I’m not particularly interested in proving whether Christianity is true to anyone. I’m more concerned about helping people give Jesus and shot and seeing what happens.
To me, Christianity is a living faith. You get some information (which is true and historically reliable, by the way) and then put it into practice with the help of the Holy Spirit. My practice has grown simpler over the years, with a greater emphasis on listening and silence, depending on God rather than my own knowledge or experience–even if a foundation of some sort can help with getting these practices started.
I don’t lose sleep at night about Christianity being a fraud or a fabrication. I’ve surely got some parts of it wrong, but the central idea of a loving God present for us and revealed in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has been a constant through my highs and lows.
Yet, I do have some concerns about the amount of lies being told among Christian leaders and the kinds of lies these leaders have leveled. I mean, some of the biggest names in Christianity during my formative years have been exposed as fraudulent abusers living double lives.
It’s not all a lie, but there has been way, way too much lying among some of the most influential and powerful leaders among Christians in America, with some even extending their influence overseas.
These frauds, abusers, and liars were certainly not my own pastors, but they were EXTREMELY influential among many of the pastors in the churches I attended and among many churches throughout America.
The list is daunting to the point that I don’t think I can remember all of them. There’s Gothard, Driscoll, Hybels, Yoder, and Zacharias, just to name a few. Also, there’s the lesser deception of the likely well-meaning Joshua Harris who wrote one of the most influential books about not dating while having little to no experience in male/female relationships. Although not intentionally abusive, Harris’ book has had a devastating impact on relationships and sexual identity throughout the evangelical subculture.
Revisiting the stories of those who misled, deceived, or failed us won’t do much to help us move on, provided we’ve fully confronted these events and seen them for what they are. Yet, if so many people who presumed to be leaders in morality, theology, church planting, and spiritual formation were abusive, fraudulent, or, at best, misleading, what does that say about the substance of Christianity?
I understand that some could dismiss this as just a few bad apples. There are so many others who have been faithful and good without making names for themselves or without egregious moral failures or misrepresentations of themselves.
That’s true to a point. The unfaithfulness of one group doesn’t cancel out the faithfulness of others. But the sheer number of liars, deceivers, and abusers at the highest levels of American Christianity should make us want to examine ourselves and hopefully make such people less influential in the future.
What does it say about American Christianity that so many can amass power and influence and yet avoid scrutiny or accountability to the point that they lead double lives, harm people behind closed doors, and peddle in deceptive ideas?
This troubles me because I often wonder if we measure the wrong things in our spiritual influencers and leaders. I include myself in this. Do I value the wrong things in leaders and influencers?
One thought I’ve had is that inspiration is probably overvalued. We love it when leaders inspire us to do better. But I wonder if we need to look for leaders who are willing to ask the hard questions, to say the unpopular things, and to make us uncomfortable.
That certainly isn’t a perfect safe guard, but it at least could help us check some of our inclinations to build cults of personality around inspirational spiritual leaders. Leaders can inspire and direct people to great things without being spiritual or in step with the Spirit.
I also wonder if we need spiritual leaders who can point us to spiritual processes rather than moral outcomes that meet certain standards. In other words, instead of spelling out what faithfulness and morality will look like as an end result, we need leaders who will help us seek God and then trust the outcome to God.
At the very least, this would help us ask whether our spiritual leaders actually have the credibility to direct us. Do they have an active spiritual life, an interior depth that is grounded in God’s presence and power? People who focus on correct answers and correct outcomes don’t need to have spiritual depth or a vital relationship with the Holy Spirit.
Finally, I wonder if we honestly just need to view spiritual leaders of any large enterprise with extreme caution. Without accusing them of the worst, we should recognize that spiritual leaders with massive followings are, at best, on dangerous ground and we should increase our scrutiny as their followers increase.
Leaders who give away more of their influence and power, who plant new things, who give away what they’ve built, who know when to step back , and who recognize when life is out of balance should have more credibility in my eyes.
This may not be the perfect example, but a few years back pastor and author Francis Chan left a large, thriving ministry. Some people thought it was irresponsible. One prominent pastor I mentioned above even asked him if he was proving himself unreliable to people who would minister with him in the future.
Without getting into all of the details, Chan recognized a need to step away, and I think that sensitivity to the Spirit is the kind of thing we should value in our leaders. Leaders who move away from more power and influence should not be anomaly. We shouldn’t be shocked by this.
Too many well-meaning leaders have been crushed by the entrepreneurial, corporate-influenced model of pastoral leadership in America. Far, far too many church attending Christians have been burned by abusive leadership systems and toxic church cultures.
If we have this many prominent names leading double lives, deceiving their congregations and readers, and perpetrating horrible abuse to the most vulnerable, it’s time to start second-guessing our judgment when it comes to our spiritual leaders in the American church.
At the very least, we need leaders who show evidence of a deep inner life of prayer, a message of dependance on God rather than working toward specific moral outcomes, a capacity to recognize their limits, and a willingness to even give up the power and influence that is so readily given to them.
When a spiritual leader’s popularity and influence increases, so should our scrutiny and our caution toward them.