When leaders let us down
Nigel Ajay Kumar
This article and thought process have been triggered by a recent article published by respected magazine – Christianity Today – that raised sexual harassment allegations against a celebrated Christian leader and teacher. In the weeks prior to that, non-Christian / mainstream news-agencies had already started reporting on the incident.
We’d like for you to understand that we are not taking sides – nor are we saying the reports are true / false. The investigation needs to take its course. However, we do believe that many will need some help processing this already – and this article itself is based on multiple conversations and inputs from a close group of friends.
Plus, a leader being called out for misconduct is NOT new. It’s as old as Biblical times. It could even happen again. So with a heavy heart, a sense of our own fallibility, and out of a sense of responsibility towards our younger, fellow Believers in Jesus, we’re putting this out, structured in two distinct parts:
PART A: An understanding of our responses.
PART B: Actions that we could collectively take.
While no one is saying that we should believe everything we read, the Christianity Today article does seem well-researched and compassionate towards all parties involved. But the fact remains that even if the reports turn out to be true, as Christians our initial shock and sadness may very soon slip into disillusioned acceptance where we might simply shake our heads and say “Oh, this is another example of a fallen leader.” We will move on.
The reasons for our under-stated reactions are numerous.
Possible reason 1
The most obvious would be our undue reverence for our leaders. As Christians we are taught to respect our leaders. And as Indian Christians we are taught that our leaders are the very instruments of God. It is hard to question such leaders. It is hard to believe that they could have done anything so grossly wrong. It’s impossible! “The accusers have an agenda, they just want to malign Christianity,” “Let’s all cancel our Christianity Today subscriptions.” However, even if it is proved that a leader did something wrong, most of us will also be quick to justify him. “He was only human,” “everyone has weaknesses,” “God still used him mightily.” Life will go on.
Possible reason 2
Another reason for our shift from initial shock to eerie silence when hearing about possible infractions would be our resistance to talk about people who have passed away. Somehow, we (Indians) believe that it is wrong to speak ill about the dead. We feel any criticism of a dead person is disrespectful, or ill-advised. Partly it could be from our Hindu heritage that carries forward a desire to treat the dead with honour, but it could also be because we feel the person cannot defend themselves, or that there is no point since the “problem” is over. This, despite the Bible being replete with critical stories about dead people, from Judah to Jezebel to Judas.
Possible reason 3
A third reason for our muteness is patriarchy. When we hear a report about abuse against a woman, we believe that the woman, claiming to be the victim, is somehow (also) at fault. We have seen this happen in our culture when there is a rape victim. Society is quick to ask, “Why was she alone?” “What was she wearing?” “Why did she not fight back?” But even for “milder” cases of workplace sexual harassment, it is hard for society to trust the female victims’ witness and often the burden of proof is left to the woman alone. Ultimately, even if the victim is vindicated, proved right, she may be scarred for life and stigmatized by the very society that should have protected her. No wonder that women hesitate to come forward publicly against sexual abuse.
Possible reason 4
A fourth, more “spiritual” reason for our limited outrage is our traditional Christian doctrine of sin; “all men are sinners.” We are quick to accept that even Christian leaders are sinners. So, when we hear about an “infraction” (or two), we quickly accept sin without crisis, saying that it is normal that people sin; it is “only human.” We also offer basic solutions such as, “we must not put leaders up on a pedestal,” “we must be realistic in our expectations of leaders,” and “we must urge our leaders to be more accountable.” Case closed.
Possible reason 5
And finally, our shock or outrage is doused very quickly because we are reminded of our own personal sin. “Before trying to throw the first stone, look at your own sin,” we are reminded. “When trying to take the splinter out of another eye, let us take the log out of our own eye,” we tell ourselves. On a personal note, I myself shudder, when I read that article, to think what may be exposed if my life was put under a scanner. I am ashamed of my past, and that shame leads me to be defensive and quick to understand the failings of others, and also quick to forgive, hoping that I too would be quickly forgiven if I was exposed.
Learnings from Jesus
So, sure. These explain why most of us Christians are not able to convert our initial shock of hearing about the moral failure of respected Christian leaders, into sustained holy action. But we’re talking about leaders here, and more importantly, we’re talking about abuse. I would like to suggest that there is a difference between misappropriation of funds or an internet addiction to actually causing trauma to another human being. And the call to sustained action is urgent.
Now I understand that all sin is sin. Jesus reminds his disciples that even looking at another woman lustfully is adultery. Even hate, is akin to murder. Jesus shows how God sees the heart, not just the actions, so even if there was no visible sin, the hidden sin is just as sinful in God’s eyes.
However, to use this idea to suggest that all oppression is equally sinful as pride or lust or greed misrepresents the intent of what Jesus was saying. When talking about the hidden sins being equal to visible sins, Jesus was challenging hypocrites who were good on the outside, but bad on the inside. But, Jesus also challenges the leaders for being bad on the outside. The classic passage that can be used to show this is Luke 17:1-2: Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”
A little more strongly in Matthew 18:6-7: …but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!..
Jesus’ radical words must be understood in the context of the Old Testament which similarly calls for justice for widows, orphans and aliens, basically a shortcut phrase for the vulnerable ones; those who are weak and need to be protected. The Old Testament defines sin not only in spiritual terms but in the way that sin is expressed through injustice, oppression and failure to do what is right. See Deuteronomy 27:19: “Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan, and widow.” And all the people shall say, “Amen.”
