The complicated legacy of Christian leaders

“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-- of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.” (1 Timothy 1:15-16)

“Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” This stirring quote comes from the pen of Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision and one of the men responsible for Samaritan’s Purse, two of the leading Christian relief organizations in the world (Michael Wrang shared this past Sunday about his service with Samaritan's Purse).

With a resume like that, you probably envision a passionate man of God, giving his all to share the love of Christ with all who came across his path. And you would be correct to a large extent. But there was much more to the story of Bob Pierce. One of the most unique biographies I have ever read was Man of Vision, Woman of Prayer, written by Bob Pierce’s daughter, Marilee Pierce Dunker, about her father and mother. In her book, Marilee shares about her father’s passionate desire to evangelize the world and bring the love of Christ to hurting and lost people around the world. In the 1950’s, Pierce would take videos of the poverty around the world, show the movies to churches in America, and convince people to sponsor children around the world. As a result of his vision, the World Vision sponsorship program now feeds over 100 million people.

However, that passion also caused all kinds of trouble on the home front for Bob. Marilee writes about how her father neglected his family in order to travel around the world, even when it caused great heartache for his wife and daughters. And when he was home, he was not really present with them, but was anxious to be back out on the field. During one particular tour of Asia, one of his daughters called him and asked him to come home, saying that she needed her daddy. He refused, deciding instead to spend some extra time in Asia. While he was away, his daughter tried to commit suicide. Later that year, she succeeded in killing herself.

And that is not all. Eventually, Bob Pierce’s passionate temper led to him having increasing difficulties with the World Vision board, and he resigned in anger from the organization. A few years later, he separated from his wife, and ended up hospitalized in Switzerland, angry and confused. Fortunately, four days before he died, his family was able to gather together with him for a final evening of reconciliation.

Are you surprised about this side of Bob Pierce? Do you assume that great men and women of faith are somehow above the rest of us, without flaws? The truth is usually far more complex. After all, one only needs to look at the lives of the great men of the Bible, like Abraham (who twice pretended his wife was his sister to save his own skin) and David (who committed adultery and had someone murdered to cover it up), to see that a passion for God often exists side-by-side with some serious character flaws and egregious sins. Was Bob Pierce unfit for ministry because of his failings? Does the negative impact of his ministry on his family negate the good he did? Or are we afraid to admit that life and ministry are simply more complex than we wish they were?

In the end, of course, God will sort it out. I have come to realize that if we wait until we have it all together before we step out to serve God, we will never take the first step. But at the same time, we need to be constantly reevaluating how we are serving God, vigilant about our sins and character flaws, and be quick to repent and submit those areas to God’s transforming power. Bob Pierce’s life is a testimony to how God uses flawed individuals – and we are all flawed individuals – and most importantly another example of how God alone deserves all the glory for anything good that we accomplish.

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