Late last week, Jerry Falwell, Jr. was finally dealt with — sort of. The executive committee of Liberty University’s board of trustees placed him on an “indefinite” leave of absence for posting a scandalous photo on Instagram. The photo showed him on a yacht with his pants open, a suspicious drink in his hand, and his arm around a woman who was not his wife. This came on top of other scandals involving his making loans to a pool boy to start a club in Florida and wearing a face mask with a racist reference on it.
They lost me at “yacht.” The president of a Christian university was vacationing on a yacht. He was posting about the yacht on Instagram. Apparently, no one has sat Junior down and said, “The operative word here, son, is not university president but Christian university. Yes, corporate presidents act this way. But, kiddo, an officer of your rank in a Christian ministry does not hire a yacht — or if he does, he does not flaunt it.”
If I consider that the people who say such things to Junior are not around, then the rest of Junior’s scandals make sense. The lad doesn’t have anyone to point out the obvious about finances, or sexual behavior, or seeming to be, shall we say, overserved in public.
And if I consider that he doesn’t have such people, then I ask, “Well, who is around him? Who are the trustees? What sort of structure do they have at Liberty anyway?” It seems to be the sort of structure that will tolerate egregiously inept and unethical behavior repeatedly, but that finally decides to act when his Insta gets racy. And the best this structure can do is ask Junior to take an “indefinite leave.”
The meltdown of American institutions is getting more attention, such as the excellent book by Yuval Levin, A Time to Build. But I do not find enough soul-searching among evangelicals about our specific institutional crisis. (David French is a refreshing exception.) Our churches, universities, and parachurch organizations have been in a quiet crisis for decades. Confidence in their integrity has steadily eroded.
Here are some of the most prominent scandals from the past few years (in no particular order). I include links to the most responsible coverage I can find — the word responsible excluding the increasingly toxic evangelical social media.
1. The Southern Baptist Convention recently published a report about numerous failures to bring sexual predators to account. It documented a pattern of cover-up and persecution of accusers.
2. Mark Driscoll resigned from his ministry in Seattle because of credible allegations of abusive behavior.
3. Acts 29, the church planting organization Driscoll founded, has continued to struggle with allegations of misused authority.
4. James MacDonald was forced to resign from his church near Chicago after credible allegations of misuse of funds, among other issues.
5. Bill Hybels resigned from Willow Creek after allegations of affairs that went back decades.
These are only some of the scandals that have received broad comment. In my experience as a pastor over the last twenty-five years, the need to confront sexual predators and their apologists, financial fraud by ministry leaders, and abusive authority in churches and mission organizations has only grown more common. Few of these problems ever see the light of day.
I see several trends underlying our institutional failures.
One is that ministry leaders are using institutions as personal platforms to advance their “brands.” Levin’s assertion about “performative” leaders who see their positions as opportunities to express themselves is especially true of ministries. Instead of being shaped by the institutions they serve, leaders now reshape institutions in their own image. The audience loves it. Who needs standards when we have “authenticity?” Falwell was popular with Liberty’s audience of donors — and perhaps will be again after a suitable interlude.
Another trend is that a longing for community has allowed institutional standards to deteriorate in the name of “relationship.” In case after case of evangelical scandals, one finds leaders asserting a cult-like control over their inner circle. Relationships without structure, after all, can be manipulated. Smart, talented, effective people will sacrifice a lot to be part of a community. They treasure their friendships, and they need the affirmation. Why should I stick up for institutional standards? This ministry is about relationships!
A third trend is that rabble-rousing about political and doctrinal debates has replaced teaching. Falwell has been a talking head on TV playing to the obsessions of his audience — an expert demagogue. Many evangelical leaders follow his example because it’s easier to make people feel righteousness with an insult to “snowflakes” than it is to teach a biblical worldview. Teaching is difficult. Populist posturing is more “relevant.”
Evangelicals need to rediscover institutional integrity. Fast. A boys’ club has usurped something that every spiritual movement needs to maintain health: legitimate authority.