People tend to think that being called of God to spiritual leadership somehow causes the called to put on a magic cloak that miraculously changes everything about the person. The cloak corrects wrong thinking, fixes longstanding problems, strengthens weaknesses, and creates immediate repentance of all sin. If such cloaks existed a typical conversation with a candidate for spiritual leadership might go like this:
(the called person): “I have emotional scars from how I was raised. I’ve always had low self esteem. I have a problem with lust. I’ve never been able to manage money well. I have a quick temper. I don’t take criticism well. I’ve never read all the way through the Bible, and quite frankly I’m still a little fuzzy on certain points of doctrine.”
(the reviewing committee): “No problem, here’s your cloak. When can you start?”
The hard, cold fact of the matter is that billions of seriously flawed individuals are walking around out there, and some of them become Christians. From that pool of Christians some are tapped to become Christian spiritual leaders. The takeaway is that Christian spiritual leaders share more flaws in common with the masses than either the masses or the leaders themselves realize.
This problem is made worse when well-meaning Christians willfully overlook the obvious flaws of potential spiritual leaders. I once heard a deacon say of a certain man who was being considered for deaconship, “I know that he has some issues, but I think that if we make him a deacon he might rise to the challenge.” I didn’t like the sound of that statement then, and I like it even less all these years later. Sure, maybe that candidate would have risen to the challenge. Then again, maybe he wouldn’t have. Was it worth taking the risk? No way. As any pastor will tell you, a bad deacon can do more harm to a church than ten good deacons can fix.
Let’s do a little test, Christian. Think back to the fault lines and sinful tendencies that marked you before you became a Christian. Now tell me, did all those go away the moment you got saved? If you are like the rest of us, the indwelling Holy Spirit is still working inside you to fix your shortcomings. So, do you honestly believe that anything different happens within those who even in God’s will become spiritual leaders? I’ve been an ordained minister for 27 years and I still struggle with sin’s temptation every day. And God help me, sometimes I give in to that temptation.
You see, every spiritual leader sins. What’s at issue here is the type of sin. For example, if I get mad at a weed eater that won’t start and throw it twenty feet, there won’t be a public outcry for me to step down as pastor even though a pastor is supposed to be self-controlled and not quick-tempered (Titus 1:7-8). Since troublesome weed eaters usually have it coming, launching one in a momentary flash of rage is considered within the acceptable boundaries of sin in a pastor’s life. On the other hand, if I get caught cheating on my wife or embezzling money from the church, that puts the public outcry into full throat as each of those sins would probably prevent me from having a good reputation with people outside the church (1 Timothy 3:7).
Maybe you’ve heard the expression “God doesn’t rate sins.” That expression promotes the idea that one sin is every bit as bad as another. In other words, a man who looks at a woman lustfully but doesn’t have sex with her is every bit as much a sinner as a man who commits adultery (Matthew 5:27-28). Likewise, a woman who has anger in her heart toward an enemy but doesn’t kill that enemy is every bit as much a sinner as a woman who murders an enemy (Matthew 5:21-22).
Admittedly, the expression “God doesn’t rate sins” does align with what Jesus taught. However, what must be understood is that even though God classifies not only actual adultery but also lustful looks as sin, and even though He classifies not only actual murder but also hatred in the heart as sin, the earthly consequences for the two types of sins simply aren’t the same. We see this on full display in that body of law that God once gave to Israel. According to that law, some specific sins were worthy of the death penalty but others weren’t. This means that while the rating of sin doesn’t apply to whether or not an act gets classified as sin in the eyes of God, it does apply to what God deems should happen in the aftermath of any given sin.
Bringing this truth into the realm of spiritual leadership, even as all spiritual leaders are sinners who commit sins, some commit sins that God’s word says should disqualify them from spiritual leadership. You might ask, “But can’t these leaders receive forgiveness for these sins?” Yes, they can. Remember that Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for every sin that any spiritual leader would ever commit. Additionally, 1 John 1:9 promises that there is forgiveness and cleansing to be found for any Christian who confesses his or her sins. Obviously, then, the problem is not a lack of forgiveness and cleansing on God’s part. The problem is that some sins carry lifelong earthly consequences. No spiritual leader ever learned this lesson more than David. Even though kings in that day weren’t forced to step down after scandals, God made sure that David paid a heavy earthly price for the sins he committed as part of the Bathsheba/Uriah situation (2 Samuel 12:7-12).
