Sometimes (not always) a week has a theme. This week did for me. Not as some weeks do because one spends them doing mostly one thing, but because a common factor emerged in numerous conversations with Christian leaders of different ages, theological persuasions and ministry spheres. The theme was how our evangelical systems often promote the wrong kind of people into positions of leadership and influence.
That might sound like sour grapes from jealous people, but these were all, in my estimation, godly servants of Christ with significant gifts to offer to the Church and God’s mission. And we have had enough exposés of high-profile leadership abuses in recent years to substantiate their concerns. Each of these people, in one way or another, had experienced mistreatment or injustice within evangelical organisations.
I wish I could say these were the few unusual cases, but they aren’t. Many evangelical organisations, and much of the subculture that surrounds them, are rife with unfair suspicion of others, insecure people who hunger for recognition, manipulation of people to achieve one’s own end, and vain self-promotion. I must be clear that I’m not saying this is universal or even the majority of evangelicals, but these issues are found with shocking frequency in our systems. And they aren’t a product of our evangelical theology. Indeed, it is because they are so incompatible with what we believe (and who we follow!) that they cause such hurt and can be exposed as wrong.
The stories I heard reminded me of something troubling I read in a book recently. The author suggested that Christian leaders should accept their ministry position as the one God gave them without being bothered about the positions others hold. I had some sympathy. There is no point despairing about things we cannot change and we should be more thankful for what is given to us than distressed at what is not. I wrote about that in my recent book Clarion Call: Finding Joy in Christ with John the Baptist. Chapter 9 explores John’s statement that no one can receive anything that has not been given from Heaven. We must receive everything God gives us as a gift for a season and thus hold it lightly and turn it always to His glory.
But that is only half of the equation. We must also accept that human systems can impede the work of God. Not forever, but in real ways in the here and now. It seems obvious in Scripture and in our experience that God, though He could, does not always intervene in human choices to ensure His good, perfect and pleasing will is done. Yes, He limits our choices and their consequences and He will bring all things to their very good conclusion of Christ-likeness for those who love Him (Romans 8:28-29). But that does not mean we must simply accept things as they are as the will of God. To do so is to become complicit in sin and fail to act to protect the vulnerable. We can and should do better.
I shared the sorrow and burden of those who shared with me this week. But I was also hugely encouraged by each of them because, scarred though they are, they shone with the beauty of another scar-torn One. I saw the grace of God in them and its fruit of gentleness towards others and passion for His glory. None of them have given up. I pray they never will.
Two encounters were especially encouraging. They were with people at opposite ends of the age range of those I met. One, a good bit younger than me, challenged me with his desire to change the systems. I have no idea if he can, but I will encourage him as much as I am able. His passion for character to triumph over charisma and for pathways to be opened for those who refuse to self-promote was impressive and utterly righteous. The man who was considerably older than me was equally refreshing. He admitted that the systems were little better than when he was a young man and that his hopes to reform them had not materialised, but he exuded generosity towards me as he shared a list of ways we might cooperate, pondered synergies and cooperation, and steered away from duplication and competition. He is one of a small class of people I have met who truly serve the Kingdom of God without a shadow of human hubris.
Where does that leave me, somewhere ‘in the middle’ in age? I want to be like both those brothers. I do not want to lose a passion to reform ungodly systems. I hope I will always keep the courage to be an outsider when that is the price for faithfulness. But I also want to be generous with whatever has been entrusted to me and never to become cynical because I’ve been mistreated or maligned. I know it is not in me in my flesh to walk this path, but I pray that the Lord who is the Spirit will do this supernatural work in me so that I may walk in the footsteps of my Master. And just maybe others will join me and we can limp along together.