In all fairness, it must be said that most of the church system we’ve all known and experienced promotes a culture of passivity with its perpetuation of the “pastor/laity” divide. However, the tendency is more pronounced, in “churches” that promote a strong hierarchal expression of leadership: they tend to foster even a deeper and more damaging level of passivity and inactivity among members. I do not believe that for the most part, the damage caused by these leaders is with intent, but rather, through ignorance and blindness: blindness regarding the scriptures, and blindness regarding themselves. But as we know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Since I began this series, I’ve gotten mixed feedback. Those who have experienced some form of spiritual abuse firsthand, or are aware of situations involving someone they know, have been encouraged by what they’ve read. They’ve wondered, many times for years, whether something was wrong with them. Now they realize that voice whispering to them was actually the Holy Spirit. Still others have predictably circled the wagons, either dismissing the idea that something very serious is wrong, or justifying their defense of the organization by personally attacking people who offer critical assessments of the institution. Still others acknowledge there are issues but do not see the urgency of them. And the age-old excuse is thrown out thoughtlessly: “There is no perfect church.” (I’ve always rejected this excuse. If we simply rest in the fact we are imperfect, why bother to address our imperfections?) And still others are so deeply blinded by their devotion to leaders, that they honestly don’t see a thing. Tragically, many of them frankly don’t care.
I am personally aware of some leaders who can accurately be described as textbook examples of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They have fooled hundreds (even thousands) with a well-rehearsed “humble demeanor.” But unknown to their most ardent supporters, is a trail of damaged lives . . . people thrown under the bus in the name of building religious empires. If these followers had only an ounce of basic human curiosity, they would inquire about, and find behavior they would never imagine engaging in themselves. And yet they tragically believe these pastors are more “spiritual” than they are . . . men whose example should be followed without question.
How many lives have been disrupted by “church plants” or “adoptions” where leaders have been “de-gifted” and sent packing? In so many of these situations, the congregation accepted the changes as the wise decisions of those who are “over them.” Other members have relocated to new cities or towns and sold properties at a loss, only to find that they have been exploited. I am aware of one such “church plant” that was doomed from the start. In truth it was a church split: a by-product of profound relational conflict between leaders. (Leaders who guided the church through several rounds of “Peacemaker” curriculum.) All of the elements that led to the demise of the “plant” could have been discovered had both leaders been transparent. To this day, I am not aware of either leader coming clean about what really happened—shame on those pastors for their lack of disclosure. But shame on the people involved who are still with the mother church, for not demanding to know the WHOLE truth, and evidence of repentance from ALL of the SGM leaders involved.
In previous installments, I’ve discussed the purpose of Ephesians 4 ministry. It is to equip the saints for the work of ministry. But in my nearly fifteen years with SGM, I saw very little equipping. Most of the “ministry” centered around the pastors, and any training was simply geared toward supporting their ministry. This is backwards! Healthy Ephesians 4 ministry is not about showcasing my gifts, but activating yours!
Again this is not unique to SGM, but the Kingdom value of every-member participation is quenched by the perpetual classroom mentality. I believe the DNA of what takes place (and what doesn’t) in the life of the body is set on Sunday mornings. What do you see? Typically pastors, and maybe a worship leader/team on stage, and everyone else sitting passively, at least half of the time. What inevitably develops is an unhealthy dependence on pastoral ministry.
It was Ignatius of Antioch who helped to set the foundation for what most call “church.” In his “epistle” to the Magnesians, he taught this monstrous doctrine:
As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do anything without the bishop and presbyters. (Chapter 7)
So it is ironic that so-called “Reformed” brethren continue to perpetuate this false doctrine of pastoral control. Everything in the life of the church must fall under the supervision of pastors. In my experience within SGM, if a pastor is unable (or simply unwilling) to “oversee” some form of ministry or outreach, it simply isn’t done. This produces a Babylonian bottleneck. The pastors sit at the top of the religious enterprise, empowered to make the final call on initiatives the Spirit of God may put in the heart of regular members. A “no” from the pastor often relegates those members to a role of religious observers . . . merely watching the leaders do what is alleged to be ministry. Much of the time, that is simply preaching and teaching. The real body life of “one anothers” rarely takes place. And truthfully, pastors are often relationally broken themselves, and/or inept and unable to walk in fellowship with regular members. This reduces our Father’s vision of a healthy body nourishing itself and carrying out the mission of the gospel… into a religious lecturing society.
In this kind of atmosphere, members are assured that their pastors are caring for them. They are dealing with the pertinent matters of the church. Members need not worry their little hearts out. The church “elders” have everything under control. Members simply need to attend and participate in all the meetings and pay their tithes. The leaders will take care of the rest.
Because members buy into this blatant suffocation of the “royal priesthood,” they extend trust that goes beyond scriptural boundaries. The result is leaders have broad latitude to define their level of control over the flock. And the temptation to use and abuse that authority is irresistible.
