Many words have already been spilled surrounding the downfall of Jerry Falwell Jr from his leadership at Liberty University. Rather than dealing with all the details of what happened and why, I want to take a few minutes to reflect on how Christians respond to situations like this.
No Christian Liberty Without Confession
The words “liberty” and “freedom” are synonyms. The gospel is a message that proclaims liberty and adoption for sinners who are enslaved by their sin. Through faith in Jesus Christ – who is he, what he has done, and what promises he will keep – sinners are set free from the slave-master of sin and adopted as children of God, heirs of God’s promise.
Confession of sin is central to the Christian’s profession of faith. This is a statement every Christian needs to confess in order to be a Christian, “I am a sinner. Here are some ways I know I’ve sinned. I cannot overpower sin on my own, and I cannot justify myself. There is no excuse. Before God I deserve nothing but judgment for the ways I have dishonored him as the Holy God who created me and is worthy of my unwavering trust and obedience. But thanks be to God, who gave his son, Jesus Christ, as the perfect substitute who took my judgment in order that my sin would be more than overlooked – it was paid for. I have no need to hide my sin, because it’s all been covered by the grace of God through Jesus Christ. Therefore, I can walk in newfound freedom and peace, because I have been set free from the slave-master of sin and I’ve been adopted as a dearly loved son/daughter of God.”
If this is the foundational confession of Christianity, we should not be surprised by the depravity of sinful men and women. Jerry has professed to be a Christian – and this is why so many are deeply troubled by what has come to light.
[update: David Nasser, LU’s Campus Pastor, spoke in chapel today, saying, “I am sorry. In my opinion, you as a Liberty student deserve better. And the embarrassment that’s been brought upon you as a Liberty student, and more importantly brought upon the name of Christ, is wrong.” Following Nasser’s chapel session, Falwell contacted Nasser to ask where he had sinned. For more about Nasser’s message, click the link above.]
Accountability is Key
Christian leaders are called to lead with integrity as servant-leaders towards those who follow them. NonChristian leadership books are increasingly saying the same thing – this is simply a mark of good leadership. People want to follow leaders they can trust. Although leaders who drive and dominate their teams might “get things done,” their followers are merely cogs in the machine that make the organization grow. But integrity and a posture of servanthood bestow dignity while assuring teammates that the leader isn’t about his own self-glory, but about blessing those who benefit from their corporate mission.
This type of leadership requires accountability. Being surrounded by “yes-men” who will agree with and affirm whatever the leader says is deadly. If a leader never hears disagreement, they have either surrounded themselves with these “yes-men” or their leadership style is so domineering that people who disagree remain silent because they’re too afraid to speak up. When people make mistakes or a project doesn’t work out as hoped for, the leader’s response sets an atmosphere of trust or suspicion. Leaders who are harsh towards their followers, demand perfection, and verbally attack people who challenge their ideas have created a toxic atmosphere of suspicion. And yet they themselves demand unwavering trust and obedience – anything less is perceived as insubordination.
Jerry Falwell Jr. would have benefitted from allowing others to challenge his ideas and holding him accountable. Instead, he demonstrated a consistent posture of antagonism towards his critics and pointed to Liberty University’s enrollment and financial growth as proof that he was an effective leader. But in the end, Christian leaders will be accountable for their integrity and servanthood… or for their lack thereof.
Grace for Jerry
No one is “too far gone” to receive the grace of God by confession and faith. While there are many who seem to be delighted by Jerry’s downfall, Christians should not be among them. At a time like this, it’s helpful to remember the prophet Obadiah’s message, rebuking the Edomites when they celebrated over Israel’s destruction and exile. It is not right to celebrate over the failures of men and women you don’t like. Instead, Christians are called to hold out the grace and mercy they themselves have received. Remember that you, too, were a hopeless sinner who was saved by nothing short of the grace of God.
I believe Jared Wilson said it best in his tweet below.
There are some who say, “Shouldn’t we show him grace?” Yes, we should. But leadership (especially Christian leadership) involves accountability. As a representative of Liberty University, but even more-so, as a representative of Jesus Christ – it is good and right for him to step down and lose his position of power because of this hypocrisy. This type of discipline may be the very best thing that could happen for him and his wife, that they might see the depth of their sin and need for genuine repentance.
Yes, we should pray for Jerry and invite him to receive the grace of God. But no, that doesn’t mean that accountability and discipline are wrong. God will hold all people to account for their lives, especially those in places of spiritual leadership – and he has been in such a role, whether he wants to admit it or not. It is better to be chastised now and repent than it is to have his sin remain private and be chastised by the Lord.
A Lesson for All
The lesson we all have to learn is his: sin loves the darkness, but God is the light. What you do in the dark will come to the light… eventually. You can either confess your sin and walk in grace-drenched repentance, or you can hide it from others and pretend to be someone you aren’t. The first option is the way of Christian liberty; the second reflects someone who is still in slavery to sin. While it may be easy to point fingers and cast blame, take this moment to do your own heart-work. Talk with a pastor or mature Christian, confess your sin and ask for help to find freedom in the grace of Jesus Christ. This is the path of Christian liberty.
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