FACING UP to the DANGEROUS REALITY of ABUSE in the CHURCH

PART ONE of the ESSEX HALL LECTURE 1999 POWER FOR GOD’S SAKE by REV DR PAUL BEASLEY-MURRAY Lecture 7.

Churches can be cockpits of conflict; deeply neurotic places where people play power games and deny the reality of their own circumstances. I have witnessed these things and been part of the strange collusion that allows churches to be extremely dishonest places.

 The moment I read these words of Richard Holloway, Bishop of Edinburgh, bells began to ring. Yes, I said to myself, how, right you are. Power is not only a reality in the world outside, it is also a reality within the church. Indeed, power may well be more of a dangerous reality within the church, precisely because it is for the most part unowned and unrecognised.

Spiritual Blindness

There is, it seems to me, a large degree of naivety, if not self-inflicted blindness, on the part of Christian people. We know that power games are a reality in the world of politics and in the world of business, but we do not want to accept that they are also a reality in the church. And yet why should the church in this respect be any different from the world? If all the other sins of the ‘flesh’ are to be found in the church, then why not this one? Any intelligent reading of the New Testament would reveal that there were power struggles right from the beginning of the life of the early church. Not only James and John come to mind, with their desire to sit on the right and left hand of Jesus in his glory, but the Judaizers who wanted to impose their way of doing church on the Gentile converts, the bickering factions at Corinth. It is almost no exaggeration to say that within every strand of the New Testament we can find evidence of power struggles affecting the life of God’s people. Yet time and again we seem to close our eyes to this underlying reality, and many of us seem to prefer to live with an ‘ideal’ picture of the church.

I say ‘us’ because if I am honest there was a stage toward the beginning of my ministry when I too was blinkered and as a result, operated with this romantic picture of a church where power struggles never took place. Strangely, even before my taking pastoral charge of a local church, I had experienced power struggles, both on a small scale within the life of a Christian student organisation of which I was a member and also on a larger scale within the life of the denomination to which I belonged. And yet somehow these experiences had failed to register as an ongoing fact of church life. I would maintain that the theological college at which I was trained was all part of that strange conspiracy of silence.

Silence of Gods Lambs

At no stage do I remember anybody ever talking about power in the church as being an issue. Certainly, no training was given to me and to my fellow students as to how we might handle power struggles of one kind or another. Instead, we were taught how to preach! Although a revolution has taken place in theological education and ministerial formation since I first trained for Christian ministry, I am not convinced that ordinands, in this respect at least, are in most colleges trained any better. By and large, ministers must learn on the job when it then becomes a matter of either sinking or swimming. Sadly, for many, it is the former.

The Sin of Hypocrisy

Power in the raw of course there is overt and organised power struggles in churches, which hit the national headlines, and which are therefore recognised by all and sundry. In the North American scene, one such public power struggle took place in the early 1990s at First Baptist Church Dallas, described by some as the most influential church in America. Too Great A Temptation: The Seductive Power of America’s Super Church is the title of the book Joel Gregory wrote after his losing the battle with W.A. Criswell. It is a searingly honest and painful account, revealing the power, the politics and the hypocrisy which not only plagued that church but which plague many others too. The book’s concluding six pages should be compulsory reading for all church leaders, both ordained and unordained. From his own bitter experience, Gregory came to see that the church is an institution divine in its original foundation but tethered to this celestial ball by every frailty to which humans are subject. Covetousness, littleness, jealousy, lust for power, ego, sacrilege, and a hundred other demons all lurk within the hallways.

Lessons from Jesus

The church on earth at its best is a crippled institution that God may elect to use for His purposes. The divinization of the church in an egotistic triumphalism denigrates the very purpose for which it is founded. After all, its founder died on the cross between two criminals. Out of his weakness came strength and out of His death came life. Humanity does not consider Jesus Christ its centrepiece because he behaved like the CEO of a gigantic ecclesiastical corporation. He washed the feet of others; He did not trample them under His own in the name of God.

It Hit the Headlines!

 In Britain probably the most well-known recent ecclesiastical power struggle was the fight between the Dean, Brandon Jackson, and the Canons of Lincoln Cathedral. Time and again this battle hit the national headlines. The power struggle appeared to concern a loss-making exhibition of the cathedral’s copy of the Magna Carta in Australia in 1988: However, what fascinated me was to discover that this long-running conflict, marked by “the presence of fear and rage within the group and of a sense of intolerable pain”, actually had its roots in the distant past.

