Wednesday, October 17, 2012

What to Think When Christians Fall, Hard!

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.


  1. I have to take issue with your contention that truth is not dependent on the teller. Imagine a being with the power and strength of character to make all his pronouncements true. Such a being really could not tell a lie, since everything he said would become true by virtue of his making true whatever he says. I would say that God is such a being, and though we cannot emulate his power, he calls us to emulate his character. In so doing, we too participate in making true what we say. When we succeed, we gain a reputation for integrity and trustworthiness. When we fail we gain a reputation for hypocrisy and equivocation. To the extent that we have the power to fulfill our promises, the truth of what we say does depend on us.

  2. Chip, thanks so much for your challenge. You forced me to clarify my thinking on this issue. Please keep it up!

    Your point is well taken that speaking is itself a causal act that has its own importance and reality. We would do well to remember the power of our words.

    My point about the teller and the truth being distinct is not claim that the teller has no influence on the truth he tells. This is clearly absurd as can be seen easily with a claim such as "I will never speak again". The truth of the claim can easily be refuted by the actions of the teller.

    It may be helpful to state it this way: the claim itself is not falsified by appealing to the person who uttered it, but by appealing to the facts about which it asserts a claim. So, for the claim "I will never speak again", it is important for to know who the "I" is, but even if another person were to say the same thing about me ("he will never speak again"), the truth claim would be the same and therefore independent of the one speaking it.

    Since worldview claims (e.g. Christian theism is true) are so big, they are not made true or false by individual adherents and therefore should not be evaluated by that which has no causal influence over their truth or falsity.

    God, as a perfect and simple being, does not have a distinction between what he claims, what he wills, and what he has the power to accomplish. Hence, he has direct causal influence over his truth claims. Even still, it is the fact of his bringing to be that grounds the truth of his claim, even though these two acts cannot be distinguished in time or causal priority.

  3. After my head*desk moment and pretty much your paragraph two reaction, I try to move quickly on to Matthew 18. Jesus tells us to forgive unconditionally - continually (v15). He didn't say wait for the person to ask for forgiveness. Matthew 18:15-20 outlines how the church should react. After many years of reading the same passage, it occured to me (totally a *duh* moment) that to treat someone like "a Gentile or a tax collector" means that now I need to show them who Jesus is by my actions and continue share His message to them. Whether a person repents of their actions and whether the truth is ever known or not - the Lord has pointed my path out to me.

  4. I agree with you completely when you say “how Christians handle failure matters”. The secular world knows that Christians fail just as much as they do and when we try to hid it and pretend we are better then everyone ells we just make ourselves look self righteous and judgmental of the rest of the world, which only serves to dissuade people from believing in God. If you believe your better then failed Christian leaders then you have already failed you just don’t realize it and if you give it some time you will fail visibly to. I have learned 10 times more from every frailer than I have from any success and not being willing to share that with people is robbing them of the benefit of your knowledge. I have found that all my most successful attempts at sharing God with Soldiers has followed my admittance of at least one of my own failures. When I share my own failures with people they realize that I’m no different than them and if God can still love me, then maybe he can them as well.