Christians and 21st Century Tribalism

“Tribalism” is a great word that has become bandied about in recent days. There are different definitions:

a very strong feeling of loyalty to a political or social group, so that you support them whatever they do      (Cambridge Dictionary)

loyalties that people feel towards particular social groups and to the way these loyalties affect their behaviour and their attitudes towards others.  (Collins Dictionary)

loyalty to a tribe or other social group especially when combined with strong negative feelings for people outside the group  (Merriam-Webster website)

Drawing these things together one may say that:

Tribalism involves loyalty to one group that demonstrates itself in strongly positive feelings for that group, negative feelings or animosity for groups seen to be in competition, and behavior that serves as an outlet for those feelings.

Thus, tribalism is based on emotions and these emotions trigger behavior that may not make sense except in terms of such emotions. Consider the following situation. Suppose John is a member of the “Blue Team.” And as such sees himself as opposed to the “Green Team” and all members of that group.  (If you know your Byzantine history, you may recognize these groups.) Consider the following situations and the tribalistic responses.

  • Blues have power and good things happen?  John credits the Blues.
  • Blues have power and bad things happen?  John excuses Blues (bad things happen despite their best efforts) and/or blames the Greens for undermining the work of the Blues.
  • Greens have power and good things happen? John credits Blues in their minority role, and/or disconnects the good from the activities of the Greens.
  • Greens have power and bad things happen? John blames the Greens.
  • Blues do things that are good? John sees the actions as evidence of Blues’ inherent virtue.
  • Blues do things that are bad? John sees them as “necessary,” to overcome the evils of the Greens.
  • Greens do things that are good? John recognizes that they were done of evil or self-serving motives by the Greens.
  • Greens do bad things? John sees that as evidence of the Greens’ inherent lack of virtue.

This sort of behavior has been around, perhaps, back to Babel. It is human nature. I would like to think that people find this sort of behavior to be a bit humorous. I would like to think that people who see others showing such knee-jerk responses on FB or other forms of social and public media to be rather… “funny.” But I am not so sure. Some seem to take this stuff seriously. Many of my friends seem to not see the inconsistencies — “not get the joke.”

Frankly, I don’t care all that much whether people take it seriously or not. Fanatical tribalism has been with us for a long, long time. There will always be some people who will react like John described above, because their focus is on power. They fear what it would be like not to have power… or to remain without power.

But what about us as Christians. Is that how we are supposed to act?

Well, in the Bible, there seems to be a general rejection of this form of tribalism. In the Hebrew Bible, this may not be as evident. The prophets could be quite brutal in their castigation of the surrounding nations. However, the prophets of Israel were at least as hard on their own people. Arguably they were more harsh with their words for their own people. They would complain about the immorality, corruption, idolatry of the “chosen people.” Why not focus more consistently on how much worse were the surrounding peoples? I believe itImage result for us versus them was because their focus was not on “tribalism,” promoting the IMAGE that Israel is better than everyone else. Rather, they were seeking to encourage Israel to be better, more holy, in FACT.

In the New Testament, this form of encouragement is far more clear. Very little time is spent in the New Testament to talk about how bad the Greeks and the Romans were. Yet if the NT writers were so inclined it would pretty easy to point out the many many moral flaws. of the peoples that Christians interacted with. And this would be even easier since Christians were a persecuted bunch— a people without power. Rather the writers appear to spend much more time attempting to follow the guidance of Jesus.

“Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged.  For with the judgment you use, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a log in your eye? Hypocrite! First take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.    (Matthew 7:1-5.  HCSB)

There is a whole industry of Bible scholars and ethicists who argue as to how to apply this passage. But, it seems to reject the foundational principles of toxic tribalism at least on an individual level. It seems, additionally, that the Apostles took the principles of Christ to a level of community as well. They focused on the call to righteous behavior of the body of Christ, rather than try to lift up the community by emphasizing the flaws of outsiders.

There does seem to be one exception. Jesus really went after the Scribes and Pharisees. The Gospel writers recorded so many strong words against the Pharisees that in the church, the term became a byword. There were occasional examples of Jesus having a more positive relationship with this group (such as Nicodemus), but the general tone was adversarial. In recent decades study of the writings of the rabbinical community of the 1st century has created considerable controversy. It was found that the Pharisees often were quite in agreement with Jesus on many issues. This has led some to believe that the Gospel writers were disconnected from the events of the life of Christ. After all, if they were eyewitnesses or had direct access to such witnesses, surely they would have seen the Pharisees in a much more positive light. Others also have questioned regarding Paul. His writings seem to provide an image that is harsher than reality. Perhaps Paul was never actually a Pharisee.

To me, the above issues are resolved if one rejects tribalism as a presumptive behavior. If one rejects it, then the Pharisees were seen more as partners. They share a common devotion to God and to His revelation. So Jesus was quite strong in His words of challenge to them. He was much less harsh with the Sadducees, with whom He had less in common, and even less harsh with other groups with whom He had less commonality.

Of course, in church history, things began to change. The change started with the Apologists in the 2nd century.  Aristides, for example, compared Christians to other groups such as Greeks, Pagans, and Jews. He showed Christians in a very positive light to the other groups. However, the purpose was neither primarily to “feel good about ourselves,” nor to tear down other groups. Rather, it was to show that Christians are good citizens of the Roman Empire and do not need to be persecuted. However, over the centuries, power politics began to dominate, and has continued to today.