 The official report of Brim Thorne and Kathleen Baker, who were brought in by the Bishop of Lincoln to act as mediators between the protagonists, speaks of historic myths and “powerful unconscious forces at work”. It goes on to say: “These basic assumptions have probably permeated the Lincoln environment for centuries and they operate in complete opposition to the spirit of the cathedral statutes, which require collegiality and cooperation based on an atmosphere of trust.”

 Here we have a salutary reminder that unless major power struggles are properly dealt with, the seeds of their destructiveness may spill over from one generation to another. To put it in different terms, institutional ‘viruses’, as it were, can develop, with the result that although the players may change, the struggle does not. Hence the phenomenon, seen in certain local churches, whereby one minister after another leaves that church in unhappy circumstances. There is an abusive corporate mindset (heart-set?) which desperately needs attention.

I hope you enjoyed and found Part One of this lecture helpful.  Be sure to like and subscribe to receive Part 2 in your inbox in a few days’ time.

If you are or have been affected by power abuse / spiritual abuse, I am here to help. Watch my video on the Home page of my Blog to know what to do next. May God bless and heal you in His love.

Remember, to live life on purpose in Hope, Faith and Love,

Paula Rose Parish

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How to know you’re dealing with a toxic person: Matthew 11:23

Mark 11:28 Context

25And when ye stand praying, forgive if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. 26 But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father, which is in heaven forgive your trespasses. 27And they come again to Jerusalem: and as he was walking in the temple, there come to him the chief priests, and the scribes, and the elders, 28And say unto him, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority to do these things? 29And Jesus answered and said unto them, I will also ask you one question, and answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30The baptism of John, was it from heaven or of men? answer me. 31And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say, Why then did ye not believe him?

When the Bible talks about scribes, Pharisees, and chief priests, we pretty much know what to expect. They were religious leaders, but we know them as Jesus’ enemies. This is because they were constantly scheming against Jesus, trying to trick him, trap him, and try to trip him up.

This story is about Toxic people, and we can learn how to deal with such people who are in our lives.

Sometimes it’s fun to read the stories about them because they often find themselves caught in the trap they had set for Jesus. Reading about the scribes and Pharisees is a little like watching a Roadrunner cartoon. If you are around my age, you may remember the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote? 

The scene would open with Wile E. Coyote standing at the lip of a cliff, struggling to push a huge boulder to fall on Roadrunner as he comes by on the road below. Then we would see Roadrunner running along the road at warp speed and Wile E. Coyote struggling to push the boulder in time to squash him. Then, finally, Roadrunner would zip by–beep, beep–before the rock ever posed any danger, and Wile E. Coyote, in his panic, would trip and fall over the cliff. 

We would see him falling through the air and being squashed flat as he hit the road. He would then pick himself up and begin to pull himself together, then he would look up–and there the rock would be, right above him–and Wile E. would find himself squashed flat one more time by the rock that he had intended for Roadrunner. And then we would see Roadrunner again, still moving at warp speed–beep, beep! I love Roadrunner cartoons.

The Toxic People

The Scribes and Pharisees are toxic people, they try to trap Jesus, they often fall into their own trap. It’s fun to watch–especially if you’re a Roadrunner fan!

In our Gospel lesson today, the chief priests and elders ask Jesus where he gets his authority. That was a legitimate question! The chief priests and elders were responsible for the religious life of Israel, and Jesus was doing some pretty provocative things.

For one thing, just before today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Yet, at the same time, the people shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” And Jesus did nothing to correct them.

Then Jesus went into the temple, where people were buying and selling animals for temple sacrifice, and others were serving as moneychangers. These sellers of animals and moneychangers were well within their rights to do what they were doing. Nothing happened in the temple without the priests’ permission, so the sellers and moneychangers must have asked for and received permission to do what they were doing. In other words, they were AUTHORISED!

If you have ever served in the military, you know that word–AUTHORISED! If you are authorised, you can do it. If you are not authorised, you cannot. It’s that simple!

Well, these animal sellers and moneychangers were AUTHORISED! They had permission to sell animals and to change money on the temple grounds. The priests had given them permission, or they could not have done what they were doing.

