There are plenty of reasons to question what the modern church has become, and there are many critical voices eager to expose its failures. My friends Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel are not among them. In their new book, The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb, they act like expert physicians dissecting and diagnosing the church’s maladies, but they do it with compassion and humility. In this guest post by Jamin, he challenges us to think differently about the many stories we hear about pastoral failures. Rather than blaming the pastors or unaccountable leadership structures, he identifies a more systemic and sinister villain—us.
He came over to my house a few times when I was in high school. This was rare in the church I grew up in. Having a pastor in our home was something special. Especially when it was a pastor of some stature. He was that. I remember him taking a genuine interest in my family’s life, in me and in my parents. He may have been fairly new on staff, and we were long time members, but his personal care and engagement made us love him. In college, when I embraced the call to pastoral ministry, he was often on my mind and heart. Years later his name popped up again in my life. I don’t remember who first told me, or why, but I remember the shock and sadness I felt. This pastor I had so revered, admired, and adored, had left his wife for another woman. It felt impossible to believe. I remember immediately going online, not to dig up dirt, but genuinely hoping to find that it wasn’t true. Sadly, it was.
After several years in ministry, I have found these stories to be all too familiar. Some have been more personal than others, but all of them have provoked deep grief in my heart and I do not grieve alone. I have spoken to fellow believers devastated by the moral failings of pastors they trusted and admired. People feel lied to, abused, and manipulated in the very community called to be grounded in truth, love, and faithfulness. Inevitably the question always comes, “How could this happen?”
In recent years this question has been broadened. A pastor’s fall no longer impacts the local church alone (if it ever did). We live in the era of celebrity pastors whose platforms of influence stretch far beyond the walls of their local congregation, and who shake the earth when they fall off their pedestals. Their books are best-sellers and their sermons are heard online around the world. In recent months one such figure has ignited the evangelical blogosphere and twitter murmurings, Tullian Tchividjian. But it wasn’t long ago that Mark Driscoll was the tip of this spear. Their behavior has been well documented, the age of social media has made sure their sins would be unveiled before all. As a result of their sin, churches have collapsed, conferences evaporated, and, most importantly, lives have been deeply wounded. Again, the question that plagues us is, “How could this happen?”
In our disappointment and confusion, it is easy to grasp for explanations that are quick and quantifiable; as if the problem was simply a lack of accountability. We assume that if these leaders had stronger and more committed friends, pastors, and elders around them this would have never happened. Pride is part of the story as is autonomous, totalitarian leadership structures, but these fail to address the deeper, systemic issue. We need to recognize the log in the eye of the church as a whole. Mark Driscoll and Tullian Tchividjian are merely the most visible fruit of a very sick tree; a tree whose roots are drinking from a poisoned well.
In short, the church has embraced a form of power that is antithetical to the way of Jesus, and her pastors stand on the front line of this destructive reality. We have succumbed to the temptation Adam and Eve were seduced by in the garden—believing that dependence upon God is a place of scarcity and hindrance, while autonomy is a place of flourishing and fulfillment. We have embraced the way from below, which James tells us is marked by “jealousy and selfish ambition” (James 3:13-16). James claims that this way from below is employed by the world, the flesh, and the devil. As a “way,” this path is the great temptation we face as the people of God today, maybe especially because of how broad and well-travelled it is. Ironically, we are tempted to choose this path for the sake of achieving a kingdom-minded goal. We are easily convinced that this path is virtuous by telling ourselves the ends justify the means—that this way will help us get things done for God.
However, James makes it clear that when we believe the power of God’s kingdom always aligns with our gifts, abilities, talents, resources and know-how, we are actually seeking control apart from God. That is how the demonic, the flesh, and the world operate, not God’s kingdom. When we accept this power system, we turn to those who have the greatest gifts, the most impressive skill sets, and the obvious resources to lead. We put our confidence in those who can make things happen, get things done, and who impress everyone as they do it. We accept the lie that giftedness is synonymous with sacredness, and as a result we embrace people who may have the world’s anointing rather than God’s; who walk in the way of the dragon rather than the way of the Lamb.
A few years ago, I recall hearing of a local pastor who had cheated on his wife. In the aftermath, the leadership of the church quickly established a path for his restoration back into “up front” ministry. They assumed that his “gifts” meant he was anointed for pastoral ministry, and their top priority was restoring his position of visible influence. The woman whom he had cheated with was also on the church’s staff, but her position was quickly removed and she was not heard from again. Why was one adulterer quickly restored while the other removed? Because the pastor was the anointed one, the person with all the promise and leadership capability, and the person the future of the church relied upon.
This story is not unusual. We live in a day when pastors who have ravaged congregations, have lied and cheated publicly, who offer no sign of repentance and engage no real season of contrition, are simply allowed to move on to a new congregation or are given a new ministry platform. This happens repeatedly because we have accepted the lie of the anointed. We have accepted the lie that the power of the kingdom is wrapped up in worldly anointing. We have accepted that leaders can minister in their strength and narcissism and still bear good fruit, and we have rejected the one who said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). These leaders try to sow in the flesh to reap in the Spirit, and we celebrate them for doing so. That is either folly or delusion. What we sow we will reap; it is one of the most repeated and fundamental axioms in Scripture (Gal. 6:7-8).
So, we return to the original question, “How could this happen?” Rather than looking at pastors or church leadership structures, the answer requires us to look at ourselves and our own temptation to seek worldly power and our own culpability in creating a church culture that celebrates a form of power antithetical to the way of Jesus. That kind of self-examination is not comfortable. It is much easier to believe the problem is simply individuals who have sinned and structures that have failed to hold them accountable. The problem we must find the courage to face is that the very narcissism, lust, and greed that has caused church leaders to fall is the same narcissism, lust, and greed that drove their ministries to “succeed.” In many cases, it was precisely these vices that attracted us to them as “leaders” and “visionaries” in the first place.
The solution is not finding pastors who do not struggle with grandiosity, ambition, or other vices applauded by the world. Rather, we need to find leaders that have chosen the way of Jesus rather than the way of the dragon. Leaders who genuinely believe that God’s power is manifested in weakness, in surrender, and in prayer even if they struggle to follow that narrow path. We are not looking for perfect pastors, but there is a major difference between a pastor who wrestles with God while trusting in his way, and one pursuing ministry while trusting in the world’s way. The former is the kind of leadership that will know power in weakness, the latter is the kind of leadership that will become toxic. The first is the way of the Lamb, the other is the way of the dragon masquerading as a lamb.
Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel explore these themes further in their new book The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb (Thomas Nelson, 2017). Preorder available at www.dragonorlamb.com.