So as Christians today, what should we do… when it comes to our relationships in the arenas of government and religion.

If our call is to behave in line with power politics, than tribalistic behavior is appropriate. We whitewash our own failures, and the failures of those we judge to be friends, and attack consistently the failures of others, and question their motives. This is the behavior of many cults— and many Christians as well.

If our call is to follow Christ, we focus on righteousness and on our own failures. We spend less focus on specks in the eyes of others. In fact, we may even applaud the virtues of others. This is a tougher path since we are not focusing on power in a human sense, but on being conformed to Christ. It means not putting our understanding of what is right through the filter of “are they for us or against us.”



Bigamy and Missions

I have fallen out of the habit of getting involved in discussion boards. I guess part of the reason is that over the decades they attract trolls. But even when they don’t they often draw people in based on their ability to type rather than their ability to discuss or think.

Recently, I saw a discussion thread put up by a person I know somewhat who was asking what one does if a missionary leads a man to Christ who has two wives, each wife having children.

A wide variety of answers started flowing in. The answers that I saw fell inuseto three overlapping categories.

  1.  Verse-drop answers. This is where one takes a single verse or passage and suggests that it provides the full answer. Some may  take I Timothy 3:2 or a statement that one of the OT patriarchs had more than one wife, as an answer to the issue. Verse drop answers push people to the extremes. Some used a passage to justify that “Hey, bigamy is no problem,” while it pushed others to the opposite extreme, “the family must be destroyed at all costs.” My problem here is that using just one verse misuses Scripture, and then describes that misuse as the “Biblical answer.”
  2. Feelings answers. Some of the answers appeared to be based on how the person felt about it. If they found bigamy distateful, it must crushed. If there is empathy for the wives and children (to say nothing of the husband/father) there was more of an accommodationist approach.  Feelings are important, but frankly, the feelings of the discussion members are the LEAST relevant of the interested parties. The feelings of the participants are the ones that should be honored. <I live in a region where people eat dog. Feelings may be relevant to the discussion on whether one should eat dog. But it is the feelings of the people who live in places where people eat dog that is relevant, not people far removed from the situation.>
  3. Simple. In this sense, I mean that there did not seem to be much soul-searching as far as struggling with the issue. If bigamy is a problem, one must find a quick answer to deal with it— divorce one, or maintain a chaste relationship with one or both wives. A boss of mine described these as Al Yagoda solutions. Who is Al Yagoda? He is the guy who knows the correct answer without fully knowing the situation.  “Al Yagoda (“All you got to”) do is ______________________.” The problem beyond ignorance is that it is dualistic. Christian morality is never dualistic. There are things that are good and commendable. There are things acceptable but undesirable. There things that are neutral.

The issue brought up is very real world. In many parts of the world, bigamy is practiced. In some cases it is a sociological necessity almost. What is the cost of following Christ. Does it include destruction of the family? In some parts of Africa, Muslim missionaries are expressing Islam as an attractive alternative to Christianity because polygyny is not condemned. Also, in many cultures, to have the father reject a wife and her children would have severe consequences on the entire family. Obviously, one does not come up with answers because it is practical to do so. But arm-chair answers don’t really help. Our family had a family living with us. She was a second wife of a Muslim Imam. She followed Christ, and she decided that to do this, she must take her children with her and leave the broader family. Did she do the right thing. I have no idea… and probably you don’t either. The children became devout Christians, but they wanted to maintain connections with their father, over the objections of their mother. Was that good or bad?

I would suggest a different set of considerations.

