Archive | Ministry Pet Peeves

A Theology of Spiritual Abuse

I’m not sure theology is the right term. I’m not sure spiritual abuse is the right term. But there is something big rocking conservative evangelicalism right now, and it centers around the abuse of authority by leaders in the Church. I know there is “nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9), and a cursory look at Church history confirms that to be true, especially on the issue of spiritual abuse. So whatever name we want to give to the abuse/oppression/injustice we see in the 21st century Church carried out by its spiritual leaders, I want to understand the transcendent principles at play according to Scripture. For lack of a better phrase, I’m going to call it a theology of spiritual abuse.

In its most basic sense, abuse simply means to misuse. It’s using something inappropriately. And in the spiritual sense, it is using an authority, role, or task given by God in unrighteous ways. It is mis-using spiritual authority . Can non-authorities in the Church abuse spiritually? I guess so. They certainly can hurt people. But I’m going to leave out of this discussion inappropriate actions by Christians without particular spiritual authority. So if your sister was a legalistic jerk to you, that’s not relevant to this particular discussion because Scripture does not set her up as an authority over you. Parents can certainly spiritually abuse, but I’m going to save them for another day as well. Instead, I want to examine non-familial spiritual authorities – in particular, pastors and elders.

(Edited to note I am NOT talking about issues of sexual or physical abuse by clergy. While that is certainly spiritual abuse, it is also blatantly illegal activity that puts it into an entirely different category in terms of response. For the purposes of this post, I am talking about the misuse of spiritual authority that does not get into illegal behavior.)

What is the appropriate authority given pastors and elders in the life of a believer? What do we do when pastors/elders MIS-use this authority, spiritually abusing those God gave them to lovingly shepherd?

Hebrews 13 gives some insight on the first question.

7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. 9 Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them. …
 17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

God gives us an important word here. Our spiritual leaders have sober obligations: accurately speaking the Word to us, modeling a life of faith, and shepherding and keeping watch for those under their leadership. And they are ACCOUNTABLE to God. Any leader worth his salt takes this seriously.

God is going to hold them to account as He has tasked them with watching over our very souls. In light of this sober responsibility, I understand why the author of Hebrews urges us to OBEY and SUBMIT to them. In other words, cooperate with them in their God-given obligation to shepherd us. If you have any experience with spiritual abuse, you know that a very real result is a fear of ever trusting a leader with your cooperation again. And yet, God’s design is for a real, accountable relationship between spiritual leader and those they shepherd. This should make us take spiritual abuse that much more seriously, for it threatens one of the most important relationships in the Body of Christ, the one between shepherd and flock.

When do these good, sober responsibilities among our leaders become abuse, or the misuse of their righteous obligations?

1) When they do not accurately speak the Word (sometimes by ignorance, sometimes by a malicious desire to manipulate the sheep)

2) When their manner of life and walk of faith does not model gospel grace and a life of Biblical love – they are rude, unkind, impatient, they have a short fuse, assume the worst of people, seem to delight in the uncovering of evil (I Corinthians 13).

Perhaps the greatest Biblical example of the misuse of spiritual authority is Peter in Galatia. Note that the central element in his abuse was his actions (manner of life) that contradicted the gospel he was teaching. He SAID the gospel, but he lived out its opposite. Note also the very clear, concrete result of this contradiction – he required something of his sheep that God did not require. He OVERSTEPPED his authority. John Stott pointed out in his commentary on Ephesians how in each authority relationship that Paul addressed, he repeatedly urged upon them “not the exercise of their power, but the restraint thereof.” When spiritual authorities start walking away from their God-given obligations, it may sometimes take the form of passivity or inertia, but in my experience it is much more likely to take the form of overreaching the limits of their authority. Beware the authority figure who loves to speak about things which God does not speak. They have an opinion about rock music, movie theaters, facebook, netflix, yoga, and teletubies. And they project onto you shame or self satisfaction based on how your opinions and convictions line up with theirs on things on which Scripture is silent.

In light of ths, what should the average lay person’s response be to spiritual abuse (the mis-use of spiritual authority)?

