My wife and I have been talking about what happened with Carl Lentz. In November, Hillsong church fired him as their pastor, and the next day, he opened up on Instagram about committing adultery–something he attributed in part to pastoral burnout. Things continued to spiral when the woman with whom Lentz had been unfaithful came forward, sharing details about their relationship. Lentz had been in the spotlight for some time: He was well-known as Justin Bieber’s pastor and made appearances on Oprah and The View. Now, according to at least one source, he’s spending time away from the centerstage and focusing on his family.
These kinds of stories usually stir up a few different feelings in me. First, there’s anger. Not all anger is bad. On one occasion, Jesus made a whip of cords and drove out the money changers in the temple. When God’s worship is being corrupted, or Jesus’ sheep are being led astray or made to stumble because of the actions of spiritual leaders, it should produce a righteous indignation in us.
Second, I feel sorrow because of the pain sin causes for the sinner and those sinned against. Sexual sin in particular doesn’t just wound the family and the church (1 Cor. 5:6). It’s also uniquely self-destructive for the individual engaging in it (1 Cor. 6:18). While our sins are never beyond God’s forgiveness, their consequences can still have devastating effects on our lives, and the lives of the people we love.
Lastly, I feel trepidation as a pastor with a family. I know what the Bible teaches: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). There’s a sobering reminder here not only for ministers, but for all believers. Here are four things that come to mind when I think about how to guard ourselves against moral failure.
#1: Be Humble.
The first step to guarding yourself from moral failure is recognizing you aren’t impervious to it. The failures of others should never become instances where we say with the Pharisee, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like [insert Lentz or the latest well-known pastor to fall]” (Luke 18:11). If the sin of the people around us leads to pride in us, then we have fallen with them. Your brother or sister’s sin is a reminder of your own frailty–what could be true of you or me. Paul said, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Gal. 6:1).
#2: Be Accountable.
When Peter described the false teachers who would infiltrate the church, he said they’d indulge in lust and despise authority (2 Pet. 2:10). Setting aside accountability is a clear indicator of looming spiritual disaster. When pastors or parishioners conclude that they don’t have to answer to anyone, they’ve assumed a role that only the Lord himself occupies. Relating to one another in structures of accountability helps protect us from our own inflated image or spiritual blindness. This is what healthy churches provide.
Sadly, even within the church, the structure can give way to a celebrity culture that is contributing to the current problem. A recent New York Times piece noted this problem, commenting that current and prior members experienced “a pastor who was so swept up in ministering to the famous that ordinary congregants felt neglected. A culture that worshiped wealth, while making volunteers cater to leaders as royalty. And a sense that for all the celebrity surrounding the church, its soul was harder to find.” The church isn’t where pastors go to be served by the faithful, but where the whole body, pastor and member alike, goes to be served by Jesus. This service should turn us all into servants, and our service becomes a safeguard from sin.
#3: Be Occupied.
When David committed adultery with Bathsheba, the narrative in Samuel begins, “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel… But David remained at Jerusalem” (2 Sam. 11:1). David should have been serving alongside the sheep, but instead he was lounging at home. The very next verse tells us that after his midday rest, while he was relaxing on the palace roof, he spotted Bathsheba taking a bath. That’s how it all started. Idle time is indeed the devil’s workshop. There’s a lesson for all of us here. If we aren’t in the trenches with God’s people, it’s possible for us to get lost where we have no business hanging out.
#4: Be Prayerful.
Jesus taught us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation” (Matt. 6:13). We’re so susceptible to sin that we require God’s supernatural grace to keep us standing. We sing the line from Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing with sincerity, “Prone to wander Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love/ Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above!” We need more than a few self-defense strategies to guard against moral failure. So often self is the problem. We need God’s heavenly hand to restrain our own proclivities to evil. We need God’s protection.
We need to be humble, accountable, and occupied with the things of the Lord, remembering that God will never tempt us beyond what we are able (1 Cor. 10:13). And we need to be prayerful–for others, like Lentz and his family, asking that the Lord would bring about genuine repentance and healing, and for ourselves, that God would cultivate in us the kind of humility that doesn’t point fingers, but extends the hands of Christ to the fallen.