Over the past decade we’ve seen a significant number of prominent Christian leaders fall into disqualifying sin. Some have committed adultery. Others have been found guilty of arrogance, authoritarianism, self-promotion, and financial malfeasance. Still others have left the faith. Most recently, it was revealed that a famous Christian apologist had cultivated a secret life of heinous, habitual sin prior to his death in 2020.
These incidents can have a destabilizing effect on our faith. Stories of well-known Christian leaders falling into adultery or other disqualifying sins can leave us feeling unsure about our own walk with God and disillusioned about Christian leadership in general. When a prominent Christian pastor or musician commits egregious sin, or walks away from Christ after years of ministry, or when it is revealed that a leader has over many years cultivated a secret life of intentional, carefully-planned sexual transgressions, we wonder how someone who spoke so articulately or sang so passionately about Christ could sin in such a way.
It’s times like these that we need a “theology of public ministry” so that we are not tossed to and fro when eloquent, articulate Christian leaders fall into disqualifying sin or leave the faith. The life of Balaam proves helpful at this point.
Balaam: A False Prophet Speaking God’s Word?
On their way into the Promised Land, Israel sought to pass directly through Bashan and the land of the Amorites. When their respective kings Og and Sihon refused Israel passage, Israel defeated both nations. Israel’s previous defeat of Moab’s neighbors, however, so frightened Moab’s king Balak that he hired a pagan prophet named Balaam to curse Israel. Although Balaam initially declined Balak’s offer, he eventually agreed to curse Israel and set out on his preaching tour. When it came time to preach, however, Balaam could only bless Israel (Num 23:7-10; 23:18-24; 24:5-9). As you could imagine, Balak was not pleased by this turn of events. “And Balak’s anger was kindled against Balaam and he struck his hands together. And Balak said to Balaam, ‘I called you to curse my enemies, and behold, you have blessed them. Therefore, now flee to your own place. I said I will honor you, but the Lord has held you back from honor'” (Num 24:10-11). Balaam’s response is remarkable:
And Balaam said to Balak, “Did not I tell your messengers whom you sent to me, ‘If Balak should give me his house full of silver and gold, I would not be able to go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of my own will. What the Lord speaks, that I will speak.”Numbers 24:12-13
Balaam reminds Balak that he had already previously explained that he could not effectively refuse to say what the Lord has told him to speak.
The word that God puts in my mouth that must I speak.Numbers 22:39
Must I not take care to speak what the LORD puts in my mouth?Numbers 23:12
But Balaam answered Balak, “Did I not tell you, ‘All that the Lord says, that I must do?”Numbers 23:26
Indeed, so compelling was the word of the Lord that, even if he were offered massive riches, Balaam would have been unable to resist the impulse to speak it accurately: “If Balak should give me his house full of silver and gold, I would not be able to go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad, of my own will” (Num 24:13).
Balaam the Believer?
Now, we might conclude from this event that Balaam had, through the process of interacting with God and speaking his word, become a believer. He certainly sounds like a believer: (1) he preached the word of God accurately; (2) he spoke well of the Lord; (3) he was compelled to obey God. Nevertheless, the remaining Old Testament narrative as well as several New Testament texts testify that Balaam most certainly wasn’t a believer.
For example, a little later in the story, when God instructs Moses to avenge the people of Israel by destroying Midian, Balaam is one of the people killed by Israel’s military. Later in the same passage, Moses said that Balaam, “caused Israel to act treacherously against the LORD in the incident at Peor, so the plague came among the congregation of the LORD” (Num 31:16). A generation later, Joshua says that Balaam practiced divination and reaffirms that Moses had him killed by the sword (Josh 13:22).
In the New Testament, Balaam is used as a template for false teachers: “Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing” (2 Pet 2:15). Jude makes a similar comment (Jude 11). In Revelation, Jesus uses Balaam in his rebuke of the church at Pergamum: “But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality” (Rev 2:14).
These texts taken together tell us that although Balaam was compelled to speak the very Word of God—and to speak it accurately—he wasn’t a believer. He didn’t know the Lord in a saving relationship. He was evil, and his experience of verbally blessing Israel didn’t change him.
Public Success Does Not Equal Private Holiness
Here’s frightening implication for us: The ability to speak eloquently, accurately, and persuasively about the Bible and the Christian faith is no necessary sign that a person knows God. This is a terrifying and humbling truth for anyone who claims to be a teacher of God’s Word, but it also explains how a man can have what appears to be a successful public ministry while at the same time cultivating a deviant personal life, or how a leader can speak and write so well about Christ and then leave Christianity altogether. It should no longer surprise us when a publicly-skilled Christian leader falls into serious sin or denies the faith or is exposed as having a heinous private life. Why? Because a successful public ministry is no necessary sign the man is actually a Christian, or, if he is a Christian, that he is a mature one. It is possible to have an intellectual grasp of Scripture and true theology and to conduct an outwardly successful ministry—even a ministry that bears genuine spiritual fruit in people’s lives—yet not be walking in genuine faith and obedience. We might call this the Balaam principle. But you could also call it the Judas principle.
Judas was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. He walked with Jesus, talked with Jesus, ate with Jesus, and studied under Jesus. He participated in gospel ministry with the other eleven disciples, preaching and healing throughout Israel. Yet, on that evening as Jesus shared the Passover with his disciples, Judas was exposed as a fraud, a hypocrite, and a faithless traitor who had never sought the heart-changing power of Christ in the gospel. Though he experienced close acquaintance with Jesus and successful ministry, he never really believed. Nearness to Christianity and engagement in ministry is no proof that a person is a Christian, or, if he is, that he is growing spiritually. Sometimes, much religious activity can be a vehicle for personal glory (Matt 23:5) and a cover for inward wickedness (Matt 23:23-27).
I don’t write these things so that you will be suspicious of every Christian leader who currently enjoys a successful public ministry. That would be unwise and actually harmful to your soul. Where we have good reason that a man is a believer and walking humbly with Christ, we should thank God for his fruitful ministry.
Rather, I write these things so that you will not be thrown for a spiritual loop the next time you hear of another Christian leader falling into disqualifying sin or turning from Christ. Scripture sufficiently provides everything we need to weather such storms. We can grieve (Phil 3:19). We can even become righteously angry (Ps 101:3). But through it all, Scripture enables us to keep to our spiritual footing as we traverse through stories of Christian leaders who have yielded to sin or have turned away from the faith.
Finally, I would encourage you to pray diligently for your leaders, starting with your own pastors then broadening out to those who have a public platform for ministry. In your personal life, cling to Christ and to his Word. Pursue a life of integrity, humility, and holiness. As you do, as Peter says, “you will never fall” (2 Pet 1:10).