This past Sunday during our morning worship service, we had a guest speaker in the pulpit. His name was Steve Marshall, and he was a French church planter who was in the U.S. for a brief period of time to follow up with his supporters.
As Steve began to preach, I didn’t know what to expect. He spoke with weight, with unapologetic authority. There were no jokes, no shimmering cultural references, no compelling anecdotes. There was simply a question, “What does it mean to be Christian?”. He suspended us in that question for an uncomfortable amount of time. He asked it again, but in a different way, “What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ?” The way he began to answer the question was simple, “to be a Christian is to move forward on your knees”.
My first reaction was to roll my eyes. “Here it is:” I thought, “another sermon about how our prayer life sucks. If we just prayed more diligently and consistently we would be better Christians.” My reaction was embarrassing, not only because it was childish, but also because it was inaccurate. The sermon wasn’t about prayer, it was about humility. It was about how allergic we have become to courageous humility. It was about the foundation of the Christian life – admitting our need for Christ and giving up the real idols that keep us from truly surrendering to Him. I immediately felt relieved and nervous about what he would say next.
Humility & Toxic Power
If someone were to ask you, “what is the opposite of humility”? You, like many others and myself, would be tempted to answer, “pride”. Biblically speaking, that response is reputable enough. But, in the context of the modern church – specifically, church leadership – pride wears many masks. One of the most common of those masks is “toxic power”. According to Kyle Strobel & Jamin Goggin in their book “The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb: Searching for Jesus’ Path of Power in a Church That Has Abandoned It”,
“Toxic power is not bigoted; it cuts across all socioeconomic, racial, and denominational
lines. It does not focus its attention only on obviously powerful pastors. It is an equal opportunist. It crouches at the door of every church, regardless of Sunday morning attendance. If you are a pastor, you will be tempted to embrace toxic forms of power in ministry.”
Toxic power is rooted in the desire to control. Whether the means of control are manipulation, kindness, charisma, guilt/shame, etc, toxic power is rampant in the church, and what is necessary for transformation is an embrace of costly humility.
There is no greater example of embracing costly humility in the face of toxic power than Christ Himself. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it, “God allows Himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which He can help us.” Christ exemplified costly humility by demonstrating power-in-weakness. The problem with embracing this vision of power-in-weakness is that it isn’t attractive. It’s often humiliating. It flies in the face of systems and structures that beg for metrics and member growth; it undergirds the vision of expansive ministry programs and a desire for a more “powerful experience of God”; and, most importantly, it demands us all to confront the toxicity within ourselves. No one is exempt from the allure of power, no matter how veneered, ornamented, or veiled in Christian niceties that power is.
Recognizing behavior that is symptomatic of this kind of power is crucial. First, we must recognize it in ourselves. There is no greater success for the Enemy than for God’s people to go splinter-hunting amongst themselves (Matthew 7:5), and only once we have recognized and crucified the toxic power in ourselves can we begin to lovingly recognize it elsewhere. The past year of my life has been the beginning of that crucifixion. The Lord has weeded and tilled the earth of my soul and it has been painful. However, He has also fertilized and sown seed. The result has been the beginning of what I pray will produce a plentiful harvest of learning to walk in costly humility. I would like to offer my humble contribution of what I see as a few symptoms of toxic power in Christian culture. I pray that the Lord might help us recognize and abandon them. I pray that he would give us the courage to embrace costly humility. Each of the following symptoms are struggles I have dealt with personally. It is by God’s grace alone that He is beginning to undo them in my heart.
4 Symptoms of Toxic Power
When Reputation Outweighs Repentance
The first symptom of toxic power in the church deals with reputation. There is an alarming tendency for pastors and church leaders to attempt to “control the narrative” when things go wrong. Whether a leader falls into sin, finances go awry, or there are inexplicable changes, it is tempting for leaders to fall into the belief that transparency is dangerous. Personally, I think this stems from two beliefs:
First, it stems from the belief that the congregation isn’t capable of fully processing or understanding the weight of the work the leadership partakes in. In other words, pastoring is lofty, complex, and too far above the layman’s paygrade to concern the congregation with the mess of it. At the risk of oversimplifying, the source of this tendency is a belief that information must be overly censored and tailored for fear of it being misunderstood by the congregation. It’s a lack of trust that results in a lack of transparency. The consequence of this belief is an obscured understanding of what’s really happening in the church. To be clear, there are some private matters that ought to be protected and handled with great care. However, the nature of Paul’s letters in the New Testament (which were often written to be read to the entire church) were very transparent. The key is that Paul’s letters were also peppered with grace, intentionality, and a clear path toward redemption and reconciliation. They were never written as cleverly devised P.R. presentations that shared a version of the information to give the impression of health and control.
