by Darren Plett
Why do strong Christian leaders fall into the trap of moral failure? How do I process this when it happens to someone I looked up to and respected? Is there anything I can do to avoid this trap in my own journey as a leader? Is there anything in our theology that can help us in this journey? And, how do I objectively process all this in a spirit of grace, without being critical and judgmental—because I certainly recognize that I am not without sin.
It is not my intent in this short article to give a comprehensive answer to these questions, but to encourage you as you process these and other related questions. I will make several statements and give a short explanation for each. This article is written in part as a response to the recent allegations of moral failure against Ravi Zacharias (RZ). It is not my intent to defame or judge him, but to make some objective observations using his ministry, his position and some of his statements as the back-drop.
We need to humbly stand for truth. Always. We need to take time to ensure that our sources are reliable and our information is balanced and accurate. As I read some of the articles surrounding the allegations against the late Ravi Zacharias, I was encouraged to hear that there was a commitment from the ministry that he founded to hire an independent investigator and to be fully transparent with the results of the investigation. After the release of the latest difficult report it appears as though the ministry is living up to this commitment. The temptation is high to cover up and whitewash our sins, or the sins of those we love and respect, but in God’s Kingdom “the truth will set [us] free.” We always need to take time to seek and stand for truth.
We all need to be part of a network of people. One comment that stood out from articles that I read, was that RZ regularly lamented, “I am lonely.” Nobody is designed to thrive in loneliness; it always leads toward vulnerability and poor choices. It is important to note that loneliness is often an inherent result of success. So, whether loneliness is a result of success (positive life circumstances) or a result of failure (negative life circumstances)—both are equally possible—the lonely individual becomes an easy target for the devil. God’s Kingdom is about authentic community and congregating with a group of people that know you well, love you regardless, and are willing to hold you accountable. Participating in and humbly submitting to a network like this creates a huge safety net.
We need to cultivate a culture of servant leadership. And, on the flip side, we need to challenge the modern view of leadership. Is it really true that a good leader must maintain a certain distance from those he leads? Does true Kingdom leadership need to focus on creating vision and rallying the troops, taking them to new heights? Is an insatiable drive to be bigger and stronger and better and more influential a necessary Kingdom leadership quality? In true servant leadership the direction of service is always toward the grassroots, not from the grassroots toward leadership. True Kingdom leadership serves and is accountable to the grassroots.
Christian leaders are never entitled. RZ lamented the toll that his ministry had taken on him and he allegedly used that as justification for some of his immoral requests. Leaders are servants in God’s Kingdom along with all fellow brothers and sisters. Be wary of leaders who somehow use their position, the degree of their sacrifices or the level of their influence to rationalize entitlement or sin.
Jesus is our Master and King and we are his disciples. It is hard for humanity to keep this firmly in mind. I cannot begin to imagine how many people, particularly more vulnerable ones, have become disillusioned and turned off by Christianity because of disappointment in a person. RZ was a strong leader and teacher but, along with all other humans, he did not deserve to have disciples. Only Jesus deserves that; only he can live up to the expectations that come with that. God’s Kingdom asks both lay people and pastors, leaders and teachers, to remember and practice this.
We need to accept a theology of small. For much of my life I chaffed at this truth. Kleinegemeinde (small group)…really? And we are good with that? My chaffing led to study and I have come to believe that, actually, “small” is a Kingdom principle. Study your Bible and be amazed at God’s emphasis on “small.” David was the youngest of Jesse’s eight sons but of the others God said, “do not consider his appearance or his height” (1 Samuel 16:6–13). Bethlehem was small among the towns of Judah, but “out of you will come for me one who will be ruler of Israel” (Micah 5:2). With five small loaves and two small fish, Jesus fed about 5,000 men (John 6:9–10). A poor widow put in two very small copper coins, and Jesus said that “[she] has put more into the treasury than all the others” (Mark 12:43). “Let the little children come to me…for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14). In response to the lamenting of the Israelites about the fact that the new temple was going to be smaller than their first temple, and that it was not going to be the same kind of power statement to the world around them, God replies in Zechariah 4:6, “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit.” And in v. 10, “Who dares despise the day of small things?”
Does God really need one man to fly back and forth around the world and preach? Can humanity handle that level of success and popularity? Does flying around the world making public appearances create a god out of a person? Is humanity wired to live up to this? Is it fair to say that God’s Kingdom is not a kingdom of earthly power, but a kingdom of millions of small acts of service?
Most of these statements challenge assumptions and principles that govern our world. God’s Kingdom, as described in the Bible, has been referred to as an Upside-Down Kingdom (Donald Kraybill). Leaders and lay people alike face the challenge to embrace and live out this description.
Darren Plett is an Associate Pastor of the Pleasant Valley EMC