Structurally Messy Churches Are a Good Thing– Part 2

Continued from Part 1,

Previously, I have argued that from the perspective of the Bible, Structurally Messy Churches are fine— or at least not anti-Biblical or sub-Biblical. That is nice to know, but is far from suggesting it is a good thing.

I would like to argue that it is a good thing from a more cultural or sociological perspective.

The more that a church moves towards centralized power structure, the more it moves towards a “SIMPLEX SOCIETY.” The more it moves away from that, the more it tends towards a “MULTIPLEX SOCIETY.”

It is true that power structure is not the only determiner of the type of society that develops. The larger the structure, the more likely it is to be Simplex. That is why urban settings tend to be Simplex while rural settings tend to be Multiplex. If Multiplex is better, that might suggest that megachurches are worse than small churches. However, personally, I believe that a megachurch can structure itself as a Multiplex society at least to a certain extent. So I am considering the structure here more than size.

I would like to quote from my book, “Ministry in Diversity.” This is not because I am such a great authority on this topic, but because I don’t want to type a lot of this twice—

Simplex and Multiplex Relationships

Any group exists as a complex structural web of relationships. Some relationships involve one having a higher status than the other.  Among these:

  • Parent-Child
  • Employer-Employee
  • Elder-Youth
  • Religious leader-Religious adherent
  • Political leader-Citizen

Other relationships do not inherently have unequal status. Some of these include:

  • Friends
  • Classmates
  • Work Colleagues
  • Fellow students
  • Churchmates
  • Neighbors

Suppose there are two people with the fairly uninspiring names of “A” and “B”.  If there is only one thing that defines the connection between the two, they may be said to have a “simplex role relationship.” For example, one may be a boss and the other an employee, and they interact on no other level than that. They don’t know each other in any other setting, such as neighborhood, church, or social club. If, however, there are multiple ways that “A” and “B” connect, they may be said to have a “multiplex role relationship.”

In Table 4, two people, this time named “Paul” and “Roland”, have three major defined roles between the two. One of the roles is equal (friends) while the other two would be considered unequal. In one, “Paul” has a higher status than “Roland,” while in the other, “Roland” has a higher status than “Paul.” This is not uncommon. Multiplex role relationships can make things challenging for individuals – especially for those who have difficulty in switching roles. “Paul” needs to learn to be a leader in one setting with respect to “Roland”, and a follower in another.

PastorChurch MemberUnequal
Barangay ResidentBarangay CaptainUnequal

Table 4. Multiplex Role Relationship Example

It is quite possible that Simplex Role Relationships never, strictly speaking, exist on a broad scale. However, they are more common in large urban communities. Figure 17 shows a “web” of simplex role relationships. Consider Marife.

Marife lives in a large city in the Philippines. In the early morning, as she gets ready for work, various vendors come by selling puto, pan de sal, taho, and more. She sometimes buys from them but she knows them in no other relationship than vendor and customer. She walks out of the door and waves at a neighbor. They are friendly enough but interact on no other level than neighbors sharing the same community. She rides a tricycle to work. Again, the tricycle drivers she knows on no other level than as drivers. At work, she works for her boss and has coworkers. She likes the job well enough, but really does not interact with them outside of work. Her friends are people she has connected with over the years, but the relationships are only social. She does not work with them, or live near them, or have professional connections with them.

Figure 17. Simplex Role Relationships

Again, a society that only exists with simplex role relationships probably never fully exists, but in urban settings, this is much more common. In small communities, people often connect on several levels. They may be neighbors, attend the same church, do business with each other, and so forth. Figure 18 shows a network of multiplex relationships. In such a web, some will have no relationship with each other at all, such as  “1” and “2.” Some, such as “Self” and “3,” have multiplex role relationships. Sometimes, unusual relationships can occur. Consider the triangular relationship of “Self” with “1” and “5.” “Self” has a higher status than “5,” who has a higher status than “1,” who, in turn, has a higher status than “Self.”

Figure 18. Multiplex Relationships

This may seem strange, but people can be involved in many organized structures and may be higher in one structure and lower in another. Even within one church, these things can happen. The pastor of the church may have a subordinate position on the church council. The head of the church council is in a Sunday School class under a third person who serves as teacher. That teacher is subordinate to the pastor who is the spiritual leader of the church.

Okay, I will leave the book here. Multiplex societies are challenging but also more fulfilling. That is because relationships are deeper when they are more complex. When I was young, the pastor of my church was also my neighbor, and my bus driver. As such, my relationship with him was much more “three-dimensional” than for a typical 6 year old. It seems strange for many of us to hear stories of people living in megacities and being incredibly lonely. However, in cities there is a risk that all relationships are uni-directional, simplex, and even merely transactional. This can happen in large churches as well, where people attend church but never seem to find their place. Relationships in multiplex groups are much more rich. Since a church is described as a body or as a family, it seems as if the ideal situation is that the church is functionally diverse, and relationally deep.

This is better developed in churches that do not have a strong, inflexible, power structure. The extreme of this is a “cult.” When I use the term, I am not referring to heterodoxy, but referring to a group that uses a high level of manipulation and coercion to put the power of the many into the hands of the few. There are many ways this is done (I have created several Slideshows on this) but among the ways is to place the leader or leaders above the rest where full power is given over the group. Another is to encourage keeping secrets by making people distrust each other. The relationships are often defined by power and that power flows in only one direction. This dynamic is commonly described as “spiritual abuse.” But beyond abuse, the situation is commonly seen as relationally sterile and lonely after awhile. This is curious because at first, a member joining the group feels so much love— like part of a family. But over time the true situation reveals itself. Much like in a toxic romantic relationship, the members of the cult will “romance” a new potential member, much like a toxic person “love bombs” another in hopes of ensnaring that person into his (sometimes her) own controlling power dynamic. Soon love is limited to words— devoid of action.

