By Joel Rainey
The past 18 months have been shocking as the church in America has witnessed the fall of multiple faith leaders. Pastors, seminary professors, and other well-known evangelical personalities have publicly disqualified themselves from ministry on several fronts.
Some were exposed as abusers, and rightfully banned from vocational ministry. Others apostatized. Still, others were caught in financial impropriety or some other moral compromise that revealed their true nature.
The impact on the American church has been traumatic.
Other pastors around the country have responded to these revelations in a variety of ways, but the most common reaction I’ve witnessed is a healthy dose of fear and humility.
If the Bible’s message about human depravity teaches us anything, it warns that no one is exempt from a fall. All are capable of the sins that’ve turned our stomachs the past year.
If our fear helps us focus on that truth, then that fear is healthy, and we should thank God for it.
I tremble when I think of what’s happened. But what makes me tremble more are attitudes I see in myself that were also reflected in many who shipwrecked their faith, family, and ministry.
No one wakes up one morning after years of faithful ministry and decides to cheat on their spouse, steal money, or abuse their power. These things happen gradually, and they begin with ungodly attitudes we assume about ourselves and our ministries.
If we want to finish well and be faithful to the people God has given us to lead, there are five things we should never forget.
1. Ministry is a privilege, not a right.
I have a driver’s license in my hip pocket that allows me to operate an automobile. In my state, after a certain number of moving violations and “points,” I can lose that license because driving is a privilege.
Pastors are in a dangerous place when we presume we can “drive without a license.” Spiritual leaders who greet accountability with a sharp elbow invite themselves into eventual ruin and those they serve into trauma.
Each day, we should wake up and immediately thank the Lord for the responsibility He’s given us in ministry because that role isn’t inherently ours. It’s His to give—and to take away.
2. A great performance is no indicator of God’s blessing.
A former pastor I know well was a highly charismatic and visionary leader who was terminated for unrepentant pornography use. Later, examinations of his church-owned laptop revealed multiple pages of hardcore porn that was viewed minutes before he stood to preach his sermons.
One night, I was texting with another well-known leader who has been a close friend of mine. He was sharing his preaching schedule with me, which would span three continents over the next four weeks. Four days later, he resigned due to multiple affairs with women he should’ve been serving.
This immorality and abuse of power was happening at precisely the same time these men were wowing crowds. But a charismatic personality and the anointing of God aren’t the same thing.
When water gushed out of the rock at Meribah, the people of Israel only knew their thirst was quenched by yet another miracle of Moses.
They had no idea that seconds earlier, Moses had compromised the holiness of God and had, in the process, disqualified himself from being able to enter the Promised Land (Numbers 20:1-20).
Don’t fool yourself into thinking your force of personality can somehow cover your secret sin.
3. Appearance isn’t faithfulness.
Ten years ago, when I thought of the name Bill Cosby, I thought of Dr. Cliff Huxtable—the warm character he portrayed in the long-running TV series. Now, all I can think of are mug shots and multiple accusations of sexual assault.
The veneer of Dr. Huxtable now seems like a Jekyll and Hyde that was finally revealed to the world. The truth is, Cliff Huxtable doesn’t exist. He never did. Neither did his wife Claire.
There was no brownstone in Brooklyn. No five, well-adjusted children. No obstetrics practice. The whole thing was an empty shell. How things look isn’t always how things really are.
King David had a similar scenario. I’m not sure how long was the timeline between his abuse of power, sexual sin, and murder, and the moment Nathan pointed his finger in the face of the king.
But I do know it wouldn’t be hard for a king to make things look very different than they were. But no matter the resources at our disposal, a moment is coming when reality will crush the appearance we want everyone to see.
4. Everyone is replaceable.
One of the more remarkable passages in the Bible is Joshua 1:2. “Moses my servant is dead. Now you and all the people prepare to cross over the Jordan to the land I am giving the Israelites.”
For a man who’s still respected by Christians, Jews, and Muslims, that’s an awfully short eulogy! But Moses’ disobedience meant God took him out of the picture. This short verse reminds us our sovereign God isn’t phased, nor are His plans interrupted by our removal from the picture.
I wonder how many of the children of Israel would’ve thought Moses was essential to their blessing? I wonder how many pastors think the same of themselves?
How many times have I had the audacity to think, “No one can lead these people like me. No one can teach them what I can teach them. No one else can shepherd these souls as well as I can. They need me!”
I think I can hear Moses laughing hysterically from heaven.
The hard truth is Moses’ death wasn’t even a speed bump toward the execution of God’s mission for His people. If He can so easily replace Moses, then why would I arrogantly presume my ministry is somehow “too big to fail?”
5. Our secrets aren’t so secret.
Jesus said it best: “For nothing is concealed that won’t be revealed, and nothing hidden that won’t be made known and brought to light,” (Luke 8:17).
A friend of mine paraphrases this thought well. “Who you are when no one else is looking is precisely the person who’ll be revealed to the world as soon as God decides it’s time.”
One day, God will pull back the curtain on our character for the whole world to see. Take heed, lest you fall.
JOEL RAINEY (@joelrainey) is Lead Pastor of Covenant Church in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. He’s husband to Amy, father of three, serves on the adjunct faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, is the author of four books, and blogs at Themelios.