This week, Liberty University announced an “independent inquiry” into the university’s former president.
I remember will Bill Hybels resigned from Willow Creek, a megachurch in suburban Chicago in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations. I remember earlier this summer when Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California announced an independent investigation into there former pastor in the wake of massive failures of leadership when he allowed one of his children (who had admitted sexual attraction to minors) to continue working with the youth program.
Liberty will do an independent investigation. But they had let Falwell run roughshod and embarrass the university time and again. Even before last month’s explosive reports about multiple affairs from Falwell’s wife and allegations that Jerry Falwell was very much aware of the affairs, he had done several things which should have led to the university removing him from leadership.
For Falwell, the independent investigation will be “a thorough investigation into all facets of Liberty University operations during Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s tenure as President, including but not limited to financial, real estate, and legal matters.”
Obviously there’s nothing wrong from learning from mistakes. But in the wake of scandals in the evangelical world, the “independent investigation” seems to be the flavor of the month.
The basics of what goes wrong in these situations aren’t great mysteries. You have highly influential leaders who help to raise or maintain the high profile status of a church (or institution). And because of the charisma and skills (and ability to generate revenue) of the leader, they largely go unchecked.
Instead of organizations needing to do independent investigations as damage control, what churches and Christian colleges need to do is to do the right things in the beginning. In other words: have systems to keep leaders accountable
People are sinful. That should never be a surprise. But that’s why Christians need other Christians. Knives sharpening knives. You need leaders who are accountable and where there are honorable people who know them and who know their struggles. You need people who love the leader. But who don’t excuse or look away from, or justify sin. That isn’t love. What you need is people who love the leader enough to where they can speak into difficult situations and point out patterns of sin in the hopes of bringing restoration. And you need it an an environment where those friends can lovingly confront the leader without being punished or harassed for it.
Without that, many more independent investigations will be needed, because the sinfulness of the human heart isn’t going away.
I think about many of the popular evangelical leaders who have fallen from grace in recent years. For at least some of them, I do wonder how different things could have been had they been surrounded by people who cared enough to sometimes say the difficult things.
In 1948, as he was coming to national prominence, Billy Graham and his close ministry associates signed the “Modesto Manifesto” where they had the forethought to hold themselves to a set of standards regarding sexual morality, finances, interactions with local churches, and publicity. Part of what developed from this meeting was the famous “Billy Graham Rule” where Graham would not travel with, eat lone with, or spend time alone with a woman who was not his wife.
Their agreement worked as non of those men was ever legitimately accused of a moral failing.
And certainly the greatest set of standards for Christian leaders is found in the Bible.
Titus 1:6-9 says:
if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
1 Timothy 3:1-7 says:
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
While Falwell wasn’t a pastor, nevertheless, those would have been good standards to still demand from the president of America’s largest Christian university.
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