My goal in this series of blogs is for us to wake up and do what it takes in our own lives, families, churches, and ministries to confess and repent personally, as well as identify what is going on in our midst that fuels these things. If we can change things so that fewer Christian leaders fall, then there will be less need to talk about this! But neglecting to talk about it in a biblical and productive way has been one reason it’s happening far more.
It’s ironic to see commenters not wanting to deal with this issue cite Ephesians 5:3, which says, “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you.” What’s the actual meaning of this passage? It’s captured in the NIV: “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality” and the CSB: “But sexual immorality and any impurity or greed should not even be heard of among you.” Certainly, it does not mean “don’t talk about it,” but “don’t do it!” That’s obvious since Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5:1, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn?”
We’re told to “work out [NOT work for] your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). This is not God placing demands on us so we can prove our worth. Our salvation and sanctification are about the worth of Jesus, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
Our God loves us even when we fail, and that’s often when He reveals His love to us the most. “No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39, NLT). Jesus invites us, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). He says, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink” (John 7:37).
Jesus didn’t come to earth for righteous people but for sinners like you and me. He didn’t come to threaten us and make us dread Him, but to save us from threat and dread: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). He invites us to come back to Him again and again every time we fail and sin and hurt others.
Jesus was known derisively as a “friend of sinners,” but He was honored to wear that badge. Dane Ortlund says this in his book Gentle and Lowly:
You might know that Christ died and rose again on your behalf to rinse you clean of all your sin; but do you know his deepest heart for you? Do you live with an awareness not only of his atoning work for your sinfulness but also of his longing heart amid your sinfulness?
If you are living in sexual sin, whether you’re a Christian leader or a “regular” Christian, don’t despair. You can reach out to Him right now and confess and repent and with confidence say these inspired words to Him: “You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). It’s only if you do not confess and repent that you have reason for despair, for “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).
What did Jesus mean when He said to an adulterous woman, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11)? We know He didn’t mean He expected her to live a sinless life, since God says, “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves… If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar” (1 John 1:8,10). He meant “no longer live in sin.” He’s saying, “I have something far better for you.”
The problem when we react to the moral fall of a Christian leader by saying, “We’re all sinners,” is that it often means, “So what’s the big deal?”
Remembering the extremes and overstatements and legalism, many evangelicals now dismiss and ridicule “purity culture.” But in the process, we can end up ridiculing purity. Personally, I remember Christian students coming forward and committing themselves to pursue a life of purity. For some of them it meant a great deal and God used it in their lives. The problem with “purity culture” was that some turned it into a legalistic, rules-oriented self-righteousness in which people could boast, “I never kissed a girl until I married her.” (And in some cases, “I was so busy not kissing her that I never actually got to know her and discover whether we should really become life partners.”)
The problem with “purity culture,” however, was certainly not seeking to be pure! Sexual purity was God’s idea, not that of home-schooling parents: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). Today the baby of sexual purity is being thrown out with the bathwater of self-righteous rule-keeping that prompts us to congratulate ourselves while judging and condemning everyone else. So how about we throw out the latter as ugly but cling to the former as beautiful? That’s what I’m trying to do in these blogs. The idea is not just to refrain from the bad, but to embrace the good, God’s higher plan for us. God is the creator of sex, not Satan. He intended it for marriage. Right after saying “Flee from sexual immorality,” Paul says, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:19).
God tells us to honor marriage, which is the first reason for being pure, the second being that immorality will bring God’s judgment on our lives: “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Hebrews 13:4).
I have often seen men guilty of immorality move on directly to another church or ministry, or sometimes “sit out” for a year and then go on to lead elsewhere. The logic is, “We’re all sinners, God has forgiven him, and besides, he’s such a gifted leader and we really need him.”
Too often the gifted man’s sins in previous places are repeated the next place he goes. Why wouldn’t they be? And unthinkably, because churches often don’t talk with multiple leaders at his previous church (not just those he lists as references) they don’t even know about his history of sexual immorality, financial compromise, or patterns of anger and bullying. Why? Because they didn’t bother asking, asked only superficial questions, or failed to ask enough people.
In 1990 I wrote this in our ministry’s original documents:
Eternal Perspective Ministries belongs to Jesus Christ. We are privileged to be His servants (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). EPM will exist only as long as God wants it to. If it becomes evident that His purpose for EPM is finished, we will close our doors. The sun does not rise or set on this ministry. It is simply a tool at God’s disposal (2 Timothy 2:21), for Him to use how and however long He chooses.
The belief that we are indispensable is nonsense. To imagine that without a particular ministry, founder, director, or pastor the work of Jesus would be seriously impoverished is self-deception. People who worship Christian leaders do them as great a disservice as those who crucify them.
