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November 6, 2019Culture, Humor, Leadership

John Crist, Failure, and Warnings to Heed for Christian Leaders

Heed the warning. Run toward holiness. Rest in Christ.
John Crist, Failure, and Warnings to Heed for Christian Leaders
Image: Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for KLOVE

Like many Christians, I’ve tweeted my share of John Crist videos. He has an ability to hone in on evangelical eccentricities through parody that is just biting enough to cause reflection yet light-hearted enough to force us to not take ourselves so seriously.

With this in mind, I’m beyond disappointed to hear of the sexual harassment and manipulation accusations coming against him, and his confession to engaging in what he terms as reckless behavior that “violated [his] own Christian beliefs, convictions and values.”

Disappointed yes, but unfortunately my ability to be surprised by these stories ran out long ago. Apparently, there is no end to the public failures of Christian leaders and influencers.

And, what Crist admits to is a failure, but there is also more to that story. There are victims here, and our concern should first go to them. And, at the time of this writing, we don’t know all the details, but we do know we have yet another Christian scandal.

Simultaneously, we can see that Jesus seems to be doing a good house cleaning of his church. For that part, I am glad.

As I wrote in an article in April 2018, “Christ is purifying his church, and it hurts. And there is more to go.”

Yet, it is painful. It’s more painful to those victimized, but it is painful for us on many levels as well.

In my time of prayer, it is driving me to Christ. More on that later.

Taking Accusations More Seriously

To start, I am glad that we are beginning to take seriously the stories of those who have been wounded and abused at the hands of those who claim to follow Christ. My friends are telling me this was known a while ago about John Crist. It’s not that women who were damaged by his behavior have been hiding somewhere or sweeping this under the rug. They were speaking up, but very few people were listening.

It is crucial that we listen now— and sooner next time.

In this way, as painful as it is, I am glad that our sins in darkness are being brought to the light. Yes, I am sorry the world is seeing our dirty laundry. I’m sorry that this may strengthen the negative views of the church for many.

But if this is how it has to happen, then it must be so.

Bringing the darkness to light is the first step towards healing and the first step towards change.

You Can’t Overlook

All of this sinful behavior reminds me of the reality of sin. It makes me remember that no part of our lives is out of God’s sight. Too often we (and I) have persisted in turning a blind eye—whether through apathy or fear—to taking a hard look at ourselves and our communities.

God does not overlook what we do.

And hear me: it does matter that there is injustice and that it’s been overlooked. It does matter that it’s taken so long for the harassed and abused to be believed.

Thus, our first concern should be for the victims, and we must stand with and help their voices be heard.

You can’t overlook that there are people here that Crist USED, which is the opposite of how Christ LOVED.

A Warning to Pastors

Yet this news, coming on the heels of immoral, predatory, sinful, and all kinds of wrong, is heartbreaking. But, it can also be a time of heart examination. Crist is a Christian leader of sorts, but pastors are certainly such leaders, and pastor failures have been prevalent as well.

So, moving on from Crist’s situation here, it is the warning and our reponse to it that I want to address. Not everything in that response will apply to Crist and his actions, but I will respond to how we as Christian leaders might reply to these ongoing issues, and failures.

Some of that will be better boards, accountability, and systems. And some of it will be personal.

And for those of us who are pastors and church leaders, it does matter what 1 Timothy 5:20 says: “But those who persist in sin should be rebuked in front of everyone, so that the others will stand in fear of sin” (Berean Study Bible).

It does matter how we respond, both corporately and individually.

What’s happening in many places in the church today reminds me a bit of C.S. Lewis’ masterful piece of satire, The Screwtape Letters. In it, the senior demon Screwtape is teaching his nephew Wormwood how to use Christians to lead people away from God. In it, Screwtape writes,

It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one--the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.

That’s why we must hear and heed the warnings, because this kind of failure should, indeed, frighten us.

That seven-letter word we all hate: FAILURE

Now, this situation appears to be more concerning that what we often refer to as moral failure, and that is worth noting. But abuse of power and manipulation are issues that fall in a long pattern of Christians doing bad things—of Christians failing. And frankly, it’s too easy to think of ourselves as immune from failure.

Yet, that is the very point of 1 Timothy 5:20. We should, indeed, fear our own failings. And that fear should drive us to Christ, to repentance, to accountability, and to more.

It is easy to think that we would never fail. That’s the safe place for us to live. We cry, “Anathema!” and go back to believing that we are nowhere near as bad as those who have fallen. Sure, none of us would say that we are without sin. That would just be silly. But it is time for all of us, church, to hear and heed the warning of failure.

In an article on moral failure I wrote last year, I said, “In the Bible, we see the moral failure of many leaders and they act as a reminder to us that even those near to God are tempted to turn away.”

Mark 7:20-23 has a harsh statement that we simply cannot overlook:

What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.

I don’t want us to miss these biblical warnings. We must guard ourselves. Countless have (and will) fall. Many are doing so right now in the darkness of their homes and their shielded lives. A sober understanding of Scripture and of our own sinful state teaches us to expect failures, and that’s why we have accountability and guard rails.

And then there was Jesus…

When immorality such as this comes to light, we are humbled again, and reminded of why we desperately need salvation every moment of the day. This is not new. In the early days of humanity, God reminded his people that “sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you” (Gen. 4:7). When we continually seek to live in our own power, we have lost the only real defense we have against sin: God’s Holy Spirit in us. Genesis 4:7 continues, “…but you must rule over it.”

Each and every time grievous sins among our leaders are exposed, we are left with one crucial reminder: And then there was Jesus.

Perfect, without sin.

A faithful high priest who always lives to make intercession for us.

The author and perfecter of our faith.

The head of the church, the forgiver of sins, the ultimate judge of all.

I am grieved that we keep hearing these stories, but they must be (among other things) warnings to us. That’s why we who are pastors need clear and public repentance (and restoration) before jumping back into ministry after a failure. Even that, the Bible teaches, is part of that warning.

And, even as a relationship with Christ is still free for all who believe, in some situations we may not need to jump back into ministry at all.

This is, in part, a warning to us! It’s a warning to me.

That does not mean we need to live in fear, unless there is reason for that fear. But, that’s part of the point. You can rest in Christ when you heed the warnings. I can rest in Christ has I run toward Christ.

It is not the whole story, but failures of all kinds keep coming. Part of why we need to hear them is not to pass on a juicy morsel of gossip. Paul tells Timothy, and I am telling you (and myself) these failures are (in part) to warn us, and that’s what I think we need to heed today.

Heed the warnings. Run toward holiness. And rest in Christ.

Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, serves as Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.

Laurie Nichols is Director of Communications and Marketing for the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, creator of the Our Gospel Story curriculum, co-host of the new podcast Living in the Land of Oz, and blogger at Not All Those Who Wander. She formerly served as Managing Editor for Evangelical Missions Quarterly. Laurie is involved in anti-exploitation efforts when she is not spending time with her husband and two kids.

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John Crist, Failure, and Warnings to Heed for Christian Leaders