As I sift through a mountain of emails, I’ve learned to quickly dismiss forwarded “junk mail,” even if it’s from people I consider friends. At the same time I learn to recognize which email “clicks” might actually reap spiritual blessing. When I get an email from a particular dear friend who works with the Navigators, I pay attention. A few years ago he forwarded an email of a quote passed along by one his friends. The blessing and challenge of that email made such an impact on me that I’ve saved it to this day. The email read:
Years ago, I asked Jim Downing, one of the patriarchs of the Navigator work, “Why is it that so few men finish well?” His response was profound. He said, “They learn the possibility of being fruitful without being pure. . . they begin to believe that purity doesn’t matter. Eventually, they become like trees rotting inside that are eventually toppled by a storm.”
A Holy Life—or a Scandalous One?
A compelling expression of the mission of the Church found in the Lausanne Covenant is “the whole Church bringing the whole gospel to the whole world.” The gospel-transformed, grace-saturated, holy lives of Christians provide a powerfully compelling face to that mission.
There are few things that threaten such global witness more than hypocrisy-revealing scandals that leave local churches and ministries struggling for survival. And yet the scandals continue: On one side of the world a preacher fakes a fight with cancer to cover his shame in losing a battle with addiction to pornography. On the other side of the world a pastor who preached powerfully against homosexual immorality is revealed to have been leading a secret life of homosexual trysts with a male escort. There have been countless “successful” and “blessed” ministries rocked by scandal.
I can’t help think about the missed opportunities of both scandals. What if both leaders had been open and honest with their congregations and ministries? What if they had been the ones to reveal their weaknesses and sins rather than a television network? What if they had shared such struggles with other leaders earlier on? What if they had allowed the gospel to heal and cleanse in faithful community, loving church discipline, and accountability? What if, from the pulpit, the message was, “I say these things about the dangers of pornography (or the darkness of homosexuality) because I’ve been there. I’ve struggled through these things, and I’ve seen the power of the gospel to effect change.”
Winning or losing the heart battles over confession, repentance, and humility is the difference between those who end well and those who do not. Why hypocrisy often wins the day is, I believe, because leaders learn the possibility of being “fruitful” without being pure. There is, in some sense, the ability to maintain professional administration of ministry and even to see “fruitfulness” in such activities. This, in turn, can deceive one into thinking that confession of heart struggles and personal sins are in some sense unnecessary and mere distractions to ministerial progress.
Christ Cleanses Us
The scary reality is that most of these seemingly blessed and fruitful ministries led by morally compromising leaders will never be brought to light on earth. Many lives are “successfully” lived and many ministries are “successfully” operated apart from a vital relationship with and properly desperate dependence upon Jesus Christ. This is the great scandal of Christian leadership; this is what leaders should fear. The gospel message teaches us that God works and saves and loves and cleanses despite us, not because of us. That is true in salvation “in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). And this dynamic remains true throughout our Christian life. God continues to build his kingdom despite us, despite our sin, and yet through us by the power and grace that is ours through the work of Christ on the cross.
Let us not take such amazing grace for granted, thinking we have a license to remain isolated and unaccountable in sin simply because our ministry seems blessed and fruitful. Let us not put the Lord our God to the test.
How can we respond to the sinful tendencies in our hearts and persevere in purity?
- We must daily die to pride. I recommend to you C. J. Mahaney’s book Humility. One of his key points is that it’s not a question of whether we have pride or not but what our pride looks like. One subtle and dangerous form of pride that tempts leaders and threatens God’s kingdom work is the pride of thinking that we can actually do ministry apart from intimate relationship, fellowship, and dependence upon Christ. Jesus rebukes the pride in us that we can do anything apart from him (John 15:5). Let us live in desperate dependence upon Christ in our lives and ministries.
- We must confess our sins to God and one another. We, not Satan, should be the ones who expose our sin. James 5:16 reminds us of the power of confession and prayer: “Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” The greater the “fruit” and growth and public nature of your ministry, the more difficult such confession becomes. Therefore, I urge especially my fellow younger leaders around the world to deal with sin issues. Do this quickly and early. Seek out mentors who will pray for you, listen to you, rebuke you, and encourage you. Allow the Church to be the Church as Christ intended.
- We must diligently guard against two “cardinal sins” of leadership. The first is mistaking giftedness for spiritual maturity. Too many young people have been thrust into leadership and responsibility too quickly and without proper supervision and guidance. Leaders tend to be overly eager to give responsibility and authority to young people because almost every ministry has numerous needs and positions to fill. But giftedness must not be mistaken for maturity. And giftedness alone without spiritual maturity can oftentimes do more long-term damage to a ministry after short-terms “gains” fade away.
The second “cardinal sin” of leadership is mistaking “fruitfulness” for holiness. We can often become easily enamored with the shininess and abundance of “fruit.” “Successful” ministry is not measured by numeric indicators. When Christ addresses the seven churches in Revelation, does he commend the larger churches and rebuke the smaller? Does he compare growth rates and highlight numbers? No. Instead, he hits at the heart of character, faith, endurance, compromise, idolatry, and immorality.
If we leaders of the Church will humble ourselves before God and before his people, if we will give proper focus and attention to our purity and holiness, if we will understand and live our lives and do our ministries in desperate dependence upon Christ, and if we will simply return to the power and the beauty of the gospel, not only will the Lord grant fruit, but it will be fruit that will endure and bring his name great glory for eternity. Let’s live and end well for that great name.