Some thoughts on fallen Christian leaders:
Sadly there is never a shortage of Christian leaders and pastors who become involved in a fall from grace – and often in a very public fashion. There is no need to name names here – it happens often, and it harms the church immensely of course.
Some of these figures know that what they did was wrong, repent, and with God’s grace and the help of other Christians, can be restored back to ministry of some sort and continue as leaders. Of course that is quite different from the leader who knowingly, wilfully and defiantly continues in sin, does not acknowledge that it is sin, and refuses to repent and change course.
I want to say a few things about all this. One, we can often have a poor attitude when a leader falls. We can become smug and proud and actually enjoy that fact that they have fallen. But we should be weeping when this happens, not gloating, smirking or being gleeful. Indeed, the words of Paul that we should ‘take heed lest we also fall’ (1 Corinthians 10:12) must be taken seriously.
Another thing to note is how odd it is that a leader can seem to be so very gifted and graced by God, and yet can fall and maybe fall often. One wonders about verses like Romans 11:29: “God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.” I wrote about that matter here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/06/20/on-christian-gifting-and-character/
But in this piece I want to look at what another Christian has said about such things. I make no claim to being a leader, nor having expertise on leadership. So I depend on others for that. One author I have been reading today is indeed a noted Christian leader, pastor and writer, and he has been of real help to so many believers.
I refer to Paul David Tripp, and I want to look at two books he has penned on pastors and leadership. The first one I want to mention is his 2012 volume, Dangerous Calling (Crossway). That book refers to individual pastors and leaders. And in his brand-new book, Lead, he refers to the broader leadership community.
In both books he reminds us repeatedly of what we so often tend to forget: Christian leaders – just like all Christians – still have indwelling sin, still can struggle in so many areas, and still can fall. Perfectionism must wait for the next life. As he says in his newer book:
“If you’re a leader, you don’t know everything, you can’t do everything, you aren’t completely mature, and you don’t have inexhaustible energy. You are not just a package of strengths, gifts, and experiences; you are also a collection of weaknesses and susceptibilities.”
Of course neither Tripp nor I for one moment want to minimise sin and play down the importance of living a holy life. That goes without saying. But this side of eternity, we are all still capable of falling in so many ways. It is only by God’s grace that any of us can stand at all.
Let me offer just one quote from his earlier volume. He briefly discusses how the church should respond when a leader falls:
The community surrounding him is shocked and dismayed and suffers a huge loss of respect for him and is therefore unable to minister the grace of the gospel to him in the way that he has done and so desperately needs himself.
In the face of this shock and loss of respect, the local church is tempted to just want to move beyond the ministry of this man and replace him with someone they can once again respect and follow. So the church gets rid of its problem and moves beyond its leadership crisis, but the pastor and his family are the casualty. The heart issues of the man have not been dealt with biblically, he has no greater personal spiritual insight, he has not received the transforming grace of the gospel, the leaders he leaves behind are tempted to be a little more cynical, the weaknesses in their leadership culture are unaddressed, and he is tempted to take on the bitterness of a victim.
His brand-new book deals with these matters in much more detail. He says this for example:
Your Lord knows the sin and weakness of the people he has chosen to lead his church. He knows there are times when we look to the wrong things for our spiritual stability. He knows that at times we are too fearful, too controlling, too proud, too sensitive, and too needy of affirmation and success. He knows all our susceptibilities, yet he still chose us to lead his people on his redemptive mission. He is not shocked or dismayed by our struggle, and he surely is not about to give up on us. He meets us in our weaknesses, smashes our idols, exposes our hearts, and then draws us near once again and says, “I’ve called you to my service, not because you are able but because I am. Rest your heart on my grace and don’t look elsewhere for what only I can give you.” And with those tender, loving words he grants us yet again another fresh start and new beginning.
And he has an entire chapter on the matter of restoration. He writes:
Leader restoration is not a romantic dream of people who don’t really understand how deep and serious sin is. Restoration gets at the heart of the gospel that we have given ourselves to. And even if sin necessitates a leader’s removal from his position and ministry duties, turning toward him with grace is always right. We sinners don’t just need forgiving grace; we need reconciling grace. And we don’t just need reconciling grace; we need restoring grace. And we don’t just need restoring grace; we need delivering grace….
No leader is impervious to a moment of pride or a flash of lust. No leader is above irritation, anger, jealousy, or impatience. Every leader struggles at some time with fear of man or pride of accomplishment. Ministry leaders are quite capable of disrespecting staff members or looking at the opposite sex in ways that are wrong. No leader has a perfect marriage or is a perfect parent. No leader has completely pure and unmixed motives. Here’s the bottom line: no leader in any ministry community anywhere is done, that is, completely formed into the image of Jesus Christ.
He looks at the story of Jonah, and how God had to deal with him as a leader, even though he was prone to falling, and then goes on to say this:
My prayer is that every ministry leadership community would model the restorative heart of the Lord. Restoration never minimizes the damaging reality of sin, but while it takes sin seriously it also believes in the power of restorative grace. It believes in God’s power to turn a heart and rebuild a life. Restoration isn’t motivated by seeing how fast we can get a leader back into the ministry saddle, it’s longing that the lapsed leader would know spiritual health of heart and life. Restoration is not about turning away from a ministry leader, even if he needs to be removed from his position and ministry duties, but turning toward him with grace that takes both sin and restoration seriously. Restoration is but another area in which we are called as leaders to take our ambassadorial calling seriously.
One final word: some folks might say, “Well, I am not a leader, so all this does not really apply to me.” Well, actually it does. One need not be a leader to know how easy it is to fall, and to see how much we need grace and forgiveness to get back to where we should be through the process of restoration.
As Paul says to ALL Christians – not just leaders – in Galatians 6:1-2, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
(Australians can find his books here: https://www.koorong.com/product/dangerous-calling-paul-david-tripp_9781433541377 )