Moral scandal. Deconversion. Ex-vangelicals. It seems like every week we hear a new story of someone who claimed to follow Christ committing grave moral sin or walking away from the faith.
It gets discouraging, doesn’t it? It’s even worse when the person has held a position of leadership in a church or ministry.
Maybe it’s a preacher or author you have followed and learned from, someone who has helped you grow in your faith. Maybe it’s someone you know personally who has finally said I’m done – I don’t believe this anymore. Maybe it’s a public figure who has been living a double life.
These situations can leave us hurt and grieving. We feel shocked, and then we feel sad. Maybe we even feel angry and betrayed. How could this person who helped us so much, this person we loved, just walk away from it all? And now that they have, what do we do? How do we wrestle with that in our own hearts? Was it all fake? Was all the stuff they did for the gospel legitimate? What about the people they impacted?
God’s Word is Always the Answer
These are all important questions. But before we dive into them, there are two grounding truths I want you to hold onto from Scripture:
- No genuine believer can ever lose their salvation. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29).
This should give us great comfort, child of God! Jesus promised that His true sheep would hear His voice and that they would never perish. No one – not even we ourselves – can pluck us out of the Father’s hand.
- The failure of a ministry leader does not negate the truth of Scripture. When a ministry leader falls, it may feel like we should throw out everything they taught. Surely, we can’t accept the words of someone who did not live out what they said they believed – can we?
It’s right to closely examine the teaching of someone who has walked away from the faith or who has lived a life of immorality while claiming to preach the gospel. It could be an indicator that something was off in their belief system. But we should also remember that truth is truth, no matter who said it. In the end, every teacher is a flawed messenger. The Bible is still God’s Word, even in the hands of someone who has failed or fallen.
With those two thoughts in mind, let’s take a look at five questions we might ask when we hear about a tragedy of deconversion or moral failure.
- I’m sad and angry. What should I do with that?
It’s natural to feel these emotions when a fellow believer falls into sin, especially when they have hurt others or caused someone to turn away from the gospel. That’s a healthy, biblical response. In 2 Corinthians 11:29, Paul told the Corinthian church that he burned with indignation (another word for anger) when false teachers caused someone to fall. God is angry over sin, and Jesus displayed righteous anger when he threw the money changers out of the temple. These are all cases where an offense against God and the gospel results in righteous anger. It’s right to be angry about sin. It’s also right to feel sadness over the effects of sin in our fallen world. When a ministry leader has been dishonest, rejected his faith, committed immorality, or participated in abuse, we should grieve!
But we shouldn’t stop there. Emotions like anger and sadness are meant to drive us to the One who can right wrongs. Here are some things our anger and sadness over sin should compel us to do:
- Examine our own hearts – Our response should be grounded in gospel humility. We may be tempted to take pride in our own self-righteousness (“Thank God I would never do that”), but the truth is that any of us can be deceived by Satan’s lies. We would all run full bore toward sin in the total opposite direction of God if Christ did not pull us back. Instead, our response should be like the tax collector who fell on his face and cried “God have mercy on me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13).
- Pray for our leaders – Ask God to protect those who watch over His flock. Peter urges believers to be vigilant because Satan is walking about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour (I Peter 5:8). In our day of relentless temptations to pursue fame and glory and of easy access to immorality via social media and private WiFi connections, our leaders desperately need the prayers of God’s people.
- Pray for one another – Ministry leaders aren’t the only ones targeted by Satan. We all need the supernatural protection of prayer and the loving watch-care of our brothers and sisters in Christ as we follow God. This is one of the reasons that we so desperately need to be connected to a gospel-centered local church. When we are straying toward sin, we need fellow believers to warn us and to hold us accountable within the context of a loving community of faith. We need a church family that is going to admonish us when we have failed, pursue us when we have gone astray, and restore us when we repent.
- Support those who have been hurt – If the person’s actions have resulted in harm to others, we must come alongside those people with love and grace. Whether it is a family whose father has abandoned them, a church whose pastor has committed moral sin, or individuals who have suffered abuse from someone they trusted, we as the church must gather around them with support in every way possible. We must listen to them, believe them, encourage them, meet their physical needs, take legal action if warranted, and lift them up before the throne of our heavenly Father.
- Was that person really saved? Or was it all a lie?
