“We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 ESV).
For those following the decline of Joshua Harris’ faith through social media, a megachurch pastor denouncing Christianity can leave us shaken, uncertain or even angry.
Perhaps it’s only the internet and social media’s ever-wandering eye for salacious news, but “megachurch” pastors quitting Christianity or denouncing its foundational tenets seems to be an increasingly common story in recent years, ranging from Dave Gass to Rob Bell to Bart Compolo.
These leaders are supposed to be authorities on the Bible and God, so what does it mean for the rest of us if they step away from the faith?
Letting Them Step Off the Pedestal
Believe it or not, pastors put on their pants one leg at a time too.
A faith leader’s fall away from faith often causes serious waves in the church community, and this seems to be caused by people believing that pastors are somehow fundamentally different than the everyday church attendee.
This is born out of a larger cultural misunderstanding, as Gary Wilkerson explains in his podcast on pastors and depression. “We have falsely presented a conflict-free, Christian gospel: if you come to understand the gospel correctly and if you apply your faith correctly, then you will avoid conflict.”
By that token, pastors are supposed to have the best comprehension and application of the gospel, so they should be completely without troubles.
This assumption is patently ridiculous, and yet it persists in church culture.
We’ll touch on what does set church leaders apart in a moment, but Gary Wilkerson explored the heart of this issue, starting with this word of wisdom, “I want to encourage people to realize pastors are human. They're not gods, mini-gods. They're people. They're just trying to be a step out to help bring us along.”
It’s one thing to understand that pastors may struggle occasionally, though. It can feel quite different to watch a former pastor outright renounce the Bible.
Being Let Down by the World
Many church leaders see a far greater swath of believers in various stages of their faith than most of us, and that can be deeply troubling to witness. Some are even brought to the point of questioning how much power God has to transform lives if they and their congregants are chronically wrestling with certain issues.
In his explanation for why he stepped away from Christianity, Dave Gass said that “he was raised in a ‘hyper-fundamentalist’ Christian home where Christianity ‘didn’t work. The promises were empty. The answers were lies.’”
Like many people when they see a church leader stumble, a pastor watching sin twist others’ lives can also be left feeling frustrated, depressed or disillusioned.
Moses, one of the most famous leaders in the Bible, frequently become discouraged and even irate with God’s people. “’Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. If you will treat me like this, kill me at once…” (Numbers 11: 11,14-15).
Crippling doubts are not exclusive to the ordinary church-goer. Church leaders experience them too, and these issues may even cause pastors to leave the faith for a while.
Aim for the Leader of the Pack
Church leaders do receive more of one thing far more often than the average church-goer: spiritual attack.
James’ description in the third chapter of his New Testament book says a great deal. “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways…”
The King James version is even more illuminating: “My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.” [emphasis mine].
Romans 8:1 states clearly, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus;” so this judgement that falls with particular heaviness on leaders is coming from somewhere else.
“It's like, ‘Let's take out the leader, and the body will follow’,” Gary said, explaining the spiritual pressure on pastors. “You’ve got to be aware, I think—anybody in Christian leadership or spiritual leadership whether it'd be a local church or other ministries, or even your own ministry that you're caring for people and volunteer—that you're going to be under attack.”
As onlookers, it can be incredibly easy to shake our heads at Joshua Harris and others like him, but we can’t possibly know what brutal mental, emotional and spiritual assaults they have suffered and are still enduring.
What Your Pastor Really Needs
Anyone who’s run or cycled a marathon knows the nightmare that is having someone fall right in front of you.
Watch clips of the men’s road race in the Rio Olympics—or any velodrome wrecks, for that matter—and you can see other participants’ desperate grimaces as they try to avoid crashing too.
It’s scary to see someone out in front fall.
It’s even scarier to be the one lying on the pavement, already in pain and not knowing if you’ll be stepped on or hit and hurt worse. The fear of causing someone else to fall, of not being able to finish the race, of debilitating injury is intense.
Then, more than any other time, you need a hand up or even just someone to protect you for a moment while you find your feet again.
For many pastors, this means receiving lots of prayer and having people who will be their genuine friends. Paul, the New Testament’s major pastoral exemplar, kept his friends close with him throughout his travels and often asked his churches to pray for him. “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us…” (Colossians 4:2).
More than anything, our pastors and leaders need our prayers and support, especially when they’re wrestling with their own doubts, past pains and demonic onslaughts.
For many believers, these two young Olympians serve as a particularly striking example. After a nasty fall on the track, they helped each other up, and—unwilling to leave each other behind—encouraged one another all the way to the finish line.
If we followed their model, we might all be a little better for it in this race we call the Christian life.