Some people, I know, are in a unique moment of panic after the release of this report. Some of these people are not just feeling angered and betrayed, as Christians, but also feel especially insecure because some of them found Christ through this ministry or were strengthened in their faith through a time of doubt. And many others are reminded by this that they did so through someone who was later revealed to have been a fraud. Some of them wonder, “What does this mean? Is my faith itself a fraud?”
This is hardly a frivolous question. Even those outside the faith find the same sort of alarm, sometimes at things far more trivial than questions of eternal standing before God. For instance, in their book on the greatest television shows of all time, media critics Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz write movingly about how alarming it was to re-watch The Cosby Show after learning about the multiple women testifying to their having been drugged and raped by the actor/comedian.
What was once a light and diversionary situation comedy, now, in retrospect, seems dark and foreboding, filled with what feel like clues and foreshadowing of unspeakable crime. The critics say this is true with all of the series, but then emphasize:
“Worse still is the season 7 Cosby Show episode ‘The Last Barbecue,’ in which guests at a cookout become more amenable to sex when they sample Cliff’s special sauce. Haven’t you ever noticed after people have some of my barbecue sauce, after a while, when it kicks in, they get all huggy-buggy?’ he asks Clair leering. ‘Haven’t you ever noticed that after one of my barbecues, and they have the sauce, people want to get right home?’”
The critics conclude:
“Everything that was once funny, sexy, or inspiring about Cosby is unsettling now. Every value he claimed to stand for has been revealed as a lie. Everything he said or did, achieved or touched, has an asterisk, including his most significant achievement, The Cosby Show.”
That’s chilling, and it’s an old television show that you can easily decide not to ever watch again or even to think about. But, again, how much more unsettling is it to relive what seem to be truthful statements you might have heard from someone you now see as a moral or criminal fraud about matters of your own soul? Does the gospel you embraced come with an asterisk too?
That’s an important question, and you are not the first to ask it.
The Apostle Paul recognized that some were preaching the gospel out of pretense and rivalry. He withstood them, but rejoiced that the gospel went forward (Phil. 1:15-18). A similar question arose much later, in the fourth century, with the Donatist controversy, which asked whether a baptism was valid if the clergy officiating at the baptism were shown to have later renounced Christ. The church—articulated most memorably by Augustine of Hippo—affirmed that baptism is not rendered valid or invalid by the holiness or lack thereof of the clergy overseeing it.
Your salvation and discipleship are not dependent on whether the preacher from whom you heard the gospel is genuine, but rather on whether the gospel itself is genuine. It is.
Predators often move forward by hiding behind mimicked truth. Predatory filmmakers proceed by learning how to make good films. Predatory politicians go forward by honing political skills. Fraudulent religious leaders often peddle false doctrine, but some of them also traffic in true doctrines by which they have not personally been transformed. Yes, wolves often come with false doctrine. But that does not mean that wolves are limited to the flocks that tolerate false doctrine. In infiltrating a sheep pen, a wolf will come in the skin of a sheep, not that of a goat.
Judas Iscariot, after all, preached the gospel of the kingdom for some time. Imagine if you had heard the gospel from him, embraced it, and then discovered his end result. You would probably be shaken. What you responded to, though, was not Judas Iscariot, but the words he echoed from somewhere else. Test the message you received, even if you’ve learned to reject the messenger who carried it to you. As the Apostle taught us, “test everything; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21).
After learning about someone fraudulent, you may then wonder whether you can ever trust anyone again. “Who else might be lying to me?” you might ask. It is good to be skeptical, again testing every message and messenger. But do not grow cynical, protecting yourself from future love or trust. Even in the darkest situations, we can always see the goodness of God, often in those who are rescuing the hurting.
When someone you admire does something disgusting or evil, don’t admire what is disgusting or evil. At the same time, don’t let your rightful disgust turn you to despair. Many who come in Jesus’ name are frauds. Jesus is not.
A version of this article originally ran as part of my weekly newsletter, Moore to the Point. You can subscribe here to receive the newsletter in your inbox each week.