Lessons From The Liberty University Scandal

Oct 10th, 2020 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

A major premise of Scripture is that leaders are always called to a higher standard.  Indeed, spiritual leaders in the church and in ministry are called to be “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2).    Leaders in ministry are to be servant leaders, modeling the biblical truths they espouse (see Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 22:21-30 and John 13:1-17).  Leaders are to avoid even the “appearance of evil” in their lifestyles and in their words (1 Thessalonians 5:22).  For that reason, when a spiritual leader falls its effect is catastrophic.  Followers lose trust and the mission of that ministry is called into question.  The history of the modern American church is filled with examples of leadership failure and its chaotic effects (e.g., Ted Haggard, Bill Hybels, Perry Stone, Earl Paulk, Jimmy Swaggart, and Jim Bakker).  For that reason, the fall of Jerry Falwell Jr., former president of Liberty University, is both sad and instructive.  It is a call not to ridicule but to reflect and learn.

Liberty University is one of the largest and wealthiest Christian universities in the world and an important one especially in the United States.  But the unique distinctive of faith-based higher education is not only the training of the mind, but the training of the heart as well.  Christian education enables students to not only develop a well-thought through, biblically centered worldview, but also gives focus to mentoring and modeling values, virtues and standards sourced in the Bible.  To have the “right information” does not necessarily produce right living.  Deuteronomy 6:1-9, a central passage on education –both in its formal, instructive sense and in its modeling and mentoring sense—demonstrates powerfully that we live out what we teach.  Christian leaders are to intentionally and deliberately do just that!  Jerry Falwell Jr. did not do that.

Falwell’s tenure was marked by several scandals:  On 2015, after the San Bernardino shooting, he encouraged those on campus with concealed weapons to “end those Muslims.” He posted on Twitter a racist photo, causing Black students and faculty members to publish an open letter decrying their leader’s demeaning acts towards image-bearers of God.  But in August his tenure ended when a “particularly tawdry story of a yearslong sexual relationship with his wife and Giancarlo Granda [one of his business partners] who claims that Falwell knew and sometimes watched.” Neither Falwell nor his wife has denied the sexual affair.  Therefore, a group of Liberty graduates — and eventually the school’s board — had had enough. Even his own brother seemed shaken. “The world doesn’t need another Christian hypocrite,” the Rev. Jonathan Falwell told students at Liberty after his brother’s departure.  Jonathan Falwell, who succeeded his father as pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church, did not criticize his brother by name in a sermon addressed to students.  Still, his message was clear.  “So many times we see Christians that are more focused on building their own brand than they are about building the kingdom of God,” he said.  Jerry Falwell Jr. has been publically disgraced but, as many Christian leaders have observed, there is an apparent lack of contrition, shame and repentance on his part. In a distasteful final statement, Falwell quipped that he was “free at last” from Liberty.  Liberty University and its Board have launched an independent investigation into the conduct of former president Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife, Becki.  The board has decided not only to study the case but also to set up a system of spiritual accountability for those in leadership.  “The school is considering a separate move to reorient it toward its ‘spiritual mission’ by establishing a post in the university leadership dedicated to spiritual guidance for other leaders,” write Sarah Rankin and Elana Schor for the Associated Press, “ensuring they ‘live out the Christian walk expected of each and every one of us at Liberty.’”

 

What is the impact of Falwell’s fall?

  • Christian author, Hannah Anderson, observes correctly that “The bond between this independent university and the local church means that when trouble hits the school, it also hits the broader Christian community. The impact is deep and wide. In this context, Liberty’s practices as a parachurch organization carry significant weight, and the response of the university’s board of trustees sets precedent far beyond the boardroom and into the pews. The old adage is true: Attitudes are caught, not taught.”  In a recent New York Times op-ed, Liberty graduate Kaitlyn Schiess, who is now a student at Dallas Theological Seminary, writes, “At Liberty our minds may have been receiving correct content, but our hearts were being trained to love wrongly: to love political power, physical security, and economic prosperity as higher goods than they are.”  Schiess is describing the power of culture formation—how small signals and modeling from trusted sources nudge us in certain directions, both as individuals and as communities.  Christian colleges and universities should serve as institutional anchors—spaces of transformation and education, discipleship and scholarship, cultural edification, and exhortation.  Under Falwell’s leadership Liberty’s function as an “anchor” was jeopardized.
  • Anderson writes that “I see this as a teachable moment—not just for Liberty but for the multitude of churches and ministries under its influence.  Insofar as the investigation is truly independent, the board of Liberty University has the opportunity to do three key things: Normalize standards of accountability and transparency; show local church boards that they too must faithfully protect the Lord’s work from abusive leaders; and remind leaders themselves that the kingdom of God is not their private enterprise.  We see this calling laid out clearly in Scripture. In Luke 12, Jesus tells a parable about an estate manager who begins to abuse those under him while the master is away. But then suddenly, like a ‘thief in the night,’ the master returns and catches the manager unaware. Punishment is swift, decisive, and severe.  When the disciples ask who the parable is meant for, Jesus directs their attention to the relationship between privilege and responsibility, intimating that those who have the benefit of his teaching are the ones most responsible to follow it. The parable is for the disciples themselves. He then justifies the master’s harsh punishment of the unfaithful manager, saying that to everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked’ (Luke 12:48).”
  • Finally, when I was in leadership as president of a Christian university, I annually reviewed these “accountability questions” with my leadership team.  In my retirement, I have used them in the church on which I serve as part-time staff member.

ACCOUNTABILITY QUESTIONS

 

These are questions we should have the freedom to ask one another, as brothers in Christ.  [Adapted from Chuck Swindoll, Chuck Colson, Steve Farrar]

  1. Have you been with a woman this week in a way that was inappropriate or could have looked to others as if you were using poor judgment?
  2. Have you been completely above reproach in all your financial dealings this week?
  3. Have you exposed yourself to any sexually explicit material this week?
  4. Have you spent daily time in prayer and in the Scriptures this week?
  5. Have you fulfilled the mandate of your calling this week?
  6. Have you given priority time to your family this week?
  7. Have you just lied to me?

HEDGES FOR MORAL PROTECTION [Adapted from Jerry Jenkins]

  1. Whenever I need to meet or dine or travel with an unrelated woman, I make it a threesome.  Should an unavoidable last-minute complication make this impossible, my wife hears it from me first.
  2. I am careful about touching.  While I shake hands or squeeze an arm or shoulder in greeting, I embrace only friends, or relatives, and only in front of others.
  3. If I pay a compliment, it is on clothes or hairstyle, not on the person herself.  Commenting on a pretty outfit is much different in my opinion, from telling a woman that she herself looks pretty.
  4. I avoid flirtation or suggestive conversation, even in jest.
  5. I remind my wife often—in writing and verbally—that I remember my wedding vows.
  6. From the time I get home from work until my children go to bed, I do no writing or office work.  This gives time for my family and for my wife and me—to “court and to date.”

See Kaitlyn Scheiss, “What Went Wrong at Liberty University,” in the New York Times (27 August 2020); Hannah Anderson, “What Happens at Liberty Doesn’t Stay at Liberty,” www.christianitytoday.com (2 September 2020); and Anthea Butler, “Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Fall, Liberty University and the Myth of the Moral Majority,” Religious News Service  (27 August 2020).

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