It’s difficult to remain faithful to God’s calling. In fact, it’s a fight.
Like any year, 2021 saw headline stories of ministry failings. Most prominently was the confirmation of sexual abuse and misconduct allegations against apologist and author Ravi Zacharias, who passed away in 2020. But other headlines were equally disturbing — the storytelling of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill that made known the narcissism of Mark Driscoll, the multiplying allegations against SBC power broker Paul Pressler, just to name a couple. In correlation with such headlines, this year has also seen the proliferation of terms like “deconstruction” and “ex-vangelical” because of the hurt and abuse that many have experienced at the hands of pastors and churches.
Through the years, I’ve seen some of my favorite books tarnished by revelations about the authors. Both my favorite book on preaching and my favorite book on the missionary call sit untouched because both authors have been credibly accused of sexual abuse and disgraced. Even though the content of these books remains true, it’s impossible to read or recommend them anymore because, as Aristotle taught us, the ethos of the author is an indispensable piece of the communication. I can’t even look at the covers without thinking of what those men have done.
We must, however, avoid at all costs imagining that such men were always monsters from the very beginning. Yes, there are predators who seek out Christian ministry as a the perfect disguise, but most fallen ministry leaders did not go into ministry for that reason. They were genuinely committed to serving Christ at the beginning. For some, constant adulation fed their predisposition to pride and caused them to morph into the abusive monsters they became. If you listened to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, you heard people talk about how Mark Driscoll changed as the church grew and the YouTube views exploded.
For others, it occurs more imperceptibly. They worked hard to serve Christ in their 20s and 30s, but as they “established themselves,” they became lax and complacent. As they coasted, “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride of life” slowly began nudging them in a different direction until they were way off course (1 John 2:16 ESV). Perhaps this is why we call it a “fall.” No one plans to fall.
One of the most important observations we can make from stories like this is to recognize that these fallen leaders were once where we are — loving Christ, trying to serve him with a whole heart. But also that we could easily find ourselves where they are — arrogant and abusive, disgraced and in denial.
Understanding how easy it is to fall pushes some people to focus on “restoration” — rehabilitating fallen pastors and plugging them back into ministry. Unfortunately, most “restoration” ministries are rushed and superficial. While they portray themselves as being merciful, in reality they don’t take adequate time to do the deep work of confession and transformation, which true mercy demands.
Those of us who make our living from ministry can see through such efforts. Most of these men are jumping through hoops and getting “restored” quickly because they need the money and there isn’t much else you can do with a seminary degree. We should ask such “restoration ministries,” “What about showing mercy to the sheep who are at risk of being fleeced by this proven abuser?”
And, yes, “abuse” is the right word. Before the #metoo and #churchtoo movements, we all tended to think of pastors as “having affairs.” Certainly, there have been many pastors who have committed adultery, but the #metoo and #churchtoo movements opened our eyes to the power dynamics at play. When a man of incredible spiritual influence in your life, who garners immense respect in the community and who even speaks weekly on behalf of God, comes on to you, it isn’t something that you can easily shut down. It’s manipulative. It’s abusive.
While we quickly skip to the shocking headlines of sexual abuse, we shouldn’t miss that the same spiritual manipulation is at work in many pastors who never make the headlines or lose their jobs. The same sinful pride is at work in men who utilize a domineering and narcissistic leadership style to rule as dictator of their church. The accusation that Ezekiel made against Israel’s leaders is sadly too appropriate today: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel, who have been feeding themselves” (Ezek 34:2 CSB)!
I know that thinking about abusive pastors and ministry leaders is uncomfortable, and you may be tempted to say, “But what about the countless humble and loving pastors in our churches?” You’re right. I know many such godly men, and I thank God for them. But life is long, and ministry is dangerous. If we never take the time to think clearly and carefully about the dangers, then we will find ourselves stumbling down the same paths where others have fallen.
The only way to avoid falling is to fight.
At the very end of his life, Paul rejoiced, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7). Paul didn’t fall because he fought. He persevered. He engaged in the strenuous effort necessary to put to death the quiet thoughts of self-importance or lustful desires that arise within each of us almost involuntarily. He did what he instructed Timothy to do: “Flee from youthful passions, and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Tim 2:22).
If any of us will persevere faithfully to the end — if we don’t want to find ourselves in the headlines in 2022 — we must ruthlessly fight to kill fleshly desires, pursue godly fruit, and keep Jesus first.