But as I also pointed out last week, the reform never lasted. After the judge died, the people again drifted back into their old pattern of forsaking the word of God. Sometimes the reforms lasted for a short time, but at times the return to old ways happened almost immediately.
There were fifteen judges in all, the first one being Othniel, who rescued Israel from the Aramians. Some of the most well-known of the judges were Deborah, Gideon and Samson. Jephthah may not be as familiar to us, but he is actually listed in the New Testament book of Hebrews as an example of a strong faith in God, as some of the other judges also are.
None of these rulers were perfect however, and in fact with most of them, failures in their personal characters surfaced near the end of their term, at least up until the last judge, who was Samuel.
Failures in leadership is a theme that has been with us all throughout history and in every government and culture. We experience this in our own country. Every four years we listen to the enthusiastic campaign promises of a new candidate for the presidency of our nation. We hear how he or she intends to bring new stability and prosperity to our land, along with healings of all our social ills. Then also every four years we are disappointed. The promises were either empty promises, or misdirected. The candidate did not follow through on his word, or his actions did not accomplish what he tried to do.
Political promises are one thing, but it is the moral lives of our leaders that is often more distressing. While we cannot say the same for every person in the government in Washington or our state capitals, for there are very many significant examples of men and women who continue to hold high moral standards both in their families and in their leadership, but there are also enough examples of the deplorable standards of many others that might cause us to wonder if the decisions that they make for our own lives are as sound as they might be. If they are failing in their personal lives, how can they make good decisions that affect our lives?
Failure in government is a common theme of conversation not only for our time and for our country, but it has been in every culture all throughout history. We are not unique in that way. But governments of the world will come and go. They will rise and fall, but eventually, every one of them will fail.
That which will endure however, is the church.
The Importance of the Church
We know that the church is not the building where we gather, although we might refer to the building in this way. But we know that it is the people who actually constitute the church. Nevertheless, Paul does compare the people to a structure. He speaks of the church as a building which is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, as it were. This church, he says, is being built “into a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:20-22).
Jesus says that even “the gates of hell will not prevail against the church” (Matthew 16:18).
With this being the case, whatever is happening in the governments of the world, as important as they are in affecting our daily lives, that which is ultimately more important is the church. God may sometimes work through the world governments for his own purposes, but these entirely human institutions are not God’s main concern. He is concerned for his church.
And it is also for this reason that as much as we are affected by the actions of our government leaders, the actions of the leaders in our churches are of more ultimate consequence. This being the case, it may be discouraging for us when we see leaders in our government fail in their personal lives, but far more disheartening is it when we see religious leaders fail.
And as you know, we have seen some significant failures in our religious leaders. It is hurtful to me even to mention some of the numerous examples we have seen of sexual abuse in the church, of pastors who have been found to be having affairs outside of their marriages, and of corruption in the leadership of churches, both large and small. It is all an undeniable hindrance and repulsive blot on the clear and pure message of God. It all has brought some deserved criticism to the church.
Being Careful of Our Words
Before I speak further on this however, allow me to make a general statement about criticizing the church. Despite all of the failures and what we may see as corruption, we must always be very cautious in what we say about the church. We may see failures and weaknesses, and certainly we must speak against these.
But let us also remember that the church is the bride of Christ. Whenever we speak against the church, we are speaking against the very beloved of Christ. I would not stand for someone speaking against my bride in any undeserved or malicious manner, nor will Christ stand for anyone speaking in this manner against his beloved. Thus, let us be cautious with our words and our attitudes about the church of Christ.
As for the leaders who have failed the church and have failed God—be assured that they will be held accountable for their actions (Hebrews 13:17).
“Let not many of you become teachers, my brothers,” James writes, “Knowing that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).
And Jesus tells us, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and from him who has been entrusted with much, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48).
For nearly twenty years I taught classes in pastoral training. Among the usual classes that one would think of in training pastors, such as Bible Doctrine and Biblical Studies, we also had a class dedicated solely to the Personal Life of the Pastor. This is how important we felt it was that the church leader stay above corruption and to remain faithful not only to his calling as a pastor, but also to his calling as a family man and a citizen.
Sadly, we have seen several (and I would even say many) well-known pastors and church leaders fail on this very point. Do not think that any church leader who has been caught in a horrendous scandal began his career believing this could happen to him. It all began small—it always does.
At the beginning of their descent into sin, they tell themselves, “It may not be completely honest and good, but it is only a little thing.” Their road to failure is no different than it is with you or me. It is a road that will only end in disaster and disgrace, and once a pastor begins to travel it, it seems like it is very difficult for them to find an off-ramp.
