I would like to draw your attention to the review that the churches safeguarding body, 31:8 carried out following the high profile accusations of bullying and abuse relating to their senior leader and Acts29 CEO Steve Timmis.
I think it would be helpful for any church leadership team to work through this report and see if it identifies lessons for them. Doing so may at times prove painful reading. The report does not implicate a monster or identify a cult. Rather it holds up a mirror to the dangers that any church can face, the challenges and temptations that are there for all church leaders. We may recognise ourselves at times in different aspects of this.
For me, the key things to highlight are, first of all that people can have completely polarised impressions of a man and that probably reflects a flawed, frail, human character. Steve is clearly gifted and passionate, there seems to be genuine love and pastoral concern. At the same time, the passion and strength of character leads to confrontation. There also seems to be an issue with the use of shaming as a tool.
The report identifies a particular church culture that revolves around one person but is also fed into by other cultures. That happens in isolation from other local churches and wider networks. There is a tendency to perceive the church as maverick and somehow unique and special. Those things make accountability and lessons from others hard work. There is a warning here against seeing your context as a special case and becoming arrogant towards others.
Whereas leaders in the church should be above reproach, it seems that too often (this is not a lone case) that church leaders have become above criticism and challenge. The report observes that this was particularly problematic where Steve held an international role. It is ironic that conservative evangelicals, long critical of papal/episcopal denominations and apostolic networks have ended up putting their own men on pedestals. The report therefore is not merely a criticism of one leader but a challenge to all leaders to ensure genuinely plural leadership and robust accountability within a church as well as healthy relationships with other churches.
Cultures and their relationships to doctrine are important, Ray Ortlund has been hammering away at this point for some time. Notice that it is possible to have a doctrinl position that does not necessarily filter through into church life and experience so that the TCH Sharrowvale community describe a culture where the emphasis seemed to be more on sin than grace. Of course we can go the other way and seeking to emphasise grace lose sight of the fact that grace only makes sense when we understand sin. However, it is also so important that we don’t lose grace in the process.
Then there are doctrinal positions that can be experienced in a way that is perhaps not intentional. I am complementarian in my understanding of how men and women relate in church life and family life. However, we need to be careful that, what I understand to be a correct Biblical position, does not lead to a distorted culture that as some suggest demeans both men and women.
31:8 come at the issues from a safe-guarding perspective reflecting their particular sphere of responsibility. There maty be risks to this. Not every church issue is best looked at under the safe-guarding banner. However, there are benefits too. One such benefit I think is the encouragement to look carefully at processes, policies, structures and terminology. Notice the problems created by having a leader within the church whose relationship in terms of employment or voluntary responsibilities is left ambiguous. Notice too the emphasis on safe employment processes and the importance of including references. I personally wonder if churches would do well to require references even for internal appointments to paid and volunteer roles, including the appointment of elders. One requirement for Biblical leadership is that those with responsibility in the church should first have a good reputation outside of the church.
There are numerous other lessons that we can learn from the report. Some will be more applicable to each of us than others and some will strike each of us more forcibly than others. By holding up a mirror to ourselves created by the experiences of others, we have an opportunity to examine ourselves in a context that encourages compassion, grace and honesty rather than shame, guilt and secrecy. I hope this will prove helpful.
I’ve shared the 31:8 report with the leaders of my current church. I will also be sharing it for discussion with any new church we are involved in whether that is in a traditional pastoral calling or a pioneer church plant with new leaders