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By David Virtue, DD
February 1, 2022

The year 2021 will go down as one of the worst years for fallen Christian leaders.

Ravi Zacharias, Jerry Falwell, Jr., (was he ever a Christian?), Mars Hill leader Mark Driscoll, Kanakuk Kamps, John Smyth and Jonathan Fletcher the latter two in England, to name just a few. One could add a plethora of American mega church pastors and lesser evangelical fish, but the cumulative effect has been overwhelming and devastating on millions of ordinary Christians. Furthermore, the politicization of the Gospel has made many Christians cynical as to what it means to be both an American and a Christian.

Throw in a pandemic, the gyrations of the economy, the disillusionment by nearly 40 percent of America's clergy in what they perceive is an unhealthy church climate including a pandemic and a fraught political scene, and you know why suicide rates are at their all-time high along with disillusionment, drug abuse and much more.

The overall picture is not good. Going to church in person is still not fixed in stone. And when the veil of the coronavirus is lifted, will church attendance return to normal along with their coffers? Pew, Barna and Gallup who research these ups and downs, say the jury is still out. The latest report on church attendance reveals that while it has been declining since the pandemic, a deeper look reveals that the pandemic simply exacerbated a trend already in play.

Data collected in the summer of 2020 by Barna found that about one-third of practicing Christians (32 percent) "have dropped out of church for the time being." A Gallup poll taken last March also found that, for the first time in eight decades, Americans' membership in houses of worship dropped below 50 percent. Only 47 percent of adults in the United States claimed to be a member of a church, mosque, or synagogue, a 23-point decline since 2000.

For many, disillusionment with church leaders who fell from grace is so deep, they will never return to church again. For true believers the story is mixed.

A significant amount of the damage to Christianity in the US and England has come internally not externally. The confusion of authentic faith with American civil religion has caused considerable confusion. In England, an institutional church is irrelevant to more than 95 percent of the populace. Many accuse the Church of England of slowly strangling the Gospel with woke issues and homosexual acceptance. But it is the damage wrought by evangelical leaders who taught and said one thing and lived lives contrary to the Gospel that has been the most devastating. The damage done by these "ravenous wolves" will last for generations.

The loss of faith by many believers coupled with the cynicism of unbelievers has only deepened. Partly, and as a result, we have seen the rise of Nones (people without religion) as the most significant "religious" development in the last few years. As a group they are just a few percentage points behind both Protestants and Catholics in terms of numbers. There is little doubt they will surpass both denominational groups in the coming years if not months.

Spiritually and theologically, evangelicalism in America is 3000 miles and one inch deep as Anglican theologian JI Packer once observed. J. D. Vance's book, The Hillbilly Elegy outlined how thin evangelical Christianity is among America's working class. If Jesus is America's working-class heavenly savior, in Donald Trump they saw America's earthly savior.

But the deeper issue is what these fallen evangelical heroes have done to the vast church-going evangelical masses. The damage might well be irreversible.

As David French of The Dispatch, observed, "no degree of greatness can overcome lawlessness."

One has only to look at an incident in the life of Moses. In Numbers 20, the people of Israel, led by Moses, were in a wilderness with no water, and the people were angry at Moses. God gave Moses explicit instructions: "Speak to the rock while [the people] watch, and it will yield its water."

But Moses, angry at the rebellion against him, revised God's instructions and struck the rock with his staff. Moses defied God, but the water came out anyway. The people drank. Their livestock drank. They were saved from thirst. The result however did not work out well for Moses for his disobedience, God barred him from entering the Promised Land.

In the New Testament there is no record that Judas who betrayed Jesus was ever rehabilitated. His betrayal was complete and final. The apostle Paul railed against Alexander the metalworker who did him a great deal of harm. "The Lord will repay him for what he has done."

So, what lessons can we take from all this?

There are several.
1. Stop the hero worship of any leader. It is nothing short of idolatry. I remember a speaker eulogizing John Stott prior to his speaking, and when he had finished, Stott quietly said "you don't know my heart." That said it all.
2. Don't let people like Ravi Zacharias become so unaccountable that they are given a pass because of their celebrity status. Ditto for Bill Gothard, who had a history of sexual harassment and molestation of young women.
3. Karl Barth is a colossal theological figure, who though married, kept a mistress. The family knew, but he was never called to public account.
4. The Episcopal Church openly made a hero of Bishop Gene Robinson for coming out as a homosexual after being married with children, divorcing his wife and taking up with a man, whom he later divorced. He is publicly eulogized as a man rich in diversity and inclusion, but in reality, his sexual perversion was sanitized by a denomination that threw out the scriptures and opted for the culture. His star still shines in The Episcopal Church even though his consecration cost the church over 100,000 Episcopalians who fled TEC, plus millions in property lawsuits and opprobrium from orthodox Anglicans in the Global South.
5. Remember that the true heroes of the faith are people you have probably never heard of, or they get written about decades later when their person and work has been evaluated over time. Lives like Cranmer, Luther, Billy Graham to name but a few, led exemplary lives. We honor them for their contribution; their lives were above reproach.
And what of all the countless missionaries who gave their lives in strange lands, unsung and under reported, who are now mere footnotes to history? They may have done more for the kingdom than all the "celebrity Christians" in the West put together.

When we treat people like heroes, they start thinking they are better than the rest of us. In reality, they are not. 'Beware when all men speak well of you', it's a bad sign. The old adage that 'pride cometh before a fall' still rings true. 'Put not your trust in princes,' wrote the Psalmist.

We are all fallen. I am constrained as a journalist by people who hold me to account. At times, I chafe at the bit, but their wise counsel keeps me in line. It takes a little humility, even at my age, to know you can get it wrong and need correction.

C.S. Lewis reminds us that the sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: "the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred."

The sins of the flesh, while not nearly as dangerous as the sins of the spirit, can bring us down and cause confusion for millions who believed in you. A once dear priest and friend of mine was caught in a child porn sting. The relationship ended. Dozens of evangelical leaders have sown to the wind and they are now reaping the whirlwind. Will 2022 be better? We shall see.


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