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WHEN CHRISTIAN LEADERS FALL:

What to feel, think and do*

By Ramesh Richard


Natural ecological concerns have recently overridden moral ecology. Environmental issues should include the moral environment in which we live. We should be just as concerned to save babies as bath water.


The inevitable fallout from a degenerating moral environment is the similarity between Christians and non-Christians in their priorities. Worse is the fact that we start looking to the world for our definition of life and looking like the world in our practices. Indeed, the liquid manure of contemporary culture has seeped into the church. The modern environment twists money, a practical thing, until it becomes the occasion for passionate greed. Our world contorts power, a beneficial thing, until it causes corruption. Our culture distorts sex, a wholesome thing, and provides numerous opportunities for lust. These moral distortions have been with us as long as humans have occupied the planet. However, the opportunities to go astray with social approval, spiritual rationalization, and intellectual justification are now more sophisticated.


So, Christians fall.


Christian leaders  cannot  escape  from  this  seepage either. We must accept that some Christian leaders will fall. Great Christian leaders have fallen, and we will hear of more. More falls will take place, not only in the West, but in Christian leadership around the world. Some leaders have become corrupt and others have become greedy; but, somehow we don’t expect them to fall into sexual sin. Why this category of sin is the supposedly prohibited one in a trio of equally disgusting possibilities is not clear. Sexual sin by Christian leaders shouldn’t really shock us. But it does? Why?


Sexual sin breaks the marriage covenant
. The other sins do not break a permanent “covenant” before God of a “one-flesh” relationship. Just reflecting on the consequences of sexual sin should make us shudder. I made out a list of those who would be affected if I fall. The after-shock would be unimaginable on my wife and children, parents and in-laws, siblings and relatives, colleagues and congregations, friends and acquaintances. It should not, but it would destroy some people’s faith in Christ or cause them to doubt their ministry calling.


Sexual sin also crosses the threshold of undependability
. A corrupt man can give up power, lie low, restructure his selfish ambition and emerge in another area of ministry. A thief can pay back his debts, fourfold, and seek amends. But the boundary of integrity that sexual sin crosses cannot be easily reconstructed. The leader must live with the broken wall. If the “one-flesh” marriage relationship is violated, how can a man be quickly or fully trusted again?


Sexual sin affects pulpit ministry like no other sin
. Even if there is repentance, forgiveness, discipline and restoration, someone in the congregation will always remember the event. Further, one’s own conscience will bother him concerning the substance of his preaching ministry. The same intellectual resources he used to rationalize the sin will play the obverse role of seriously questioning the truth of his homilies. Satan would love to capitalize on this guilt forever.


If falling into sexual sin is going to be a more common reality, and a more known fact, how are we to deal with that possibility? How are we to respond to Christian leaders whom we know, love and esteem, when they fall? Make a list of your most respected Christian leaders—your pastor, or spiritual father, the fine preacher, the best-known evangelist. How would you react if you heard tomorrow that one of them had morally fallen or carried on an extra-marital affair while ministering to you? Here is an outline of a Christian response when the mighty fall.


GRIEF, NOT GOSSIP

We should not need to say it at all, but grief is the only appropriate, immediate reaction to a leader’s fall. Only those who hate Christ will be happy at sin. It is human to weep with those who weep. It is divine to rejoice with those who rejoice. But it is demonic to rejoice when others weep.


One of the demonic ways to react to a fallen leader’s sin is to engage in gossip. Unfortunately, we cannot stop people from speaking about a leader’s sin. People will even add juicy items to spice up the stories. They become conveyor terminals for gossip and broadcasters of the failure. Instead of gossip, however, there needs to be grief.


I recall going into near gloom at the dissolution of an esteemed leader’s marriage. I shared it with a friend who shoved it off by saying, “Nothing shocks me anymore.” I mentioned it to yet another who said, “Nothing surprises me anymore.” It would be a dreadful day in Christendom if nothing saddens us anymore. Internal anguish is the first pertinent emotion to such lamentable news.


