Few pastors have influenced global church culture as much as Brian Houston.
Hillsong, a church movement he founded in the 1980s, has produced worship music that is sung Sunday to Sunday in churches across the world. For decades, many pastors and ministry leaders have looked up to Houston as an example of how to successfully engage the culture and reach many with the gospel.
All of that admiration came tumbling down recently when news emerged of his mishandling of a sexual abuse case involving his father and possible sexual indiscretions. To the shock of many, this year he stepped down after leading Hillsong for over four decades.
Houston’s case is unfortunately not uncommon. Over the past few years and in recent months we have learned about pastors and leaders of prominent ministries who have abused their power, fostered unhealthy work environments and misrepresented Christ. Their downfalls often result in confusion for many and invite condemnation.
At times like these, many offer diagnoses for what is ailing these churches and what the best course of action is. But whenever I have read these responses — many offered by thoughtful Christians — I have felt something was missing from them.
Strangely, I realized what this missing element was when I watched an interview with American actor Denzel Washington.
The interview, which was hosted by T.D. Jakes at an annual conference, happened shortly after the infamous moment at the Oscars when Will Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock on live television. Everyone, including Jakes, wanted to know what happened behind the scenes, and Washington was one of the first people to speak with Smith after the incident.
When asked about it, Washington gave a surprisingly thoughtful and biblical answer. “Who are we to condemn?” he asked Jakes. “I don’t know all the ins and outs of the situation, but I know the only solution was prayer.”
Reflecting on his own weaknesses, Washington said, “There but for the grace of God go any of us.” This saying harks back to the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, in which he said, “But by the grace of God I am what I am.”
When prominent leaders fail we are often tempted to immediately condemn them (and, if we are honest with ourselves, enjoy a sense of schadenfreude at the fall of a popular pastor with whom we may disagree). But, lest we forget, Jesus commanded his followers not to judge others.
To be sure, this does not mean minimizing the trauma of victims of Christian leaders or institutions. These stories should prompt leaders everywhere to reflect on their governing structures, church cultures and policies to ensure the same does not happen among them.
But we must avoid the temptation to resort to any kind of self-righteous judgmentalism. Successful Christian leaders and institutions always bring human baggage. They bring their failings and strengths into their arena of influence and work. Often the flip side of their very strength is their failing.
The real problem is what Jesus called the “spirit of the age” that is now polluting our churches. This was the same spirit of the Pharisees and those who opposed Jesus — they were led by pride, arrogance, self-righteousness and greed for power, influence and money. You do not need to be a famous or successful pastor to succumb to these temptations.
Jesus’ remedy to the spirit of the age was poverty of spirit. It should not surprise us that he said the kingdom of heaven belongs to the actual poor and powerless and those poor in spirit. This is why we must enter his kingdom as children who in their state of powerlessness put their faith in someone stronger than them.
Jesus wanted his followers to understand that the Christian faith is never about attaining a level of self-righteousness when one succeeds or prospers. It is about being lowly and humble of heart, even if one is actually the Son of God.
This humility gives us the ability to acknowledge our own weakness, sins and failures, and to say confidently with the Apostle Paul, “But by the grace of God I am what I am.”
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