The problem with church lad culture

I’ve not got round to listening to The Rise and fall of Mars Hill podcast. From what I’ve heard, it’s not easy listening.  The podcast tells the story of Mark Driscoll’s rise to prominence as an evangelical leader and subsequent fall from grace.  Driscoll became a bit of a poster boy for the neo-Calvinists and the church planting movement in general heading up Acts-29. 

One of the issues I think we have now is that when eventually he was removed from both leadership with Acts-29 and of the Mars Hill Church it was dealt with as a kind of one off stand alone example. Driscoll was considered a rotten apple and a bit of an embarrassing one at that.  Yet, what has happened in the past few years in the wider evangelical constituency including the Fletcher and Smyth scandals but also Hybels, Zacharias and further problems within Acts-29 leading to Steve Timmis being removed from leadership leaves questions.  One important question is to what extent we can isolate the Driscoll/Mars Hill problem out as nothing to do with the others either as cause or effect. The other is concerning a recognition that rotten apples grow on trees.  We cannot ignore the high profile cases without addressing the culture they have cultivated in.

Thinking back to the rise bit of the Driscoll/Mars Hill phenomena, one thing that stood out to me in terms of the way people took up certain postures, the language the used, the way they talked about each other and to each other was the difficulty you would have in distinguishing such culture from the lad culture of the world. This had implications especially for how those who didn’t form part of particular cliques including and perhaps especially women were talked to, about and around. 

I think this kind of culture which has continued via social media is a significant part of the problem in terms of creating an environment where abuse can happen.  When it is default to be derogatory and cynical as well as putting up those tribal boundaries then it’s not surprising that people learn ways of behaving and speaking that when unleashed on the particularly vulnerable are catastrophic. But also, if you are used to a culture where people normally speak and act in a certain way, if you are used to being viewed in a particular manner then how are you able to recognise when the predator shows up. Things are unlikely to feel that different.

There is I believe, a further casualty of that. I think that there are a lot of Christians who haven’t really seen godly leadership demonstrated. This means not only that they don’t know how to lead well but they also don’t know how to be led.

I keep coming back to an example from Ephesians 5. There has been much debate about the rights and wrongs of submission in modern life but I’ve rarely heard people talk about what it means to submit. However, Paul actually explains that. In a letter that is soaked in his expressed desire and prayer that the church would know God’s love in a deep and powerful way, Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands and then immediately tells husbands to love their wives.  That’s crucial. Note, it’s not that a wife isn’t to love her husband, that she doesn’t want to or that she doesn’t need to.  However, the focus here is on her need to be loved by him.  How does she submit to her husband? The answer is that she lets him love her.  “Husbands love your wives. Wives let them.”

Godly leaders also have a responsibility to love the church. They love it by teaching God’s Word faithfully and authority and by leading well, making good and wise decisions which ensure that the flock are cared for, provided for and protected. A healthy church lets its elders love them!  Yet, if we haven’t been set a good example, then do we as leaders know how to love the church well. And if the church hasn’t had a good example set then does it know how to love us.

The long and the short of it is that I think that alongside some actual and unpleasant examples of abuse we are also seeing examples of people not knowing how to lead.  And we are also seeing congregations that don’t want to be lead because they can’t envision a world where that would be healthy and a joy.  This means that alongside the real cases of abuse and bullying (don’t hear me wrong I’m not denying their existence or questioning their prevalence), there have also been plenty of examples of misunderstanding and confusion as well as a few instances where it has in fact been the elders who have experienced toxic environments and congregations have simply refused to be led.

Now how you resolve individual situations depends upon exactly what has happened and learning to distinguish between the wolves, the well intentioned/poorly equipped and the wounded.  However, it’s getting the overall culture right that will be helpful to all three scenarios.

I’m grateful for a pastor when I was younger who insisted with us young men that there was no place for a lads culture, no place for derogatory joking about women, zero tolerance for that kind of toxic culture where women felt mocked, harassed or rejected.  We need to have that same zero-tolerance attitude not just to the specific issue of women in the church but a concern for the wider church family. That means zero tolerance for cruel mocking and trash talking, zero tolerance for cliques and zero tolerance for seeing people as a means to an end.

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