Several years ago, a friend joked that my beat as a journalist had become “Christian men behaving badly.” He wasn’t entirely wrong.
Around that time, several outlets were reporting about a beloved, dynamic pastor at a Chicago megachurch, whom several women had accused of sexual misconduct. As details emerged, it became clear that church leaders had failed to press for accountability, having seen the pastor as a celebrity icon, and that he wasn’t going to own up to any wrongdoing. That story was one of a string of reports to emerge on Christian leaders bullying staff, spending tithe money on luxury clothing, and preying on vulnerable women.
At the time, I winced at my friend’s description. As a matter of integrity, it’s important to me not to write salacious stories for their own sake, therefore turning other people’s sins into my clickbait gain. As a Christian, I don’t want to foster a self-righteous or suspicious attitude toward others, nor do I relish leaders’ public exposure in a punitive way.
Then again, these days, none of us need to spend much time looking for news of Christian leaders behaving badly. At a national and global level, the evangelical movement is facing a reckoning. What has long been hidden is now being exposed. Pastors who have used tithe money to stealthily line their Gucci pockets are facing court. Shepherds who prey on sheep—or who look the other way when their pastor-friends act like wolves—are losing their access to the flock. Church empires built on corporate values of wealth, territorial expansion, and slick branding are toppling like houses of cards. Many of our neighbors reasonably wonder if Christian institutions are any different, or better, than their secular counterparts.
When headlines emerge of Christian leaders and institutions behaving badly, it can be tempting for believers to assume a defensive posture, or to claim a kind of editorial persecution. Some Christians dismiss negative headlines as “gossip,” or misapply the Matthew 18 principle so that sinful or criminal patterns behavior is kept “a private matter.” When a beloved leader is exposed, pleas for grace, forgiveness, and second chances are deployed—as if grace means bypassing accountability, or restoring leaders to positions where they could harm others again.
It is the corrective nature of Christian love that compels me to write about Christians behaving in unchristian ways. When people are being abused in the walls of the church; when shepherds act more like CEOs or schoolyard bullies than Jesus; when denominations are more worried about women speaking from the pulpit on Mother’s Day than about predatory pastors—we know there’s deep sickness in the body of Christ. And the only way for a sick body to get better is to receive a diagnosis, and then seek holistic treatment. We can’t treat illness if we’re afraid of the diagnosis.
Hard-to-read headlines about the church can act like a body scan; they help us self-diagnose. They help us grasp the severity of the virus. Ultimately, if we humbly heed their truth, they help us become whole.
For this reason—and as counterintuitive as it sounds—news of fallen Christian leaders gives me hope for the church today. To shift the metaphor to a more directly biblical one: The more that deeds of darkness are exposed and brought into the open, the more the church can shine brightly, so that a watching world can truly see and grasp the goodness of Christ among us.
Many of you will know the story of the Boston Globe’s 2002 investigation into sexual abuse allegations against Catholic priests in the Boston diocese. As depicted in the Oscar-winning film Spotlight, the team spent months rifling through church directories, interviewing victims, and petitioning courts to release sealed documents. Eventually, their reporting unveiled decades of abuse and church coverup that some believe goes all the way up to the Vatican.
What many may not know is that the National Catholic Reporter had begun reporting on clergy abuse back in 1985, when other Catholic publications wouldn’t consider even looking into it. It eventually took people far outside the church—journalists of other faiths or no faith, simply doing their jobs—for the truth to be exposed, for victims to find some measure of justice and healing, and for the Catholic Church to pursue reform and repentance.
Crises of abuse and coverup may not be as full-blown in the evangelical world, but it’s arrogant to think that they couldn’t be. Every church thinks it couldn’t happen here, until it does. What if bad news about Christian leaders and communities over there give us all a chance to examine our own attitudes, practices, and accountability structures in our own communities? What if these headlines are like preventive medicine—or like really strong deodorant?
Let me explain. As God’s people, we want to carry “the pleasing aroma of Christ” wherever we go (2 Cor. 2:15). But sometimes, outsiders get a whiff of a stench among us. Personally, if I stink unawares, and someone gently tells me as much, I appreciate the feedback. Knowing that I smell prevents me from future embarrassment, and from offending the person sitting next to me on the subway.
To return to the more serious metaphor: If a scan reveals that I have a tumor that will become deadly if not removed right away, my response is not to scoff at the technician or point out all the other body parts that are working just fine. The hard work remains of removing the tumor and recovering full health, but without that scan, I might not live much longer. I am grateful for the bad news, because it means I do not have to face worse news later.
It might feel like a hopeless time for the church and her witness and credibility. Not a week goes by, it seems, without another headline about Christian leaders behaving in unchristian ways. It might feel like the church is crumbling. We might wonder whether there are any good, trustworthy leaders left. Many of us might feel despair about the future of the church in America.
I’m not ready to despair quite yet. I’m choosing to see the bad headlines as evidence that God isn’t done with us. God is so invested in the beauty and integrity of the body of Christ that he’s giving us chances to see the truth about ourselves, so that we may repent and turn toward him, his character and ways. Moreover, God sees and hears the cries of the vulnerable, the abused, and the silenced. Their mistreatment will not go unnoticed, now or in eternity. With every devastating story of abuse, we all have a chance to reexamine our treatment of the vulnerable, and check our willingness to stand with them even if it means losing power or reputation.
The church is undergoing a massive body scan, and the early indicators look dire. But I’m choosing to see them as a severe mercy and an occasion for hope that healing is on the way.
Katelyn Beaty is author of the book "Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church" (Brazos Press, 2022). A Midwest native living in New York City, she has written for several mainstream and Christian outlets and previously served as the youngest and first female managing editor of Christianity Today. She currently serves as editorial director of Brazos Press, co-hosts the Saved by the City podcasts and writes regularly at a weekly Substack, The Beaty Beat.
Learn more at https://katelynbeaty.substack.com/.