I’ve struggled with how to write this for quite some time. Even now, I’m not sure I know how to put into words how I’m feeling, or what I’m thinking. But a big part of putting this off for so long, is I wanted to be able to share it publicly. I didn’t know how to do that in a way that was tactful, and didn’t cause people to gossip or speculate. So I’m writing this for just myself, and if I ever want to edit later, I will. The arguments I’m going to attempt to make won’t necessarily be formulated, researched, or exegeted. I’ve never operated that way. They will be my free-flow thoughts on my observations of the world around me, and will include scripture when I remember a passage that applies. This isn’t to imply that I won’t consider the context of passages, just to say that this will not start with me analyzing a specific passage with no conclusion in mind. I will just perhaps mention passages or general scriptural narratives I’ve analyzed in the past and how I believe they apply to what I’m trying to say. I may end up not mentioning scripture at all. Again, this writing is more just a therapeutic exercise for me than anything else. With all those caveats out of the way, I suppose I must go ahead and attempt to start.
I have felt for a while now that there is a deep-seated problem in the church centered around the power that leaders of even the smallest of churches can be enticed by. I’m not saying that it’s every leader, or even that leaders experience it at the same levels. I’m just saying I think it’s a wider spread problem than we realize. I think that it particularly is a problem with conservative evangelicals, but that is perhaps only because my experience has given me abundantly more interaction with this group, seeing as how I am one. While I struggle on where to start, I think I have to start with the doctrine of inerrancy.
It may seem like a strange place. How does the belief that all scripture contains no error lead to people being enticed by power? It’s not that there’s a problem with the doctrine itself, rather the way people approach the doctrine. Churches that drive home the all authoritative, inerrant word of God often neglect the spiritual aspect of the faith. Through this mistake, they create a box in which God’s word lives, and take away it’s living aspect. It becomes treated more like a constitution that one can make arguments out of to prove a point, rather than an experience or conversation with God in which they fall subject to. To summarize, approaching a scripture you believe to be inerrant without the spiritual disciplines of prayer and humility makes it very easy for a person to try and claim God’s authority.
This is not to say that I think that humanity can’t hold authority over other humans. Far from it. Pastors and Elders are leaders to their church, parents are leaders to their children. Outside of Christianity the Government holds authority over its people, even if they are not necessarily Godly leaders, as we read in Romans 13. Teachers can be leaders to students. You get the idea. But there is a huge difference in the limited authority one exercises as a leader, and the authority of God. When we read the scriptures, study them, come to know them, then teach and instruct others on how to follow God, that is the authority of man. When we claim something that we can’t know as a certainty and exercise it as fact while hiding behind the scriptures, we are often times trying to claim the authority of God. I admit that this becomes a murky thing to discern. When is a person using scriptures to further their own personal agenda, and when is it truly what’s being said? When is it truly something we should be encouraging others to follow? I think the first thing to remember about this, is that the convenience or inconvenience of following something is not what determines its truthfulness. Secondly, if we follow the scriptures in prayer and humility this should naturally defend us from this potential pitfall, allow me to explain.
We as humans are sometimes given a very small amount of authority. Jesus had all authority over all creation. He spoke with authority, but he very rarely exercised it. Despite being king of all creation he allowed people to verbally abuse him, challenge him, and even take him to die on a cross. This is not to say that he didn’t teach things that were controversial, or teach them with conviction. But he never felt the need to force anyone to follow them, be annoyed they weren’t following them, or attack them for questioning his authority. He explained them in complete humility. If this is how Jesus acted with all authority in the university, how much moreso should we use humility in whatever small amount of authority may be afforded to us throughout our life? When we read scriptures and teach them this way, as someone who has no agenda, and doesn’t care if people respect or follow us…it becomes infinitely easier to prevent using them as a means of controlling people.
