In the forty plus years I’ve been in ministry, I’ve seen more than my share of failures in ministry – people who started out like a rocket, but ultimately crashed and burned. It’s a far too common occurrence. Years ago, I heard John Bisagno talk about the 25 best and brightest ministerial students at Oklahoma Baptist University. These were the great “preacher boys” – the ones with charisma who were always able to find a place to preach. They were the rising stars of that generation.
John said he wrote the names of those 25 young men in the front of his Bible. By the time John was in his 60s, all but three of them had either left the ministry or had a moral failure. The only names left were another pastor in Texas, Ron Dunn, and John.
Stories surrounding misdeeds, bad judgment, pride, arrogance, lack of accountability, moral failures, lack of ethics, and outright rejection of the gospel are far too many to mention here. Every time there is a train wreck, innocent passengers are injured and some never recover.
When a minister leaves the ministry or walks away from their calling, it is their family, the church they serve, and those who have bought their books or been mentored from afar who are wounded. It can lead to a lack of trust in all leaders, and the ripple effect can impact generations.
We cannot ignore the negative impact on the name of Christ and the testimony of good and faithful people when those we look up to stumble and fall. In our American Christianity where there is a celebrity culture in our subculture, it’s easy to forget that there is only one true hero in our story. Our hero is the Son of God. He never failed in His purpose. He lived, died, rose from the dead, and ascended to the right hand of the Father.
Before we get down this road too far, we must remember that there are bad actors, deceivers, charlatans, and con artists in every area of life. Yes, as believers, we should expect more from our leaders. Yes, we are doubly accountable. But let’s not forget that failure, falling away, and damaging others is not an exclusive trait of a handful inside the church. Jesus had one in his inner circle. Judas was a betrayer. No one names their child Judas these days.
There have been corrupt political leaders. Corruption is not a political party issue; it’s a heart issue. To allow it, ignore it, or excuse it is to destroy integrity. It leads to mistrust and cynicism among the people. It doesn’t matter if it’s at the local, state, or national level. It damages the institutions they represent and the people they have been elected to serve.
Among presidents, we have the scandals of the Grant administration, the Lewinsky scandal of the Clinton years, The Iran Contra affair, Watergate, the Teapot Dome in which a cabinet member under Warren Harding went to prison, the Whiskey Ring, and Andrew Johnson’s impeachment to name a few. Today, scandals, accusations, and partisanship have seemingly destroyed any ability for government to work together for the greater good. Additionally, people seeking to profit from sharing what went on behind-the-scenes have all led to a cynicism we may never recover from.
There have been business leaders who have scammed people out of billions of dollars. Get-rich-quick deals and Ponzi schemes, which only make the con artist wealthy. Those burned and bankrupted by such “investments” could write a library full of testimonies. We’ve seen sports scandals throughout history. In 1919, eight members of the major league baseball team, the Black Sox, were accused of throwing the World Series in exchange for money from a gambling syndicate.
When we worship sports celebrities as idols and gods, we can expect something or someone to bring our idols down. The fall of Tiger Woods comes to mind. The attack of Tonya Harding on Nancy Kerrigan made worldwide news. The Death Penalty for SMU football. Pete Rose betting on baseball. College athletes taking money from boosters. The New England Patriots have had two major scandals: Spygate where they were filming their opponents’ defensive signals, and the deflated football incident. Now their multiple rings are tarnished for all except the diehard Patriots fan.
In the Bible there are multiple stories of failures that impacted the nation of Israel. We find kings who did evil in the sight of the Lord. They could have been great, but their worship of idols and godless deeds are recorded for all human history. In the New Testament you have the accounts of Ananias and Sapphira who lied to the church. Demas forsook Paul “having loved this present world.” Diotrophes “loved the preeminence.”
Church history reveals corrupt popes and kings who used the church to their own advantage. Through the ages there have been heretics who watered down or even denied the truths of Scripture. They had a voice and used it for evil and destruction. Catholics and evangelicals have been rocked by sex scandals, abuse of children, predators in pulpits, and more.
Think of the scandals of reported in the media of Billy James Hargis, Marjoe Gortner, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Peter Popoff, Mike Warnke, Robert Tilton, Ted Haggard, the recent situation with Jerry Falwell, Jr., and others. All of these left us seeking to explain to others “that’s not Jesus.” Add to this the best-selling authors in recent years who have denied their faith or renounced in some form or another the Christian culture that made them famous.
While the names I’ve mentioned throughout this piece are more well-known than others, we all know people who have taken a detour off the narrow road and headed down the wide road that leads to destruction. So, how are we to respond? Let me wrap this up with a few thoughts.
- If you put your faith in people, you will ultimately be disappointed. Everyone at some point will disappoint you at some level. Everyone is a sinner, and sinners sin. Don’t elevate people above Jesus. He won’t disappoint you. He will never fail you.
- Reject the tendency to make celebrities and stars out of talented people. They are talented, but they are frail flesh just like you. With their rise to “fame” is also a rise in the level of temptation. The devil delights in letting us get to the top of our game, sport, denomination, etc. and then orchestrating a fall that damages the Kingdom.
- Don’t point fingers. “Let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). We are all one dumb decision away from bringing shame to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Stay humble. Pray for the fallen. Pray that they will repent. Ask God to redeem and restore. Peter fell and denied Jesus three times, but Jesus restored him. When Pentecost came, God used the restored Peter to preach the gospel.
- Be accountable. A failure to have people in our lives who can ask us the hard questions is a set-up for our own fall. Have people in your inner circle who can examine your life and be honest with you. They won’t tell you what you want to hear – they’ll tell you what you need to hear.
Recent events should break our hearts. No one should rejoice in the failure or fall of another brother or sister in Christ. In the end, live for Jesus. Love others. Serve others. Walk humbly. Pray. Abide in Christ. Let your biggest concern be that you might be a branch that doesn’t bear fruit and must be cut away. Listen to the Spirit and walk in a manner worthy of the gospel.