The same thing can show itself in other situations as well. Many churches follow the “umbrella model” that is promoted by various groups— especially those who are part of the Shepherding Movement, or those embracing Complementarian Theology. With the Umbrella, God’s protective umbrella protects those who submit to Him. But under that umbrella is another umbrella— that of the church leader(s). Those who submit fully to the leader is under his (or her) spiritual protection, as well as God’s. There can be other umbrellas, like the cell-group leader, or the “apostle,” or the husband over the wife, and the wife over the children. It kind of makes sense, doesn’t it. Jesus, however, turned leadership on its head.

While, some aspects of this is not bad— in some ways it can even be good— it tends to be very unidirectional. The G-12 model that used to be quite popular in the Philippines (and still is practiced by some churches) embraced a rather unidirectional and transactional understanding of church. It is a cell church model. There is nothing really wrong with cell groups or cell churches. There is even a logic associated with them. Big churches tend to be relationally sterile (because of what I mentioned before), so establishing everyone in small groups seeks to fix this. However, G-12 (I cannot speak for all cell church models) took from Yonggi Cho the Confucian principle of unbalanced relationships and then claimed that these were Biblical and set in stone. So all power flows in one direction, and communication between cells is discouraged, and holding leaders accountable is viewed as insubordination. In the Confucian model, those in power are supposed to be benevolent, but because there is no feedback loop of accountability, the system is left to the whim of those in power.

In my mind, a good idea (promotion of small groups) was poisoned by a non-Christian view of leadership and power. It is hardly surprising that G-12 churches often (but not necessarily always) have a reputation of focusing on numbers and status. When relationships become so simple (simplex) they tend to become transactional. (“I tell you to do _________, and then you do _______ for me” becomes the basis for the relationship.)

I will say again one of my favorite sayings, “If one does not hold one’s leaders accountable, one is not a supporter— but merely a fan.”

Small groups in churches are very healthy, but the flow of power should be murky and complex (multiplex). While this seems odd, it tends to produce rich, dynamic relationships in the church. Leaders lead, but primarily through example, guiding, and serving. The other members open themselves up to learning and following, but also to holding their leaders accountable, and leading through example, guiding, and serving as well.

Structurally Messy Churches Are a Good Thing– Part I

There are both good things and bad things associated with having a highly structured church with unambiguous lines of authority. But I would like to make the case for “Messy Church,” where authority and structure are rather murky, or inconsistent.

Point #1. Biblically, the primitive church of the first century does appear to be rather messy. Attempts to discover the “Real Biblical” model for Church governance appears to be rather hopeless. As a Baptist, I am aware of the attempt to push all leadership roles into Senior Pastor (a single spiritual leader) and Deacons (a group of ministerial leaders). While I don’t really have a problem with this, the early church did appear to have elders with authority. It is difficult, at best, to make elders fit with that model, though many have tried. I read a book not long back (forgot the name and my copy is in the Philippines right now) that made the argument that the church of Philippi had no (formal) centralized leadership. Although the argument is based on limited information, it seems fairly reasonable since the early churches seemed to be more like house church networks. A house church network almost has to operate with a distribution of authority (although cell churches often maintain a strong hierarchy, at a cost… more on that later). The idea of a strong church leader, especially one who has a ‘vicar’ role does not seem to develop until the canon closes. Although Ignatius of Antioch (in the early second century) definitely strongly promoted obeying the church leaders, this does not appear to be a universal view (which may be why he kept on that topic with so many of his letters). In fact, the only person who seemed to try to exercise strong authority in the early church (Diotrophes in Third John) was viewed as deeply problematic by the Apostle John. But even here, John’s planned corrective was one more of persuasion than exercising authority. While there is a lot of talk today about “apostolic authority, I don’t see a lot of evidence in the Bible that apostles exercised such authority. In fact, it seems like, with the possible exception of the church of Jerusalem, apostles did not exercise much authority, if any, over the churches beyond their initial role of starting churches and assigning leaders to take over the role of guiding the church.

It is pretty clear from First Corinthians and Revelation chapters 2 and 3 that there were power blocs in churches. This should hardly surprise if the early churches were more like house church networks. Different house churches are not going to be identical. Paul specifically challenged the Corinthian church regarding the members who sought to identify themselves with various powerful leaders (described as Paul, Peter, Apollos, Christ). Paul’s corrective was not to say that one group was right and the rest were wrong, but rather that all were wrong because they were embracing a lack of unity in the church. However, the unity Paul was seeking was not a unity of church authority, seemingly, since the corrective was neither to embrace the local leader of the church nor that of an outside authority. The corrective was to identify the church as a spiritual unity, that has diversity in roles, in gifts, (and yes,) in authority. Some authority offices are listed, but not consistently. There is no formal definition of who is an apostle and who is not. One has to go to the Didache to learn that apostles were essentially churchplanters sent out of the local church who work outside of the normal structure of the church. It is also in the Didache that we learn that prophets were seen generally as traveling preachers. Within the church there are a number of terms used (pastor, overseer, shepherd, elder, (and maybe) messenger) for a spiritual leader, but the role is not clearly defined and it is not clear to what extent these terms are used interchangeably, or seen as being somehow different. It is possible that different terms suggest that different churches used different terms or operated differently. Paul describes a pastor as also a teacher, but in numerous places (in the NT as well as apostolic fathers) teacher is very much a separate position. It is not clear whether Evangelist should be seen as a role separate from Apostle. (Timothy was described as both an Apostle and an Evangelist. Philip was called an Evangelist not an Apostle, but perhaps only to try to prevent confusion with the Apostle Philip— one of the Twelve.)

If you think that I have made a weak case by simply muddying up the water— point taken. However, I rather think that muddy is the intent of Scripture. Jesus consistently wants to muddy the water when it comes to authority.

