amplifies their influence on the wider culture’s view of Christianity.
- Call the failures sin, not exceptions. Let’s not be too hasty to declare, “They weren’t true Christians.” Excluding anyone who fails may outwardly seem to safeguard the Church’s image, but the younger generations are not impressed by such PR gymnastics. Sinful human nature is the rule, not the exception. When Christians sin, let’s rightly call it sin.
- Pray for those in leadership. Christian leaders may still fail, but that should not stop us from praying for them. Let’s not be quick to condemn, but slow to pray; quick to pull down, but slow to build up.