  1.  Theological. Rather than verse-dropping, find what the whole of Scripture says about a topic. For polygyny, the Scripture has a lot to say. In the Old Testament, many of the the patriarchs had more than one wife. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons, grabbed that fact and suggested that God approves of polygyny… or even mandates it. However in the Old Testament, with the possible exception of Levirite marriages, polygynous relationships are spoken of negatively. Almost all stories of polygynous marriages have problems and the problems almost always relate to the polygynous aspect of the family.  On the other hand, bigamy, having two legal wives does not seem to viewed as fornication or adultery, so it is doubtful that one could apply verses rejecting adultery to the situation. In the New Testament, a church leaders should be a “one woman man.” This short phrase has been abused immensely I know a pastor who married a divorcee. He was told he could not serve as a pastor because of I Timothy 3:2. I am at a loss to see he violated the “one woman man” principle here. Regardless of what that phrase means in different circumstance (clearly suggests not being a flirt or unfaithful, but does it mean must be married, and does it reject the possibility of a pastor being a “one man woman”?), certainly the phrase appears incompatible with a polygynous marriage. A proper theological view on bigamy would look at all of this… but much much more. Simply verse-dropping is an abuse, not use, of Scripture.
  2. Sociological. Why does bigamy exist? Is it because of infidelity? Yes, in some cases. Here in the Philippines there is a surprising number of men who have a family in one town and a different family in another town. In some cases, both families have legal status (even if only because of paperwork error). In other cases, a man or woman works overseas and has a second family there. In these situations, loneliness may drive the activity, while in others the reasons are hard to ascertain. (To me, to maintain to separate families just seems like a form of self-abuse.) In other cultures the reasons can be different. In many family or clan-based cultures, there are very important reasons for bigamy. Where property and status is maintained by clan name, it is important to have an heir. The levirate marraige is part of this. Also, where there is a lot of warfare or other forms of killings, a society may have a shortage of men, so bigamy puts a salve on one aspect of a sociological blight. On the other hand, where the number of men and women are equal, polygynous marriages result in a large number of young men with a shortage of women. This creates its own catastrophic results. For some Christians, it seems irrelevant to consider sociological issues. But we must consider them, since God does. The Semitic culture of the Old Testament had polygynous marriages because of the clan system and a shortage of men. It is understandable then that bigamy was permitted but also discouraged. In the New Testament, sexual infidelity was rampant, but formal polygynous families were rare. The social drive for such families was not present generally, and there was no mention of accommodation for bigamy. God’s attitude did not change, but the context did. That leads to the third aspect.
  3. Contextual. Morality in the Bible is deontological (based on law), teleological (based on expected results), and contextual (based on the cultural setting). The Bible says “Do not murder.” This is a basis for deonotological ethics. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is not really deontological, since it is far too broad to be legally instructive. This is teleological, if you think about it. Do acts that your neighbor would be expected to find beneficial. “Dress modestly” is a contextual guideline. It is not legally instructive since it is not clear what would qualifies as modest. Rather, modest dressing depends on one’s culture. I live in the Philippines, and Filipinos dress much more modestly than many other groups. I was in Coron recently on a tour, and there were many Filipinos, Chinese and Europeans, as well as a few Muslims. The female Muslims were covered to a degree that would make it difficult to enjoy the sweltering weather, it seems to me. The male Muslims dressed  more in line with the Filipino or Chinese men. The Filipinos dressed fairly modestly, keeping most of their skin covered (this is as much driven by a desire to avoid being tanned by the sun as it is modesty). The Europeans often dressed in ways that would be deemed scandalous by the other groups. The Chinese were in between the Filipinos and Europeans. “Modesty” is complicated in a multi-cultural setting. However, it definitely varies in different cultures.

So what about Bigamy. Should a man with two wives and children with each wife, be required to dump one wife and children? I can’t see that. The Bible doesn’t require that, but does require a man to take care of his wife (wives?) and children. One should not ask a person to explicitly sin to avoid a doubtful sin. One must figure out the sociological dynamics going on. Christianity is meant to be transformative. In the Cordilleras here in the Philippines, Christianity has done much to end “headhunting”– honor killings, violent rites of passage, and clan warfare. This transformation has reduced the sociological need for polygynous families. Such transformation does not change the past, but should work towards a better future. Polygynous families (regardless of deontological constraints) is damaging where the number of eligible men and women are equal. Since God made men and women in approximately equal numbers, where war is low, polygynous families have little justification– moral or otherwise. One must look at the context.

The Bible clearly attacks moral infidelity and fornication. These can be challenged supraculturally. But polygynous families are not so clearly addressed. Joanne Shetler speaks of her time with the Balangao people. When asked that she condemn the chewing of betel nut, her response was that the Bible does not clearly condemn betel nut. On the other hand it clearly rejects gossiping. So for now, she will focus on what is clearly condemned and withhold judgement on the other matter.

In a missiological setting, it is possible to avoid the extremes of wholehearted rejection and full acceptance. It can be seen as undesirable but acceptable. It can also be seen as transitional. That is, polygynous families may be seen as a relic of a time of war and misery… something that will fade as the culture transforms.



Ministerial Recovery

We all fail sometimes. Sometimes the failure is minor… sometimes it can be spectacular. Sometimes one has control over the situation of the failure, and sometimes not.

Failure is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, failures are great opportunities to grow. But not all failures are equal to each other. Consider three forms of failure.

  1.  Failure of Vision. A minister lacks visiona clear vision or perhaps the minister’s vision proves to be leading in the wrong direction.
  2. Failure of Competence.  A minister lacks the skill-set and/or experience for what he/she is doing.
  3. Failure of Trustworthiness. The minister violates trust by cheating, or breaking a promise.

The last one, failure of trustworthiness needs a bit of explanation. After all, to fail in doing what one promises to do is not automatically a trustworthy issue, in my opinion. For me trustworthiness has to do with the martial virtues– Courage (doing what is right despite fear), Duty (doing what is right regardless of preference), and Honor (doing what is right despite lack of oversight). Failure in these virtues is a failure of trustworthiness. These failures are all very different.

What is easiest to personally correct?

Trustworthiness Failure. In theory this can be done quickly with repentance. However, in practice it can take awhile because failure in the area of trustworthiness will continue to be a temptation during stress. Ministry has lots of stresses.

Vision Failure. Nehemiah went from no vision to a very clear vision in four months. Paul and Moses got at least a start of a vision in a very quick event (Damascus Road and Burning Bush), even if they needed new vision adjustments periodically. I believe vision is a human AND divine activity. Ultimately, a lack of vision I believe is a failure on the human side, rather than the divine side. But it is correctable.

Competence Failure. Training, mentoring, and experience can be gained in a few months to a few years.

What is the easiest to recover from?

Vision Failure. People will commonly accept the transition from a muddy vision to a clear vision, or a change of direction, especially if the change can be clearly articulated.