1) Pursue biblical means of confronting authority (I Timothy 5, Matthew 18). If your church doesn’t have an established means of holding authority accountable, you need to turn around, walk out the door, and don’t look back. DO NOT STAY IN A CHURCH THAT DOES NOT HAVE CLEAR ACCOUNTABILITY AND LIMITS ON ITS AUTHORITY FIGURES. That’s not a church. That’s a group of people pretending to be a church. And personally, I am concerned about non-denominational churches that don’t have a synod or presbytery to hold their leaders accountable. But that’s a longer discussion for another day. It’s taken me a long time after a long history in independent churches to come to that conviction, and I won’t attempt to force it on others who don’t share it yet. Chances are, given enough experience in independent churches, you will one day come to see the wisdom of a presbytery on your own if you don’t already.

2) When authorities continue to abuse with impunity, seek to rescue the powerless from the abuse in righteous ways. In RIGHTEOUS ways. In love. With patience. Being available to those in need. Sometimes, someone in an abusive situation needs simply to know that they have options. It was easy for me to leave a spiritually abusive situation because I had enough experience to know that God was doing WAY more in His Body than what I was witnessing at the abusive church. But I’ve had friends who did not know that, and they were afraid if they left their abusive group, they would lose everything. In those moments, they need to understand the breadth and depth of the Body of Christ and know they have a brother/sister in Christ who will stand with them as they journey away from those who misuse their spiritual authority.

3) Most important of all, do not sell your soul to the devil. I’ve sold my soul to the devil, by which I mean I have given into the very urges I was reacting against. I have stood against abuse with grace at times. But I have also stood against abuse with my own mis-use of power. And I HATE myself in those moments when I have become the very thing I was standing against. I hate their rude, harsh language … using my own harsh language against them. I hate their graceless response to those who oppose them … employing my own graceless strategies to point out their flaws. When you allow yourself to employ the tactics you hate in your abusers, Satan has won the day. There is ONE answer to the ills of spiritual abuse, and it is the same answer to every ill mankind has experienced since the fall of man. It is Christ on the cross, enduring our shame and our spiritual abusers’ shame. And THE THING that separates me from a spiritual abuser is a confidence in this gospel grace to change the ugliest heart of man. I don’t need to abuse my authority or manipulate those I influence. And it’s only when I am confident of who I am in Christ and how I got to be that person through His grace that I can fully arm myself to battle righteously the ills in the church and those who use its authority against others.

This is only a preamble to a topic deserving a long treatise …

***For a more thorough fleshing out of this topic, please check out Tim Challies’ interview with Bob Kellerman.

Gospel Centered Manhood

I have a vested interest in understanding what a gospel centered man looks like. I’m married to a man and raising two others. But even more than that, I am COMPLEMENTARIAN (a woefully inadequate term for the fullness of how the Bible speaks of gender). Despite the inadequacies of the term, when you boil it all down, my convictions from Scripture are that the husband is the head of the wife, the wife should submit to her husband, and that women can be deacons but not elders in the church. If you share those convictions, then you know how important it is for the men in your life to be truly gospel centered men. The caricature of a “real man” that masquerades as Biblical manhood in conservative evangelicalism just doesn’t cut it when the rubber meets the road–when your child gets cancer, when your husband abandons you, when your own discouragement turns into clinical depression, or when you need elders to lead in gospel grace in the midst of church conflict. Those are not the moments for the manly shepherd. Those are the moments for the godly shepherd. Being manly isn’t the issue. Being like Christ is.

What I say next may seem slightly offensive or controversial. But the truth needs to be stated, and as bad as it sounds, the gospel meets us in this truth and can transform us all. But not until we admit the reality of our sin. The sin I want to address is that some men with identity issues are defining Biblical masculinity for the evangelical church, and sadly we, the Church, are listening to them. These men have paved the road for emerging egalitarians. If I know one, I know 50 former complementarians who have embraced egalitarian thinking because they were spiritually, verbally, or physically abused by a man with identity issues who perverted his spiritual role in their lives.

