Riptides: When Pastors Play Power Games

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Riptides: When Pastors Play Power Games

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Article appeared originally on Evangelicals Now, reposted with generous permission by the same. 

You can’t see or even detect them… but that  is precisely why riptides are so lethal.

Many an unsuspecting swimmer has been swept out to sea, or perhaps worse, immediately dragged under, by the violent currents beneath the surface. For at the very moment of realising they are in trouble, it’s probably too late. It takes seasoned tide-watchers to alert newcomers to where the dangers lie.

Cultural riptides in the West

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The rapid cultural shifts of recent years can make western Christ-followers feel as vulnerable as swimmers near riptides. We feel surrounded and, at times, besieged, conscious that we could be dragged under at any time by an accusation here or a lawsuit there. Just consider which views are hardest to air in public squares (let alone university lecture rooms) these days.

Wade Bradshaw, in his superb Searching for a Better God (Paternoster, 2008), was surely correct when he discerned the four most fraught subjects:

• gender distinctions and gender justice.

• sexuality and diverse lifestyles.

• exclusive claims in a plural society.

• hell and judgment.

Bradshaw’s observation is that for each hot topic, positions that had been adopted by Christians for centuries have now been jettisoned. Far from being attractive and an apologetic asset (as he was when contrasted with the gods of classical mythology), the Christian God has now actually become a problem. People are looking for ‘a better God.’

But why? Why can’t we simply focus on the wonder of God’s grace and steer conversations round to subjects more conducive to ‘getting the gospel out’? Unfortunately, however much we might long for things to be different, it is likely that these debates are here to stay, for a good while longer.

In the public square

To understand these shifts, just consider how advocates for today’s radical consensus fared in previous generations. At the risk of oversimplification, the answer is not well! Their heterodox beliefs and lifestyles led to them being marginalised at the very least; they were certainly silenced; and they were probably even punished. Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment is a case in point. What gave the punishers the right? On what grounds was Wilde wrong in the first place?

We can deplore today’s loss of common moral foundations all we like. But we won’t get far in the public square until we can defend the case for reviving them for a new generation. Only then will we stop resembling the scribes whose forlorn complaints were drowned out by clanking of newfangled printing presses. The fact is, they’ve gone. Which is why we have no alternative but to contend with the feminist call for abortion on demand, the gay rights demand for equal marriage, the atheist objection to ex officio religious leaders in the House of Lords. Now, these are by no means the only groups campaigning for these changes. But what do they have in common?

At some point in the not so distant past, women, gays and atheists suffered prejudice, humiliation, and injustice at the hands of the guardians of convention. That much is undeniable. And guess who they blame for their forerunners’ ordeals – religion in general, the Church in particular. Their conclusion is that this was the result of power abuse.

Suspicion of gospel people

It’s hardly a surprise, then, that intellectual scepticism about gospel claims often goes hand in hand with deep-rooted personal suspicion about gospel people. For as the Dalai Lama said of the Chinese when negotiating with them in the 1970s: Once bitten by a snake, you feel suspicious when you see a piece of rope.

There was a time when this might merely have presented us with a relational challenge – after all, we have a gospel imperative to be indiscriminate in who we reach out to. But today, the obstacles are far more culturally ingrained.

Sufferings of the marginalised

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Auschwitz

Ever since the Second World War, and the Holocaust in particular, the West has become acutely conscious of the sufferings of the marginalised and oppressed, whoever they might be. Their voices now need to be heard. And rightly so. But as so often, unintended consequences follow. Once yesterday’s victims are granted such a powerful platform, who is to say that their unprecedented degree of moral authority will not also be abused?

Western suspicions: are likely to deepen

Power with a capital ‘P’ has become the bogeyman. This is not just the result of history; it is also because of philosophy. Those most responsible for this latter shift are a brilliant but unhinged German thinker in the nineteenth century and a bunch of ex-Marxist intellectuals in the late twentieth century France.

