The recent rash of marital failures among high-profile Christian leaders is forcing a showdown in the church. It isn’t a showdown between those who have failed and those who might criticize them—it’s a confrontation needed to face down a mind-set that, if left unchanged, will bring an onslaught of hellish delusion. It’s time we take a hard look at why so many marriages—especially of those in leadership—are being torn apart. We need to know how to respond and what the consequences could be if decisive action is not taken now.
There simply is no way to describe the present situation in lesser terms: We are at a point of crisis. Failure has been evident across the entire spectrum, from renowned evangelical Bible preachers to charismatic evangelists, and from noted national youth leaders to ascending Christian TV superstars. Though the unprecedented increase in the number of broken marriages and moral failures occurring in general among church leaders is tragic enough, the crisis is amplified when high-visibility leaders go in and out of marriages.
Sheep follow shepherds, and multitudes mimic the more visible. Struggling couples reduce their own resolve to resist society’s indifference toward divorce or immorality when the collapse of their spiritual heroes’ marriages seems to justify, if not normalize, those same practices. Comfort, convenience and human counsel replace commitment, constancy and the place of the cross in the marriage.
Confused and biblically unfocused thinking is at the center of this crisis and has amplified its impact. It begins with understandable sympathy appropriately shown for fallen or broken leaders. Certainly, a loving concern for such leaders is fitting.
But unbalanced views of Bible-based disciplines have become prevalent in the church today. And so have intentionally neglectful attitudes that waive the application of biblical wisdom and truth, which is needed to rightly serve the moment and is essential to sustain the pure passion and dynamic vitality of the church. Several concerns rise out of this crisis.
First is the widespread unawareness of the priority of clearly stated biblical qualifications for ministry leadership. Companion to this is the lost emphasis on the intrinsic relationship between a spiritual leader’s marital commitment and moral fidelity as fundamentally required for their continued ministry.
Second, many deny or refuse to apply biblical leadership standards when they have been violated. Whether the failure was due to marital stress or outright sin, feelings are allowed to rule rather than biblical principles, and true life-restoring ministry is pre-empted. Wise and righteous dealings in graciously removing a leader from ministry for healing, counsel or other supportive care are disdained as either impractical or “too hard to apply,” and humanistic means are substituted for divine directives.
Third, if sound, scriptural administration of the issues surrounding the church, its leaders and their marriages is not soon arrived at with solidarity, there is reason to prophesy widespread deception on other issues as well. The “itching ears” characteristic forecast for the last days represents the mind-set of some of those in church leadership today. It’s a setup for delusion with disastrous consequences. Faith and Commitment a few years ago Charisma reported the response of one highly visible church leader who divorced his wife only to remarry within a week: “God didn’t call me to marriage,” he stated. “He called me to ministry.” His remarks were convincing enough to justify his actions in the eyes of the majority of his followers.
There are multiple ironies in such an unbiblical utterance given in such a compromised circumstance, but the bottom line rings out in tragic clarity—several thousand people bought it. Apparently they either thought the idea was a spiritual one, or they didn’t care if it wasn’t.
In contrast with the glibness suggesting a nobility in “dedication to ministry over marriage” is the truth of God’s Word, which casts the issue in a vastly different light. According to the Scriptures, if a leader is married, two things are foundational: (1) the commitment he shows toward his marriage determines his right to lead as a servant of Christ in the church; and (2) the quality he reveals of his will to grow in his marriage determines the manner in which he will model as a representative of Christ to the church.
There is no escaping the two-edged truth unveiled in the New Testament. Because heaven’s Bridegroom has come to earth to win a bride for Himself, the principles of both commitment (faith) and constancy (growth) are “locked” in the imagery of the marriage covenant between a man and a woman. Further, no one is more accountable to learn and grow in the lifestyle of modeling this commitment than a leader given by Christ to serve His bride.
No gifts of a brilliant leader, however remarkable, ought to be allowed to substitute for the will to increase in the graces required for two different humans to grow together. No fruit of statistical achievement is a worthy replacement for the required development of the fruit of the Spirit needed for a husband and wife to learn to live together for a lifetime.
Ephesians 5:22-33 not only points to the demanding nature of commitment needed by a husband and wife to make a marriage work, but it concludes with these sweeping words: “I speak concerning Christ and [His] church” (v. 32, NKJV). Forty years of experience and observation of leaders has taught me one profound fact in this regard: A married leader will eventually, and inevitably, treat Jesus’ bride the way he treats his own. Likewise, a parent will teach and lead the family of God the same way they lead their own children.
The Ephesians 5 idea of true faith in Christ and His faithful commitment to His own is inextricably linked throughout God’s Word to the figure of a faithful, growing marriage. Jesus communicated this idea in His parable of the returning bridegroom (see Matt. 25:1-13).
His use of the figure fills the bridegroom-bride relationship with more than passion: The central issue is fidelity to a promise on the groom’s part and constancy of devotion on the bride’s. Time can dampen fervor, but true love transcends emotion and remains committed.
The depiction of living faith as a marriage is found throughout the Bible, beginning with the type symbolized in Eve’s creation from Adam’s side, which foreshadowed Christ’s begetting His bride through His wounded side. And it sustains until the finale, for we all anticipate our first stop beyond this world’s history at a grand dinner called the marriage supper of the Lamb (see Rev. 19:9). The message: Tribulations rise and fall, but joy will come in the morning–hang tough!
In Jeremiah 3:14, God’s commitment to the backslider is, “‘I am married to you'”–a statement that calls a leader to seek to sustain his or her marriage even though society argues, “If it’s not fun anymore, trash it.”
It’s a tender issue, and we certainly are never to condemn a divorced or fallen leader. But neither can we permit a casual treatment of their tragedy, for God’s Word is never to be lightly regarded on these points. How a believer lives unto Christ is measured in terms of marital fidelity, and how a leader leads in His name is to be judged by the same.
Though often cavalierly dismissed by the careless or uninformed, the Word gives requirements that serve as a grid for measuring a spiritual leader’s readiness to lead. First Timothy 3:1-15 and Titus 1:5-16 list standards incumbent upon every leader who would serve in the church. This is true regardless of what office they fill, as listed in Ephesians 4:11.
The positional terms in Timothy and Titus–“bishop” (episkopos, overseer); “deacon” (diakonos, minister); and “elder” (presbuteros, mature leader)–form a cluster of at least a dozen behavioral requirements that, at the very least, establish a minimal standard for spiritual leaders. They span everything from being nonargumentative, noncombative and humbly teachable to being a faithful spouse and a good parent.
Equally important is the context—which calls for time to verify these qualities (see 1 Tim. 3:10) and slowness to confirm a person to leadership (see 1 Tim. 5:22). Further, if through a problem, a stress, a tragedy or a personal failure a leader pointedly violates or is unable to fulfill the biblical standard, he or she is to be relieved of ministry—at least for an extended season.