How we respond to concerns about abusive and bullying culture matters for the culture

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There have been a range of responses to the recent scandals and reviews concerning abuse in the church. On the one hand there are those who I think wish it would all just go away.  We’ve identified a few rotten apples, they’ve been dealt with so let’s move on. There have been others however who feel that more needs to be done and that there are others that need to be brought to account.

First of all, I want to refer you to this post by Chris Green which helps us to think about how to respond to what has been going on. Chris helpfully reminds us that we simply cannot make presumptions about what else might be out there in terms of others who were abused by those already identified or the sins and crimes of others in leadership positions that may not have come out yet.  So, I don’t think it will do to simply hope this will all just blow over.

But also, I want to emphasise again that these events do challenge us to look again at our church culture, both in terms of the local churches we are part of and our wider networks.  As has been so pithily put, “Rotten apples do grow on trees.” Furthermore, I think there have been enough Christian leaders challenging us to look not just at what we believe but also how we live to give us pause for thought. I would particularly recommend “Lead” by Paul David Tripp and Ray Ortlund “The Gospel” on this.

However, exactly because we want to get the culture right, means that we need to be careful and wise about how we take things forward.  First of all, if we are going to be gracious in our words and actions, we need to learn to distinguish between types of issues.  In pastoral ministry, I’ve often emphasised the importance of distinguishing between wolves (predatory false teachers and abusers), goats (non -Christians) and naughty sheep (believers who are out of line with God’s word) in the church. So, it is helpful now to distinguish the following issues

  1. There are people who have acted like wolves, they are identified as abusers and bullies, they may well have accompanied and justified their behaviours by false teaching but even if not, their actions as well as directly harming their victims also distort the Gospel message and so harm others.
  2. There are people who have acted in ways that are unwise and unhealthy which may reflect character flaws. They are teachable and their motives have persistently been for the good of others and the glory of God but there is need for sanctification where their character and demeanour tends towards the forceful and domineering.
  3. There are church cultures that have become toxic, bullying and abuse. There may or may not be intentional abusers and bullies present, there may be leaders that have become domineering present or not.  In fact, often the challenge is that the collective response bears little relation to the intent and demeanour of individual leaders on their own.
  4. There are church cultures that are not bullying and abusive but are unhealthy for all kinds of reasons including history leading to insularity or cliques and processes and systems taking over so that everything feels bureaucratic.

Each of those situations arise from the same root, a failure to fully grasp and live out God’s grace. However, each need slightly different responses. 

In terms of responding to cultural issues, I want to suggest that the primary need is for teaching and exhortation. We need to be calling our own local churches back to the Gospel. In terms of the wider culture, there’s a responsibility on those who have a wider platform including conference speakers, national leaders, blog writers and book authors to encourage, exhort and challenge by drawing the church back to God’s Word.

In terms of reports of actual abuse, then we need to recognise that this is “wolfish” behaviour and needs to be addressed as such. Our first responsibility is to ensure that immediate victims are kept safe but we also need to be aware that wolves will attack others in the flock. So, the sooner, the better that an issue is reported to those with the ability to take action. That action should include public warning of the danger.

Where we need to be careful though is that we don’t slip into a culture where there are constant whispers and second-hand reports of what this or that person may or may not have done and their possible motives. This may lead to unfair and false accusation without an opportunity for people to respond  and defend themselves. Furthermore, we should be aware that this so often is an aspect of unhealthy church cultures that creep in. How often have leaders had to face situations where eit is reported that “someone/some people think that/are saying that.” I understand the frustration people have as they want to see the light shone onto issues and to stand up for the victims of abuse and so this is hard but we do have to be alert to how we communicate.

My advice is that

  1. Networks can help by setting up the means for victims of abuse to report it and get help.
  2. If you are aware of someone who has been a victim that you help them to raise it in a safe and effective way.
  3. We need to address the general cultural issues.  As mentioned above, this is first and foremost by teaching but we may also want to look at other was of encouraging genuine mutual accountability. It may be helpful for a church to seek an external health review over 3-5 years for example.

Let’s make sure that we model healthy, graceful relationships as we seek to see Christ’s church grow in in godliness, to be purified, reformed and renewed.