Each morning my email inbox contains a mix of good news and bad news. The bad news usually has something to do with Covid, but all too often includes the story of another Christian leader behaving badly. This morning the email went like this:
Just before Christmas, a video of Smith kissing a woman other than his wife surfaced online. This prompted eight staff at Smith’s Venue Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to resign. Staff members also told local media that Venue Church is rife with abuse and questionable financial practices.
I don’t know the pastor, I don’t know the church, and I don’t know Chattanooga, other than through the song. It’s not my place to comment on the specifics of this case, but I feel the need to make an observation. One brief paragraph reveals the triad of temptations—sex, power, and money. These are very real, very dangerous, and very common threats for leaders. And too often they are found together.
As I listened to the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, these three factors featured in the podcast. Let me be clear, there were no accusations against Driscoll for infidelity. His marriage to Grace appeared to be strong. There were no accusations of embezzlement or financial fraud. There were, however, strong concerns about his abuse of power. He was accused of having an unhealthy and male-dominated obsession with sex that shaped the preaching and teaching at Mars Hill. Driscoll’s salary of $650,000 boggles the mind, and there have been many questions raised about him using church money in a scheme to boost his book sales.
It’s the issue of power that flashes the brightest warning lights. Driscoll speaks proudly of the many bodies piled up behind the ‘Mars Hill Bus’. Speaking mainly of his staff and leaders he declared that ‘you either get on the bus or you get run over the bus’. He predicted a mountain of bodies by the time he’d finished. And it seems he got it. I have been in the audience, listening to Driscoll, on two occasions. One of these occasions was an address to Christian leaders, and my only lasting memory of the talk is how gleefully and disturbingly he spoke about firing members of his own team. What’s with that? How can that be good or right or gracious or kind?
But I don’t want to make this about Smith, or Driscoll, or Zacharias, or Lentz, or any number of disgraced Christian leaders. It needs to be a log-removal exercise for me. God calls us not to view godliness as a means to financial gain (1 Timothy 6:5). The thing is most pastors probably don’t see ministry as a means to financial gain. They have enough struggle making ends meet. Yet with profile comes opportunity, invitations, and offers. There are real practical implications here. For me, I cannot vote on any matter related to my remuneration, I cannot access any church funds, I choose to pass honorariums for external ministries back to my church, I don’t take royalties for my book (though I did for a time). However, these are just rules and safeguards, and they don’t necessarily address the heart. Most importantly, I need to keep on learning the secret of being content in all circumstances (Philippians 4:12).
Sex is a precious gift of God for a husband and wife, but it’s also an area of temptation for Christian leaders. Scandals, Royal Commissions, and disgraced leaders have seen the church dragged through the dirt. But it’s not just the sensational headlines that give me pause to reflect. We all know the ubiquity of porn, titillating social media, crude TV, addictive streaming services, on our laptops, tablets and phones. In our homes, studies, and bedrooms. And there’s also the attraction to people who give us special attention, warm smiles, heart emojis, notes of appreciation, lingering hugs. Where does adultery begin? How does a faithful pastor begin to flirt with a woman in his congregation? Who does he crave being around, who makes his heartrate increase, who’s becoming that someone special? What safeguards do we put in place? And how do we guard our hearts?
The desire for power is a big temptation in ministry. I hear it all the time from others. I feel the temptations myself. I want to get things done and I want to see ministry grow. And the less bureaucracy, the less people who need to have a say, the less I need to give account to others, the more nimble we can be, the more I can get done… and I hope you can see the problem. The problem being that I make ministry and leadership about me, myself, and I. My vision, my agenda, my rules, my decisions, my ambition… my pride, my sin, my downfall. It’s not about me and it’s not about you. We are called to serve Jesus. We are just one part of his body. Without love for others, we achieve nothing. Without the body working together in love, there is no real church growth, no maturity, no spiritual substance.
Money, sex, power. Three gifts from God to be used in humble service, with the right people, in the right context, in the right way, with the right attitudes. We must guard our hearts and minds in these areas. We would be wise to pray for protection, that we will not give in to temptation, that we will serve in humility, with a real love for those God has entrusted to us. It’s better to err on the side of caution, put in added protections, increase visibility, and submit to accountability. It may slow us down, reduce our profile, limit our personal impact, pull us back from the spotlight—and allow Jesus to shine.