There are a few big stories rattling around the American evangelical church community lately that I see as being related. I’m not sure that there’s a single root cause, but there are some common symptoms and conditions that contribute to them all.
There have been barrels of ink used to write on these issues already. I’m primarily thinking about:
Recognition of a broad historical pattern of misogyny within the church.
The #ChurchToo movement, recognizing a long pattern of cover up of sexual abuse and assault in the name of protecting church leaders and “the church’s witness”.
- Read Jane’s story of sexual assault cover-up at The Masters College or about
- The abuse scandal at Sovereign Grace Churches, or about
- Paige Patterson getting the boot from Southwestern Baptist Seminary, or about
- The abuse mess at Southern Baptist churches that the Houston Chronicle has been reporting on this week.
The disgrace of several multi-site megachurch pastors.
- Mark Driscoll built and then destroyed the Mars Hill empire.
- Bill Hybels at Willow Creek was revealed to have a long unchecked history of sexual misconduct which ended up with the resignation of both of his replacement pastors and the Willow elder board.
- Just this week James MacDonald was fired by Harvest Bible Chapel after suing journalists who had been investigating abuse coverups at HBC, including a bizarre recording of MacDonald talking with a Chicago radio host about trying to put illegal porn on the computer of the CEO of Christianity Today.
Reeling yet? That’s all just within the past five years or so. And there are undoubtedly more revelations to come.
A few decades from now I’m sure there will be analyses with better perspective on this stuff, but right here in the middle of it I want to suggest two common threads in all of these.
Powerful, unaccountable men.
Whether at the megachurch level or the independent Southern Baptist Church level, men craving power find ways to set up systems that will keep them from accountability. They hand-pick their elder boards. They re-write church bylaws and membership agreements to ensure that they have all the control.
Systemic silencing and ignoring of women
If you haven’t read Beth Moore’s post yet, go read it. She’s just one of many, but expresses the issue well. In complementarian churches, women who are themselves fully committed to the idea that they shouldn’t be elders or teachers too often find themselves pushed out of any role that smacks of leadership. Tim Challies, no flaming outlier in the neo-Reformed camp, restricts women from publicly reading Scripture in a worship service. John Piper says that women shouldn’t be police officers because they ought not to be “giving directives” to men. I could go on.
Practical steps going forward
It’s not enough to lament. Real repentance includes taking real steps toward change.
When the doctor tells you that you’ve got heart failure and high blood pressure and are going to die very prematurely if you don’t make some changes, you don’t just say “thanks, doc” and then keep your old lifestyle. You re-evaluate your priorities. Sure, you believed strongly in desserts and cheeseburgers and lots of Netflix time. But if you want to be healthy, you may find that a belief in vegetables and desserts in moderation and regular exercise are also acceptable life choices and will allow you to flourish in a way you wouldn’t otherwise.
Similarly, the evangelical church needs to look at its “life choices” and tightly-held doctrinal distinctives and the fruit that has resulted and make decisions accordingly. How serious are we about repentance?
Pastors and leaders need real, tangible accountability. For denominations that are structured with congregational autonomy, there should be elder boards that can call pastors on the carpet when need be. We need to take the qualifications for eldership seriously. Not argumentative? Not greedy? Heck, we need to take the fruit of the Spirit seriously. Peace? Patience? Kindness? Self-control? A lot of this stuff is obvious and just needs to be followed.
Additionally, stronger denominational oversight, even an accountability hierarchy, may be appropriate. It’s not a silver bullet – the Roman Catholic church is the largest religious bureaucracy in the world and has its own accountability issues – but something needs to be done. If congregational autonomy is so important that it precludes churches from reporting and protecting other churches from known sex offenders, congregational autonomy is an idol that should be done away with.
Bigger is not better
Can we all just agree at this point that big multi-site churches with charismatic preachers streaming in over video are a really, really bad idea? How many more Driscolls and MacDonalds do we need to build and then destroy these empires before we’re willing to acknowledge that this model is unhealthy, produces unhealthy churches, and causes serious hurt to thousands of believers who were a part of those churches? Give me an army of Eugene Petersons ministering in little neighborhood churches rather than a Mark Driscoll or James MacDonald or (dare I even say it) Matt Chandler projected larger than life on a video screen at campuses across the country.
Listen to women and believe their testimony
When women and young people come forward with allegations of abuse, we must take them seriously. We must have good processes and training in place at our churches to make sure that children and young people are protected. And we need to be willing to expose abuse if it happens, and learn from it, and improve. This is non-negotiable.
Bring women into leadership
It seems obvious that if women were included in the leadership of these churches, and if they were listened to and had power such that they could take action, we would not have the systemic ongoing issues with abuse that we have today. (Again, not a silver bullet – Willow Creek has women in leadership – but still…)
I don’t want to add another thousand words to this post to stake out a position on complementarianism vs. egalitarianism. (OK, so I want to, but that’s another post.) But even pragmatically, if people like Scot McKnight and N. T. Wright – neither of whom can reasonably be accused of being wild-eyed progressives – can find a Scriptural basis for women being ordained into ministry leadership, it’s not unreasonable to ask whether complementarianism is a second- or third-level doctrine that deserves another look.
Repentance requires action. Repentance for particularly painful, systemic sin probably requires painful, systemic action. Whether the evangelical church in America will be willing to broadly repent remains to be seen. I pray that it will, and commit to doing what I can in my own congregation to act out that repentance.