The signs have been there for some time. I am not talking about Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s political involvement, with which many of us disagreed, but his demeanor, words, and behavior which gave rise to serious questions as to whether he possessed the requisite character and spiritual maturity to serve as president of Liberty.
My issues with Jerry, Jr began early, when a controversy arose about Glenn Beck (a Mormon) speaking at Liberty convocation. I did not have a problem with Beck speaking (in an academic setting, exposing students to different viewpoints is helpful) as much as what Jerry said about it. On June 25, 2010, he said,
“I mean, that’s what my father believed when he formed Moral Majority, was an organization of Mormons, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, people of no faith. And there are bigger issues now, we can argue about theology later after we save the country.”
To me, that statement was contrary to the Gospel. We need to save America (via political means) and then we can “argue theology” with Gospel-aberrant groups such as Mormons, Catholics, and Jews? I was not always a fan of everything Jerry, Sr. did but he understood that the Gospel came first. In 2015, Jr. stated his wish that more “good people” would carry guns so that we could “end those Muslims.” Should a Christian leader speak so passionately about killing people? Aren’t Christian institutions about REACHING people, not killing them? Recently, his racially insensitive remarks caused several minority students (prominent athletes) and staff to leave. He made many insulting and derogatory statements about fellow-Christians who didn’t share his political views. It seemed clear to me that he was far more motivated and passionate about political things than by the things of God.
In fact, I cannot remember hearing him declare the Gospel or the primacy of Christ. He said that he was a lawyer, not a pastor, as if that excused his behavior. He made repeated statements that echoed the one above, that we needed to fix the country first, then we could worry about theological (Christian) matters later. I did not attend convocations and I never spoke to him privately. He may well have testified to his faith in Christ there (though recent revelations about his private life bring that into question). I remember Old Jerry speaking of Christ and the Gospel at every opportunity. Young Jerry did not.
Of course, the rumors of personal foibles have been rampant for years, but they were whispers by questionable characters who provided no proof, until recently.
When people questioned him, Jerry Falwell, Jr. had the same basic response. “Look at what I have done for this university.” Last week, I drove past the university for the first time in years. It appears that there have been massive building programs. I understand that the school that once teetered on the edge of bankruptcy now has an endowment that approaches $2 billion. Sports programs seemed to be prospering (at least until his recent racial missteps). There is no question that on an institutional level, Jerry Jr. has been successful. The school is bigger, richer, and more solidly established than when he took control.
Here’s my estimation. Jerry Falwell Jr. was doing great things as president of Liberty University but did not have the requisite moral character and spiritual maturity to sustain such a job. Henry Blackaby used to say that we should not seek an assignment from God that is beyond our character and maturity. That is usually a prescription for disaster. Insufficient moral and spiritual character in a big job will lead to shipwreck on a massive scale.
Why Dredge This UP?
The purpose of this post is not to pick on Jerry Falwell, Jr. My hope is that the trustees of Liberty will find a great new president and the school will prosper. I hope I can return to enthusiastically supporting the school. If this was an isolated incident, I would just breathe a sigh of relief and move on, but it is not.
Christianity today, and the institutional church, seem to reward talent, charisma, and personality more than moral character and spiritual maturity when it comes to leadership positions. We ignore the failings of charismatic celebrity leaders because of their effect on the institutional bottom line or their popular stands. We have developed a culture of celebrity and hero-worship that excuses the failings and foibles of these ultra-talented men (and women) because of what they’ve done for us. Abusers get standing ovations even after they’ve admitted their perverse sins because they’ve preached great messages and built “our great church.” Men who have abused power and acted without integrity are celebrated and honored because they are denominational warriors, heroes of the Conservative Resurgence, or have in some other way served our convention. We turn a blind eye to lack of character, to those who fail to operate in obedience to Christ because they get things done.
When the shipwreck comes, we all shake our heads and say, “Isn’t it sad. How awful. Oh, my.” As long as we continue to value celebrity and talent over character and maturity, as long as we turn a blind eye to sexual abuse, abuse of power, and other sins, because “he built a great church” or “he served us faithfully,” we will continue to see shipwrecks. When we put our institutions in the hands of those who lack character and cheer them on because they say things we like, “get stuff done” and tickle our ears with their political pronouncements, we are complicit in the failures. When trustees of our institutions (I know, Liberty isn’t SBC – I am speaking more generally now) serve the celebrity leaders instead of holding them accountable, our institutions will flail and shipwrecks will be common.
We ought not to be surprised that Liberty is going through what it is going through. They have been racing toward disaster for years but no one would hold their president accountable. You reap what you sow. This is an ugly harvest.
What ought to surprise and grieve us is the absolute unwillingness of Christians to learn this lesson. If we do not make character and spiritual maturity central to leadership, if we do not hold our leaders lovingly accountable, these kinds of tragedies will continue unabated.