And there was a good purpose behind their activity. People came from afar to make sacrifices at the temple, and it wouldn’t work to require them to bring their own animals. Sacrificial animals had to be outstanding specimens–perfect–no blemishes. Just imagine trying to bring a lamb from Nazareth or some other faraway place–having picked out the best of the flock–and seeing the animal injured on the long journey. Then you wouldn’t be able to make your sacrifice. And then you would have to take the injured animal home again.

No, that wasn’t practical, so, the priests had AUTHORISED these sellers of animals and the money changers in the temple. It was a public service–and it also brought in some money to the temple. It made sense, and so it was AUTHORISED!

But Jesus walked into the temple and drove out the buyers and the sellers, and turned over their tables, and scattered their money all over the floor. He accused the merchants of making God’s house into a den of thieves. Can you imagine! These people were well within their rights! They were AUTHORISED!

And then Jesus set up shop inside the temple, as if he owned the place, and began to teach. Now, to teach in the temple, one needed to be a rabbi. To be a rabbi, one had to go through the proper training–and the laying on of hands–in other words, ordination. Jesus was not adequately trained, and no one had ordained him. What right did he have, then, to teach in the temple? None! But there he was, teaching the people, and the people were acting as if Jesus were someone extraordinary. 

But Jesus was NOT AUTHORISED!

So, the chief priests and the elders asked Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Good question! Exactly the right question for them to be asking!

“By what authority do you do these things, and who gave you this authority?”

In other words, they were asking Jesus if he was AUTHORISED–and, if so, who AUTHORISED him. There was only one correct answer because only the priests could authorise a person to do what Jesus was doing–and they had not AUTHORISED Jesus.

If Jesus were not AUTHORISED, he was clearly wrong to do to the animal sellers and the moneychangers. Perhaps even criminals that made his teaching in the temple questionable. So, the priests and elders asked, “By what authority do you do these things, and who gave you this authority?” Good question! It was their job to ask such questions!

But Jesus responded by asking them a question. He told them that if they answered his question, he would answer theirs. So, Jesus asked, “The baptism of John, where was it from? From heaven or from men?” 

 He talked about John the Baptist, the great prophet–greatly respected by the people–dearly beloved by nearly everyone–but not dearly beloved by the chief priests and elders. So, Jesus asked, “The baptism of John, where was it from? From heaven or from men?”

That was a good question, too, because Jesus was asking who AUTHORISED John the Baptist to be a prophet. But, of course, as a prophet, John’s authorisation came straight from God. 

Everyone knew that–everyone except the chief priests and elders. The chief priests and elders would not admit that John was AUTHORISED because they had not AUTHORISED him. It was a power thing! The chief priests and the elders were in charge. 

They didn’t like people like John and Jesus coming out of the blue–claiming authority from God–challenging the authority of the priests and elders.

By this time, John was already dead–killed by King Herod. The chief priests and elders must have breathed a sigh of relief when they heard the news of John’s death. One down and one to go!

But now Jesus was asking, “The baptism of John, where was it from? From heaven or from men?” That put the chief priests and the elders in a bind. If they said that John’s authority came from heaven, then Jesus would ask why they had not obeyed John. If they said that John’s authority did NOT come from heaven, then the people would rise up against them because they knew that John’s authority DID come from God. That was very clear to the people. They would not tolerate anyone–even these powerful priests–saying anything wrong about John.

Then, the chief priests and elders said, “We don’t know!”. But it was their JOB to know! It was their job to protect the people from false prophets. It was their job to make decisions about prophets! But they said, “We don’t know!” then, Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things”.

Jesus Explains in a Simple Way

Jesus told a story about a father who had two sons. He asked the first son to work in the vineyard, but he said, “No way!” But then, later, the son realised that he had been wrong, so he went into the vineyard and did what the Father had asked him to do. In the meantime, the Father asked his second son to work in the vineyard, and the second son said, “Sure, Dad!” But then the second son wandered off, doing his own thing. He never did go to the vineyard.

Jesus asked the chief priests and the elders, “Which of the two did the will of his father?”

