The fall from grace of Christian leaders always shocks us. When people we have looked up to are discovered to have had affairs or engaged in abusive behaviour or illicit sexual conduct, it’s easy to become disillusioned. Some disheartened believers even abandon their faith altogether as a result. Many become angry because trust has been broken. In these cases, it turns out that the image that one’s leader has presented to the world – of a wise and godly man or woman of God – has been a sham. All the while they have been preaching their shining message of truth, they have been living grubby lives of sin and deception. A number of recent examples come to mind, but it would not be helpful to dredge them up.
I understand why people get disillusioned and angry when the hypocrisy of their Christian leaders is uncovered.
Of course, the answer is that we shouldn’t be placing our faith in fallible human leaders in the first place, but should be looking to Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith. We know this, but it’s difficult not to place our leaders on a pedestal. We seem to have an inbuilt desire to view our leaders as saints – as people whose sanctified feet barely touch the soiled ground of our world and whose weekly sermons are emailed to them directly from heaven.
The temptation to glorify our leaders has always been there. Even in the first century, the Apostle Paul had to remind his readers, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15). He was effectively saying, “Please don’t put me on a pedestal. I am a sinner in constant need of Christ’s forgiveness, just like you.”
Having said that, I think the modern church has ‘pedestaled its pastors’ more than any other previous church age. We live in the era of the megachurch, the super pastor and the ‘rock-star’ worship leader. The internet has allowed some preachers to become superstars. And even those preachers, pastors and worship leaders who have not climbed to such dizzying heights are subtly influenced by these models. So are their congregations. People are drawn to superstar preachers. They sit at their feet in awe and lap up their prognostications as if they are hearing from God himself. Which makes the occasional fall from grace so devastatingly painful when it comes.
I remember a conversation I had with a fellow theological student when I was in College 37 years ago (Ouch! That long ago?). Even back then we were discussing the adoration that was increasingly being heaped upon superstar pastors and the growing temptation for pastors to become proud and have an over-inflated sense of their own importance. I remember saying to my friend, “When we get to heaven, it could well turn out that the greatest saints of God in the world today are people we’ve never heard about; grey-haired elderly ladies who pray for hours every day and pastors of tiny churches in remote places who are serving God faithfully.”
I still believe that. I really do.
The superstar pastors of our world are rewarded every day via the adulation they receive, and it must be incredibly difficult for them to remain humble. But those who are greatest in the kingdom of Heaven are evaluated against a very different set of criteria to that which the world uses. They are evaluated by the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Similarly, Jesus said, “Whoever humbles himself like a little child will be greatest in the kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 18:4)
I love the topsy-turvy values of God’s Kingdom! God is not impressed with superstars; He is looking for humble servants who will serve him faithfully and live gracious, godly lives.
I recently read an article called, The Problem with Pedestals, in Premier Christianity magazine, by freelance journalist, Heather Tomlinson. In it, she recounts an interview she did with Jackie Pullinger. I’ll let her describe it in her own words:
“I vividly recall interviewing Jackie Pullinger for this magazine. She is understandably considered a Christian heroine due to an amazing ministry to Hong Kong’s drug addicts. She also wrote the bestselling book Chasing the Dragon (Hodder & Stoughton). I observed that Pullinger’s behaviour at a Christian conference was very different from many Christian ‘celebs’ I’d come across. She did no hob-nobbing with the pastors and Christian leaders, preferring to stay with the recovering addicts she’d brought with her. She was trying her best to avoid being interviewed and photographed by me. When I finally cornered her and dragged her in front of my dictaphone, she was reluctant, and only warmed up when I raised the issue of her celebrity status, which she described as “very” difficult. ‘It’s anti the gospel,’ she said. ‘The more you put one person on a pedestal, the more people think there’s a special anointing or something, which is not true, and it actually makes the Church go backwards and not forwards. We’re not going to reach the ends of the earth if we’re relying on a few specially anointed or gifted people. The good news is that the job was given to every ordinary, weak kind of person.’ She warned about the lure of being on a stage at such events, and its effects. Perhaps this is one subject that celebrities can justifiably speak about with authority – the danger of fame. It’s something they have good experience of, and I think it’s wise to listen to them”
Jackie Pullinger embodies what it means to serve God faithfully and humbly. Those who are greatest in God’s Kingdom don’t seek the limelight. They don’t try to hob-nob with celebrities. They don’t spend time on self-promotion. They just go about their ministry humbly and faithfully.
Eddie Arthur, the former head of Wycliffe Bible Translators, recently candidly wrote of his difficult transition from his position of leadership when he retired. In his blog, he confessed how difficult he found it when he stepped down from his leadership role, only then realising how much of his self-identity had been tied up in his position. He writes:
“The loss of status was horrible. Leadership is insidious and it is dangerous. I didn’t realise how important my role, influence and title were to me until I stepped down…At this distance, I can see that it would have been all too easy to see myself as being more important than I am and to believe that normal rules didn’t apply to me. I can understand why leaders fall and I can see why those responsible for monitoring them allow it to happen.”
We need to beware of putting our Christian leaders on pedestals.
It’s not good for them, and it’s not good for God’s Kingdom.
If you found this article helpful, you might also like my book, “The Little Book of Church Leadership”, available from all major online book retailers.