My new website on Organic Church

Here is a link to my writings on organic church. I’ve been part of organic churches for over 10 years and am part of a network in Saskatchewan, Canada. It’s book length, but organized like Wikipedia. You can digest the 20 page version or click the links to see deeper stuff on particular subjects. It isn’t intended to be comprehensive, it is my contribution to the conversation.

LT.organicchurch.ca

Must we submit to authority to have authority?

One of the popular beliefs in “Covering” circles is that for people to have authority they must come under authority. I’ve never seen a good explanation of this doctrine coming from anywhere in the New Testament. Paul talks about having authority as an apostle but claims his apostleship was from God and no human agency and on top of that he seems reticent to use it. There is one place in scripture where someone is directly offered authority if only he would submit to authority. It is found in Matthew 4:8-10.

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their grandeur. And he said to him, “I will give you all these things if you throw yourself to the ground and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go away, Satan! For it is written: ‘You are to worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’ “
(Mat 4:8-10 NET.)

The word translated worship is proskyneo which according to BDAG (the best lexicon in the game) means: “to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure.1The word describes a physical act of bowing usually offered to kings and emperors and many of those in Jesus’ day were considered gods. To Jesus and the hearers of that time such a deep level of reverence and submission was considered worship and that is the reason why this word is translated worship. In authoritarian churches the authority figure often offers all the blessing he can muster in exchange for submission. If you submit to authority you will be given authority, you will praised in sight of others and offered special privileges and access to personal attention. In reality it is just another leader selfish for personal gain offering people ways to sell out. I’ve seen many fall for this. They become the leaders’ favoured son or daughter for a season but are rejected as soon as someone more enticing comes along or he or she is no longer seen as someone who contributes enough to the leader’s agenda.

Another thing this passage illustrates is that there are really different kinds of authorities and different kinds of jurisdictions. Satan could only offer him the benefits of his kingdom. Jesus knew this was a trap and refused. He never challenged or attempted to sway political realities of the day because he knew he was king of a different kingdom. Nor did Jesus take away from the realities of authority and ownership in this world. Jesus said “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Mar 12:17). Caesar had his kingdom and Jesus had his. He cared about the authority of his kingdom, and not the kingdom’s of this world. He was offered all the human authority he wanted as long as he sold out to someone who wanted to exploit him for his own gain. In the same way a church leader can only offer anyone the benefits of their own agency. All the blessings of God’s kingdom come in Christ and not through any human agency. Our agencies can cooperate with Christ’s kingdom or we can fight it. If our domain is a boat Christ’s domain is the wind. On our boat we might have deck hands and captains but none of these things matter unless the boat is set to capture the direction and power of God’s spirit. We either align our sail to the direction of God’s kingdom or we put in our oars and row our own way in our own power. No church leader can offer you authority in Christ’s kingdom any more than a ship’s captain can make you lieutenant of the wind.

In the church we find reason to put people in leadership and they have authority in that realm. The New Testament has some instruction on how that should look but we can never, ever, equate anything we create with God’s kingdom. If we are faithful our sails capture the wind of the spirit and a result we become a physical manifestation of God’s work. We can point to where we are, where we’ve been taken and where we are going and say praise God. The higher reality is every human agency we construct is only worth something so far as it cooperates with the work of God’s spirit in moving people to a new place. There is nothing our human agency that can limit what God chooses to do in his kingdom. They are different domains. So it seems that in many cases one gains authority by submitting to authority but only in our own human agencies. Be careful as not all authorities are aligned with God’s purposes. We can never acquire authority in God’s kingdom. All authority in Christ’s kingdom has been given to Christ. Our lives may or may not witness to that authority, we may be moved by that authority but all the authority in this domain is only found in Christ.  

1Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Casuistry – Matthew 23:16-22

Have you heard of the word casuistry? I hadn’t until I was doing a little study on Mathew 23:16-22. It is the best English word to describe one of the things Jesus accused the scribes and Pharisees of.

Here is the passage

“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple is bound by nothing. But whoever swears by the gold of the temple is bound by the oath.’ Blind fools! Which is greater, the gold or the temple that makes the gold sacred? And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing. But if anyone swears by the gift on it he is bound by the oath.’ You are blind! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and the one who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and the one who sits on it.

(Mat 23:16-22 NET.)

There are two generally understood meanings of the word casuistry. Both involve making moral choices based on specific principles or rules. In a good sense it is just a framework for making ethical decisions that have complicated or competing priorities. For example physicians are expected to follow the maxims of “do no harm” and “patients ought to have autonomy in matters of treatment.” Imagine a situation where a patient is refusing lifesaving treatment but is mentally compromised by their condition. The doctor must decide to compromise on one maxim or the other. Say the doctor does decide to treat the patient by ordering a sedative and conducting surgery. The patient recovers and is angry accuses the doctor not following the maxim of patient autonomy. The doctor used casuistry to make his decision and is confident he/she was justified in making that decision given the situation.

