After a nice Christmas break, Mike Bird and I recorded another YouTube conversation for Birds of a Feather. Of course Mike wanted to talk about the insurrection of our US Capitol, so we also talked Christian nationalism. And with the beginning of the year it seemed fitting to discuss Bible reading, the importance of interpretive communities, quiet time habits, and, you know…Tim Keller’s relationship to George Soros. I also try to throw in a few of my favorite “Birdisms” into my vocabulary.
2020—very bad, do not recommend. You’ve seen the memes. It’s been a doozy of a year. We will all remember 2020. It’s similar to a Pearl Harbor moment, or September 11, 2001, in that our lives are not the same as they were before it. Except, it didn’t happen in a moment. It’s been a year of fear, loss, uncertainty, and polarization. 2020 has affected us all, and our churches, in different ways. When going through trials, there is a verse in the Bible that can be either comforting or terrifying. It’s one that I take to God in prayer. In exhorting the Hebrews to persevere, even under divine chastisement, the writer says this:
“Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
Most of us do what we can to avoid going through trials, or as the New King James Version calls it, chastisement. In this section of the sermon-letter, we see that it is even to be considered divine chastisement, as God disciplines those he loves. But not so much in the sense that we normally think of the word now. We aren’t talking about a mere punishment for our actions kind of thing. The Greek paideia means tutorage. The writer to the Hebrews draws on Old Testament context to take advantage of both the punitive and non-punitive meaning of the word here. Both concepts of discipline—as a means of correction for disobedience and also as a means of training in obedience—are at play. There is an exhortation to endurance in getting an education in training, which includes disciplinary correction. The writer is talking about our sanctification through perseverance, even—especially—under hard trials like 2020 brought.
A couple weeks ago, those who pressed formal charges against Michael Spangler were approached by the committee that was formed in the Presbytery of the Southeast (PSE). They were asked to drop their charges against Spangler, because they had come up with their own charges. They believed their charges to be stronger, and it is apparently better for charges to come from his own presbytery (Yet, since this has been going on for years now, it seems there was plenty of time for action from Spangler’s presbytery). What event led to such strong action from the PSE all of the sudden? Michael Spangler and Shane Anderson had just written and distributed a letter to the congregation of their church, where they disparage their own presbytery. Now that the men in power have been derided, action must be taken. And now it is not good enough that the people who originally cared—about the victims of Genevan Commons, etc., and the actions of these church officers in their denomination—to continue with their charges that were already set in motion. They needed to step down and let the PSE handle it. The first meeting of the trial for these new charges against Spangler was on Friday, December 4th.
Mike Bird and I have recorded a second Youtube video of Birds of a Feather, discussing the election, Mike’s car getting its big Hollywood break, Stephen McAlpine’s post about whether abuse is more prevalent now than it has been the past, African American Readings of Paul, and my experience with Appalachian moonshine (shh!).
We aren’t sure why anyone would want to watch this. But, hey, as Jack Burton would say, we are reasonable people. But we’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things.
“Our responses to the vulnerable expose who we are.”
As I said, three great books on abuse in the church have released this fall. Diane Langberg’s Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church is now completing my set of reviews. Dr. Langberg is an expert in this field, as she is an internationally recognized psychologist who has counseled many who have suffered abuse of power. This book concentrates on the dynamics of power, broken down into three parts: Power Defined, Power Abused, and Power Redeemed. What I think I like most about Langberg’s book is her emphasis on personhood. So, when breaking down the different types of power, she begins with our personhood, saying, “to be human is to have a voice…Abuse of power silences that self and the words, feelings, thoughts, and choices of the victim.” And, “to be human is to be in relationship…Abusive power violates and shatters relationship.” And, “Third, to be human is to have power and shape the world…Abuse quashes and removes power.”
Dr. Langberg explains that all power is derivative of God, for the purpose of glorifying him and blessing others. And we are called to sacrificially use our power in the path of the cross. But here’s the thing, “Vulnerability and power are intertwined.” “Just as power can harm or bless, vulnerability leaves humans open to being blessed and hurt, to good and evil.” When we are vulnerable, we are offering a gift of our self, but we are also open to be wounded and exploited. In every chapter Langberg points us to Christ. I love how she spent time in her chapter of vulnerability pointing out how Jesus put on our vulnerability in the flesh.
On June 19th, I shared some screenshots from a website with church officers in my denomination and other Reformed denominations, comparing the behavior revealed there to the biblical qualifications of an elder. The screenshots were from the Genevan Commons Facebook group (GC). Since then, I have received numerous encouraging messages and notes of support. Officers in my denomination wrote an open letter . I have also received numerous messages from women who have suffered under spiritual abuse. It’s overwhelming. The question is, where do we go from here?
I’m thankful to have some church officers advising me and asking some good, critical questions about what I hope will come out of all this. It’s caused me to do a lot of reflection. I’m thinking deeply about the role of social media, responsibility in how we use it, the distinctions between the weight and value of informal and formal ecclesial processes, and the complexities of how they may work together in this case.
I am listening and feel the weight myself of what the formal process can and cannot accomplish. I am grateful for the open letter signed by ninety plus officers in my denomination. This was an informal act, yet I believe carries an important weight. The public abusive behavior of church officers in our denomination was rebuked publicly. Finally.
But it continues.
