On Being an Inflatable Tank

It’s one of my favorite tales from a war that was packed full of stranger-than-fiction moments. During the Second World War, the Allied forces created a dummy army. Eager to deceive the Germans into thinking they were stronger than they actually were, the Allies hired a team of artists and designers to create a fake army—one that would look just real enough to deceive spies snooping around nearby or surveillance flights flying far overhead. So they built planes that were no more than wooden shells and tanks that were merely inflatable rubber. These were units that were meant to be seen, but not to fight. They were meant to give the appearance of an army, even while they exacted none of the costs of an army. What’s amazing is that it worked. The Germans were deceived—a deception that had a profound effect on the outcome of the war.

Become a Patron

There’s a temptation that applies to pastors and other Christians with a public profile, and it’s the temptation to look righteous and holy in public, but to be content to be unrighteous and unholy in private. It’s the temptation to be an “inflatable tank,” someone that can pass a cursory glance even if he would fail a close inspection, someone that has the appearance of strength or power even if he is actually empty and weak.

Over the past few years we have seen quite a number of once-prominent Christian figures fall away from the faith or, at the least, fall into disqualifying sin. More often than not, their fall has been met with shock by those who once admired them—those who attended their churches or bought their books or attended their conferences. Yet I expect, and in some cases know, that there was far less shock among those who knew them well.

Why? Because in many cases, the people who knew them well had come to see that these leaders were inflatable tanks. While from afar they were able to convey and maintain the illusion of spiritual strength and power, from up close it was obvious that they were empty and weak. They had little true spiritual substance, little true personal holiness. They were essentially “show Christians” who knew how to look the part in public but who were very different in private.

I believe any honest Christian leader, whether male or female, whether local church or parachurch, whether followed by hundreds or by millions, needs to admit and face this temptation. It’s the temptation to be just Christian enough to impress those who barely know them, to be just holy enough to pass inspection for a day or a weekend, but no holier than that. Those plywood planes and rubber tanks looked the part from the air or from the other side of a far-off fence, but anyone who came any closer would immediately have identified the ruse. And many Christian leaders are essentially the same way. They can withstand the distant scrutiny of their fans, but not the far more intimate inspection of those who encounter them in real life. Like that fake army, they are useful for deception but not for fighting in the battle.

This kind of hypocrisy is a constant temptation to the Christian, and to the Christian leader in particular. Few set out to be deceivers, yet in the end so many are. As far as I’m concerned, there can be no better accolade than this: who he was before the conference crowd, he was in the local church; who he was before the local church, he was before his family; who he was before his family, he was before the Lord.