Nietzsche diagnosed what actually happens when we assert our beliefs. Despite appearances, we’re not describing truth; we’re imposing our will. For every philosophy conceals a philosophy too: every opinion is also a hiding place, every word is also a mask.1

No matter what worldview we propagate, our motives will always be mixed (at best). Nietzsche simply wanted us to be honest. Go ahead – we should assert our will, we ought to realise our full potential! But at the same time, unmask such power plays in others. Apply a hermeneutic of suspicion: decode the agendas that lurk beneath the surface. This is the path to self-preservation and self-determination.

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Karl Marx Monument in Chemnitz, Germany.

It took a while for these ideas to take hold. Then as the truth of Stalin’s reign of terror seeped out from the 1930s onwards, many Western Marxists were horrified by what was done in communism’s name. But their disenchantment didn’t prompt a stampede into the loving arms of western capitalism; still less were they drawn to pre-enlightenment religious worldviews. Instead, their solution was to reject all ideologies and grand stories. You could say they rejected all gospels. Prompted by Nietzsche, they set about unmasking (or deconstructing) them all. To devastating effect.

This is what lies behind many of today’s free speech disputes. Certain views are no longer tenable because they are presumed to be incontrovertible evidence of hateful attitudes. We might call this the silencing of the ‘isms’. If you say something that is sexist / racist / imperialist / Islamophobic / homophobic, it reveals that underneath it all, you are sexist / racist / imperialist / Islamophobic / homophobic. That’s grossly unfair, of course. How can someone possibly read another person’s heart? But this revival of ad hominem debating is a (perhaps) understandable reaction of those who have had their fingers burned in the past. Who wants to be abused again?

Perhaps it was no accident that this coincided with the Cold War – that time of intense suspicion and paranoia. Indeed, the title of my book analysing our contemporary culture of suspicion is taken from one of the era’s great spymasters. James Jesus Angleton was for many years the CIA’s head of counterintelligence. When his close friend Kim Philby finally defected to the USSR, Angleton was devastated, never to recover. He became totally paranoid, resorting to T. S. Eliot’s potent imagery to describe his disorientation. It was like getting lost in ‘a wilderness of mirrors’.

Of course, we in the west are not oppressed by despotic regimes. But many features of Cold War paranoia seem to be creeping into modern life. Electronic surveillance, political correctness, impregnable global corporations – leave us fearful. Who can we trust these days? No wonder nationalism has reemerged so forcefully in Britain and across Europe – in a futile and ugly attempt to claw back degrees of self-esteem and self-determination. But that is definitely not the answer (especially for Christians). The worry is that society cannot succeed in finding an answer. And they won’t look to the church, because after horrors like the child abuse scandals of recent years, it seems no different from any other corrupt and oppressive institution.

Western mission: countering a new scepticism

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So here is the great irony. The biblical gospel – the grandest grand story of them all – contained the answer all along. For a start, it has always been suspicious about human motives. What is sin if not the assertion of one’s own will in the blatant disregard of created reality, by usurping our creator’s throne? Doesn’t our sin mean we will always have the tendency to hanker after and to abuse power? We can agree with the philosophers on that point at least.

Yet the gospel has also offered God’s astonishing response to it. He reveals his justice and righteousness (as he must), but also his grace and mercy (as he needn’t). And all converge in Christ. In him, we find power wielded in unique and revolutionary ways. The problem all too often is that his followers obscure the view. This has always been a problem, of course. But there is one aspect that demands urgent attention. Even if we are faithful to the truth claims of Christ, we can undermine them by being unfaithful to the spirit in which he made them.

In 1988, the renowned German theologian Jürgen Moltmann identified some key challenges facing contemporary Christian theology in the West. He noted that for most of the twentieth century, the common critique of religion tended to focus on the content of the faith. Now it is much more likely to pursue ‘a purely functional critique of the psychological, political, and social effects of this faith.’ The question is not about ‘whether it is true or false, but only whether it has the function of oppression or liberation, alienation or humanization.’ Or to put it simply, ‘how does power operate here?’ So if someone darkens a church’s door, the primary concern will not be ‘is all this true?’, but ‘am I safe?’

Now, some readers will no doubt assume that this a red herring, an unwelcome distraction from the urgency of gospel ministry. After all, since when did we allow our priorities to be determined by the world? That way the path to compromise and syncretism surely lies. Unless… unless the questions of the world are legitimate and in fact force us to reevaluate what God was saying all along. The issue of power is a case in point.