See how harshly Jesus speaks against those who cause the “little ones”, the weak ones, to stumble. Imagine now what Jesus would say to those leaders who abuse a child or those who abuse defenseless women. Added to this, there are several passages in the Bible that hold leaders accountable; where “those who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). And so, we can certainly assume that, if a person in power takes advantage of the weak and helpless, that will be abhorrent to the Lord, and yes, even one of the worst kinds of sin.
The role of Forgiveness
But please don’t get me wrong. This does not mean that God cannot forgive the worst kinds of sins. Because of what Jesus did on the cross, even a murderer or a rapist can be forgiven. But these acts of murder, rape, abuse, should not be considered simply as normal expressions of our fallen nature. There are several people who are fallen, who do not murder. There are several people who are sexually impure, but who do not rape. There are several people in power who struggle with lust, but who do not use their power to put other people in uncomfortable positions.
The shock of sin
If a leader, or a person in power, moves to these extremes, the Church must be outraged and spurred into action. And sure, we can appeal to God for forgiveness, but the shock of sin must not be lost. And that’s the point! We must reserve the right to be shocked at the gross violations of trust by our leaders, and that shock must lead to the burning desire to change. We’re not talking here about pride, lust, greed, gluttony etc, but the exploitation of the weak, the misuse of power to traumatise another human being. It’s one of those differentiators that needs to be exposed. While we know theologically there may be no gradient in sin, we must be very careful NOT to pass-off the sins of leaders who abuse the weak. And I don’t mean just women, but children, vulnerable men, the poor, all can be victims.
So, once the shock/outrage is felt, then must come the need to act.
PART B: Actions that we could collectively take.
I suggest five actions that flow from “holy shock/outrage”.
Firstly, we need to develop a robust theology of eschatological judgement. Here I believe that challenging our previous beliefs is an important action plan, and we must confront our soft doctrine of salvation and remember that even Jesus-believing Christians will be judged. In particular, while we must always declare that God forgives the sinner, we need to be reminded that God does indeed hold leaders/shepherds accountable to a higher standard. And if what is implied against a beloved leader is true, then, despite all his wonderful work, despite his successful ministry, I would think that an abusive leader faces the heavy task of meeting God his maker. It is not for us to predict what will happen, though 1 Corinthians 3:13-14 offers a hint, but we must be willing to assume that for leaders who abuse their position to prey on the weak, the meeting with their maker will not be a pretty sight.
Secondly, we must renew our fight against our own sin and the sin we know that is happening around us; especially sin that leads to abuse. We must confront ourselves. Are we being abusive? While certainly all sin is sin, if our sin is putting people in harm’s way, then we must take these kinds of reports as a warning and stop. If we are misusing our power over our children, over other church members, if we are making the vulnerable ones uncomfortable, then stop! This is a wake-up call for us to be aware that God is watching and will hold us accountable now or later.
But where the rest of us are challenged is when we are silent. If we see abuse, and if we say or do nothing, then it is dangerous and makes us complicit. Are we quiet when we see abuse happening around us? It is easier to criticise the government via Facebook. But if there is injustice and abuse happening in our homes, in our workplace, in our churches, then we must speak-out against that injustice, even at cost to ourselves.
Thirdly, we must side with the victims, even if we feel our (patriarchal) society thinks it is an error. While the “victims” in any news story may be many, including the families of the accused, we must keep the victims as central, to side with those who are hurt by the church, hurt by church leaders, hurt by those in power. “Side with” means pray for. “Side with” also means to listen to the victims’ stories. Don’t silence them. And “side with” means to help as much as we can. Be part of the healing.
Fourthly, we must teach/help our children and other vulnerable ones in our churches to protect themselves against predatory behaviour. We must also help them to deal with their own trauma, so that they can resist their own instincts to be predatory against others when they gain power. Research tells us that those who have been abused sometimes become abusers. The cycle needs to be broken, and we need to recognize both the trauma of the hurting, and also help the hurting deal with their hurt so that they do not become abusers if they are ever in positions of authority.
Finally, we must challenge our fascination with celebrities, but still be open to learn from others, including pronounced sinners. So, no, please don’t burn books written by leaders who are exposed! I don’t think we should discredit everything that sinful men of God have done. People are complex, and we should never reduce anyone to a single act or certain set of actions; either good or bad. We can acknowledge that God speaks through many people, sinful people, and we can be open to see what God is speaking through the fallen words of our leaders. If God spoke earlier through the words of a sinful man, he can continue to do so. But never should we idolise those words and works to replace the very words and intentions of God. So, keeping that perspective, we can keep reading those books if we want. But certainly, our desire to lift people up is also dangerous. It is inevitable, but certainly not godly. Paul warns against celebrity culture when some claimed to follow Apollos, and some followed Paul. Viewing our leaders as servants of the kingdom, rather than as heads, may help have more realistic expectations of those who take centre-stage. And certainly, we must stop promoting our leaders as paragons of virtue though we can declare how Jesus used a “leader” to influence our lives. And to non-Christians, we must help them differentiate between how God uses fallen humans and how fallen humans tend to misuse God.
In conclusion, may we all remember that it is Jesus that we follow. He is our source of salvation. Our hope is in Him. May the Lord be with you during these difficult times.
We would request you to treat this subject with discretion and while you are welcome to comment – we prefer that you inbox us if you have something on your mind. Like we said, the trigger for this article is now being investigated – and we ALL hope it isn’t true.
Thank you so much for this article. I learn a lot from this.
An excellent response Nigel, balanced in attributing responsibility as well as enough space for redemptive work
Very well written. Thank you for putting things into perspective.
Judgement for believing Christians?
For solutions, Biblical references would be more helpful.