To add to the discouraging fact of failure in church leadership, we should not assume that these scandals in leadership have little significance outside of their immediate context. It is not only the individual and local church itself that suffers the consequences of an affair of their pastor. It is not only the individual denomination that is shamed when it is revealed that there has been a history of sexual abuse within the clergy. The damages that these failures cause are widespread, not only in the church, but also in the culture at large.
As we saw in some of the stories of the judges, and as we will see in several of the kings of Judah, a rather common trend was that once they became settled into their positions of leadership, they began to neglect their spiritual lives. Each situation is unique, of course, but amassing wealth for themselves seems to be a frequent failure in their personal lives, as well as having sexual affairs outside of their marriages.
As we can all attest, little has changed in the thousands of years since the time of the judges and kings of Israel. For pastors and church leaders today, once they become secure in their positions, and once they have a large following of people who are donating a lot of money, the temptation for the pastors is to build huge luxurious homes for themselves, buy expensive automobiles, and begin to neglect their families and enter into affairs outside of their marriages.
All of these actions are inexcusable, and as I mentioned, do not think that they will not have to answer for them. People whom God has placed in positions of leadership are held to a higher standard of behavior.
God’s Perfect Word Spoken by Imperfect Messengers
But I do not wish to concentrate on the condemnation of leaders who have failed in their personal lives. These will answer for their own sin.
Rather, the lesson for the church should be about the purity of God’s word as it comes to the people. It is an enigma for me that God has chosen to bring his message by way of pastors and other fallible leaders. For reasons that only God knows, he has entrusted his perfect word to imperfect people.
We see this all throughout the Bible. By no means do I wish to dismiss or diminish in any way the damage that a failure in church leadership can do, but by the examples of the judges of the Old Testament and of many of the Kings, we see that despite their personal failures, God still brought his word and worked his will through these leaders.
As I said, this is a question that I have often pondered. Why would God do this? Does he not know that we are weak and fallible and prone to corruption?
Certainly, he does. Nevertheless, I believe God acts in this way not because it is the most secure and the most efficient way of bringing his message to the world, but because he delights in working with us. As an earthly father might prefer to have his young son help him with a project, even though it slows the work down somewhat and even diminishes the quality, the father enjoys the time with his child. He does so because he loves his child and thinks that in this time together, he can begin to teach his son some lessons about growing up.
God loves us. Of all the teachings of the Bible, this is the most prevalent. God loves us. He wants to spend time with us and teach us some things about growing up in our spiritual lives. And even though we might make mistakes and even cloud his message, God is still causing his word to be brought to the world.
Before We Criticize
Last week I spoke of the personal failures on our leaders in government. I am speaking now of personal failures of our leaders in the church. Whether in government or the church, the personal and moral lives of our leaders is important. But if we criticize, it must be a just criticism. However, even before we criticize, we must pray for them. We do not know the burden that they often carry.
When it comes to the degrading of a society or a culture, it is most convenient for us to place the blame on poor leadership. By blaming our leaders for all of our ills, we take all responsibility off of ourselves. We demand nothing of ourselves.
Certainly, we would all prefer leaders without personal weaknesses, but failures in leadership is not the true reason that the culture of our country or of any country is becoming increasingly corrupt. Jesus Christ himself demonstrated this to us when he lived among men. Despite his faultless leadership, the culture as a whole turned against him.
The writer of the book of Hebrews tells us that “in these last days, God sent to us his Son.” Jesus Christ was not only a representative from God—He was God Himself. God Himself has visited us. What have we done to him?
Jesus mourned how he was rejected. In a lament over the city of Jerusalem, Jesus spoke these words:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her, how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were unwilling! Look, your house is left to you desolate. And I tell you that you will not see Me again until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Luke 13:34-35 BSB)
I am afraid that we cannot use the excuse for the leadership in our country or in our churches as the reason that our country is in decline. I dare say that if Jesus himself would present himself to us, our nation as a whole would reject him. Jesus spoke strongly against many of the sins that are so prevalent in our own society. These are behaviors and activities that people value more than anything else, and indeed, some are lifestyles in which they actually pride themselves.
Playing the Blame Game
But if we cannot lay the blame completely on our leaders, there are many others whom we can blame for the downward direction of our society and economy.
We can blame the rich, because they are becoming richer at the expense of the rest of us. We can blame the poor, because they are living off of welfare that the rest of us pay for. We can blame the illegal immigrants, because they are waging a silent invasion of our country. We can blame the schools for failing to teach our children properly. We can blame other parents for raising children who do not know right from wrong. We can blame Big Pharma for creating a generation of children dependent upon medication without knowing the long-term consequences of their drugs. We can blame social media for fomenting extreme opinions and behavior. We can blame weak gun laws for not restricting gun sales. We can blame the gun manufactures for placing profit over the good of society. For that matter, we can blame all manufactures, from food to clothing, for off-shoring their production and placing profit over the well-being of people. We can blame the police force for their brutal tactics. We can blame traffic offenders for not following instructions when they are pulled over for a violation. We can blame the lawyers for the mountain of frivolous law suits that our courts must handle. We can blame our courts for handing down light sentences. We can blame the liberals. We can blame the conservatives. We can blame the Republicans. We can blame the Democrats.
You get the point. There is always someone else to blame.
At the dawn of time, in the very first society, Adam and Eve rebelled against the Lordship of God. When they were confronted by their actions, the very first thing that they did was to blame someone else.
Adam told God, “The woman whom You gave me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” It was not only the woman’s fault, but the blame actually laid with God himself, since he was the one who made Eve.
Eve, when God asked her what she had done, simply replied, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
Nothing has changed. Find someone else to blame. We can blame our spouse, we can blame our neighbor, we can even blame God. The only person whom we cannot blame is ourselves.
But in truth, the true blame lies within our very hearts. We have hearts of rebellion against the Lordship of God, and until we deal with that, nothing will change. As in the days of the Old Testament judges, there may be temporary revivals—a quick easing of difficult times, but these will not last.
Perfect leaders will not do it. New and better laws will not do it. More and better mental health clinics will not do it. New economic policies can only give temporary relief.
At the Heart of Failure
Our nation was by no means perfect in its early years, but it was apparent to many of our leaders of those past days that the blessing of God was upon the land. But since those early days, we have moved quite far away from God.
As it was in the days of the judges of Israel, there have been some occasions and even some years in our own history when it seemed that we were returning to God. But also as in the days of the judges, those occasions did not last. We as a nation came to several points of choosing to follow the ways of God or to choose a different path, and lately it seems that the choice has consistently been to move away from the Word of the Lord.
We are at one of those points right now, in this present day. We have a severe leadership crisis in our nation. Many of our leaders in government have failed us, and it is shameful to say, even many of our leaders in the Christian church have failed us.
Others have not failed us. At the heart of the matter is the fact that we have failed ourselves.
Have you ever noticed that when the prophets of the Old Testament brought to God prayers of confession for their nation, never did they say “our leaders have sinned,” or “the people of the other political party has sinned?”
It was never “they have sinned,” but “we have sinned.”
The Prophets Speak
“O my God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift up my face to You, my God, because our iniquities are higher than our heads, and our guilt has reached the heavens” (Ezra 9:6)
“Let us lie down in our shame; let our disgrace cover us. We have sinned against the LORD our God, both we and our fathers; from our youth even to this day we have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God” (Jeremiah 3:25 BSB).
“You are just in all that has befallen us, because You have acted faithfully, while we have acted wickedly. Our kings and leaders and priests and fathers did not obey Your law or listen to Your commandments and warnings that You gave them” (Nehemiah 9:33-34 BSB).
“We have sinned like our fathers; we have done wrong and acted wickedly” (Psalm 106:6 BSB).
“You have hidden Your face from us and delivered us into the hand of our iniquity” (Isaiah 64:5-7 BSB).
“Although our iniquities testify against us, O LORD, act for the sake of Your name. Indeed, our rebellions are many; we have sinned against You” (Jeremiah 14:7 BSB).
“Our transgressions and our sins are heavy upon us, and we are wasting away because of them! How can we live?” (Ezekiel 33:10 BSB)
You welcome those who gladly do right, who remember Your ways. Surely You were angry, for we sinned. How can we be saved if we remain in our sins? Each of us has become like something unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all wither like a leaf, and our iniquities carry us away like the wind. No one calls on Your name or strives to take hold of You. (Isaiah 64:5-7 BSB)
“O, Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant of loving devotion to those who love Him and keep His commandments, we have sinned and done wrong. We have acted wickedly and rebelled. We have turned away from Your commandments and ordinances. We have not listened to Your servants the prophets, who spoke in Your name to our kings, leaders, and fathers, and to all the people of the land.” (Daniel 9:4-6)
I confess the sins that we have committed against You. Both I and my father’s house have sinned. We have behaved corruptly against You and have not kept the commandments, statutes, and ordinances that You gave Your servant Moses.” (Nehemiah 1:7 BSB).
It is not only those on the left of our society who have sinned. It is not only those on the right. It is not only the rich, the poor, the democrats, the republicans. It is not only the liberals or the conservatives.
We have all sinned.
Should we wonder why God is fed up? Should we wonder why he has decided to withdraw his blessing from our nation? It is not until we pray the prayers of these prophets of old that God will lead us back into his blessing.