When churches confuse

Spiritual abuse. Church hurt. These are some of the terms used to describe how power has been abused in congregations to the spiritual and emotional detriment of the flock. Wolves in shepherds’ clothing prey on the unsuspecting, leaving them traumatized and confused.

But we shouldn’t think that this is a problem limited only to a select few leaders with personality disorders. Each of us may struggle in our own way with issues of power and significance. As children, we need to feel seen and heard, loved and welcomed by the adults who care for us. Lacking that, we may thirst for attention and admiration as adults. If as children we routinely felt powerless at the hands of others, we may as adults crave power over others ourselves, finding security in the ability to bend others to our will.

And the more power we have, the more damage we can do.

Part of the confusion in cases of spiritual abuse is that truly good things seem to be happening in the ministry. Look at all the people hearing the gospel and coming to Christ! Look at how many people are being reached by our programs! And when scandal brings the whole shiny edifice crashing down, it shakes everyone to the core: Was it all an illusion? Have we been blind? Were all of those good things just a sham? Do we not even know the difference between good and bad anymore?

As we saw in the previous post, despite his imprisonment, the apostle Paul was capable of rejoicing over the fact that more and more people in Rome were being exposed to the gospel. Some evangelized with good hearts and pure motives; like Paul, they wanted to see the good news spread. But others had mixed or impure motives. To give them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they too wanted more people to come to Christ. But they also wanted something for themselves: recognition, admiration, or simply to put Paul in his place.

Paul didn’t care. His priorities always put the gospel first. And if the gospel was being preached rightly, even with mixed motives, he was happy.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not in any way condoning spiritual abuse by saying that good things can come out of broken churches, so brokenness doesn’t matter. Paul himself didn’t condone the selfish ambition of his rivals; later in the letter, he specifically instructed the Philippians to avoid that kind of ambition themselves, and to cultivate humility instead (2:3). That is, after all, what’s lacking at the core of abusive churches: true, Christ-centered humility.

Nor was Paul naive; no one who had suffered for the faith as much as he had could be. As the old-time radio program used to intone, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” Paul knew, and knew firsthand. Even the people he loved could betray his trust, just as was the case for Jesus before him.

We must never forget: God’s crazy plan for the church was to lay Jesus as the foundation, and then build with deeply flawed people, like Peter the denier, or Paul the zealous persecutor. In part, the confusion that follows in the wake of a ministry’s downfall is the flip side of participating in the illusion of unalloyed wisdom, goodness, or trustworthiness in our leaders. We take the growth of a ministry as proof that all is well, and ignore the warning signs that a cancer is growing in its midst.

Paul rejoiced at the progress of the gospel, even when it was preached with wrong motives, and just a few verses later told the Philippians to beware those motives themselves. That’s instructive for how we cope with the wreckage of a ministry. It is possible at the same time to celebrate how God can bring people into the kingdom through the words of a deeply wounded and inappropriately ambitious preacher on the one hand, and decry and grieve the same preacher’s abuses of power on the other.

To say that God can bring good out of evil doesn’t make the evil good. But it can remind us that God is somehow still at work, mysteriously present in the wreckage.