November 12, 2020

Is abuse more prevalent in the church today than in the past?

Despite being one of the most shaping events of the past few decades, no one in the Twin Towers thought to film the terrible events on their mobile/cell phones.

No cell phone footage was made, or found in the tangled wreckage, showing the tragedy unfold. There’s plenty of external footage of planes flying into buildings. and obvious video camera footage, grainy and unsure, in fire escape stairwells. But nothing much about what was happening on each floor. No up close and personal terrified in real time vision.

Seems strange.

Until we realise that the average phone didn’t have a camera back in 2001, and that the technology to enable that only launched onto the general public market in 2002. The events happened alright, we just didn’t get to video them as they happened.

In a similar vein, the grainy video capturing LA police beating Rodney King in 1991 is described by legendary ABC news anchor Peter Jennings thus:

And now the story that might never have surfaced if somebody hadn’t picked up his home video camera …

That line says it all. It took some effort back in 1991 to do what we now take for granted.

Go search that video out. Google it, in other words. Do what comes naturally now, but was unavailable to you then.

It’s grainy footage, with no audio, and it took an effort to video it. Gotta find that camera, gotta make sure it’s set right, and then gotta get the footage to someone manually. And not just any someone, but newsrooms who might take an interest in it.

A bit of effort was needed and as Peter Jennings said, it might never have surfaced. A lot of material ducks had to line up.

Now contrast that to the body cam footage of the death of George Floyd in 2020. It’s confronting stuff. You can hear every word. You can hear the passersby shouting concern, you can hear the breathing. Or the not breathing. And it’s gone viral. As has the BLM response. It was going to surface, always going to surface, and surface quickly. There was an inevitability about it.

The ducks are now well and truly lined up. Every bit of technology is available and at hand to ensure we see the events, and quickly in real time (IRT). And not just technology, but democratic technology that can bypass the institutional chains of command that may have an interest in suppressing the events, and mainline straight to the public veins.

And of course that begs the question, is racism more prevalent or less prevalent in viral 2020 than it was in 1991 and that year’s amateur hour video? More or less so than 1970? 1950? There’s a sociological/tehcnological rabbit hole to go down right there.

So what’s this got to do with church abuse situations, particularly of the “spiritual” kind. As a wise friend asked me the other day:

“Was there any less abuse in churches in Victorian England? Was human nature any different to what it is today?”

It’s always the ones you least suspect

Now my friend is not asking that out of cynicism, but genuine curiosity. What is it about here in the West and now at this time, that has given rise to the wave of disturbing stories we hear about spiritual abuse matters from churches?

Is it a social contagion? Was there a resilience within people in churches back then, a resilience that we no longer have in our anxious late modern life with its emphasis on the therapeutic? Those are questions I have heard asked, rather than questions I would initially have asked.

Two observations, one around technology and one around theology.

Technology: As with the Twin Towers and Rodney King, the hurdles required to ensure that the IRT information was relayed, and relayed to those who might be able to change the situation, was not previously available.

Were there less narcissists and abusive people in Victorian England, or 1960s Australia for that matter? No, our theology would have to answer in the negative. People have not changed, and church leaders have not changed since the Apostle John wrote to the church back in the first century:

 I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us.  So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church. (3 John vv9-10)

But calling it out? Calling it out on a democratic platform that levels the playing field of power structures? Christian bloggers (and, admittedly, some bloggers hostile to the church) have a level of reach unheard of in previous times.

For good or ill these people shape the theological thinking of millions of people. And they have been able to expose spiritually abusive situations in churches to an unprecedented level.

My own blog is in that camp. Technology allowed me to disseminate my experiences, and the same technology allowed those who shared those same experiences to get in touch with me – and stay IRT touch with me – almost from the day I wrote about it. And that gathers a momentum, and at a pace, that could never have happened before.

This certainly keeps the matter front and centre, and moving. But that’s not the same as saying the matter did not exist before. It’s not even saying that a social contagion has occurred in which people read previously difficult church relationships, which one may have in the past shrugged off and moved on from annoyed and angry but not devastated, as major spiritual abuse.

If anything it is saying that the level of technology has caught up with the level of abuse. What was once hidden, which was then shakily recorded on a handycam and available if you could find it, is now recorded and disseminated if not in real time, then certainly close on the heels of the events. And everybody sees it.

Ministries are tackled to the ground while the abusive person is still going strong in ministry, not merely when he or she is in their grave. There will soon be no statues or graves to desecrate because legacies are being erased before they are written.