Now, WHO AM I TO TALK ABOUT THIS?! I’m nobody. I have no authority, and no one needs to listen to me. But I am someone who at several points in my life was under the leadership of pastors with identity issues who had warped views of what it meant to be a masculine leader. Also, I have dealt long and hard with my own identity issues, especially those related to my perceptions of myself based on my physical appearance. Dealing with my personal identity issues and insecurities in the light of the gospel was the crux of my Ephesians Bible study. But I thought my insecurity based on my physical appearance was a distinctly female struggle. Then I heard a sermon on the gospel applied to our bodies given by one of our pastors a few months ago. He made this profound statement, which I transcribed and thought about.

“I grew up in a neighborhood full of boys, and the way you gained respect in my neighborhood was through physical prowess. You had to be the strongest, the most athletic, and because I was smaller, not only because I was younger but because of genetics, I was often ostracized. I was made fun of, and I remember those moments. … I at an early age decided the way I would deal with the pain is by becoming someone who is more athletic than you, smarter than you, who is better than you. That has defined my life and brought all kinds of chaos and trouble.”

He said this in a sermon on how the gospel transforms our views of our bodies. My respect for him grew as he gave testimony how the gospel changed his view of himself. His statement resonated with me and several things clicked in my head as he honestly assessed his identity issues based on his height. I had the immediate thought, “THAT EXPLAINS IT!” For both my youth and adult experience in the church have been heavily influenced by short pastors with identity issues. Unlike my pastor now, they apparently had never wrestled through how the gospel transforms their perceptions of themselves based on their genetic makeup. They adopted gospel-less coping mechanisms for dealing with it. Just as my pastor noted, they are going to be more athletic than you, smarter than you, and better than you. In my experience, they can be reasonably nice—until challenged. Then their bullying coping mechanisms rise up in irrational anger. When Napoleon runs the church, get out of the way.

That sounds harsh, doesn’t it?! Yet, the gospel meets men in this reality as surely as it meets women. The first step is to acknowledge the problem. Yes, you are short (or whatever the identity issue is), and no, that doesn’t define you Biblically. It makes you neither less a man or more a man. But your attempts to compensate for the way you perceive yourself are ruining you and your ministry. Perhaps your childhood made you feel humiliated. Were neighbor kids brutal? Did your father abuse you? Examine yourself. What coping mechanisms have you adopted to mask that pain and convince yourself that your physical limitations don’t define you?

In my experience, verbal tirades are the big coping mechanism, closely tied to an obsessive need to protect one’s authoritarian position at all cost. I remember so well the youth pastor who Let. Me. Have. It. when I had a bad attitude on a missions trip. I had rolled my eyes at something he said. Boy howdy, don’t roll your eyes at Napoleon, I learned the hard way. I was reduced to tears in the back of the church van after his verbal tirade against me in front of the entire youth group. Anyone who knew me would know it only took a look of disappointment from my father to get my attention, and I NEVER got in trouble in school. But I had rolled my eyes at a man with identity issues. When a pastor is insecure with his leadership around 15 year old girls, he’s got a problem.

Fast forward to today. I am a well loved wife in a church pastored by gospel centered elders. I recognize better than ever gospel centered manhood because it is lived out before me day by day. Both my husband and my father have 4 wheel drive pickup trucks, but that is irrelevant to them as Biblical men. Pick up trucks are a cultural perception of masculinity that has bled into (some segments of) the church. Biblical love, humility, and the laying down of your life in gospel grace for those who spurn you is transcendent. That’s the Biblical manhood God instituted when He created man in His image, and that’s the Gospel centered manhood to which, through the death of the Son of Man, He calls us back.

Women who love God, love His Word, and love complementarian values, don’t be fooled by the caricature of Biblical masculinity that hides deeper heart issues among many Christian men. Practically speaking, beware men who are easily threatened by perceived challenges to their authority. Especially beware men who speak with contempt to others. If ever there was evidence of masculine identity issues, that is it. Love is not rude, Paul says in I Corinthians. And men who treat you or others with contempt in their words show a heart that is far from God. Contempt and verbal abuse are their gospel-less coping mechanisms. The fact that someone can use the terms gospel, grace, and Jesus in context does not mean they understand either the gospel, grace, or Jesus. If you wonder what Biblical manhood really is, read the gospels at face value.

