Disclosure: John Wesley Reid worked for Liberty University as a national recruiter for nearly three years and since moving to Washington DC has interviewed Jerry Falwell numerous times as a reporter. He currently contributes to Liberty University's Falkirk Center for Faith and Liberty as a writer and strategist.
Over the past year or so, students and alumni of Liberty University have shared a common mantra aimed at Jerry Falwell Jr.:
“The world is watching.”
The statement surfaced routinely when Falwell made headlines from an off-color joke or poorly worded statement.
Now in the wake of a photo-gone-viral taken of Falwell while on vacation, a photo that was blown out of proportion but inappropriate nonetheless, Falwell has been asked by Liberty University’s board of trustees to take an indefinite leave of absence from his role as chancellor and president.
I agree this decision was probably best, and I hope and pray that Falwell’s time away from Liberty University, whether temporary or permanent, is every bit restorative to him and his family and that anyone who may have been hurt by Falwell finds true healing.
But in the name of Elmer Towns and every book he’s ever written, please have some compassion in your responses to Falwell and his family. Remember, beloved Christian, never think that you are outside the possibility of great sin and public scrutiny. Respond biblically, the way you would want to be treated.
“Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father" (1 Timothy 5:1).
Unfortunately, a quick scroll through social media reveals a disheartening response from many in the form of mockery, laughter, and other unbiblical reactions. This posture is not okay. Such self-righteousness stems from an abhorrent theology that has manifested into such piety that people have NO mercy, NO grace, and NO compassion for what sin has done to a fellow believer.
The world is watching.
Indeed, the world is watching the Falwells of the Church and the respondents. Do we want the world to see us mock and laugh at a fallen believer or do we want the world to see accountability through a merciful gospel-centered and spiritually restorative fashion?
On this topic, I spoke with one of the most encouraging young couples the Church has ever raised, and their wisdom was just as satisfying as it was convicting. Kyle and Lauren Smith, both former worship leaders at Liberty University are no stranger to seeing Christian leaders ousted. The Smiths led worship at Harvest Bible Chapel when Pastor James MacDonald was released from his position.
On the issue of navigating love and accountability, Kyle said: “Grace and love are not at war with accountability. They are not separate, rather they are co-dependent on each other. Either one, without the other is unbiblical.” Lauren echoed Kyle’s thoughts and added: “Having been through this twice before, I’ve learned to be a better friend to those involved, regardless of their role. I know the pain that the fallen leader feels, and I don’t want to multiply it, so I will love them with Christ’s love — with grace and accountability.”
It should be noted that restoration does not always equate to reinstatement. Falwell can and should find spiritual restoration, which is something we should all hope and pray for. This does not necessarily equate to his reinstatement as chancellor and president.
As Solomon said, “there’s nothing new under the sun,” and thus the world will always be watching. Right now, there’s a focus on Liberty University and, by extension, a focus on the Church. Think of it as the eye of Sauron in Lord of the Rings. The eye was constantly seeking the lost ring of power, and when any hint of the ring’s location was presented, Sauron intensely focused on it and dispatched his Nazguls (dragons) to hunt it down. It was at those moments when Frodo and Sam had to be extra thorough in strategizing their next steps. The Church is always in the scope of the world, but right now the focal point is intensified and how Christians respond to Falwell’s recent departure from Liberty University will have gospel-centric implications.
Before remarking on Falwell, examine your heart.
“A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back” (Proverbs 29:11).
Criticism and defense are both justified responses to Falwell. But the motive behind these responses makes all the difference. If you criticize him because you have a vendetta and thus anytime he fails is a “gotcha” opportunity for you, you’re wrong. If you defend him by justifying all of his failures and make no mention of his need to repent, you’re wrong. If your commentary on social media includes “ha” “Byyeee” “fiinnaalllyyy” then you’re wrong.
Are you so out of touch with the feelings of others, not to mention your own sin, that you’d publicly post something that will only advance their pain? I’m not opposed to public critique; indeed, I rebuke any notion that public rebuke is always wrong. But scripture is very clear that accountability should be taken in private and then gradually increasing the number of exhorters as the sin remains unrepentant. That said, if we are to exhort accountability publicly, we must do so with absolute caution and scrutiny. Remember – the world is watching.
“Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles,” (Proverbs 24:17)
If scripture instructs us to have such a posture towards our enemies, so much more than should we avoid celebrating the fall of a fellow believer.
Pray for Falwell’s repentance, and willingly offer generous grace and mercy.
While Falwell was often misrepresented or misunderstood, even he acknowledges areas where he missed the mark — big time. As of now, he has not made a public statement, but we should all hope and pray that he assumes a posture of humility, repents, and seeks intrusive spiritual discipleship.
Grief saturates the recent events with Falwell and Liberty University, but such grief compounds when Christians respond with mockery, laughter, and celebration unpaired with compassion.
Falwell is no longer at the helm of Liberty University — but the world is still watching and now they’re watching you, Church.
The world saw Falwell’s brokenness, will the world see your mercy?
John Wesley Reid is a Washington D.C.-based journalist and political commentator. A native of southern California, John studied political science at Biola University after serving in the Marine Corps. His favorite past times are studying theology, running, playing Skipbo, traveling, and dropping the classiest of puns.Social media handles are all @johnwesleyreid