Competence Failure. People generally understand that people start out without skills and knowledge. They may wait awhile for the person to prove himself/herself but another chance will normally be given.

Trustworthiness Failure. Some understand and give another chance and some don’t. We don’t know why John Mark quit on the first missionary journey… but probably an issue of lack of courage or duty. His uncle Barnabas was ready quickly to give him a second chance. Paul, on the other hand took a few years to warm up to him. Some will never forget a failure of trustworthiness.

What do we tend to emphasize?

Competence.  Preparation for ministry often focuses on learning skills and doctrine.

Depends. Some focus more on morals or trustworthiness, while others more on calling/vision. Either way, they are often given less priority than ministerial competence.

What failure is most risky?

Trustworthiness Failure.  Regardless of whether one is in charge or a worker bee, a failure in this area can sour future opportunities for ministry (especially if due to failure in terms of honor).

The Others. One can learn as a mentee (protege or apprentice) without a lot of risk. Additionally, in that role, one doesn’t really need to have a clear vision. One can learn while working helping another’s vision. These are bigger issues if the person is a leader.


The Patriotically Incorrect Missionary

When I was in college (30+ years ago) many of us were struck at the excesses of a movement that showed itself in the term “Political Correctness” or PC for short. It sought to avoid language that appeared to demean or sound judgmental. At its best, it reminded us to be careful with our language… reminding us words matter, and that they can both hurt or heal. I remember my time in the Navy where horrible, horrible language was often used for THEM… whoever “them” may be– at the time often women, homesexuals, or Iraqis. I remember suffering through a class at Surface Warfare Officer’s School (SWOS) where the instructor started the class with jokes– almost all of them starting with the “There is nobody who is ___________ here, is there?” One time, when the joke section went “open mike,” the guy who sat next to me raised his hand saying that he had a joke. When he got to the front of the classroom, he went into a five minute sermon on the destructiveness of jokes… and seemingly suggesting that all jokes are hurtful. He was “Booed” back to his seat. I can’t remember if I joined in the catcalls or not. But, I did find the joke time annoying, so I am not sure.

But at its worst, political correctness can force a sterile groupthink where free exchange of ideas is squashed in the name of tolerance. And as the term “political” implies in the name, there was often a political agenda where certain groups were protected while others were fair game. Sometimes it appears to actually do the opposite of its aim. I recall in college hearing of a college women’s volleyball team where they would describe some members as being “vertically challenged” rather than say “short.” To me, that is counterproductive since “short” may or may not be disparaging, but “vertically challenged” can only be viewed as derogatory. The SWOS story showed both sides of things where the politically correct appeared to reject any sort of group cohesion through irreverence, while the politically incorrect could be quite hurtful, and be annoyed that others get hurt, “not getting it.”

Right now in my home country (or perhaps ONE of my home countries) there is a balkanization, or new tribalism, that could be described in terms of being “patriotically correct.” When I was in the Navy, a friend of mine, also an officer, told me, “A weird thing happened to me yesterday. I was driving around and stopped for lunch, and this old guy began talking to me. When he learned that I was in the Navy, he said, ‘Thanks for your service to our country.’ I wanted to tell him, ‘I’m not seeking to serve my country out of some deep well of patriotic fervor. I am just doing my job.’ Of course I didn’t say that.” I found that story funny myself. Who would thank a person for just doing their job, and tie it to some sort of nationalism?

At least I found that funny until about 20 years later, more than a decade after leaving the Navy, when I started having people come up to me and say, “Thanks for your service to our country.” It seemed so strange. I did figure-eights in the Red Sea during the Gulf War while doing embargo operations. I can assure you that I have done much more to serve my country well (and other countries) as a missionary in the Philippines than I ever did in the Navy. But I can hardly say that. That seems to be Patriotically Incorrect. I am not anti-military. My son is considering joining the military and I am fine with that. I would be a proud parent. But I would be a proud parent if he went into something entirely different— neither greater nor lesser. That seems to be a politically incorrect view as well.

Recently, they have started putting NFL (American) football on TV here in the Philippines, and so after many years of not seeing it, I watch it on occasion. It is interesting that some of my friends in the US are boycotting NFL games. Boycotting in this case apparently means turning to a different channel. I have no problem with that. CFL can be fun to watch, and Rugby and Australian Rules Football are wonderful, arguably preferable, alternatives to American football. Apparently, this so-called boycotting is done because some athletes go down on one knee rather than stand at attention during the National Anthem. I can see the concern to some extent. Here in the Philippines, I always stand during the singing of “Lupang Hinirang,” the Philippine National Anthem, and join in the singing. It just seems like the respectful thing to do for a country that has welcomed me as a guest for over 14 years. But the irony with regards to the reaction to the NFL still strikes me… the use of an empty symbolic gesture to express anger about an empty symbolic gesture (making in fact that second gesture much less empty).

There seems to be a new tribalism, or at least an increase in it. It is understood by the old adage, referenced and castigated in the Bible, “Love your friends, and hate your enemies.” Clearly that is not what we are called to do… but it is hard especially when “tribal” battlelines are drawn. It is hard for us to do and hard for others to respond.