Private grief moves through several stages. The grief cycle begins with denial. It is unbelievable that your esteemed friend has fallen. You may also find it difficult to mention it to loved ones. Second, anger may settle in. This anger may be against the leader, his or her spouse, or even God Himself. “Why does God allow great Christian leaders to fall?” was a question I was recently asked at a youth retreat. After anger, “compromise” becomes the attempt to cope with something unbelievable but undeniable. It may include rationalization and explanation to cope with the sad reality. Fourth, depression, remorse, questions and pain are often present. The final stage of the grief cycle is acceptance and reconstruction. Life must go on. We must come to terms with reality and truth, if we are not to be consumed by a neurosis.


There also needs to be public grief. Unfortunately, those who do not know the Lord Jesus will relish the fall of a leader. Sometimes jealous Christians will applaud the fact that another one has “bitten the dust.” Others will take advantage of the situation by using fallen leaders as preaching material.


Profitable public grief is when a group of like-minded Christians grieve together. I was with a group of younger international leaders in Singapore when we heard of the fall of a solid man. Our only reaction was gloom and tears. At a recent piece of gloomy news, my wife read aloud a portion of Ezra which reminded us that people prayed, wept, confessed their sin and committed themselves anew to serving the Lord.


Public grief becomes therapeutic in the long run. It also helps do some damage control. If leaders grieve together over a fallen leader, they make a united statement concerning their view of the sin. They set an example of Christian commitment to God and His work that goes on in spite of the grief.


While private grief is natural and public grief is necessary, they pale in comparison to divine grief over human sin. The Holy Spirit is pained and wracked in torment by human sin (Eph. 4:30). He is tortured by the fact that one of His own, who knew so much about Him, would intentionally sin. Now, try to explain that!


Grief, rather than gossip, is generated by your love of God and sinners, at the stark face of sin.


GRACE, NOT GALL

We must recognize the possibility of another unfortunate development in the face of moral failure. Arrogance fills our souls and takes a number of forms. We feel spiritually superior to a supposed spiritual leader. We feel morally superior that we have not fallen.


Instead of gall, we must demonstrate the greatest doctrine of the spiritual life. Deal with yourself and the fallen leader in grace, just as God deals with you and the fallen leader in grace. Understand and apply the grace of God to yourself and the fallen leader.


Understanding and applying grace is rather difficult. It takes maturity to apply grace in forgiveness while holding to high moral standards. Perhaps this is the closest we can come to the Lord’s stance of loving the sinner, but hating the sin. Normally, I find it most difficult to forgive myself and find it very difficult to forgive others. However, these two unforgiving postures are really pride in disguise, with a higher standard than God Himself for forgiveness.


Understanding the grace of God in one’s own life has a most decisive consequence in our reaction to fallen leaders. Massive confusion, from pride to puzzlement, reigns in our own minds as we grope to understand what has happened. But grace helps us understand that nothing good that we have received or done is deserved, earned or merited. The reason we have not fallen is not because we are intrinsically better than the fallen one in any way. “There go I, but for the grace of God” was hymnwriter Newton’s sentiment when he saw sin of which he was capable. Grace tells me that I am not better than anyone spiritually, morally or culturally. When a dear non-Western leader fell, it deflated the defensive moral superiority that some had proudly claimed for nearly infallible non-Westerners over their failure-prone Western counterparts. To be convinced that we could or would have done the same thing is neither an excuse or an explanation of the fallen leader’s sin. It is a personal confrontation with real possibilities in the face of a subtle pride that we have not yet fallen.


We also must extend grace to fallen leaders. Our prayer for these is that they go through the following stages of handling their sin. By the way, these stages of dealing with sin apply to any sin.


Confession and Repentance
: There can be no denial or self-justification of the sin. There must be personal confession to God concerning the depth of the sin. Confession is not remorse over getting caught. Indeed, restoration is often affected by whether a person disclosed his sin or was discovered. Confession is genuinely agreeing with God about the gravity of the sin and being willing to abandon the relationship to sin.


Repentance is both a point and a path. God recognizes that one cannot give an unconditional guarantee of a future without sin. No human may demand it either. So, the Bible allows for multiple repentant stances and forgiving stances (Lk. 17:3, 4). But the inevitable fact that one will sin again or that he can be forgiven again should not have bearing on repentance. Repentance is oriented to past sin. A change of mind about that sin is expressed in sorrow, in renouncing its control or pleasure in your life, and in devising strategies for not falling into it again. Repentance is humiliating. Any diffidence or defensiveness about sin will be melted by genuine repentance. Let others (especially, an accountability or a discipline group) come to the conclusion that one has repented. The sinner cannot and must not advertise the fact of his repentance. He can only declare that he is on the path of repentance. A few others must conclude that he is now past the point of repentance to travel the rest of the journey towards healing and victory.


Forgiveness and discipline
: Seeking and giving forgiveness is a most important step towards healing. Scars will always be present, but the raw wounds need not remain. One’s energies must be focused on securing the forgiveness of the wounded one(s). In sexual sin, the immediate offended parties will be the spouse, the family, and the inner circles of relationships the person sustained.


While we cannot justly penalize a person for this kind of sin, there is need to put restraint into his life. If he is a preacher, to not be involved in preaching is a form of discipline. If he does not voluntarily and temporarily resign from the ministry, remove him from all ministry responsibilities. Of course, our aim in discipline is not retributive, but rehabilitative, though he may feel it to be vindictive and banal.


Rehabilitation and Restoration
: While going through this time of remorse and discipline, do not leave the leader by himself. He could be filled with anything from thoughts of absconding to suicide to divorce. A part of discipline is to place an accountability group around him. The group is made up of ones who genuinely care for the person as well as for God’s standards of morality. We cannot have mass discipline and rehabilitation. There needs to be a small group to which the person relates in humility and responsibility. The group must be willing, authorized and permitted to ask tough questions concerning the leader’s life. These will be questions about his marriage, sexuality, thought life, despondency over losing ministry and his relationship with God. Certainly, these will be embarrassing questions but there will be no intention of embarrassing him in asking them.


Here we also speak of restoration to the core relationships—spouse, family and close friends. But restoration to ministry is a tricky thing. At the very outset, the accountability group needs to declare that restoration to former ministry is not the purpose of discipline and rehabilitation. The goal of restoration is the spiritual rescue of a person’s character from the hypocrisy and duplicity of before and during his fall. Restoration to ministry may eventually come, but it should be later rather than sooner. In some ways, a complete restoration to pre-fall status will never happen. But there could be substantial restoration, especially, if the person had enormous goodwill before he fell, if it was a single moral lapse, and if there is genuine repentance. If a man is not disqualified from the mercies of God (witness David), neither does it cancel the wisdom that God has built into the man through years of experience (witness Solomon). Solomon was dishing out Scripture even after his heart was distracted by a thousand women.


It is difficult to answer if there ever will be a re-establishment of pre-fall, full ministry privileges. This may never happen in the person’s lifetime, especially in cultures that are not prone to forgive or where sexual sin is considered to be the mother of all public sins. But that does not mean that he is relegated to a lifetime of uselessness. The cost of sin will always hound us. A friend calls it “walking with a limp.” Once a person falls, he will walk with a spiritual limp as long as he lives.


GUARD YOUR LIFE AND GET ON WITH THE MINISTRY

Satan would like to get maximum mileage out of a leader’s fall. He would like to derail many who are affected by such a debacle, ultimately, working one man’s failure into mass disillusion with the faith and withdrawal of others from the ministry. Let me speak briefly on preventing Satan’s victory from overcoming other Christian leaders. We must take steps to guard our lives from failure and then get on with the ministry that God has given to us.


