January 26, 2022

The Abusive Pastor: The shift from being godly to being god-like

Amongst the many articles written about Mars Hill, most destined to become digital land-fill, this one piece on the Mere Orthodoxy website stand out for its exceptional theological depth and pastoral insight.

Jared Michelson has done an excellent job at getting to the issues behind the issues behind the issues behind the…. (you get what I mean) when it comes to how church leadership, and a church’s vision fails its people – or more to the point – God’s people. And so much of it lands on an improper (sub-orthodox) view of who God is and how God relates, especially how God relates to His Persons.

Michelson pulls no punches in exposing the darlings of both conservative and progressive church leadership in their collective failure to appreciate the godness of God – and by virtue of that the humanness of humans – when it comes to pursuing rather flawed agendas by rather flawed people.

Simply put, there is a discernible shift among so many righteously zealous leaders from a desire to being godly to a habit of behaving “god-like”. And as Michelson points out in eviscerating ways – and as we all well know – the absence of the former means you will never see heaven, and the presence of the latter means you will certainly see hell.

Yet Michelson points out that our almost blithe attempts in both modern scholarship, as well as contemporary church leadership, to use the Trinitarian inter-relationships as a template for our own agendas risks us making that shift from godly behaviours to god-like attitudes. And as fallen humans that’s going to lead us to dark places; dark places that are familiar to us because we probably came from there in the first place.

So have a read of the full article. It is theologically deep. Theological depth leads in pastoral wisdom, or at least it should. Michelson notes this, and it’s important:

While yes, we imitate the triune God insofar as we are creatures restored according to the image of the Son, the doctrine of the trinity serves primarily to highlight the unlikeness of the creature from its Creator and to protect us from imitating God in ways which fail to account for our creatureliness.

He then goes on to outline some examples, not just from the celebrated case of Mars Hill, but from the low-grade, low-pay scale lives of so many involved in pastoral ministry situations that go south. You know, the ones so many of us are familiar with.

And it’s this statement that stands out. Take time to take it in:

The task before us as ministers of the gospel, or better said, the task before us as redeemed creatures, is to emulate the self-giving of God in an imperfect, creaturely mode. It is to benefit from one another without becoming co-dependent. Pastoral authoritarianism often begins with a pastor who not only asks too much of their congregation—too much time, too much obedience, or worse—but too much of themselves (or a congregation who does the same). Might it be that the slide towards authoritarianism often begins, not with monsters bent on dominating others, but with good intentions gone wrong? Pastoral abuse often starts not with despicable tyrants but co-dependent people who think they can love like the trinity.

“To benefit from one another without become co-dependent”.

That line nails it. When we look back at the earnest endeavours of so many church train wreckages led by so many unfit train drivers, a common factor is how much co-dependent berg was under the tip of that leader. Good intentions gone wrong. The 10 percent visible desire for godliness that hides a huge, broiling cold 90 per cent reach at god-likeness. And how we have seen it. The good intentions gone wrong. The desire to be a “community of Christians that are different to others” that ends up being exactly that in all the wrong ways.

The co-dependent issue is so critical here. It’s very easy to paint in black and white and call out absolute monsterism, but from my own rather bitter experience, it wasn’t that simple. And anyone who says it is – or was – is assuming a god-like knowledge of themselves that they will not permit others. I have heard the most orthodox conservative evangelical attribute an inerrancy to an human being that if they were to watch it being done from the outside – or within another theological tradition – they would either scorn or be horrified by. Yet such is the nature of creatureliness.

We can know ourselves. To an extent. But our creatureliness must surely throw us back onto our Creator, and temper our schemes and grand visions. Rather than a utilitarian approach to the trinity that allows us to cherrypick the doctrine to suit our times or fit our ministry agendas, Michelson urges the safety-brake of revelling in God’s aseity (his self-sufficiency), to soften and reduce our sharp, grand schemes. Why? Because god-likeness is no substitution for godliness. And god-likeness means we are blind to both our limitations and, sadly, blindly to our over-reach.

MIchelson is on the pastoral money when he says this:

When we realise we do not merely need a ‘nicer’ portrait of god but a more transcendent one who lives and loves in a mode totally beyond us, we are offered a realistic portrait of the roots of pastoral authoritarianism. For me, the temptation to pastoral abuse is nearest to hand when the good things which both I and my congregation long for seem just out of reach. It’s not because I am a megalomaniac drunk on authority, it’s because I want people to meet Jesus, home/community groups to flourish, our services to be winsome and congregants to hold one another accountable to what Jesus asks of us. It is when we fear those good things are slipping through our fingers that we like Israel so long ago cry out to God, saying: “Give us a king.” “Give us a strong man who will secure our flourishing.” At the same time, we pastors then say to our congregations, “give more, obey more, sacrifice more, and I can give you what your heart desires.” When this happens, we fall into the profoundly subtle trap of thinking that we can give and love like gods.

It’s the start of another year (well here in the summery southern hemisphere it is, I simply assume the wintery north got on with it after Dec 26th). And it’s a third year of COVID. Church life can be taxing. Ministry will be complicated. Just like it was last year (perhaps more so?) In such times when visions and mission statements seem ever more critical, yet more ephemeral as congregations dwindle and end up on-line or end altogether, it will be tempting to fall for the desire to be god-like rather than godly in ministry.

Go read the article, but here’s another banger from Michelson:

If God does not really need us, then pastors must utterly refuse the lie that says congregants are instruments through which kingdom work can be accomplished. No, they are beloved children of God. It is true, the best thing for them in this life is to sacrificially participate in what God is doing on this earth and thus to joyfully give of themselves for God’s mission. But because the triune God’s ultimate end isn’t what he can get from us but what he can give to us, pastors and church leaders must be rigorously self-critical when we call the church to sacrifice for the sake of the mission. We must root out the ways we are tempted to use people for the sake of some other end, recognising instead that they are the ‘end’ of God’s redemptive work.

In summary, how does godly ministry differ from god-like ministry? The sheep are ends in themselves, not means to an end. That’s a mantra worth repeating, whatever 2022 dishes up.

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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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