On Disgraced Church Leaders and the True Meaning of Saintliness

On Disgraced Church Leaders and the True Meaning of Saintliness

Over the past year we have witnessed the discrediting of at least two towering Christian leaders and their ministries:  On the protestant side, Ravi Zacharius, the world renowned Christian apologist and author of dozens of best-selling books and, on the Catholic side, Jean Vanier, founder of the global L’Arche Community.  After a cursory glance at any of their writings you’ll immediately see just how strikingly different these two men were from one another. Yet, despite their differences, they had at least two things in common: (1) a dark side which, in both cases,  involved the calculating, premeditated sexual abuse of several women and (2) an aura of great saintliness— one which they managed to retain even to the moment of their deaths.   

It is quite possible that this saintly aura was something they had consciously crafted over the course of their many years of ministry.  Or, to put it bluntly, Jean Vanier and Ravi Zacharius— aside from their more obvious vices— also likely coveted honour and admiration.  I suspect that they both took a certain delight in being regarded by others as extraordinarily noble, wise and good. (Who wouldn’t?) And we— desperate to see nobility, wisdom and goodness embodied in this fallen world— were happy to oblige them, bestowing upon them the honour which they so craved.

I’m not suggesting that the church’s historical practice of singling out certain people for their faithful obedience to the way of Christ and calling them “saints” is misguided or wrong.  I’m also not suggesting that we should simply assume, as a matter of course, that every person we’re tempted to admire is secretly living a dreadful double life of exploitation and abuse. Such a level of cynicism is not only unjustified but lazy.  

What I am saying is this: There is a world of difference between striving to live a saintly life (something which all Christians have been called to do) and striving to achieve a reputation for saintliness.  Over the centuries, many Christian leaders— from high profile megachurch pastors to garden-variety country priests— have pursued this second goal with a fierce and singular passion.  In fact, as a church leader, I myself have wrestled with this temptation.  However, this is not a goal that our Lord would have us pursue.  Instead, the Master calls us to a more genuine saintliness— one which is, in many ways, even more difficult to achieve that it’s counterfeit.   He even shows us what such a life of saintliness looks like.     

After having shared a final meal with his closest friends, we are told that Jesus rose from the table, “took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (John 13:4-5). 

Here, Jesus shows us that to be a saint does not mean perpetually radiating a loving, beatific aura.  It does not involve the possession of an irresistible charisma that draws people into our social circles or fills the pews of our churches.  Rather, to be a saint means to engage in simple, day-to-day acts of humble, self sacrificial service.  Rarely will we be praised for such “foot washings”— and so much the better.  True saintliness, in most cases, involves toiling away in obscurity.  

Over the years, Jasmine and I have witnessed such saintliness all around us— particularly since we moved to inner-city Saint John to launch Pennies and Sparrows.  We have witnessed people welcome the unwelcome into their very own homes— providing shelter and companionship to those who bear some of society’s gravest stigmas.  We have witnessed ordinary people walk alongside refugee families in the first few steps of the long and difficult journey of making this country their home— driving them to appointments, filling out reams of government paperwork on their behalf and looking after their children.  We know of women who have offered guidance, service and mentorship to young, single moms, struggling to raise their children on their own.  None of these people possess an unearthly charisma that draws strangers to their side. None of them radiate a kind of supernatural goodness.  They are largely unknown and uncelebrated and will most likely remain so throughout the course of their lives.  But all of them are saintly.  

They are not saints because they act in a saintly fashion.  Rather, they act in a saintly fashion because they are saints.  In other words, their saintly lives are ordinary lives lived in grateful response to a holiness that has been bestowed upon them by Christ— a holiness that they did nothing to earn or achieve.  

This is saintliness.  It is not the counterfeit saintliness that we’re tempted to pursue.  It has nothing to do with “auras” or “charisma” or “allure” or “magnetism.”  It is not the saintliness of a renowned church leader, whether upright or disgraced.  It is a saintliness bestowed by Christ himself and manifested in simple acts of thankless, self-sacrificial service.  May we all have the humility to pursue such saintliness in our own lives.

– Terence Chandra