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 my dear friend Jim Chew, who works with the Navigators, I pay attention. Two years ago he forwarded an email from his other Navigator friend, David Lyons, who was quoting yet another Navigator leader. The blessing and challenge of that email made such an impact on me that I’ve saved it to this day. The email said this,
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. God is slow to remove his hand on a man he has anointed. One day that man may sin, then experience God’s blessing. Then it happens again and again and he begins to believe that purity doesn’t matter. Eventually, he becomes like a tree rotting inside that is eventually toppled by a storm.”
When Accessibility Leads to Sin
With the advent of the Internet, Satan has overcome the greatest barrier to the effectiveness of one of his most potent weapons—accessibility. What in previous generations could only be obtained through complicated and stealthy means at a bookstore or through the help of older friends can now be accessed alone, unsupervised, free, and without limit. Satan’s isolated traps have now become a world filled with landmines, including in our very own homes. It’s almost like the de-Babelization of sexual sin, where the whole world is now connected for limitless exploitation and indulgence in sin. It is estimated that there are now over 500 million pages of pornography on the Internet.
According to the London School of Economics, ninety percent of children between the ages of eight and sixteen have seen pornographic images on the Internet—usually accessed unintentionally. According to a 2001 Christianity Today survey, as many as forty percent of pastors admit to visiting pornographic websites.
The severity of the challenge has been met with slow, but steady response from the Church and its leaders. Mention of pornography and sexual temptation is becoming less shocking and more prevalent from the pulpit and in small group discussions, at least among the younger generations.
There is still a long way to go for the Church and its leaders in being more transparent about such issues and in dealing with the most practical and sometimes shocking challenges facing Christians. There are literally hundreds of books now dealing with sexual sin. There is, however, a great need for more books in languages other than English and Spanish to help Christians in such struggles. There are Internet tools such as covenanteyes.com that help Christians in their struggles through technological accountability. If you currently struggle with such temptations, I encourage you to seek out help from trusted friends, mentors, and resources.
But what I want to address in this article is not the actual struggle with impurity itself that so many books already deal with; instead, I want to highlight what I think is even more dangerous than the struggles themselves. It is the danger raised in the “junk” email I got from my friend Jim. It is the danger of leaders learning “the possibility of being fruitful without being pure.”
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.” 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 and Christ-proclamation more than hypocrisy-revealing scandals leaving churches and ministries struggling for survival. There continues to be a regular flow of scandals in the global Church. 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 having homosexual trysts with a male escort. There are 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 and 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 and their church leadership early on? What if they had allowed the gospel to heal and cleanse in community and with 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.”
The difference between having tremendous credibility on a particular subject because of the honesty and humility of one’s own struggle (and a sharing of the power of the gospel in addressing such struggles) and having absolutely no credibility at all for having been caught in public hypocrisy and shame is in one sense ever so slight (although they could not be greater in their effects). Winning or losing such 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 Cleansing Us
The scary reality is that most of these seemingly spiritually 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 vital relationship to and properly desperate dependence upon 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 we must not take such amazing grace for granted, thinking that we therefore have a license to sin. We also must not forget that this dynamic remains true throughout our Christian life. God continues to build his kingdom despite us, despite our sin. Of course, there is a human element involved in the blessings of God. But even faith and obedience are gifts from God as we read in James 1:17: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” We serve an amazingly gracious God. He is a God who often works despite us, despite our sin. And this is the glorious gospel: we sin; he forgives; we sin; he fixes; we sin; he still works for our good. DESPITE, DESPITE, DESPITE us.
Let us not take such amazing grace for granted, thinking we therefore have a license to remain isolated and alone and unaccountable in sin and impurity simply because our ministry is seemingly blessed and fruitful. Let us not put the Lord our God to the test.
Preventing the Great Scandal
How can we respond to such tendencies in our hearts and prevent “earthly blessed” but “heavenly scandalous” ministry “success”?
- We must daily die to pride. I recommend to you a book by C.J. Mahaney called Humility: True Greatness.1 Last year, I took a five-day personal retreat and was very blessed in reading, meditating, and praying over this short book. 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 forms 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, in John 15:5, rebukes the pride in us that we can do anything apart from Christ. The glorious gospel dynamic is that apart from him we can do nothing, but through him we can do everything! Let us have properly 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 publicity 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, whether sexual or other, while you are young! 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. There is a proper process of church discipline for the benefit of God’s people that hopefully is exercised within your church. There may come a point where you should humbly submit to such a grace-giving process.
- 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.
A second “cardinal sin” of leadership that really is the subject of this entire article is mistaking “fruitfulness” for holiness. This is related to the first “cardinal sin” of leadership. We can often become easily enamored with the shininess and abundance of “fruit.” Perhaps that is part and parcel of being of the seed of Adam. “Successful” ministry is often equated with congregation size, growth rates, and media attention. These numeric indicators, however, can be very dangerous standards. 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 with properly desperate dependence upon Christ, and if we will simply return to the power and the beauty of the gospel, not only will the Lord bless with personal and ministerial fruit, 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.
1. 2005. Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA: Multnomah Publishers.