“God’s love, when it comes to us, obliges us to ‘love the neighbor.’ How is the person before us responding to this obligation? Responses can run the gamut from amoral anarchy to rigid perfectionism, when people are experiencing a broken relationship with God. On the other hand, in persons who have a sound relationship with God, there must be at least hints of a healthy sense of filial and agapic responsibility.” -Howard Stone “The Word of God and Pastoral Care,” page 47

Consider how that attitude of partiality might show it self in the table below in terms of our response to a person from the “One of Us” tribe doing something good, or somethin bad, versus our response to a member of the “One of Them” tribe.

Does something good or says something good

Does something bad or says something bad

“One of Us”

We congratulate and recognize the actions as tied to virtue

We attack or question motives of the accuser, and/or give benefit of the doubt to ‘our guy’

“One of Them”

We minimize or question motives

We judge and attack; and feel awfully good about it, and ourselves.

The problem is that this is really hugely immoral. Right and Wrong is no respecter of persons. Giving “benefit of the doubt” sounds godly, but it is not. Benefit of the doubt is only moral if it is given to all parties. That is, if a member of the “One of Them” tribe is charged with misbehavior, we should equally be open to giving benefit of the doubt. Additionally, if giving benefit of the doubt to the accused means disbelieving the accuser, that is dishonest. An honest response would be to take the matter seriously but bracket one’s person opinions as one seeks to determine the truth. Benefit of the doubt is a last resort, at best.

Drawing back to Missions, I believe missionaries should be to some extent Patriotically Incorrect. Missionaries should be first of all servants of God’s Kingdom, not some earthly kingdom— regardless of whether such a kingdom is nation-state, denomination, or organization. Missionaries shouldn’t be quick to bring along their political agendas into the mission field with them. I have heard TV preachers from the US that, for some reason, get broadcast in the Philippines. They end up sharing their wacky politics. But it is forgivable. I don’t suppose it is their fault that some group in the Philippines has the bad taste to rebroadcast. But some missionaries come over here and bring there politics with them. I have heard both American and Korean missionaries give their, “Why can’t you Filipinos be more like us” speech. Don’t understand that. No matter how passionate a missionary is for or against the 2nd Amendment, or “Obamacare” those issues are irrelevant in the Philippines. The Philippines is not under the jurisdiction of the US Constitution nor of the Affordable Care Act. Frankly, it does not matter to the Philippines whether the US is a “Christian Nation” or “The First Secular Nation.” Arguments could be made for both perspectives, but neither are relevant ourside of its borders.

Of course, how political a missionary should be with regards to their ministry country is harder to determine. I have heard some odd stories of missionary behavior. I heard of a missionary here in the Philippines who poured some (holy? blessed?) oil on a government leader’s chair as some sort of Christian magic to keep anyone that is religiously divergent from sitting in that seat as leader. That seems like an odd role for a missionary certainly, yet a missionary should stand up for the plight of the dispossessed and oppressed… and oppose abuses, both legal and illegal. Where a good line is, I don’t know. My own denomination is fairly apolitical most of the time in the Philippines, but I also work with a couple of denominations that are intensely political. I feel the ideal is between those extremes.

The Lord’s Prayer says that we are to pray that God’s Kingdom would come– His will be done, on earth as it (presently) is in heaven. The focus is on God’s will and the Kingdom of heaven, not on someone else’s ideology and political will. I could be wrong, but I am pretty sure that living out the Lord’s Prayer is Patriotically Incorrect.

What Not to Say to Someone Who’s Been Hurt by the Church •

<An Excellent List in an excellent article. I have heard most all of them said in one way or another.>

Whenever you meet someone who’s been hurt by the church, tread carefully. Here’s what not to say.

Source: What Not to Say to Someone Who’s Been Hurt by the Church •

Ministers, Boundaries, and Sex

A statistical research by FASICLD (Francis A. Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership Development) in 1998 interviewed 1050 pastors It showed that about 30% of the pastors surveyed had (or are having) a sexually inappropriate encounter or relationship with a parishioner. Other studies are commonly lower like around 10%, and one done in 2016 showed it as below 3%. This last number seems quite low. The average in the United States for general population extramarital affairs is around 10-15%. I doubt that pastors are doing that much better than the general population. Oops Word on Big Red Button Correct Mistake

You can read articles on these:  1998      and     2016

There still seems to be a significant drop in extramarital affairs for  pastors. Lying seems hardly likely to account completely for a drop from 30% to 3%. According to the 2016 study, at least three things were suggested:

  • Somewhat different target population. The 1998 population was denominationally broader. They were selected from conferences where there can be a higher number of pastors from dysfunctional churches. Personally, I see little to indicate that Evangelicals are less likely to violate moral boundaries than those who are “mainline.” If there is a lesser likelihood for an Evangelical pastor to sin in this manner, I would have to think that the autonomy of many Evangelical churches would lead to a lack of accountability to more than compensate for any surmised greater reluctance to commit adultery.
  • Less stress of the pastors. The pastors selected come from typically healthier churches. Healthier churches are commonly less stressful. Stress leads to burnout, and burnout to acting out.
  • Churches commonly treat pastors better now than they did 20 years before. Possible.
  • There is a greater understanding of the dangers and appropriate precautions related to sexual sins. I would like to think that is true.

But I wonder. Back in 1986, a study by the APA (American Psychiatric Association) found that there was a common series of steps associated with psychiatrist-patient sex. They found a series of steps that consistently showed up. (You can read this article “Psychiatrist-Patient Sexual Contact: Results of a National Survey, I: Prevalence.” by Nanette Gartrell, Judith Herman, et al., American Journal of Psychiatry, 1985, Vol. 143, No. 9.)

The series of steps:

  1. Calling the patient by the first name.
  2. Extending the duration of sessions.
  3. Rearranging appointment times outside of working hours, at the patient’s request.
  4. Giving personal information about oneself to the patient.
  5. Hugging.
  6. Fondling.
  7. Intercourse.

The problem is that in ministerial setting, often many or all of the first five steps are already in play.

  • In the church or ministry setting, first names are very common.
  • In many church cultures, it is considered in bad taste to be too strict as far as abiding by the clock.
  • Also in many churches, the pastor is expected to have flexible work hours, so counseling in the evenings or weekends would not be considered strange or inappropriate.
  • Pastors commonly know their client in a pastor-parishioner relationship that is commonly quite personal.
  • Hugging is often a common part of greeting in many churches.

The counseling environment for pastors is especially problematic for pastors… especially for pastors who are not properly trained in pastoral counseling.  Thom Rainer in his blog, noted anecdotally, the problem of transference in the counseling setting. This concern was also made by Robert Schwartz back in 1989  (“A Psychiatrist’s Vioew of Transference and Countertransference in the Pastoral Relationship” by Richard S. Schwartz Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. Vol. 43 #1, 1989).

So here are some suggestions:

  1.  Avoid burnout. Burnout tends to come from not knowing one’s personal limits. We have limited time and energy.
  2. Have balance. Maintain healthy relationships, with self, with God, with others, and with one’s physical environment. (Consider the four-fold healthy growth in Luke 2:52). Some emphasize having a strong spiritual or devotional life. I think that is true but that is too simple. To fail to have good balanced self-care in terms of physical, psychoemotional, social, and spiritual, will lead to breakdown.
  3. Know thyself. We all have areas of weakness. Recognize what they are, honestly. Knowledge is the first step to having control.
  4. Establish boundaries. It is okay to seem prudish at times. but establish wise boundaries (breaking the 7-step path above) is not a sign of weakness, but of wisdom and strength.
  5. Understand the challenges related to pastoral counseling.

Regarding #5, Scwartz (mentioned above) gives three suggestions, to deal with the issue of transference (and countertransference) in the counseling setting:

  • Education regarding transference, and how it can lead to problems of this sort in a counseling envirnoment.
  • Self-knowledge of one’s own weaknesses or  characteristic distortions. This can be done through introspection… but in many cases, therapy would be helpful.
  • Open oneself up to peers, supervisors, accountability partners for a distanced, unbiased perspective.

Sexual misconduct for a minister is a sin. However, that is only the start, as it has huge ramifications for the minister, family, parishioners, and community. At risk of stating the obvious— it is foolish to be foolish. Balance, self-understanding, and boundaries are important to avoid pitfalls that are still all too common.

Pastoral Recovery- Knowing What’s Good For You…

I deal with a lot of missionaries andrecovery pastors who are suffering with burnout, with traumatization, with moral failure, with relationship break-down. There can be many reasons for this. Within classic ‘Biblical Counseling’ the answers tend to be along the line of:

  • “You need to ‘get right’ with God”
  • “You need to confess and repent”
  • “You need to work on your ‘quiet time,’ and other spiritual disciplines”

And really, all of these are true… to a point. The problem is that this system of thought commonly identifies a symptom and then guesses at a root cause. The symptom is any problem in the personal life, relational life, or ministerial life of the individual. The associated root cause is then seen as personal sin. While often a pretty good guess, there are important caveats.

 First:  While many problems are associated with personal sin… there are other sin-related causes. Two obvious ones: (a) The consequences of sin are often commonly experienced not only by the perpretrator of the sin, but by the victim of sin done unto him or her by another  Most people would cringe at the thought of blaming the rape victim in being raped, but doing exactly that, blaming the sufferer and playing Job’s ‘friends,’ is often Christians’ default mode. (b) The consequences of living in a generally sinful (fallen) world. Even here, Christians often try to find meaning (blame) for victims of natural disasters or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Second: Even when sin is personal, there often are root factors as to why the minister sinned. We often simplify things to the idea that the one who committed the sin is immature… or ‘given over to Satan.’ But essentially that is little more than washing our hands of the problem— a quick answer, a Procrustean Bed, that allows for a simple non-personalized response. But while sin may be inevitable, the specific temptation that a minister falls to is tied to very personal character or temperament issues, specific personal history, and unique circumstances. Why does a pastor burst into a rage during staff meetings? Why does a counselor gossip about patients he/she talked with in confidence? Why does a missionary act out sexually with those being discipled? To deny that these activities are sinful is simply denying the truth. On the other hand, to simply say that each needs to confess and repent, without addressing their unique personhood and situation is pastoral malpractice.

