When Leaders Fall, All Are Punished

The stories are as sad as any, and tragically too common. An effective, fruitful leader in the faith falls into some moral failure, disqualifying himself from leadership and devastating those who had followed him.

Reactions will range from confusion to disbelief to fury. Some will wonder how sin could capture the heart of someone God has used so powerfully in the church. Some will look for all the dirty details, secretly glad to see another gifted leader go down. Some will withdraw and rebel in disgust and anger, not willing to trust or submit to leadership in the church again.

Whatever else we feel and learn in the wake of the fall, we should see that the consequences of sin in leaders seep into the church, leading people astray — away from God and against him.

All Are Swallowed Up

The immorality of leaders has been a reality among God’s people for as long as God has had a people. The temptations for leaders are as real as they are for the rest of us, but the consequences are more severe. When a leader falls, all are punished.

Not punished for the pastor’s sin, but by his sin. It’s fair, then, to say they are punished because of his sin.

We see this reality, for instance, when God wields Assyria against Israel’s wickedness. God punished the nation, “for those who guide this people have been leading them astray, and those who are guided by them are swallowed up” (Isaiah 9:16). When Israel wandered, they were being led by the decisions and declarations of leaders, men who sacrificed the good of the people for their own personal benefit (Isaiah 10:2). They were more concerned about their reputation, their success, and their profit than they were for the safety, faith, and holiness of the men and women God had put under their care. And so the flock was “swallowed up,” swept up into the resistance and rebellion, into the pain and destruction of God’s hatred against sin.

Afflicter of the Fatherless, Punisher of Widows

“Therefore the Lord does not rejoice over their young men, and has no compassion on their fatherless and widows” (Isaiah 9:17). The influence of these leaders was so corrupt, so pervasive, that God removed his mercy and compassion even from the most fragile and vulnerable. God abandoned even the wives without husbands and the children without fathers.

“Leaders, keep the faces, the souls, and the eternities of your followers before you as you face temptation.”

That should take our breath away. God had said, “You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child” (Exodus 22:22). David had cried to God, “To you the helpless commits himself; you have been the helper of the fatherless” (Psalm 10:14). He is the “father of the fatherless and protector of widows” (Psalm 68:5). Yet Isaiah writes that this God, in the wake of corrupt leadership, “has no compassion on their fatherless and widows” (Isaiah 9:17). That is the consequence of sin in a community, especially when a leader falls, dragging his trusting followers down with him.

People are not punished for their pastor’s sin. But when a leader — a preacher, a teacher, a writer, a coach, a parent, a role model — lives and leads under the sway of unrepentant sin, inevitably some followers will follow him into sin. In Isaiah’s day, God withheld compassion from the widows, “for everyone is godless and an evildoer, and every mouth speaks folly” (Isaiah 9:17). The people were not punished for the pastor’s evil, but for their own. And how did they find their way into wickedness and away from God? “Those who guide this people have been leading them astray” (Isaiah 9:16).

Before the Fall

First, a word to leaders. Faithfulness, holiness, and purity are priorities and necessities for all believers in Jesus Christ, but especially for you. Whether you are a leader in your church, your small group, or your family, when you allow sin to live in you, it will infect those who respect, admire, and imitate you. You cannot quarantine yourself in your iniquity while you’re pouring yourself into others through sermons or counsel or influence. It’s like trying to filter the coffee back out of the water after it’s been brewed.

“Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16). Personally and in community — in specific, intimate, honest relationships with other men — persist in your pursuit of Christlikeness. Keep the faces, the souls, and the eternities of your followers before you as you face temptations to look, to indulge, to cheat, to sleep with someone else, to be lazy, to lie, to sin.

And finally, a word to followers: Treasure faithfulness, holiness, and purity in leadership. Pray for your pastor’s purity. Commend a leader’s character when you see it. Don’t take it for granted. Cultivate it among aspiring leaders — future pastors, elders, fathers, and mothers. Celebrate every kind of grace God gives — the grace that saves wretched, helpless sinners and the grace that slowly but surely makes them pure and whole again.

“Heaven is not thrown into crisis with a scandal, however shocking or hard the fall.”

The qualifications for church leadership (1 Timothy 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9) are not a scorecard for comparing pastors — not a way for filling out the back of a spiritual baseball card. The qualifications are the character-focused fences built by God to protect his precious sons and daughters. Qualifications do not nullify the gospel of grace. They commend grace wherever it grows, and they guard grace at work throughout the church.

When calling leaders, consider carefully if this man’s teaching and life declare and demonstrate the power, beauty, and purity of God — not perfectly, but tangibly and consistently.

The collapse of a leader’s ministry does not signal the collapse of Christ’s church. No, not even hell can prevail against her (Matthew 16:18). Heaven is not thrown into crisis with a scandal, however shocking or hard the fall. It is a sad and sober moment, though, for us to assess ourselves — our resolute dependence on God for the grace to live worthy of God (Philippians 2:12–13) — and to pray for the protection of his children in churches everywhere.