Listen: Episode 78
Lifewords Q&A is the podcast where we explore answers to your tricky questions about faith and the Bible – with journalist Clare Bruce, and pastor & writer David Reay. Explore all episodes.
Episode 78: “When Church Leaders Fall, How Can I Defend My Faith?”
CB: So, let’s see how we go with this week’s question. And this is one I’m sure a lot of people have grappled with in recent years. When church leaders fall, how do we shine our light?
It feels like not a year goes by without another prominent church leader being accused or found guilty of some kind of terrible misconduct. So when these things happen, David, how should Christians respond – and how can we uphold some kind of credibility in our faith?
DR: It’s a tough one Clare, and it’s not just prominent church leaders who fail – you know, your not-very-big-time pastors can fail. They don’t hit the headlines. They don’t reach the public domain much, but sadly it does happen. And I think we [should] avoid two extremes. Whether it’s a big time pastor or a small time pastor, we avoid the two extremes.
One is joining the lynch party; so-and-so has been accused, and boy, we jump on them: “Well, I always thought they were pretty crooked”, and “I, I didn’t ever like him very much”, and so on. And so we jump on these people. “The person must be guilty. An accusation’s been made, so of course, they must be guilty”.
The other danger is to go to the other extreme, and to jump in and defend the person as if, “Well, they’re a Christian leader, they couldn’t have done anything wrong”, or “That person understands the Bible, it couldn’t possibly be true”.
In my own ministry work, in more recent years, I’ve been involved in the network of churches to which I belong, in intervening in some churches where there’s sadly been some moral failure on the part of a church leader. And I’ve been involved in a few of those instances. And it’s quite interesting that in some cases, some of those church people will simply refuse to believe an accusation, full-stop.
I know of a case where a person was found guilty of a certain offense in court because it was a criminal matter that was involved. And even then, some of those church members said “No, it can’t possibly have happened”. Well, that’s the other extreme – to almost deny.
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Why do people want to deny that such a failure has happened? Because I think it calls into question the faith in church leaders. If this person has done this thing, then where does it leave my faith?
CB: Who can we trust?
DR: Who can we trust now?
That’s understandable, but I think it’s an overreaction. We sometimes do put leaders on pedestals, which is very unwise, we’re all fallible, and no one is immune to temptation or corruption on a more minor level. Some people might say to me after a sermon, oh, dear me, I found that helpful. And I’m thinking, gee, I wish I could apply that sermon to myself.
In other words, I am not preaching or teaching as someone who’s got it all together. I am preaching and teaching as someone who is simply on a journey like everyone else, but some people think “oh, the leader, that preacher, the teacher, the pastor, whoever it is, they must be beyond temptation or corruption”, but they’re not.
So I think we need to suspend judgment, not to go to lynch-party mode, not to go to denial mode. It could be true, it might not be true. So we have to sort of hold that in tension, avoid speculative gossip, which can sadly happen. And we, above all – in my role, part of these consultancy teams that I’m involved with – we remind ourselves that “Who who stand, take heed lest we fall”. In other words, we can’t mount our moral high horse and say, “Well, what a terrible thing that that person failed”. Hey, there but for the grace of God go I.
CB: Do you think that we have to defend Jesus – you know, have people who’ve fallen morally, tainted his name?
DR: They certainly have tainted his name, I mean, I, for one believe that our Christian witness, in very general terms has been radically compromised and weakened by legitimate valid accusations of abuse over years. In some church traditions, and whenever a prominent leader is shown to be morally corrupt, I think that weakens our witness enormously.
But what we then have to do is to say, Well, argue something along the lines – although, this is far too simplistic – argue along the lines of, “Yes, this person is morally weak, this person failed, that church failed – but let’s focus on Jesus”. Now that I think is the right answer, the right strategy – but I tell you what: it’s difficult! Because remember, Jesus uses human beings to be his witness in the world. He uses his church to be almost like a working model of what the society is supposed to be like. And when that is corrupted, it’s absolutely dreadful.
CB: And so we need to point people to Jesus but we can’t do it in a flippant way, I think is what you’re saying.
DR: Now, we can’t do it in simplistic way to say “well, oh don’t worry about that moral failure; we’re all weak and fallible people”. Because yes, that’s so true –
(and that leads me to another point that in talking about our Christian witness more generally Clare, I think we’ve got to forego this idea that we are somehow or other is morally superior, we’ve got our act together. There is such a thing called the witness of weakness. I’ve got to be able to testify as a Christian that I’m a struggler. I haven’t got all the answers. I think if we have a bit more humility in our witness, I think we’re better able to put the attention onto Jesus rather than some of his some of his sadly fallible followers.)
– but I think it’s a bit too glib to say, “Oh, well, don’t worry about what pastor so and so did, just look to Jesus”, because people can rightly say to us, “Well, hang on those people were representing Jesus”.
