It’s not easy when people you look up to are found to be less than perfect.
I’m a Christian, and have been involved in the work of the church for my whole life. I experienced “hero disappointment” around Bill Hybels from Willow Creek Community Church last year. I visited Willow Creek as a twenty year old. He has challenged and inspired me for over 25 years. Yet last year, he went into sudden retirement amidst a (still growing) realisation that he regularly abused his position of power and authority. Some of those closest to him are reportedly still coming to terms with their bad experiences of Bill.
When you are hit by these sorts of revelations, you go into a kind of grief cycle. There’s shock followed by anger and bargaining. But – you do eventually come to accept it. When public Christian leaders fall – this sort of grief will be known by people inside and even outside of Christianity.
I know people who may be similarly affected by the news of Hillsong Church leader Marty Sampson this week.
The question is – how should we speak about a fallen Christian leader in the midst of the fallout? Well – the New Testament goes into some detail on how to treat conflict in the church, and how discipline must be handled in the church.
That’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m asking how we should WE speak about public figures who have suddenly brought the Christian church into disrepute?
Well – I think there is good evidence to suggest the authentic Christian answer is – “respectfully.”
Why do I say that? Consider the following.
Do you feel hurt and betrayed by this leader who has fallen?
Perhaps we feel we have somehow been mistreated by them … or feel outraged that the church has in some way been mistreated? Well – if we hang onto these feelings, they can undermine us. That’s why Jesus spoke directly to this problem:
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
They are another human being, as well as a fallen Christian leader. So – Jesus’ command is relevant. And – it is important for our health too. This is one reason being a Christian makes sense – it’s about making healthy life choices like – choosing to love and forgive those who hurt us. Even if it takes us time to do so.
Is your belief in Christianity is being challenged by this painful situation?
This can happen for some people. When our leader suddenly fall off the path, we can find ourselves wondering whether we’ve wasted our time in following them. Some may ask, “Is Christianity still true? Even when the Christian leader I idolized has gone?“
Well – idolizing other people is always going to be a problem. So we need to adjust our attitude. Only one person is not going to let you down. And that’s Jesus. Other people – in my experience – will let us down regularly.
But there’s another issue here. Maybe this fallen leader’s life poses a question to us – “Do I still believe that Christianity is true?” How should we respond? Sometimes, it isn’t a person’s words that challenge our beliefs. It is often how other Christian people treat us that leave us wondering, “Do I still believe? Even in the face of this nightmare?”
The Bible says:
“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
We must look to the foundations we have with Christ first, not any church or church leader. Revere Christ as Lord, it says. We need a strong foundation with someone who won’t disappoint you. That’s going to be Jesus and no one else. Christianity is still true cos Jesus is still Jesus.
While standing on this firm foundation, how do we speak about the fallen leader who has challenged our Christian belief by their actions? We must speak words of confident Christian convictions with gentleness and respect. The only way you can do this, is by having firm foundations in your life on Christ.
By the way – the Jesus who is the foundation for gentleness and respect – is also the Jesus who forgives us when we confess we have not lived this way. His forgiveness is available.
Do you simply feel contempt for this fallen leader?
In that case, I think we need to reflect on the fact that Jesus was always for those who were the outcasts in society. And – he had harsh and challenging words for those who shunned them. Particularly those in the religious establishment. The church does not belong to us. It belongs to Jesus. It’s ultimately his responsibility to deal with situations like this one.
Surely that’s worth reflecting on?
Surely it’s better to aim to speak about people who have disappointed you – with gentleness and respect?
 For example, Matthew 18.
 Luke 6:27-28, NIV.
 1 Peter 3:15, NIV.