When Leaders Fall

By: Brian Harris

To be clear, this post isn’t a reaction to some new scandal and I’m not making any veiled references to some unsavoury incident soon to shock and dismay the Christian community.

It is true that there have been so many moral failures that we should be disturbed – but even if you immediately attach a name to what I am about to write, I am not thinking about any one person – just a disturbing trend that impacts us all, no matter which flavour of the Christian faith you adhere to. Come to think of it, it’s not simply Christians who are impacted, for when we talk about leaders falling, each day brings news of another scandal to tut tut over. Some delight in doing so (a worry in itself) – but the folly of feeling righteous because others clearly aren’t, is another topic.

Though I’ve titled this “when leaders fall” my focus is on when Christian leaders fall. It feels so much more devastating when someone has appeared to embody Christian ethics, but has then been found to be lacking – be it through abusing power, sexual failure, financial compromise or some other form of deceit or manipulation. We all know that no-one is immune, but it is still deeply unsettling when someone we trusted and looked up to turns out to have flaws beyond our imagining. For some it is more than unsettling – it can be faith destroying, especially if they have been through it more than once.

What is the Right Response?

So what can we say when leaders fall?

First, a little reminder from scripture is helpful. Take Matthew 23:8 “Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters.” Place any leader on a pedestal and scripture will ask you why.

There is only one who is our teacher – and that’s supposed to be Jesus. No, scripture is not suggesting you be disrespectful and suspicious of leaders, but it is urging you to keep things in perspective. The early Christians risked their lives because of their firm refusal to say “Caesar is Lord” – the “L” word was strictly reserved for Jesus. Later generations of Christians are not always as wise.

They may not say their leaders are Lord, but they often act as though they are. Celebratory culture is part of the naïveté of our age, and sadly Christians have sometimes fallen more gullibly for its temptations than their more cynical and jaded friends outside the church. A little test: Who are you calling “rabbi” – and why? Yes, be respectful of those who serve, think and lead well – but remember, we have only one Lord and teacher, and that’s Jesus.

Don’t Gloss it Over

Second, without being harsh or cruel, don’t gloss over what has happened. Never excuse the inexcusable. Yes, leadership is difficult and costly, and leaders face real pressures and temptations. Abusing power is usually the greatest, for most other failures flow from this.

Those who hold power can fool themselves that they are above the moral standards that hold for lesser mortals – but they are not. Paul’s question and insight in 1 Cor 9:16 applies equally to all who follow Jesus: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own…” Actually, James 3:1 informs us that those who teach (and I think it extends to those who lead) will be judged more strictly. The reason is simple enough. To those to whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:48).

When leaders excuse themselves because it was so much more difficult for them (“You have no idea the pressure I was under”), don’t be unkind, but do be firm. Leaders face many challenges – but they also have many privileges. To simply point to the downside of leadership without acknowledging the upside is sidestepping responsibility – and no one grows by avoiding responsibility for their actions.

A Chance to Look Inward

Third, while not glossing over what has happened, do look inward. Apparently in 1553 John Bradford, on seeing some criminals being led away to the gallows, coined the phrase “There but for the grace of God, go I.” It’s true.

Today it might be this fallen leader, and tomorrow, but for the grace of God, it might be me. Actually, in John Bradford’s case it worked out tragically, for two years later, Bradford, a Protestant living in a then Roman Catholic England, was executed for heresy. Life has many twists and turns. Humility, rather than self righteousness, is wise. Ephesians 4:1 records Paul pleading: “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”

A life worthy of the calling – that call might be a call to leadership (which as Graham Joseph Hill has notably commented is not so much a call to leadership as it is a call to “servantship”), but it is never less than a call to faithfully follow Jesus. I need to ask in what way my own journey is “worthy” of the calling I have received.

Examine the Culture

Fourth, ask if we have created systems that make it more likely for leaders to fail. When we place people on lofty pedestals because their talks motivate us or their singing inspires us, ask if we haven’t created systems that place the emphasis in the wrong place. Each time we go along with the system, we become a little more complicit in its continuance. Let’s create systems that require accountability.

Fifth, value the modest and the local. There are some wonderful things being done – but we know so little about those who are doing them. We have become a little too obsessed with the mega’s of the Christian world – the mega- churches and the mega pastors. But faith works its way out in local settings. Honour those who faithfully follow Jesus in your setting. Their name may not be known to many – but if it is known to you, affirm and encourage them. Instead of building a celebratory culture, let’s value, encourage and inspire each other.

Pray For Our Leaders!

Sixth, let’s pray for our leaders. Prayer is powerful. But prayer is not powerful because we say it is powerful – prayer is powerful when we actually pray. It will take you only a few more seconds to finish this post. Why not then pray for some Christian leaders you know?

What should you do if Christian leaders have let you down badly? Be angry – because it should not have happened. Righteous anger is righteous. And holding people accountable makes things safer for everyone – so if no accountability has been called for, see how it can be. And while being respectful and kind to others, don’t put people on pedestals, no matter how gifted they are. And lead a life worthy of Christ’s call on your life, and cultivate some local heroes and… Well, don’t give up. Keep looking to Jesus, who as the writer of Hebrew 12:2 reminds us, is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

And why not pray for leaders – perhaps now?


Article supplied with thanks to Brian Harris.

About the Author: Brian is a speaker, teacher, leader, writer, author and respected theologian who is founding director of the AVENIR Leadership Institute, fostering leaders who will make a positive impact on the world.

Feature image: Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash 

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