CB: That’s right, yeah. You remind me of a show that was on TV last year. If you remember David, Christians Like Us, the SBS series – and on that show was a gentleman living in the co-living house, of people of various different kinds of faith, was a gentleman who had been abused in the church as a child himself. And he found that it was so painful for him that he couldn’t even participate in a small lounge room style church service that they had. He had to remove himself because it just brought up too many painful memories. So we can’t say to a man like that, “Oh, don’t worry, it happens. Sure. But people are imperfect.” Well, that’s quite insensitive. And he may never find Jesus within the walls of a church now.
DR: That’s right.
CB: But he may well find Jesus, for example, in the Christian bikers that he met and really resonated with, because he saw a living, true faith that actually meant something to him.
DR: I think that’s so true. Actually, I think we’ve got to have a strong understanding and doctrine of the Holy Spirit there. Because I do believe that you’re quite right in saying, I don’t think that person can find Jesus again in the institutional church. And I know of pastors who have planted churches and who are, have absolutely deliberately forgone any Christian symbolism such as a cross, such as anything like that, because it’s too painful a reminder of the abuse and so on.
So, I think, with those sorts of people who’ve been sadly abused and so on, I think we’ve got to be able to say, “Yes, I believe God has got his hand on you, and God wants you back… but it might be that you have to find your way back to God through sort of other channels”.
For what I would call, in inverted commas, the ‘normal’ church-going Christian, I think it is a bit different. I think they’ve got to be able to say, “Okay, this person failed” (I’m not talking about people who’ve been abused, that’s that other category that we referred to, but those people who have just had to confront the fact that the Reverend X or Pastor so-and-so, they’ve failed dismally). We’ve got to be able to say to them, and I’ve actually physically actually had to say to some people, “Just because that person failed in some way does not mean that that invalidates all they’ve taught you”.
There was this incredible situation some years ago in America called the Lakeland Revival, I think it was down in Florida way, where the evangelist was bringing so many people to Jesus, hundreds and hundreds to Jesus, and there was some genuine healings happening too, I believe, and yet he was sadly proven to be utterly corrupt morally, and so on. He was sadly not worthy of that position. And yet that did not negate the fact that some people were genuinely converted through him. And what it means is… one of the old saints of the Middle Age church, Saint Ignatius de Loyola, once used the phrase, “God uses crooked sticks to draw straight lines”.
And it’s a lovely phrase because it doesn’t excuse misconduct at all, but what it does say is, “God is still able to use these wounded and fallible and weak people”. I’m not talking about people who are serial child abusers. I’m not so much talking about that. I’m talking here though, about when we see a Christian leader fail. I would say, “Don’t be too surprised by it”. I’m not saying you should cynically accept it. But I’m saying, “Look, these people are fallible”.
I’ve had people say to me, “But they, they performed my marriage some years ago. What does that mean?” Well, it means absolutely nothing! They sincerely performed the marriage, you’re still married!
CB: You’re still married!
DR: The other thing I would say, though, as a Christian leader, you always have to be on your guard. And sadly, in almost all cases, where ministers and pastors and church leaders fail, they have not surrounded themselves with strong accountability groups. They’re often strong people who say, “This is my vision, this is my mission, this is my strategy, join the team!”
CB: Lots of ‘Yes-people’
DR: The implication of that is that only the people who say “yes” and support you, are going to join your team. Every Christian leader needs around them people who are going to be able to point, as it were, ‘point the finger’ at them and say, “Hey, watch it!”
CB: Yeah, that’s good.
DR: Challenge them.
I remember reading some years ago, a certain, I won’t mention the author, from America, a church leader, and his writing was almost life-changing for me. Beautifully written stuff, eloquent description of Christian weakness and struggle. And yet sadly, as he was writing, all the time he was carrying on an affair with someone in his church. And, I’m thinking, “Well, hang on, but he blessed me so much!” That’s part of what God says to us: “Yeah, I’ll still use these crooked sticks to draw straight lines”. Doesn’t excuse the misconduct. But what it means is that any incidences of this misconduct, there is a bigger picture involved.
With the people who’ve been subject to abuse and so on, yes, we’ve got to ask that, perhaps suggest to them they pursue another channel through the Holy Spirit to find God again. But to people within the church more generally, I think we have to say to them, “Yes, don’t put your leaders on this pedestal. Respect them, but above all, ensure that they have accountability structures. Ensure that they are cared for, ensure that they are spiritually healthy.
The biggest blessing I can give to any church I lead, is my relationship with God. If that’s not healthy, everything else goes by the board.
CB: Hmm, awesome. Thanks. David Well, that’s been really helpful for me. And hopefully it has for you too. If you’re listening and you’ve found this enlightening, why not share the episode with your friends? And if you have a question to submit, email us – email@example.com. David, thanks for your wisdom. I’ll catch you again next week