The picture above represents not only the “bride” of Christ held back and controlled, but women in the “bride” of Christ held back and controlled. It is a great concern to me that there are many in the body who think that authoritarian control is needed to keep people in line and to keep the unity of the faith. But is the removal of the ability to question those in leadership or to question secondary doctrine a necessary thing to keep the unity of the faith? Some apparently believe that questionable tactics are allowed if the end result is unity but I would like to propose that unity based on an abuse of authority produces artificial unity.
Wade Burleson has been doing a series of posts on authoritarian control in the church and within non-profit groups and I believe that this issue is a major problem in the church today. Those who use intimidation tactics to prevent people from asking legitimate questions have risen up in our churches at an alarming rate. Where is this all coming from? There appears to be an emphases in many seminaries that sways impressionable young graduates to the belief that pastoral authority must be defended at all costs. Wade Burleson comments on the results of such teaching that creates an elite group of “the Lord’s anointed”. While Wade’s comments are specifically about the Southern Baptist Convention, the application can be made throughout all denominations.
However, it is my belief that there has risen a culture in the SBC, reinforced by training received at many of our seminaries (not all), that emphasizes pastoral authority and seeks to convince people that they are not to “touch the Lord’s anointed.” It’s as if some leaders in the SBC expect to be treated as kings, and everyones’ calling in life is to serve the king and tell him how wonderful he is. CHRISTIAN ministry should be just the opposite. Any leader should be known as a servant to all. A true leader welcomes all questions and answers them fully, and he will not care what people say about him because he is not in the ministry for personal advancement but for the kingdom of Christ’s sake.
Elite and powerful SBC leaders must be reading from the same playbook. Do what you want when you want. Don’t accept being questioned. And, if somebody has the gall to question your decisions or actions, attack the person.
Turning back the tide of such authoritarian control is not easy, but it must be done for the health and true unity of the body of Christ. There is great concern about these new spiritually elite leaders and their unwillingness to be held accountable for their actions. Wade writes about the heat that must be willing to be faced to bring about change:
The best changes in any organization only come when someone is willing to take the heat for speaking about the need for change.
Wade lists a non-profit organization and a church that have come under scrutiny by concerned members.
Larry Jones and Feed the Children Ministries, based in Oklahoma City, are in the local news because of a lawsuit filed by five current Feed the Children board of directors who say that Rev. Jones made several decisions, without board permission, that have reflected poorly on the ministry.
Charges of financial improprieties and that of abuse of authority have prompted the directors to go to civil court to protect the integrity of the organization. Wade reports:
The board members have also expressed concerns over what they believe to be an abuse of authority. They allege Rev. Jones is centralizing the decision making process at the one billion dollar non-profit organization to include only Larry and close family members and friends – excluding those who question him. Board members also say that there is a curtain of secrecy over financial improprieties, and at least in one case, a cover-up of a $100,000 embezzlement. Finally, board members allege there are intimidation tactics used to prevent anyone from finding answers to legitmate questions being asked about the operation of the non-profit ministry. Thus, the board members have gone to the civil courts to protect the organization they love.
Intimidation tactics are also claimed in the case of a “Watchdog” who has publicly reported the alleged misdoing of a pastor of a large church in Jacksonville Florida.
Wade Burleson reports about the “Watchdog’s” concern for changes that were slipped into the church by-laws that allow for authoritarian control.
This past week I spent an hour on the phone with a man who is the Watchdog Blogger, a long time member of First Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Florida. The Watchdog has blogged about problems that he believes have arisen at his church, and his concerns seem to parallel those of the board members at Feed the Children. The Watchdog is highly educated, has a family that loves the kingdom and their church of many years, and is intimately acquainted with First Baptist Church, Jacksonville. The Watchdog has expressed his opinion that there has been a curtain of secrecy over a land gift and other financial benefits to pastor Mack Brunson and his family. He has also blogged about church salaries and benefits (i.e. several thousand dollars in office remodeling) given to Mack’s wife, Debbie, Mack’s son, and Mack’s friends from a Dallas management agency. The Watchdog is most concerned with what he believes to be an intentional and radical change to the church bylaws which hands authority to a select group of trustees appointed by the pastor rather than the congregation as a whole. This bylaw change, according to the Watchdog, was pushed through the church business process with very little notice, discussion or debate. The Watchdog has also blogged about a number of other issues, raising questions that he believes need to be asked. The Watchdog has not gone public with his name, receiving a great deal of criticism for blogging anonymously, but explained to me he remained anonymous out of fear of retribution from powerful civic leaders who are members of the church and could intentional seek to ruin his name and business. He told me his compelling story, details of which are startling, because he said he trusted me.
The Florida church has brought a motion to the church membership that would allow the leaders to aggressively confront what they deem as “unjust criticism” and to take legal action against the blogger who exposed the changes to the church by-laws and also the secretive financial dealings concerning the pastor and his family. As a result of the leadership’s actions against him, the “Watchdog” blogger is no longer allowed entrance onto the church property and is not allowed to attend any public service of the church even though Matthew 18 was appealed to by the leadership as the basis for “reconciliation and restoration”, there was no attempt at reconciliation or resstoration. Instead of reconciliation, the intent quickly became retribution for daring to question the authority of the church leadership. The “Watchdog” has provided a video of the motion brought to the Florida church that he calls “The Anti-Criticism Doctrine“.
