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.
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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