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:25-28)

This is not just a passage ripped out of context that expresses something inconsistent with Christ’s view. In fact, several of the Gospels repeat this exchange, meaning they saw this as important. Jesus weakens the idea of formal power structures regularly. And the apostles did as well. Paul rarely tried to coerce others, but regularly points to people being led by the spirit. Other passages that are consistent with this include John 13:12-17, Mark 9:35, I Peter 5:1-4. In fact, the passage from I Peter focuses on leaders (elders) primarily as examples (spiritual guides). This is not unique, I Timothy 4:12 and Hebrews 13:7 also expresses leadership in terms of being an example. Paul’s guidance for Timothy with regard to who should be an overseer gives some general characteristics, but little is given to leadership. Arguably the statement regarding the ability to manage the family implies a certain capability to lead. However, the bigger issue is that one is capable to teach and being a good example.

So if those who are identified as leaders are those who are focused on Serving, good as Examples, and competent to Teach, does that mean that leaders don’t exercise any authority? No, they do certainly exercise some authority, but the early church simply did not have strong centralized leadership. It did not have a strong boundary between clergy and laity. It did not have a single form of church structure.

But suppose I am wrong here. Suppose the early local church DID have strong centralized leadership. Suppose the early church did have a strong boundary between clergy and laity. Suppose early churches did all have identical leadership structures. Does that mean that we have to embrace this? Probably not, because the canon passed down to us has kept that a secret from us. God would have made it clear in Scripture if there was “one way to do church.”

Okay, the main reason for writing this was not to say that the Bible is murky regarding power structures in the church. My main point is that such murkiness of power is actually GOOD. I simply wanted to point out that the most common argument against my proposal (“It ain’t Biblical”) is not true… or at least is highly presumptive.

Part 2 will get more into my point.

Growth and Development

Craig Van Gelder in “The Ministry of the Missional Church” describes six (6) things that led to growth and development of the primitive church as found in the book of Acts (of the Apostles).

#1. Growth and Development through CONFLICT. Conflict is often seen negatively— “Storming” in Group Dynamics. However, Conflict is necessary to address new situations that people were not expecting, as well as to establish norms and roles. It also helps to force people to decide levels of commitment to the group. Van Gelder used Acts 6 as the classic example of this. I might suggest Acts 5 as an example where conflict was NOT handled well. Ananias and Saphira were dealt with poorly leading to fear in the congregation. Conflict is not bad, but how we respond to conflict can be good or bad.

#2. Growth and Development through ADVERSE CIRCUMSTANCES. A crisis is an opportunity. We all (I think) know this. That does not, however, mean that any of us are likely to embrace the positive side of adverse circumstances immediately. It takes a certain conscious effort to see good possibilities in adversity. I recall a story from (former radio host) Paul Harvey. The story, as I recall it, was of an accountant who was fired from his job. He was so despondent. He did not know what he would do, and was dreading telling his wife. Finally he goes home to tell her the bad news. She responds, “Thanks be to God!” The accountant is confused but his wife leads him to a place that she had been secreting things away. In there was a staff of coins. She told her husband that little by little she had been saving up the coins in the hopes that one day her husband could stop being an accountant and focus his energy on the book idea that had been languishing. The accountant (he we are finally told was the great 19th century American author Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the book was his, perhaps most famous, work, The Scarlet Letter. Is that story true? I don’t really know. But adverse things happen. Persecution swept over Jerusalem and Judea in the Book of Acts, and this led to the Gospel message being scattered far and wide as people moved outward from the area. Arguably, the same thing could be said of the story of the Tower of Babel, where God confused the languages and people spread out all over the world. We look at it in terms of disobedience and punishment. However, it can be looked at in a different way as well. People were used to the status quo (homeostasis) and needed a disruption to respond to creatively.

#3. Growth and Development through MINISTRY ON THE MARGINS. This one is not as obvious. Efforts like Philip the Evangelist reaching out to Samaritans, and Christians reaching out to Gentiles in Antioch (without requiring becoming Jewish as a prerequisite to becoming followers of Christ) forced the church to come to terms with their presumptions and practices. Frankly, we rarely learn and grow by doing the ministry as it was always done with the target population one has always reached out to. Certain canned Evangelistic programs seem absolutely wonderfurl and effective— as long as one is reaching out to people who were brought up with common values about God and the Bible, within a generally Christian worldview. It is those people who reach out to people from a decidedly non-Christian worldview who discover the limitation of the methods… and sometimes even the limits of the outcome.

#4. Growth and Development through INTENTIONAL STRATEGY. Paul and Barnabas developed an intentional strategy to reach out people in Cyprus and Asia Minor. Yes sometimes some leader has a “big vision” and then inspires people to come up with a really great strategy to move the organization forward. Thankfully, that doesn’t appear to be the way things work most of the time. First, I don’t think that God subscribes to the “Great Man” Theory of History. Second, since a key part ministry is contextuality (addressing the changingness of, well, pretty much everything), it should hardly be surprising that organizational changes (or failures to change, or failures to change correctly) are more dictated by changes to the context than to “Vision.” As a not-all-that-visionary person, that is comforting. Most of the smart changes my wife and I have been a part of in ministry came from responding to changes an opportunities from outside, rather than really cool ideas that came out of our heads. Van Gelder notes that most of the positive growth and development in Acts did not come out of this source, so I am not alone.

#5. Growth and Development through Divine Intervention. Sometimes God jumps in and grabs the steering wheel. It may not always be clear when it should be considered a “God thing.” My wife and I moved from focus on Children’s Minsitry to Pastoral Counseling back in 2009/10 after two devastating storms here in the Philippines. This led to an inability to do Saturday ministry work with children because suddenly children were in schools on Saturday to make up for lost school days, and the great need for pastoral counseling of those who had suffered both tangible and intangible loss from the storms. Is that Divine Intervention or Adverse Circumstances (or even Ministry on the Margins). I don’t know for sure. But with Paul and company, Paul received a vision to begin ministering in Macedonia and Greece. This was a great stretch for them. Prior, they were innovative in their intentional strategy, but also in some ways not that innovative. Barnabas was a Hellenistic Jew from Cyprus and Paul was a Hellenistic Jew from Asia Minor. So what was their strategy? To reach out to Hellenistic Jews and Hellenistic Gentiles in Cyprus and Asia Minor. Comfortable. It took God to say that it is time to move outside of that secure zone.

