I don’t know anything about C. J. Mahaney or his ministry, but someone alerted me to the announcement of his leave of absence. There’s much about this that is really refreshing.
He is stepping aside from his ministry because of “various expressions of pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment and hypocrisy.” This is so striking because it envisions the character of sin and the nature of morality in holistic terms, just as the New Testament does.
Many Christians have become comfortable with graded conceptions of sins that are constructed by our cultures. We grade some sins as very serious, some as not so serious, and others are turned into virtues.
The biggies are things like adultery and fornication–the “red-light” sins. Other things like gossip, slander, and jealousy are given a pass, and in some circles angry speech is regarded as virtuous. You earn your stripes as a defender of the faith among some Christians through angry outbursts of denunciation aimed at those who publish books that revisit cherished dogmatic formulations.
Consider, however, some of the NT vice lists. They’re shocking. They don’t grade sins, but lump together all sorts of behaviors that destroy community and degrade people.
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21).
It shocks our sensibilities to see Paul list all these behaviors together. They are all sins and there is no grading. If we imagine taking serious steps in our communities to deal with sexual immorality, we ought to be equally mobilized to deal with divisive behaviors such as gossip, slander, and envy.
Take a look at the character requirements for elders in 1 Timothy 3:
Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil (1 Timothy 3:2-7).
This is a completely counter-cultural construction of leadership. Paul nowhere lists being a powerful visionary, compelling speaker, or winsome personality. Character may be demonstrated in some of the publicly visible behaviors, but it’s chiefly manifest by hospitality, gentleness, and integrity in the home. Again, the dimensions of morality are surprisingly counter-cultural, holistic, and involve seemingly mundane aspects of life.
One final passage came to mind when I read Mahaney’s statement.
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness (James 3:13-18).
The moral person is the one who does the hard work of peace-making, the one who bears good fruit, the one who shows mercy. These are thoroughly moral patterns of behavior, the heart and soul of the life of a Jesus-follower.
And James does not say that bitter envy and selfish ambition are personality quirks or that they’re merely unfortunate behaviors when found in a person who is otherwise a great leader. He does not mince words. The “wisdom” of such a person is actually demonic.
All this is to say that the New Testament envisions morality in holistic terms. Evangelical people tend to be mesmerized by powerful personalities and compelling speakers. We often excuse sin in our leaders just because they’ve avoided the “biggies” or the “serious” sins. This only demonstrates that our conceptions of morality and leadership need serious revision.