Back in 2015, while my wife played with our three children on our neighborhood playground, I stared in dumbfounded disbelief after reading a puzzling tweet by former pastor Tullian Tchividjian: “Welcome to the valley of the shadow of death… thank God grace reigns there.”

I quickly learned that this quote referred to the recently revealed marital indiscretions of both Tchividjian and his wife. This popular icon in the Reformed resurgence movement had, like so many, been found out for disastrous misdeeds that led to the dissolution of their marriage.

When the news broke, I had just accepted an associate pastorate at Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park and was a couple months shy of beginning doctoral studies in Christian history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

For the next seven years, I went on to study the history of evangelicals. All the while, I kept on the lookout for the same historical pattern, one I didn’t want to ignore in the literature—especially since its repetition and consequences continued to play out in the 21st-century evangelical world I inhabited.

The all-too-common pattern I discovered is this: Great evangelical figures throughout history often had tragic personal and family lives. This trope winked at me repeatedly as I came across it in biographies and historical accounts of evangelical pastors, revivalists, and activists.

Evangelical history happens to provide numerous cautionary tales for what happens when ambition goes unbridled. And while some evangelicals would rather gloss over these tales or conceal them, that would be to our detriment. These warnings can be a service to the future of the evangelical story—and heeding them may prompt us to curb our ambition, set healthy limits and expectations, and attend to the little church in our homes.

Personally, I want to learn from their mistakes by protecting my family and guarding myself against tragedies of my own making.

Recently, while reading W. R. Ward’s Early Evangelicalism, I came across a segment on the life of August Hermann Francke (1663–1727), a figure who stood at the headwaters of evangelical history. Francke was mentored by famous theologian Philipp Jakob Spener and led the way for the second generation of German pietism in the later 17th and early 18th centuries.

His public activism and institutional work circulated through the evangelical press and social network of correspondence, which gained him widespread credibility and regard among early evangelicals. Later evangelicals, like John Wesley, repeated the pattern of Francke’s work ethic and strategy in their own ministries, sadly to the detriment of their personal lives as well.

Article continues below

You see, while Francke engaged himself in marvelous kingdom work, his marriage to Anna Magdalena Francke suffered from the disappointment of unmet needs. By midlife, Anna and August became estranged, and in 1715, their separation became public. Ward also hints that August paid scant attention to their daughter, Sophia, while he fulfilled his theological ambitions.

So while Francke’s public evangelical ministry and activism flourished, the health of his household languished. Surely, something was amiss here, I thought—there must have been a disconnect between Francke’s public ministry and his private interior religion.

Upon reading this historical recountal of Francke from Ward, I tweeted, “As a historian who has read much about the tragic private lives of great evangelical figures in history, I have, as a result, become much less ambitious. No achievement is worth the cost of a healthy family.”

But the Francke story that prompted my tweet was merely the most recent tragedy among a litany of others I had come across in my research.

One figure of this historical movement that has drawn my curiosity is Abraham Kuyper. Much like the Anglican C. S. Lewis, some historians would be reticent to portray Kuyper as a self-conscious early evangelical forerunner. Nonetheless, both figures have heavily influenced the development of the modern evangelical mind, including my own.

Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) was both precocious and ambitious. He became known for his Protestant work ethic and commitment to a Christian mission to transform all of society. Many evangelical thinkers and their written works have lauded this pivotal figure in ecclesial history—but the majority of them do not tell the full story.

Kuyper is oft remembered by evangelicals for the following quote: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” And yet the truth is, he struggled in the domain of his personal and family life.

Kuyper suffered from debilitating anxiety and depression, which at times left him bedridden. He learned to cope with the symptoms of being overworked by frequently withdrawing for long periods of solitude in holidays and hikes. As a result, his wife and children hungered for his presence during these long absences while he recovered from the rigors of his missional work.

Article continues below

Unfortunately, Francke and Kuyper are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the costs evangelical families have paid for their loved ones’ Reformed Protestant work ethic.

Recently, someone asked me to offer some examples, and I reluctantly gave a few names—some of which I know from my own archival research and others I learned from other historians’ work. The problem with naming names and being fascinated by “who’s done it” is that it can lead to a voyeuristic or unproductive historical fascination rather than to a healthy discussion.

I think what evangelicals actually need is less fascination with the dark sides of our fallen heroes and more appreciation for the quiet, daily faithfulness of pastors, professors, revivalists, and activists who managed to swim against the powerful social and cultural currents of their times that often placed an unrealistic demand on their output and performance.

Evangelical leaders throughout history have carried a heavy weight, and they continue to bear the unrealistic expectations of many institutions, publishing houses, and ministries that dominate the evangelical marketplace. Over time, some of these leaders give in to the temptations that come with notoriety and ultimately forsake their better judgment. And sadly, evangelical organizations also have a history of giving into avarice for the sake of success—and they too willingly eat the expense of their leaders’ private failures and choose to keep them concealed.

When I observe the professional output of some evangelical peers, I pray earnestly for God to protect them and their families. While I’m thrilled for their successes, I recognize and fear the cost that comes with always saying “Yes!” to every opportunity. Far too often, it sets people up for failure, especially if they do not remain accountable to their individual or familial bodies.

For my part, I have become altogether less ambitious as a result of studying evangelical history. As I’ve said, no achievement is worth sacrificing a healthy family life. But this conviction is not only built on my knowledge of the past and present downfalls of evangelical leaders.

My caution toward ambition is also derived from my own lived history. Just as evangelical ambition has slayed the credibility of so many forerunners in the faith, I recall a time not too long ago when it crouched at my own door.

Article continues below

I have been a burned-out pastor who stood at the crossroads, looking down the potential path toward private tragedy. I have experienced the grinding expectation to blog a certain amount, gain a certain number of followers on social media, publish more journal articles, curate the perfect CV, and make myself known to the “right” people. I feel fatigued when I think back to the many temptations I experienced and the various tactics I employed to achieve my ambitions.

Some years ago, I had a personal crisis while attempting to be a full-time pastor and full-time doctoral student. This crisis caused me to reset myself and reorient my ambitions. My wife and I went to couples therapy and to individual therapy for a year. I reprioritized my schedule and set some professional limits on my life. I started looking for ways to reinvest in time with my children, and eventually we relearned how to value sabbath rest together as a family.

I know that people are called to make sacrifices for the cause of Christ. But even the apostle Paul argued that married people, especially those with children, carry a certain worldly weight. This requires them to have a balance—between how much of their lives they lay down for the cause of Christ and how much time and energy they reserve for their families.

That is, we should all seek to weigh our commitment to the Protestant work ethic and the mission of God along with our dedication to building little churches in our homes. And in this area, evangelicals can learn from our forerunners’ failures—by keeping our missional ambitions in their proper place and spurring on our family’s devotion to God through selfless service.

Joey Cochran is the husband of Kendall and the father of Chloe, Asher, Adalie, and Clara. Presently he is guest faculty at Wheaton College and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and coordinates social media for the Conference on Faith and History.

[ This article is also available in español and Français. ]