#6. Growth and Development from INSIGHTS INTO GOSPEL AND CULTURE. I guess I would be tempted to group this one with Ministry on the Margins, but perhaps there is wisdom on the part of Van Gelder to keep them separate. Peter learned much about the Gospel through his interaction with Cornelius. The same could be said of his trip to Samaria in Acts. Earlier in the book, Van Gelder describes the “Inherent Translatability of the Gospel” to every culture and context. It is good news for everyone everywhere. But to be good news, it may look different. It may look different in the slums of Kampal from how it looks in a housechurch where persecution of Christians is common. It may look different in a land awash in a form of secular cynicism from a land of people in fear of malevolent spirits. Seeing the Gospel message of Christ from only one perspective (one facet), or worse denying the validity of anyone other representation or living out of the message, will stifle Growth and Development in the church. Seeing God work in unexpected ways in the lives of unexpected persons in unexpected contexts provides opportunity for the church to learn and grow.

I think it is a good list. Perhaps I would like to divide up ADVERSE CIRCUMSTANCES into three subcategories— circumstances that spring from SUCCESS, FAILURE, and NEITHER. Success puts a strain on an organization as much as failures or things that are unrelated to either success or failure. If a church doubles or triples in size in a few months, that certainly would be seen as a success in some way. However, it is also certainly an adverse condition— putting huge strains on the church to respond. It is a problem. It may be seen as a good problem (a problem that is the result of good things happening) but it is a problem nonetheless. Anyway, ADVERSE CIRCUMSTANCES is vague enough and broad enough to cover a wide range of things, and that is fine.

You can find this book by Van Gelder—- HERE.

Good Little Soldiers

I just watched a couple of videos that I found quite interesting… in a disheartening way.

First, was a new video by Chris Stuckman. He is a pretty successful movie critic on Youtube. He spoke of his upbringing in the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It probably is not as painful as some of the stories that I have heard of people feeling trapped within a coercive religious group, but the discomfort comes from it being mundane. It is a normal situation of a normal person brought up in an authoritarian structure. You can CLICK HERE TO WATCH IT.

Second, was a video sent to me by one of my daughters, put out by INC. This is a Philippine-based authoritarian religious group. INC stands for Iglesia Ni Cristo (“Church of Christ”). It has an authoritarian structure and an Arian theology. This video is to teach young children something important about that church. The song is pretty simple so I will write down the first verse.

“Always submit to the Church Administration

For they were placed by Lord God to lead His nation

If we obey then we will receive salvation

Sing along with me.”

Note here that this is essentially a preschool song that has little children for over three minutes singing this song over and over again. Also note that the song is captioned where only God and the “Church Administration” are capitalized. You can CLICK HERE TO WATCH IT.

Of course, it is easy, and rather satisfying, to point fingers at some of these other groups (often called “cults,” but I will say “religious organizations that embrace coercive authoritarian control over their members”). But I know this happens among Christians as well.

I was raised up in a Fundamentalist church, and although Fundamentalist groups do get a bad rap, I don’t really feel that the church I was in was coercive or authoritarian. However, there were some other churches in my area that were. Some, for example embraced a very strong form of Separatism. I had a friend who attended a Bible school that taught that Christians should have ZERO non-Christian friends. This is pretty similar to what Chris Stuckman said about his JW experience. I have seen some churches TRY to do the “shunning” that the JWs do who were “marked” or “disfellowshiped.”

My first, personal experience with this sort of coercive experience came years later when I was an associate member (not a full member, thankfully) of a church. The pastor started teaching a doctrine that was part of what was called the “Shepherding Movement” or the “Discipleship Movement.” Since the doctrine is bad, I don’t like to attach it to a good term (like ‘shepherding’ or ‘discipleship’) so I will call it the “Umbrella Movement.” That is because it commonly is explained in terms of umbrellas.

God seeks to cover/protect all people with His umbrella of grace, but chooses to do it mostly through mediators. So it is like He gives out smaller umbrellas to others. God’s umbrella covers church leaders (“the Church Administration”) who then ‘cover’ the members of the church with their own umbrellas. The men in the church also cover their wives and children. If that sounds strange… good. Because it gets worse.

In practice, this umbrella of protective covering is really about authority. God has authority over the church leaders, and the church leaders have authority over church members and the men in the church have authority over their families. Here is what makes this worse. SUBMISSION TO AUTHORITY IS UNI-DIRECTIONAL AND UNLIMITED. As the pastor of the church I was an associate member of said, “If the pastor tells you to do something and you don’t do it, then you have sinned. If the pastor tells you do do something that is wrong— sinful— and you do it, you will be blessed by God, because you obeyed your pastor.”

Obviously, there are flavors of this doctrine. Not all would say this. Some who do, like to draw on the Military model. If a superior officer tells you to do something… you just do it… no questions asked. Of course, if you were in the military, you know that is not true. You must obey lawful orders, but should not obey unlawful orders. If your Department head tells you do the opposite of what the captain commanded, you must follow the captain. In church, if the pastor tells you to do something that God has said is wrong, you must obey God, not your pastor.

“Cultic,” coercive, authoritarian groups step on God’s toes. They say that God has given authority such that, in practice, God has no authority in the lives of the members. In the preschooler song above, obedience to the “church administration” is the way to receive salvation. This can happen in Christian churches as well. The church I mentioned before… I left pretty quickly after the teachings of the Umbrella Movement were being touted. This is despite the fact that I was told that since I was a missionary I was worthy of receiving the same unlimited submission as the senior pastor. No thanks. I left the church with NO qualms, but another person who was younger in the faith was struggling. He REALLY wanted to leave that church, but was afraid. He was told he would lose his salvation— in effect he was rejecting his umbrella.

Strangely, the Bible teaches bilateral submission… we submit to each other. Human shepherds in the religious setting are still fellow sheep (see Ezekiel 34). God is the only one deserving of unreserved submission. And yet, God chose to voluntarily submit to mankind (see Philippians 2).

