What should we think when a highly influential, public, outspoken defender of the faith fails to live up to the faith he professes? Should we rally behind him? Should we decry his behavior as quickly as possible? Should we distance ourselves from him?
If you’re like me, your first reaction is to face-palm. After which you begin fearing their failure will undermine your message. Finally, you start plotting to ensure you never ever wind up in their shoes. But if you’re like me, I would like to remind us both of a couple things.
First, failure is fully consistent with the Gospel. In many ways it is the foundation of the Gospel message. Humans are a mess. We fail. We recognize that the GOOD is something greater than and beyond ourselves. So, it is not surprising when we fall short of our ideals.
Second, truth is not dependent on the teller. I hold to a correspondence view of truth, as I suspect do most people in the world who have never stopped to consider that their could possibly be any other view. This means that truth claims, by definition of being true, correspond to reality, to the way things really are. Their truth has nothing to do with the number or quality of people who adhere to them.
A distinction must be made. How truth is grounded (that which makes it true) differs from how an individual comes to know it is true. The types of people who hold to a particular truth claim make a huge difference when people are evaluating competing truth claims. It is the Boy-who-cried-wolf principle. I am much less likely to believe the person who has repeatedly proven to be false. However, my failure to believe him, justified as it may be, does nothing alleviate the fears of his sheep who are in danger all the same. This means that we have an obligation to determine the truth no matter who happens to be the messenger.
Third, Christianity is not primarily a moral proposition. It is not about behavior modification. It is not a shiny new coat of paint. Christianity is a set of values. Primary among these values is that God is of inestimable value and that creatures are valuable only in and through His creative activity. But these values are not diminished or undermined by immoral behavior. Rather, they are reinforced. We fail. God shows grace and God brings judgment. God’s character is affirmed. The claims of Christ and His followers are strengthened.
Finally, how Christians handle failure matters. Our failures (yes, even moral failure) can speak loudly about the forgiveness and grace of God. Remember “Saint” Paul, the worst of sinners? If more Christians would stand in solidarity with public figures who fall, if more Christians would admit their own failures, even the big sins would show forth God’s grace. If non-Christians were used to hearing on a daily basis from their Christian co-workers, neighbors, and family members,
“I’m sorry. I did x. Doing X is wrong. Will you please forgive me?”
they would not be so shocked when a public figure admits he or she also did x.