A Lament for the American Church and Her Leaders

Everything that has ever been will come back again. Everything that has ever been done will be done again. Nothing is new on earth. -Ecclesiastes 1:9

Jerry Falwell, Jr. Bill Hybels. James MacDonald. Joshua Harris. Ted Haggard. Jimmy Swaggart. Jim and Tammy Bakker. Tullian Tchividjian (Billy Graham’s grandson). 

These are just a few of the more well-known, even celebrity type, evangelical Christian leaders who have fallen into scandal and disgrace in recent times. To be clear, this is not to say any of these leaders’ stories are or were over, but simply to note that each of these leaders had some major scandal exposed that they tried to keep secret. There are also of course many others, who have become so wedded to politics that they have destroyed their prophetic witness too.

But in the days of Swaggart and Bakker, these scandals shocked and rocked the Christian community. In recent years however, the shock is not as great as it once was. Instead, it is more of an attitude of “there goes another one” and “who will be next?”

What in the world is happening? What has become of the American church and her leaders?

On one level, I believe this is God’s purifying judgment on the church. All these leaders once spoke out against sin and immorality; while falling into temptation and discrepancy of morals (money, sex, power).

But they are icons that represent the sad state of God’s people. American Evangelicalism reeks of hypocrisy, politics, culture wars, shallowness, celebrity culture, and success defined by the American dream more than the Gospel of Jesus Christ and faithful obedience to him. Cleansing is needed. Soul-searching humility and godly repentance are sorely needed. Leadership, based on integrity, character, and purity of heart, not charisma, personality, and celebrity power is desperately needed.

On another level, there is nothing new under the sun. Scandal and disgrace have plagued humanity, and even God’s people and leaders for all of history. In Scripture, we see Adam blaming Eve and the devil to shift blame and responsibility. We see Samson, set apart unto God at birth, living a life of compromise. We see Noah’s son dishonoring his father after his father falls into drunkenness. We see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all succumbing to deceit and lies in certain situations. We find Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery out of a fit of jealousy and lying to their father about his fate. We find Eli, the high priest, not disciplining his immoral and unjust sons. We find even Samuel, a great man, and prophet, his sons, not walking in his ways. We watch as the very next generation after Joshua, forgets the Lord and falls into compromise with the idols of the nations around them in the book of Judges. We find David, a man after God’s own heart, giving into adultery, assassination, cover-up, and hypocrisy in a season of his life. We discover his descendants, the kings of Israel, struggling to remain faithful to the Lord or not doing what is right in God’s eyes. We find Israel; a people called to be a witness to the world, plunging into darkness and unrighteousness. It is a story of human tragedy.

This is nothing new. It is part of the biblical story and part of our history and legacy as God’s people. Even in each of our lives and families we have our own shame and scandal to one degree or another. It may not be as public as other leaders, but it is there. God’s people have not and do not always act like God’s people. The story of Scripture is not about the faithfulness of God’s people or even leaders, but God’s faithfulness and undeserved grace to his people, despite his people and leaders!

At the same time, this does not diminish our calling to be holy as He is holy. This reality of God’s faithfulness and grace does not remove our responsibility for purity and faithfulness. Jesus will have a pure bride. Jesus will cleanse his church. And Jesus will be glorified in, among, and through his people. 

After all, out of the ashes of failure and tragedy of sin, a perfect and pure Savior was born to save his people from their sin and shame. A Savior whose genealogy includes the messy lives of the people and leaders highlighted above. A Savior born in a way thought to be scandalous itself. A Savior who was sinless but was not immune to controversy. A Savior bloodied and beaten, crucified, and unfairly murdered by sinful man. A Savior who loved all perfectly but was not loved by all at all. A Savior despised and rejected by the very ones he came to set free.

These are embarrassing and sad days for the church of Jesus Christ in America. These are days we may look back upon with deep shame. But when that day comes, it may be what finally brings us to our knees in recognizing our need for the only one with power to save, heal, redeem, restore, and deliver. We need Jesus. Only Jesus.