Let Down by Your Faith Leaders?

I got a news alert this morning that a lead pastor of one of the Hillsong campuses was busted in a sex scandal. Not the first of this kind of crisis to rock the megachurch monolith.

The late world-renowned evangelist and Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias went to his eternal rest under a cloud of suspicion regarding sexual misconduct. Allegations have not only multiplied since he passed but have been corroborated. Turns out, while he brought the message of Christ to the masses, he existed in a very different world than we thought.

The evangelical Christian church. Praising God, filling mega-churches, supporting missions around the world. Trump worshippers, anti-maskers, and vaxxers, extending love to everyone as long as they fit a very specific profile.

What do you do when your faith leaders turn out to be anything but faithful people? What happens to your faith when the people you’ve looked up to as leaders, mentors, and examples show you just how very human they are?

The answer for many is to leave the entire thing. Rid oneself of the toxicity and hypocrisy of it all. Flee from the piety of the dishonest and never look back. It makes sense.

When people of faith who profess to live a life of Godliness live secret lives of anything but, a lot of folks are going to get hurt. Departing from the mess that is sometimes organized religion is logical to anyone who has suffered a crisis of faith as a result of the incredible letdown that occurs when things like this happen. I get it.

But here’s something to remember. The church is made of people. People are the church. And people screw up. Christ is not the church. He is above all of it. He does not screw up. When those whose very humanity—riddled with all their faults and shortcomings—reveal how very lost they truly are, it’s not Christ that is the problem.

My very bold statement: Christ and the church are not one and the same. So, when the church and its human leaders let you down, the fault lies not on Christ. If anything, He is the only good that will ever be found in all of it. Human beings are flawed. Christ is not.

The blunder of many believers, of people of faith, lies in exalting humans to being on par with Christ. Unconsciously or not, that is always a grave error. I have heard of pastors referred to as men and women of God, which is to sometimes elevate flawed humans to quasi-deities. So very wrong and blasphemous. Men and women work for God; they are not, in any way, working in the same realm as Him.

So, what does all this mean? The pastors and spiritual leaders who have lied, cheated, and abused while hidden behind a pulpit are as culpable and subject to accountability as any person. And they must be held up to their wrongdoing. It is Christ’s mercy and forgiveness that any redemption can be found.

But they don’t hold the keys to transformative faith, to a walk with Christ. That is entirely between an individual and Jesus Christ himself. The flaws and failures of the clergy, teachers, and the entire movement itself are on the people. Christ is the one that can be trusted, always, in any situation.

Persons hurt by the pain inflicted within church walls are often right to leave it to find the safety, integrity, and dignity they deserve. But departing from Christ entirely isn’t where it’s at. If anything, He’s the one completely capable of healing you.

Your walk through life doesn’t have to be a solo endeavor, even if your faith background has let you down. Humans are flawed little specks in the big scheme of things. Bet the ranch on Someone much, much bigger … and completely trustworthy.

Pure as Purel

Purity culture is a term that refers to a movement, if you will, born of the 90s in evangelical Christian circles, though certainly not limited to them. This movement, which completely ignores LGBTQ individuals, took special aim at trying to return girls and young women to the days where females were judged good or bad based on chastity. Plainly put, the job of a good female was to remain a virgin until her wedding night, and during her growing up years to maintain modesty and decorum in dress and behavior at all times. Now this is also something most patriarchal cultures outside of religion hold at a high premium—a daughter whose marriageability is dependent on her “unsullied” past and innocence in the ways of sexuality.

In the United States, many Christian denominations take purity culture to all kinds of levels—father/daughter balls where a young girl publicly pledges the keeping of her virginity until marriage, to her father in exchange for a purity ring to be surrendered on her wedding day (a bit creepy if you ask me). There were books (who remembers I Kissed Dating Goodbye? Yeah, that author has rethought that project since), conferences (where teens who’d done the deed cried in public confessions in sports arenas), pacts between groups of young girls in their church youth classes, purity pledge cards, etc.

Essentially, purity culture taught girls that chastity before marriage was a holy ideal that was to be valued above everything else. EVERYTHING else.

Is it bad to remain a virgin until marriage? No, of course not. The truth is, going that route is 100% effective in preventing unwanted pregnancy, contracting SDIs, and saving oneself emotional and self-worth issues (especially for those not mature enough to handle a sexual relationship). However, that idea isn’t as commonly accepted as it once was, thus society has indeed moved the goal posts. And it’s because of that shift that purity culture was born, but here’s how it does damage.

  1. Purity culture puts an unfair amount of responsibility on the female alone. On a foundational level, it asserts that the female body exists solely to please a man. Thus, a young woman is pretty much a temptress whose physical beauty and “parts” for lack of a better word, must be guarded at risk of bringing shame upon herself, her family, and her faith, should she “slip.” The role of the male in all this places them as nothing more than hungry fiends ready to pounce, and a “good” girl is always in defense mode.
  2. It breeds a crushing atmosphere of guilt, shame, and fear; almost certainly guaranteeing hypocrisy and disillusionment.
  3. It places all sense of self-worth on sexuality and virginity, so that if those things are compromised, a person amounts to nothing. Anyone heard the chewed-up piece of gum analogy? Lots of young women even today have been shown a lovely, fresh piece of gum. But when the gum is chewed and spat out, they are asked if anyone would want that used gum. Girls who have sex before marriage are chewed pieces of gum.
  4. It warps a person’s concept of being loved and valued by God just as they are, and in an ironic way, blames God. How? For a group of people who believe firmly in the flawless creation of humanity by a master designer God, the female body appears to be a problem. In its beauty and alluring nature, God, it turns out, made something no more than a troublesome, loaded weapon.
  5. Purity culture provides fertile ground for low self-esteem and mental health issues. When shame, guilt, and fear are primary motivators all connected to a physical body, how exactly are young women (and men) supposed to transform into well-adjusted marriage partners with healthy attitudes toward sexuality?
  6. It can push forward a completely warped version of the female body to the point where girls are so ashamed of what is natural, they will not seek medical help for issues that arise.
  7. It can actually feed into rape culture, by causing a young person to feel that their actions or dress sent “messages” that got them what they “deserved.” Wearing a short skirt? She asked for it. This goes dangerously further in that a young person may feel so ashamed of their perceived failure they stay silent, failing to see sexual assault for what it really is: an act of violence and dominance by a sick person.

I think many parents can agree on wanting their children to remain safe from disease, feel emotionally secure and confident, and enter parenthood on their own terms at the time that is right for them according to their personal values. But what is so important is to teach kids to see that the responsibility for treating oneself with the utmost respect lies on both boys and girls, however they identify. Full autonomy over their bodies is their right. And right up there with that is the need to reinforce the truth that the beauty a person possess’ inside and out can’t be removed by losing one’s “purity.”

It is a tough world out there. And we do well to be careful, discerning, and smart in our decisions. But there are better ways to help young people make smart choices for themselves that do that don’t meld fear mongering with emotional, spiritual, and mental manipulation.