Sadly, David wasn’t the last spiritual leader to fall morally. History’s highway of spiritual leadership is littered with men who committed sins great enough to disqualify them from their roles. If you lived through the 1980s you will never forget the names Jim Baker and Jimmy Swaggart, right? In more recent times, megachurch pastors Ted Haggard, Eddie Long, Mark Driscoll, and James MacDonald have watched their big-time ministries go down in flames because of sins ranging from homosexuality to bullying to misuse of church funds. This is to say nothing of the entire Catholic Church scandal involving pedophile priests and their fellow priests who covered for them rather than expose them. Cardinal Bernard Law, who lost his prestigious position as the Archbishop of Boston, embodies that far-reaching scandal.
All this brings us back to Jerry Falwell Jr., who now seems to have made his way onto this infamous list. No, he isn’t an ordained minister per se, but since 2007 he has been the face of a university that prides itself as being unashamedly Christian. As I said in my previous post, I’m not trying to bash the man. I just want you the reader to understand that Falwell Jr’s sins and mistakes are not necessarily evidence that it was never God’s will for him to serve as the President of Liberty University. Instead, what they are evidence of is the fact that having money and power gave him plenty of opportunity to express the nature of sin with which he was born. As for those ways in which he expressed that nature, they were surely in keeping with his personalized sinful bents.
Of course, what makes Falwell Jr’s sins so much worse in the eyes of many is him being a preacher’s kid (a “p.k.” to use the official term). Here again, though, being the child of a preacher, even one as famous and as influential as Jerry Falwell Sr., doesn’t give a person a special invincibility regarding sin. To the contrary, preachers’ kids face unique problems that other children don’t have to face, and unfortunately these problems can make those kids more prone to stray from Christlike behavior. The old joke is, “Preachers’ kids turn out so bad because they are always hanging around deacons’ kids.” In actuality, however, the reasons why preachers’ kids so many times go astray look and sound more like these:
- Preachers’ kids grow up under a lot of pressure to be perfect little Christians.
- Preachers’ kids see how church members oftentimes treat their fathers badly.
- Preachers’ kids hear their parents discussing the ugly problems of church.
- Preachers’ kids whose fathers act ungodly at home grow bitter about the hypocrisy.
- Preachers’ kids often resent the churches for dominating their fathers’ time.
- Preachers’ kids typically have to relocate multiple times during childhood.
- Preachers’ kids often have to forego “fun” events because they have to go to church.
At the end of the day, I don’t know if Jerry Falwell Jr. being the son of a preacher helped him morally stay on track longer than he naturally would have or if it actually hastened his fall. Perhaps in some strange way it was a little of both. Irregardless of the answer, what’s for certain is that his case is neither new or uncommon. Spiritual leaders have been sowing the seeds of their own moral demise for centuries, and preachers’ kids have been turning out bad since the days of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-3), Eli’s sons Hophni and Phinehas (1 Samuel 2:12-17), and Samuel’s sons Joel and Abijah (1 Samuel 8:1-3).
Falwell Jr.’s story hits home with me personally for two reasons. First, I am a pastor, a spiritual leader who brought a ton of sinful baggage into the ministry and still carries some of that baggage around. Second, I am the father of two p.k.s, and I don’t want to ever hear that either one of them has made an immoral fool of himself on Instagram. That, by the way, has a ton more to do with my concern over their spiritual well-being than it does my concern over my reputation as a pastor. Of course, in an ideal world I won’t fall as a spiritual leader and they won’t stray from what Tonya and I have taught them about how to live for God in the midst of a sin-cursed culture. I have to admit, though, that there are no guarantees. After all, I’m sure that Jerry Falwell Jr. didn’t set out to fail as either a spiritual leader or a preacher’s kid. But it happened, didn’t it? And that, I guess, is the scariest part of all.