When Christian Leaders Fail
While it’s difficult to understand what ultimately leads Christian leaders to succumb to moral failure, I pray that each one of us would use it as a warning for our own lives. We are all but a decision away from life-altering consequences. However, Isaiah 55:11 encourages us by saying: “my word that goes out from my mouth, it shall not return to me void, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose.”
So what should our response be and how can you help others? On this page, you will find some tips and resources that I have found helpful.
Josh McDowell Shares His Heart about Ravi Zacharias
Placing Your Faith
While many have been influenced by other Christians, we must make certain that our foundation is in Christ – not in a pastor, theologian, apologist or mentor. Christ is the only rock on which we stand and place our trust. All others will only lead us to failure.
As believers, we must train ourselves to focus on Christ’s message more than on human messengers. While we may admire people whom God is using to further His Kingdom, we must be careful not to esteem them too highly or put them on pedestals. That can open the door to pride and scripture clearly tells us that pride can lead the way to destruction.
How to Move Forward
We must listen to the victims.
Rather than discount those who have been victimized, we must listen with compassion and take appropriate action. We cannot and must not discount their testimonies. (As a survivor of sexual abuse in childhood, one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life was being shamed and punished rather being listened to when I came forward to share what had happened to me.) Today, there are too many victims out there who are not listened to or heard. Our job as believers is not to protect the accused, but to be the hands and feet of Christ, listening with compassion and openness.
As the body of Christ we must help keep each other accountable and set boundaries for ourselves.
As a Christian leader, I have always made it a point to not put myself in a position that could compromise my integrity or cause anyone to question my morality. I focus on this in order to honor Christ, in order to fulfill my commitment to my wife, Dottie, and in order to model Christian values for my children, grandchildren and my staff. This commitment has many behavioral consequences. For example, in order to protect my wife, my family and my staff, I do not travel with or meet with members of the opposite sex unless Dottie or another one of my staff members is with me. I make every effort to be circumspect in my dealings with others as a way of honoring them.
I have people in my personal life and at the Josh McDowell Ministry that I have asked to hold me accountable. One of the things I highly recommend to others is the safeguard offered by internet filters and protective software on electronic devices. For example, I personally use Covenant Eyes and my accountability partners are notified if anything of question shows up on my devices.
We must focus on the message over the messenger.
We must ensure the message being spoken is founded on God’s word, and that the messenger is delivering it in a manner that is worthy of the honor it deserves. While it is biblical to honor faithful women and men of God, we must also recognize that they are not without flaw. Only Christ is perfect.
When Christian Leaders Walk Away
Pure Desire Ministries International is a leading Christian organization offering support groups, counseling, events, and resources for unwanted sexual behavior, betrayal, and relationship issues. Through biblical, neuroscientific, and psychologically informed solutions, you’ll find hope and real answers
Josh McDowell’s Story
Some of you might know that when I was a child, I was physically and sexually abused by an older man. I know how it feels to be a victim, and what hurts and scars it can leave behind. It wasn’t until much later in life, after I became a believer, that I was able to forgive and heal from those experiences
Response to Ravi
Ravi Zacharias and Sexual Misconduct Among Christian Leaders
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Top Questions Answered
What are the lessons Christians should take from the failures of others? How can we use these to guard against our own failures?
Perhaps the most striking lesson in recent events is that sin can slip into our lives, growing, evolving, and leading us down pathways which are harmful to everyone involved. Failed Christian leaders often comment that they never thought it would happen to them, or that they never intended things to go as far as they did. As it turns out, we can’t put a leash around sin. Sin isn’t something which can be managed and controlled. It blinds us with the allure of stolen life. In recent years we have witnessed that this type of brokenness can happen to anyone – even people we highly respect.
Who then can be saved? This was the question asked to Jesus in Matthew 19:25 after he gave his own bleak outlook of humanity. His answer deserves as much attention today as it did when he first spoke it: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (v. 26). Though this answer may feel outdated, overused, or cliché, the reality is that we have no other answer. We need no other answer. God is enough. God’s desire for us is for wholeness. When we fail, we need God’s spirit to convict us. We need to repent, find forgiveness, and empowered by God’s spirit, be restored to the wholeness for which we were created. We also need the body of Christ to hold us accountable to our commitments and to help us grow in grace into the people God calls us to be.
What are we supposed to do with our feelings of hurt and betrayal by leaders we’ve loved—who’ve let us down?
It should be clear that our leaders are not saviors. Only Jesus lived a perfect life, and only Jesus is able to save us. It follows then, that God uses imperfect or even horribly flawed people who accomplish his purposes. We see this throughout Scripture, and we continue to experience it today.
Paul has much to say about this in the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians. While it may be true in one sense that certain Christian influencers do much for our faith, it often leaves us feeling plundered or hollowed out when our heroes fall. The bigger picture is that God is the One who gives growth, not Christian leaders (1 Cor. 3:6). This is why Paul himself depended on God for ministry, “so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (1 Cor. 2:5) Because of this, our faith is never invalidated when the messenger lets us down. “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:9).
So what are we supposed to do with our feelings? We can present those feelings before God through prayer and lean into that rock-solid stability only God can provide. In that place, recommit your life to trust in God alone. Invite the Holy Spirit into your time processing those feelings. Work them out further with brothers and sisters in the faith. The result can be an opportunity to grow your faith in new ways.
Can we—or should we—allow leaders who’ve failed and gone through appropriate discipline and follow up to resume a position of leadership?
This can be a difficult question to answer because there are so many factors to weigh against wisdom and how they relate to our Christian convictions of grace and truth. In fact, Paul and Barnabas parted ways because they couldn’t reach an agreement about reinstating Mark as a missionary partner after he abandoned them in their previous journey! (See Acts 15:36-40).
As we think through this, it helps to remember that God only uses flawed people (because all people are flawed). We also must recognize that even after King David’s sex scandal with Bathsheba and her husband (a sin that he never even owned for himself until he was exposed by Nathan!), David continued to reign as God’s King over His chosen people of Israel (See 1 Sam. 11-12, Ps. 51). Granted, David was severely punished, and deeply repentant (something we don’t always see in our leaders). But this goes to show that God’s grace often extends farther than we may expect.
On the other hand, we know that Jesus raised the bar very high for discipleship, and Paul gave certain qualifications for leaders (See 1 Timothy and Titus). Many leadership failures also involve victims, and they too must be considered, both for their healing process and for their safety. Though the body of Christ must always extend the grace of God, that may not mean reinstating the fallen leader back to a similar position.
Fallen leaders must be held accountable. Repentant leaders need forgiveness and the opportunity that all of us need – to be restored to the wholeness for which we were created. After restoration, spiritual discernment is needed to determine whether a leader may be restored to a position of leadership. The process of restoration can take time and requires wisdom on the part of everyone involved. In many situations there are no easy answers or norms, apart from the grace and truth that God offers through Christ Jesus.