Rather than hold back questions, Wade Burleson, on the other hand, welcomes questions from his church members as he writes:
In my opinion there should never be any hesitancy for any Southern Baptist to ask any question he or she desires of someone in ‘authority.’ If a church member has a question about my salary or benefits, wants a copy of our church bylaws, or desires information about our ministries, he will be given answers to his questions in full -and commended for asking. The same freedom should be given to trustees and board members of Christian non-profits. Full transparency in all aspects of any Christian ministry is not just desired, it should be expected.
One of the signs of an elitist in authoritarian control is that they deal harshly with those who ask honest hearted questions. Wade writes about how questions are turned into an attack on the character of the questioner:
My objections with the new doctrinal policies was a matter of conscience, but I soon found that gracious dissent, even when one signs his name to it, is treated quite harshly by those who consider themselves denominational elitists. When they don’t like the questions being asked, they tend to move toward attacking the character of the person asking the questions.
Instead of charging those who ask honest hearted questions with defying “biblical authority”, Wade treats his church membership with gentleness and respect. In Wade’s post called “Lessons in Dealing with a Disgruntled Member“, Wade writes:
There are those who say that no church member ought to express opposition to the pastor’s decisions. Some say that the pastor is the Lord’s anointed, and to question his ministry, or his decision making, or his integrity is simply rebellion against God.
Not so. No pastor is beyond the scope of scrutiny. Further, it is not the questioning of the pastor that is the problem. Rather, it is the response of the pastor to the questions that is often the problem. Many pastors, whether it be for personal insecurity reasons, fear of exposure, or a false understanding of “church unity,” will deal harshly with those who question their leadership. This post is offered as an example of how a pastor and church can deal with a disgruntled member in an effective manner.
Wade Burleson’s open and honest approach to dealing with a “disgruntled member” is refreshing and Christ-like. As a personal testimony to his upfront way of dealing with dissent, Wade offers his story of how he dealt with a certain member who was holding secret meetings with others to hash over their complaints about his pastoral decisions. Wade writes:
The person who had told me about the meetings had been invited himself to attend, and he knew that the group was going to ask others to come and be a part the following Friday. There was obviously an intentional effort to make the dissident group larger. Yet, I had to settle in my mind and heart that my goal could never be to prevent, control or dominate these people in any form or fashion. Jesus came to set people free, and that means disgruntled church members should be free to dissent and disagree with their pastor – and tell others of it! And, I should be free to accept it as from the Lord. It’s a little like King David when Shemei was cursing him and Abishai, David’s servant said, “Shall I go cut that dead dog’s head off?” King David said, “Let him alone. God has bidden him to speak.” As pastor, I see every event, even the difficult ones, as God refining my character.
Wade dealt with the member with compassion and not confrontation.
I decided the best way to approach the disgruntled member was to personally contact him and let him know that I knew of the meetings, and that I affirmed all the members’ rights to participate. Further, I determined that I would volunteer to meet with them, if they desired, to try to answer all questions they felt important. I also wanted to express my appreciation for their prayers for our church.
When leadership cares about people, they are willing to affirm, lift up and serve the sheep and Wade Burleson is an excellent example of this. Wade ended his talk with the disgruntled member by saying:
“I may have not been able to answer your questions completely, and even if I have, you still may not agree with my decision making. Please know that your disagreement with the pastor of Emmanuel is not only all right, it is healthy. The main thing you should know is that you have every right to question me … our disagreement will never be, in any form or fashion, an impediment to me loving you and being a pastor to you. Feel free to relay what we have discussed to those you are meeting with, and know that you have my complete support in continuing to meet. You can invite anyone and everyone you desire to join you, and if you have more questions, I will be happy to come meet with you. If, after evaluation, you feel you can’t worship with us because of a disagreement, please know that you have our blessing and full support to join another sister church and we will recommend you with Christian love and grace. Bottom line, I’m never above questioning, nor are you are ever beyond my desire to see our mutual walk with Christ strengthened.”
Pastor Burleson goes on to give the end result of his caring communication with the brother who had disagreed with his decisions.
He thanked me for answering his questions and addressing his concerns and said that after listening to me preach for 15 years he should have known that I would have responded with grace and transparency to any questions he had. He then expressed his love for me and mentioned how much he respected me. He said the group was no longer meeting, and all of them voiced at their last meeting that they wanted their families to be a part of a church where leaders affirmed them, even when they disagreed.
This is truly a godly example of reaching unity in the faith without authoritarian control. I would like to end this post with a comment I found online regarding speaking in a diplomatic and loving way with our brothers in Christ who disagree with our biblical views.
It seems to me if we all engaged in diplomatic, rather than abrasive, conversations, there would be far fewer divisions in the Body of Christ.
We all have more to learn about speaking the truth in love and allowing people to disagree with us yet still treating them with no less love and respect than we do the rest of the body of Christ.