A month after the Genevan Commons website exposed the behavior of these church officers, the Presbytery of the Southeast (PSE) of the OPC passed a motion to investigate the behaviors from officers in their presbytery in this Genevan Commons group, as some of the worst offenders leading the way were in their presbytery. However, one of the members they appointed to this committee is/was a Genevan Commons member who has written critical articles of both Rachel Miller’s work and my own. This is a conflict of interest to the investigation, especially when no signers of the Open Letter were appointed to the committee. It also made no sense to me that no one from the committee had contacted the victims with any questions. They seemed more concerned about investigating the signers of the Open Letter than caring for victims of harassment from their own church officers. This is curious, as they are not only gathering information here—real people in their denomination are still under spiritual abuse from church officers in their presbytery. You’d think you’d want to hear from them. Instead, my session was contacted by a member of this committee, asking that they silence me. This is re-traumatization 101. Silence the victims as they work on image control rather than protecting and ministering to the hurting sheep.
My Australian friend and theologian, Mike Bird, and I decided to have some fun recording a Zoom conversation and posting it on YouTube. No introductions. No music. Mike has a bit of a flickering light issue that will need ironing out should we do it again. Just Bird to Byrd. We opened with a little fun, a bit of a “What’s the deal?” segment, and then the common thread among topics that came up in our conversation, such as biblical manhood & womanhood, wokeness, and the election, seems to be the anger brewing among evangelicals and the lack of love for our neighbors. Here is the link to Bird’s article we discuss: The Fundamentalist War on Wokeness is a War on Christian Love. If you are interested, here’s the YouTube link:
Recently, in reviewing A Church Called Tov, I said that spiritual abuse can be like living in a bad dream—not only because you can’t believe this is happening, but because none of the people you are going to for help are functioning as they should. The whole setting is off and you are trying to make any sense of it. Tov was excellent in introducing spiritual abuse, identifying the culture behind it, and helping the church build a culture that nurtures goodness. Wade Mullen wrote the Foreword. Mullen’s book Something’s Not Right focuses more on helping you decode what’s going on in this bad dream. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried dream interpretation, but Mullen is an expert in spiritual abuse interpretation. He wants to help those under spiritual abuse decode the hidden tactics behind it that are meant to disorient and manipulate so that you can free yourself from its power. He says,
Freedom comes first by understanding, and understanding means having the language to identify and talk about your situation.
I can attest to how true this is. You can’t navigate through abuse if you can’t name it and articulate what is actually going on. And you don’t really know what’s going on when you first encounter it. Most of us don’t think like abusers, and so we wonder, “What is wrong with me?” As we try to grasp what is true, the whole experience is crazy-making. And abuse is such a strong word. We know how to identify physical abuse and sexual abuse, but what is spiritual abuse, and is it really that damaging? Mullen says,
Recently, at a conference where I was speaking, some women called me over to their table asking for some book recommendations. And as usual, I said, “Well, that depends on what you want to read about.” Immediately, one woman blurted out, “Sex over 50!” Not what I was expecting. But it just so happened that Dorothy Greco’s Marriage in the Middle had recently arrived in my mailbox. It was that day at the mailbox that I had to realize that, although I am not over 50, I am considered “in the middle” (between 40 & 65). This isn’t a book about sex, but since sex is a big part of marriage and is affected in this next stage of life, Greco has two whole chapters on it. And, let’s face it, all the other chapters on marriage in the middle also affect our sex lives. If she’s asking about sex after 50, she’s probably also asking about a host of other issues that can affect intimacy. Since my husband and I had already read the first several chapters together, and I am familiar with Greco’s writing, I was happy to recommend it. That was a pretty proud moment to be able to laugh with this woman and then actually have a recommendation for her.
But it isn’t a woman’s book by any means. Like I said, Matt and I are reading it together. He is digging it as well. And we aren’t big marriage book readers. (Or parenting, but I digress…) This is a very practical book. Greco gets right to the issues that surprisingly creep into marriage in the middle stages—middle ages? Well, she calls it Embracing Midlife Surprises, Challenges, and Joys. Surprise, your child did not launch the way you were planning and now you’re raising grandkids. Surprise, your hormones are freaking out and you are not comfortable in your own body anymore. Surprise, you just moved your last child into college and your dad had a fall. Surprise, you are not where you thought you would be at this stage of your life and you’re not sure how to process or maybe even admit this disappointment. The thing is, you think that you put the grit into those building years and should be able to coast through marriage in the middle. But every stage of life presents challenges and Greco is really good at speaking frankly with us, bringing in many testimonials and interviews, and offering encouragement and guidance while setting us in the direction of our Christian telos.
What if the very people accountable to God to shepherd your soul are the ones crushing it? What if, behind the curtain of that Christian community that you have grown with and loved, you find that you really aren’t safe? What if you find a more traumatizing truth than your original abuse—a whole culture in church leadership in which abusers can thrive? Sadly, far too many have encountered this devastation. Three books on abuse in the church are being released around the same time that I’ve been looking forward to reading. They will all offer a needed contribution. Today I want to talk about the first one I got my hands on, A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing, by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer.
What I love about this book is that the authors frame it around the culture that enables abuse and how to nurture a culture of goodness that a church should be. Abusers abuse because they can, and it’s time for pastors and elders to stop evading responsibility for their own participation in this destructiveness in God’s household. I’m using strong words here. I’ve used softer words before: the hardest thing to make sense of for many is the role of the community. The community themselves may not be abusive people. We could be talking about the friends of the abuser, the leadership in the church of the abuser, or the organization and alliances they are a part of. They are even harder to confront because it’s hard to take responsibility for being complicit in abuse when you yourself hate abuse. It’s hard to see you’ve been manipulated, you’ve enabled, or that you’ve misaligned your priorities at the cost of others. But there has to be a community that “cooperates with the abuser to maintain the performance needed to keep the structure intact.”
It’s never just a few bad apples; it’s a system that nurtures them. We need to talk about the culture in our churches. And McKnight and Barringer help us see that it starts with the leaders: