Yesterday Steve McAlpine posted on the scandals that keep recurring in our mega-churches. He wants to help us break the cycle by recognizing the shape abusive leadership takes:
The recurring central theme to these scandals is the manner in which a concerned, godly eldership is first enervated by an increasingly toxic church leader, then replaced by that church leader, before finally being excoriated publicly by that church leader, with the new leadership on stage leading the tomato throwing exercise. …
That’s the pattern. It’s that simple. You could throw it in with the seven or so Hollywood standard movie scripts that exist and it wouldn’t look out of place, so step-by-step, formulaic it is.
Why does this keep happening? Steve offers two suggestions, and I’d like to take this further.
Why is this the case? First there is the problem of collegiality. We become inured to the vices of those we share time and space with, especially if we’re all supposed to be singing from the same hymn sheet …
Secondly, perhaps evangelical leaders aren’t as convinced by the doctrine of sin as they say they are. Why do leaders who call us to take our propensity to sin soberly, seem to either look the other way or give the benefit of the doubt long past a healthy use-by-date to such leaders?
There’s a natural tendency to divide the world into goodies and baddies. The goodies are our friends, and especially our leaders at church. That’s why we react defensively when someone says they’re the baddies. It just doesn’t compute.
That’s Steve’s second point: we don’t realize the extent to which sin runs through all of us. Sin isn’t just found in the baddies; it’s in us all, in ourselves and our friends at church. In fact, the temptation is most difficult for those who have power.
Crucially, this is not a side-story. The core of the Bible’s narrative is God’s kingship and our place within it. God honoured humans as his image, but we’ve grasped at his power because we want to be gods (Genesis 3:5). Taking power over each other’s life, we destroy each other (Cain and Abel). This violence corrupts our humanity (Genesis 6:11).
Tragically, even those whom God saves abuse the power God gives them: Noah (Genesis 9), Abraham (Genesis 12, 20), Sarah (Genesis 18), Jacob (Genesis 27, 31), Simeon and Levi (Genesis 35), Joseph’s brothers (Genesis 37), Judah (Genesis 38), … the whole narrative.
The recurring scandal is that leaders are corrupted by power:
- Gideon began by calling himself insignificant (Judges 6:15), but the years of leadership ensnared him (8:22-27). His son became a power-grasping evil leader (9:5).
- Saul hid among the baggage when they first called him to be king (1 Samuel 10:21-22), but was so corrupted by power that he spent his life trying to kill David to keep his power.
- David started out with God’s own heart for people, and remained the hero while Saul had power (1 Samuel). But once David was king, he used his power abusively (e.g. taking Uriah’s wife). By the end of his reign, he could barely manage his own family (2 Samuel).
- Solomon initially recognized his dependence on God’s wisdom (1 Kings 3:9), but he ended up using his power so harshly that it divided Israel (1 Kings 12).
- The kings of Israel and Judah used their power abusively (e.g. Manasseh in 2 Kings 21:16). That’s why God terminated the kingship: evil shepherds misrepresented the heavenly sovereign (Ezekiel 34).
- In the century before Jesus, Jewish leaders committed so much bloodshed that it didn’t let up until Rome invaded (e.g. Josephus, Antiquities372–380; 14:33), even though “Herod was a violent and bold man, and very desirous of acting tyrannically” (14.165).
- Jesus viewed the leaders of God’s people as thieves and robbers, feeding off the sheep (John 10:1, 8-10), the incarnation of evil in their desire to destroy their enemies (John 8:44-45).
- Church history is filled with examples of leaders who used their power to destroy each other: burning enemies as heretics, conflicts over who was pope, crusades, inquisitions, corruption.
- Even leaders like John Calvin who called out systemic abuse within the church did not avoid the temptation himself when he was given power in Geneva. The problem is in those of us who blog about it too.
So why do we find it surprising when this problem recurs among mega-church leaders today? This is the nature of human sin. We are corrupted by power when we don’t submit to God.
Don’t imagine that mega-church leaders are more evil than the rest of us. It’s just that they face a greater temptation to become abusive because of the power in their hands. And when they succumb, more people are damaged.
It’s not just pastors. Church boards can use their power to destroy people too, sometimes even the pastor.
Evil is potentially present in every situation where there is power, even our homes. Briana Shepherd suggested an early indication of an abusive relationship. She calls it the No Test: observe what happens when you say No, when the person doesn’t get their way. That might be an early warning sign for church leaders and boards.
Steve McAlpine is right. We need to identify the nature and extent of human sin. In the end, it comes back to grasping power that should be in God’s hands, and using it to abuse each other.
The good news is that Jesus is saving the world from precisely this issue, and he’s doing so in the most astounding way. This is the reason he suffered and died at the hands of the rulers of this world, refusing to do evil to defeat them. He trusted earth’s eternal sovereign to raise him up out of this massive injustice and to give him the throne.
The sin of the world is the same sin found in God’s people. The same thing that’s wrong with politics, government, and business is what’s wrong with the church.
But that cannot be an excuse. What hope is there for the world if we misrepresent Jesus’ kingship?
Mark 10:42–45 (NIV)
42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”