So members are generally in the dark about what is really going on in the church. They are instructed to submit to those in authority over them, and to trust them. But Paul has a much more humble view of himself and other leaders, and he accepts the burden of responsibility:
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.
(1 Corinthians 4:1-2 ESV)
The New American Standard Version drives it home a little more:
In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy.
The challenge comes in any effort to verify trustworthiness. This can only happen in genuine relationship. So without an atmosphere of mutuality in relationship, injustices and abuse occur behind closed doors. And in a controversy, there’s only one version of events that matters: the pastors’ version.
Since members have already accepted this default position to discern what is true and what is not, the tendency will always lead to acquitting the leadership, and marginalizing or judging anyone who might dare to have a contrary opinion or perspective. And so it is a very small leap at this point to encourage members to refuse to listen to anyone who disagrees with them. Tragically many members tend to comply. The result is true Kingdom purposes are thwarted, and an atmosphere for profound evil to flourish only grows with time.
"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. "
- Edmund Burke
There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: we remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done to other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself. It’s more universal, more contagious, and more dangerous. A silent justification makes evil that erupts as an exception to become the rule, and in turn allows it to be widely accepted. [i] Indifference to injustice is the normalization of evil.
[i] The Prophets, Abraham Heschel, 364; quoted by Stephen Crosby, Healing: Hope or Hype?
The indifference described above is the breeding ground for the birth and development of spiritual tyranny. We need to hear the wisdom of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel on the issue of indifference and passivity:
The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.
The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference.
The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference.
And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.
I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
For one who is indifferent, life itself is a prison. Any sense of community is external or, even worse, nonexistent. Thus, indifference means solitude. Those who are indifferent do not see others. They feel nothing for others and are unconcerned with what might happen to them. They are surrounded by a great emptiness. Filled by it, in fact. They are devoid of all hope as well as imagination. In other words: devoid of any future.
In the Pauline spirit, I also offer a refreshing contrast to the standard fare from SGM. It is happening in Gaithersburg, MD. At the beginning of the current SGM crisis last summer, Joshua Harris set the tone for the people he leads at Covenant Life Church by starting with repentance. Now months into the process of review and exceptional input from members, that local church is changing its pattern of governance. Among the many positive changes, the members will be involved in every significant decision. This is a great start in the right direction.
I can also personally testify about how God’s people begin to flourish in Jesus when they get out from under oppressive top-heavy, hierarchal, religious control. In a few short months I have watched two dear friends of mine move from passivity on the pastoral plantation, into healthy identities in Jesus as men of God who are demonstrating priestly initiative. How did they get there? Genuine Ephesians 4 apostles and prophets walked with them in relationship as friends, and coaches, not as overlords. This is in sharp contrast to the years of sitting under “leadership” dominated by pastor-teachers that stripped them of their identity and purpose in Christ, essentially emasculating them.
Notice Paul’s perspective and attitude toward believers he wrote to. He clearly did not see them as “dumb sheep.”
I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.
(Romans 15:14 ESV)
Clearly the leadership of SGM has no such confidence in its people. They continue to double down on the demonically empowered idea that regenerated members are eternally untrustworthy and sin-prone, and therefore dependent on pastoral leadership to function. This is not only biblically indefensible, but even the world recognizes that this is profoundly unhealthy and cultic.
Then I heard another voice from heaven saying,
“Come out of her, my people,
lest you take part in her sins,
lest you share in her plagues;
for her sins are heaped high as heaven,
and God has remembered her iniquities.
(Revelation 18:4-5 ESV)
Whatever we believe Babylon represents in Revelation 17 and 18, we should take the judgment the Lord pronounces very seriously. We can argue that we did not commit all the sins the leaders were responsible for. But the truth is, we cannot make that claim if we are rank and file members who give assent to their activities (seen and unseen) by our presence, and fund their activities with our money. There is simply no excuse for any believer to bury his head in the sand and buy into the lie that matters of religious abuse, leadership sin and hypocrisy, are “pastoral issues” that are none of our business. All too often I’ve seen naïve and lazy believers embrace such non-thinking . . . until they are personally victimized. Otherwise they don’t care. “As long as the music is good and the doctrine is sound, and the pastor or pastors treat me well, nothing else matters.” It should be clear by now this is not kingdom thinking, but frankly thoughtlessness, the kind that is unacceptable even to humanists, the kind that produces tyrants in the church and in the world.
Saints let’s get real on this: if we can’t come to grips with the level ground at the foot of the cross, the priesthood of believers (in practice, not just in theory), and the upside down (or right side up) understanding of the kingdom of God (true leadership is modeled by serving, not reigning over others), we have absolutely NOTHING to show the world, no matter how sound the gospel we proclaim with our lips. The world will continue to hear our clanging cymbals and realize nothing has changed. We’re still playing church.