Many of us have been shaken by former church leaders who have fallen away, most recently Joshua Harris. Dangerous Calling by Paul Tripp has been the “go-to” book to warn pastors and seminarians against living a double life which can lead to spiritual shipwreck. Yet three of the five men whose endorsements appear on the back cover have failed in their ministries in recent years. They were not heretics but were the evangelical/reformed superstars who were plenary speakers at our mega-conferences. We bought, endorsed, and gave away their books. They powerfully and accurately preached the gospel. How could such a thing happen?
There are also less-publicized cases of professing Christians falling away. For example, the seemingly perfect home-school mom with seven children who abandons her marriage, her church, her faith, and even her children as she runs off to live with another woman. What caused her to turn away so radically?
Thankfully, God’s all-sufficient Word helps us to understand these tragic situations and warns us concerning ourselves and those we love.
1. It is possible for a false professor to rise to the top.
Some of the saddest accounts in Scripture are also the most helpful as we deal with hard situations. For example, Christians who have struggled with sexual sin find hope in David’s restoration after his fall (2 Sam. 11-12; Psalm 32; 51). For cases of apostasy, we have the tragic example of Judas. Judas was not merely one of the multitudes who followed Jesus or even merely one of the seventy whom Jesus sent out (Luke 10). He was one of the few chosen twelve apostles. Most likely, he preached and worked miracles when he was sent out with the others (Luke 9). When Jesus warned that one of them would betray Him, apparently the other apostles didn’t suspect him, saying to themselves, “Of course it must be Judas.”
In the same way, the fallen evangelical leaders preached and wrote powerfully. They rose above ordinary pastors to become plenary speakers and best-selling authors whose books were endorsed by the other “big names” in reformed evangelicalism.1Some, in hindsight, claim to have seen flaws which may have been the undoing of the fallen men. But similar flaws exist in all of us. Men can rise to the top and even be used of God while still being lost themselves. “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practices lawlessness’” (Matt. 7:22-23).
2. Beware of ambition.
James warns, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1). Ambition is not always bad. Paul teaches that it is good for a man to aspire to church leadership to serve (1 Tim. 3:1). Paul also has the ambition to do great things for the progress of the gospel in new places (Rom. 15:20). But ambition can be exceedingly dangerous when one seeks success and adulation rather than the glory of God. While God alone knows exactly why a particular leader fell, I believe that misdirected ambition is usually a factor. Just as Judas was able, as an unregenerate man, to do what it takes to rise to the top among the followers of Jesus, unsaved but talented and ambitious men can do what it takes to rise to the top in their evangelical circles today.
Josh Harris was raised in the evangelical home-school sub-culture where even as a teenager he gained recognition. In his early twenties, he wrote best-selling books on courtship which earned him further acclaim. Then, while still a very young man, he was made the lead pastor of an influential mega-church. He wrote more books, served on strategic boards, and spoke at large conferences. He, like others, built a brand/platform and expanded his following with his social media presence.2We will face this temptation to a certain extent. I confess that as I am writing this I am tempted to wonder who might read or repost it and how this will make others think of me. Sadly, he apparently reached when he had a different audience he wanted to impress. He couldn’t continue to hold to biblical principles (including family/LGBTQ issues) and be successful with this new audience. Neither side will allow you to serve two masters (Matt. 6:24). Now it appears that Josh is using some of the same skills and methods he used to gain success in evangelicalism to pursue his new worldly ambitions (see www.joshharris.com).
In a similar way, an ambitious young woman may grow up in the evangelical community in which the greatest recognition goes to the lady who marries, stays at home, has lots of children, and home-schools (along with sewing and baking). She pursues this path, not because she loves God and is trying to follow His Word but to be successful in the community of which she is a part. She may fall away when she is drawn to seek acceptance from the secular culture (Rom. 12:1-2) and thus chooses to live in conformity to its values.
3. Take the biblical warning passages seriously.
Scripture clearly teaches the Perseverance of the Saints—that those whom God has truly saved cannot be lost (John 6:37, 40; 10:27-29; Rom. 8:31-39). This is a great comfort and encouragement to know that our eternal security does not rest in our strength but God’s. But the truth of “once saved always saved” does not mean that we can ignore passages which encourage us to persevere and warn us against falling away. While there are some unbelieving leaders who know that they are hypocritical wolves, Scripture warns that some are self-deceived—believing that they are saved when they are not and never have been (Matt. 7:21-23; 1 John 2:3-4, 19). The book of Hebrews contains many chilling warnings to those who have had some experience of God’s gospel goodness. They are exhorted not to harden their hearts and turn away (Heb. 3:13-15; 6:4-8; 10:26-31).3Hebrews 6 and 10 (along with 1 John 5:16) seem to warn that one who has turned away from great spiritual privilege can so harden himself that he is beyond repentance. While I am not able to make any judgment in particular cases, it does greatly concern me for those who were in leadership who later renounce Christ. God’s Word warns against complacency, especially in the face of temptation. “Therefore, let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you – unless indeed you fail the test” (2 Cor. 13:5). We are not expected to be passive as God works to preserve us. He works through our efforts. “Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble” (2 Pet. 1:10). One of the means God uses to keep us in the faith is the biblical exhortations to self-examination and effort. If you sense that you are moving in a dangerous direction, take heed. Turn to the Lord, asking Him to speak to you through His Word to build up your faith. Seek godly counsel.
4. Thank God that He exposes, removes, and replaces false shepherds.4My wife deserves full credit for this point.
While many have expressed sympathy for the fallen former church leaders, I believe that the Lord is much more concerned for the sheep who have been harmed by their former shepherds’ abandonment of Christ and His church. Woe to such false shepherds (Ezek. 34:2), who fed themselves by soaking up the adulation of the crowds and making a great deal of money with their high salaries, book sales, and honorariums (Ezek. 34:2-3, 8). Many of the sheep who trustingly relied upon the spiritual food they offered are scattered, feeling abandoned and bewildered (Ezek. 34:4-6). The harm done by their fall is in proportion to the good they formerly appeared to be doing. The sheep look at the faithful shepherds who remain and wonder, “Are you like them? Will you also abandon us?” Just as God judged the false shepherds of Israel, He ultimately exposes and removes the false, self-serving shepherds in the church and replaces them with more faithful shepherds who will care for His sheep (Ezek. 34:9-16).
5. Pray that we will finish well.
The removal of Josh Harris from the evangelical/reformed scene is in sharp contrast to the recent departure of David Powlison who entered glory this past June. By the grace of God, David was faithful to Christ and His gospel to the very end. Let our ambition be to follow in David’s footsteps so that as our lives are ending, we may say with the Apostle Paul, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course. I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Tim. 4:6-8). Pray this for yourself and pray for your leaders, especially for those who have a big platform. Pray that if Josh Harris is a true believer who has stumbled that God would graciously restore him. May God give us grace to be faithful to the end.
Question for Reflection
What other lessons can be learned when an evangelical leader falls?