A recently retired Ugandan Anglican Archbishop, Stanley Ntagali, has been exposed over a sexual scandal. Sound familiar? Well, there was also Ravi Zacharias and Carl Lentz. And that’s only counting the last three months. In fact, there seems to have been a spate of high profile, or celebrity pastors and Christian leaders being involved in scandals over the past couple of years. These spectacular falls are often shocking. Yet, at the same time, moral failure is unsurprising.
The list of high profile Christians embroiled in scandal will continue to grow.
For as students of the Bible we know the destructive potential for ruinous sin that dwells in every person—even Christian leaders. Therefore, the list of high profile Christians embroiled in scandal will continue to grow. Archbishop Stanley Ntagali was not the first. Nor will he be the last.
How Do We Address Moral Failure & Scandal?
Thus the real question that faces the church is this: how do we address moral failure and scandal? The devil prowls like a roaring lion, seeking to devour the faith and witness of God’s people (1 Peter 5:8). Whether we sit in the pews or step into the pulpit, our enemy pursues and sometimes overcomes us. As a result of his persuasive work, along with our own sinful natures, men like Stanley Ntagali, and many others, fall into scandals that rock the church.
So what is our response? How do we speak about these revelations? Should we even speak about them? Below I want to propose three paths.
Sin should grieve us. Those who grieve little about sin appreciate the Saviour little. Thus, moral failure should set us mourning. As Jesus would tell the Pharisees rebuking him for dining with detested Roman Empire-friendly tax collectors, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Understanding we are all sin-sick is an important first step towards mourning sin and scandal.
Understanding we are all sin-sick is an important first step towards mourning sin and scandal.
The Danger Of Moralistic Legalism
Yet we rarely see this in an African congregation. Instead there is a moralistic, legalist attitude that refuses to mourn moral failure in biblically healthy ways. The kind Jesus confronts here, for he taught the Jews that a seemingly vile tribe mate – even one working for the oppressive Roman Empire – is no more a sinner than you; a self-righteous Pharisee.
We are always in the company of fellow sinners. Clad in ecclesial collars and neckties alike.
So, weeping over catastrophe in our congregations, and among Christian leaders, reminds us that we are always in the company of fellow sinners. Clad in ecclesial collars and neckties alike, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). That reality, and recognition, is where true healing begins. Well-diagnosed sin is the first step towards well-treated sin.
True biblical self-assessment is not for the timid. Courage means facing your flaws and failings. It means staring long and hard into the mirror of God’s word as well as our own souls (James 1:22-25). We must admit sin’s hold on us so that we can receive help.
As I’ve already noted, it’s the sick that need a doctor. And, on most occasions, being honest with your doctor about awkward infirmities is not only humbling but courageous. It is also helpful and health-giving in the long term.
The cost of courage may be the accusation of ‘exposing our own.’ But we must obey and honour God, not men.
Calling Out Moral Failure Is Courageous
In the case of the Church of Uganda, or like RZIM’s decision to hire an independent investigator, courage means calling sin out for what it is.
We cannot bow down to manmade hierarchies or protect the esteemed and influential. Let us not manoeuvre around what is biblically clear, no matter what it costs us. Therefore, the cost of courage may be the accusation of ‘exposing our own.’ But we must obey and honour God, not men (Acts 5:29).
A damaged church reputation is better than covering up serious sin and moral failure. Paul’s opposition to Peter in Galatians 2:11-14 reveals this kind of courage and audacity. When Peter seemed to be slipping into an anti-gospel posture, Paul exposed him.
Few things are more damaging to the church’s reputation and witness than the covering up of scandal and abuse.
A Cover Up Is Worse Than A Scandal
In fact, this courage is perhaps even more explicit in 1 Corinthians 5. Paul does not shy away from calling out serious moral failure in the congregation. He was not concerned about the public perceptions of the young church in Corinth. Instead he called for the members of that church to throw the unrepentant sinner out (1 Corinthians 5:2).
Importantly, there was to be no delight in this exclusion. Rather Paul is concerned with that man’s salvation (1 Corinthians 5:5). It takes real courage to confront sin. Therefore we must not be afraid of what others will think. In fact, few things are more damaging to the church’s reputation and witness than the covering up of scandal and abuse.
Finally, humility will mean that we are slow to speak—yes, and to write—about these events. We must always bear in mind our own clay feet, which means we too could fall into similar, serious sin. Calling out sin and exposing high profile failings, or the abuses of celebrity pastors, is not an exercise in moral superiority. Here we must remember Paul’s warning, “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
Christian Leaders Are Sinners Too
African culture is often proud, and typically prizes secrecy that protects leadership figures. Many African fathers never apologise, even in the face of serious failures. A similar culture is often imported into the body of Christ. And, as a result, serious issues are regularly hushed for the sake of public relations.
If it were not for grace, you would be the next headline.
Paul spoke candidly about his indwelling sin and ongoing temptations, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). This is an example of real humility. For this man, whom many consider the greatest missionary in Church history, regarded himself as “the worst of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). He was painfully aware of his own fallen capacity to blow it, if left to himself.
Calling out sin and exposing high profile failings, is not an exercise in moral superiority.
In addressing sin, cultivated and uncompromising humility is key. For humility helps us to see that we are ‘cut from the same cloth.’ If it were not for grace, you would be the next headline. This is a virtue that makes us, among others, slow to comment. It should also mean our criticisms are level headed and modest, even muted at times.
Moral Failure in Leaders Takes A Toll
Many churches today are in disarray over the moral failure of leaders. High profile pastors and celebrity Christians seem to be crashing all around. In these times, as in all times, we need to remember the above: mourning, courage and humility. Mourning because we realise sin inhabits us all. Courage because the gospel demands the addressing of sin. Humility because it is by grace we stand.
As we go about addressing sin, we must remember Paul’s caution that enforcers can easily become entangled (Galatians 6:1). This requires self-awareness and humility, just as calling out sin requires courage. Though we mourn serious moral failure and scandals that undermine the church, we must also obey God in carrying out discipline (Matthew 18:15-20).
Christ is still building his church, no matter how many weak site-workers threaten to destroy what is inevitably and eternally going up.
But Christ Is Still Building His Church
This is the much-needed middle ground that only the grace of God can birth amidst rampant moral failure and calamity.
Finally, let us remember that Christ is still building his church, no matter how many weak site-workers threaten to destroy what is inevitably and eternally going up.