The celebrity culture of modern evangelicalism hasn’t only hurt churches; it has also hurt pastors and other Christian leaders. It has created a subculture in which some, thinking they are “God’s man,” come to believe they are above scrutiny and accountability. Some who began as sincere servants wishing to honor Christ and love others end as privileged, entitled, self-absorbed, and unaccountable scoundrels who imagine they are somehow above the moral standards that apply to regular people (such as “it’s God’s will that you abstain from sexual immorality”). Often people in churches and ministries have flattered such men and fed their wrong thinking and behaviors instead of speaking the truth in love and confronting them about their sin. When that happens, everyone suffers.
I met with a man who had been a prominent ministry leader until he committed immorality. I asked, “What could have been done to prevent this?” He paused only a moment, then said with haunting pain, “If only I had really known, really thought through what it would cost me, my family, ministry, and my Lord, I honestly believe I never would have done it.”
That’s when I got serious and specific about counting the cost in my own life. Thirty-five years ago my fellow pastor and friend Alan Hlavka and I each developed a list of the specific consequences we could think of that would result from our immorality. The lists spoke to us more powerfully than any sermon or article on the subject.
Periodically, especially when traveling or during times of temptation or weakness, we read through our lists. When we begin to think unclearly, reviewing the list yanked us back to reality. It cut through the fog of rationalization and filled our hearts with a healthy, motivating fear of God and the consequences of sin. (Being motivated by love for God is wonderful, but in Scripture the fear of God and of sin’s consequences are also legitimate motives.)
What follows is an edited version of our combined lists. I’ve included the actual names of my wife and daughters to emphasize the personal nature of this exercise. I recommend that you make your own list, adding consequences that would be uniquely yours. The idea, of course, is not to focus on sin, but on the consequences, thereby encouraging us to refocus on the Lord and take steps of wisdom to keep from falling.
I know some will think any list is legalistic. Like anything it can be, but in fact it is just heeding the warnings of God’s Word. “He who commits adultery lacks sense; he who does it destroys himself” (Proverbs 6:32). “Can a man walk on hot coals without his feet being scorched? So is he who sleeps with another man’s wife; no one who touches her will go unpunished” (Proverbs 6:28-29).
Here were some of the items on my list when I wrote it thirty-five years ago:
This is less than half of the items on my list. Today my daughters are grown, with children older than they were when I made the list. But the list of immorality’s consequences is longer for me than it’s ever been. I now have two sons-in-law and five grandchildren, and many dear friends and people in our church. Millions of people have read my books, and people have been reached through our ministry, so the circle of those I would be letting down has exponentially grown—which puts Satan’s target on me more than ever. I would be a fool to not heed Scripture’s warnings.
It would still break my heart to betray my Lord Jesus and my wonderful wife, daughters, and grandsons. That’s why I still try to avoid the little compromises that could lead to moral disaster. And why I still call upon God’s Spirit to empower my obedience. I genuinely love Jesus. And He’s the one who said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Because I love him, I will go out of my way to guard my purity. Because I believe His warnings about the consequences of sin, I will go out of my way to guard myself, my family, and our ministry from those consequences.
Of course, there’s nothing magic about making a list! But what if all the fallen Christian leaders of the past decades had made such a list and carried it with them? What if in moments of isolation and temptation they read it through? Might God have used that to help some of them dread sin’s immense price? Maybe it could have prompted some of them to reach out to God who could deliver and empower them? Or to reach out to brothers who could have helped avoid the sin or confess it and escape from its entanglements? Maybe counting the cost could have provided one more incentive the Holy Spirit could use to “put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24)
This is not about legalism or self-righteousness. This is about loving Jesus wholeheartedly, heeding God’s warnings, and warmly embracing our standing and resources in Christ to say yes to the new nature and no to the old.
There’s a particular curve on a road near our house where I regularly see a large cross put there by a family I know. It’s where their teenage son died in a car accident. Many times I’ve seen that cross and been warned “slow down and be careful.” Seeing it makes me instinctively put on the brakes. I wonder if contemplating that terrible thing that happened over twenty years ago may have kept a terrible thing from happening to me. If we would rehearse in advance the ugly consequences of immorality which we have seen in others or in ourselves, we would be far more likely to avoid it.
Because we don’t want to think about the moral tragedies in churches and ministries that have been going on decade after decade, we don’t. And they just keep happening. And they will keep on happening unless we take a hard look at them and learn the lessons God has for us. We are constantly dealing with people at the bottom of the cliff when we should have been doing far more to counteract the wrong thinking that that caused them to keep moving closer to the cliff when they were at the top.
What if we took seriously the accountability I’ve written about, and counting the cost of sin that I’ve addressed here? Couldn’t we develop a culture of happily depending on the Holy Spirit to empower us and commit ourselves to working together to pursue righteousness and avoid sin? Wouldn’t we then help more people to back away from the cliff and see fewer of us fall?
Truth without grace will accuse and shame people and fail to offer them the forgiveness and transformation of Jesus. Grace without truth will degenerate into deceitful indifference to sin, and increasing tolerance of it. Only grace and truth together, as manifested in the person and work of Jesus, can save churches and ministries from endless moral tragedies. It can and help us experience God’s best for us and the world we’re called to reach, so “that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15).
See the other blogs in this series: