Many years ago I was preaching on a Sunday morning. As I prepared earlier that week I sensed an acute impulse to personally apply the sermon's main point. I remember feeling remorseful. I remember being anxious. God was inviting me into confession. And he was clear, this was not just for my personal formation during study time, he led me to write this confession of sin in my manuscript. And so on Sunday morning I confessed sin publicly before my church.
Honestly I don't remember the specific sin I confessed. However I do remember it wasn't general, it was a particular way I fell short of God's Word and glory. It was difficult. It was uncomfortable. It was stretching. And someone didn't like it. After the message one of our church leaders came up to me. He was upset. To be sure I didn't know how the people would response but this was unexpected. He was unexpected. He seemed both shocked and a bit angry. He encouraged me not to share something like this again in church.
My friend and fellow leader went on to explain that his young son was in the service that day. And as his father he wanted his son to know his pastor (me) was someone he could emulate and follow. He wanted his son to see strength in the pulpit, not weakness.
That day I stopped confessing sin from in my sermons.
WEAKNESS AND WEAKNESSES ARE NOT THE SAME
Leadership is rarely equated with weakness. In fact many believe leadership is granted to the strongest and most capable as a reward for their unique abilities and power. Therefore leadership in our modern construct is the opposite of weakness. Leadership is strength. Leadership is power. Leadership is independence. Leadership is having minimal issues. But what if this presumption is leadership's greatest issue?
To be sure many leadership books and blogs communicate the importance of vulnerability. Great care has been taken in recent years encouraging leaders in various spaces to embrace their weaknesses and allow employees, followers, and fellow leaders to be exposed to personal shortcomings. In particular I have been greatly challenged and learned much from Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In and Option B) and Patrick Lencioni (Getting Naked and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team) in this leadership pathway. However, there is an eternal difference between admitting having weaknesses and being weak. While the former is simply an acknowledgement of humanity, the latter is a confession of utter dependency.
Church leadership in particular has failed at this pathway recently. Whether we consider the outing of Mark Driscoll in 2010, the allegations of sexual misconduct and handling of those allegation by Andy Savage and his church, or the recent accusations against Bill Hybles, the weakness of Christian leaders is unavoidable. We have seen the weakness of pastors on full display. However in my mind the most alarming reality yet unspoken is not merely the secret sins of pastors, but the visceral shock of their parishioners and fans when those secrets come into the light (if not only by the suggestion impropriety!). And so the question we must consider is not are leaders weak?, but rather, why are we so shocked when weakness is exposed? Especially the weakness of Christian leaders.
EVERYONE IS BROKEN
My wife has been reading through 1 and 2 Kings recently. That's right, just a light morning stroll through Ancient Israel and Judah's devastating monarchy. And as she has been reading I've been receiving highlights from her time in the Word. A singular trend has become increasingly clear to her—kings are just as broken as everybody else.
At the transition of power between David and his son Solomon it could not have been more clear. David said to Solomon, “I am about to go the way of all the earth. Be strong, and show yourself a man, and keep the charge of the LORD your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his rules, and his testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn" (1 Kings 2:2-3). David told Solomon to be strong. And based on his words strength is found in keeping the word of God and walking in holiness. The trouble was Solomon and nearly every other king were not strong. They all fell very short of David's commission and God’s Word. Here's how the scholar Peter Enns summarizes this unavoidable issue in 1 and 2 Kings ...
All in all, Israel and Judah combined to have forty kings, twenty from each nation. Some reigned for as long as half a century, others for a year or so. One king of Judah, Jehoiachin, lasted only three months. All of them had to deal with some level of domestic or international strife. Many of them were even murdered. All but two—Hezekiah and Josiah of Judah—received negative evaluations by the writer of Kings for failing to lead the people according to God’s law, especially concerning the worship of idols and foreign God. As we see in Exodus, the law given on Mt. Sinai pertains to both the proper worship of God and Israel’s behavior toward God and others. Israel’s kings failed on both counts.*
Kings are broken. Leaders are broken. Pastors are broken. They do not simply have weaknesses. They, like everyone marred by sin, do not possess what is required to keep the Word of God and walk in holiness. Few would disagree. Yet everyday we live in neglect of this reality by treating leaders and pastors as "special". We are enamored by gifted people in spotlights; those who can speak, build, and pioneer in unique ways garnering a special kind of attention from the Church. In fact we like being around these exceptional and great people because they make us feel exceptional and great too. That's why we boast about who our senior pastor is, where he flies, what books he's written, how big his church is, how many locations, and how grand his vision. Pastors have become like professional athletes, lauded and loved for their ability and achievements rather than the disposition of their hearts. It is the very same reason the crowd who once adored King Saul, shifted to praise King David (1 Samuel 18:7). Saul became old news when another leader came along who seemed more special than him.
This is why we are so shocked when leaders fall. This is why we will often refuse to admit when they have fallen even though common sense, all the evidence, and every testimony says otherwise. Because when the specialness of our pastors and leaders is compromised, then ours is too. Jamin Goggin and Kyle Stroble excavate this ecclesiastic issue in their insightful book, The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb. With the help of British-Canadian theologian, J.I. Packer they explain why we love “special" leaders and how we respond when their weakness is exposed ...
"The thought is that such a pastor will, on the one hand, be attractive to those who are not yet members of the church and, on the other hand, be a leader to the members of the congregation." He briefly paused. "Which makes the congregational members themselves standout as 'special.' That is the key phrase I think. They get special wisdom from their special pastor. Being special is the Achilles' heel of many churches today. They want to stand out and be noticed. This passion to be seen as special drives the choice of pastor, and very often it works, at least on a surface level." Kyle and I sat back, exchanging glances, when Packer added something of an afterthought, "Well, I must say, I am out of tune altogether with the emphasis on being special." **
When our value is wrapped up in the value of a fallible leader we are necessarily devastated and shocked by their weakness. We can handle weaknesses (that’s human). But we do not handle weakness well because the one in whom we are dependent must in himself be independent otherwise he is not worthy of our praise. After all if we were deriving strength from them then when they fall our strength is gone. To be sure this is a dual folly. Parishioners must avoid such a trapping and leaders must do all they can to discourage it. When leaders and pastors in particular fail to embrace and confess their utter weakness, they implicitly invite parishioners, clients, and employees to find power in their leadership and that is a recipe for disaster.
STRENGTH IN WEAKNESS
Antithetical to common convention, God directs us toward our weakness—as leaders and followers. This embrace goes well beyond admitting that we are not perfect. It is the confession of utter dependency. We do not need night classes. We need resurrection. The Apostle Paul was keen on embracing this weakness in his first century letter to the church at Corinth. His posture and pursuit as a point leader of a regional movement are foreign to the leadership (sacred and secular) journals, articles, and tweets of our day. Paul writes, "Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). Paul embraces his weakness, not just his weaknesses. His visible difficulties and inabilities reveal a deeper issue at his core.
This is what makes the gospel of Jesus so spectacular. In Christ, this admission of need welds incomparable power. And Paul’s writing constantly exposes this reality ...
- 1 Corinthians 15:42-43, "So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power."
- 2 Corinthians 13:4, "For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God."
- Romans 8:26-27, "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray foras we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God"
Weakness is never meant to be hidden. Our weakness is meant to be exposed. Weakness is the pathway of the gospel that leads to real power. Paradoxically the admission of weakness is the bedrock and beginning of genuine strength. It is in our weakness that the power of Jesus is made plain and displayed perfectly in our lives and in the lives of our communities, churches, and organizations. In other words no one is surprised by the weakness of leaders being exposed when communities embrace the rhythm and reality of constantly exposing sin, shame, guilt, weaknesses, and weakness.
But we do not and will not do this by our own volition. This is too threatening to what we love and cherish and believe in our sinful condition. We need to be liberated from the lies of specialness.
BEHOLD, THE GOOD SHEPHERD
The word behold is repeated over 1000 times in the Bible (ESV). In Hebrew and Greek it means basically the same things—it means to “look” and is used to redirect the attention of an audience. Perhaps the most profound usage of this word is when Jesus is on the cross, “Woman, behold your son” (John 19:26). The Lord calls for his mother's full attention as he hangs on the cross. It is difficult to feel special when we behold Jesus on the cross. He redirects our attention from the fleeting and foolish aims of this world and causes us to look to the eternal things of God. There is something unsettling about witnessing the Son of God hanging on the cross in weakness (2 Corinthians 13:4). It is unexpected. It is transformative. It is freeing. It is the exact opposite of what we believe about power in general and kingship in particular.
Peter did not think Jesus should die. Seemingly moments after he first acknowledged Jesus as the Christ the Son of the Living God, Peter told Jesus he was doing it wrong. "From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, 'Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you'” (Matthew 16:21-22). Peter saw Jesus as the King and Messiah. The King doesn't die. The Messiah can't die. Peter saw death as the ultimate sign of weakness and defeat and Jesus was meant to be a powerful king. And yet based on Jesus' response—"get behind me Satan"—death was the only way.
Jesus defeated death by dying.
Jesus embraced weakness. And in doing so we behold him as the truly Good Shepherd. "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Jesus is good because he lays down his life. Jesus is shepherd because he lays down his life for us. By grace he takes on the weakness of humanity and in dying he defeats the power weakness has over humanity. Therefore with joy and confidence in Christ we can expose every aspect of our weakness as pastors and leaders. And as part of the flock of Jesus, the only Good Shepherd, we need never be shattered by the failures of human leaders because our confidence and specialness is derived from Jesus himself.
A true leader is not one who is perfect but one whose weakness is made powerful in Jesus. That goes for pastors and kings too. Notice how the writer of Hebrews makes this plain, "And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight” (Hebrews 11:34). These giants of biblical history were not special. They “were made strong out of weakness”.
When the weakness of leaders is exposed we should be neither shocked nor permissive. We should desire for the gospel of Jesus to make them strong again because that is what makes us all strong. The gospel is the power of salvation, forgiveness, and restoration (Romans 1:16).
BACK IN THE PULPIT
Many years later I confess sin from the pulpit regularly. And it still makes me uncomfortable.
Though it may seem like I've found a way to disregard my friend's council, it actually has been his council which has enabled me to find my confessional voice in preaching. You see, he wanted his son to see strength in the pulpit. And the power of Christ is always on full display in my weakness. In our weakness others behold the power of God.