Humanity, Law Enforcement, and the Crisis of Church Scandal

Two streams of thought have merged and crashed into my struggle with the crisis of church scandals. And yes, crisis is the correct word, not hyperbole.

Ten years ago, I wrote one of my favorite papers of my academic career. The paper was on John Williamson Nevin, an obscure theologian from the 19th century. Nevin has profoundly shaped my views of the church, sacraments, union with Christ, and humanity.

It is his vision of humanity that has significance for me today as I wrestle with the crisis (I need a synonym) of church scandal. Nevin seeks to correct our common understanding of humanity. Typically, writes Nevin, we view humanity as nothing more than a collection of individual humans, like individual grains of sand collected in a sand pile. The grains of sand share nothing other than location; they aren’t connected in any vital way. Nevin believes, and I concur, that this is a deficient view of humanity. By contrast, Nevin suggests we view humanity more like an oak forest. The forest sprang to life from the initial acorn that took root and grew. All the oak trees in a forest are simply an “expansion of the life that lay involved at first in the original acorn” (Mystical Presence, pg 160). The forest’s life was contained in that acorn, and the trees remain organically connected to that original root. So humanity is connected; we share the life of our original parent, Adam, and participate together in something called “humanity.”

This was true of humanity that traces its origins to Adam. It is true of the new humanity rooted in Christ too. Paul says in Ephesians 2, “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace.” Using Nevin’s analogy, Jesus is the acorn, the seed, and root, of a new forest of humanity, organically tied to him and organically connected to one another.

This has application to how we think regarding the crisis of church scandals.

In the 80s, I had friends who, knowing my dad was a pastor, loved to bring up the sleazy tele-evangelists and their scandals to get a reaction out of me. And some were genuinely put off by these scandals and wouldn’t consider Christianity because the sleaze was all they knew of it. Through the decades, I’ve talked with dozens of people who cite church scandals as one of the reasons they’ve given up on Christianity or the church. My normal method of dealing with this has been an attempt to separate those charlatans from us. Oh, that’s those crazy health-and-wealth preachers. Oh, that’s the mega-church pastors. Oh, that’s the fundamentalists. We aren’t like that. I’ve treated them, whether individual pastors or their churches, as grains of sand that aren’t organically connected to the whole and can easily be separated out into a “them, not us.” But, as part of the new humanity connected in to Christ and one another organically, that doesn’t work. Them is us.

The second stream of thought isn’t particularly theological but sociological. It comes from wrestling with policing, police brutality, shootings, etc. How I have thought about this has changed through the years. I remember debating the events around the beating of Rodney King in 1991 in high school classes. I was pretty quick to defend the officers involved, arguing that we only saw a small piece of what transpired and we didn’t have all the information the jury that acquitted the officers was privy to. Move the tape of my life forward fifteen or so years, and I’ve seen similar things play out again and again. As I saw more examples, I was more reluctant to defend the officers involved. Still, I defended police at large, contending that the offending officers were some bad apples in the otherwise good and noble field of law enforcement. Moving forward fifteen more years, I keep seeing more. Enough that this line of defense has become, well, indefensible. I’m now of the conviction (stronger than opinion) that there is rot in the system itself. The system of policing attracts and protects the bad apples. I know good people in law enforcement, there to serve and protect, there to preserve the goodness that remains in the system, and there to be change agents. I’m not sure, but it may still be that these good people are in the majority. However, the system protects the bad, and even attracts them. There is rot in the bones of the system.

This has application to how we think regarding the crisis of church scandals.

Society has progressed in their thinking about the church in much the same way I progressed in my thinking about law enforcement. Decades ago, I used to argue that they don’t represent the whole…of course, there are a few bad pastors out there and a few disfunctional churches. Bad apples, not rot in the system. And usually, this defense of the church and the faith was accepted.

But. Aimee Semple McPherson, Jim Baker, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggart, child abuse in the Catholic Church, Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill, Billy Hybels and Willowcreek, Ravi Zacharias, Liberty University and Jerry Falwell Jr., Carl Lentz/Brian Houston and Hillsong, Capital Hill, Johnny Hunt and the whole SBC…and I know I’m forgetting a bunch, and haven’t heard of many more.

Not just a few bad apples…rot in the system that attracts the bad apples, facilitates bad acting, and circles the wagons around them.

How do we respond? (Below is simply my processing, not a litany of action steps. Please let me know if you have additional thoughts).

We cannot ignore the problem. Like ignoring squealing brakes, it will lead to worse, more catastrophic problems if ignored. If we simply turn the music up to drown out the unpleasantness, it will only get worse and the church will lose all credibility in society. As it stands now, it will likely take a generation to rebuild our good standing in society. (And to those who say we shouldn’t worry about what the world thinks, please read Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and the requirement for leadership in the church in 1 Timothy/Titus…)

First, let us own that we have contributed to the problem and confess it. Certainly, we don’t own all the responsibility for the philandering, abuse, and corruption – the scandalous pastors will have to give an account. But we own some. We, particularly evangelicals, love personalities. We have created a celebrity culture of artists, speakers, and pastors. In the celebrity culture, hubris is whitewashed; pride becomes something to be expected.

We have followed the glitz and glamour and gravitated towards the huge youth programs and the coffee shop-fashioned lobbies of the mega-churches. We have consumed and thus supported the system through our consumption of the conferences, the studies, the books, the CDs, etc., all the while decentering and devaluing the local (often small) church. We have put the mega in the spotlight when a searchlight was needed, for abuse and immorality hide more easily in mass numbers. That is not to say abuse and scandal are absent from small churches. Sadly, it’s there too.

We have perpetuated models of leadership that attract, even seek, the self-assured, the confident, the larger-than-life personalities. And then we put these leaders on pedestals. I’ve seen this in smaller churches where the pastor is put on a theological pedestal – often beyond accountability because they are “God’s man.” It’s evident in large churches too, where the pastor is often put on a more pragmatic pedestal – they’re putting butts in the seats and bucks in the bank. As the church has embraced CEO models of pastoral ministry over against Shepherding models, the qualities sought mimic the corporate rather than the Christlike.

Second, we need repentance. Repentance is different from confession. Confession acknowledges; repentance changes. If we confess the above is true of us, that we have supported a system that facilitates corruption, immorality, and abuse from and by its leaders, then repentance means we do so no longer.

Third, in conversations with those who have been injured or offended by these scandals, we cannot display defensiveness. There is nothing to defend in what has been allowed to happen. Instead, we are heartbroken. We are sorry.

Fourth, check our hearts. Why are we drawn to the flamboyant instead of the godly? Why are we willing to overlook glaring, disqualifying, sinful patterns in our leaders?

Fifth, check our churches. Are there systems for holding pastors/elders accountable? Who would a victim of abuse go to? Would they be heard?

All of this deserves a lot more attention from the church. How did we get here (assessment), and how do we go forward (humble, strategic planning). These conversations cannot be “how do we preserve our image” but must instead be “how do we fix the rot.”

Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbi Dei.