Your blog queens are SO EXCITED to announce that we have recruited a guest blogger who will be sharing his insights on The Wartburg Watch from time to time. Actually, he has already done so. We fondly call him “Dr. Jon” because he is a medical doctor. He will be bringing a unique perspective to this forum. We hope you enjoy today’s post written by Dr. Jon.
Hyper-authoritarian pastors who are not used to peer accountability are disquieted by Christian blogs (see my guest post of August 5, 2009: Pastoral Accountability and Christian Blogs: A New Form of Quality Assurance). These blogs ensure a higher level of transparency (and publicity) which can translate into better quality control within the local church.
The larger Body of Christ within the Blogosphere can now catch a glimpse of questionable behavior within church leadership and help to drive proper behavior through peer pressure. If there is unresolved sin which is being suppressed by the leadership of a given church, it is no longer a private matter, nor is the manner of response of individual church members to this sin a private matter. The latter is the subject of this post.
By definition, hyper-authoritarian church leaders crave control. They like to control the way people join their church (which we might call “entry via the front door”), the way people actively serve as contributing members of the congregation, and they like to control the way people leave their church (which we might call “exit via the back door”). One can get an idea of how big the front door is by the number of attendees and new members posted in the weekly church bulletin. The size of the back door is tougher to measure, since in some churches, even death may not keep you from being included on the church role. It is probably a reasonable assertion that if the total number of church attendees declines over several years, the “back door” is bigger than the “front door.”
If the “back door” grows, hyper-authoritarian pastors may get nervous about the future of their church and resort to silly emergency “front-door-increasing measures” like telling parishioners to have more babies. To reassure and retain current members of the flock amidst shrinking attendance, sermons switch from “we count people because people count” to “it’s not the quantity but quality that counts”.
When large numbers of parishioners leave a church, perhaps because of minor style or doctrinal differences, their exit may be made to appear as if they are being "sent out" as a church plant. This serves to justify their exit as if they were being sanctioned as legitimate missionaries from the home church in keeping with the Great Commission. All seems well to those who remain behind, despite dwindling attendance.
Most people leave churches to attend other churches. People switch churches for fairly minor reasons…perhaps their kids want to attend a different youth program, or maybe the worship music sounds stale. When leaving because of personal taste or preference differences, these folks are usually allowed to slip unobtrusively out "the back door". If a letter of reference is requested from their former pastor as they seek to join another church, they are considered "in good standing", as long as they leave quietly.
But what happens to a parishioner who wants to leave a hyper-authoritarian church because of serious concern about sin in leadership? If he leaves without mentioning the sin, he can expect to be allowed to leave in peace and “in good standing”. However, if the parishioner wants to leave and makes it clear that he is leaving because he thinks there may be sin in church leadership, he risks being labeled as one who is “bailing out” or “cutting and running”, implying that his departure is not justified. Instead, he is counseled to remain, putatively, so that by working through the issue with his church leaders, he will grow stronger. Metaphors abound of oak trees growing stronger after enduring storms. Here’s an example: listen to this short sermon called “Stronger for the Storms.”
But if there is indeed sin in leadership, it makes no sense to stick around for round two of abusive behavior. I would suggest a different metaphor: sin is spiritually destructive, like radiant sunlight can be to human skin. Over-exposure to radiant energy can cause various skin cancers, and can even lead to death. By this analogy, the best way to prevent the dangers of sin is to avoid exposure.
In my view, when hyper-authoritarian behavior leads to the suppression of sin in leadership, simply “bailing out” or “cutting and running” makes sense. Recall how Joseph "cut and ran" from the Potiphar's wife. Why stick around to rock a boat that is sinking from sin? That boat will sink all by itself, with or without you or me. I know of a well-meaning elder who asserted that by leaving his church (even with the intent of joining another church) one was “hurting the Body of Christ”. It's as if leaving his church was synonymous with leaving the Christian faith altogether! Surely he understands that switching one's place of worship within the Body can lead to spiritual growth. The Body of Christ has been around for 2,000 years and will be “just fine” even when people switch places of worship. That's because the Church is far bigger and more enduring than any one individual parish or any single hyper-authoritarian pastor. Further, it doesn't take an ordained minister to figure out that God does not want any of us Christians to be party to ongoing sin in church leadership.
I know of a well-meaning and respected Sunday school teacher who innocently stuck around to confront the possibility of ongoing sin within the leadership of his church. The wagons were circled around the leaders by the overly protective elders, and the messenger was isolated as the problem. The leadership painted itself as the victim of lies and took the better part of a year to generate a response letter which, not surprisingly, exonerated the church leadership. Meanwhile, during that year, the head of the elder board started a false and malicious rumor that the messenger had marital difficulties. When the messenger gave notice that he was moving on to a church of a different denomination, it was conveyed from the hyper-authoritarian pastor to the next church that the messenger was "not in good standing", causing him to be declined membership. He was told he needed to go back to his old church and seek reconciliation!
That sort of controlling behavior serves as a pretty big “foot in the back door”. So if you choose to leave after sticking around long enough to share your concerns, be prepared to be hunted down. This gives new meaning to the term “hound of heaven”.
Two questions remain for the abusive church leadership to pray about: (1) What about fixing the sin problem in your leadership? (2) What about apologizing for abusing the messenger without trying to coerce him into staying with leaders he no longer trusts?
God has given us the capacity as Christians to vote with our feet and our finances. Recall that President Reagan led the charge to take down the wall separating the communist Eastern block countries from the free world chiefly by economic means. Likewise, local churches obviously need money from their congregation to keep the lights on and pay the pastors. Our capacity to leave a hyper-authoritarian church is one way to favorably influence the quality of the Body of Christ as a whole. Over the millennia, God has used His Truth and Love as a means to expand and sustain His church. Those local churches which foster transparency and purity in their leadership tend to attract new members, and stand a good chance of growing and lasting in God’s system.
Granted, the normal tendency for Christians who have been long-term members of a given church is to stick around and try to help with fixing the problem with sin in leadership. But if your church is hyper-authoritarian in its leadership structure, you could be in for significant pain without much to gain. Also, while membership in a local church is a serious commitment, it goes without saying that one’s salvation is assured whether one chooses to remain or leave to attend another church. If faced with such a difficult decision, I would suggest that you prayerfully ask God to direct your path to a local church home where you can most effectively love your neighbor as yourself and where you have the greatest opportunity to be of service to God per Galatians 5:13-14. Life is short on this planet!
There is no question that leaving hurts. I guess that's what song writer Paul Simon meant when he wrote "there must be 50 ways to leave your lover"
Leaving a hyper-authoritarian church can feel just as bad or worse, given how deeply we as Christians invest in our local church family over many years. Nonetheless, if there is ongoing sin in leadership of that church, transferring your membership to a more balanced church may be the right thing to do. I can't say exactly how or when to leave, given the highly personal nature of the matter, but when the time comes, as the song goes, there must be 50 ways…