FFor the first time in nearly two years, Carl Lentz, former pastor of Hillsong New York, recently shared an update. “It’s been a tough road but we are alive we are at peace and by the grace of God we are TOGETHER,” he posted on social media alongside several family portraits.
That day, his wife posted the same photos. Laura Lentz said the couple reinvested in their marriage, despite her husband’s affair – and what other church leaders later called “moral failings” – which led to Lentz being fired from Hillsong in 2020. “I can’t wait to share our story…and I think it will help a lot of people,” she wrote. She expressed her gratitude that Carl “humbled himself” and “shut up” publicly.
Despite increased post-#metoo pressure for public figures to leave the spotlight for good, it’s surprisingly easy to get back into it. Louis CK is currently on another comedy tour. Bill O’Reilly launched his own news site shortly after Fox fired him. Kevin Spacey has a few smaller movies on the way. Bill Clinton never really left the spotlight, nor did Donald Trump. Anthony Wiener is back with a podcast. Except in prison, if you have enough fans and the financial backing of well-connected friends, you’ll find that the path back to notoriety is quite straightforward.
But disgraced Christian leaders arguably have an even easier time getting back into the spotlight than their mainstream counterparts. This is because Christians – their main supporters and audience – believe in grace and forgiveness. It’s kind of their whole thing. Many evangelicals can’t resist a charismatic leader with an incredible redemption story to share or sell.
Christians believe that everyone “falls short of the glory of God” and is offered forgiveness through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Therefore, Christians are told to forgive others as God in Christ forgave them. Considering the grace God has bestowed on each of us, who are we not to show grace to public figures who do stupid things? Moreover, if God can use a murderer and adulterer like King David to accomplish God’s purposes in the world, then surely God can use crank pastors to grow the church.
Due to a posture of default grace, some Christians remain loyal to unhealthy and abusive leaders, even when the leader has never confessed his wrongdoings or made amends to those he has hurt.
For example, after being ousted from Mars Hill Church in Seattle for ungodly leadership in 2014, Mark Driscoll refused to submit to the two-year restoration plan proposed by the elders. Instead, he moved to Scottsdale, Arizona to start Trinity Church. The overbearing and arrogant patterns that capsized Mars Hill have, predictably enough, taken root in Trinity. Yet Driscoll continues to teach, write self-published books, and speak at conferences hosted by other pastors.
Similarly, Ted Haggard resigned as pastor of the New Life Church and president of the National Association of Evangelicals in 2006, after finally admitting to meeting a sex worker and buying him meth. In 2010, he founded Saint James Church not far from New Life. His wife, Gayle, published a book in 2010 titled why i stayed. This summer, Haggard was accused by two men at church of touching them inappropriately and using methamphetamine. In response, Haggard said he won’t quit and that while he “fell short of the glory of God,” he’s never had any customer complaints about his side job as a Lyft driver.
In 2019, James MacDonald was disqualified to lead Harvest Bible Chapel after elders found him bossy, quarrelsome, and prone to extravagant spending by using church money for personal gain. The following year he launched a new online ministry and home church network. His son, Landon MacDonald, a former executive pastor of student ministries at Harvest, was recently chosen to lead a megachurch in Arizona despite allegations verbal and spiritual abuse while on Harvest staff.
In these and other cases, leaders restored their credibility with other pastors as well as members who believed they were not too far off to be used by God. Common responses are captured in the public reaction to Carl Lentz’s recent Facebook post.
“God is in the business of restoration. Great things await you,” someone posted. Another wrote: “God always makes beauty out of ashes. One commentator wrote, “We all make mistakes in life, but it is God’s grace that helps us heal and overcome. Yet another said: ‘I love it. Warm my soul. Divine returns.
In this type of church culture, rejection or acceptance of a leader’s “divine return” becomes a test of Christian understanding of grace. Those who accept it are the Christians who obtain it. Those who express concern are only criticizing, gossiping, believing the worst of others, or being part of Satan’s plan to prevent the plans of the kingdom of God from unfolding.
Christians who applaud a charismatic leader’s quick return to center stage — without inquiring about his efforts to take responsibility for past failures or abuses — may be naïve about the power dynamics at play. on former Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., Elizabeth Spiers Noted that “evangelism has built-in insurance for reputational damage…the worst sins make the best stories of redemption”. Donald Trump has arguably banked on this built-in assurance in the past two presidential elections, prompting many evangelicals to embrace it despite decades of greed, various lies, marital infidelity and bragging about sexual assault. After all, Falwell said in response to the Go to Hollywood tape, “We’re all sinners.”
That’s true enough, and many evangelicals have embraced Trump for pragmatic gains rather than a moral role model. But on the question of whether someone is fit to lead a church, that’s the wrong answer. That’s like saying a doctor should go back to the hospital after a malpractice case because “we all have bruises.” For just as the New Testament speaks of grace, it also speaks of specific qualifications to shepherd God’s people. He warns against false teachers and shepherds who will devour the sheep. Whenever a Christian community applauds the return of a fallen leader without questioning the people he has hurt, it tells the mutilated sheep that they had better seek another pasture in which to lick their wounds.
Also, the rapid deployment of Grace isn’t exactly very loving to the Fallen Leader. In The cost of discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned against “cheap grace”. He called it “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance…absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without a disciple, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.
Cheap grace prevents a fallen leader from experiencing genuine confession and repentance. Confession and repentance take time, certainly an uncomfortable amount of time for anyone used to the spotlight. It takes conversations and admissions of wrongdoing with specific people who have been hurt and who may not enjoy a lively conversation over coffee. For leaders who are used to pulling the strings, this requires a posture of learning and listening, a stripping down of social power. Chuck DeGroat, spiritual training expert and author of When narcissism comes to the churchrecently Noted that he advises some fallen pastors to step out of the spotlight for 10 years – as gracious response to failure. He said very few choose to walk this road.
If a narcissistic or abusive leader continues to find supporters and backers, there seems to be little we can do. The Driscolls, Haggards and MacDonalds of the world will continue to appear with their own little kingdoms, while the people they have harmed will continue to be walking wounded. But one thing contemporary Christians can do is ask for a better story than one of easy redemption, especially one that warrants a quick return to the spotlight.
As for Carl and Laura Lentz, I’m not a betting woman, and I can’t speak to their personal lives or their off-screen and stage transformation. But I’ve seen enough to bet that Carl will announce a return to church ministry within six months, and that he and/or Laura will announce a book detailing their experience within a year. Call it the art of the gospel return.
Katelyn Beaty is the author of the book Celebrities for Jesus: How Celebrities, Platforms and Profits Harm the Church, and editorial director of Brazos Press. Learn more about KatelynBeaty.com.