It’s hard to keep a secret, especially in a world of real-time streaming videos, phone cameras, FaceBook and the human tendency to have a feeding frenzy sharing all information about ourselves or others, whether real or contrived. If you are a public person, it’s even more difficult. For evangelists or well-known pastors, the visibility and scrutiny—even from the unchurched public—can be unforgiving. Even the ungodly expect spiritual leaders to live to a higher standard.
I recently received an email from a church board that was caught, quite unexpectedly, in an ugly church transition. Both head pastors left after some admissions of failure, and all the ensuing speculation about moral misconduct and financial misappropriation followed. The board struggled with how to handle the public relations, and settled on “transparency” detailing all ongoing investigations with all congregational contacts through email.
As I read the email, my heart sank, not only for the board in the daunting task they were given, but for the congregation. As in virtually all situations of this type, the pastors had founded a church that met a critical need, grew rapidly and had high public visibility. Over the years, thousands of people had given their lives to Jesus and been baptized at the church. Thousands more had seeds of faith planted, and hopefully, those seeds grew to maturity elsewhere. Yet the church was hit hard by the ‘fall’ of their pastor, and the social websites and media articles were quick to share facts, details, speculation, accusations. The cancer of gossip grew rapidly and the board answered the public outcry with a pledge to more ‘transparency’.
The Bible abounds with examples of leaders who had very public moral failures, some more public than others. In fact, it is hard to find a leader who didn’t have some degree of failure. Many of the most prolific Bible authors and powerful leaders also had significant public moral failures, sometimes before and after answering their calling from God. Humans are prone to weakness and we tend to judge failures by degree or ‘social acceptance.’ Getting creative on your taxes may be less socially acceptable than gossiping about your co-workers or drunkenness, and all are more socially acceptable than cheating on your spouse or committing murder. But the Bible puts all of those activities in the same classification and actually speaks more about gossip and the faults of the tongue than adultery, theft or drunkenness. If we look carefully, the Bible also tells us how to deal with a leader in the face of public failure.
In 1 Samuel 13, King Saul fails publicly when he gets impatient for Samuel and offers a burnt sacrifice without waiting. Verse 11 tells what happens next:
“What have you done?” asked Samuel. Saul replied, “When I saw that the men were scattering, and that you did not come at the set time, and that the Philistines were assembling at Mikmash, I thought, ‘Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the Lord’s favor.’ So I felt compelled to offer the burnt offering.”
“You have done a foolish thing,” Samuel said. “You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.”
Samuel confronts Saul and tells him of his penalty for not waiting as commanded. It may seem to us that losing a kingdom is a high price for impatience under those conditions. But God knew Saul was not recognizing his position under God’s authority, and it was totally God’s call. We have no record of Saul repenting or even acknowledging his fault to God or anyone else; he gave excuses and moved on to the next battle.
In 2 Samuel 11, another king, David, sends Uriah to his death to cover his own adulterous encounter with Uriah’s wife. King David replaced his failed predecessor at God’s word through the prophet Samuel and was well aware of the personal and national cost of disobedience and moral failure. And God sent the prophet Nathan to hold David accountable—to God--for his actions.
David understood the lines of authority even before he became king. After Samuel anointed David to replace Saul as king, David refused to usurp the position or harm Saul; in fact, he swore allegiance to Saul as king even while Saul was trying to kill him. In 1 Samuel 24:12, David tells Saul “May the LORD judge between me and you, may the LORD avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you.” He recognized that God was in charge of Saul and Saul’s position as king. However, David’s advisors didn’t see it that way in 1 Samuel 24:4, “The men said, 'This is the day the LORD spoke of when he said to you, "I will give your enemy into your hands for you to deal with as you wish."' David’s response, in opposition to his ‘board of advisors’, is found in verse 6, he “said to his men, 'The LORD forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the LORD's anointed, or lift my hand against him; for he is the anointed of the LORD.’ With these words David rebuked his men and did not allow them to attack Saul.”
