It seems that hardly a month goes by without another scandal from a ‘Celebrity Pastor’. Abuse of power, sexual sin, financial irregularities, cover-ups. Each one a crushing blow; another straw heaped on the back of an already-straining camel, namely the public credibility of Christianity.
I was talking to a friend the other day, and I wanted to celebrate something amazing that I’d learned about a preacher from the States. When I said, “Have you heard about x?” their immediate reply was, “Oh no, not him as well!”
I recognised their response, because I feel it myself. The sheer number of these stories means that whereas I used to be shocked by them, I am now almost expecting the next giant to fall. That’s no good.
I hope it goes without saying that when I hear these stories, my biggest grief goes out to the immediate victims in the scandals – the abused, the spouse and family. The double pain of being mistreated, and then having your story scrutinised publicly must be a dreadful thing to experience.
But then my grief also widens out in concentric circles, as I consider the ripple effects of the pastor’s fall:
- To the members of the church who trusted their leader, and now feel ashamed, cheated, and unsure about returning to what should have been a safe community.
- To those who platformed these people’s ministries, who now wonder how they didn’t spot the signs, and whether they were somehow complicit in enabling him.
- To those who benefitted from their ministries, particularly those who came to faith under their teaching and who now question the foundations of their salvation.
- To the people who have never met this pastor, but who have experienced abuse at the hands of another, and for whom this new story is triggering.
- To the heresy hunters, who get a kick out of sharing the celebrity gossip on social media, and for whom this will be further fuel for their unhealthy obsession.
- To the unbeliever for whom this is another reason not to take seriously the claims of Christ because of the hypocrisy of his church.
- To the faithful pastors who will never have a platform a quarter of the size of these guys, but now find their congregations looking at them with suspicion and asking, “Well if that guy could keep things secret, why should I trust my Pastor?”
- To me…
In many ways I have been least affected by these incidents, inasmuch as I am distant from them, knew none of the celebrity pastors involved, and haven’t had to suffer the personal betrayal that many others have. But at the same time, I do feel the effects of the ripples, and I hate it.
- I hate that these scandals don’t surprise me as much as they used to. It bothers me that they are so frequent that I’ve almost come to accept them. I hate that I can think so little of my brothers and sisters in Christ.
- I hate that I now pause before I quote anyone in a sermon or recommend their work, and wonder whether I need to google them quickly to check they haven’t been exposed or cancelled.
- I hate that I do feel an unhealthy curiosity for the details, and that when I see a fresh headline and a new name added to the roster, it makes me wonder “I wonder whatever happened to x?” and I tumble into the rabbit hole.
- I hate that my friends from outside the church see these stories on social media and in the mainstream press and ask me about them. It feels like another hurdle to get over in sharing my faith with them.
- I hate that it makes me fearful of my own fallibility and it makes me think twice before stepping out in leadership and embracing opportunities for public influence.
Of course, the problem is not just so-called ‘Celebrity Pastors’. Perhaps the higher the pedestal we put them on, the bigger the splash from their fall. But the fall of any Christian leader will have ripple effects. As a child and teenager, three of my older male Christian role-models had serious moral failures. All of them sexual in nature. Two of them landed the men in question in prison. Again, I wasn’t a victim in any of the situations, and only came to know about some of them much later. But it took me years to realise that their examples had an effect on me. That my reticence to step out in leadership and embrace even a small amount of public profile was in part because I’d seen others I had looked up to crash and burn so badly. I used to pray that God would limit my influence, keep me hidden in obscurity, and not give me public recognition, and those prayers weren’t rooted in godly humility, but in fear. That’s no way to live.
Seasons like this make me feel the interconnectedness of the church more than normal, as I experience the ripples from the fall of people I’ve never met, in cities I’ve never visited, in denominations to which I have no connection. I guess Paul was right. The church is a body, and if one part suffers, every part suffers with it (1 Corinthians 12:26). That suffering differs in intensity from person to person, but none of us is unaffected.