Last week, I read a news story about a prominent church leader getting into trouble. This certainly isn’t anything new; we see this happen far too often, from far too many Christian leaders of different denominations, traditions, and church sizes. Sin doesn’t discriminate.
Naturally, this pastor’s failure set off a firestorm of responses. Some instantly leapt to his defense, praising his humility, transparency, and willingness to accept discipline from his church’s Elders. Others instantly assumed that there must be more to the story, and that this pastor was still hiding something. It’s probably not a coincidence that the first group is mostly made up of people who were already fans of this pastor, and the second group is mostly made up of people who already held something against him.
There’s much we don’t know about this story. The best-case scenario is that this pastor came clean, is held accountable for his actions, repents of his sin, and can eventually be restored to right fellowship in his church and – maybe – a position of leadership. The worst-case scenario is that this pastor’s detractors were right, he really was hiding something else, and his sin is more egregious than he let on. As believers who care about the Body of Christ’s public witness in a fallen world, we should hope and pray for the first. In addition, because there’s so much we don’t know, it would be wise to withhold pronouncements of innocence or guilt.
Of course, there are always important takeaways when something like this happens. Some will tell us that churches must have stronger accountability structures. Others will warn us against fostering an atmosphere where pastors become celebrities, with all the temptations that ensue. Still others will cite this latest failure as an example of “power dynamics”, “toxic masculinity”, “privilege”, or “systemic abuse”.
Eventually, there may be a place for all of these factors to be discussed in this particular situation. They may have a place when discussing the other failures that will inevitably (and sadly) come down the line. But for now, I’d like to focus on the one takeaway that is ALWAYS appropriate when a church leader falls into public sin. In fact, it is likely the only takeaway that is NEVER NOT appropriate in these situations, regardless of how different they may be:
“Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” (1 Corinthians 10:12)
The Apostle Paul reminds the Corinthian believers of how the chosen people of Israel failed to faithfully obey God. Because of their lack of faith, a generation of them didn’t get to enter the Promised Land (you can read about this in Numbers 13-14). Paul writes that “these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (VS. 6). In other words: when you see someone else sin, take it as a warning to help you avoid the same thing – not an opportunity to look down your nose at them.
When a pastor like me hears of a fellow church leader falling into sin, my first response – ALWAYS – should be to “take heed lest (I) fall”. No church leader is above failure, and the second we think we are is when we find ourselves most vulnerable.
But this lesson isn’t just for pastors or church leaders; it’s for all of us. When we see a friend, family member, neighbor – or even a sports star, politician, or celebrity – make a terrible decision that harms them and others, the last thing we should do is assume that we could never do the same. We should take those examples of public sin as a useful reminder to check our own hearts, minds, words, and actions. We may be closer to the same sin than we realize.
I’m not saying that this pastor shouldn’t be held accountable; he should be. I’m not saying that we can’t denounce sin; we should. I’m also not saying that there aren’t many important takeaways from public falls; there are. But I am saying that the humble recognition our own potential for failure should ALWAYS be the first thing that comes to mind when we read the latest, most salacious news story about a prominent Christian falling short of their calling.
There’s an old saying that goes something like this: “If not for the grace of God, go I.” In other words: “Without God’s help, I’m just as capable of falling into the same trap.” That reminder won’t entirely prevent us from speaking too harshly about other peoples’ sin, or falling into our own – but it sure wouldn’t hurt to keep it in the back of our minds.
So the next time your favorite church leader messes up, don’t try to justify or minimize their sin. Conversely – especially if it’s a church leader you’re not fond of – don’t assume guilt, insinuate false motives, or judge hearts. Let some time pass, allow the facts to become known, and then – and only then – consider some practical takeaways that may help you and others avoid falling into the same trap.
But always – ALWAYS – “take heed lest you fall.” And if – or better, when – you fall into sin, turn to Christ. He’s the one church leader who didn’t fall, isn’t falling, and will never fall.