In the situation Jesus addresses the scribes and Pharisees were attempting to do the same thing but dishonestly and speciously. They would make oaths on the temple but wouldn’t live up to them and when questioned they would say that oath on the temple means nothing. When people might accuse them of not living up to that morals or promises they would provide complicated reasoning to avoid accountability.

Why am I bringing this up here? It isn’t uncommon for controlling church leaders to come up with really high sound spiritual reasons to avoid simple biblical principles. While we don’t generally have complicated theologies about oaths we do have a confusing and often conflicting world of pet charismatic teachings like prophetic acts, spiritual warfare, the prosperity gospel, spiritual mapping, and spiritual coverings. While some have more basis on scripture than others they have become fertile grounds for complicated and sometimes deceptive reasoning to justify sinful behaviour.

What lies at the root of this is a desire to complicate issues to such a degree that it makes it difficult to make sense of any situation. It is a very intentional tactic used by insecure and/or malicious church leaders to avoid accountability. Through heavy handed coercive efforts they attempt to bring about submission and compliance. With that established they protect their position by creating a surreal environment where simple logic and reason are muddled by a web of competing and conflicting values. This creates an ideal environment for obscuring reality and evading accountability.

Casuistry isn’t the only trick. There are other subtle manipulations that I’d like to write about in the future.

 

Processing conflict in the church: Matthew 18 and beyond

One of the more difficult things to handle in the life of the church is conflict. It is inevitable that conflict occurs, because people are people. Jesus gave his disciples instructions on what to do when there is conflict.

"If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, so that at the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector.

(Mat 18:15-17)

The principles are pretty straight forward. At the heart of Jesus instruction is the desire to regain a relationship. By going to the offending person privately you have a much higher chance of successfully convincing them they have harmed you. Very often we tell an authority and the authority confronts the person in question. This doesn’t communicate the same commitment to relationship that going privately does. People are less likely to become afraid if it is just a peer that confronts them. When trying to get through to a dysfunctional person you want to do everything you can to affirm how much your relationship with them matters to you so they don’t feel condemned, shamed and become defensive. If you desire someone to change you want them to understand their actions are wrong. You don’t want them to feel like they are a horrible person. The goal isn’t to make people feel bad or punish them, it is to help people become safe, functional members of your community.

Don’t be legalistic about this rule. If there is conflict between two people and they are already cynical and distrustful of each other having them meet privately probably will just make things worse. The question you have to ask is “Who is the best person to talk to the dysfunctional person and what is the best way to talk to them?” Consider your plan of action carefully and look for the best possible outcome for everyone involved.

Perhaps there is some other crisis that is more important and the issue at hand can wait. If someone’s dad died you don’t confront them on how they don’t do a good enough job cleaning the church bathroom. There is an obvious judgment call that needs to be made. If the person is continually damaging others you accelerate the process. If the problem isn’t a major one then just wait until it is a good time to talk to them.

Sometimes talking to someone one on one doesn’t work. The next step is to escalate by confronting the person with one or two others. The offending person might be in denial, they might think the problem is just you. By bringing more people in to the situation you can establish that the problem isn’t just the figment of someone’s imagination.

Remember to give people time. There are a lot of honest people that don’t react well to an initial confrontation but after some time and the emotions settle they come around. Give people the time to process what they heard. I’ve taken months to talk to someone just because I know they were going through a really rough time and they aren’t coping in a healthy way.

If having two or three people confront the person doesn’t work the next step is to apply more leverage. At this point you are starting to pick between bad and worse options. Exposing someone’s failings to a group of people is going to do some damage to everyone involved. It is a difficult thing for most people to do. My guess is that well over half of the world would rather let things slide than risk hurting someone’s feelings by telling them a difficult truth. Sometimes this bad option is better than the worse option of doing nothing.

It is a drastic step but it is good for a couple of reasons. Some people will respond if several of their best friends tell them they are in the wrong. When taking the issue to the whole church you have to have a strong case against someone that would past the scrutiny of several people. Notice there is no room in this for heavy handed backroom tactics by leaders. How many controlling church leaders conveniently punt out their critic’s one or two at a time and tell the rest of the congregation their very biased version of the story?

If the whole community can’t convince someone to stop hurting others then they should be removed from the group until they are safe again. It is really important that this is communicated. Regardless of what you say people will come away feeling worthless and condemned but it is worse if you treat them like they are worthless. Don’t ever write people off. Always leave the door open to reconciliation and restoration.

Now there are times in which this process doesn’t fit the situation and it is appropriate to skip or modify steps. In most cases the primary goal is to restore relationship but if that appears unlikely then your goal is to keep people safe.