May we all adopt Christ as the essence of Biblical manhood, and may our Christian evangelical leaders lovingly confront those who twist Christ to their own purposes with their identity issues. Most of all, I pray for leaders who will stand up and point these men back to the gospel of grace that meets them in their struggles with their identities. God in heaven, not height or physical prowess, defines masculine identity. And it is right and good that women note that.

Purity and Peace

The membership vows of our church include this statement.

Do you, in reliance on God for strength, solemnly promise and covenant that you will walk together as an organized church, on the principles of the faith and order of the Presbyterian Church in America, and that you will be zealous and faithful in maintaining the purity and peace of the whole body?

PURITY and PEACE. I had dinner with my wise friend the other night, the one that always leaves me scrambling for paper to write down the godly insights she shares. This time was no exception. As we talked about recent controversies in evangelical Christianity, she pointed out the tension in the membership vows of the PCA. It calls members to be zealous and faithful in maintaining both purity (keeping the church unstained and unpolluted by sin) and peace (mutual harmony and contentment). The problem is that it is hard to maintain purity without disturbing the peace. Yet, on the flip side, there will be no long term peace without occasional zealous attention to purity. I love that the membership vows recognize the need for both.

I’m burdened that the larger conservative evangelical culture needs to be concerned for maintaining purity— not external purity in our culture but the internal purity of ourselves. And not purity in terms of outward morality but purity of the heart. Because “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12).

I’m familiar with 4 situations in different corners of conservative Christianity in which people are disturbing the peace in their cry for purity and correction in the church. It reminds me of the story of Ignaz Semmelweis, the doctor who first recognized the need to wash hands to reduce infections among birthing mothers. Nobody listened to him, and his findings were not accepted until after his death. Over his life, he grew increasingly angry in his writings, finally descending into full mental illness. But all along, he was RIGHT.

He’s a case study in the despair brought on when you know the truth, and no one will listen. As far as I can tell, he didn’t know the gospel. What if you know the truth and no one will listen and you DO know the gospel? Does it make a difference? I think it does.

How does the gospel break into and transform despair to hope when sinful men and practices go unaddressed in the Church? First, the gospel gives us free access to God where we can boldly bring Him our concerns. After all, it is His Body, and He’s the one who promises to make Her glorious. And He even gives us a model for our prayer in Psalms 10.

Psalm 10
 1 Why, O LORD, do you stand(A) far away?
   Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

 12 Arise, O LORD; O God, lift up your hand;
    forget not the afflicted.

14 But you do see, for you note mischief and vexation,
   that you may take it into your hands;
to you the helpless commits himself;
   you have been the helper of the fatherless.

17 O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted;
   you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear
18 to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
   so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.

Second, the gospel gives us a model on how to engage in conflict. I’ve often talked about grace in conflict on this blog.

Grace in Conflict
Stopping Evil in the World
Abusers of Grace

The bottom line is that offenders need gospel grace. They won’t stop offending until God transforms their heart through the power of the gospel. But often, my response to those who sin against others is to sin against them in an attempt to get them to stop sinning. It’s a bad cycle. I’m as convinced as ever that the Golden Rule is key for conflicts. You can both stand against oppressive, sinful practices in the church and do it with gospel grace and biblical love. Purity and peace.

As a final note, I do not know anything about the conflicts within Sovereign Grace Ministries except what they have publicly disclosed on their blogs. I know enough from reading there that it is serious, and it is sin. I want to say how much I am encouraged by Josh Harris in particular. I’ve been impressed by the comments allowed on his blog and the patient responses. That’s the antidote to the Ignaz Semmellweis syndrome. Yes, there was/is sin. Yes, it was/is a systemic and widespread culture of leadership that involved harshness and pride with limited accountability. Yes, God is disciplining them for the purity of the ministry. But best of all, there will be peace if they continue to embrace this season, seriously examine themselves, and listen to their critics instead of discounting them as bitter.

