Corrupt Leaders Corrupting Christianity

Jerry Falwell, Mark Driscoll & The Corrosive State of 'Evangelical Leadership'

Four years ago I was speaking at a conference and was introduced to a fellow presenter. At the time they were on the teaching faculty at Liberty University, whose then-President was Jerry Falwell, Jr. I had little taste for Falwell and what I believed to be his complete insufficiency to lead a Christian university. It showed on my face.

I asked, “What’s it like teaching there?" as I was trying to be open, generous, and non-judgmental. She responded, “A good place with some challenges.”

I left it at that!

I’ve been listening through a new-to-me podcasts, Gangster Capitalism, and their multi-part series on Jerry and Becki Falwell, their fall from grace, and Liberty University. Having heard the salacious details about Jerry and Becki and the pool boy, I wasn’t shocked by their sexual escapades, but, new to me were reports of his over-the-top drinking, and worst of all the horrendous mistreatment of female sexual assault victims at Liberty. (In fact, if you have a history of victimhood surrounding sexual assault, you will be triggered by episode #3.) Like you, people close to me have been sexually assaulted, and even as I type I am enraged and in tears regarding how these young women were treated at Liberty.

It is criminal.

No loving parent, if theses reports are true, should, in my view, send their child to Liberty University. In fact, one assault perpetrator named in the story is now in federal prison for rape and sexual assault leading me to believe that other stories recounted in the podcast are more likely true than not. What did Liberty do in response to rape allegations against him? Nothing.

Jerry Falwell, rightly redirected others when they called him a spiritual leader or pastor. He’s not. He never said he was. Because of his position at Liberty, the faculty and staff, the students, American politicians, and the news media considered him a religious leader. He considered himself a lawyer and real estate developer.

After listening to the podcast — a podcast where he and Becki participated via email— I’m convinced Falwell might be one of the more lecherous people breathing air.

I’ve also been listening to Christianity Today’s podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, which centers heavily on the rise and fall of Mark Driscoll. This one hits closer to home, insofar as I know several people who personal know Mark. None of those people speak well of Mark — at most, they pity him or see him as a bag of giftedness and intelligence gone to waste under the weight of spiritual immaturity, toxic masculinity, and good, old fashioned hubris. As Tony Jones says in the podcast bumper, “Lots of pastors get fired. Driscoll got fired for being an a**hole.”

These two podcasts, along with myriad failings of well-known evangelical leaders suggest we might ask how such concupiscent, corrupt, and spiritually deformed leaders emerge in the church. Perhaps Kristen Kodes du Mez is right. In her Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, du Mez ask:

“How could ‘family values’ conservatives support a man (Trump) who flouted every value they insisted they he’d dear? How could the self-professed ‘Moral Majority’ embrace a candidate who reveled in vulgarity? How could evangelicals who’d turned ‘WWJD’ (‘What Would Jesus Do?’) into a national phenomenon justify their support for a man who seemed the very antithesis of the savior they claimed to emulate?”

Her take: What has happened in the last several years among evangelicals is not an anomaly, it is who they have become…on purpose.

These findings in these podcasts, along with a slew of other high-profile failing in American Evangelism, lead me to the conclusion that, for many Christian leaders, Trumpism (for it is bigger than one man), is a feature of the faith, not a bug. Kristen du Mez reaches the same conclusion, writing, “In reality, evangelicals did not cast their vote despite their beliefs, but because of them.”

Certainly, some percentage of Trump’s evangelical supporters held their noses and pulled the lever for him despite their particular faith commitments, but many did not. That being the case, the rise of fall of people like Jerry Falwell, Jr., Mark Driscoll, and others, as well as the abusive ways they lead their organizations are the logical outcomes of a now wholly corrupt movement — white, American evangelicalism.

I am not an evangelical. The same is true of many Christians I know. If asked to define what an Evangelical is, 90% of the people I commune with across myriad Christian spaces couldn’t. Nevertheless we are defined not only by the worst humans alive — Falwell, Driscoll, MacDonald, et al. — but by religious commitments we never signed on for. We never signed on for sexual and spiritually abuse, for rampant hubris and ego run-amok. Did some Christians seek these things? Yes. At its zenith, Mars Hill boasted over 10,000 members. Some members knew exactly how dastardly and malicious Mars’ system allowed Driscoll to become. But many of us are not that and disbelieve these corrupt institutions to hold much of any Christlikeness at all.

For Christians who also don’t support abuse, yet maintain the name “evangelical,” the only way to effect change is by rejecting all that evangelicalism has come to mean.

All to say, American Evangelicalism (or whatever is left of it) needs a massive remake, not merely re-branding, but an uprooting from the corrupt, anti-God system it has become.

Here are four places churches can start:

  1. Unaccountable Leaders Become Terrorists. Boards, oversight committees, and executive level co-workers have to have the integrity and institutional freedom to check leaders, disagree, and overwrite the leaders desires at critical times through appropriate, fair, and transparent systems. Mutual leadership in communities of discernment are slow, but best. A leader who cannot be resisted without threat to the livelihoods and reputations of other stake holders is bound to abuse power.

  2. Leaders Lacking Spiritual Formation Become Terrorists. One every board I serve on I push that the leader must be engaged with a spiritual director. Full stop. Without proper spiritual formation, we are all bound to our lesser impulses.

  3. Christians Need to Look Past Talent. Even in the Rise and Fall Podcast, both fans and critics of Driscoll talk about what a gifted communicator and smart guy he was/is. Jerry Falwell, Jr. is extolled for his ability to build a $1B+ endowment for Liberty University. These skills kept these men empowered long after people knew of their verifiable abuses. They wanted the gifts, though both leaders were harmful to other and corrosive to God’s Kingdom. Christians too easily settle for ends, regardless of the means. The way Christians behave is more important than the outcomes we engineer.

  4. Christian Institutions Need to Embrace Slow. The desire to do something big and splashy creates leaders who want to go far fast. That’s not always good. Slow is the way of the kingdom. Who can argue we serve a patient God? The need for speed creates leaders who “get stuff done,” making it okay to run over and through people who slow you down. Thus, people become secondary to accomplishment and that is always abusive.

A good percentage of American evangelicalism can now credibly be argued as a failed experiment. I projected this years ago. Now is the time, friends, for those of us not enraptured by it to recover our faith.