If the offending person is abusive don’t expect an alleged victim to talk to them in private so they can be abused again.

If there is an established pattern of abuse by someone in a position of power and previous attempts to confront the person have failed there isn’t any point to sending another person to confront them personally. Abusive leaders have very effectively hid behind a truncated legalistic interpretation of Jesus’ words here. As soon as someone confronts them they go on the offensive and discredit the person that confronted them. Many honest people have been labeled divisive or rebellious just for asking the wrong questions.

Now if you don’t follow step one the many leaders will complain that you didn’t follow the procedure. In some cases this is a legitimate but separate issue. Just because someone is bringing up issues in a poor way it doesn’t mean the issues aren’t relevant or true. If someone has a problem with me I’d hope they could tell me personally, or at least tell someone else we both trust and talk about it before it becomes the topic of gossip. However just because someone doesn’t confront someone the best way doesn’t mean their complaint is illegitimate. It is rarely easy but a good leader will make an attempt to see past the misguided actions or inflammatory words of a critic and consider the kernel of truth that might be found in the complaint. It is a credit to a leader when they have people around them that can see through the kerfuffle and say “you know so and so has a point here.” Counter accusations are not a defense for sinful behavior.

There are times when following Jesus’ directions here isn’t enough. If there are allegations of abuse whether it is physical, emotional, sexual or spiritual there needs to be a proper investigation by an appropriate authority. Often in cases of abuse or exploitation what we see is just the tip of the iceberg and there is a lot more going on that is concealed. We need people looking in to the situation with the ability to get to the bottom of things. This usually involves social safety agencies, child protection services, and law enforcement. It can turn out to be a big mess but the alternative is worse. Far too often churches have been satisfied with shallow investigations while abuse continues. Victims often grow up to be abusers and the cycle continues.

If you know with great assurance that someone is a danger to others your first priority must be the protection of innocent people. If you have firm evidence some one sexually assaulted someone in your church you make sure they don’t go anywhere near the alleged victim or other potential victims until a thorough investigation is finished.

Why do I feel the freedom to more loosely interpret Jesus’s instructions? Because Jesus didn’t always follow the procedure he outlined in Matthew 18.

Read through Matthew 23. Did Jesus personally approach the Pharisees in private before lambasting them publicly? Paul corrected Peter in front of a whole crowd of people (Gal 2:14). Paul pointed out the false teaching and faults of the self-proclaimed super-apostles in a letter. He had no opportunity to confront them directly. It doesn’t appear that John confronted Diotrophes in person either (3John 1:9-10). There are lots of examples where it wasn’t feasible to confront someone personally.

In general I see Jesus’s priorities following along two lines. If it is feasible do what you can to restore relationship causing the least amount damage. Failing that do what you need to do to ensure people are safe.

Above Reproach

A recent controversy surrounding a prominent author and perceived leader in organic church circles lead me to come back to scripture and consider one of Paul’s qualifications for leadership. In one of his letter’s to Timothy Paul wrote:

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. (1Ti 3:2-3)

The one qualification I looked at is the first one. What does it mean to be “above reproach?” Digging into my lexicon I find that the greek word here is anepilemptos which more literally means “unable to take hold of” or “unable to seize.” It carries the meaning being unassailable or beyond rebuke or disapproval. As I size it up I’d say that leaders must be free of any potential legitimate accusations about their character or actions.

Looking at the rest of Paul’s life I’d say that being above reproach doesn’t necessarily being perfect or sinless. Paul confessed his own weaknesses (2Cor 1:8), sin (Rom 7:15), inabilities (2Cor 11:6), and the dark aspects of his past (Acts 26:11). One key aspect of being above reproach is to not have anything hidden that people can accuse you of. Bringing our past in to the light is one indicator that we have truly changed.

Another indicator that we have truly changed is whether we are willing to make amends with the people we have hurt. If we have truly taken ownership of our mistakes and we truly care about the people we have harmed we will do what we can to remedy them. Far too often leaders claim they have repented but just ignore the carnage left in their wake.

To be above reproach is to act with integrity and consistently exhibit Godly character and to be honest and upfront when making mistakes or struggling with sin. There should be legitimate concern if there is a pattern of evasion or dishonesty about the past. If a potential or current leader gets defensive quickly when questioned that is another warning sign.

It has been disastrous when we don’t hold our leaders to account. So many have found themselves in high profile positions and when the truth of their flagrant sin and pattern of deception is revealed it sets off a terrible explosion in the body Christ. The damage reaches far and wide. Some leaders are abusive and exploit others and the damage can go on for years. It is one of the reasons we have so many wounded Christians. This keeps happening because we don’t require our leaders to be above reproach.