“Big Eva” …Big Evangelicalism. The structures and Institutions that make up American Evangelicalism with all of its power, prestige, and influence.
Christians and churchgoers sometimes think that when God judges the world, He almost solely focuses on the world “out there among the non-Christians.”
And yet, the Bible is all-too honest that the sins of God’s people are more offensive to God than those of unbelievers. Time and time again the New Testament urges Christians to “...put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph. 4:22-24)
And when we don’t…when we willingly engage in the very sinful acts that we have been freed from, it is an offense against the Lord. It is a denial of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.
That is why the Apostle Paul tells us that we must “consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God.” (Rm. 6:11)
Holiness and righteousness are to be the defining characteristics of the Christian life.
But, a pressing question is before Evangelicals right now:
Has Big Evangelicalism forgotten God’s call to holiness as it applies to her leaders?
In the News...
-Heartbreakingly, the last few years have been gut-wrenching for those of us inside Evangelicalism as we have watched one big name leader after another fall from grace embroiled in scandal.
Most recently, Baptist Press announced that Matt Chandler—pastor of The Village Church, a mega-Church in Dallas Tx, and a popular Christian writer and speaker— has been placed on an indefinite leave of absence due to—what the Church Elders are calling—“An inappropriate messaging relationship with a woman not his wife.” Now, both Chandler and the Elders maintain that the messaging was neither sexual nor romantic.. So, it raises the question, “Why the leave of absence?”
Aimee Byrd—rightly in my opinion—raises several good points about this issue: With the vagueness of Chandler’s confession, the Church is either covering up the real details of the incident, or they are making a mountain out of molehill and further complicating an already complex environment.
Chandler has long enjoyed power and status in the Southern Baptist Convention (an Evangelical group), and in the larger atmosphere of Big Eva. He was platformed at an early age due to his charisma and compelling preaching style. He also serves as the third President of the Acts 29 Church Planting Network, but has been asked to step aside from any further Acts 29 engagements.
This is notable due to the fact that the first two Acts 29 Presidents, Mark Driscoll and Steve Timmis, were removed for abusive leadership and disqualifying character.
Is God Judging His House?
-There are some chilling words in Peter’s first letter to the Asian Churches. He writes… “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?”
God does not take sin lightly. He publishes and disciplines His people, that much is clear.
It is also a clear biblical principle that God holds His spiritual leaders more accountable than most.
1 Tim. 5:20 - “As for those [Elders] who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.”
-There is also a sobering passage in Ezekiel 34 where the Lord God speaks against the unfaithful shepherds of Israel. These men were more concerned with themselves, with their own success, pleasure, and comforts than they were with caring for the people of God. They neglected the people, lived extravagantly off the people, failed to teach them and lead them, and thus left them open to false teaching and idolatrous worship. In short, they failed their God-giving calling because they were self-absorbed; and because they were self-absorbed, the people suffered.
God says, “Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts.”
He goes on in v. 10 with this ultimatum, “Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.”
God’s point to His shepherds then, and now, is clear: When Pastors and Bible teachers are more focused on themselves than on the people, they have failed their duties. And when a Pastor/Bible teacher becomes self-focused, that puts them in a dangerous position, and opens them to the delusions of power, prestige, and status. And those things always lead down bad paths.
When men abandon their God-given calling in order to serve themselves, God will stand against them, and He will require His sheep at their hand.
-We ought not forget just how many men have tread the road of failure in the last few years. These men have all been high-profile preachers and leaders inside of Big Evangelicalism. They have been sought after leaders and speakers, platformed because of their charisma, style, and power — they have been given books deals and conference slots, all the while someone was overlooking their character flaws.
-The list goes on…and unfortunately, will most likely keep expanding.
In a piece on elitism in the SBC, I made the observation that the average SBC member can, with a fair amount of ease, identify the elites. They are the ones with the big churches, the big stages, the big book deals, the numerous speaking engagements.
We tend to revere these men because of their big presence, not because of their big holiness.
There is certainly a warning here. A warning bell sounding out into the chaos of a culture that loves celebrity and power.
The warning is this: Our earthly leaders are not God. Stop judging leaders and heroes based on charisma and style. And start judging them on the God-given criteria of Scripture.
That is not to say that the men listed above, and others who have fallen from grace, were not being held to Scriptural mandates at some point. Most all of them likely started there. But with their growing influence and expanding power, those protective confines fell off and were left laying by the wayside.
In many of the situations surrounding the names listed above, there are verifiable details that show how these men were allowed to outgrow the confines of biblical eldership. They were allowed to play god in their own situations and institutions. They were allowed to live above the law.
Essentially, they made idols of themselves, their power, and their prestige.
And there is nothing good that comes when men and churches allow this type of behavior and practice from our leaders.
But there is another warning here. And it's a bit more subtle.
The other warning is this: None of us are above this. Many pastors will lack the influence and prestige that accompany big stages and book deals, but there is always the temptation to shirk the biblical qualifications and protections for the sake of power and self-preservation. (It's a sobering thing to even type that sentence knowing that I, myself, am prone to such actions and attitudes as a sinful man).
This is why Churches need a properly functioning plurality of Elders leading the way. Elders who submit to Christ first, and then to one another. Elders who practise genuine submission, not hierarchy. Many times, especially it seems, in large and mega-Church contexts, Elders and other spiritual leaders get sucked into a vacuum around a central leader; a central personality.