When a church takes on the full authority of God and claims to control who is saved and who is damned, there is a serious problem. I know Peter and the Twelve were given the “keys to the kingdom” but it is pretty clear that John knew that this did not mean he had that level of control. If he thought he did, the book of 1st John would be much different. In that case people would know if they were children of God if the apostle declared it.

The apostles did not assume that level of power. The closest they came to that was Acts 5. But even there they made no suggestion of having control of the eternal destiny of Ananias and Sapphira. (And frankly, even that story in Acts 5 appeared to be out of sorts with how they behaved as servant/serving leaders later on.

These simple little videos point to Spiritual Abuse. It is sad when it happens to people, especially children, among the JWs and the INC. But how much worse when it happens in (historical) Christianity?

When Mentors Disappoint

Karl Barth in his book “The Humanity of God” wrote,

One day in early August I 914 stands out in my personal memory as a black day. Ninety-three German intellectuals impressed public opinion by their proclamation in support of the war policy of Wtlhelm II and his counselors. Among these intellectuals I discovered to my horror almost all of my theological teachers whom I had greatly venerated. In despair over what this indicated about the signs of the time I suddenly realized that I could not any longer follow either their ethics and dogmatics or their understanding of the Bible and of history. For me at least, I 9th century theology no longer held any future.

Karl Barth, The Humanity of God, trans., J.N. Thomas and T Weiser (Richmond, VA: John Knox, l 960) 19.

Mentors disappoint. Serving in a counseling center, I see religious leaders fall… often in spectacular fashion. In my limited experience, something like half of them who fall due to moral lapse truly want to learn, grow, and be restored. The other half, want to maintain their behavior but have the repercussions of the behavior go away. It may be sad to see that happen, but it is even more sad the ripple effect this has on those who look up to them.

I have had that happen as well. Perhaps not in spectacular fashion, but I have had people I looked up to as paragons of faith disappoint in years later. I have had people (I am thinking of one in particular) I respected for their wisdom and virtue not only justify what seems clearly to be wrong, but try to talk me in to the same behavior. I won’t share details for two reasons. First, I believe that person is a good person overall. Second, what he was attempting to get me do is something that many Christians in my faith tradition would agree with. While I am quite confimed in my own understanding of the issue, I have no great desire to argue with people who passionately disagree with me. Right or wrong, in the case I am referring to, I saw it as a mentor failing.

So what does one do? On the bad side, one can lose faith. But if one does that, it perhaps indicates a need for a bit of soul-searching. A spiritual mentor should point a person to God not to himself or herself. If one’s faith is destroyed by the failing of a mentor, then perhaps the mentor did a poor job of mentoring, or perhaps the mentee has simply placed his/her faith in the wrong place. Now, I don’t want to take it too far. I have heard people use this argument and extend it into victim-blaming. They would say, if a mentor fails and the mentee loses faith, that is the fault of the mentee. I don’t think so. A real mentor is responsible to some extent for the mentee, and cannot simply accept no responsibility for the harm done to the mentee. But, again, a mentee should take time to reflect on whether his or her faith is based on who Jesus is, or who the mentor was, or is.

I would argue, however, that there are some good things that can come from the failure of a mentor.

  1. It can point one to God rather than the mentor. (I already spoke about this.)
  2. It can bring an opportunity to reflect on one’s own perspectives. Is the judgmentalism, self-pride, or other poor views that need to be addressed? Every mentor will fail in some way. No one is perfect, so it is good that each of us learn this in some way or another.
  3. In some cases, the “fall” of the mentor may have been for doing something right rather than wrong (martyrdom is full of these) and so the mentor may provide an opportunity for new inspiration.
  4. Other times, like described by Barth above, one must say that the mentor had led one down the wrong road, and it is time to choose a better road.

Ethical Loyalties in the Church (by looking at the same in the military and police)

I was reading an interesting article entitled, “Why the US Military Usually Punishes Misconduct but Police Often Close Ranks.”

The article promotes the idea that while both

army authority drill instructor group
Photo by Pixabay on

the military and paramilitary (police) may cover-up crimes done by members, it is far more likely for the police to do this, and more likely that the military will successfully police itself.

I had to think about this for a bit. I have never served in the police, and only interact with the police rarely (ministerially or otherwise). I did, however, serve in the US Navy. My initial reflection on the US Navy is that when something disgraceful comes up, the institution first goes into cover-up mode— and if that doesn’t work, then it goes into witchhunt mode.

But as I thought about it more, I realized that my distinct memories of these occasions of corruption stick out in my memory 30 years later, in part, because of its infrequency. As I thought about it more, I do remember distinctly a cultural attitude that when someone broke the rules, it was likely that fellow sailors would normally want justice imposed on the violator. Often the harshest judges would be peers and colleagues.

Why is this? According to the author of the article above, the military (US military at least) tends to create a culture of loyalty to the organization, while the police (at least US police forces) tend to create a culture of personal loyalty.

Let me give an example— I was on shore patrol at a liberty port in the Med (as in Mediterranean Sea). While I was there a couple of enlisted shipmates were walking a fellow sailor (a gunnersmate, or GM) back to me and the ship van. He was heavily drunk. He had gotten into an argument in a bar, and that argument had gotten violent. Being heavily drunk that violence hurt himself more than anyone or anything else, so no one at the bar wanted to press charges. I felt good. I can just get him onto the ship’s van and back to the ship before he creates any more problems. Sadly, as he was getting into the van he started loudly making drunken racist statements. I thought to myself, “Oh crap… well, at least I tried to help him.” He goes back to the ship. A few days later he went to Captain’s mast (non-judicial hearing), and then from there to a process where he was “kicked out” of the Navy.