May the gospel empower critics as well as those criticized for both the purity and the peace of the Church.

What Bitterness REALLY is

I have written on bitterness and accused people in the past (rarely to their face) of being bitter. In the church, we think that complaining leads to bitterness which leads to divisiveness. A few months ago, a pastor friend, Bob Bixby, wrote a thought provoking post on what bitterness really is biblically. It’s the first real exposition I’ve heard of Hebrews 12, and it has radically changed how I think about this passage and subsequently how I view or judge people who “rock the boat” in Christian circles. Here are parts of Bob’s exposition. You can read the full post here. Bob is writing in a very different context, sexual abuse in fundamentalist Christianity, than the one I face here in Seattle. Yet, read in my context, his exposition of Hebrews 12 is very meaningful. Where is part two by the way, Bob?!

The “Bitter Card” has trump power. Pop that baby out, and you can dismiss the criticism. It’s played this way: person A has a grievance that he/she does not feel is being understood. Eventually Person A vents too often, too emotionally, or even sinfully, or gets too close to unsettling the happy delusion of the establishment and consequently in danger of getting too much influence. At this point, play the “Bitter Card.” This puts them on the defensive and, in the minds of the clueless, guts their argument. Plus it has the added benefit that you can say that their defensiveness is proof of the truth of your claim. Often people who play the “Bitter Card” employ Hebrews 12:15 and warn that the bitterness could result in the defilement of many.

So, let me explain. Biblically. 

… The “root of bitterness” in Hebrews 12:15 could more aptly be applied to the scourge of immorality and its abuses than to the wounded, spiteful, angry, and sometimes over-the-top venting of those who have been “defiled” by it. In other words, friends, the disgruntled are more likely the “many” who have been defiled by the “root of bitterness” … than bitter souls who ought to be dismissed for having a bad attitude.

It is the root of bitterness, not bitterness that defiles. But that may be stretching it too much. At the very least, “root of bitterness” ought to be understood as an evil core, a wickedness that cannot be more darkly described than using the words from the Pentateuch. It is the essence of a person who, though in the fellowship of believers by association, has “failed the grace of God” and is not even a saved person. That wickedness, a wickedness that could manifest itself in all sorts of ways … ultimately springs up and defiles many of the people within the fellowship of believers. That the writer of Hebrews thinks such a person is an unsaved person seems clear by his use of Esau seeking repentance even with tears but not able to find it.

The Scripture repeatedly emphasizes the need to be vigilant over the community of believers. Hebrews 3:12 calls for community vigilance. And, when sin occurs, there ought to be a godly purging. Instead, (in certain situations) the root of bitterness was retained and those who were defiled by it were sent away.

There’s no denying that sometimes victims and their friends and the disgruntled “many” are sinful. Very sinful. But, pastorally, it’s just plain stupid to try to control somebody’s speech or the effect of it on others by pulling out the “Bitter Card.” First of all, anger and indignation is not always “bitterness.” Wounds and hurts still felt are not bitterness.

When I was at (Bible college), I was wrongly taught that bitterness is “harbored hurt.”  The idea that you still felt the pain of something ten years later meant that you had “harbored the hurt.” That, we were told, was bitterness. And, “Be careful,” we were warned, “because that root of bitterness will spring up and defile many people.”

To the contrary. The reason there are so many disgruntled and hurt and wounded and angry opponents of (various offensive people or institutions within conservative evangelical Christianity) is because the “root of bitterness” was not vigilantly rooted out. It’s not too much of a stretch, considering the context of Hebrews 12:15, to read into the word “defiled” something more than just a moral defilement but a cultic/ceremonial/communal defilement. In other words, the cultic (and, I mean here “worship”) and communal fellowship among those affected by the “root of bitterness” and the rest of the believers is severely damaged. That’s why it is a community obligation to “see to it that no one among you fails the grace of God.”