Third: Problems often occur when there is a “bad fit” in ministry. This is not really an issue of sin. Not everyone is molded for a specific ministry… and not every ministry is molded for a person.  We can talk about SHAPE in this (from Saddleback):

S – Spiritual Gifts – What has God supernaturally gifted me to do?
H – Heart – What do I have passion for and love to do?
A – Abilities – What natural talents and skills do I have?
P – Personality – Where does my personality best suit me to serve?
E – Experiences – What spiritual experiences have I had? What painful experiences
have I had? What educational experiences have I had? What ministry experiences
have I had?
Personally, I would also like to add another “S,” Sphere of Influence, making SHAPES. Often a minister has the wrong SHAPE (or SHAPES) for the ministry they serve in. This stressor will commonly create problems down the road.
I had a friend who was pastoring a church… and fighting developed and he left, went to another church and the same situation repeated two more times. Eventually he came to the conclusion that he did not fit the role of a pastor. What a nice realization! He could have confessed, repented, and gone on a spiritual retreat, and repeated the same problems in more churches… 4, 5, 6, 7…, but instead (drawing from the title of this blog) he decided that pastoring wasn’t good for him… and he does much better in lay ministry.
Unfortunately, Christians have close to 2000 years of history in developing a theology of “ministerial calling.” Very little of it has any discernible relationship to the Word of God. Often there is the belief that stepping out of professional ministry is rejecting God, or changing ministry is giving up. One could argue that the opposite is true. If God made us to be dynamic, growing, living beings involved in a walk with Christ (whether in green pastures, by still waters, or through the valley of the shadow of death), a failure to learn, change, and grow is much more a rejection of God. To not learn and repeat the same mistakes over and over again is truly giving up.  I think it is really a good time for Christians to seriously reevaluate the idea of ministerial calling.
But even if one stays in professional ministry, one does have to change at times. It is my personal belief that the Apostle John, when he got too old to go out and around and planting churches, became John the Elder (a person mentioned in early church history), at the church of Ephesus. Frankly, that only makes sense, and almost certainly other apostles would have done similarly if they weren’t directed into martyrdom.
My first several years in the Philippines, my wife and I worked in a ministry of medical mission events. It was a pretty good ministry and we got to be fairly competent at organizing them. The team we were part of, Dakilang Pag-Ibig DIADEM Ministries, did around 70 medical mission events in 5 years treating around 30,000 people. Not bad for a small group of volunteers with spotty funding. We did about one mission point a month. We eventually decided to step away from it for several reasons:
  • Our passions were different. We were more passionate for pastoral care (especially my wife) and training ministers (especially myself).
  • Our training got us good at doing medical missions, but it also got us more competent for other ministries that were not really possible for us to do when we started.
  • The stress got to us. Some might find this silly, as medical missions can be fairly relaxing for a few weeks… but then there is the stress of organizing the medicine, transportation, volunteers… and then the craziness of the actual event. During the 3-4 days before a medical event, my heart would jump with dread every time my phone would ring, and I feared that a doctor or dentist  or nurse was backing out, or a vehicle was suddenly not available. Some thrive on adrenaline and the craziness that much of international missions entails, but for my wife and I, we do better with ministry that still holds variety, but with more steadiness and reliability of work load.

Some ministries take one away from one’s family a lot. This is typically not good for the family… but the removal of support and accountability may not be good for minister either. Some jobs have set hours, while others challenge personal boundaries, especially in terms of personal time and space. Some jobs really need the right people or problems will occur. Some jobs, on the other hand, may need to change so they do not become “meat grinders” where ministers are run through, destroyed, and replaced.

A person who works with youth may become good with working with youth, but as he or she gets older, needs to transition from the apparent safety of doing what he or she is good at, and move towards multiplying self by training others.

A person may be placed in a position of counseling a lot of individuals of the opposite sex. Many struggle with this… but instead of establishing environmental or procedural safeguards, or perhaps limiting who the person counsels, he or she attempts to resist temptation, without doing anything to limit temptation. This is a recipe for disaster.
Essentially, when a minister fails, one can give the same answers that everyone gives, and help the failure not be dealt with, or recognize him or her as an individual who needs to be dealt with lovingly and uniquely. The minister needs to be helped to know what is good for himself/herself and others.
I have been involved with a lot of responses to ministers who have failed, sinned, or burned out. Some were handled well, some poorly. But some mistakes include:
  • Simply kicking the person out. That passes the problem somewhere else, and often leaves the minister in a worse position than before to grow, mature, and minister.
  • Simply do counseling. Counseling helps… but by itself is completely inadequate.
  • Simply calling for confession and repentance. Most often, the person did wrong or in some way failed, because they needed help and did not ask, or needed help, asked for help and did not get it. If no help is given, the problem is almost certain to recur.

The term “simply” is important, because a failed response is “simple.” Human beings are not simple. Human beings are holistic. As such, it needs a multiple level response. The response would vary depending on the circumstances… but common elements may include:

  • One-on-one counseling, perhaps along with family counseling, and counseling of direct and indirect victims.
  • Spiritual/ministerial mentor. Telling a minister to read the Bible more, pray more, or perhaps go on a spiritual retreat, is lazy. The minister needs to grow spiritually, and to do so in balance with ministry. This requires help from a mature mentor.
  • Accountability partners. Preferably several that care for the minister, and are willing to ask the tough questions while also being supportive.
  • Limited ministerial involvement (where power is limited, and time is limited to avoid temptations for abuse, or of burn-out)
  • Involvement in a nurturing church family. If a minister sinned in a public way in a church, it is likely that that church won’t be capable of being nurturing. (It might be nice if that fact was not true, but we have to deal with reality here.) Even going to another church may not make this work. Only some churches, sadly, are nurturing. Far to many are sources of stress and chaos.
  • Education/training/retooling. Often the minister needs to change. As such, he or she needs to be empowered to do so.
A multi-faceted response is important. Simple impersonal answers?  Not if you know what is good for you… or others.