Let’s return to our first grounding truth: No one who has been genuinely converted by the power of the gospel can ever lose their salvation. We are saved, and kept, by grace alone. That leaves us with two possibilities when someone walks away from the faith or falls into sin:
- They were never truly saved. When someone “deconverts,” they are saying that they once were a child of God, but they have chosen not to believe anymore. That can’t happen! If someone genuinely walks away from all faith, never to return, then they were never truly following Christ, as a converted believer, in the first place.
- They are really saved, but their story is not finished yet. A person’s actions and statements today do not necessarily define their whole life story. Believers can rebel and commit any grave sin that unbelievers can, but when they do, God will chasten them until they repent or until He takes them home to heaven. He will not ever leave a genuine believer to continue in sin without chastening. If someone is truly a child of God, they cannot lose their salvation.
The tricky part is that we can’t know, for sure, which of those two categories a person falls into. Only God can see a person’s heart. So what do we do? We pray for them. We pursue them in love. We continue to preach the gospel to them as we have opportunity. And we remember that this failure is not necessarily the end of the story. The gospel is still “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16), and it still has power to change hearts.
- What do we do with a fallen leader’s teaching?
Maybe you have books that were written by someone who no longer claims to be a believer. Maybe you sat under the ministry of someone who lived a double life of immorality. Maybe someone you learned from at a conference or online has committed grave moral error. What do you do with that teaching?
Here are a few guiding principles:
- Truth is truth. The Bible has not changed. To the extent that a fallen leader taught the Scripture, that truth is still valid. However:
- No one has a corner on the truth. In other words, if the person was teaching the Bible, there is nothing they said that you can’t learn from other sources: the Bible itself, of course, but also other godly teachers and preachers. The truth wasn’t unique to them.
- A person’s immoral lifestyle can affect our response to the truth. If that person’s moral failing or current lack of faith is a barrier to you learning from the true words of Scripture that they taught, then set their teaching aside. It is not necessary for you to grow as a believer. But remember, it’s not the Bible truth you are setting aside – just the presentation of the truth in that particular author or teacher’s words.
- What about the impact they had in my life?
This question is a little more personal than just a book or sermon. What if you sat under that person’s teaching, received counsel from them, or served alongside them as a brother or sister in Christ? What if it’s a friend or family member who has walked away from everything you believe? You’ll undoubtedly feel a deeper level of grief and betrayal than you would for someone you know only through a public ministry.
The response is still the same, however. Pray for them. Pray for their repentance and restoration. Continue to pursue them with the gospel in love. Remember that truth is still truth. If they counseled you from Scripture, then the things you learned are still true, despite the failure of the messenger.
If it’s someone you know personally, you may be tempted to withdraw your friendship or sternly rebuke them. I would caution you, however, to continue speaking in love. You don’t have to condone what they do or say, but you can still extend friendship to them. That may be the very tool God uses to turn them again toward saving faith.
- My faith is shaken. If that person fell, how do I know I won’t?
Satan loves to use the moral failings of others as an opportunity to sow doubt and fear in our own hearts. So how can we combat those whispers of the enemy? First, cling to the truth of eternal security. Romans 8:38-39 teaches us that “Neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” When God says nothing, he means nothing! Once you belong to God, you are His for eternity!
Second, gospel humility must once again guide our thinking. It’s possible that we could be deceived by our own self-righteousness. We could be resting in something or someone other than Christ alone, and His gospel. So then we must ask: What is my confidence in? Is it in my ability to be good and perform for God, or is it in the finished work of Christ? Am I going to believe God or my experience? Am I truly following Jesus, or some other person?
The only way to fight fear and doubt regarding eternal security or anything else is to return to the truth of Scripture. Our faith is not dependent on the leadership of other people or their perseverance in the gospel. If they fall, we grieve and pray, but we should not despair. Instead, we fix our hope on what God has said.
Christ Is Always Our Hope
After Jesus fed the 5,000, some of the Jews began grumbling about his claim to be the bread of life. They could not understand what he was telling them, and many stopped following him. It was a hard truth – so hard that Jesus asked the twelve disciples, “Do you want to go away as well?”
Simon Peter’s next words are some of my favorite in all of Scripture. With his characteristic forthrightness, Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
Peter himself would soon learn that even those who love Christ can fall into error, but there is always hope for forgiveness and restoration. When you see someone fall, that’s not necessarily the end of their story. The gospel is still the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes.
So what should we do when a Christian leader falls? We should run to Christ, our only hope of salvation. Where else can we go?