The whole of Hebrews 12 is misapplied if applied exclusively to the individual. The verbs are plural. It is addressed to the community. “Lay aside every weight… and sin” is not just to the individual, but to the community. … The community of faith is, like the Author of our faith, in a conflict with sin. In fact, the writer says exactly this in verse 3: “in your struggle against sin.” Unlike the Author of our faith we have not resisted to the point of “shedding of blood” (a euphemism for death, I believe). This struggle against sin includes our own sin which “clings so closely” (v.1) and, like our Captain’s struggle, “hostility against” us (v. 3). Our own sin has painful consequences and the hostility of sinners against us is also painful. This we are called to endure because it is training (“discipline”). …

This understanding makes the following verses make sense, especially as it is understood corporately. While too many people get defensive and circle the wagons trying to point out the excesses of accusers, instead he/she should “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather healed” (v. 12-13). Again, this is all plural and directed to the community of faith. It simply says, “Fix the problem. Straighten the path.”

It flies in the face of reason not to admit that many people have been hurt in (certain) circles and it is belligerently ungodly to dismiss it by saying, “Well, everybody is a sinner.” The godly response is to be trained by it and to say, “Let’s lift up the drooping hands and the weak knees.” In other words, let’s strengthen those in our community that are discouraged by sin. Yes, even our sinfulness. Therefore, “let’s make straight paths” and fix the problem so that what is already “lame may not be put out of joint.”

Instead, … churches too often (not always and, yes, there are many exceptions), shoot the wounded or tell them to quit “harboring hurt.” The striving for peace of Hebrews 12:14 is not to have a voiceless group of subdued villagers who meekly bow to the elders. The striving for peace in the community of faith is accompanied by a striving for holiness without which no man will see the Lord (v. 14). This is why it is absolutely imperative that the community of faith “see to it” (episkopéō) that no one fails the grace of God and that a root of bitterness springs up and defiles many people.
The word “see to it” is a Greek word that even most laypeople would recognize. It’s a word that is at the root of our word for pastor/overseer. I suppose you could translate 12:15 this way: You all oversee [yourselves] that no one fails to obtain the grace of God. The person who fails to obtain the grace of God becomes a “root of bitterness” that will spring up and defile many.

I think that Hebrews 12:18-29 builds on this community idea. The Hebrews were inclined to think that they needed to protect the visible, tangible, and touchable identifiers of their previous community of faith under the old covenant. Thus, the writer says, “The reason why I have encouraged you to lay aside every weight and sin and vigilantly make sure no one in your community is actually with an unbelieving heart (3:12, 12:15) is because it is the heart, not externals and names and labels, that matter. “You have not come to what may be touched….” (12:18-21). Instead, “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (12:19-24).

I am moved by Bob’s words–”it is the heart, not externals and names and labels, that matter.” I immediately think of Christ’s strong warning that “out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12: 34). When someone’s words are contemptuous, angry, and unloving, it is because their HEART is contemptuous, angry, and unloving. And the community of faith has an obligation to examine, hold accountable, and guard against the ones that “fail the grace of God” and sow this root of bitterness, NOT the ones who were wounded by it and cry out against it.

False Humility, Worm Theology, Self-esteem, and Other Related Concepts

“The greatest enemy of the spiritual life is self-rejection BECAUSE it contradicts the Voice that calls you Beloved.” –Henri Nouwin

As I read the resurrection narrative recently, I was hit by Christ’s words to Mary in John 20.

17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”

I have always been challenged by the idea of being a co-heir with Jesus Christ.

Romans 8 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

If the Bible didn’t say it so clearly itself, I’d think it blasphemous to claim it for myself. Yet, Scripture is clear – I am a co-heir with Jesus Christ. CO-heir.

But I must keep all my verses in the Bible, right? I can’t choose between seemingly conflicting passages. Instead, I must use opposing statements in Scripture together to inform and interpret each other. Scripture is the best commentary on itself. And Scripture also says that I am a sinner, incapable of saving myself.

Ephesians 2 1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins … and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved …

Holding the two together is a necessity. I sometimes hear a phrase, worm theology, that refers to how Christians view themselves. Here’s a blurb from wikipedia.

