not so with you

It is sickening.

In recent years there have been these waves of stories about spiritual abuse in pastoral leaders. Yes, it is like a wave—building out there in the ocean over many years and then crashing down onto the beach, one after the other. The bigger waves (the ones we hear about) have tended to come out of the UK and North America, with a common denominator often being people who showcase their pristine theological credentials.

Not So With You: Power and Leadership for the Church emerges from this context and speaks into it.

It is a tragedy for the church that this book is necessary (Stirling, 200).

(These) leaders hide their abuse behind theological orthodoxy, leadership prowess, great giftedness, or winsome demeanor (Mackison, 52).

As I cast my mind over some evangelical abuses of power I have seen, some high profile and some more local, they share the common pattern of having a clear, authoritative Bible teacher at the core (Green, 155).

It is sobering.

This is an edited book. I can find it hard to wade through an edited book and certainly not in a space reserved for racy, page-turner novels, like a seat on a plane! But that is exactly what I did. While this ain’t no Grisham, it gained and sustained my interest across multiple flights.

Five Chapters

There are 15 chapters in the book—seven in a section on Biblical andTheological Foundations and eight in one on Pastoral and Practical Reflections. Let me highlight five chapters to give you a taste:

Grant Macaskill’s Symbolic Capital and the Dynamics of Leadership: the Gospel and the Idolatry of Status. Symbolic capital is the stuff about ourselves that we’d really like to parade in front of people—in a self-effacing sort of way, of course—but also the very stuff Paul chucks out as ‘rubbish, for the sake of knowing Christ’ (Phil 3.8).

Blythe Sizemore’s The Cost of Brokenness is one woman’s story of trauma and healing.

I felt that I had been left with a sunburn that just would not heal. Everything that touches sunburnt skin hurts to a degree. A scratchy shirt on burned arms might be mildly uncomfortable. But accidentally brush that arm against a bush with prickly leaves, and the pain is searing. My spiritual sunburn meant that it would require a great deal of healing before I felt less sensitive about church (133).

Sam Allberry’s Authoritative, Not Authoritarian makes this very distinction, dismissing the latter while embracing the former by leading ‘with shared authority’ and ‘by example’.

Marcus Honeysett’s Mentors, Not Masters is full of caution and wisdom—right down to the specifics of describing “a standard procedure…in running intentional mentoring sessions” (164), followed by six pages of “telltale signs of being on an unhealthy trajectory with respect to power” (167).

Mark Stirling’s Signs and Symptoms of Unhealthy Leaders and Their Systems opens with nine “observations that might point towards something being wrong” (201) and closes with a call for personal humility.

Five (times two) Texts

As I got deeper into the book, it dawned on me that there was an engagement with a wide array of biblical material going on. I like it like that. I began to imagine myself planning a sermon series, or some group Bible studies, on the subject of power. Here it comes…

We’d start with Mark 10.35-45, with Jesus and the story which gives this book its title.

Then we’d go back to Leviticus 18.1-5 and Chris Wright’s identification of “the Old Testament text parallel to (this) saying of Jesus” (32)—before lingering with the example of Moses (Numbers 11-14), as Chris does.

That chapter on mentoring finds some foundation in 1 Samuel 23.16.

We’ll need to land in Ezekiel 34.1-5 and its description of bad shepherds engaging in spiritual abuse—ie “behaviour that scatters the sheep from the covenant community and from their Lord” (52).

Then it is back to the New Testament and the Beatitudes in Matthew 5.2-12, with Mark Stirling’s “anti-Beatitudes” (113) providing a spark:

The letter to the Philippians is prominent in this book, necessitating a session on both Philippians 2.1-11 with the example of Jesus [or, the ‘Jesus Way’—”we cannot and must not do Jesus’ work in non-Jesus ways”—stated not once, but twice in the book (16, 216)] and Philippians 3.4-16 with the testimony of Paul.

Anyone who knows me knows that we must make room for 1 Peter :)—and 1 Peter 5.2-3 it is:

Here Peter sets out three pairs of contrasting features of an elder’s work and heart: there must be willingness, not compulsion; service, not greed; and (they) must lead by example, not by coercion (141).

It would have been easy to add Chris Green’s When Our First Love is Loving to Be First to the list above. It was so helpful to zoom in on Diotrephes in 3 John. “In thinking that doctrine is the only test that matters, we may allow a Diotrephes to flourish” (154). “Diotrephes, thoroughly orthodox, loved to be first, and by that simple false step, wrecked a church” (155).