Guard Your Thought Life

Much of our attempt to deal with the collapse of a leader will be in the area of thoughts and sentiments.


Inappropriate Anger
: Anger could be based on our pride or on God’s holiness. When a leader succumbs to sexual sin, confusion reigns in our thought life. To the extent our anger relates to our pride, it is sin. And to the extent it relates to God’s holiness, it is righteous. Of course, keeping these separate is difficult. But be aware of the distinction by pinpointing the exact focus of your anger. Ask yourself, “Exactly why am I angry?”


Anger toward the fallen leader may wrongfully extend beyond the appropriate time. In this case, you need to pursue many private moments with the Lord. Hide yourself away for a period of time and talk to God about your anger and disappointment. Or, talk to a couple of trusted friends and weep together, so that large amounts of inappropriate anger may be washed out. Think through these questions. What would it take for you to forgive him? Did they really sin against you in their fall? Why do you think they sinned against you? Do you have a higher standard for forgiveness than God Himself? Anger is always the opposite of grace. There is some relish in seeing people pay for their sins. But we are flirting with God’s role in these moments of hidden vengeance. Such an idolatry of the self is just as heinous to God as adultery.


One of the flawed responses of pride-based anger is called “stereotyping” or typecasting. One man commented, “All Christian leaders are the same. I can’t trust them anymore.” It happened in the United States when two television evangelists were involved in sexual and financial misconduct. Consequently, almost all preachers on television were made the butt of jokes and anger. Many excellent ministries suffered from a lack of confidence. New (and costly) strategies for gaining trust from the public had to be instituted. All this resulted because people like to generalize.


“Stereotyping” helps us to put people into categories of character and thereby control them. Whenever you hear the words “All ________ are ________,” stereotyping has taken place. Or, when you gauge a person’s character by externals, you will be stereotyping, since you are equating all persons who are externally similar with being internally similar. For instance, you may think that all people who wear expensive clothes fall into the same sin of pride. Now, you may judge a person as being proud from his externals, but you can’t conclude that he is humble from his externals. These kinds of generalizations are faulty thinking of the first order because there are so many exceptions. And we don’t know everyone of a given class to make generalizations. Only God can generalize or label correctly, because it takes omniscience to do so. We dare not put all preachers, evangelists, leaders or whoever else in a category, and especially a pejorative one. Even “stereotypers” cannot be stereotyped.


Irrational Questions
: During grief and anger, our questions are often based on an emotional response to a horrible event. They are very relevant questions, but when you take a second look at them, you wonder if they really are good questions at all.


Questions related to your Faith: Some questions may relate to your faith in the Lord, especially if the fallen leader led you to the Lord or nourished you in your spiritual growth. Now think through that question. Does your faith really depend on a human? Who is the author and finisher of your faith? If it is some human, perhaps it was not genuine at all.


Let me illustrate. Smoking is bad for your health, whether doctors smoke or not. Your doctor may tell you to quit smoking and still smoke secretly in his home or the back of his office. This results in a real credibility problem for this doctor; but whether he smokes or not, smoking is bad for your health. Truth is truth regardless of who promotes it or demotes it by words or action. When a person falls, we don’t question the truth of the Christian faith, for that question is independent of what any person does. However, since the acceptability of the truth is seriously hindered by a hypocritical lifestyle, we must encourage consistency between words and actions.


There is yet another question in regard to personal faith that has been asked—”Why does God allow great Christian leaders to fall?” Consider that question. You mean God can “allow” lesser Christians to fall, but shouldn’t “allow” greater luminaries to fall?


