My Giant Church Inc series continues, but with a different take this week. This series has hit a nerve, and I’ve been heartbroken all over again reading others’ stories of spiritual abuse. Those who’ve shared their stories have received support and encouraging comments. Very few negative comments have been made, and I believe they come from a place of fear and/or misunderstanding the complexity of spiritual abuse.
Some comments are made from those who’ve experienced abuse in small church settings. I write about Giant Church Inc and its network because I know about it. But spiritual abuse and toxic leadership can happen in any church, denomination, or organization.
Stephen McAlpine, a pastor in Perth, Australia, shared this definition of bullying on his blog:
A bully has a track record within an organisation that follows a particular and repeated pattern. This includes gas-lighting, shaming, reframing narratives, isolating individuals, misuse of Scripture to excuse themselves or blame the victim, and then covering their tracks through half-truths or lies. This is exacerbated by a compliant, willfully blind, or cowardly management structure within which that person is working, that, instead of reprimanding or sacking the bully, allows them to continue their work at the expense of the victim.
If the leadership in your church or organization does that, it’s spiritual abuse. Notice what he said exacerbates the problem. Those who see it, but remain silent or compliant, and those who are willfully blind.
Willful blindness is an actual thing. It happens in companies, churches, and cities. One person, a group, or an entire town can be willfully blind. It happened in Selma, Alabama decades ago and more recently in Montana. Take fifteen minutes to watch or listen to Margaret Heffernan tell a story about the willful blindness of the people in Libby, Montana.
Willful blindness is happening in the church. There are thousands of people trying to change it. Chuck DeGroat, Diane Langberg, Julie Roys, Wade Mullen, KJ Ramsey, her husband, Ryan, and countless others sharing their stories to those who choose to listen. We can’t begin to find a solution to the problem, if we don’t see a problem in the first place.
What About Jesus?
I had a new heartbreaking thought this week. There are multitudes in Giant Church Inc and its networks who’ve only ever known it as church. Adults, teenagers, and children. Entire families.
Giant Church Inc is church. Some have never known any other way. We have a problem with this church, then go to that one. Different church building, same kind of toxic leadership. We relocate to a new city, we find another one. We look for a talented band playing the newest worship music, and a pastor who makes the message fun with his charismatic speaking skills and cool creative elements. We look for what the church is doing for the community.
Do we look for Jesus? Not the Jesus mentioned occasionally in a motivational message, or the one in the upbeat worship songs. Not the Jesus you find at the top of the growth track, or the one who came to give life and give it abundantly however we define it.
But the One who came down. The One who bends low. This Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! Philippians 2:6-8 NIV
Do our church leaders show us Jesus? The Jesus who told us not to lord over others like the Gentiles; instead He calls us friends. “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” John 15:15
In a recent blog post, Matthew Mason made a true and bold statement about church leaders who abuse their power. He also asked these questions:
- Why is it that (in my experience) gifts of clear teaching and confident leadership are valued more highly than gentleness, self-control, kindness, humility, patience, and love?
- What have we failed to understand about Christian leadership, and so about the gospel that forms Christian leaders, and of which they are stewards?
- What have we failed to grasp about God?
- Do we love God?
Do we church? Do we love God? Do we know Him through Jesus Christ? Then let’s grow more and more like Him. Let’s lead like Him. Let’s see like Him. Let’s care like Him. Let us love like Him.
Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: “God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted. Luke 18:10-14