As you consider the title of this piece, the very first thing to consider is the possibility that they didn’t let you down at all. You just thought they did. When pondering whether or not someone up front is being a lousy leader, you should at least budget for the possibility that you were being a lousy follower. Considering yourself . . . (Gal. 6:1). There is that illustration of beams and motes and eye surgery to remember. So maybe the preacher isn’t putting hot food on the table the way he used to. Or maybe you just went on a hunger strike.
So with that noted at the front end, I still think we have to reckon with the fact that this last year has seen some massive failures in Christian leadership. I have interacted with many Christians who are beside themselves because of various kinds of leadership face plants. All over the country, numerous sheep are trying to figure out what to do about the dereliction exhibited by their shepherds. Numerous crises hit us during 2020, and that fancy house that had some real curb appeal but no foundation went down like a pup tent in a tornado (Matt. 7: 26-27). Or perhaps I should say went up like a pup tent in a tornado.
But I do want to emphasize that phrase various kinds of face plants. Many times the fact of a failure is obvious, and so we rush to assign blame, doing so from too great a distance. But in a church snarl, it is often the case that half of the participants don’t know what’s going on, and so we should at least reflect on the possibility that people who live 500 miles away, and who have read precisely half of one blog post about it, don’t know either.
Remember the verse that everyone should have tattooed on the inside of their eyelids.
“The first one to plead his cause seems right, until his neighbor comes and examines him.”
Prov. 18:17 (NKJV)
We have more than enough reason to say that things are terrible. All you have to do is look at the outcomes. But when it comes to assigning responsibility for the inputs, we need to be a lot more careful, for reasons I will get to shortly. When criticizing leaders in other locations, men who are across the country from you, it would be best to limit yourself to things that they themselves have written or said, or done out in broad daylight. They wrote it in a book, and you read it. They wrote it in a long form blog post, and you read it. You watched the video of that infamous speech they gave. But when it comes to watching the video, beware of the 30 second clips circulated by their enemies.
But suppose it is not like that. Suppose it is an association game. Why hasn’t he fired so and so, who three years ago spoke at a conference saying thus and such? That can be way more complicated. It is easy for accusative reasons to multiply online—e.g. to say that George Soros is paying him big money to not fire that guy, bwa ha ha ha. But it might be for the same reason David didn’t fire Joab. Or, to stretch your imaginative faculties, it might be the same reason that Jesus didn’t fire Peter.
A Water Polo Game in Which the Bottom of the Pool is Covered with Swimming Trunks
One time the Earl of Rochester wrote a bit of doggerel on the door of the king’s bedchamber, that king being Charles II.
Here lies our sovereign lord the king,
Whose word no man relies on;
He never says a foolish thing,
Nor ever does a wise one.
To which the king retorted that this was fair enough, for his words were his own, while his actions were those of his ministers.
When we are judging the leaders of churches, of denominations, of seminaries, of publishing houses, and so on, we can know that there is a problem, and we can know enough to say where the buck should stop. We can know how many points were scored in the water polo game, and for which team. But we do not yet know how many trunks are on the bottom of the pool. Or even whose trunks they are.
For example, say that a new book is put out by Erstwhile Christian Publishers, and the book is a real stinker. You have ascertained this fact yourself by getting the book and reading it, and then looking at the spine to see who published this particular waste of eyesight. “Badly done, ECP,” you think to yourself. So much you know. You can know that the book is bad, and you can know who is responsible for publishing it.
What you don’t know is who in particular is responsible. You don’t know who pushed the book, who tried to stop it but was out-voted, who is going to resign in three weeks, and so on. You don’t know that.
“Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls.”
Romans 14:4 (NKJV)
“Jesus saith unto him . . . what is that to thee? follow thou me.”
John 21:22 (KJV)
“‘Child,’ said the voice, ‘I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.'”
The Horse and His Boy
Let us say that we are looking at a large institution that is plainly exhibiting the signs of going woke. It is perilously easy to point the finger from a long way away, and say that everybody associated with that institution is therefore involved in a concerted effort to bring that about. But this is dangerously false.
It is true that I have heard from a lot of Christians who have lost their church homes because of leadership failure, and/or treachery. I know the stories. But it is also true that I have numerous connections with friends in positions of leadership in different beleaguered institutions, and I happen to know that they are grappling with questions like “how long do I stay and fight?” Some know the battle is lost, and for them it is a question of when, not whether. But others believe they have a good shot at reclaiming something valuable from the mess.
Be careful not to attack the last three guys defending the Alamo as “compromised.”
Messy Bible Characters
Scripture does give us a basic division between good guys and bad guys. This division extends to leaders. But beware of pronouncing a verdict too quickly, before you have anywhere near all the facts. And beware of simplistic analysis—bad guys can do good things, and good guys can do bad things. Below is just a small sampler.
Leaders can really go over to the other side, and can betray the cause, like Judas did (Matt. 27:3). Leaders can bluster and brag (Matt. 26:35), and then deny the Lord three times, like Peter did (Mark 14:72), and yet still be restored (John 22: 15-19). Leaders can lose their temper, like Moses did when he struck the rock instead of speaking to it (Num. 20:10-12). Leaders can be stuck with a problem they know they have to solve, but which they don’t have the strength or resources to solve, like David with Joab, which is why he left the task to Solomon (1 Kings 2:5-6 ). Leaders can fall into grotesque compromise, and then blame others, like Aaron did in the incident of the golden calf (Ex. 32:21-24). Leaders can disgrace their office, and David did in his sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11:4), and yet be retained (Ps. 51:11). Leaders can have a personal affection for the things of God, and yet be dismissed as one with evil policies, as we see with Joash and Elisha (2 Kings 13: 11, 14). A man can look like he occupies the most compromised position in the kingdom, and yet be doing heroic things for the kingdom, as Obadiah did from his position in Ahab’s cabinet (1 Kings 18:13).
The Great Evangelical Unraveling
In the United States today, there are numerous evangelical institutions and organizations, and all of them are under assault. I am talking about magazines, radio stations, web sites, publishing houses, seminaries, colleges, denominations, churches, parachurch organizations, and more. Many of them show clear signs of having been infiltrated by the apostles of various epistemic diseases. You are looking at the whole unfolding debacle, and you are wondering how Christians are supposed to pray over such a pig’s breakfast.
Unless you know for a fact, don’t assign categories to particular names, but in the meantime pray for the men who live in these categories. Pray that those who need to continue to stand fast would stand fast. Pray that those who have been confused would come to a repentant clarity. Pray that those who want to fire their Joabs would get the resources to fire their Joabs. Pray that those who have sinfully compromised because of cowardice would repent of their cowardice. Pray that those who should continue to play the long game would have stamina for that long game. Pray that those who should have gotten out yesterday would get out today. Pray that those who need to see the adversary more clearly would see the adversary more clearly.
And at some point, this particular series of battles will be over. You should pray that in the aftermath, your valuable relationships will still be intact, and your worthless relationships will be done.
Pray, in other words, that you would burn the right bridges, and not the wrong ones.