Sometimes, the heart of a message really can be reduced to just a phrase or soundbite. Jesus’ teaching about power come down to just four words. Just after Zebedee’s wife (she’s never named) comes to ask Jesus if her sons can claim seats on either side of his throne, his response is clear. Her request has been for nothing less than positions of power and influence.

First he reminds her of the sacrifice that such positions demand – ‘can you drink from the cup I am going to drink?’ (Matthew 20.22) Then, when the other disciples pile into the argument (presumably because they had been beaten to it), Jesus uses this as a crucial discipleship teaching point. They know the colonial oppression of Roman ‘Gentiles who lord it over’ others from firsthand experience. That is why Jesus commands them: not so with you! (Matthew 20.26) Kingdom authority must be wielded in fundamentally different ways. And the essence of the kingdom power ethic is sacrificial slavery – just like the Son of Man himself. (Matthew 20.26-27)

This is not some optional extra that we might like to adopt if it is evangelistically expedient. It is fundamental. It is Christlike. It just so happens that the world around us is acutely sensitive to the issue these days. Do leaders wield power for their own self-interest (despite claims to the contrary) or for the genuine flourishing of others? It’s a tougher question than we might imagine. We might imagine we are standing for gospel truth and integrity in our leadership, but we are subtly bolstering our own position at the same time. Our motives are invariably mixed. But if we don’t attend to them, we are in danger of harming the very people we serve. We will resemble the minister described by a friend of mine as like the drunk driver who never looks in the rear-view mirror. And the world is watching…

Spiritual abuse is a startling label. But it is reality more often than we care to admit. Churchmanship or theology don’t seem to offer any guarantees of protection from it. Steve Wookey brought this out in his sadly out of print When a Church Becomes a Cult (Hodder & Stoughton, 1996). He offers some salutary warnings, which led me down a number of important tracks in A Wilderness of Mirrors.

Western challenges: questions for the powerful

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For now, it is enough to close with some questions for all in church leadership. A failure to take them seriously will not only undermine our mission to an increasingly postmodern culture; it will cripple our obedience to Jesus’ call to kingdom servanthood. This has little to do with the contemporary fad of shirking responsibility – we need leaders because decision-making is unavoidable. The issue is the Christlikeness of those leaders. ‘Not so with you…’, Jesus said.

• Is there plural leadership in your church? I don’t mean structures but practice. There are single-minister churches where leadership is shared with members, and those with leadership teams effectively ruled by one uncontested voice.

• How do you handle public criticism? Do you evaluate it to see what God might be teaching you? Or is it a threat? As Tim Keller wisely said, never let praise go to your head, and never let criticism go to your heart.

• How do you handle colleagues who are better at particular jobs than you or who have become more popular? Do you look to their flourishing or marginalisation? Are you thrilled that God’s people have such people serving them, or do you feel exposed?

• How do you handle theological disputes? Are you quick to label and stigmatise, to create soundbite rallying points to prop up your own position? Would your opponents accept your summary of their arguments as representative? If not, why not?

• How do you handle differences of opinion within the congregation? Is there ever room for legitimate and godly disagreement within your fellowship or is it ‘my way or the highway’?

• How do those from social groups that differ from the majority of your membership fare in your church’s life? Do they have a voice and a role, or are they de facto second class members? Do you just mirror the social norms, prejudices and dynamics of the surrounding society?

• Is it clear that you lead from a position of weakness, or is it too risky to be anything but strong, capable, reliable, omniscient, in control?

• In short, do you find your identity securely in the servant-leader Christ?

FOOTNOTES: 1 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (Cambridge University Press, 2002), 173, emphasis added.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Meynell is a London-based writer and teacher currently Associate Director (Europe & Caribbean) for Langham Preaching (part of Langham Partnership). He is the author of Cross-Examined (IVP, 1998), What Makes Us Human (Good Book Co, 2015) and A Wilderness of Mirrors (Zondervan, 2015). He blogs at markmeynell.net

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