I was so pleased to see Jude 1.12 receiving a passing mention. After Mark 10 it is probably where I’d head first—especially when the antidote of Jude 1.1 is included.

That is a lot of Bible references. If you feel a little lost, there is a Scripture Index in the back of the book.

Five Authors

Speaking of indexes, the most valuable feature of the book may well be the Subject Index—15 pages (!!) of granular detail to help recover the topical trails which the book covers. Congratulations to whoever put it together. It is a wonderful resource.

There is also an Author Index. So I gave myself the task of identifying five books that either (a) I haven’t read before; or (b) are not written by one of the authors in this book—with an eye on reading them as a helpful ‘next step’.

Ken Blue, Healing Spiritual Abuse: How to Break Free from Bad Church Experiences (IVP, 1993).

Andy Crouch, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (IVP, 2013).

Chuck DeGroat, When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse (IVP, 2020). It is on its way to me, as I write…

Michael Kruger, Bully Pulpit: Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church (Zondervan, 2011).

Diane Langberg, Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores (New Growth, 2015).

Five Impediments

In his chapter on the The Power of the Imago Dei and the Imago Dei in Power (where Imago Dei refers to Image of God), Mark Meynell notices that “power is tricky to scrutinize at the best of times…I don’t hear it discussed in evangelical circles at all” (62). In barely five pages, he offers a section called “Five Impediments … Or Why Evangelicals Just Don’t (Want To) Get It” (62-67).

The Blindspot of the Enlightenment? Seeing hostility towards Christianity to be more about philosophy/truth, than sociology/power—as is the case today. He makes a telling observation:

If someone in the West fifty years ago, say, started investigating Christianity, a primary question would likely have been, “Is what these people believe true?”. Today, in the increasingly unlikely situation of someone unilaterally doing the same, he or she is more likely to ask, “Am I safe with this crowd?” (63).

The Reductionism of Critical Theory? While CT turns our attention towards the victim in need of restitution, “(its) flaw lies not in going too far, but in never going far enough” (64). It fails to recognise sin (or its remedy), a problem with which the victim struggles as well, let’s remember—and even if/when they have the opportunity to be in power!

The Currency of Victimhood? And yet, “people do suffer at the hands of others, through no fault of their own” (65)—and this reality must be confronted.

(iv) The Insecurity of Privilege? While ‘white privilege’ and ‘white supremacy’ are on the lips of many, “one thing is clear: those with privilege (of any sort) are always the last to recognize it as privilege” (66).

(v) The Aversion of a Generation? Power and authority are not bad things in themselves, a bit like electricity (66)—and a bit like the delightful illustration used by Victor Austin, in Up With Authority:

If it had been possible to form a modern-style symphony orchestra in the perfection that was the garden of Eden—a paradise without a hint of sin or selfishness—would it require a conductor? The answer is obvious: of course it would. The best conductor functions to enable every player to contribute and play to the best of their abilities. The best conductor will forge something that far exceeds the sum of the parts so that together all flourish, more than they would if playing alone (Meynell, 66).

Five Distinctions

In his Conclusion: That No Bruised Reed Is Ever Broken, Mark Meynell summarises the work of Michael Kruger (see above) and “the key hallmarks of spiritual abuse and relational difficulties that ought not to come under its banner” (225). There are distinctions to be made.

Here are the ‘hallmarks’ of abuse, which express themselves as “the need to control others” (225): being Hypercritical; Cruel; Threatening; Defensive; and Manipulative (for a fuller explanation, see 225-226).

Then, for those among us starting to quake at all our mistakes (!), the ‘relational difficulties’ which are not inherently abusive are: Being Unfriendly; Intimidating Personality; Not Getting Along; Accidentally Hurting Someone; Confronting People’s Sins (for a fuller explanation, see 226-227).

As classic Christian theology has always insisted, human beings are made in God’s image and yet also fallen. They do not cancel each other out. This is therefore true even of every abuser as well as every survivor. The temptation to canonize victims and demonize perpetrators has always existed, but … No one is as holy as it is possible to be; no one is as evil. Let us therefore take care to see everyone as the Lord does; beloved even when unlovely, redeemable even when offending (Meynell, 235).

Five (personal) Reflections

So, here I sit, trying to process the implications of this book for me…

I am not mentioning names because the stated purpose of the book is that it “not be used as a resource for judging others, so much as an aid to prayerful self-examination” (xiii). Sickening though the stories may be, the sickness lives in me too. And a medication that continues to be helpful for me was to discover the Apostle Paul referring to his calling as ‘a grace given’—making vocation to be undeserved, a bit like salvation. It is not about what my CV says I deserve, or about personal ambition, or about building status, or even about leaving legacies. It is about receiving a gift for which to be thankful.

The idea that spiritual abuse is akin to ‘playing God’ is insightful, even more so when an antidote in Bonhoeffer’s Life Together is considered.

God does not want me to mould others into the image that seems good to me, that is, into my own image. Instead, in their freedom from me God made other people in God’s own image. (Meynell, 73—from Life Together, 71-72)

‘Their freedom from me’. When I was in my late 20s I was offered some advice by JO Sanders, then in his late 80s and one of the most respected NZ Christian leaders of the 20th century. In the end I didn’t follow his advice. When I caught up with him some months later, I apologized to him, sheepishly. He would have none of it. “But you had guidance” was his response. It seemed in-credible to me that a person of that stature would make that response to someone of my stature! I cannot express how freeing those four words have been for me. I’ve tried to follow his example, listening to others and often giving direct advice before concluding, in memory of ‘JO’, with something like “but if you go in another direction, that’s fine—I am still cheering you on, hoping to step in there behind goodness and mercy and follow you all the days of your life” :).

Francis Schaeffer’s “no little people” in the body of Christ and CS Lewis’ “no ordinary people” (Weight of Glory) are such provoking ideas, aren’t they? This is a consequence of every person being made in the image of God, isn’t it? As an Antipodean outsider meandering regularly through Americana and Britannia over the years, the primary cultural settings from which this book emerges, I am surprised by how much Celebrity and Class still hover, even in Christian settings. Are not these two Cs ‘little people’ factories? Goodness me, in the distant heritage of a ministry of which I have been a part there was this phrase that still makes me flinch, “blokes worth watching”. Yikes. It serves to remind us that the ‘little people’ today are often women. And so Tasha Chapman’s Pastors Empowering Women to Flourish becomes an important chapter, including its six pages on ideas to help women have voices of influence in team meetings (192-198)!

One of my struggles in returning to live in New Zealand after a decade in the Majority World has been the polarizations in society. ‘Paint your own perspective in its best light, while rubbishing your opponent’s view by painting it in its worst light’ seems to be the way. Politics is where this stares us in the face, but it is now a far wider and deeper reality. It seems to be infecting an entire generation, or two. And yet fair and civil debate is about comparing best with best, not best with worst. It would be so easy to come away from this book concluding that ‘these guys were so into sound doctrine and yet stuffed things up and so this means sound doctrine is not a good idea’. But as Nick Mackison reminds us, just because “the farmers and builders are abusive does not entail that the farm or building is illegitimate” (59). That farm, that building (as in 1 Cor 3.9)—restored, safe and beautiful—remains central to the way forward.

It does come back to character, doesn’t it? “The character and behaviour of a leader profoundly shapes the culture of their organisation” (Stirling, 202). As a young pastor, Jack Hayford’s passing comment in the story of his pentecostal megachurch goaded me. It still does.

I am convinced that the conflicts within many congregations are simply the sad projection of the pastor’s own lack of submission to God’s will in some part of their life.

Jack Hayford, Church on the Way (Fleming Revell, 1983) 43

Yes, 1983—and I read it soon after it was published! When things become troubled for me I do try to return here, only to find that his observation is often so accurate—and consistent with the way Mark Stirling concludes his reflections:

…a consistent observation is that churches really do value competence and gifting more highly than they value character … If abuse of power in our churches is ever to be addressed, then humility in leaders must be the starting point … The bottom line is remarkably simple; where there is misuse of power by leaders, there is misunderstanding and misrepresentation of God and of the gospel … This is a time when repentance is required of the shepherds who have fed themselves on God’s sheep instead of feeding the sheep. We cannot and must not do Jesus’ work in non-Jesus ways (216).

nice chatting

Paul

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About Me

paul06.16

the art of unpacking

After a childhood in India, a theological training in the USA and a pastoral ministry in Southland (New Zealand), I spent twenty years in theological education in New Zealand — first at Laidlaw College and then at Carey Baptist College, where I served as principal. In 2009 I began working with Langham Partnership and since 2013 I have been the Programme Director (Langham Preaching). Through it all I've cherished the experience of the 'gracious hand of God upon me' and I've relished the opportunity to 'unpack', or exegete, all that I encounter in my walk through life with Jesus.

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