The one leader becomes the center of the whole show; the driving force; the foundation of the institution. And when that happens, the other leaders who have surrounded him obtain a vested interest in protecting him and keeping him in place— because keeping the central leaders in place means keeping themselves in the place of power and influence.
(This could explain the strange actions of the Village Church Elders regarding Matt Chandler, although that remains to be seen).
So, the temptation to lower expectations and watch-care for the central leader goes down or is not done at all. Honest dealings with sin and shortfalls become few. And the egos and power of the elite continue to grow unchecked.
-Now, in the most recent case of Matt Chandler, it seems that the Elders have taken the proper action in asking him to step aside. But the details are so cloudy and murky that it is either a case of an overblown sin (which tends more toward pharisaicalism), or they are covering up Matt’s sin in hopes of managing greater fallout (which is a failure of Eldership). Either way, the situation as it stands right now is concerning…
I think God is warning His church that we’ve made too much of our earthly leaders, and not enough of our Lord.
I think God is warning us that we have left the sacred truths of His Word, and traded them for the lure of the world’s beauty and power.
I think God is warning us that we have chosen to prefer glorified, powerful personalities over the stripped, crucified, and rejected Lord.
I think God is warning us that there is no salvation in a stage, book deals, speaking circuits, or social media followings.
Is there Hope?
Even as we look into this growing abyss of leader-failure wondering, “Well, who's next!?” there is hope to be found.
Even as many of us lament the testimony and character damage that is coming upon the gospel because of all this, there remains an unshakable hope:
God is redeeming His Church.
Thankfully, the Church does not rise and fall on the backs of sinful men. We’re not limited to looking around for the best of earthly leaders among us hoping they can get the job done. And God is not out of the world searching for those already possessing a platform, a stage, book deals, and great speaking personalities so that He can get the help He needs.
In fact, the story of our Lord’s life would lead us not to such men, but away from them.
God is redeeming His Church in spite of the failures of our greatest leaders.
God is in the midst of all the broken details surrounding these failures, working out His gospel of hope, redeeming those who have been hurt, lied to, manipulated, and abused.
Far from being confined to the lights and sounds of the conference stage, God is at work in the thousands of unnamed churches all across the world who will never be known, and never have worldly influence.
God is at work redeeming the lost and broken in Church communities through the ongoing ministry of His faithful saints who live quiet lives of holiness with no regard for power and prestige.
Perhaps Evangelicalism is having a moment of reckoning. It sure seems to be that way. We have too long been obsessed with human power and prestige. We have too long overlooked the true, ongoing ministry of God’s saints that happens week-to-week in local churches around the world.
In a sobering and somewhat prophetic call, Pastor Juan Sanchez spoke at the 2022 SBC convention, urging pastors to shirk the desire for fame and fortune, and to instead seek the quiet faithfulness of daily holiness. Instead of seeking a personal stage and personal influence, Sanchez admonished pastors to seek the holiness and spiritual maturity of our own people.
I have long found it ironic that so much of evangelicalism’s emphasis and attention happens outside of the Church—albeit with a Church flavor. Conferences, books, para-church organizations…all of them can be really good, but many of them end up being unhelpful, and even harmful. Because…Jesus didn’t die for those things. He didn’t shed His redeeming blood for those organizations. Jesus died to redeem His Church.
There is a great lure to personal fame, influence, power, and the like. Every man must admit that he desires it. But those things come with a host of dangers. Dangers that—if the men listed above don’t already tell us—challenge even the strongest among us.
Even King David, a man after God’s Own heart, fell victim to his power as he committed adultery, lied, and murdered.
Our True Hope.
The best of earthly leaders use their power and influence to point us to Jesus. They steward their leadership to point others to the One Who is our true Leader, our true Teacher, and our true Savior: The resurrected Lord, Jesus Christ.
True shepherds shine the light of leadership on Jesus, and not themselves.
Let’s return to that passage in Ezekiel, because God’s Words are not only confrontational and sobering, but full of gospel hope. After condemning the wicked shepherds who exploit and use the people, God says this…
“I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them…For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for My sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out My sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I Myself will be the Shepherd of my sheep, and I Myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.”
-Notice the redemptive nature of God’s leadership. Even the best of human leaders have a limited capacity for good, and bear the temptation to evil. But God is entirely good. He is without sin (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Jn 1:5).
He is not tempted to evil, abuse, wickedness, or anything of the like. He is not tempted by fame or control. He is not tempted by these things because He owns them all in full. He is God, and there is no other beside Him.
He will not abide wicked shepherds who abuse and exploit His people. He will not abide shepherds who play the hypocrite. He will not abide wicked shepherds who sit on the sidelines while wolves come in and devour His people. In fact, He tells us in Ezekiel that He will require His people from the hand of such wicked overseers. He Himself will redeem His people, He will feed them, care for them, shepherd them, restore them, and give them rest.
And, in what is perhaps the most telling and insightful of these promises, God says, “I will feed them in justice.” The Lord God will commit no injustice among His people. He will feed us with the pure food of His righteousness. He will not abandon us, He will not abuse us, He will not exploit us, and He will not fall in disgrace.
Even as we see leader after leader fall in disgrace, we have this hope: