Saturday, February 03, 2007

Why Evangelicals Fall

The Washington Post reports that the burgeoning Brazilian evangelical movement is coming under increasing public scrutiny in the wake of a series of scandals involving evangelical leaders. Given that similar problems have plagued evangelicals in the United States, one might wonder why this malady seems so common.

Of course, it is possible the problems aren't that common, and that they only seem to be so because of the relatively large number of high profile evangelical leaders and megachurches. Admitting that may be the case, it is important to note that evangelical Christians claim adherence to a moral code based in Scripture. That being the case, the number of scandals should trouble thoughtful Christians.

While evangelicals would typically say that they are led by the Bible and the Holy Spirit, to a large degree many of the most successful churches are much more centered around charismatic leaders exhibiting considerable entrepreneurial zeal and skill. Of course, the Bible and the Holy Spirit can co-exist with charismatic leaders -- we might even for the sake of argument stipulate that they frequently do -- but one still should not discount the importance of this type of leadership to evangelical success.

The combination of charismatic and moral authority is powerful, and it all too frequently leads to a level of trust in leaders that is unwise. In this matter, evangelical practice runs up against the Christian doctrine of original sin -- the notion that all people, including the most devout, are afflicted with a sinful inclination that makes us all susceptible to evil (think of The Lord of the Rings, where all members of the fellowship are susceptible to the corrupting power of the ring). While some people will cynically argue that any Christian who falls into hypocrisy never believed what he told others, the reality is that those who fall may be either complete charlatans or sincere believers who strayed -- or some combination of both.

It is sadly ironic that churchly scandals don't really delegitimize the Christian message as much as they affirm the truth of it, at least as it regards human sinfulness. Christians should respect human leaders who are called by God while also praying for them and holding them accountable. Churches would also be better off if worship focused more on Word and Spirit, and less on the personalities of those given the abominable titles of "worship leaders."

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