The alarm bell is ringing, do you hear it?  Widespread and much-publicized moral and ethical failures among Christ’s servants shame His church.  Major denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention[1] have recently been plagued by scandal.  Last year the Houston Chronicle released a six-part story documenting the abuse of 700 people attending SBC churches over 20 years.  The lead lines in the series read, “As leaders decline to act, the numbers grow.  They were pastors. Deacons. Ministers. Youth pastors. Sunday school and Christian school teachers. They left behind more than 700 victims.”[2] The abuse reached even into the church of the current SBC president.[3]

Leaders of prominent centers training the church leaders of the future fall short of the moral and ethical standards necessary to display the character of Christ in the world.  Cedarville College was embroiled in controversy when it was made known that it had added to its faculty a known sex offender.[4]  The president of the school, Thomas White, was investigated and reinstated “despite an investigation’s conclusion that White obscured the nature of a professor’s sexual misconduct and withheld this information from the board.”  His reinstatement after the findings of cover-up prompted the resignation of two of the school’s trustees.[5]  The tawdry behavior of Liberty University’s president Jerry Falwell was exposed when photos and videos of his crude conduct were posted on the internet.[6]

Prominent megachurch pastors such as Bill Hybels[7] and Carl Lentz[8] have recently been exposed as adulterers. Well-known Christian evangelist and apologist Ravi Zacharias has been exposed as s rapist and as a man who used his Christian faith to manipulate and exploit women.[9]

In an environment where titillating and sensational news travels quickly, these failures have hampered the cause of Christ.  Social media puts the reaction of the world on display.  Comments such as “Anyone who says this is not a reason to completely throw out all organized religion is gaslighting you”, “The problem with Christianity is, wait for it, CHRISTIANITY”, and “The underlying problems is that Christianity is a false religion with an absurd, “Holy” Bible scripture containing thousands of contradictions and errors. Resulting in a false narrative, not written by eyewitnesses, written 50 to 90 years after the death of Christ. Spirituality comes not from a corrupted so-called “Holy” Book, but from within yourself.”[10]

How can we account for such a great gulf between profession and practice?  How can we make sense of servants of Christ who fail morally and ethically?  In my view, the fundamental problem is that there has been a separation made between what a leader does and who a leader is.  Technique has been separated from character.  Sociologist Jacques Ellul rang an alarm bell decades ago in The New Demons.  Technique, said Ellul, has become “the sacred”. [11]  From this flows a morality.  In To Will & To Do Ellul warned that it is a morality of behavior, not of intentions. [12]  A morality focused only on external conduct and its outcomes.  This is the kind of morality that values the ability of an apologist over their holiness.  This is the morality that embraces an able university administrator but neglects their reaction to sexual sin.  It is the morality that reinstates an elder who has fallen to sexual sin, putting the reputation and spiritual safety of the local church at risk.  I am not implying that the skills of ministry are not required of Christ’s servants.  Far from it.  What I am saying is that when ministry skills and godly character are combined the result is excellence and righteousness.  Disaster comes when they are separated.

Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil once said, “All politics is local”.  Likewise, all church is local.  By this I mean that the effect of what happens nationally or internationally ultimately and inevitably lands on the pulpit and pew.  The local church bears the brunt of these scandals.  The members of local churches are left with the task of explaining to their local community how men and women who profess faith in Christ could be allowed to continue in ministry.  Without clarity regarding what the Bible requires coming from the pulpit, the person in the pew is left without answers and in confusion.  Should they dismiss the private failures of their pastor if the church is growing?  Should they embrace the public ministry of a gifted preacher or teacher and overlook their private temper tantrums, impatience with congregants, slothful work habits, and questionable doctrine?  Should a pastor, elder, or teacher be restored to leadership if they have been found guilty of sexual abuse or adultery and then repented?  John MacArthur comments, 

Surely one of the tragic disasters of American evangelicalism in our generation is the ease with which a man can be restored to leadership after spiritually and morally disqualifying himself. It is not at all uncommon for Christian leaders to scandalize the church through gross moral failure, then step back into leadership almost before the publicity dies away. This is a fatal compromise of the biblical standard. It is one of the most pernicious results of modern pragmatism.

Am I saying there should be no restoration for a leader who fails morally and genuinely repents? Certainly, there should be restoration to fellowship, but not to the role of an elder or pastor. Churches cannot abandon biblical standards to accommodate their leaders’ sin. [13]

The spiritual health, welfare, and testimony of the local church are at stake.  The prophets of Israel warned that judgment would fall on people and priests alike if they went astray (Isa. 24:2, Hos. 4:9).  Likewise, John warned the church that if ungodliness in doctrine or actions were tolerated then the church would be disciplined.  He wrote, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works” (2 Jn 10-11).  With the sanctification of Christ’s people at stake is it any wonder that Paul, speaking to the elders of the church in Ephesus warned with tears, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” (Ac 20:29–30) 

Not only is there confusion in the pulpit and pew but contempt in the city.  Church leaders who fail their congregation bring them into disrepute in their local communities.  This is why Christ calls those who aspire to leadership in the local church to be “above reproach”.  Thomas Constable comments that this means he, “should possess no obvious flaw in his character or conduct. There should be no cause for justifiable criticism now or in his past (cf. v. 10) that anyone could use to discredit him and bring reproach on the name of Christ and the church.”[14]  Similarly Alexander Strauch comments,

