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Why leaders fall

Wallace Henley Portrait
Wallace Henley |

In 1956, as a teenager listening to a young evangelist people saw as the next Billy Graham, I gave my life to Christ.

In 1960, as a college student preparing for church ministry, I read that the evangelist was quitting because of Christian leaders and institutions not dealing positively with, in today’s vernacular, “social justice” issues.

Then it was revealed that he had also had an affair with a woman not his wife.

“How could that have happened?” I asked one of my professors.

My teacher’s quick reply: “He believed it could not happen to him.”

Presently, with frequent headlines reporting the fall of leaders and the end of stellar ministries, we ask again: How could it happen?

The reason then and now is often hubris—the mistaken belief that one is above the weaknesses of mere mortals.

“How have the mighty fallen!”  David’s lamentation upon the deaths of King Saul and his son Jonathan—David’s best friend—could be sung today. (2 Samuel 1:27)

Power is the fundamental temptation, as King Saul’s attitudes and actions show. 

In Eden, the primal temptation was: “you shall be as gods.” The serpent taunted Adam and Eve to shove God off the throne of their lives, and replace Him with the self—a move that actually enthrones the adversary and his demons.

Eden is long gone, but the evil one still prowls like a lion looking for someone to devour.

Hubris draws the demonic like a rotting carcass does vultures. Demons will always cluster around centers of power, from the president’s Oval Office in the White House to a pastor’s office in the church house.

The power-temptation’s intensity is magnified when institutionalism suffocates the life and energy of a vital movement, as Findley Edge detailed in his book, “A Quest for Vitality in Religion.”

A movement arises in fiery passion, then experiences rapid growth. The expansion becomes a threat to the status quo, and its establishments try to squelch the movement, even to the point of persecution.  The movement’s popularity, however, continues, along with growth. The status quo establishment realizes it is whipped, and gives grudging tolerance.

With societal acceptance the once-fresh movement now becomes the new status quo. Its preservation becomes more important than the truth that birthed it.

Ultimately a leader, especially a founding leader, can be captured by the delusion that he or she is the identity and embodiment of the institution. Now the survival of the hubristic leader becomes the highest priority, whatever it takes, even cover-ups and justifying bad behavior.

The intention of God is that leaders lead under true authority rather than raw power. Raw power is seized by those with the greatest strength, but authority is granted from the higher to the lower to those under authority. Raw power relies on force, but authority leads from relationship and respect. In the words of my friend Dudley Hall, raw power controls through manipulation, intimidation, condemnation, and domination. Genuine authority leads through service, submission, earned respect, and sharing leadership with others.

Men and women who have come to rely on raw power fall into the delusion of invulnerability.

The destructive behaviors in the secret places of their own lives that they preach against seem somehow permissible for themselves. People applaud them, seek their wisdom, and their work seems to have God’s favor.

The deluded leaders wonder: How can I be wrong when things are so right?

That’s exactly the delusion under which President Nixon was living when he attempted to help structure the Watergate cover-up. He had a breakthrough trip to China, forged new and promising relationships with the Soviet Union that eased Cold War tensions, and had been re-elected as president by one of the greatest margins in history.

Yet he had to relinquish a presidency that held much promise.

What kind of delusion made John F. Kennedy think he could turn the White House into a bawdy house, and Bill Clinton have dalliances in the antechamber of the Oval Office itself?

Now we wonder what kind of hubris-driven insanity makes powerful church leaders believe they can dance on the edge of a black hole without falling in. Why are these leader exposures clustering right now? Why is God allowing things done in dark corners to be brought suddenly into glaring light?

I believe God is purifying His church in preparation for a great revival, perhaps one of the greatest of modern times. I spent much of last year researching and writing a book on the Welsh Revival of 1904-5. It was a true move of God, and, centered in the church, brought transformation to the society.

That Revival was not ignited by the famous institutional preachers, but through Evan Roberts, a coal miner, teenager Florrie Evans, and others like them. The major leaders’ sins were exposed along with everyone else’s. Spiritual hubris in Wales had thrived, brought on by pride over the British principality’s reputation as a “land of revivals.”

Despite the gloss of religious fervor, there was spiritual deadness throughout the society. God had to bring the people and their leaders into a stark confrontation with their own hubris.

Many of the mighty fell so that revival could come.

We need to pray now that the anguish over fallen leaders will pave the way for true revival to energize churches everywhere.

That will turn our tears to joy, and embarrassment to God-honoring humility.

Wallace Henley is senior associate pastor at Houston's Second Baptist Church, and Chair of Belhaven University's Master of Ministry Leadership degree. He is a former White House and Congressional aide, and co-author of "God and Churchill", with Winston Churchill's great-grandson, Jonathan Sandys.

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