Thursday, June 27, 2013
Right and Righteous: How to Behave When You’re Right
Years ago, I had the misfortune of being involved in a church discipline issue that caused massive division. It was contentious, handled wrongly by many, and led to great pain and a damaging influence on some of the most vulnerable church members. One individual was involved in some pretty obvious sin. Multiple families left the church in protest to the handling of the individual. The church was hurt as a once well-liked person was removed from leadership, not by an overpowering church leader, but by a growing consensus of people who became aware of their sins.
For many years, I have resisted writing about it in any forum because I did not want to seem bitter or vindictive. Even now, I am writing very carefully with gender-neutral language in such a way as to not identify the person. Indeed, it took a great while to forgive this person for the personal pain they had caused me. After a while, I came to a place of forgiveness for the individual and chalked the experience up to a learning opportunity. I even began to see the individual in less of a villainous way, thinking perhaps this person was just misunderstood. But I hadn’t really thought about it in a few years.
But through reflecting on this situation, I learned several important lessons about being right and righteous. You see, sometimes when we are in the heat of a battle it can be easy to lose site of the objective. In our Christian walk, the objective is Christ. One can get so caught up in the battle that being right justifies bad behavior and damages our walk with God. While I can confidently say I was not always perfectly right and righteous through the situation, I do feel I learned to be both right and righteous better. Here are a few critical things I learned through the whole experience:
1) Be Careful Not to Fall Off the High Ground! It is too easy to let being right justify bad behavior. In fact, this is what I began to see in several people within the church who aligned against the individual. They schemed and plotted and often wanted me to engage with them. Here’s how this happens. A person finds out they are right, becoming convinced that the facts strongly bare this out. An event happens that rightly assures them that they are correct in their belief. However, they allow this to be a justification for vindictive behavior. As momma always said, two wrongs don’t make a right. When we are right it is never an excuse to sin in order to combat the person in the wrong. Our integrity before God is more important than winning according to human terms, because ultimately God will judge unrighted wrongs.
2) Be Angry, But Do Not Sin. (Ephesians 4:26) Here’s the thing- you can’t help being angry when someone hurts you. You can’t help being angry when someone you care about is hurt. In fact, Scripture tells us that not only is it normal for us to be angry, but that God gets angry. Contrary to popular belief, Jesus got angry. Anger is an emotion that is not inherently good or evil. What you do with that anger is either good or evil. When the innocent are victimized, you better believe God is angry and to deny this minimizes horrible tragedies such as murder, rape, persecution, and genocide. It also minimizes the sin each of commits against a holy and perfect God in our arrogance. It is normal to be angry, but do not sin in speech against the enemy; Do not self medicate to deal with the anger; do not let anger linger and turn to hate.
3) Be Strict on Justice, BUT Deliver with Grace. The last thing that we want to do as Christians is protect abusers over victims, which sadly has been the case in many churches. When some events happen, there is no other choice but to act decisively. Some actions are clearly sinful and cause great damage to many people, especially impressionable young ones. Unfortunately, some churches have allowed abuse against women, crimes against children, and mistreatment of the vulnerable in favor of being “gracious” to the abuser. Indeed, some dreadful actions have unquantifiable negatives, of which we will never know the full extent. Therefore we must act quickly when destructive sins are recognized. However, our God is not only just, but gracious. Each one of us has sinned against a holy and perfect God, deserving punishment and wrath. Remember the famous line from persecuted Reformation Christian John Bradford, “There but for the grace of God, (go I).” Had God not stepped in on our behalf and pulled us from a life of sin, we would be no better. While justice is critical, ultimately our concern must be introducing Christ and Him crucified for the forgiveness of sins. Only when a person understands the depth of their sinfulness and the depths of His grace can a person be truly changed. Seek justice, but offer the grace of Christ.
