In my previous post, “Why People Leave the Christian Faith,” I gave three reasons why people leave the Christian faith. In that post I said that instead of placing their faith in Christ, people tend to put their faith in the Bible, in the church, and in doctrines. The Bible, the church, and doctrines are very important components of the Christian faith, but they cannot take the place of Christ. Churches may disappoint people because they are composed of weak human beings. Doctrines may differ from denomination to denomination, but doctrines are only designed to clarify what we believe. The Bible reveals the work of God in the world, but the focus of the Christian faith is Jesus Christ.
In today’s post I want to present a fourth reason why I am a Christian. I am a Christian because I know whom I have believed, not who I have believed, the who being church leaders. Many people put their faith in pastors, evangelists, priests, or rabbis and when they fail or fall, then the faith of many is affected.
Those who leave the Christian faith because they are offended or hurt by church leaders should remember the admonition of God: “Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans, who rely on human strength and turn their hearts away from the Lord” (Jeremiah 17:5).
The decision that Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson made to abandon the faith and to kiss Christianity goodbye is not unique to them. The people of Israel also abandoned God. The Lord said to the people of Judah, “You have abandoned me and turned your back on me, says the Lord. . . . I am tired of always giving you another chance” (Jeremiah 15:6).
Why did Israel abandon God? The prophetic books of the Old Testament give several reasons:
Israel’s prophets were arrogant; they were treacherous men (Zephaniah 3:4).
Israel’s priests profaned what was holy (Zephaniah 3:4).
Israel’s teachers taught lies and falsehoods and thus did not help the people to turn from their evil ways (Jeremiah 23:22).
The shepherds of Israel took care of themselves instead of taking care of their flock (Ezekiel 34:2-5).
But poor leadership was not the only reason the people abandoned God. The people of Israel were destroyed because they did not know the difference between good and evil (Hosea 4:6). They went into exile for lack of understanding of their responsibility before God (Isaiah 5:13).
In addition, the leaders of the nation and the people who followed them would not listen to the call for a change of attitude. The people were as stiff-necked as their ancestors had been. The people did not trust in the Lord their God. They rejected God’s teaching and the covenant God had made with their ancestors and the warnings God had given them through the prophets. They followed the work of their hands, worthless idols, and in turn they themselves became as worthless as their idols (2 Kings 17:14-15).
This is what Israel had done. The Lord said: “For my people have done two evil things: They have abandoned me–the fountain of living water. And they have dug for themselves cracked cisterns that can hold no water at all!” (Jeremiah 2:13).
Notice that God said: “My people.” They were God’s people, but they had abandoned God. They had abandoned God, the fountain of living water in order to satisfy their own desires. They wanted to be satisfied with water from cisterns, the work of their own hands. Instead of trusting in God, the people of Israel decided to go alone, to do what they wanted to do. They decided to be independent of God only to discover that in the hour of their greatest need, they were all alone, deprived of divine help.
The tragic result of living without God is clearly seen in the book of Lamentations: “How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her” (Lamentations 1:1-2).
Jerusalem represents the people of Israel. The people of Israel had gone into an exile of affliction and hard servitude because they had left God in order to go alone. The people left God in order to find solace among the works of their hands only to discover that at the time of their deepest despair, when they were facing the darkest night of their soul, they were all alone, deprived of the God who could help them, with none to comfort them.
The people of Israel became like the prophets of Baal. At a time when the people needed help beyond themselves, they cried for help but there was no response because there was no one there to answer them (1 Kings 18:26). People who abandon God face the risk of being spiritually alone in their time of need, deprived of the only one who can truly help them.
The Bible says that when leaders fail, the people suffer: “My people have become lost sheep; Their shepherds have led them astray” (Jeremiah 50:6). The book that Joshua Harris wrote, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, has affected many people in different ways.
Juliet Vedral wrote an article for Sojourners, “What Happened After Evangelicals Kissed Dating Goodbye,” in which she asked people who were affected by the book to share their experience with her. Vedral wrote, “After the statement was released, I put out a call on Facebook for people to share whether or how I Kissed Dating Goodbye affected their experiences with dating, marriage, and sex. Reading through these comments and private messages was heartbreaking as most of the respondents had highly negative replies. Most of the people who responded expressed how the purity movement in general and the book in particular warped their views of dating, marriage, and themselves.”
Many people responded to her request. Several people said that the book hurt them in different ways. One respondent said that the purity culture led “to a lot of unhealthy attitudes in my family and church about dating.” Another respondent wrote, “I wish more leaders from all sectors would take ownership of the mistakes and missteps they make.”
It is impossible to estimate how many people have left the church or lost their faith because of failed leadership inside the church or inside the synagogue. Sexual abuse by the clergy and the sexual violation of minors in the Catholic Church has brought shame to the church and disrepute to pastoral leadership. In the midst of all this tragedy, Christians are called to remain firm in Christ. As one of the respondents wrote, leaders should “take ownership of the mistakes and missteps they make.”
Juliet Vedral concluded her article with these words: “I’m sure [Joshua Harris] is fully cognizant that his ideas had consequences that he never imagined. What gives me hope, especially after all these conversations, was that all of the people who shared their stories still profess faith in Christ. It is a testament to God’s grace that despite our foolish, feeble, and fearful mistakes, despite our best efforts at complicating the already challenging life of faith, no matter what books are published, Jesus still gets the last word.”
That is the answer. People who remain strong in Christ can overcome the disappointment of failed pastoral leadership. The Bible encourages believers to persevere. James wrote: “Blessed are those who persevere because they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12). Jesus said: “But if you remain faithful even when facing death, I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).
Church leaders may fall and will fail, but Christ will never fail those whose faith remains in him. As the author of the Hebrew puts it, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). Or as the NLT puts it, Christ is the one “who initiates and perfects our faith.”
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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