Second, it stems from a belief that the pastor’s (and church’s) reputation trumps the health and dignity of those involved in a particular issue. Here is the underlying lie: the ultimate success or failure of the church as an institution rests on the ability and efficacy of the leaders to maintain “damage control”. Behind this lie is the deeper belief that the head of the church isn’t Christ, but the pastor. This type of behavior has led to a whole host of scandals recently on the public stage – leaked information about covering up sexual abuse, pastors threatening other church leaders, victim-shaming toward those who have been hurt by the church. But, the scope of this flirtation with toxic power isn’t narrowed to the public arena. It happens everywhere. When the reputation of the leadership is esteemed above the dignity and Christ-given self-worth of those involved, narratives will be fabricated that favor the health and well-being of the institution, transparency will be clouded out, and personal repentance will take a comfortable back seat.
What Christ desires for His leaders is costly humility. The kind of humility that holds the hand of the Spirit into the wilderness of transparency and embraces repentance as the only way forward. Power-in-weakness isn’t attractive, and power-in-weakness certainly doesn’t honor reputation above repentance. Even Christ, who had no sin, forsook his reputation for the sake of dignifying and redeeming those He loved more than Himself.
2. When Loyalty Speaks Louder Than Allegiance to Christ
The second symptom of toxic power in the church is often inconspicuous and harder to place. There is a strong tendency in the church for people to place loyalty to one another over allegiance to Christ. This symptom is insidious because, on the surface, it seems godly. In Acts 2, it describes the first church as committing themselves to one another and sharing their possessions. When we read an account like this it is tempting to buy into the notion that to covenant with a church in membership means that we are bound for life. To be clear, Christ did call us to amplify our witness to the gospel by the way we love one another (John 13:35). I will admit that there are bad habits of church hopping, spotty attendance, and burning bridges among Christians who have grown bored or disappointed with the church. However, loyalty to a particular church was never intended to replace allegiance to Christ. Wherever Christ leads his people, the church is called to celebrate and rejoice (especially after the dust settles). Unfortunately, this often is not the case. What typically ensues is a pariah mentality. There are outsiders and insiders, loyalists and renegades.
Where does this tendency stem from and how is it emblematic of toxic power? It stems from the belief that the people of the church belong foremost to the institution itself. There is an unhealthy adoptive mentality when it comes to the members of the local church that is more rooted in 18th century congregationalism than 1st century Christianity. When the retention of people in the local church becomes a means to the end of adding clout to the organization, any fluctuation in membership is an assault on the church’s validity.
The truth of the Gospel is this: the people of God belong foremost to Christ. Their allegiance is to Him. When Christ called Simon (Peter) and Andrew from the comfort of their vocation, he called them to follow Him. Christ will lead his people where he will lead His people. A church that is in bed with toxic power seeking to control will see this Christ-directed rearrangement as a violation of loyalty. In worst case scenarios, it will justify its objection with eisegetic manipulations of Scripture. But the fact remains, the ultimate allegiance of the Christian belongs to their Savior, wherever he may lead, and the expectation of the local church is to openly celebrate believers following Christ regardless of the cost to their contrived legitimacy.
3. When Heroism Overruns Humility
We all want to be needed. We all want to feel important. Most of the time, no one wants this more than a pastor. A non-christian friend of mine once said, “pastors are just affection addicts”. I’ll never forget that. I know it’s been embarrassingly true of me. What is it that makes pastors particularly addicted to being needed? What is it that makes us want to be the hero of, not only our own lives, but the lives of others? We’ve all fallen into the rut of the Savior-complex. Whether it happens when we are trying to help someone out of an abusive relationship, when we are trying to help a student pass a class, or when we are simply walking through a difficult season with someone, the itching temptation toward heroism is unrelenting.
When this addiction is coupled with toxic power, it makes for a potent cocktail. Leaders who need to be needed by those they are leading are often the perfect candidates for abusive power for control. However, the manifestations of this toxic power are often hard to identify. In my story, there are two primary manifestations of this kind of heroism – active browbeating and passive manipulation.
When leaders are prone to active browbeating in an attempt to maintain control over those “below” them, they tend to resort to a routine of good cop, bad cop. It begins by nitpicking and overanalyzing the flaws and misdirections of those they are leading, only to be followed up by an extension of grace and offer of “under the wing” therapy. People are made to feel immature, insignificant, and inept when they fail, and when they have nowhere to turn, they are welcomed into the loving arms of those they have let down. It’s typical of Stockholm Syndrome. Because they feel spiritually indebted to their pastor, their soul gets stuck in the quicksand of repayment; they need to make a return on investment for the grace they’ve been given. Those who tend to browbeat are typically convinced that they are legitimately the hero of those they pastor. The allergy to humility becomes especially resistant.
