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:
“Think of it this way: Pastors and other leaders exercise a preliminary voice in forming and telling the church’s narrative, acting out the Christian life for others to see, teaching the Christian faith and how it is lived, and articulating policies. They exercise formal authority and power to create and maintain the church’s culture.”
“A rooted culture is almost irresistible. If the reinforcing culture is toxic, it becomes systemically corrupted and corrupts the people within it. Like racism, sexism, political ideologies, and success- at- all- costs businesses, a corrupted culture drags everyone down with it. On the other hand, if the reinforcing culture is redemptive and healing and good (tov), it becomes systemically good. A tov church culture will instinctively heal, redeem, and restore.”
When you aren’t the one who’s been harmed, things may seem just fine. Lovely people, lovely studies, lovely fellowship. Your kids like it there. You may not be asking questions like, “What is tolerated in this church,” because you don’t think you need to. But, “When an allegation arises against a pastor, a leader, or a volunteer within a church, what the pastor or leadership does first will reveal the culture of the church—whether it is toxic or tov.” (Tov means goodness.) At this point, are we going to open our eyes and see? Or do we look away?
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. The more I study about abuse tactics, the more I see just how unoriginal sin is. Manipulation works for a reason. The chapter on false narratives can be like the field guide to help you see what’s really going on in this ‘only if it really could be a bad dream.’ In an abusive culture, you are not cared for. This one took a while to sink in for me. So, abusers will take control of the way people perceive the story. This is traumatic for a truth-teller who is already hurt by the abuse, as their whole world becomes dismantled. The abuser uses all kinds of tactics, minimizing the offense, gaslighting the victim and the leadership (this can be incredibly traumatizing), leveling the playing field or often turning the tables, switching the order of who is the victim and who is the perpetrator. This can be all be done in covert ways, which is like that bad dream when you are the only one with eyes to see and no one seems to believe you. Or they do, only to end up negotiating with an abuser. As one friend put it, we all affirm the wolf in sheep’s clothing in our Bible studies, we just don’t seem to know any. We don’t want to look at it. We don’t want to see. Nothing is more traumatizing for a victim of abuse than when they have to experience this ugliness alone, with no empathetic witness and protection.
Pastors and church officers need to educate themselves, examine themselves, and act. The authors teach us that tov is active. Build tov. Nurture tov.
“Tov is God’s design for our moral virtues. Tov is something that happens, something visible. When the apostle Peter summarized the public ministry of Jesus, he said, ‘You know that God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. Then Jesus went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him…’” (Acts 10:38)
“We can say this even more emphatically: Jesus doesn’t just do tov; he is tov. When we look at Jesus, we see tov. To be like Jesus (Christlike) is to be tov; and to be tov is to be like Jesus.”
The foremost expression of tov is generosity. Tov gives sacrificially:
“The gospel is the message of tov. The gospel is about God’s tov coming to us in Jesus, who is tov, and thus making us into agents of tov.”
McKnight and Barringer outline seven key elements of a tov culture, breaking each down chapter by chapter. But there is always something working against tov. This is important. Tov is also an act of resistance: resisting evil. This is where many often fail, because it is not easy. No cheap grace here.
“A toxic culture will resist a tov culture, but a tov culture, by the power of the Holy Spirit, will go to battle and overcome a toxic culture.”
This diagram helps us see the key nurturing elements of tov, and what needs resisted in the process:
I could go on about all the helpful parts of these chapters and in this whole book. I want to end with a plea—not only for local churches, but for denominations. Learn about abuse—not just that it exists, but the dynamics of it. Train your pastors in seminary. In denominational meetings. Enough is enough! And if you are complicit in abuse because you are part of a toxic culture that you were unwilling to admit or see, it’s time to be honest and brave. Do the right thing. No more of this culture where:
“Sorrow is feigned, confession is partial, forgiveness is exploited, restitution is an afterthought, and reconciliation is an illusion, as long as truth remains unnamed.”Wade Mullen
As McKnight and Berringer outline:
- Affirm the truth teller.
- Name the perpetrator and all specific wrongdoing.
- Confess all complicity (whether intentional or by neglect) of other leaders and the congregation.
- Publicly acknowledge the harm done to the victim(s), express sorrow, lament, confession, and repentance, and ask for forgiveness.
- Publicly acknowledge the desire/intention to change.
For the love of Christ and his church, do it.