How Do We Respond to Christian Leaders Who Finish Badly?
This is a disturbing question. I would like to never have to ask it. But, I have had a good friend who was also a long term pastor, who finished badly. By badly, I mean that I was embarrassed about the revelations of decisions that he had made in his final years, which were in direct conflict with God’s word.
In short, they were decisions that could be expected from a new Christian, but were shocking in a man who had taught the Bible for most of his adult life.
And, Christian publications have recently confirmed that another man who I didn’t know except through his many, good writings, finished horribly. He had lived a duplicitous life of embarrassments and destructive sexual activity that my wife didn’t even want me to read out loud to her.
What are we to think? Of course, first, we have no right to judge their salvation. God will determine that! Yet, as I read the words of the book of James, these men’s actions were so in conflict with the minimal actions of righteousness, that we are left wondering. .
And, wonder we should. For such wondering can be a healthy warning to us. Paul tells us, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Corinthians 13:5)
While we can’t judge these leaders’ salvation, we can judge the results of their decisions. The writer of the book of Hebrews tells us to, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7).
These and too many others have a faith that I cannot recommend that anyone imitate.
I won’t now reject their former writings, but I will not reread any of their materials. It is not because their teaching was not often, maybe even most often, based in scripture, but for others reasons much more important.
Some may ask why? Because, our lives are equally important to our message. That is not to in any way question the inspiration or power of the words of the Bible. For the words of the Bible can, if necessary stand alone, as a witness and transforming power of God.
We were created from the beginning to reflect the image of God. The words of the Bible are the source of definition of what we look like when we do that. Even while we have been marred by the sin of the rebellion in Adam and Eve, and now in us, we have been made to be (“rebirthed) in Jesus. His righteousness, seen in the life he lived, points the righteous way into which God has designed that we also walk.
I understand people young in the faith failing to walk in the image which God has designed for us to walk. But as the writer of Hebrews warns, I am left wondering about leaders confessing to walking in Jesus for the whole of their adult life, but end badly.
“About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.” (Hebrews 5:11-6:2)
Most importantly in regarding these men and the model of faith they left behind, is their demonstration of decisions framed by the flesh rather than the Spirit of God?
If we are in Jesus we are redesigned by God to listen to His Spirit. The flesh, the child of the rebellion, which continues to live within our bodies, wants our attention. Everyday we are presented with an alternative, give ear to the flesh, or listen to the Spirit.
It is eternally important. “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” (Romans 8:5)
Where was their focus?
Equally important to the life we live, is the question, “can one really apparently spend so much time with God in His word and still live hidden years of less, much less, of the righteous standard that God teaches us from one end of the Bible to the other? Can the Spirit who lives inside of us and uses the Word to grow us, be so easily ignored?
The psalmist instructs us, “You have commanded your precepts
to be kept diligently.
Oh that my ways may be steadfast
in keeping your statutes!
Then I shall not be put to shame,
having my eyes fixed on all your commandments” (Psalm 119:4-6)
What am I to take away from the warning that comes with leadership failure?
One, the challenge of the Psalmist, “You have commanded your precepts
to be kept diligently.” Time with God, open heart and bended will is required of me if I am to walk faithful to the last breath.
Two, vigilance on the way I live life. I can never assume that I have arrived at sufficient biblical knowledge that no danger lurks.
Three, make it a habit to identify and say no to the flesh. Crucified once is not enough. I must allow the Spirit of God to build in me a crucified lifestyle. (See my book on the topic,
Four, I am safest when I am not independent and alone at the top of the leadership pyramid. (See my book “Alone At the Top”)
I find myself with a three fold ongoing reaction as I rehear the way these men have ended, and indeed others in our midst are heading.
First, I am angry. Angry about the model that they have left for my children, grandchildren and others in the body of Christ. The daily battle against flesh, world and Satan, is sufficiently difficult enough without these confusing lives of people who profess to lead us.
Two, I am crushed for their families. I pray regularly that their witness will not destroy the work of God in the hearts and minds of the extended family members that they leave behind.
Third, I am concerned for the witness of Jesus and the image of God on the broader world. These kinds of sad events make it more difficult for people to believe that the Gospel has any power at all.
God is sovereign no matter what. But may God give us leaders whom we can truly imitate their faith.