When leaders are prone to passive orchestrations of maintaining heroism, it typically comes in the form of false humility. Leaders will turn their own failure into an opportunity to win those they are leading back into their good graces. They will be quick to apologize, but slow to repent. The apologies will often serve to maintain the facade of their own self-conscious humanity, when, in reality, it only serves to keep those they are leading close to their side.
I realize this all sounds excruciatingly cynical, but trust me, its real. I’ve been both types of leader and it always stemmed from a belief that God needed me more than I (or the people I was leading) needed Him. I was averse to leading people toward dependence on Christ alone because I didn’t know how to lead them there (because I’d never been myself). I always led them toward needing me. When I let them down, I manipulated the situation so that I became the Savior once again.
The truth of the matter is that God will not share his title of Hero. He is the Hero of our faith, the Hero of our failures, and the Hero of our successes. When leaders vye for affection and vye for His title, God’s swift hand of justice is close behind. When heroism overruns humility, leaders burn out, those they lead become disillusioned, and the Lord’s jealousy burns white hot. The idol of being needed is one of the crudest abuses of power that exists in the church today, and it’s time leaders choose the narrow road of costly humility lest their people continue to suffer.
4. When Charisma Drowns Out Contentment in Christ
The 4th and final symptom of toxic power is the tendency to supplant contentment in Christ with various forms of charisma. When discussing charisma, it’s important to be clear. Many leaders possess charisma, personality, winsomeness and they steward it for the glory of God. However, there is an alarming tendency in the modern evangelical church to overly depend on the gifts God has given us in exchange for the Gift of Christ’s presence.
In The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb, Kyle Strobel and Jamin Goggin have the privilege of interviewing the late Eugene Peterson. They ask him a question, “What do you think is the most dangerous temptation toward toxic power in the church?”. Peterson took a while to respond. “Personality”, he said. Peterson understood that the pastor’s proclivity to “leverage” their personality for the sake of the gospel was nothing more than a functional replacement of the gospel itself. What Peterson understood was the allure of charismatic personality. When a pastor becomes overly dependent on their ability to be clever, funny, winsome, or interesting, the Enemy uses that as a potent idol in their life. An idol that not only overshadows the gospel in their preaching – and especially their living – but an idol that replaces the gospel. There is nothing more magnetic than a leader with charisma. Leaders who have stand-out charisma are jewels in the landscape of motivating people. But there is also nothing more potentially dangerous than a leader with charisma.
So what’s the solution? Only hire boring pastors? Of course not. The solution is to fight like hell to tame our dependence on our own charisma when it comes to leading others.
The temptation toward toxic power that seeks to control in the form of charisma stems from the belief that our gifts and our skill-sets are valuable in and of themselves. It stems from a belief that the Holy Spirit’s momentum is merely an addendum to our personality in the pulpit and in the mission field. One of the clearest evidences of this behavior is in the personality of the people leaders are discipling. If those they are discipling look like them, act like them, preach like them, and have similar character flaws, it is likely that they are leaning into their personality at the expense of the Gospel. God has given us unique and variegated personalities, but He has given us ONE word. He empowers us to use our personalities in the service of His word, not to use his word as a platform for our name’s sake.
There is another type of charisma that colludes with toxic power. It exists primarily in the charismata of dramatic experiences/encounters with God. This is where toxic power rests its head quite comfortably. When we are prone to chase the charisma of dramatic spiritual experiences, we are likely to marginalize the commandment of Christ to “abide in Him” (John 15:4). When we are content to rest in Christ and revel in our unity with Him, we are averse to the temptations of toxic power to depend on controllable spiritual experiences. (The irony of these spiritual experiences is that they are often characterized as spontaneous, unplanned. However, they are frequently subconscious contrivations of emotion, environment, and a restless spirit dissatisfied with the mundane.)
Contentment in Christ surfaces most clearly in the moments when we are in pain, moments when it is hard to see what God is doing, and moments when power-in-weakness is on display. We cannot keep running to glitz and glamour at the expense of the gospel. We cannot keep displacing the sufficiency of Christ with superfluous spiritual encounter-treasure-hunts. Christ has given us his Holy Spirit to live within us. His presence is enough, His grace is enough, His Word is enough. Rather than recycling spiritual experiences to ward off the boredom of the mundane parts of our lives, we are empowered by Christ to be content in what He has already and will continue to do in and through us.
Walking Forward on Our Knees
Toxic power allures us everyday. Whether we are pastors, lawyers, waitresses, or moms. We are always tempted to use power to control rather than to love. What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ? It means that we walk forward on our knees. There is no esteem in walking on your knees. There is no fame or affection or glitter when you’re walking on your knees. You move slowly. You have to be patient and diligent. It hurts. There is only dependence and humility. And there is Christ, with nail-pierced hands and skinned knees, by our side, encouraging us to “press on”.