Christian Schadenfreude

Schadenfreude, German word that comes from two words that literally mean “harm-joy,” is that certain pleasure one feels at the misfortune of others.peanuts-schadenfreude-300x253

Do Christians feel this? Take a little look at FB or nearly any other social media outlet and it is there. Just the other day, I saw Christians reveling that an earthquake damaged some Buddhist monuments. A lot of “LIKES” from Christians. Presumably, they felt that God had intentionally decided to send an earthquake just to damage these structures, and add misery to their lives. Others seem so thrilled whenever anything bad happens to Islamists or political candidates on “the other side.” Right now it seems like so many want to connect disasters with homosexuality. Apparently, some countries are not mistreating homosexuals enough, so God is hitting them with natural disasters— or so the logic of some goes.

Christians are not alone in this. I remember 15 years ago, after the 9/11 attack on the twin towers, there was video of people celebrating in Gaza. A few days later, the revelry died down considerably, as many took time to reflect that this was not a blow against a political institution, but against fathers, mothers, children… fellow human beings. But my concern is not about how other people reconcile schadenfreude, but Christians. So, returning to 9/11, I recall a Christian friend of mine saying to me,

“I know I should feel sorry that so many people died in 9/11. But it happened in New York City, so most of them support abortion. I cannot feel bad what happened to them.”

Perhaps if he pictured them as lost sheep sought by Jesus, created by God in His own image rather than as “pro-choicers,” maybe he could find room for some empathy.

There is, actually, a positive side to schadenfreude. It is REAL and it is HUMAN. We are social beings who naturally create groupings of US versus THEM. We of a nature “love our friends and hate our enemies.” Facing that reality is not so bad, rather than pasting on a fake smile, and embrace the anemic virtue of “tolerance.” Schadenfreude could be said to be human nature.  But as Ruth Sayer (played by Katherine Hepburn) said in the movie The African Queen, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”

Certainly reveling in schadenfreude is not something for Christians to do. We should “weep with those who weep” rather than “laugh at those who weep.” If we are to do unto others as we would have them do unto us,” and we are to “love our enemies;” presumably we should also desire God’s mercy  for those that we are tempted to be unmerciful to.

Frankly, when it comes to natural disasters, or even human-driven evils, it is questionable that we should presume them as God’s judgments anyway. The doctrines of Common Grace as well as the Fall (“Common ‘Curse'”) suggests that just as the rain falls on the just and the unjust, disasters cannot always be moralized or justified.

Jesus said that we should not judge… or at least not be quick to judge. You may think that Jesus call not to judge would not apply to disasters, but consider this passage.

At that time, some of those present told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2To this He replied, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered this fate? 3No, I tell you. But unless you repent, you too will all perish.   Luke 13:1-3

At the very least, Jesus discouraged judging in favor of introspection. Related to this, consider the broader passage on judging:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.   Matthew 7:1-5

I would suggest that one should not be quick to moralize the misfortunes of others; and even more so if one is not willing to consider one’s own misfortunes as being due to one’s own misdeeds. A better option is to help those in need.

Christian witness is always stronger when seen in terms of a helping hand rather than a pointing finger.


Prophetic Politics?

I was looking at my FB stream a few days ago, and saw a post that was being shared by a friend. It showed two pictures– one was apparently evangelical pastors in prayer, while the other a catholic priest… pontificating, I suppose. The overlayed captions referred to these two groups’ relationships to the new Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte. Putting the two captions together, one gets something to the effect of:

“Evangelical leaders pray for their President. Catholic priests criticize him.”

The creator of the post was presumably attemptingpastors_635756816147714998 to make his own group look good (Evangelical Christians) and another group (Roman Catholics) look bad. Now, don’t get me wrong, it is pretty common for a person to pump up their own social group identity by tearing down another. It is also common for religious groups to “suck up” (sorry for the Americanism) to people in political power. The problem here is that if one takes these statements at face value, both groups are deserving of a certain measure of shame.

If one is truly a man or woman of God, having access to God’s ideals that challenge man’s systems and institutions, then one should BOTH pray for civil leaders AND criticize them. Civil leaders need this. Politics and the voting public don’t really need statements of religious leaders that:

  • Emphasize their own personal religious or political partisanship
  • Promote an uncritical support or submission to authority (a fan rather than supporter, being obsequious rather than holding them accountable)
  • Maintain a critical heart that is not seeking their civil leaders’ best, as well as the people they were called upon to serve.

We need religious leaders who accept a prophetic role. They need to embrace the role of the prophet in the time of Israel. Prophets accept that the civil leaders have an important role in society (and apparently avoided the temptation to be civil leaders themselves). At the same time, they declared the truth, holding leaders accountable for their leadership.  They also appeared to accept a role of being a mediator between these leaders and God at times.

Today, religious leaders appear more interested in partisanship, seeking the “lesser evil,” bigotry (of many flavors), and playing junior politician. This does little but demean themselves and their god.

We need more prophets and less politicians in the church right now.

Quiz Question:  Can Anyone Spot Any Problems With This Sign?