When Celebrity Pastors Let Us Down

Photo by Rucksack Magazine on Unsplash

Over the past several years, victims of sexual assault within the church have been paying attention to the cultural force that is the #MeToo movement, and more and more of them have felt emboldened to speak up about their experiences with sexual assault by church leaders. As a result, what once was hidden has been brought to light. Perpetrators are being exposed, and victims are being vindicated. The #MeToo movement is alive and well in the evangelical church, where it has been rebranded as #ChurchToo.

Recently, Bill Hybels has been under fire regarding the repeated sexual assault of a former employee of his church. Hybels, the founder of Willow Creek Community Church, Willow Creek Association, and Global Leadership Summit, has now publicly joined an ever-expanding list of famous evangelical pastors who have abused their power to sexually assault others (see here and here).

Perhaps one of the most common reactions I hear to these incidents is, “How could this man have done this? How could this man who has done so many great things for God be capable of committing such heinous sins?” There is great concern over the fact that men who have embodied so many public virtues have also possessed so many private vices. And though most of us have never personally met those pastors engaged in these sins, because these pastors had been theological mentors to us, we feel hurt and betrayed.

When role models let us down, it is natural to have emotional responses—grief, anguish, disbelief, bitterness, anger, etc. However, if we find ourselves completely overwhelmed by these emotional responses, then that can be a sign that we had elevated those role models too highly, that we had set a moral bar for them so high that they could never reach it.

In today’s evangelical world, although we would probably not admit it publicly, many of us have come to idolize our pastors. We think of our pastors as being so sanctified that they are incapable of the greatest sins. We think of them as being so close to God that they are spiritually invincible. And we forget, as Paul says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Romans 3:10—11).

Here is the reality. Behind every pulpit is a broken human being, prone to guilt and fear and shame just like the rest of us. One may think that the pulpit purifies the pastor behind it, but in fact the pulpit often hides the pastor behind it. The pulpit serves as a defensive buffer for the pastor. It creates the impression that the pastor is perfectly put together—so put together that he does not need the community, the accountability, and the mentorship that everybody else in the church requires. And it is exactly the type of environment that allows secret sins to cultivate unchecked.

What then should Christians do when pastors let us down?

In the Old Testament, the ancient Israelites experienced a similar dynamic. During their early history, they had no kings, for God was their king. But in 1 Samuel 8:5, they asked the prophet Samuel, “Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” In response, God told Samuel, “[T]hey have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Samuel 8:7), but nonetheless he allowed Samuel to identify a king. From then onward, Israel was ruled by kings and, as a result, Israel was no longer a theocracy but a monarchy. And as the years went by, it soon became apparent that none of the kings were any good. Every single king would let their people down. Even the best king of them all, King David, committed adultery and plotted a murder to cover it up. Surely the Israelites must also have asked, “How could this man who has done so many great things for God be capable of committing such heinous sins?”

Eventually, the wickedness of the Israelite kings drove the nation straight into the ground, and the Israelites were conquered and exiled. But God did not abandon his people. In Jeremiah 23, God condemned the “shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of [his] pasture” and promised that he would “set shepherds over them who will care for them” (Jeremiah 23:1—4). And then God made it clear that he was speaking of one Individual in particular: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jeremiah 23:5). God was promising that there would one day be a Shepherd King who would never let his sheep down—he would rule with justice and righteousness.

This prophecy, of course, was referring to Jesus. It is not a coincidence that Jesus later claimed, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

Throughout the age of the bad kings, God was essentially saying, “You want a king? Okay, I’ll let you have some kings. And when they let you down over and over again, I’ll let you discover that it was me you wanted this whole time.” And at the right time, Jesus the Shepherd King appeared and showed us that God is the King we were looking for.

The principle of the Israelite kings is the same as the principle of the celebrity pastors. Too many of us put too much stock in celebrity pastors. We look around at the secular world, and we say, like the Israelites did, “Now appoint for us a celebrity to shepherd us like the secular world.” And over and over, we see celebrity pastors quickly rise to stardom and quickly fizzle out.

Every time a celebrity pastor lets us down, it is an opportunity to look to Jesus, as we are reminded of the fact that only Jesus is a good king. Though spiritual shepherds may let us down, Jesus the Good Shepherd will never let us down. He is the Celebrity Pastor we are all looking for.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of the blog post stated, “Hybels, the founder of Willow Creek Community Church, Willow Creek Association, and Global Leadership Summit, now joins an ever-expanding list of famous evangelical pastors who have had their ministry careers derailed because of sexual assault incidents coming to light.” The statement seemed to turn the pastors into victims by drawing attention to their losses, and the author did not intend to convey that sentiment. The sentence has been altered.

Larry Lin

Larry was born and raised in San Jose, CA and now lives in Baltimore, MD. He has a BS from Cornell University and a MDiv from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Larry is the husband to Van-Kim and the father of one daughter and one son, and he enjoys songwriting, basketball, Wikipedia, graphs, and conversations about politics and culture. Larry previously served for 8 years as a vocational pastor at Village Church Hampden in Baltimore, where he continues to serve as a lay elder.

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