Worm Theology is a term used for the conviction in Christian culture that in light of God’s holiness and power an appropriate emotion is a low view of self. … The name may be attributed to a line in the Isaac Watts hymn Alas! and Did My Saviour Bleed (Pub 1707) [1], which says “Would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?”

A low view of self. I seriously, strongly reject that. I can’t say strong enough how unhealthy I think that is for a believer. Like Nouwin’s quote at the beginning of this article, that view tempts me to downplay what GOD HIMSELF says about me. Pastor John Piper, who has greatly influenced me, wrote this recently. I appreciated his clarification of what he means when he uses the worm analogy. Yet, I still resist the terminology. God doesn’t have a low  view of me. He created me in His image and names me a co-heir with Jesus. He calls me His beloved and affirms His lavish grace poured over me from before time began. As I sit with Jesus as a co-heir (God’s term, not mine), I can’t imagine that the term worm will describe any part of that relationship whatsoever.

I’m concerned that the use of the term worm in today’s evangelicalism is more a result of a hymn than Scripture. Did you know that the phrase “for such a worm as I” is not in the Bible? In my own study, I found 3 references in Scripture where humans are referred to as worms (Job 25:6 , Psalm 22:6, and Isa 41:14). Are these the foundational verses on how we are to view ourselves? Do these 3 verses inform all the others on God’s view of His children? Scripture is the best commentary on itself. In light of that, it’s valuable for us to go back to what Scripture itself says about the value and worth (or lack thereof) of humans. And there is no better place to do that than the origins of man in Genesis 1.

26Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
 27So God created man in his own image,
   in the image of God he created him;
   male and female he created them.
 28And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

If we use these verses to interpret each other, it gives us parameters for how to think of ourselves. God made us not worms but like Him to rule the worm. I get annoyed at facebook statuses among Christians that seem to compete on how lowly they can talk of themselves. We don’t have to put on a false humility. I personally can easily fall into self-deprecation and self-condemnation. But my version of worm theology becomes as self-centered as any manifestation of pride from which I’m trying to protect myself. Perhaps that’s why I resonate with Tim Keller’s quote on the gospel which I keep at the top of my blog.

“The Christian gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I am so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me. This leads to deep humility and deep confidence at the same time. It undermines both swaggering and sniveling. I cannot feel superior to anyone, and yet I have nothing to prove to anyone. I do not think more of myself nor less of myself. Instead, I think of myself less.”
Tim Keller, The Reason for God

I love this. I understand the problem with swaggering. But I don’t have to counteract it by sniveling. I am flawed, but I am loved. And it is this deep confidence in what God has said over us that frees me to REAL humility, not a false one clothed in self-deprecating terminology.

Normal Confession

In the past few months, I’ve had three pastors (in three very different contexts in three different states) seek me out to make sure they hadn’t discouraged me or sinned against me on a particular issue. Two outright apologized to me, without any hints or prodding on my part. I didn’t have to put out the vibe that I was disappointed with them or that I was waiting on an apology. The other was concerned that I might have taken something they said personally and sought me out to clarify themselves. In each encounter, what clearly was missing was defensiveness and self justification. There was authentic confession, genuine concern for me, and no circling of the wagons.

In fact, instead of circling the wagons in self protection, I noticed the freedom each seemed to have to be humble. Humility was the norm. “What?! We don’t need wagons! No wagons allowed! We are FREE to confess sin and make things right. We have no need for self-protection.” I am starting to cry as I type this because it is SO different that my experiences with Christian leaders growing up and even well into my thirties. I remember pockets of humility back then, but it was mostly from those UNDER authority, rarely from those IN authority. I can’t put into words how much it meant to me as each humble Christian leader sought to repair something with me out of genuine concern. I have MARVELED over it. It seems rare to me when it should be so very normal.

I thought today about what separated the pastors in my life over the last few months from those I have known previously for which such easy confession would not have been the norm. It isn’t the age of the leaders. It’s not their educational background. And it isn’t their position in their respective churches. I think it’s much simpler and much more profound. Why was concern, confession, and reparation the norm for these guys? Simply, it’s their theological understanding of the gospel. It’s their security in Christ that makes the difference. It’s their confidence in HIS finished work that frees them to say, “I made a mistake.”