What kind of logic is that? The real question is why God allows any Christian to fall, isn’t it? At this time of his life, the great Christian leader did not allow God to hold him up. In the future (heaven), God won’t allow any Christian to fall and every Christian will allow God to hold him up all the time. Further, at the point or period of their sin, great Christian leaders were neither great, nor Christian, nor leaders. Remember, Satan attempts to destroy our faith and he will use irrationality to do so. He often focuses his target practice on the “greater” Christian leaders, so that when they fall, the “lesser” among us can be discouraged or destroyed.


Questions related to your Ministry: Irrational questions like these have been asked recently: Is the ministry really worth it? Should I give it up? If I become well-known, won’t I fall as well? Should I stop seeking or rejecting greatness?


The answers are already known, but they should be reiterated. Who appointed you to your ministry—the Lord or a human? If some human appointed you to the ministry, you need to reconsider whether you should have been there in the first place. However, most will agree that the Lord chose us for ministry, even though He may have used a leader who is now fallen. And because he fell recently, you cannot annul the great ministry that God gave him in the past in your life. So if the Lord appointed you to the ministry, don’t quit now. However, you may need to mature independently in your convictions about your role in God’s work.


Hear a word about “greatness.” If you seek greatness, you won’t get it. If you don’t seek greatness, you still may not get it. Honor comes from the Lord. And if honor comes from the Lord, He has the right to take it away as well, as may be illustrated in the case of fallen leaders. Therefore, don’t seek public greatness. Rather, seek private opportunities to serve. Also, greatness is not an “entity” such as a home-cooked meal, which may be accepted or rejected. If you accept or reject greatness, it probably was never offered to you in the first place.


Some cultures are more prone to hero worship, though all people need heroes. We make heroes of actors, athletes and politicians, and sometimes actors and athletes turn into politicians. Often they run for office and get elected on those past platforms rather than on their present values, which may be good or bad. Here, too, Christians run counter to culture. While we show respect and esteem for men, we cannot worship men. There is only One worthy of respect, esteem and worship—God and God alone.


During a revelation of a duplicity by a leader, some made comments such  as  these: “I  am stopping  my  monetary  giving to the organization that the leader represented;” and “I hosted him in my house and I am not going to host Christian leaders again.”


Again, we need to mature in our motivation of ministry to the Lord. It is true that people give to people and not to organizations. With all the scandals of misuse of money in Christian organizations, your sentiments are legitimate. But evaluate them. Is the organization a one-man show or are there several fine people in the organization? Is the organization still retaining him as leader or have they let him go? Is the vision of the organization related to one man or is it greater than the man? If your answers affirm the latter halves of each of the preceding question, I question your decision to stop giving to the organization. They need your money now more than ever.


Wrong Thoughts
like lust and hatred are part of being human. Dwelling on them are precursors to adultery or murder. And the only way to prevent wrongful thoughts from monopolizing your interior life and giving birth to sin is to engage in a positive battle with them. When my son picked up a bad word and could not get rid of it easily, I gave him a thought experiment. I gave him 20 seconds not to think of a red tiger. Try it! That is impossible. For you have to think about a red tiger in order to not think about it. I then asked him to think about another unlikely thing, “a green tiger.” That was very possible. Lastly, I asked him to think about a green tiger, and not think about a red tiger. That, too, was possible. So, we started memorizing Scripture as green tigers to overcome those red tigers. The red tigers did not really emerge after that. Put some “green tigers” in your thought life.


How is your devotional life? Is it regular and beneficial? Is God speaking to you these days through the Scripture?


A former pastor of mine suggests that we use bad thoughts as triggers to pray for someone in the ministry. In that way, we not only not dwell on them, we also actually increase the effectiveness of a minister of Christ by prayer. Satan is defeated in two ways in this strategy.


If Christian ministers fall, it is definitely not for lack of knowledge. It is because of the lack of prayer—their own prayers and other people’s prayers for them.


Guard Your Body Life

You are a unit—a body-soul unit. Just as you must guard yourself from evil thoughts, you have to guard your body from evil impulses. Your body is not evil, but it is a most important avenue for Satan’s temptation.