From my example, here is my point. It never occurred to me that anything different would happen. I knew that he would not get in trouble for bad behavior in the bar IF no civilians in the bar would press charges. I knew that there would be no problems. If I could get him back on the ship at this point, about the worst thing that could happen is he might be charged with drunkenness and have a minor punishment placed on him. I also knew that once he shot out with the racial slurs that there was no coming from this. I knew that no one would cover it up or try to place the blame elsewhere. Why did I know this? Because it was understood that the gunnersmate had violated the rules of the military, and had placed shame on his own shipmates. As such, his friends and other shipmates may wish him well in life, but still recognize that he must go.

According to the author, it is more likely for paramilitary (police) forces, it is more likely that things would go differently. If a police officer behaved like the gunnersmate, rather than expressing loyalty to the police force, and hold individuals accountable when they shame their organization and colleagues, they would express loyalty to the officer and lie and do other things to shield him (or her) from prosecution and just consequences.

Cultures are never that cut and dry, and as I said, I have certainly seen cover ups in the military. Still, culture includes a bunch of tacit beliefs and assumptions about what is good or bad.

What about in church or on mission teams? What is the culture of churches and mission teams? I think it varies.  Churches especially, can embrace a war metaphor— the idea that we live in an us versus them world— good versus evil. I believe that makes the personal loyalty drive stronger. You might think that this is opposite. After all, it is the military that primarily carry out war, so shouldn’t the war metaphor promote organizational loyalty? I don’t know, but historically, the military drift most into cover-up mode during wartime. Under such stress, members of an organization will commonly feel that protecting a member means protecting the organization. Under less stress, the military will see holding members accountable maintains integrity and reputation, and THIS protects the organization.

I know it seems to make sense to cover up problems. However, accountability works better long-term.

Churches and mission teams claim to serve God. If God is the standard, then the standard is not organizational culture, or community standards. How do we demonstrate that? Toxic organizations are like toxic families— they are as sick as their secrets.

The goal is to avoid cover up (because we must hold each other accountable because of loyalty to… God). However, the goal is also to avoid witchhunt. Our goal is not to kick everyone out who fails, but in accountability, work towards repentance, recompense, and restoration.




The Murky Waters of Ministerial Restoration

I chose not to name names here, but as the stories/charges from my former school have multiplied since I first wrote this narrow somewhat even-handed post, I invite you to read more on your own…

A Christian college I attended years ago has been in the news lately. It recently fired a professor (I will call him “Dr. Smith”) for sexual misbehavior. Technically speaking, it wasn’t for sexual misbehavior— there had been no documented sexual misbehavior during his time as professor. Rather, it was discovered that some of his sexual misbehavior that was known from the past had been covered up. The college had accepted Dr. Smith as having made “one mistake” when later it was discovered that he had actually had a pattern of misbehavior, at least in the past. Essentially, he was accepted “warts and all.” However, he intentionally allowed things to be kept undisclosed during the hiring process, so such a cover-up can suffice as a basis for being let go.

The professor is a married man but had videotaped one of his assistant (male) ministers taking a shower in the nude. The school had accepted this as an admitted area of struggle for Dr. Smith and something he was repentant of and seeking to grow beyond. The school gave him a list of probationary limitations, as well as disciplinary and accountability actions, towards restoration. However, when the school found out that the problem was much bigger with past actions closer to stalking and coercing over a long period of time, the school felt they could not accept this and let him go.

I can understand the school’s position. If someone (we can call him Tom) told an employer that he once stole $10 dollars from a neighbor when he was in college, that employer can accept this information and address it. But if it was later discovered that Tom had been a habitual thief for years, the employer may be perfectly justified to let him go, even if he hasn’t been found to have stolen during his employment there. The justification would not be because of theft, but because of lying/deception.

There are so many issues that come up in this tiny little story.

First… Many people have called for the resignation of the president of the school— we can call him “Pres. Jones.” I personally can’t call myself a supporter of the president. He is a Complementarian and I am not, so I must admit that I don’t like his actions that have continued to move my former school more in that Complementarian direction. However, it seems like the school was already well along moving in that direction without the help of Pres. Jones, so I am not too motivated to hold that strongly against him. I do, personally, respect a leader who supports forgiveness and restoration (with appropriate discipline and accountability measures inplace). I don’t think ministerial roles should only be given to people with zero marks against them from the past (either because of no major moral failings, or because the failings have been well-hidden). Paul and David were given second chances ministerially after sinful activities that most everyone would have trouble ignoring. Peter denied Christ (much in line with the activity decried during the Donatist controversy. Two disciples of Christ wanted to ask God to call down fire on people who refused to show them hospitality.

I like the fact that President Jones was willing to give Dr.Smith a chance. I also like the fact that there were disciplinary limitations put in place. Of course, there are still reasons for concern.

  • Concern #1 was that it sounds like the issue wasn’t well-researched. It even sounds like the school did not speak to the victim. If that is the case, it is hard to say that Dr. Jones applied due diligence to the matter. If this is true, then the situation is, indeed, partly his fault.
  • Concern #2 was that there was some suggestion that the decision of Pres. Jones to hire Dr. Smith was because of Smith’s connection to “Pres.. Johnson” the former boss of Pres. Jones. Pres. Johnson has a bit of a spotty record known by many for an attitude that could be described as “Boys will be boys, and girls should just keep quiet about it.” Was the decision to hire based on old boys network or based on genuine concern for restoration. I have no idea.
  • Concern #3. If one reads all of the things the school set in place to provide disciplinary support and accountability for Dr. Smith… well, they sound a bit fake. When I say fake, I am not saying the list was not actually drawn up. It might have existed. However, I have seen this sort of list made before, and rarely if ever are they actually carried out. Often the list is little more than a cynical way to “cover one’s own back side.” I would prefer to be wrong on this concern (as well as the others). I want to think the accountability/disciplinary structure was set up to EQUALLY protect the student body, and help the professor. But that might not be the case.

The Second issue is about whether one should hire a person who has sexually acted out in the past at all. For some, sexually acting out is a greater sin than other sins. As such, it can’t be overlooked. Others may see sexual sin as pointing to problems that simply do not go away. Recidivism is so high that one cannot take the risk on the person ever again.