4) Be Careful Not to Seek Revenge. This is difficult. We often crave to see God’s justice poured out on someone that has hurt us. We just want to go OT on their sorry rears. But that is not our call. Revenge, hurting the person must not be the ultimate goal. In fact, in the Old Testament, punishments such as stoning or exile were not for the purpose of revenge upon a perpetrator, but were for the purpose of safeguarding the people against a threat. Romans 12:9 says, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
5) “Great Kid, Don’t get Cocky!” Han Solo’s line to Luke as he nails his first Tie-Fighter should be remembered at all times, especially when we are right or have had some great success. Wow, this one is hard too! When we are technically correct, it can lead to all kinds of arrogance. John Bradford’s quote is relevant here as well. The human tendency is to lean towards arrogance. But remember, there but for the grace of God…
6) Don’t Confuse Punishment for Discipline. Discipline is quite different from punishment. Punishment inflicts pain for the sake of retribution. Discipline may inflict pain, but it is for the betterment of the body or individual. We strike a child’s hand as they are about to stick it into the light socket not because we want to pay them back for inconveniencing us with their action, but to ensure that they do not endanger themselves or anyone else in the future. Discipline is necessary to protect the Body. This extends even to putting someone outside the Body to safeguard it. Too often, people err one extreme or the other. They will either seek to punish the individual with inflicted pain or simply dismiss their bad behavior and claim they are “showing grace.” Of course, both extreme punishment and lax enforcement of standards that fail to protect the vulnerable are perversions of grace.
7) Don’t Let Your Relationship with God Suffer. Yeah, these don’t get any easier. I can attest to the number of times controversies dominated my time with God. To practice dependence we must learn to hand over the pain and the outcomes to God, regardless of what we think of our own abilities. The Gospel of Jesus Christ must keep us grounded in all things as the center of our lives. It keeps us humble about our own abilities and confident in His.
Of course, I do not claim to have followed these perfectly. These are simply some things I learned along the way. I hope they are edifying to you.
Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Several years ago, a group of mega church pastors put together a discussion conference called the Elephant Room in which they discussed the issues they perceived to be the most pressing for churches. Interestingly the issues that they chose were nothing compared to the real issues that most pastors face. In fact, many were trivial. One such issue was that of criticism. They lamented the amount of criticism they received from church members and critics in the broader church culture. The way they handled this topic was quite telling of their own character: they excoriated those who disagreed with their methods, attacking their intellect and even their manhood all for daring to question them. They revealed how thin skinned and defensive they were on the matter of criticism and accountability.
This struck me so that I began contemplating the way in which these men ran their churches and the influence they were having on many church leaders. There are so many stories of people hurt by these churches and in particular the pastors who stand with no accountability; those who viciously attack any that disagree with them. They engage in authoritarian leadership far beyond what is seen in the Bible. Let me give a few telling examples of what we have seen in the last few years related to the mega church movement and what is known as toxic leadership.
Several years ago, mega church pastor Perry Noble gave a leadership speech in which he referred to those who disagree with a pastor’s methods or vision as “Jackasses.” It seems to be a favorite word for Noble as he also referred to people who wanted to go deeper in discipleship as “Jackasses” as well. This attitude towards dissenters and critics was not just seen in his language, but in his behavior. Recently, Noble and his church had to settle a lawsuit brought about by one of his critics. This critic who was a teacher at a local college pointed out several things that Noble was doing which were in conflict with Scripture. Noble complained that the man had not offered to meet with him (abusing Matthew 18 which these men often do) and then refused to meet with the critic when he did offer. Instead, Noble’s staff went on a vicious campaign to destroy the critic. One member allegedly impersonating the critic wrote a resignation letter to the critic’s employer. They even allegedly used connections with an adoption agency the critic was using to halt an adoption in the last hours, by turning them away from the family. The family even allegedly received physical threats all for one man’s questioning of Noble’s methods. Speaking of his methods, Noble is the same man who played AC/DC’s Highway to Hell as the opening song on Easter so there are quite public examples that lead discerning people to questions his motives (Click here for the video from his "church"). This of course is not the only example of Noble’s behavior or those like him. (For more, just Google “Perry Noble Lawsuit” – It is very informative)
Another example of this abuse and toxic leadership comes from the second iteration of the Elephant Room conference mentioned above. James McDonald, mega church pastor and organizer of the Elephant Room conference, invited T.D. Jakes to be a participant. Now not only is T.D. Jakes a prosperity Gospel teacher who has taken advantage of many people by encouraging them to send their “seed” money to him, but he is also a Modalist (denies the Trinity). When several high profile critics suggested that McDonald was in the wrong for treating him as if he were a mainstream member of the Christian community rather than a money-seeking charlatan, McDonald basically implied through agreement that anyone who disagreed with him was simply a racist.
Many more examples could be given of bad behavior from these mega church pastors. Sex abuse scandals involving famous mega church pastors and church planting networks, recent lawsuits in which mega churches are being held liable for the bad behavior of their leaders all point to a disturbing trend. From Mark Driscoll’s enraged screaming at his congregation to Ergun Caner’s dishonest claim to have been a jihadi terrorist before being converted which was demonstrably false (again, Google Ergun Caner Resigns from Liberty), the celebrity pastor/ mega church phenomenon is littered with examples of poor leadership and bad behavior- what the rest of the professional world recognizes as toxic leadership.
