March 27, 2023

Abusive Leaders or the Sexular Culture? What’s Worse for the Church?

So what’s the biggest damage being done to the church? Is it from the “out there” Sexular Age, or the internal abuse that we see played out in so many sad ways. External or internal? What’s more likely to burn us down if we’re not careful? Well, as the taco shell girl says when faced with the dilemma of hard or soft tacos, “Why can’t it be both?”

I am writing this in response to a tweet (screenshotted and put on the rest of his socials), by Mike Frost. Two points in response. First, There’s a deep irony in Mike calling out abusive Christian leadership. And second Mike feigned ignorance that Nathan Campbell’s response – also screenshotted below – was in relation to me (Mike said that he had no clue that I had coined the phrase “Sexular Age”, a phrase that has gotten some traction, and me some traction with it.).

There’s something circular about all of this, because one the abiding tendencies of abusive church Christian leadership is that they struggle with other people’s strengths or little victories being recognised. But let’s leave it at that.

The main point is – as I said above, “Why can’t it be both?” And if Mike were to sit down and discuss this with me over, say, a coffee, or some such, I would be happy to point out the false dichotomy he is posing. Both issues are dangerous to the health of the church, and in ways that at first don’t seem evident.

There is no doubt that abusive church leadership is troubling for the church. Though whether or not there is more abuse in church leadership these days is debateable. As social media would clearly indicate, it’s the reporting of abusive leadership that’s more prevalent. It’s also the age of empowering the victim and the celebration of speaking truth to power, so that’s why we are seeing stuff come out of the woodwork. And I have to say this, albeit with a whole bunch of caveats, it’s easy to use the word “abusive” and “toxic”. Sometimes good clear leadership that stands up against a manipulator who is used to getting their own way is labelled “abuse”. Well that’s just making it harder for the rest of us to be honest.

But let’s be clear too, that while those issues are terrible for the church, the vast majority of churches are led by great and godly women and men who love the people entrusted to their care, and whom they serve with genuine gospel devotedness. I’ve seen abusive situations, and been on the wrong end of the stick of one, and it’s deadly. But I’ve been involved in pastoral ministry for a long time too, and the quiet tears of spouses and children over unthinking, hyper-critical, or simply divisive and immature, congregants is heart-breaking. Under-shepherds should love the sheep entrusted to their care, and churches should honour those the Lord has put over them. That’s not rocket-science.

So much for the abuse. What about the Sexular Age (far better than Sexular Culture don’t you think?)? Well it damages the church in two ways. First it bullies the church. Sign up to this agenda or else. The Sexular Age bullies the church into self-censoring silence, or at least it wishes too. Mike clearly lives in New South Wales, but he should get himself down to Victoria a little more often. There’s a palpable chill among many pastors who suddenly find that the Victorian Government is interested in their sermons and their pastoral care. Very interested indeed.

Mike should know this, though perhaps his views on sexuality and orthodox Biblical ethics around sex have changed. I guess you’re never going to see the Sexular Age as a problem if you’ve started, as many theologically-adrift pastors have done, to see it as a solution! Such pastors don’t generally believe that the cultural tsunami is going to wash a lot of bodies up on the shore when the full-blown Sexular Age has done its thing. But it will. I just hope our churches are ready and willing, and loving, and brave to pick up the wreckage of this beautiful apocalypse.

But second, not only does the Sexular Age bully the church, as the previous paragraph makes clear, it beguiles the church! It’s not as if Christians and churches are immune from the underpinning philosophical commitment to expressive individualism that has given rise to the more confronting of the Sexular Age. Put simply Mike, the “sexular culture” is not “out there”.

I didn’t coin the phrase (wait until I finish the sentence Mike!)… I didn’t coin the phrase to simply describe the sexual mores of the culture, but to describe the zeitgeist in which the personal fulfilment program is championed: To describe the societal mood that makes it possible, for example, for Christians to pick and mix their church and spirituality experiences all on the basis that they are consumers just like their secular counterparts. To make it plausible to align the goals of the good life on offer in our fabulously wealthy Western cities, with the goals of the gospel. To somehow make self-denial a sin, and self-fulfilment a discipleship project.

And sure, this comes out in the church – is coming out in the church – in a wave of theological and moral confusion around sex. Hence too many younger generations see no problem with hook-ups or friends-with-benefits even within the church. So bereft are they of a deep spiritual anthropology, that they are just as likely to affirm, alongside the culture, that the point of a romantic partner is to further some sort of self-fulfilment program.

It then becomes easy to view covenant marriage between a man and a woman whereby each partner self-sacrifices for the sake of the other, finding in this an oft-torturous path to love and contentedness beyond circumstance, as merely one option among many.

But the Sexular Age is not about sex per se. The confusion and revisionist views around marriage and sexuality in the church are merely the presenting issues, the tip of a much bigger iceberg, the bulk of which sits under the water, lurking and luring us to our spiritual demise. The Sexular Age is about expressive individualism’s discipleship program, and the ways in which we are able to justify our own sinful behaviours, even as church leaders.

Which brings us back to abuse in the church. Perhaps the tightest, most moralistic, most evangelical/Reformed bully is simply adhering to the rules of engagement permitted by the Sexular Age. For with bullies in the church, it’s all about them. All about their gains. Their wins. Everyone else becomes expendable. Everyone who gets in the way of their personal ministry dreams is cast aside or cast out.

No, this is no simple dichotomy. The abusive church leader whose desire is to have it all their own way, all the while coating these desires in gospel glitter, is every bit as much a part of The Sexular Age as the Mardi Gras participants coating themselves in actual glitter.

I’m with Nathan Campbell. I agree with Mike Frost. But perhaps not for the reasons that Mike thinks. And that’s probably worth a discussion some day.

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