Updated: Aug 25
As many of you know, I frequently talk about holding two things together as true at the same time or holding a “both-and”. I almost obsessively remind people to make sure they stretch themselves to hear grace and truth, mercy and judgment, sometimes we have a stubborn heart and sometimes we have a stubborn wound. As I discuss church hurts it’s easy to think that all I’m going to do draw attention to what leadership has done wrong, which wouldn’t serve us well anyway. If I’m honest I would say it has become almost blasphemous to say members have some complicity in a system of abuse. In fairness, I would also add we were not taught how we contribute to systemic abuse either. Nonetheless, we are not going to be able to eradicate abuse if we don’t address the part that members play in the matter.
In chapter six of Dr. Diane Langberg’s book Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church, she addresses how power functions in human systems. She conceptualizes the system as made up of leaders and followers and both have a specific part to play.
“The more desperate people are, the more eager they will be for a champion to ride in on a white horse and make everything better”.
When I first came to the church I was broken. I wanted family, I wanted a father-figure, I wanted brotherhood, I wanted unconditional love, I wanted God’s kingdom. I was an incredibly idealistic and impressionable 18-year-old. And yet we see there is always a shadow-side to our desires. I wanted to be on a winning team, I wanted to feel a part of something that wasn’t simply great, but the greatest, I wanted to feel superior, I wanted to feel exclusive, I wanted to best people at doctrine. I’m hypocritical for sure.
When we look at sports teams, family names, or where we graduated college, we can derive our worth from seeking to prove we are superior to others in some way. When I was baptized, I felt I was finally in, but must admit I tended to see others as less than until they joined what I joined. I don’t believe this was everyone’s heart, but I can speak for myself. I felt like I found a church that had things figured out head-to-toe. I liked that. I liked having people to think for me. I had great spiritual mentors who taught me to think for myself but if I’m honest I wanted someone to give me the answers. I sought perfect heroes because I was too fragile for imperfect heroes.
I think we need to get brutally honest about what the system gives to us. I have to check myself when I become overly-indignant about the abuses in churches with the reality that I idolized it. I loved the idea of becoming a leader or right-hand person. I thought in terms of zeal and hierarchy. I didn’t know any better, which is kind of scary to admit. I could go on about what I got from the system but what do you get from it?
· Winning team
· Path upwards
· Competitive outlet
· Affiliation or Association
Notice how we are talking about system, not kingdom. God’s kingdom is something to yearn for and invite people into. System represents our human tendency to build something we can manipulate. And as time passes, it becomes more challenging to see the difference between system and kingdom.
Dr. Langberg conceptualizes followers in two primary categories: the inner circle and those with less power who demonstrate unquestioning loyalty.
She describes the inner circle as “a group of close followers whose access to the leader gives them power in the system. These are insiders, the ones in the know, a coterie of elders or board members, wealthy donors or church members of a favored gender, race, or ethnicity who exert excessive influence in the system. They work hard to protect their positions and the power that goes with them. The leaders and these close groups are overtly and often passionately committed to the organization’s stated mission.”
Before we become critical of whatever organization or fellowship we are or were a part of, please take a moment to consider whether you fit the criteria mentioned. If I’m being honest, I have to check my motives when joining committees or groups that make me feel superior in any way. We are all human and susceptible to the trappings of prestige. I think about how easy it would be to feel like we are simply trying to protect what God has built, when in reality we are protecting what we have built.
The second group she mentions are “followers with less power but with an unquestioning belief in and active protection of the leadership make up another component of the system. These people have accepted the idea that ‘we’ in this institution are special and that the system needs to be protected at all costs. In faith settings, they are the ones who use Scripture to support power and keep the leaders in place. These church members alienate others who question leadership or, worse yet, who bring allegation of wrong actions or abuse.”
Diane doesn’t pull any punches! What a challenge to those of us who are struggling with feeling like “middlemen”. These are the folks that have had to run interference in protection of our ministry staff. The truth is that I find myself in this position as I frequently stand up for ministers that I believe in. For example, if I hear someone talk about my senior pastor, my impulse is to have his back. However, I’ve learned that I need to step aside when a complaint is warranted. We cannot protect ministry staff from truth, period. Some of us need to prayerfully consider how we may be enabling a ministers’ unhealthy behavior through the system. But I also think we should stand up when there are lies regardless of who it is. I hope you can hear my heart in this. I know there are some really dangerous and unhealthy leaders out there, but there’s also some really good ones too (remember both-and).
Diane mentions that there is a deeper layer to how followers protect the system. She says “others in the system are not compliant by words or action but by blindness. Sadly, we’ve all been party to this kind of passivity- the turning of the head, a denial of reality. Surely it cannot be true, we think, and we choose comfort rather than causing a disturbance”.
I think a lot of people sit in this chair. People struggle to name abuse when they see it or don’t want to get labeled as divisive (I think this word is frequently weaponized against those who buck the system). But Dr. Langberg states people question themselves, because they are fearful exposure will “ruin the reputation of the group. Or worse, it will damage the name of Christ.” She later states “we believe institutions such as church and family are God ordained and therefore must be protected at all costs. So we cover and deny. We react with disbelief, minimizing and lying to self and others”. I think we have to ask ourselves do we actively train ourselves to discern system versus kingdom? Some of us might find that we are terrified that the system will come crashing down without our commitment. But we must remember kingdom thrives when system dies. We can all develop an emotional attachment to any system and need to continue to reassess our dependency.
As you take a moment to soak this in, ask yourself if you have participated in what Langberg calls “not seeing”? Have you used blindness to preserve what you were gaining from the institution? Again, it is imperative we identify what we gain from the structure. Maybe you no longer receive these benefits, but once benefitted from the system. I especially find those who are concerned about legacy can become rather system oriented. There are many who now despise the very system that at one time they didn’t question. Becoming self-aware is healthy but becoming self-righteous is a trap that Galatians 6:1-5 warns against. You might be saying, “I was the one damaged by the system you are talking about, what did I do?” I can’t speak for you, but it’s quite likely that many of us who were complicit likely damaged others before we realized what the system was doing to people. In other words, let’s make sure to have a little humility before God as he has mercifully forgiven what we’ve done to others. Many who are beginning to question the system must be careful not to go to extremes. Please use discretion in this process as our emotions can lead us down a dark spiral.
Diane states one final rationale for why followers maintain a complicit stance toward the system. She states, “we give credibility to those who are not afraid, have confidence, and seem important to maintaining the system. We give more credibility to power”.
I would highly encourage reading the beatitudes as a foundation for the type of heart both leaders and followers should embody. The sermon on the mount was brilliant because it addresses leaders and followers alike. Jesus, who is our great prophet, provides example after example of how we can all feed the system. Strong charismatic personalities are at times the opposite of what we see in the beatitudes. When someone is knowledgeable, articulate, accomplished, and talented we can cower beneath them in insecurity. And yet if we are going to prevent repeating the mistakes of the past, we can't put all the pressure on leaders to make sure we are building kingdom rather than system. As members we need do our part in making in sure we don't blindly recreate the very system that has damaged so many. It starts with being mindful of how we play the blame game.