What should be our response when a Christian leader falls away or renounces the faith?
From time to time, people face crises in their walk of faith. When the person is a leader in the Christian community, those crises often become public. As with any unwelcome news, Christians' response should be one of grief, grace, hope, and humility.
As a brief note, different things are meant by "falling away." Sometimes a Christian leader is going through a crisis of faith, asking difficult questions, experiencing a devastating hardship, or struggling with a besetting sin. Sometimes such a leader will rightly recognize he or she is not currently in a position to lead other believers; that leader then takes a step back to spend time examining his or her heart and beliefs and focus on his or her personal walk with God. Sometimes the step back feels graceful and is easily accepted and understood. Other times much pain, confusion, and even dissension results. The leader, or others, might say or do things that contradict God's Word or that feel like a renunciation of faith. Other times a Christian leader who "falls away" is really discovering he or she did not believe the Bible in the first place. They may have been comfortable in the Christian community, but have gradually grown uncomfortable and now realize they do not accept certain Christian orthodoxy as truth. As onlookers, it is not for us to judge what is going on in the hearts of others. If a person who renounces the faith or falls away was not actually a believer to begin with, we can pray for salvation. If a person who falls away is going through a crisis of faith, we can pray for restoration, trusting that God is faithful to all who have been made new in Him through faith in Jesus Christ. As said above, our response should be one of grief, grace, hope, and humility.
In his second letter to Christian believers, Peter assured them that God is "not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). When a person rejects the faith, God's heart is grieved; and if we share His perspective, our hearts should be grieved as well. When mankind had reached a zenith of evil before God sent the flood, Scripture records that, "it grieved him to his heart" (Genesis 6:6). One example of aligning our human hearts with God's heart in the midst of a leader turning away from the faith occurred in 1 Samuel 15 after Saul "rejected the word of the LORD" (1 Samuel 15:26). It records that "Samuel grieved over Saul. And the LORD regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel" (1 Samuel 15:35). So when a Christian leader rejects God and His Word, we should grieve over their turning away.
Christians should also be gracious and gentle in our response. Understanding that the Devil schemes against those who trust in the Lord (Ephesians 6:11) reminds us that "we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against… the spiritual forces of evil" (Ephesians 6:12). Knowing a Christian leader has fallen prey to the Devil's schemes can help us redirect any anger at that person toward the evil one behind it all. Knowing that the evil one would seek to capitalize on any pain or disagreement that resulted from the person's fall helps us, again, to redirect our anger and our efforts. Rather than fall prey ourselves to the Devil's distractions, we submit to God, come to Him in prayer, put on His armor, and seek unity. When God's people turned away again and again, God said, "I led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws" (Hosea 11:4). Likewise, Paul wrote "that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance" (Romans 2:4). So our response should be gracious and kind, always hoping for their repentance.
There is good reason to hope for the person's return to faith. Nebuchadnezzar came to believe the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego was "the Most High God" (Daniel 3:26) and commanded that no one "speaks anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego… for there is no other god who is able to rescue in this way" (Daniel 3:29). However, years later, Nebuchadnezzar fell away from this faith and asked, "Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?" (Daniel 4:30). In response, God drove Nebuchadnezzar from among men and he lived like a wild animal for seven years (Daniel 4:33). However at the end of those years, Nebuchadnezzar wrote, "At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation" (Daniel 4:34). So after expressing a level of faith and then falling away, Nebuchadnezzar once returned to rightly worshipping the Lord. Paul explained in 1 Corinthians 5:5 that the purpose for removing an unrepentant sinner from among the believers was "for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord." There is always hope that the Christian leader who is currently renouncing the faith may yet repent and return to the Lord.
Finally, Christian leaders' crises of faith are opportunities for believers to examine themselves and their own faith. If our own faith is shaken when a human leader turns away, perhaps our faith was in that leader rather than in God and His Word. Christian leaders are flawed humans like us all and each one will inevitably fail us in some way. Moses "broke faith with [God] in the midst of the people of Israel at the waters of Meribah-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, and [he] did not treat [God] as holy in the midst of the people of Israel" (Deuteronomy 32:51). King David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then murdered her husband (2 Samuel 11). Even Peter denied knowing Christ while Jesus was on trial (Luke 22:54–62). When the Corinthians were arguing about which leader each of them followed, Paul responded, "For when one says, 'I follow Paul,' and another, 'I follow Apollos,' are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth" (1 Corinthians 3:4–7). Our faith should be reliant on the Lord alone and not on His human servants. Sometimes those Christian leaders who renounce the faith are asking tough questions. Believers can use those questions as an opportunity to strengthen their own faith by taking those questions to the Bible and other Christian thinkers in order to shore up any weak or vulnerable areas in their own faith. With this self-reflection, Christians can actually grow their faith to a new level of maturity.
By grieving for those who fall away, extending to them grace, holding out hope for their return to the faith, and taking the opportunity to examine our own faith, Christians can rightly respond to any leader who renounces the faith.
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