LYNCHBURG, Va. — At the Tree of Life Ministries, down the road from Liberty University, the senior pastor, Mike Dodson, did not have to look very far for sermon material about sin, redemption and what’s expected of a Christian.
“You have watched one of the most influential leaders of this city, of the country and the world, the Christian community, go down,” Mr. Dodson said, bent with passion. “The Christian community is being laughed at.”
Jerry Falwell Jr., a close ally of President Trump and one of the most prominent evangelical leaders in the country, has weathered one controversy after the next in recent years. But in the community that has been at the center of the religious empire he and his father have presided over for decades, he finally pushed the limits of his support too far after he shared an image on social media that left many angered and offended.
In it, he had his pants unbuttoned and his arm around a woman who was not his wife. In an accompanying post, he had a glass of what he described as “black water” that appeared to be alcohol.
The university said on Friday that Mr. Falwell, who was the university’s president, and the board of trustees had “mutually agreed that it would be good for him to take an indefinite leave of absence.” The university did not elaborate on the reasons for the decision, but it came amid the rancor incited by the photograph.
Mr. Falwell has long been respected by many in Lynchburg who saw him playing an essential role in defending evangelical Christians. But after a string of controversies, there was also a sense that he needed to be removed as university president and chancellor, at least temporarily, and redeem himself if he wanted return to Liberty and retain his position of authority within the broader movement.
So at Tree of Life and other congregations, whether or not Mr. Falwell was front and center in sermons, he was an inescapable presence.
“He’s political and a fighter,” said David Sosin, who teaches at Liberty University. “But I’m grateful that he’s stepping away.”
Mr. Sosin said his son is a student at the university and has been made uncomfortable by some of Mr. Falwell’s past remarks. Yet he contended that those statements had been blown out of proportion.
“We have a new level of scrutiny where we sanitize people, leaders, politicians,” Mr. Sosin said. “I’m hoping that will die down a little now, at Liberty.”
In recent months, Mr. Falwell has been denounced for tweets involving Blackface and Ku Klux Klan imagery, as well as for his decision to reopen the campus in March as the coronavirus pandemic was exploding. (He has also sparred with news organizations covering the university, including The New York Times.)
But it was the photograph that ignited the largest uproar.
“There are limits,” Grant Wacker, professor emeritus of Christian history at Duke Divinity School, said. “Evangelicals will forgive an awful lot. But sexual transgression of that sort, pushing the line that hard,” he said, adding, “There are so many layers to it that are appalling.”
Students at Liberty University agree to adhere to a strict code known as the “Liberty Way,” a handbook that, in some pages, isn’t all that different from what would be seen on a secular campus, with rules on plagiarism and cheating.
But the Liberty Way ventures further. Rules bar sex outside of marriage and the consumption of alcohol, reflecting the values that draw students to the university and its mission to develop “Christ-centered men and women with the values, knowledge, and skills essential to impact the world.”
In the photograph, which Mr. Falwell posted and deleted on Instagram, many students, faculty members and alumni said it looked like he was flouting that code.
“I don’t know if a secular institution would abide by a university president doing that — why should a Christian one?” Anthea Butler, a professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said of Mr. Falwell’s behavior depicted in the post. “It’s pretty clear to them that he has become a liability to the school as opposed to an asset.”
Whitney Cairns, who attended Liberty University for a year while Jerry Falwell Sr. was president, and whose husband graduated with a master’s degree from the school in 2017, called the recent negative attention “embarrassing.”
“My husband and I were talking,” she said after attending a church service on Sunday in Lynchburg, “and if we were new students, we probably would have changed our minds about attending.”
Mr. Falwell has expressed regret for the post. “I should have never put it up and embarrassed her,” he said in an interview last week with WLNI, a local Lynchburg radio station, referring to the woman with him in the picture, who he said was his wife’s assistant. “I’ve apologized to everybody. I promised my kids I will try to be a good boy from here on out.”
In Lynchburg, a city of more than 80,000 people in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Falwell family’s ties trace to 1669. It is where the elder Mr. Falwell, as he championed the larger evangelical movement, led his own congregation and in 1971 started Liberty, which blossomed into a powerhouse in Christian education.
That has engendered decades of respect in the community.
“We’re not going to say anything negative,” said Ray Kingrea, who is also a pastor for the Tree of Life Ministries. “We love the family.”
The university now has nearly 46,000 undergraduate students and has aggressively expanded its athletic program and online class offerings. But some argued the academic rigor was less of a priority than growth and advancing evangelical causes.
“Liberty University has always been what I call a culture war institution,” said John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College whose research focus includes evangelical Christianity. “It was born out of the culture war.”
Mr. Falwell has followed the political cues of his father, adapting the religious right his father helped create for a different era, and supporting Mr. Trump in a way the elder Mr. Falwell did with Ronald Reagan.
“The son really turned it up a notch,” Professor Fea said. “You saw just what Liberty was willing to do to defend these kind of values.”
At Rivermont Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the pastor used his sermon to talk about redemption.
“A new era of redemptive history is beginning,” the Rev. David Weber, the pastor, told his congregation, explaining the renewing power imbued in baptism, which, he said, had been on his mind with own daughter’s baptism.
But the theme of the sermon tracked closely with current events and the sentiment that there should always be space for redemption for those within their faith and community who stray.
“His failures are no different than our own,” Jonathan Owens, a congregant, said of Mr. Falwell. “But it’s great that he’s stepping down at this point.”
After the service, Mr. Weber acknowledged a measure of sympathy for Mr. Falwell. He said he was reluctant to criticize him.
“It has to be difficult to live in the public eye,” he said Mr. Falwell. “It’s not my authority or my job to say what is the best of people. In his life, that was the board’s authority. They’re seeking the best for the university.”
Still, after finishing his own sermon at Tree of Life, Mr. Dodson said that redemption would require hard work. If Mr. Falwell could humble himself, Mr. Dodson said, he would like to see him restored to his position with the university. But it was clear to him that Mr. Falwell’s behavior made him, for the time being, unfit for the job.
“It had to stop,” he said.
Aishvarya Kavi reported from Lynchburg, and Rick Rojas from Atlanta. Elizabeth Dias contributed reporting from Washington.