Some would say that technology is the problem, magnifying and exaggerating a complex issue in real time. It certainly shortens the time between an exposure and a demand for a response. There’s a breathless pace to these situations. We wonder who it is going to be today, never mind this year, and technological advancement plays a part in the story

But it did not create the story. If you think that advanced IRT technology is the problem in the Rodney King beatings, you need to go have a long hard think in the corner.

Theology: So where do we go with all of this theologically (and hence pastorally)? Is there a rise in the level of abusive leaders? Is there an increase in the number of narcissists who are damaging the flock of God?

I think there is. Why? Not because there are more narcissists in the 21st century West than there were in Victorian England. But because the church has uncritically let more of them in to leadership and failed to filter them out early in the piece. We have either baptised unhealthy personality traits that would have previously disbarred someone from ministry on the grounds of character, as being either integral or essential to church leadership. Or we have been negligent through laziness or lack of will.

Hence what may have disbarred you from ministry in the past – or at least put you under the ecclesiastical microscope-, now looks good, given the odd wordplay, on your CV.

The church in the West is under pressure. Decline is clearly a fear. We have lost our influence, and what better way to regain it than by an “influencer”? We need people who can “get stuff done”, whatever we mean by “stuff” and whatever we mean by getting it “done”. The character traits that get stuff done in the corporate world are seen not only to be capable of get stuff done in the church, but of being desirable to do so.

Enter Mr Narcissist, with a vision – a “gospel vision” no less for your church. And who can argue with a gospel vision, right? A few eggs may have to be cracked to make that omelette, but hey, the end product!

So when I received a forwarded email just yesterday about an ongoing international and well-publicised spiritual abuse case, the saddest, and most revealing statement was along the lines of how decades ago evangelical leaders, although seeing firsthand the ungodly public behaviour towards an older leader by a then-young upstart on a church platform, still signed up the young buck. Still consigned the sheep under the care to that person.

Why? Because he convinced them that he could arrest their obvious gospel decline with radical intervention. And that set the trend for a couple of decades in which that behaviour ramped up, and spread, the person in question confident that this behaviour would be as unchecked or unchallenged at an institutional level now as it was then. Until technology and theology combined, with no thanks to those inside the institution.

What if, back at that point, church leaders had put their foot down and salvaged sheep then and into the future by a brave, but difficult decision. What if they had turned that young man to these words:

Here is a trustworthy saying: whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.  Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,  not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.

Trustworthy saying it may be, but ignored in this case nonetheless. And let’s not simply point the finger at the bogeyman – independent church settings.The same situation is occurring across institutional ones, even in those which pride themselves on publicly being safe spaces for all sorts of diverse people. The desperation to claw back some influence in the culture is blinding institutional overseers to the problem.

At least I hope that’s what is happening. Because the alternative, that they are knowingly doing it, is just too depressing to contemplate.

Hence it was depressing recently to hear how a senior institutional church leader said with a straight face, when told they have just appointed someone who has already been more than problematic in several church communities, and had been subject to a denominational investigation, that this new role would be the place where that person “… could sort themselves out.” Excuse me? Leadership roles are not therapy for the abusers.

That’s a fail right there. Not just an individual fail, but an institutional fail. And it’s dismaying and dispiriting. It’s no wonder people bypass institutional settings and go straight to the videotape, so to speak. Why wouldn’t you? Desperate people will do desperate things.

There’s a failure of nerve to confront difficult situations – difficult people – and ask difficult questions of them, because there is a lack of gospel courage in too many institutional leaders. If you are an institutional leader you are paid – and charged by the gospel – to lose sleep at night so that people further down the food chain do not have to. Yet the further up the totem pole you climb in leadership mitigates against you laying an axe to its base because there’s a lot further to fall.

But just like Twin Towers, totem poles can fall down in a day. Shock and awe can overtake any organisation at any time. And the church should know this most of all, as St Peter reminds us:

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. (1 Peter 5:1-4)

Plenty of godly leaders are serving quietly and lovingly across the evangelical world. Let’s be clear about that. I am not one for saying the whole thing is rotten, because it clearly isn’t. But the reason they are doing that is that they are waiting to share in the glory to be revealed – later. The deep sin of the proud, abusive leader is impatience, not with people, though that can be the case. But impatient for glory. They want it now and now they shall have it. But what you have now, you will not have later.

All stories will one day surface. I am convinced of that. Good technology has, as always, been a disrupter. It is now exposing what bad theology for too long refused to expose.

Is abuse more prevalent in the church today than in the past? Whatever your answer to that, it is clear that technology is now allowing justice to play catchup in real time. And that is no bad thing.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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