When a Spiritual Leader Falls

When a pastor or ministry leader experiences moral failure, the effects are usually public and profound. How should Christians respond?

Most of us know the shock, disbelief, sadness, and perhaps even fury of discovering that a beloved and respected leader has had a gross moral failure. Sadly, Christians in recent months have witnessed the failures of several high-profile, successful and respected international ministry leaders.

Over my four decades of pastoral ministry in two churches, both of those churches experienced the disqualifying failure of pastoral staff. It’s deeply troubling, especially when, as in these current cases, the scandal becomes public and the wider culture seizes upon it to mock the church.

In response, we don’t want to just wring our hands, look the other way, or despair of Christ’s church going forward. Yet we also know the Bible warns against gossip, vengeance and malicious reactions.

What then should we do when a leader falls?

Calling sin sin

A godly advisor in ancient Israel faced just such a situation. What did Nathan do when King David committed adultery and carried out his conspiracy to murder? The story begins in 2 Samuel 11, and we pick it up in chapter 12. Here’s how it plays out:

  • The Lord sends Nathan, who goes straight to David. He does not huddle up with others at the water cooler, tap out a Tweet, or blog about it. He confronts the fallen leader directly.
  • Without getting embroiled in sordid details, Nathan creatively expresses to David the situation’s characters and actions, highlighting the wicked sinfulness of David’s behavior. David’s sin isn’t at its core about bathtubs and sex, though he did sin sexually. The central issue goes way deeper than sex, to David’s disregard for God. Nathan puts it this way: “Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight?” (2 Sam 12:9, emphasis mine)
  • Nathan makes clear who the violator is. No excuses. No minimizing the wrongfulness. No boys-will-be-boys malarkey. David is guilty. And Nathan makes clear that David’s sin is chiefly against God, not man.
  • Nathan points out the inescapable consequences.
  • Though there be temporal consequences, Nathan reminds David that because of his humble repentance, the Lord has put away his sin. Mercy will yet triumph.

Even if you are not the person in the organization who is officially responsible to hold the leader’s feet to the fire and call him to repentance, it is helpful – even crucial – to remind yourself of Nathan’s wise and courageous actions. You never know when you may be called to speak up or lovingly call a brother or sister in Christ to repentance.

In the meantime, when you’re reeling amid the reality of a trusted leader’s failure, here are some ways to remain hopeful and productive:

#1

An old saying goes like this: “The best of men are men at best.” Remember, the Bible warns us not to put our stock in Apollos or Paul, but in Jesus, who is not just the best of men, but the perfect man. As a wise woman in my congregation said when a gross failure was discovered, “We keep our eyes on the cross.”

#2

Remember: God has not failed. Thank God that He is doing a zillion good things in and through the failure of your leader. For one thing, in every failure God is displaying the singular truth that He alone is God. He stands forth as supreme and supremely superior.

#3

Examine your own heart and pursue holiness. As the well-worn saying goes, “But for the grace of God, there go I.” Put to death any vestiges of hypocrisy in your own life.

Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139:23-24)

Accordingly, respond in broken-hearted humility. Let there be no tongue-clicking holier-than-thou haughtiness.

Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. (Proverbs 16:18)

#4

Respond to the guilty party with balance. On one hand, leave room for personal forgiveness and reconciliation when the fruit of repentance is evident. Meanwhile, be in absolutely no rush to restore to leadership the failed former leader. In fact, be very cautious.

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1)

#5

Do not pass along hearsay. Beware of receiving and handling an accusation of a leader.

Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. (1 Timothy 5:19)

Even when the report is confirmed by multiple witnesses, pass along only what is a) true and b) necessary.

#6

Pray. It’s possible that the fallen leader will not see what he needs to see or do what he needs to do unless and until you intercede for him. You may be God’s appointed pray-er. Ask God to enable the wanderer to be restored to godliness with a spirit of gentleness. (Galatians 6:1)

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. (1 Timothy 2:1-2)

#7

Consider the hurting family members of the fallen leader. They are not the ones who fell. While God has a tailor-made grace for that family in a time like this, some of that grace might be dispensed through your heart and hands. Your gestures of kindness could be profoundly important and life-giving to them right now.

#8

Use the crisis as an opportunity to commend the character of Christ — who never failed, isn’t failing now, and never will. Highlight character. Commend it. Cultivate it. Do it without making Christianity into a morality religion of salvation by good works. We can learn from those who exemplify bad character as well as those who demonstrate consistent Christlikeness; from the former we can discover what not to imitate, and from the latter discover what to imitate. While good character does not save us, steadily growing character can serve as evidence that we have been rescued by Jesus and are being transformed.

#9

Maintain perspective. There are worse things for the Christian community than one man’s failure. Among the most significant failures of leaders in every age is the failure to faithfully instruct the people in the Scriptures, and by such failure lead all of the people astray. James warns us that the leader’s very soul is in peril when he wanders from the truth.

My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20)

Your leader may not be having illicit sex or be embezzling, but if he is teaching a false gospel, he is doing far more harm.

King David swiftly repented and turned his heart toward God in humility, contrition, and a renewed pursuit of holiness. His failure, though massively consequential, was not the end of the world or his people. He did not completely pull away from God, but turned back, and subsequently God used him to write Scripture. Maintain perspective, for all is not lost.

#10

Establish accountability practices. If you are one of the other leaders in a church or a parachurch organization where the leader has failed, ask yourself: When was the last time we inspected internal boundaries? Do leaders have sight lines to bathing beauties like King David did? Do men travel alone with women? Do offices have windows in the doors for the sake of accountability? Are the financial processes of the organization audited by an outside auditor? Who handles the money? How? What accountability policies are in place to protect children?

Finally, what are we to do with the body of work of the fallen leader? Is it now void? Does his sin mean we discredit everything else he’s done? Truth, after all, is not predicated on who said it. Idiots and villains can reflect truth. Two plus two is four, whether it’s said by the Apostle Paul or the devil. But the effect of truth is muffled or even altogether muzzled if it comes from the wrong mouth. That’s why attorneys in court try to impeach the character of the other side’s witnesses in the eyes of the jury. Again, such decisions must be approached with wisdom, prayer and consideration of the work’s intended impact and audience. There’s no cookie-cutter answer.

Failing forward

Ultimately, God works all things – including tragedies of leadership – together for the good of those who love Him. When a disaster happens, God is not done, but is working it for good. Joseph’s immoral brothers failed miserably, but God was working it together for Joseph’s good, the brothers’ good, the nation’s good, and for the good of you and me. When Peter failed and denied Christ, God was not finished, but was using the failure to strengthen all Christians everywhere.

God wastes nothing. It’s one thing to mourn the failure of a leader. It’s another thing to join God in turning that mourning into proactive steps to produce good.

Copyright 2021 Sam Crabtree. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Sam Crabtree

Sam Crabtree is a pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he has served for over 20 years. He is a former public-school teacher, is the chairman of the board of Bethlehem College & Seminary, and is the author of “Practicing Affirmation.” Sam and his wife, Vicki, live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and have two daughters and six grandchildren.

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