The higher you rise, the harder you fall. There seems to be nothing more universally revolting than the fall of a big name preacher. The scandals of Jim & Tammy Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Ted Haggard all made the national news headlines. But not every scandal gets such nationwide attention. Sadly, such falls by “men of God” are all too common.
Yesterday, I found out about one such fall that sits far too close to home for my liking. Rodney Stewart, an evangelist who was a frequent preacher at the Bible College I attended, was recently caught in an online sex sting. I own several cassette tapes of this man’s preaching, which always struck me as intense and radically serious. He was a great preacher who stuck close to the Biblical text in most of his messages. Yet he was found out in his sin and now is sitting in prison awaiting his trial and sentencing. The sad story is covered by a local news station in the Cleveland area here.
Why is it that men who are respected and hold a revered office (such as pastor, evangelist or preacher) would do such horrendous things? Why would they be found soliciting sex online from a 15 year old? And why exactly are such failures so commonplace, as it seems?
I can’t speak for all sectors of Christianity, or for the Roman Catholic Church. I do know that sin is common to all men, that is sure. But for conservative evangelical churches, particularly of the fundamentalist variety, there are several factors which I believe contribute to this problem.
1) Too much emphasis on morals
This might sound crazy to some. But an over-emphasis on morality actually encourages sin. Moralism cannot save. It cannot free someone of sinful urges within. Only the Gospel of grace can truly transform our hearts.
2) An external focus
Many fundamentalist churches stress external conformity to rules and standards. Christians need to look different, act different and dress differently than the world. Christians need to read their Bibles, spend time evangelizing their friends and neighbors, and actively serve in their church. All of this, people can trick themselves into thinking they can do. And then keeping up the appearance of spirituality can in turn become a heavy burden.
3) Little emphasis on grace
Grace, or God’s favor for undeserving sinners, is not emphasized. God’s holiness and his high standards are. Grace comes into play in salvation, but living the Christian life is all about effort, character, and duty. So when people struggle, there is no saving grace that can help them. They must dust themselves off and try harder. Often a do-it-yourself-mentality is the practical effect of an over-emphasis on externals and conformity.
4) Failure to appreciate the Gospel
Similar to what was said above, the Gospel is seen as the 101 class for becoming a Christian. The meat and the nitty-gritty of Christian living leaves the Gospel behind. The Gospel is good news for the lost unbeliever, and its an assumed thing for believers. This misunderstanding cuts off the Christian from his only sure hope. The Gospel teaches that God accepts us not on the basis of how well we behave, but as a matter of pure grace and on account of Jesus’ death on the cross in our place.
5) Legalism and burnout
All of this leads to a practical legalism. Christians live as if God is not happy with them. To please God and to truly grow in faith, one must add mountains of work to the faith that saves. If we measure up to our own (or our group’s) expectations, if we perform, if we put out, only then are we satisfied with ourselves, and only then is God pleased with us. When we fail in a myriad of ways, we have to struggle on alone. This leads to burnout. All work, no recognition of God’s love and approval, and no grace. It’s hard struggling on in such a condition.
6) No mutual accountability
The ethos of a legalistic church does not lend itself to mutual accountability. Pastors rarely mention that they too struggle with sin. If one confesses a sin, he is dealt with as a sinner. Grace isn’t proffered. There is no benefit to opening up to others about your struggles. You’ll be rejected, written off and then treated so differently. For those struggling with sexual addiction, mutual accountability is balm to the soul. Understanding that others share the same struggles and hearing others be open about their struggles to overcome the sin are key to victory.
7) Lone Ranger Christianity
This final aspect is an American trait that has affected the church. People think that the Christian life is something that is purely personal, and can be accomplished on their own. The Bible stresses the role of the church and the need for brothers and sisters in the faith to encourage each other. Often, in a high-stress environment, where a judgmental spirit is present, the communal aspects of church life are downplayed. We get together to eat and socialize but never to discuss the impact of the Gospel on our personal lives. This is only intensified in the life of a pastor or evangelist. They are even more prone to the lone ranger phenomenon. The pastor has to keep himself aloof from his congregation, it is thought. The very thought of a pastor wanting help for struggling with his personal sins and thought life, is unheard of in many such legalistic environments.
I suppose other factors come into play, but these are certainly influential in many fundamentalist church environments. But it isn’t only legalistic churches that can harbor such ideas about the Christian life. People can tend toward legalism in any context.
It’s so easy to cast stones at the fallen pastor. I would hope that we could pray for him and his family, and be on guard lest the sin in our own hearts come to overcome us as well. I certainly don’t excuse him for his crimes. however. I just wish the system he was in would have been more grace-oriented. But for the grace of God, I too could be consumed by my sin.
I would love to hear your thoughts on all of this, too. Feel free to chime in and let me know what you think.