Now the chief priests and the elders indeed realised, at this point, that they were in deep trouble, but they couldn’t say, “We don’t know!” again. Everyone was watching, and they already looked pretty foolish. To say, “We don’t know!” one more time would have confirmed that they were, indeed, incompetent. So, they answered that in the first song, the one who initially looked disobedient but turned out to be obedient–that first son was the one who had done the will of the Father.

So, Jesus said to the chief priests and elders–and I want you to hear this–keep in mind that Jesus is talking to the best of the best–the holiest of the holy–and Jesus said to these holy men – ALBEIT TOXIC PEOPLE!

“Most certainly I tell you that the tax collectors and the prostitutes

are entering into the Kingdom of God before you.

For John came to you in the way of righteousness,

and you didn’t believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him.

When you saw it, you didn’t even repent afterward that you might believe him”.

 That was harsh language for Jesus to use on these holy men, but we’re glad that he did. We’ve seen people who seemed to be something that they were not–in other words, fakes –and we’re glad to see them exposed! 

We’ve seen influential people who use their power to keep themselves in power rather than using their power to help people.

The Problem with this Story

But there are a couple of problems with Jesus’ story. One is the problem of today’s tax collectors and prostitutes–in other words, today’s unrepentant sinners. It’s easy for sinners today to read this story and think, “I am terrible, but at least I am honestly terrible–and so I am better than these holier-than-thou hypocrites who go to church every Sunday!”

We have to be careful not to take that attitude. Jesus calls us to holiness–absolute holiness–, not to a life of judging the other person.

The other problem with this story is that we might think that it concerns people who lived two thousand years ago–and has nothing to do with us today. That, too, would be wrong. 

This Story is about You and Me

This story has everything to do with us today. We all know toxic people and sometimes we just have to get tough with him like Jesus, and not let them walk all over us- like Jesus.

This story also speaks with extraordinary power to preachers and deacons and Sunday school teachers and–well, it speaks to all of us who try to be true Christians. It warns us that if we’re not careful, we’ll become smug and self-satisfied. It warns us that if we’re not careful, we’ll wake up someday to find that we good guys are really the bad guys, and the wrong people are the good people!

In her book, Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris talks about a Methodist pastor from Montana, USA.

This pastor told Kathleen about a woman who had become a member of their little church. She had been a drunk–a terrible drunk! She had been a cocaine addict! Some people referred to her as a “cocaine whore!” because she was sleeping with whomever! 

And then she sobered up! And then she started going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and some of her AA friends took her to church! So now I want you to stop thinking about how much courage it took that woman to step inside that little church – but she went–and she kept going back–and then she joined the church. She began volunteering, and you know how hard it is to get anyone to volunteer. So she volunteered for everything that came along, and started studying, teaching, and visiting. Kathleen Norris sums her up this way:

“It was as if she had tasted salvation and couldn’t get enough of it,

or of the new relationships which these activities had led her to.”

Salvation took such hold in her that, however, she was no longer a promiscuous person. The difference was that she was no longer self-destructive but a bearer of new life to others.

In other words, the woman was no longer promiscuous with her sex, giving it to men randomly. Instead, she was now unrestrained with Christian love–loving people randomly, loving them as Christ would have her to love them.

What can we learn?

Going back to Jesus’ story, we can examine ourselves and ask- Am I a toxic person? which kind of son or daughter an I?

Are you liking the first son, who didn’t want to obey the Father–but finally did? Or are you liking the second son, who said that he would obey but did not?

Are you a renegade–a rebel–but a person who finally decides to do the right thing? Or are you one of those people whose name is on the church rolls but who never does anything for Jesus?

Or are you one of those people who obeys Christ when it feels right but who feels free to disobey the rest of the time (hidden toxicity?

Or are you one of those people who says, “I just don’t want to get involved!”

Or are you one of those people who just doesn’t care!

Jesus says, Careful! Get busy going where God has called you to go, lest you find the tax collectors and prostitutes going into heaven while you watch from the sidelines.

Get busy doing what Christ has called you to do, lest you find yourself watching the drunks and junkies at heaven’s gate while you ask, “When will it be my turn?” Time to get serious, to be the person that God has called you to be!

What strategies do you HAVE TO SPOT A TOXIC PERSON? Let me know- and If this article was helpful to you, please let me know, I would love to hear from you.

Has this post helped you in some way – If so – leave a comment- I would love to hear from you!

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Paula x

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