The gospel makes confession NORMAL. It makes it SAFE. And it makes it normal and safe for leaders, not just those under their authority. The gospel makes confession normal and safe for me with my children. I can say “I am sorry” as a parent, as a teacher, and as an author. It doesn’t threaten me to own up to my mistakes and to seek to repair what I’ve done wrong. My standing with God doesn’t rest on my performance, and I don’t have to fake perfection with my kids. I don’t have to fear that my authority with them will be forever lost if I admit I was wrong. The truth is that I will most effectively undermine my gospel ministry to them if I instead circle my wagons in defensiveness and self-protection when my faults come to light.

I look forward to the day when a Christian leader apologizing to me doesn’t seem so out of place, to the day when it seems normal. As the gospel settles deeper in our psyche, repairing with others will be the natural outworking. It will be the standard. We rebuild the fabric of our relationships when we humbly say we are sorry, and I love rubbing shoulders with leaders whose view of the gospel makes such confession the norm, not a rare exception forced under duress.   

2 Corinthians 5:18-19
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

Matthew 5:23-24
So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Conflict between parties of unequal authority

We are all familiar with conflict in unhealthy relationships. But conflict occurs in healthy relationships as well. Here is a key difference. In unhealthy relationships/churches/ministries, the one with the authority squelches conflict effectively. They don’t endure conflict; they crush it. And the one getting crushed is usually the one without the power. In a healthy ministry/relationship, the one with the power and authority lays down his life. He endures. He absorbs the injustice. There is still conflict, but if there is outright injustice, authorities bear the weight of the injustice, not vice versa.

Before you write me off as suggesting the acceptance of sin and rebellion by those under our authority, consider Jesus, who epitomizes healthy ministry. At His trial, He is falsely accused. Great injustice is committed against Him. But He who had all the power, took it. He restrained His power and authority and absorbed their injustice. Scripture calls it gentleness, and it is a crucial piece of imitating Christ in healthy conflict. Jesus says of Himself, “I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29), and in 2 Tim. 2, Paul emphasizes it as well.

24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

Gentleness isn’t weakness, and it isn’t a feminine virtue. Gentleness is strength under control. Babies aren’t gentle. Babies are weak. But when the man who has the strength to crush the baby instead tempers that strength to protect it, that is gentleness.

Conflict often arises between parties of equal strength, power, or authority. But it is conflict between parties of unequal power or authority that is my focus here (though these principles similarly apply to conflict between peers). Paul warns fathers in Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3 to not discourage or exasperate their children. John Stott notes in his Message of Ephesians commentary that when Paul outlines how parents should behave towards their children, it is “not the exercise but the RESTRAINT of their authority which he urges upon them” (p. 245). Often such conflict arises over the very issue of authority, the most tempting situation to rouse ourself in the full manifestation of our power or authority. Yet Paul calls us to a different way.

When conflict arises between me and those under my authority, do I want to humiliate my opponent? To take them down a notch? Some sin makes me so angry I want to rip into the offender and verbally tear them apart, but acting on that is sin. According to James, the anger of man NEVER accomplishes the righteousness of God. I must take my anger to God, pray through it, and ask Him to transform it from anger that will accomplish nothing for His kingdom to resolve that stands against injustice and sin in righteous ways. I’ve transitioned from unrighteous anger to healthy resolve when I move from wanting my opponent destroyed to wanting him or her freed from their sin. I don’t want to figuratively shoot them. I want God to heal them. As Paul teaches in 2 Timothy 2, my opponent is not my enemy. They are a captive of my true enemy. We will never win a war when we aim our warfare at prisoners of war. No, our war is with principalities and powers, not flesh and blood (Eph. 6). Healthy conflict understands this difference. I must stand in the gap FOR my opponent even as I stand against their injustice, patiently enduring evil, correcting with gentleness. If you hate sin and injustice, believe that God’s explicit instructions on such conflicts really do work His righteousness.