I don’t really see sexual abuse as greater than other forms of abuse. Many bosses and teachers abuse emotionally, or maintain abusive power dynamics in their leadership. Or they cheat, or are unforgiving, or are corrupt. Churches and schools often give these a pass while see sexually acting out as being beyond restoration ministerially.

And you know what? I get it. I long felt that way. One of the articles I read included the comments of a sex abuse expert in Christian ministry. I will call her Dr. Wilson. Dr. Wilson seemed to hold the view that once a sexual predator, always a sexual predator. As such, there should be no restoration ever. I can understand this opinion, and can even give anecdotes that support this. I have a colleague who had done counseling with a minister who had sexually acted out (I won’t share details here for many reasons) with a number of women in his youth group. The church decided to cover it up (the usually response, frankly). The women decided to cover it up as well either due to pressure from family, or because of fear of public shaming. My colleague did counseling with him, but because of the church’s unwillingness to act, the counseling could be no more than advice listened to voluntarily. There were no teeth in the discipline. That minister went to work in a Christian school (one that did not background check). The minister, now serving as a teacher, sexually acted out. Then he left and went to another school, also with no background check done, and repeated the same behavior. I don’t know where he is now.

From stories like this and Donn Ketcham scandal (you can look that one up if you want), it is easy to see why some would say, “Never do restoration…. it traumatizes the victims and gives the minister a new opportunity to start acting out again.” Since many people who have failed sexually (or in other ways in the past) do not in fact repeat their actions, I am guessing the views is really “They could act out again, and we can’t take that risk.”

But what failings are so bad that one cannot be restored ministerially? Abuse involving Sex? Money? Power? It is hard to draw the line.

I rather like the standards in the Missions Community that have circulated in recent years. It applies a ZERO TOLERANCE policy to sexual misbehavior, and a REAL referencing policy for new work. That is, if a person applies for a new job, the former employer will give a real report of why that applicant was let go. This seems reasonable. In the end the new potential employer has the freedom to decide what to do about this. The new employer should make an informed decision… but ultimately it should be their own decision.

In the end, as to this second concern, I can respect two different views. If a Christian ministry says, “We can’t risk our membership or students by hiring this person,” I can actually respect that. If a Christian ministry says, “We have researched the applicant’s past fully, and we have decided to bring them in but under well-controlled circumstances,” I can respect that as well. I can’t respect the middle ground that ends up making decisions based on how one “feels” about the situation, based on rumors rather than on what is merciful AND just, and based on good research.

My Third concern was something that was said by Dr. Wilson. She said something to the effect that even if Dr.Smith did not act out again, it would be based on the external limitations placed upon him rather than internal controls. I am not sure one can say that definitively, but I hardly see why guilt should be the only social motivator that is found acceptable, not valuing shame or fear. Frankly, pretty much everyone has areas in their lives in which they don’t do what is wrong because of fear (of punishment) or shame (reduction of social capital). It seems to me to be bad Evangelical theology to see guilt as the only one that should be considered valid.

I have dealt with a number of ministers who have struggled with sin (sometimes sexual and sometimes not). They can be separated loosely into three broad categories.

  • Category #1. This group feels great remorse/guilt over what they have done as well as shame for what they have done. They express openly what they have done and desire to live out a full repentance. This is a very small group. It is possible that this group does not actually exist. This type of person is exactly the type of person who should be restored. Sadly, they can be hard to identify. Geneerally, however, they don’t miimize their own role. They don’t try to shift blame. They tend to accept discipline and want to have accountability. They want to change, or be changed.
  • Category #2. This group feels great shame that they have been caught. They want the situation to go away. In some cases, they do want to not return to their past sin. Ultimately, however, they don’t want to make any major changes to bring this about. In other cases, any statements on repentance are just words to get people off their backs. These people are often (but not always) easy to identify. They tend to minimize their role and shift blame. They will agree to a lot of steps for restoration but then find ways to get out of doing them.
  • Category #3. This group is like Category #1. This group feels great remores/guilt over what they have done as well as shame for what they have done. They express openly what they have done and desire to live out a full repentance. In all of this, the group sounds like Category #1. The difference is that there are seeds of destruction in them. It is like an alcoholic who really really really wants to step away from his addiction— but then a trigger comes along and the person falls again into the addictive cycle. This category of person can be restored, but needs outside help. This person needs external accountability support and rules to keep from falling back into past mistakes. This category is a large number of people. It is hard to say whether Category #2 or #3 are larger. In my experience, they are close to the same size.

So if category #2 should not be in ministry, what about #1 and #3? #1 and #3 should be treated the same. Unless the individual tells us, we cannot know for sure which one has triggers or situations in which they cannot help backslide into. In fact, the individual may not know either.

But when you think about it, everyone of us is in one of these three categories as well. We all sin in one way or another. The wall of separation between “us” and “them” is porous, separated only in terms of seriousness, scope of, or type of sin. We all need accountability and social restraints.

That is my problem with Dr. Wilson. Fallen pastors are not a unique category of person that cannot be restored. They are like us— that is a good thing and a bad thing. If they need outside social motivators to keep them doing what is right and not doing what is wrong… that is not a valid condemnation.

Ft it was a valid condemnation, pretty much all of us will have to join in being condemned.


So should Dr. Smith have been fired. Well, by now it has long since shifted from being an ethical issue to being a political issue. Politically, he had to be let go. If it is true that Dr. Smith covered up and minimized much of the wrongdoing, this may well point to the fact that he is racked by public shame more than embracing his own responsibility and need to change. Those that cover up tend to repeat the same thing later. But that is a lot of guesswork on my part. Obviously, I am not privy to the what on behind closed doors… and even less what is going on in different people’s hearts and minds.