So I mentioned at the beginning that I feel like this is a problem about power. But why do I feel that there is a problem? I’ve explained how I believe that problem to occur, but not what caused me to notice. Well the first answer is at the large scale I just see more and more stories of pastoral sex scandals, abuse, and manipulation. Stories like Paige Patterson just being the tip of the iceberg. But on a smaller scale I’ve experienced it myself. When I was in youth ministry, while I felt completely normal at the time, there were small facets of the evangelical church’s culture that provided opportunities for me to feel superior or above others. This was even in a culture where humility was technically being preached pretty regularly.These opportunities were not overt or obvious, I wasn’t pointing fingers or barking orders. But I felt an entitlement for others to fall suit to my interpretation of scripture or ideals because of my position. There were times where being unable to convey these ideas led to bitterness, resentment, and anger. Admittedly, I’ve struggled with anger in the past. But my best years of being pacifistic and slow to anger were when I was serving at Valley Creek in a position that consumed my day to day, but by contrast I had authority over no one. I was not “licensed” or “ordained” for ministry. I’m not saying that my string of regrettable behavior was caused solely by the culture of ministry, there were a variety of factors. Still, I’m compelled after much thought over the past 2 years that it provided an environment that made my anger and insistence of compliance all the more easy.
Now I can’t say with certainty that every example of anger, abuse, manipulation, or things of the like by a Pastor are caused by the same things I experienced personally. But in an environment that seems to increasingly produce these results I can’t help but consider the possibility. Now that I’m returning to some sense of normalcy and a headspace that I can be proud of, I know that save for a miracle; ministry is not where I need to be. I am not above reproach. But I feel there are countless pastors across our country that struggle with these things, oftentimes on a much more extreme scale than I did, who remain in ministry under the guise of “forgiveness.” Make no mistake about it, forgiveness is an absolutely pivotal part of not just the Christian walk, and it should be a pivotal part of society altogether. But there is a huge difference in forgiving someone, and allowing someone who is not qualified for the role of pastor to continue serving in that role. The Bible makes it very clear that it’s not exactly an easy calling. In the worst circumsances I’ve even seen churches cover up sexual harassment or abuse to maintain peace, maintain order, and maintain normalcy, under the guise of “forgiveness.” So Pastors who are not qualified for the role continue to serve. Because if overnight we discovered that a large portion of our church leadership was not qualified to lead, what would we do? The possibility scares us, so we cover up and excuse sinful behavior. In some scenarios this impulse to cover up is due to simple misled urges to not affect our church’s witness. While I understand the temptation, this is a classic example of what Jesus warns against in his parable of cleaning the cup. We clean the outside for a good appearance while the inside is disgusting and unusable. In worse scenarios I’m sure there are those out there who cover things up because it would affect the financial income of their church. When people’s faith in the church is compromised, people leave, and when people leave, budgets suffer. I don’t think I need to explain why covering up a Pastor’s sins to keep finances up is wrong. When it comes to covering up to protect the church’s witness, allow me to paraphrase a line from Christian satire movie Believe Me: “If something like that shatters your faith, maybe your faith was in the wrong thing to start with.”
I think I’ve more or less fleshed out, and put to paper the thoughts that have been swirling around my head for the past few months. I have no idea if I’ll share this or not. I believe I spoke with enough tact that it could be shared, but we shall see. But in conclusion…I think that the evangelical church has created an environment through their over emphasis and abuse of inerrant scripture, in which Pastors very easily can use it as a wall to hide behind their demands for others, while being in a position that already tempts their egos to get bigger than they ought to be. Rather than humbly and pacifistically proclaiming the word of Christ for people to follow as they choose simply for the love of the Gospel. And I think that the string of bad behavior that follows is oftentimes covered up to maintain normalcy and finances for the churches they lead. I feel this way because of personal experience and general observation. I realize that every situation is different, and these observations aren’t a blanket explanation of the only reality out there. There are plenty of great Pastors running the good race in the evangelical church. But I still feel it is a bigger problem than people realize given the fact that I don’t see enough people talking about it. And most of the people I do see talk about it are doing so from a place of hatred to tear down the church, rather than a place of love to repair it. Let’s repair it.