If looking to inerrant Christians throughout history were what it took to persuade people to become Christians, the Great Commission would have gone no further than Christ himself.
Christian history, past and present, is littered with betrayal, manipulation, violence, abuse, greed, power-hunger, failure, scandal, and emotional volatility — all can be identified, even among the most unsuspecting. Name a vice and a Christian, somewhere, has fallen prey to it. All of this simply confirms that if you want to go looking through the annals of Christian history to disprove Christianity on the basis of how some of its most ardent names have lived, then you will find all the evidence to not believe. The sad fact of Christian failure is an inevitable part of Christian history.
With the exception of Christ himself, even our own Scriptures testify to the frailty, failure, and scandal of its most notable figures to live up to God’s expectations.
The centrality of looking to the perfect righteousness of Christ for Christian credibility, and not to Christians themselves, is all the more necessary in light of recent news of sexual abuse surrounding Ravi Zacharias. Year after year, it seems we are met with continual reminder of how the Christian Celebrity Industrial Complex is being guided by charlatans, creeps, and liars.
But does this mean that Christianity is true, good, and beautiful—or, credible—only insofar as one understands its celebrities to be real-life heroes they portray online or on-stage? Of course not. Such an argument is too easy, common though it is. While we cannot excuse the torrid sins of our leaders, they are a reminder that apart from Christ, we look to saviors that are not up to the job.
We are putting too much faith in our leaders and not enough in Christ. If we avert our eyes from Christ and fixate on any celebrity, no matter their eloquence or gifting, we set ourselves up for disappointment and wind up enabling cultures that allow invincibility, unaccountability, and toxicity to proliferate. If anything, the spate of Christian celebrity failure demonstrates that we fear man too much, and God too little. To fear God is to understand that though the mission is impeded when its celebrities fall, the challenge facing the church is not primarily its credibility before an unbelieving world. The world would find Christ no more attractive even if its leaders were like Mr. Rogers. Credibility is not measured by appeasing the palates of those who reject Christianity. The true challenge is faithfulness. Will we establish systems and practices that screen for problematic traits and behaviors even if that means benching the most charismatic amongst us? That’s true credibility. True credibility is found in forfeiting the thing that promises to attract crowds and revenue if character does not match charisma.
Credibility is measured in faithfulness, not personal gifting or an unscathed record. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to make the argument that credibility hinges upon our integrity. Our dealings with outsiders, as the New Testament depicts, can bring offense to the gospel. An inconsistency and immorality that contradicts what we believe can draw attention and heap shame on the gospel. As Paul lays out in 1 Corinthians 5, blatant sin that even non-believers recognize as wrong defiles the gospel and we are called to “purge the evil” (v. 13). The consistency of our morality ought to serve to “adorn the doctrine” we purport to believe (Titus 2:10). Paul’s argument in Titus 2 is profound: It is through our behavior that we bear witness to the gospel we proclaim. There is no way for that not to relate to how the world perceives Christians. How many of us have been drawn to a closer walk with Christ as a result of encountering holiness in others? How many have come to Christ through the loving hospitality demonstrated to an unbeliever? Moreover, 1 Thessalonians 4:12 and Colossians 4:5-6 tell us to “walk properly” and “in wisdom” toward outsiders. Hidden or respectable forms of immorality that we grow to tolerate are incongruent with faithfulness and they can bear fruit in such a way as to bring disrepute to Christ. The witness Christians offer the world reflects the gospel we believe, even if that witness is imperfect.
But reducing the credibility of the gospel down to what outsiders think of Christians can be profoundly shortsighted depending on how thin this line of thinking gets stretched. As we rightly denounce the horrific scandals that many leaders inflict on Christianity, let us be careful not to collapse Christianity down to their shamefulness. Millions toil in faithful anonymity and we should prefer that over the Christian Celebrity Industrial Complex any day.
The wrong way to make this argument is to believe that the world will run into the arms of the church if we’ll only be morally consistent and scandal-free. To make this argument is to get history and the church’s divine mandate exactly backward. The Lord promises to build his church and the gates of our own stupidity and scandal shall not overcome it. Period. He is going to build his church and the stupidity and wickedness of its scandals cannot overtake the Lord’s promised assurance. This should not cause us to minimize how serious we are about how our agency reflects Christ, but should rather heighten our confidence in the sufficiency of Christ and Christ alone in bringing people to salvation. We should give gratitude to God that neither my works nor the works of anyone else are responsible for salvation. If that were the case, we’d be damned. All we have is Christ, from start to finish.
The church’s failures and scandals ought to, on a worldly calculus, put us out of our misery. And yet, she persists. Walker Percy said the repeated and self-inflicted failure of Christians to live up to the ideals of Christianity is evidence of the church’s divine mandate. That the church continues to persist throughout the ages, Percy writes, “is a sign of its divine origins, that it survives these periodic disasters.”
Another way to make this argument wrongly is to instrumentalize the integrity we are called to model. The church is called to integrity for integrity’s sake, not for the acclamation of outside voices who will never run to the church except for when the church jettisons the doctrine that the world despises. If you want a “credible” church by these standards, just visit a mainline Protestant church and see how that plan is working.
The world will not flock to the church because of our consistency and integrity. If that were the case, there would be no church or Christians in perpetuity. The church can be scandal free and morally consistent and there is still no biblical evidence that integrity and consistency will result in mass conversions. Integrity matters for its own sake, not as a measure of credibility or acceptability. The world, Jesus said, is going to hate us. If the popularity of our message ever catches on, it likely means we’ve done the one thing the world truly wants and craves: for us to forfeit the doctrine that distinguishes us from an unbelieving zeitgeist that never liked us to begin with.
It’s easy to use the church’s scandals to pounce and confirm the worst suspicions that the world has about the church. It’s easy to reduce Christianity down to the scandals of celebrity Christianity, and at times, it is certainly understandable. But it does not sum up the body of Christ, globally or in America. The hard task is to understand that the church is not reducible to its scandals or its charlatans who monetize, abuse, and flaunt, but is measured in the small acts of faithfulness that go unnoticed but honored (Matt. 6:16-18).
The scandal of our repentance and sorrow should exceed the justified outrage provoked by Christian scandal. There, the world will not see the credibility of the church, but the graciousness of its Savior.
Christ alone is the ground of our salvation, but we cannot use this as an excuse to tolerate fraudulent forms of Christianity. But to say anything less about the total Christ is to reduce the gospel’s advance down to the works of the church, which is an invidious legalism of a performative sort that will always leave the church in a state of failure. The church of Jesus Christ will always refract the attractiveness of Christ imperfectly, which is why you should never look to any of us for your source of confidence in the credibility of the gospel, but to Christ, and to Christ alone. The Greeks, we’re told in John 12:21, went looking for Jesus. In searching for him, they had to look past Phillip. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” they said. When the world looks for Jesus, let them see us, but then let us point them onward.
Andrew T. Walker is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.