But one might say, “They have high numbers! They are being successful! How could they be wrong?” Those from other industries and entities will recognize this question immediately as it is the retort that often defends those categorized as toxic Leaders. The military has recognized in recent years that success on paper, according to the metrics that we love so much does not comport with the true reality of a given situation. Many leaders look very good on the outside when success is measured in numbers whether they are number of attenders, number of profits, or number of successful combat missions. This is because they are focused on bottom line numbers that are quantifiable. What most leadership experts realize is that there are often unquantifiable numbers that would tell a different story if they could.
Allow an example from the military. A young company commander could have great success in the number of successful missions at the cost of his subordinates. The cost may not be in lives lost, as this would negatively affect his metrics, but in loss of quality people from the Army. When a leader takes a “scorched earth” approach (i.e. success at any cost, no matter how many people’s lives have to be ruined in the process), it is often difficult to measure the negative effect that occurred to reach the perceived positive outcome. The company commander could win battles, but drive out great leaders under him from the Army, who in turn say negative things about the Army to the larger population, thus reinforcing stereotypes. Many qualified persons are affected by this stereotype, which leads to great potential leaders steering clear of the Army. The result of the tactics used to reach the positive result has an unquantifiable negative effect, which may be greater. This is also the reason why the military does not simply carpet bomb entire villages to weed out terrorists, because the net effect will be an increase in the number of people angry at the military who could potentially become enemies.
Why hasn’t the church figured out that the same principles of leadership often apply when one is talking about methodology in the church? The toxic leadership of a celebrity pastor or his disciples works the same way and has the same effect that it does in the military or business world. But of course, the stakes are higher as these toxic leaders affect people’s relationship with God and the church. Sure, doctrinal issues are different, but the examples cited earlier are not as much doctrine as they are method. I have personally had to take on, in quite bold manner, individuals who were clearly doing wrong and living in unrepentant sin- but I never took them on for disagreeing with me over methodology. In fact, some of the most ardent opponents to my methods were won over by the way I treated them. Toxic leaders on the other hand, both in the secular world and in the church use a scorched earth mentality that is damaging to individual’s lives.
When the celebrity pastor cites the great number of people who are “saved” or attend the church, they fail to realize that those who flock to him may be doing so because they have similar views, not because of a movement of the Holy Spirit. Also, they fail to realize the number of people who have been hurt in their attempt to grow a larger organization. They fail to see the unquantifiable negative outcomes. For instance, Perry Noble often cites one individual who told him that he realized his need for salvation while the band was playing Highway to Hell. There are three problems with using that assertion to defend the rightness of his actions: 1) it ignores the sovereignty of God- God could have used any number of things; that doesn’t make his actions right. 2) The ends do not justify the means – The Bible is full of warnings against pragmatism and 3) how many people were turned off to God and church because they came to a church on Easter and saw a rock show, something no different than the rest of the world. How many people look at the decadence of church services like this where production value is prized over purity and wonder if it is any different than Benny Hinn’s shameful scams for money. There are so many possible negative effects of toxic leadership within the church that cannot be immediately seen.
No doubt some would say, “doesn’t this happen in small churches too?” and yes it does. However, the mega church celebrity pastor is in many ways responsible for the widespread nature of this toxic leadership through their influence. Many of these “pastors” have “leadership networks” and conferences where they indoctrinate other young pastors to treat dissenters as “Jackasses.” I personally know of many churches where the pastor has incorporated the toxic leadership learned from these leaders with devastating effect on their church. I have met family after family who has been turned off from the church because of the ungodly displays their children witnessed at mega churches and those churches that aspire to be like them.
So what is to be done? The irony of the situation is that one must be a mega church celebrity pastor to have enough influence to speak out against the mega church celebrity pastor sensation, which as we all know will never happen. Perhaps it must start at the grassroots level among young pastors. Young pastors, among whom I am one, must simply stop listening to the celebrities and start listening to the older men in ministry who have been toiling faithfully for many years. These must be our mentors, never people who refer to faithful men of God as “Jackasses.”
Monday, May 27, 2013
This is an article I wrote for Memorial Day at Hawaii Army Times
This is an article I wrote for Memorial Day at Hawaii Army Times