We cannot underestimate the importance of the physical side of your relationship with your wife. “Rejoice in the wife of your youth.” The verse does not say “Rejoice in your young wife,” for both of you must age together. Take a moment to consider the nature of your relationship with your spouse. Is it loving, healthy and happy? Since the marriage bed is honorable, nothing that is mutually enjoyed is unconscionable. Remember your spouse is the only human who owns your body.


Be transparent and open with your spouse, especially in need for intimacy. Are you able to be perfectly honest with him or her? Your willingness to disclose your needs will enhance the quality of your marriage. Perhaps you should write a covenant of faithfulness and give it to your spouse today. Also be publicly loyal to your spouse. Consider the following question and apply good answers to it, “What should I do to better my relationship with my spouse?”


Watch for temptations emanating from your screen or print. What do you like to watch or read, especially when you are alone? Everything you see or hear becomes a permanent part of your memory and will emerge at the most inappropriate moment to knock you down. One author says, “Immorality is the cumulative product of small indulgences and minuscule compromises, the immediate consequences of which were, at the time, indiscernible.” Job writes that he has made a covenant with his eyes not to look lustfully at a girl.


View every temptation and near-sin as divinely placed wake-up calls meant to alert and alarm you. Contrary to our supposed invincibility, we are all fallible. When God wakes you up, don’t go near the temptation again. If you and your spouse are experiencing constant tension and cannot work things out, be sure to see a counselor. Constant tension is not only an indicator of pride, it is a divinely-placed alert in your lives.


A life controlled by the Spirit seems to be too theoretical a matter to mention. But each day, in faith, ask God not only to fill you for the tasks that He has prepared for you, but also to control you in your thoughts, actions and words. Then, “walk by the Spirit to not fulfill the lusts of the flesh.”


Guard Your Ministry Life

Personal reflection: This article resulted from personal reflection after the fall of a dear friend. Here are some questions I considered:

  1. In what areas can I fall? Where and how can Satan invalidate my ministry?
  2. Have I recently examined myself? What habits am I pursuing that are wrong and unpleasant to the Spirit of God who indwells me?
  3. Where do I need to clear my own conscience? What should I confess to my wife, my family, my inner circle of friends?
  4. Do I have a structure for accountability for my life? With whom? How often?
  5. Where do I hold a person in too high in esteem?
  6. Who really is the author and finisher of my faith?

Ministry reflection: Here are some other questions you may ask yourself:

  1. Who called me into the ministry? Why am I in it?
  2. Where is my ministry keeping me too busy? What can I do about this spiritual busyness, even though it is justifiable busyness?
  3. Should I continue the ministry if I have already fallen? In what way? To whom do I disclose my fall? And how?
  4. How can I help one who has fallen?


To travel from Dehra Dun to Mussoorie, the North Indian hill resort, you could take a taxi to negotiate the primitive and perilous road up the mountain. We have seen many a vehicle go over the edge to destruction. When I ask a potential taxi driver about his driving ability on this dangerous climb, he could come up with one of several responses to assure me of his steering skills. “I don’t even think about falling,” or “I don’t think anything much about falling,” or “I am so good, I can drive the whole length on the edge of the road,” or “I try to keep as far a distance as possible from the precipitous edge of road and I also know the danger points.” Which driver do you think I would choose? I’ll choose the one who will keep as far as possible from falling. That is the kind of Christian leader, pastor, father and husband that people are looking for. We need to know the danger points, keep as far as possible from the edge of peril, but still move forward.


I encourage you, as I encourage myself, to go on with life and the ministry. The only thing worse than a leader falling is a leader who is paralyzed from moving forward in the ministry because someone else fell. The truth of the Lord Jesus Christ is not dependent on human behavior. The Word of the Lord Jesus Christ will last past the dissolution of the heavens and the earth. The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ is being built by Him. Therefore, the people of the Lord Jesus Christ continue to need your ministry.

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