From news headlines to tabloids, podcasts, and docuseries, the heartbreaking stories of ministers who have tragically fallen can seem to inundate us. At times, a cultural appetite for stories on fallen preachers seems almost insatiable.
The effects of sin are far-reaching and multi-layered. There are profound effects to the fallen leader, to those who sat or served under their ministry, and to outside onlookers. I’d like to address each of those audiences.
TO THE FALLEN LEADER
All people are sinners—even Christian leaders. Ecclesiastes 7:20 says, “There is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins.” The fact that all have sinned is not an excuse to continue sinning, but a cause for grief over the state of fallen humanity and a reminder of our absolute dependence on Christ.
If sin is to be overcome, it requires sincere confession and true repentance. Confession is a biblical means of accountability that may stop the momentum of temptation, but genuine repentance is also needed. True repentance goes beyond just feeling bad about your sin, it requires turning away from it. True repentance requires intentional, ongoing, daily self-discipline.
Paul said in his letter to the church of Corinth, “I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified,” (1 Corinthians 9:27, NLT).
Keep in mind that even when true repentance has occurred, there will remain lasting consequences of a minister’s fall. If you are in full-time ministry, you may lose employment and feel like you are cut off from the support of those you love and those who love you. This is usually followed by shame at facing other Christians who once respected you.
Beyond your own life, there are consequences for your family. Your spouse and children will experience the anguish of betrayal, shame, rejection, heartache, and loneliness.
Certainly, there is grace and forgiveness in Christ, but the process of recovery and reconciliation from the consequences of sin can take a long time!
Yes, the life consequences of a moral transgression can be severe. But we also know that God is compassionate and ready to restore. David felt the weight of his horrific transgressions when he penned Psalm 51, “My sin is always before me” (v. 3). He couldn’t escape it. The realization of what he had done and the grave impact it had on those around him, haunted him.
David didn’t end it there, though. He cried out for God’s mercy and restoration: “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise” (Psalm 51:16,17).
God desires to restore your steadfast faith and obedience to Him. Reconciliation is His goal! Jesus will never let us down, and He will never leave us. He will keep all the promises He made to us because we have trusted Him as Savior and Lord and have been sealed by the Holy Spirit.
The Apostle Paul himself set the example for us, declaring, “I know whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that Day.”
TO THOSE WHO HAVE SERVED UNDER A FALLEN LEADER
The moral failure of ministers is not just a megachurch issue. In fact, it’s not even a ministerial issue. It’s a sin problem.
All people are sinners. Jeremiah 17:9 tells us, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” The Fall of Man did not exempt those with ministerial credentials.
The Bible never hides the moral transgressions of its heroes. Abraham lied — more than once — about Sarah being his wife, which potentially placed her and many others in a dangerous and compromising position. Moses, an exiled murderer, had an anger problem that kept him from the Promised Land. David, “a man after God’s own heart,” plotted conspiracy for murder after committing adultery. The Apostle Peter denied he even knew Jesus — three times! John Mark’s crisis of faith resulted in splitting up the foremost ministry team to the Gentiles — Paul and Barnabas.
These examples warn that we are all susceptible to sin. Their lives should serve as a reminder that sin can leave a stain on great men and women of God.
Their stories also remind us, as Paul stated in 2 Corinthians 4:7, “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” We’ll always be disappointed in “celebrity Christianity” where humans become the focus instead of Christ. Faith in humanity is a foundation of sand. Faith in Christ alone is a rock-solid foundation.
A moral transgression by a minister is shocking because ministers are biblically expected to live above reproach. When someone close to you disqualifies themselves from ministry, it causes you an emotional jolt. It takes time to process. Don’t hesitate to seek godly counsel to cope with your own emotions from this hurt.
My challenge to you is to keep your eyes on Christ. Since our faith is in Him, the failures and transgressions of others should have no impact on our relationship with Jesus. Pastors, leaders, or ministers are not our intermediaries with God. Their actions do not invalidate the work of the Spirit in your life.
Hebrews 4:14 eloquently says, “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.”
Your priest is Christ Himself! It doesn’t matter who baptized you, who served you communion, or who preached to you. The foundation of our faith is based in Christ alone.
TO ALL OF US
The fall of Christian leaders will continue to be a topic of fascination in our culture. We can certainly observe extremes in how others respond. Some clearly take pleasure in seeing a believer taken down. Others may prefer to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that nothing has happened.
The Bible gives us a better framework.
Matthew 7:15-20 (MSG) warns us, “Be wary of false preachers who smile a lot, dripping with practiced sincerity. Chances are they are out to rip you off some way or other. Don’t be impressed with charisma; look for character. Who preachers are is the main thing, not what they say. A genuine leader will never exploit your emotions or your pocketbook. These diseased trees with their bad apples are going to be chopped down and burned.”
If the health of a tree is seen in its fruit, let the fruit of your godly character be evidence of the work that Christ can do in one’s life. This is a truer witness of God’s power than a perfectly planned worship service. Proverbs 21:3 (MSG) says, “Clean living before God and justice with our neighbors mean far more to God than religious performance.”
It’s important to learn from the personal failures and the shortcomings of others. But, it’s unhealthy to let those form a root of bitterness in your life.
Despite the disproportionate attention the failure of ministers often receives, the overwhelming majority of ministers do not fall. Each year, we recognize ministers who have reached a milestone of 50 years of ordained ministry. This group of leaders represent those who have served with a lifetime of integrity.
My predecessor, George O. Wood frequently told the story of a kind rebuke he received from J. Robert Ashcroft at a General Council. Dr. Wood was young and made frequent trips to the microphone during business sessions to voice his opinions. Ashcroft approached him and said, “George, I have a word from the Lord for you.” He took out a 3-by 5-inch card on which he had written: “Let your emphasis be on the creative and constructive above the critical and corrective.”
I’ve taken his testimony to heart on occasion when I’m living in the aftermath of the poor decisions of others. “Creative and constructive” lessons can be gained in difficult circumstances without allowing myself to sink into bitterness or disillusionment.
In Matthew 16:18 Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”
Stay committed to the Lord. Remain devoted to each other. Keep meeting the needs of the people. Focus on lost souls.
Instead of posting and sharing the news of the downfall of a few ministers, let’s celebrate the ministry faithfulness of so many.