"A good man takes no delight to rake in a dung hill, others' failings cannot serve his mirth and triumph" (Thomas Manton sermon on James 3:1).
Manton was writing in the 17th century. But it doesn't matter whether it's the 17th, the 21st or the 1st, the danger is ever the same: "so, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall" (1 Corinthians 10:12).
The failure and falls of church leaders have been with us from Judas and Demetrius up to Zacharias and Houston.
There are a myriad of reactions that we can have to the news that Brian Houston, the founder of Hillsong Church, has been compelled to resign as senior pastor. Some want to know every gory detail - gossip tastes sweet. Others want to take the opportunity of sharing their insight into the wrong theology and practice of one of the most successful megachurches in the world - schadenfreude (delight in another's misfortune) is an ugly emotion.
Many will grieve for the victims – because there are victims. The 'behaviour' towards two women who both admired and trusted the church, was not just 'inappropriate', it was wicked, and they are the primary victims. Likewise, the hurt and pain that so many in Hillsong will be feeling just now is heartbreaking. I hope that people will reach out to care and pastor them.
The damage to the public reputation of the Gospel is depressing. "The name of God is blasphemed amongst the Gentiles because of you" (Romans 2:24). All the major media outlets in Australia (and many throughout the world) have covered the story. Some here in Australia seem to almost delight in it, not least because it has given them a chance to make yet another attack upon the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison.
Mr Morrison, the Western world's only Pentecostal political leader, has not been a member of Hillsong for 15 years, but guilt by association is a useful card to play in an election year. Besides which there are some in Australia who have an almost pathological hatred for Hillsong. This is a day of rejoicing for them. Their day of judgement is yet to be.
The message from the Hillsong global board reflects some of the confusion and pain. While we should be thankful for their openness in sharing and dealing with the situation, the statement itself leaves a lot to be desired. The sentence that is particularly unwise is, "Irrespective of the circumstances around this, we can all agree that Brian and Bobbie have served God faithfully over many decades." We cannot be "irrespective of the circumstances". It is those circumstances that prove that the service was not faithful.
Houston's unwillingness to withdraw from ministry after the allegations came to light in 2019, and the failure of the board to suspend him at that time demonstrates the weakness of a corporate church which depends not on Christ, but on the brand established by the leader.
We cannot know if this is a pattern of behaviour that had gone on for many years; we leave the Lord to judge his own servant. But we also cannot talk about "faithful service" in a ministry which ended so unfaithfully. That does not negate all that Houston said or did, but it does mean that we should not be so quick to attribute faithful service.
It is good to see that the Hillsong board acknowledge that change is needed and that there must be "humble reflection" as they seek to consider how to honour God. We should pray for them as they do so. Perhaps one place to begin would be repentance? It is one thing to express remorse and set up an independent inquiry; it is quite another to come as dependent beings before a Holy God who knows all things and to inquire of him.
If Hillsong try to keep the brand and preserve the corporate church, they will sink. Churches rise and churches fall, but the gates of Hell will not prevail against Christ's church (Matthew 16:18).
What about those of us who do not belong to Hillsong? How should we react? As it happened before sitting down to write this article, I read three of Thomas Manton's sermons that deal with the beginning of James 3 and he makes some appropriate points for us.
"Those that vainly boast of their own faith are most apt to censure others; and they that pretend to religion are wont to take the greatest liberty in rigid and bitter reflections upon the errors of their brethren."
This is not to say that we are never to judge an action right or wrong; nor can we offer excuses for those who misuse their power to harm people and bring disgrace upon the name of Christ. But we need to be careful to avoid those "rigid and bitter reflections".
Then we are to examine ourselves. While not on the same scale as Houston, I, as a very minor conference speaker, have sometimes had to stay in hotel rooms in distant cities – with all the attendant temptations. We only need to give into these temptations once to ruin a ministry. Manton's warning is insightful and challenging.
"Gracious hearts are always looking inward; they inquire most into themselves, are most severe against their own corruptions ... a good heart is ready to throw the first stone against itself, John 8:4-5; others can, with much heat, inveigh against other men's sins, and with a fond indulgence cherish their own."
I also fear that the Church's own version of cancel culture will now kick in. In much the same way that corporations and institutions in the West are desperately seeking anything vaguely Russian to cancel (to show they are on the right side), there are Christians who want to purge themselves of any association with any church or Christian organisation that has gone wrong.
Every now and then I get an e-mail from someone concerned that I have used, quoted or sung a Hillsong song. 'Don't you realise how wrong the megachurch is?', they ask – not understanding that singing a particular song does not mean you endorse the whole theology or lifestyle of the writer!
It would be foolish and sad if churches now decide not to sing some of the great songs that Hillsong have produced because of the sins of the founder. Applying that standard would leave us with very little to sing!
Most of the Psalms in the Bible were written by a man who committed murder and adultery! It was that very situation which gave us one of the great songs/prayers of deep and heartfelt repentance - Psalm 51. That psalm came about because of the prophet Nathan had the courage to bring a prophetic word which exposed and condemned David.
There are many churches that say they believe in 'prophetic' words, but they seem to regard the prophetic as some kind of wishful thinking about the future, rather than a 'you are the man' call to repentance. The Church could do with a more courageous and robust prophetic ministry – more John the Baptist and less Benny Hinn!
Let Manton have the last word:
"Censure with the more tenderness; give every action the allowance of human fragility (Galatians 6:1). We all need forgiveness; without grace you might fall into the same sins."