I find myself incredibly angry this morning, I’ve spent the last 24 hours mulling an article I’ve read. It outlines another depressing tale of a man abusing his power in a church context. My anger is intensified because it’s a tale from a familiar church context, from a tribe I was part of and I can see echos of the story in my experience.
I’m angry because it’s familiar. I’m angry because I know a string of people who have been hurt by a multiple of situations such as this, because it’s not just limited to one type of church or culture or tribe.
I’m angry because spiritual power should be treated with utter respect and care and it is all too easy to drive down the road of we know exactly how this Christian life thing should be lived out and everyone around us must fit into that mould. I’m angry at the lack of accountability for church leaders.
I’m angry at situations I know are continuing because there is no structure of support to stop it happening. I’m angry because I can see this type of thing all over the place in some of my own history with conservative theology. (I’m sure the same happens in other tribes and churches as well, but the conservative world is the one I’ve had most encounter with.)
This from someone reflecting on their experience with Crowded House sums up things so well. “the sense in The Crowded House that it is the right or best way to do mission and be biblically faithful means you are left with the feeling that if you disagree you are somehow disagreeing with the Bible, or somehow falling short of God’s ideal, or not really giving up your life for Christ.”
The issue I have is that I’ve felt this from a whole load of situations and people, it’s not just restricted to The Crowded House network, it’s not just about this one man. I’ve been in some situations where one person’s understanding of the Bible is elevated to the ‘right way’ to do everything, where questioning that leaves people in doubt about your salvation or whether you are really a committed Christian. I have heard the phrase: ‘the Bible clearly says’ many times, with the inference that if you disagree then you are not taking the Bible seriously.
I’m angry that I don’t want to be honest about some things I think at the moment about this life with God thing in case I lose friendships. I’ve seen it happen to people around me and it scares me.
I’m angry because, to be honest, I’ve felt the pull myself to the clear right answer world, where things make sense and there are boundaries to who is in and out and we can make those judgments. It appeals to our human desire for order and wrapping things up in neat parcels.
I’m angry because I can hear voices in my head that give the reasons for this kind of behaviour to others, that it’s all done in ‘love’. I’m not sure being loved should feel like being beat up. Maybe I’m wrong.
But what can I do with this anger? I could rant on for a long time further about the grimness but I want to add something helpful to this world of spiritual abuse and power games. So here are my fairly unthought through suggestions which might be helpful. I’m so sick of seeing this stuff go on in friends and families I know. We have to push for change.
1. Please stop staying ‘the Bible clearly says’, (I’m totally sure I’ve used this one myself, I am sorry). It might be clear to you but the person/people you are talking to will be different from you, with different understandings, different backgrounds, different thoughts about what this passage might be about. If you want to say something like that then at least caveat it with, ‘for me, this seems pretty clear’. Check in with others to try and understand why it might not be abundantly clear for everyone else. Listen to the warnings in Jeremiah, we tend to think we aren’t the people saying ‘this is the word of the Lord, the word of the Lord’ and then speaking things God isn’t saying. I think we tend to apply those verses to whoever we disagree with. But it could be you. You could be saying this is the word of the Lord and actually God isn’t saying anything of the sort. Using the phrase ‘the Bible clearly says’ means it will be harder for people to disagree or work things out for themselves.
2. If you are in any kind of spiritual leadership- recognise your power and give it away: Beven said that the purpose of power is to give it away. (pretty sure Jesus nailed that one too, made himself nothing, rejected the lure of ruling the world etc) It’s not to be grasped, nourished or nurtured. Make sure you aren’t the only person who has a voice in a situation, make sure you ask questions and listen to the answers, make sure you change your mind about some stuff every now and again. Whisper to yourself every now and again ‘I could be wrong’. Go away from your context, have seasons of stopping, let someone else do it. Get some people in your life who can speak truth to power (ask some people who are a different gender/background to you their thoughts). Listen to them. Be aware that you could have blind spots. Get in touch with your feelings, notice your insecurities, get to know yourself and be ok with yourself. I think good leadership might just flow out of a secure person who is open to being wrong, to others being more gifted and used than them and who delights in others being celebrated. (I know I struggle with all of those things but maybe noticing is the start of the journey). Run to God for your security and peace in this world. Don’t just talk to people who’ve known you for years about these things, they may have blind spots about you as well. Don’t just talk to people outside your context, they won’t have seen how you actually interact with people on a day to day basis.
3. Treat people as Jesus seemed to: Jesus was annoying to those of us who like clear answers, systems and strategies. I don’t think he had them, he walked around loving people, hanging out with people who were definitely out of the inner circles. He raged against those who put heavy burdens on others, who looked good on the outside but who had no love. Listen to Jesus. He didn’t seem to answer anyone’s questions but asked a whole lot. He told stories about Fathers who run in love to those who distance themselves from that love, both the religious ones and the unreligious ones. Hang out with Jesus.
4. Find the world of nuance: really listen to those who you disagree with, not just their ideas on life but their actual whole lives. Get to know them, what do they love, what makes them smile, what has hurt them? Be vulnerable with them, you’ll probably end up really loving them. The ideas might just become less important. Connect as people rather than what you think about a set of theological ideas.
5. Don’t make friendship dependent on adherence to the church you are part of/the tribal norms of your group/the theological framework you subscribe to. It sucks. If someone changes their mind on something massively important to you, listen to them and try to save any deep emotional reaction to pour out on someone else, they don’t need to feel like they need to make you ok or like they can’t be honest because you now think they have fallen away from the one true way. Clearly you can disagree with each other but lets find out how to do it well, friendship can last through disagreement, I’m really hoping it can.
6. Don’t try and control people. Trust that they might have good reasons for not spending their whole life in church stuff. Support people in their lives, get to know them, be a safe place where people can talk about God stuff without feeling like you are trying to get them to serve more or think the ‘right thoughts’ about God. Be grateful if they are being helped by others and not just your church. Reject territorial thinking whenever you can.
7. Trust the Spirit’s work, you might feel like this thing you want to say is from ‘the Lord’, so maybe offer it gently and quietly without the loaded language and see how it lands. Trust that the Spirit knows how to transform us and if it was from the Lord then the Lord can enable your words to bring light, freedom, life and love (rather than joyless condemnation and self hatred which seem to come out a lot in some churches)
8. Live the fruit of the Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, goodness, gentleness, self control.
9. All of this takes time. Take the time. Reflect, be still, find your centre of security and humility in the arms of God. Love from that place. Say sorry when you get it wrong, because we all do, and ask for forgiveness and grace.
This list is incomplete and fairly flawed, but it’s a start. Add your voice, lets talk about this stuff and ask for change, if you are a leader lead from gentleness, love, understanding and trust in God. Read Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse yourself or as a leadership team in your church and talk about these things.