The public fall of Jerry Falwell Jr., the former president of Liberty University, is a sobering reminder that even our most respected leaders are not exempt from failure. Increasing revelations of the Falwells’s lifestyle, which went on for years, paint a more disturbing picture than what was originally revealed.
Falwell now joins a tragically growing list of Christian leaders whose moral failures have severely damaged not only the organizations they led and built but also the reputation of the gospel.
From my perspective as a bishop, I believe Falwell’s failure is in part due to how evangelicals have built a culture that leaves little to no room for regular confession of sins, repentance and restoration. I believe we lost the practice of a confessional life because in our efforts to stay rooted in our Protestant beliefs we distanced ourselves from anything that could be remotely interpreted as Roman Catholic.
Being saved, for many evangelicals, means being declared righteous by the redemptive work of Jesus — all well and good, but “being saved” does not mean we stop being sinners. On the contrary, we need saving because we are sinners. As long as we are on this earth, we have a sin nature, even if we have committed and submitted our lives to Jesus. The inability to acknowledge the fact that we are all works in progress is a major flaw in evangelical subcultures.
This is not a modern Christian concept. Jesus himself taught his disciples the parable of the publican and the pharisee (Luke 18). The publican is praised not because of his righteousness but because of his repentant position before God as a sinner.
In Acts we also read the early Christians said they belonged to “the Way.” By calling themselves members of the Way, the early believers declared that following Jesus was about the journey not simply reaching a destination.
So why are we surprised when Christian leaders fail? The real question we should be asking is, what do we do when leaders fail and engage in a sinful pattern of living?
There is an immense self-imposed pressure within evangelicalism to show the world the perfect image of a Christ follower. This is not a bad desire. Jesus calls us to let our light shine before others so they may see our good works and praise God (Matthew 5). But that doesn’t mean we have to pretend that we are perfect. Let’s not forget that when Jesus said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners,” he is actually talking about us, not others whom we may perceive as sinners (Mark 2).
Yet, we have set up some Christian men and women as superstars: people who have their lives in order. People who have all the answers. People who reside on a level above us. People who “have it together.”
We should have never bought into the idea of a Christian who has no fault or sin or could not be challenged. We should not have created celebrity Christians. But this is what the consumerist culture of our day has done in many parts of the world.
A quote often attributed to columnist Abigail Van Buren states, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” It seems, however, that churches have become unsafe spaces for many, where people are afraid to admit their sins or struggles out of fear of rejection by fellow Christians.
Christian leaders — like all people — will fail, be it publicly or privately. Why should they be immediately threatened with removal from leadership or any role in ministry if they sin? This unfriendly environment only encourages believers, especially if they are in leadership, to hide their sins, perpetuating the problem and making it exponentially worse. It also discourages others from signing up for any leadership role.
The apostle Peter sinned greatly in his denial of Jesus (Matthew 26). Peter was one of Jesus’s closest friends and followers, yet he lied about knowing him. And I believe Peter was crushed by the weight of his sin.
Jesus knew Peter would deny him. But when Jesus rose from the dead, he didn’t cut him off. Instead, Jesus restored Peter and challenged him to be the leader he was meant to become. Jesus reminded Peter that he was the “rock” on which he would build his church (Matthew 16) and told him that he would one day die for his faith (John 21). Removing Peter from his leadership position was not an option.
Of course, I’m not at all saying that someone like Jerry Falwell Jr. should not have been removed. I am saying that our inability to demonstrate forgiveness and restoration makes these failures more catastrophic than they should be. The mentality of “out of sight out of mind” is not the best way to salvage our Christian reputation.
If we allowed and encouraged Christian leaders to admit and repent of their sins more frequently in our public expression of our faith, we may be able to intervene before the only option left is to remove them from leadership. But to do so we must build a culture of confession, forgiveness and restoration.
All need not be lost when Christian leaders fail.