Overseer as Trainer and Therapist

I am presently serving as the interim pastor of a small church, and I am writing a book (with my wife) on pastoral care and pastoral supervision. I was a bit inspired by an overlap in the role of pastor and pastoral supervisor that I thought I would add a bit of our book here (or, more accurately, the very initial first draft of an incomplete chapter in the book):


The term “supervisor” is used in the New Testament. It is ἐπισκοπῆς or “episkopes.”   The term is sometimes translated bishop, pastor or overseer. The last of these is the most literal. The clerical role is not necessarily about power or control. In fact, those that see the role in terms of ecclesiastical power seem to miss the point a bit. After all, in the qualifications for an overseer/supervisor in I Timothy 3, the only skill listed for the overeer is the ability to train people. Drawing from a second metaphor for this person, that of the shepherd, one can go to Psalm 23, Ezekiel 34, and some of the teachings of Christ to see that a second skill is in terms of pastoral care (healing, guiding, reconciling, sustaining). Much in line with the expectations for a bishop/pastor in I Timothy 3, in Clinical Pastoral Care, it is expected that the supervisory relationship will be both didactic (able to teach) and therapeutic (ability to do pastoral care).

The First Epistle to Timothy gives some guidelines for pastors or overseers in a church.  According to I Timothy 3:2-7, an overseer should be

above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full[ respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.



Relationships with Others

Above reproach or blame

Sexual self-control



Self-control in habit

Not violent with others, but gentle

Good reputation with outsiders

Mature in role

Good relationship with Family

Able to teach or guide others

Looking at these three major areas, perhaps there is a logical progression that should considered. Arguably, the reputation should flow from the relationships the overseer has. And the health of these relationships should flow from the intangible aspects of the overseer’s character.  The qualities of an overseer in a church setting or in clinical pastoral training should be essentially the same. It is out of these qualities that an overseer may be able to train and provide therapy.


For many, when they hear of this list of characteristics for a pastor/overseer, they focus on the 2nd item, “faithful to his wife,” or “husband of one wife.” From this there is speculation of whether a pastor must be male or not, whether he (or she) must be married or not, or whether the person can be divorced. However, there is no mention of marriage or marriage relationships in the original. A literal (perhaps too literal) translation is “a one-woman man.” This suggests that the key point is sexual faithfulness and sexual self-control. That is why I put it that way in the table above. If God does care as to whether an overseer in church is a man or woman, I doubt the concern is nearly as great as the other qualities. Considering how many angry, immature pastors I have met with toxic reputations, it is clear to me that many churches don’t take this section very seriously.


Church TQM

Back when I was an engineer, most all of the employees in our company were trained in TQM (Total Quality Management). If you haven’t heard of it, feel free to websearch it now. I’ll wait.

Okay. Anyway… an aspect of it has to do with analysis of problems. In it, one focuses on Process rather than People. That is, when a problem occurs, rather than trying to figure out “Whodunnit” and then fire the person, one looks for ways to improve the process. Even in cases where it was clearly one person’s fault, it generally makes more sense to look at what processes led to the problem.


For example, suppose Bryan was making widgets, and installs the whatsit in backwards causing it to glorph dangerously leading millions of dollars of damage. In a People-oriented analysis, the goal would be to figure out who to blame (Bryan) and then punish him… probably fire him.

In the process-oriented analysis, the focus would be on what processes led to a failure leading to a defective product coming out the door. Do changes need to be made to the inspection process? What about training? What about oversight/supervision? What about design? As a former engineer, this last one is most important to me. The fact that the whatsit could be installed backwards in the widget suggests the need of a redesign so that installing it wrong is impossible. If it cannot be made impossible, design could be changed so that manufacturing it the correct way would be clearly identifiable as such. And if that is impossible, perhaps design a test that would identify the problem easily before it gets out of the door.

But what about in a church situation. If there is a problem in the church, should one focus on people or processes? Churches commonly focus on people— identify the sin, identify the sinner. That seems like it is the way it is supposed to be. The Bible clearly focuses on sin, correct?

Curiously, in the first church (Jerusalem) the first two recorded problems were handled in different ways— the first is focused on the person, and second on the process.

Person (to Blame) Focus is found in Acts 5. This is the story of Ananias and Sapphira story. In it, a problem was identified… and the focus was immediately on who to blame for the sin and who is thus worthy of punishment.

Process Focus is found in Acts 6. In the story, Hellenistic Jews were concerned that their widows were not being cared for as well as were the widows of Hebraic Jews. This is actually a much more serious of a problem than in Acts 5. In chapter 5, there was personal issue of lying… but in 6 is the charge of systemic bigotry. However, in the case of Acts 6, there seems to be no attempt to find out who to blame. No attempts to divert blame either. Rather, they immediately go to changing the process. They chose 7 men (6 Hellenistic Jews and 1 Gentile Proselyte) to provide oversight of the care of the widows to ensure they are treated as well as their Hebraic counterparts.

Since both problem analysis methods are used (problem-focused and process-focused) in the Bible, does it mean that both are equally valid?

I would argue that the Process focus is the preferred one in the Bible. There are three reasons I believe this. First, the Ananias and Sapphira event is a most unique case in the NT church. Only rarely is there a “Who’s to Blame” attitude found. Most often in the Epistles the focus seems to be on Prevention of problems, or finding Redemption after problems. You may agree or disagree with me on this, but study and decide for yoyrself. Second, relatedly, sin is not a major emphasis in the NT church either. The emphasis is more on the transformation we have now in and through Christ, and how that is to be demonstrated in our actions and words. In other words, greater emphasis is on the processes of edification and supporting each other, towards godly virtue, than on pointing out sins.

Third, Luke appears to editorialize the events a bit. After the punishment of Ananias and Sapphira, Acts 5:15 says,

“Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

On the other hand, after the resolution of the problem in Acts 6, Luke writes in verse 7,

“So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”

Luke as editor appears to see the process focus more positively than the person focus.

In TQM, one of the goals is to “drive out fear” — fear of judgment/blame/punishment. The presumption is that “the problem is the process rather than the person.” It seems to me that the Bible shows a preference towards this as well… especially in the New Testament church.