Bruce Robertson sent me something on Facebook that, coupled with the unrelenting reports about David Petraeus, got me thinking specifically about leaders who fall in and around the Christian community. The post pushed a basic question: What’s the role of that community to those leaders who fall?
These sentences provide a sense of the post:
Sadly, in many cases, when it comes to restoring a fallen leader, the offender’s depiction of evangelical denominational or church discipline, feels more like John 19 where the Jewish leaders request for all the men next to Jesus on the cross to “have the legs broken [as well].” This is a far different response than Jesus’, saying to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you, go and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11).
The result of this law-driven approach to sin is not pretty. Because of this, the evangelical culture dictates that when our worse moments befall us, we must hide. There is a real doubt that we will be lead home safely through our struggle.
I come back to this concern every year or so. Unfortunately the experiences of leaders keep the question before us. How do we respond as a Christian community when leaders in that community fail? Is there a difference between the church’s response to a leader who fails and to a non-leader who does? I keep thinking that there is a clear answer in the scriptures about this, but there isn’t. To be clear, this is because when scripture handles the matter of sin and sins and sinning, it doesn’t split the responses to those who are in leadership roles from those who are not leaders. If anything, there is a pervasive sense that every reader who takes up the dangerous documents of our scriptures is in for it, is a sinner, and is eligible for the free, audacious, and incredible gift of grace and all that comes with it.
There are mentions of how to handle people who have sinned, but those instances are not focused on leaders; they’re open for everyone. There is a clear implication that sins should be addressed, faced, confessed, repented of, and turned away from. There is a reasonable expectation within the scriptures that the consequences of sins live well beyond the times of confession and repentance–again, for leaders like Moses and for hardly named people in crowds. There is also a long theme of forgiveness, and that theme would certainly include the leaders and the non-leaders within the church.
But it fascinates me that people who are led often require that leaders be exploited and punished, even when those leaders have spent themselves 1) protecting those they lead from such ungracious behavior and 2) promoting a Person who gives grace to the sinner. There is this weird and intense curiosity with a leader’s sins, like in Petraeus’s case or in the last preacher to fall, and this continual pressing into the details of what happened, right before there is a slicing off of any chance that leader would have to rejoin the community. There’s an insightful psychological treatment in that, one I can’t give, but it has to do with pedestalizing people in positions a) they don’t belong in, b) we’ll never really get into ourselves, and c) which are properly designed for the Divine.
Sometimes I think we should describe the Church as place where people jump in sin, where leaders never ever ever get up to speak or preach or inspire without the strings of sin attached to us. Sometimes I think that we should wear signs that say “Fire me now because while I didn’t do the big three or the big five or the big seven, I definitely sinned at least sixteen times before I stood up in front of you.” At least it would open a conversation about sin and grace and leadership and restoring everyone to relationship with God.
Sometimes I wonder if churches and faith communities are really communities of grace. When the people who lead them, be they paid staff or not, cannot truly receive “grace to help” in our times of need, then what’s happening in our gatherings may not be graceful at all. Sure, that doesn’t mean that anything goes. It’s never meant that. To think that is to read a different Book. Indeed a place of grace is a place with clear expectations about the gift offered. But would you agree that we are pushed to look for grace and to tell the truth when we don’t find it?