[This post is part of a series of reflections on Disbelieving Church. If you have not already done so, please check out the Introduction for a little background and a few disclaimers.]
Some years ago, I was a young adult working three part-time jobs while carrying a full-time master’s level course load. Unsurprisingly, it was a stressful life, especially as some of my classes and one of my jobs was literally on the other side of the city – half-way around the beltway (ring road around Washington DC). My supervisor for this job on the other side of the city was, unfortunately for her, the main channel through whom I learned just how much of a problem I had with women in positions of authority.
Without going into the details, which, frankly, I don’t remember clearly anyway, after one academic year on the job, we sat down and had our first honest conversation about her expectations and my behaviour and where the two hadn’t quite matched. We eventually decided it would be better for us to end the working relationship, but I remember this conversation as a striking example of a woman, who had every reason to be annoyed with and hurtful toward me, treating me with patient grace and uncompromising honesty, whatever her own emotional impulses might have been. I suppose I might even call it one of the rare – if not the only – times I have experienced what I would honestly call “speaking the truth in love.”
In my experience, Christians love to (ab)use this verse. Couching the most hurtful, backhanded comments in honeyed words so as to assure others (or, perhaps, primarily themselves) that they have behaved in a “Christian” manner. As long as the barb is veiled and the language caressing and apologetic the object of such comments has little chance to form a response to the subtext of the comment.
Take, for example, the new fiancé of the minister who is cornered in the church toilets by a woman she has never met. The woman does not introduce herself. Instead she begins by saying that everyone is happy the girl loves the minister, but goes on to say that she should keep in mind that a minister is the property of the entire congregation and refrain from public displays of affection. Frantically searching her memory while she listens, the only such display the girl can remember is holding her fiancé’s hand under the table during the after-dinner speech at a recent inter-faith gathering. How is she supposed to respond? How can she defend herself? While she’s still trying to understand what is being said, the woman pats her arm and says something like “you won’t mind me giving you a little hint, all in love, you know,” before she goes on her way.
Too many Christians have been brainwashed with the idea that they are meant to always be nice, always be happy, always be doing good. Church committees are full of honest, devout people trying to do God’s work, but they are also still broken, hurt people. While churches offer an outlet for energy, a distraction from hurt, perhaps even a place to belong and begin to heal, they rarely offer safe space for openly hurting people.
Instead the message seems to be that when we join up and “accept Jesus” our lives should instantly improve. The best believers are those who are most often in church, and when we are in church, we are happy and active, working for God’s Kingdom. Whatever incipient negative emotions and un-worked-through brokenness we carry to the church building is implicitly expected to be left on the doorstep as we go into the happy/holy church where it is all about God and not about us.
Unfortunately, however much we may try to live as if this approach to life and faith is true and possible, the reality is our brokenness is a part of us. We can’t leave it at the door. We can’t heal it simply with faith and prayer. We can’t make it go away by being lost in worship or in God’s work. We don’t become whole beings through believing in Jesus or through attending a church regularly. These things can be a part of the process of healing from brokenness and creating a more healthy identity, but they are not, in themselves, a cure.
As a result, churches too often naively foster a remarkably immature, un-self-aware attitude. People who are unaware of or not at peace with their own brokenness are far more likely to hurt others than those who know their imperfections. In reality both the aware and the unaware carry their brokenness with them, even into church, but with those who are unaware it is more likely to manifest itself in petty squabbles, power struggles, cliques, “speaking the truth in love,” and other relationship poisoning behaviours.
I knew a woman once who had a great desire to run a luncheon club for the elderly, but the members of her church catering committee wouldn’t let her near the kitchen, so she travelled across town by bus to run a lunch club in a different church. I’ve also known church members, both male and female, who complain constantly that no one helps them, and there is no one else to do the work if they don’t. Yet these same people are often surrounded by willing and able workers who are not volunteering because they don’t want to work with someone who is so controlling and critical.
Such behaviours and brokenness are, of course, inevitable in church life. Churches are, after all, populated by people, and people are always imperfect. The particular problem that churches seem to have, is an institutional incapacity to confront such childish and controlling behaviour. “Don’t upset her, we need someone to run the kitchen!” “Don’t start him off, you’ll never hear the end of it.” “Don’t contradict him, just ignore his nonsense.” “Don’t let her get to you, just do your best.”
In effect, we tiptoe around people who are as destructive to the hearts and minds of others as the proverbial bull and even build emotional structures into our communities to protect and enable these people in their destructive behaviours. Why? Because we have to be nice. Christians love people, right?
Yes, Christians are called to love people.
Read it again. Christians are called to love people. Like Jesus did.
Love is not tiptoeing around on eggshells so we don’t upset people. Love is not enabling other people’s destructive behaviours. Love is not telling the wounded not to mind if so-and-so said or did something because “that’s just her way” or worse because “we can’t run the church without him.” When blown up to extremes this can end in scandals about child abuse, but it happens in small ways every day in our churches.
Why are churches incapable of dealing with actions in their midst that basically amount to emotional abuse? Why do we excuse hurtful patterns of behaviour? Why do we dismiss complaints about controlling church members? Why are we afraid to confront people whose behaviours and beliefs are destroying our communities?
Within the Baptist churches there is a particular difficulty, especially as regards destructive beliefs, because Baptists affirm freedom of conscience, but this can’t mean that anyone can believe or do anything as he or she pleases. The reality is that, in any structured society, one person’s freedom is always balanced against the freedom and wellbeing of the rest of the group. That is why we imprison murderers and other violent offenders, but churches, in a misguided attempt to be welcoming or loving, allow freedom and licence to serially destructive people and subsequently spend an inordinate amount of time cleaning up, or simply living with the collateral damage.
When my boss sat the 24-year-old me down for a chat, I was recalcitrant, defiant and disrespectful. In contrast, she was kind and patient, but she spoke the truth, she called me out on my behaviour, she challenged my assumptions. Eventually, she helped me to understand myself better and to begin to change. I needed to change, but without that conversation it would have taken me a long time to realise it and even longer to understand why and how.
Churches need to be able to do this, or they will be doomed to continue to be places where harmful behaviour thrives, selfish people manipulate and control those more vulnerable or less strong-willed than themselves, and opinionated people grow steadily more certain in their prejudices because no one can be bothered to argue with them. In the worst cases, churches are places where these behaviours are not only tolerated, but bred by the existing church culture.
[Image of Jesus clearing the Temple with the caption “If Jesus did this today, you know that a bunch of so-called ‘Christians’ would tell Jesus that he’s not acting like Jesus.”]
Jesus did not avoid the hard conversations or the difficult confrontations. He did not accept the exploitative actions of those who controlled his religion or affirm their self-righteousness. He rebuked and corrected his own followers when their actions or words were unhelpful. He worked for growth, fullness, honesty and inclusion.
If those in churches would seek to follow Jesus. It’s time to find a way to confront and deal with exploitative, selfish, controlling, and hurtful behaviour within congregations. Human brokenness breeds more brokenness, and healing requires difficult conversations, radical vulnerability, ongoing sacrifice and frank courage. It needs a whole lot more than simply “being nice” to people.
It needs love.