When Big Sin Finds Big Men: The fallout of Jerry Falwell, and the lesson we need to learn from it

I heard Jerry Falwell, Jr., speak for the first time in the fall of 2008.  I was a freshman at Liberty University, and he was the soft-spoken new chancellor who essentially inherited the job from his father.  Even then, the students knew he didn’t have his father’s gift for evangelism or public speaking.  He was a businessman, and the statements he made in front of us were clearly rehearsed.  But he always seemed honest and genuine.  I believe he wanted to make his father proud. 

Over the next few years, he got slightly better at public speaking.  He learned to crack a joke without staring at the paper in front of him.  He seemed excited when he presented plans for school growth and development.  By the time I graduated in 2012, the school had developed a new student center, a new gym, a new theater, and a brand new football stadium. Both of its major educational buildings had received massive overhauls, and there were plans for a new library, new dorms, and a massive tower.

While other schools were still struggling to recover from the recession of 2007, Liberty was thriving, thanks to several savvy business moves by Jerry Jr.  But you know the saying, “Too much, too soon?”  That was Liberty, and in an effort to force Jerry Sr.’s dream into fruition, the school’s priorities shifted.  Bringing in athletic talent was more important than biblical accountability, and it was well-known that the football team received special privileges concerning the amount of partying they were allowed to do.  Building skyscrapers and entertainment attractions were more important than cultivating hearts for Christ, and the motto changed from the mission-based, “Champions for Christ,” to the egocentric, “We the Champions.” Quantity was more important than quality, and if you had the money, Liberty was willing to take you on. 

Still, even as the system shifted its priorities, the priorities of the professors remained the same.  Every single professor taught from a biblical perspective.  Every individual leader I had the privilege of learning from genuinely wanted to improve my relationship with Christ.  And while there were a few classes I hated (eg. my all-female Evangelism class), the bulk of my educational experience there was incredibly positive.  

But as Liberty increased in stature, I’m not sure how often Falwell got onto his knees and prayed for help.  I’m not sure how much pride he took in completing his interpretation of his father’s dream.  And in his haste and his pride and his self-indulgence, he fell.  To anyone who has watched the school recently, his fall should not come as a surprise. 

When a person climbs the ladder of success without ensuring the foundation of that ladder is solid, and then pausing to ensure each rung is well-hammered, the ladder is bound to break. In the Christian world, this means we must spend even more of our time on our knees, asking for guidance. It means surrounding ourselves with friends to hold us accountable. It means using our success to glorify Him instead of ourselves. Look at Falwell’s behavior over the last few years. Does his behavior suggest that he has been relying on God or on himself?

Falwell’s fall is sad, but it isn’t a surprise. To me, what is most disappointing is that the evangelical leadership at Liberty allowed him to fall this hard before inflicting a consequence.

If you are a Christian, you probably know the story of David and Bathsheba.  In this story, we see David take Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers, and impregnate her.  Then, in order to cover up his mistake, he has her husband killed. AFTER all of this, David is approached by the prophet Nathan.  Nathan confronts David about his sin, and David is repentant.  He accepts the consequences of his sin.  The church talks about all of this.

But how frequently does the church talk about the messengers who sent for Bathsheba?  Or the soldiers who sent her husband to the front lines so that he would die?  How often does the church talk about the people who were complicit in David’s sin?  How many people knew about it and chose to say nothing? 

The interesting thing about systems, both inside and outside of the church, is that when certain powerful men slip slightly, rather than rebuking them and seeking reconciliation immediately, the system covers it up.  It’s an odd solution, considering it never works.  Retribution can find us anywhere. When sin happens inside the church, it benefits Satan to bust the door wide open for all the world to see.  And if the messengers and soldiers are complicit in the sin, Satan can bring down the entire system, rather than just the initial perpetrator. 

Long before Falwell was caught in an Instagram photo with his pants unbuttoned, long before he designed a racy mask, and long before he and his wife made the choice to enter into an extramarital affair, the leaders at Liberty should have held him accountable.  

And certainly, members of the student body called Falwell out.  For the last few years, I have seen several alumni posting their disappointment in Falwell.  It’s likely that members of LU’s leadership also attempted to rebuke him, as there have been major overhauls in the pastoral leadership since I graduated. However, the Bible explicitly tells leadership how to handle discourse within the church.

Matthew 18 states, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

The current fallout makes it very apparent that the majority of LU’s leadership has not followed these steps to hold Falwell accountable. There have been rumors about Falwell’s shortcomings for years.  Rumors that were easily squashed because the people who knew the truth were too afraid, or too well-paid, or too indoctrinated to push further.  The few who may have questioned him didn’t vocalize it loudly enough.  And now, the Enemy has a lot of ammunition to use against all evangelicals, particularly the students and staff at LU.

Falwell made his own decisions and he is suffering the consequences, but he didn’t fail on his own.  Undoubtedly, we are about to be inundated with information that further blasts his character.  He deserves to be rebuked, although there is a difference between rebuke and ridicule.  He also deserves compassion, because no man has ever found Christ without first finding compassion.  While Falwell is the big man who got caught, don’t forget to hold his enablers accountable.  Don’t forget to demand that they do better as they seek to plan a better future for the university. 

Most of us don’t get the opportunity to be King David, or a Jerry Falwell, Jr.  But we all get the opportunity to be the messenger for someone else.  We all have eyes and ears and the ability to find wisdom in the heart of God.  Don’t let anyone who claims to be a child of God wallow in their sin.  This wallowing will only create additional shame and consequences for everyone involved. 

Don’t be afraid to question your leaders.   A good leader welcomes it.   Don’t assume your leaders are good. All have sinned and fallen short.   Don’t base your faith off the behavior of your leaders. They will let you down. 

And in the same respect,

Do seek counsel from those you respect, But do not make them your idol.  Do pray for your leaders, For they make easy targets for Satan.  Do recognize that all good things come from the Lord, And He can take away success as quickly as he gives it. 

Remember that restoration is always possible, if accountability and reconciliation come first.

“Have mercy on me, O God,

According to your steadfast love; 

According to your abundant mercy

Blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,

And cleanse me from my sin.” 

-Psalm 51:1-2

As written by King David after he is confronted by Nathan

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