David again displays his understanding of his position under God’s authority. Later, after publicly sinning with Uriah’s wife and then using his military leaders to dispose of Uriah, David declares (in 2 Samuel 12:13), “I have sinned against the Lord.” Most of us don’t want to take this at face value, our minds want to add in Uriah and a whole bunch of other people as victims against whom David sinned. But in Psalms 51:4 NLT, David reiterates his confession in very clear terms, “Against You, and You alone have I sinned....” This makes it pretty clear that though the failure was public, the punishment is not in the hands of anyone but God. Both kings failed publicly, both were confronted by a prophet of God and held accountable. David repented and accepted God’s authority and punishment; Saul resisted, made excuses and tried to pursue success without God.
Both kings’ moral behavior carried more weight than most pastors will ever face, and David’s moral failings--adultery and murder--were crimes greater (or less socially acceptable to us) than that of most present day pastors. Unlike many spiritual leaders today, neither king was immediately expelled from office or even publicly condemned. A committee wasn’t formed to investigate, the board of directors wasn’t summoned to play judge and jury and the victimized congregation didn’t pronounce sentence. They weren’t shamed on the front page of the newspapers and all over the Internet. Both Saul and David were quietly confronted by a prophet and God handled the punishment. Although the results were quite public, the recorded events and correction were not for the general public’s consumption. Undoubtedly, there were rumors, gossip and public buzz in both cases and people close to both of them were impacted. Written historical records were kept with the intent of learning from the past. But in each circumstance, God dealt with the fault and the matter was closed--for the king, prophet and congregation.
The Bible has more than four times as many verses about gossip, slander, lying and related sins of the tongue as it has about adultery, stealing or drunkenness, yet we often engage in gossip, slander and speculation without a second thought. Sharing ‘true’ information that is negative or hurtful is no better than sharing inaccurate information. Proverbs 17:9 says, “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.” Divisive talk, even under the auspices of protecting an entity, opposes love.
When a leader falls, the impact can be extensive and it’s easy for everyone to talk. But talk can be very damaging; it can ruin careers, marriages and churches. In this context, it can also damage new believers and potential believers. Both 1 Chronicles 16:22 and Psalms 105:15 say "Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm." That includes talk. God takes loose talk very seriously, especially when directed against His chosen leader. Consider Numbers 12 where Moses’ sister Miriam is struck with leprosy for talking negatively about his wife and his leadership. Romans 14:4 admonishes us, “Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.” James 4:11 puts it like this: “Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?” This is not to say that corrupt or erroneous leaders do not need to be confronted or held accountable. There are people appointed to confront a spiritual leader when they fall, but it isn’t up to the general congregation to speculate or condemn. Of course leaders in error need to be accountable and the Bible has instructions for the correcting ‘prophet’ on methodology in 1 Timothy 5. But all spiritual leaders ultimately answer to God and God alone.
In a culture of Hollywood gossip magazines, ‘news’ shows and viral Internet scandals, it is easy to get caught up in spreading the latest chatter, even when it’s about our own church. We get impassioned about misuse of funds, adultery or some other “choice morsels” as in Proverbs 18:8 and 26:22. But the money is God’s as is the leader. Don’t fall into the trap of talking or even listening to talk about pastors, co-workers, neighbors or anyone, even celebrities! Restoration is always God’s desire; act with that in mind. Gossip and idle talk are divisive and counter God’s best plan for all involved. Keep a rein on your tongue. Instead, commit your leader (or whoever you were tempted to talk about) to prayer before a fall and especially after a fall. Don’t compromise by ‘sharing it with the prayer group so we can all pray about it’. Trust God to send the ‘prophet’ to confront or resolve the issue however He sees fit. Pray for the board or elders or whoever is charged with picking up the pieces. If there is err in judgement, let it be on the side of grace. Let’s join with the prophet in saying, “As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you. And I will teach you the way that is good and right.” 1 Samuel 12:23.