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Over the last several years, the church has been rocked with scandals and and exposures of sexual sin, abuse, and predatory actions of ministry leaders. From mainline denominational churches, to charismatic/Pentecostal, to non-denominational, to Catholic–it seems that no sector of the church has been exempt.
Situations I am referring to are not mere moral failures. A moral failure is when a person falls or stumbles into sin, but then comes into the light and walks in genuine repentance which is proven over time with fruit. What I am referring to is years of ongoing deception, cover-up, and hypocrisy where there is a godly public persona that is hiding a dark private reality of abuse and predatory behavior. This is not a person who was caught in a trespass and needs to be gently restored (see Galatians 6:1). This is a dark double-life of continual evil disguised as good.
My book Hypocrisy Exposed describes situations like this. Understanding the true nature of hypocrisy allows us to comprehend how sexual predators and abusers can blend into the church. It explains how a person can cause so much damage and pain to others without having genuine remorse. But exposures of abuse can be very confusing, and leave victims and other observers with many questions:
- How can a person who appears so godly be doing such evil behind closed doors?
- How can a person be spiritually gifted while also being an abuser of predator?
- Why didn’t anyone discern that the person was a predator?
- Can a person teach correct doctrine but be a false teacher?
The Difference Between Character and Gifting
“Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts…” (1 Corinthians 14:1)
The Bible teaches the importance of both character and gifting. It is not about putting one against the other as if they are against each other. But we should be careful to understand the difference between the two. The fact is, a spiritual gift can be received in a moment but character takes time to develop. The fact that a person operates in a spiritual gift does not endorse everything about the person or automatically mean that they are also walking in godly character. A leader being able to preach powerfully or teach accurately does not automatically mean that they are trustworthy or living in integrity.
The Bible teaches that the gifts of God are irrevocable (See Romans 11:29. While the context refers to God’s relationship to Israel, there is a general principle being stated). God does not necessarily remove gifts that were once given. Suppose that a person receives a spiritual gift from the Lord. Over time, he begins to walk in deception and unrepentant sin, but he realizes that he can still stand up in front of a congregation and preach and minister just as before. The longer this goes on, the more self-deceived he becomes, assuming that his gift is proof that God is still with him and endorsing him. This is a very dangerous place to be!
The Bible gives various examples of people who started well but ended poorly, people who lived in mixture, or those who lived in complete hypocrisy.
King Saul: King Saul seemed to start very well. His heart was changed by God and he received a genuine anointing of the Holy Spirit to lead Israel. But over time he became corrupted by power and went on a downward spiral. The Holy Spirit departed from him and he became tormented by an evil spirit. But even after this, he prophesied when he came into the company of prophets that Samuel was leading (see 1 Samuel 19).
Balaam: Balaam had genuine encounters with the Lord and a prophetic gift, but he became corrupted by the love of money. Peter uses Balaam as an example when describing the nature of false teachers: “They have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness” (2 Peter 2:15). Notice it says they have “forsaken the right way.” This implies that they were once on the right path, but at some point they forsook it.
Judas: Judas is an example of someone who lived a double-life of deception and hypocrisy. He followed Jesus for over three years, but was living in deception all along. He was stealing from the money bag while feigning a care for the poor (see John 12:4-6). Jesus indicated that He was “a devil” all along and did not truly believe in his heart (see John 6:64, 70-71). At the same time, he was among the twelve the whole time. He preached, healed, and cast out demons like the rest of them when Jesus sent them out on a mission (see Mark 6:7-13).
Various other biblical examples could be given of those who operated in gifting, but did not have the character to make it for the long haul. This is a great warning to all of us!
Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing
Some may start well and then fall away, but others are wolves in sheep’s clothing all along. When Jesus warned of false prophets, He described them this way:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” (Matthew 7:15-20)
The very next few verses go on to describe people who prophesied, cast out demons, and worked wonders. Yet, Jesus says that they are workers of iniquity and that He never knew them. How is this possible? I don’t know exactly how this works, but it seems as though some can receive an outward anointing without having an internal heart transformation or true relationship with God. Or perhaps they were mimicking what they had seen others do, and as people in need responded in faith, miracles and deliverance took place. It is hard to say exactly how this can happen, but we know that gifts without fruit is a bad combination.
A wolf is someone who is predatory, looking to take advantage of God’s people. Using an outward appearance of innocence (sheep’s clothing), they exploit others for sexual pleasure, financial gain, or other abuses. Jesus said that we would know them by their fruit. This means that the presence of power and gifts alone are not enough. While the Bible speaks highly of supernatural gifts and acts of power (like healing, deliverance, prophecy, etc.), it also warns of situations like the one above. While we don’t look for perfection, there must be genuine fruit: a real relationship with God; the fruit of the Spirit; integrity and character; love for God and people; true repentance.
Insisting on Character and Integrity
Seeing a person operate in a powerful ministry or teaching gift, and then be exposed as living a lifestyle of abuse or predatory action, is certainly confusing. While this brief article might not answer every question about situations like this, hopefully some biblical insight can be gleaned.
But most of all, we must insist on integrity and character among our leaders (truly, among believers in general). While valuing spiritual gifts, let’s not become enamored with gifting. Let’s not enable or overlook abuse or sin issues because a person has a gift or draws a crowd. Let’s use wisdom and discernment. Let’s value the fruit of the Spirit as much as the gifts of the Spirit.
As we embrace a life of integrity and keep our relationship with God central, we can safely pursue to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit with right motives: to glorify God and benefit others!