The church’s evangelistic credibility and witness is tied to the moral reputation of its leaders…. If a pastor elder has a reputation among nonbelievers as a dishonest businessman, womanizer, or adulterer, the unbelieving community will take special note of his hypocrisy. NonChristians [sic] will say, “He acts that way, and he’s a church elder!” They will ridicule and mock him. They will scoff at the people of God. They will talk about him and will generate plenty of sinister gossip. They will raise tough, embarrassing questions. He will be discredited as a Christian leader and suffer disgrace and insults. His influence for good will be ruined and he will endanger the church’s evangelistic mission. The elder will certainly become a liability to the church, not a spiritual asset.[15]

The alarm bell is ringing because the danger is high, the stakes are great.  Both Christ’s witness in the world and the sanctification of His people call for servants whose character is “above reproach” (1 Tim. 3:2, Titus 1:6, 7).  My prayer is that God’s people will hear this call to action.  We must strive for moral excellence in ourselves and expect it from our leaders.  We must yield our minds, emotions, and will to the Father who reveals His mind and opens His mouth to us in the pages of his inspired, inerrant, infallible, and all-sufficient word.

Over the next few weeks I will be exploring the character that Christ calls for in His servants. May this study prompt you to self-watch[16], the guarding of your soul.  May it prompt you to overwatch[17], the protection of those who aspire to be Christ’s servants and the safeguarding of His church.


[1] My intention is not to single out the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) as the most egregious example.  Reformed, charismatic, and Pentecostal denominations are also rife with appalling examples of ethical and moral failure.  The influence of the SBC is pervasive even among non-Southern Baptists.  It is the largest Baptist denomination, and the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.  At last report there are over 47,500 SBC congregations, more than 14 million members and weekly attendance at SBC churches tops 5 million.

[2] Robert Downen, Lise Olsen, John Tedesco, Houston Chronicle, “Abuse of Faith”, accessed February 19, 2021, https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/investigations/article/Southern-Baptist-sexual-abuse-spreads-as-leaders-13588038.php

[3] Leonardo Blair, The Christian Post, “JD Greear’s Summit Church To Review Hiring of Pastor Accused of Mishandling Past Sex Crime Allegations”, accessed February 18, 2021, https://www.christianpost.com/news/jd-greears-church-to-review-hiring-pastor-bryan-loritts.html

[4] Julie Roys, “Cedarville U Fires Professor With History of Admitted Sexual Abuse”, accessed February 19, 2021, https://julieroys.com/cedarville-u-fires-professor-with-history-of-admitted-sexual-abuse/

[5] Julie Roys, The Roys Report,  “Cedarville Reinstates President White; Trustees Akin & Vroegop Resign”, https://julieroys.com/cedarville-reinstates-president-white-two-trustees-resign/

[6] Melissa Barnhard, Christian Post, “Jerry Falwell Jr. Agrees to Take ‘Indefinite Leave of Absence’ From Liberty U After Posting Unzipped Pants Photo”, accessed February 19, 2021, https://www.christianpost.com/news/jerry-falwell-jr-agrees-to-take-an-indefinite-leave-of-absence-from-liberty-u-after-unzipped-pants-photo.html  He subsequently resigned with a reported severance package of $10.5 million.  Julie Roys, The Roys Report, “Trailer Park Boys Video Reveals Raunchy Falwell Family Culture With Many Ties to Liberty U”, accessed February 19, 2021, https://julieroys.com/video-raunchy-falwell/

[7] Leonardo Blair, The Christian Post, “Bill Hybels Resigns From Willow Creek Church Amid Misconduct Allegations”, accessed February 19, 2021, https://www.christianpost.com/news/bill-hybels-resigns-from-willow-creek-church-amid-misconduct-allegations.html

[8] Leanne Italie, Associated Press, “Megachurch Pastor Carl Lentz Fired, Admits Cheating on Wife”, accessed February 19, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/carl-lentz-fired-hillsong-cheats-on-wife-d1b5930e115c285f8caaecaf4a690c75

[9] Hannah Frishberg, The New York Post, “Evangelist Ravi Zacharias Accused of Rape, Spiritual Abuse By Own Church”, accessed February 19, 2021,  https://nypost.com/2021/02/12/evangelist-ravi-zacharias-accused-of-rape-spiritual-abuse/ and Lynsey M. Barron, William P. Eiselstein, “Report of Independent Investigation into Sexual Misconduct of Ravi Zacharias”, accessed February 21, 2021, https://s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/rzimmedia.rzim.org/assets/downloads/Report-of-Investigation.pdf

[10] These reactions were from a YouTube video concerning Ravi Zacharias but are representative of reactions to other scandals plaguing the church and parachurch ministries. Accessed February 19, 2021,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-kgz1DSHos

[11] Jacques Ellul, The New Demons (New York NY: The Seabury Press, 1975), 82

[12] Jacques Ellul, To Will & To Do: An Introduction to Christian Ethics (Eugene OR: Cascade Books, 2020) 1:174-175

[13] John F. MacArthur Jr., Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes like the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), 182–183.

[14] Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), 1 Ti 3:2.

[15] Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership (Littleton, CO: Lewis and Roth Publishers, 1995), 202.

[16] Matthew R. St. John, “Augustine’s Self-Watch: A Model for Pastoral Leadership,” Bibliotheca Sacra 155 (1998): 92.

[17] Bounding overwatch is a military technique where groups of soldiers alternate forward movement to provide support to each other in a potentially hostile environment.  This sort of mutual protection is called for among Christ’s servants.

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