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An Antidote to Abusive Church Cultures?

Updated: May 22, 2023

Every now and again, in a tradition going back over 100 years, the media runs a story of a charismatic American preacher, apparently taking their cue from passages such Luke 10:17-24, 'proving' his exceptional 'spirituality' by handling snakes.

In 2018, Cody Coots, minister of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Middlesboro, Kentucky was demonstrating his supposed power over venomous serpents to his congregation... when he has bitten by the snake he was handling. Un-phased he said, “I’m not worried at all. God’s a healer, I’m not worried”… shortly before he started to choke and had to be carried from the church.

The remarkable thing about this story is that Pastor Coots’ father had died in a similar incident while handling a rattlesnake just four years before.

Oh, how we can mock from our side of the pond. Aren’t they just daft Americans, of limited sophistication, doubtless gullible and so ripe to be conned by charlatan, so called ministers, who abuse their power, exploit the vulnerable and manipulate people for their own ends?

Oh, sure we can mock, but we’d be very wrong to. As most are now aware, those in England, not least in the evangelical world Anglican world, have plenty of our own scandals of abuse, exploitation and manipulation.

John Smyth was exposed in a Channel 4 documentary six years ago. He and others who beat young men did so in the name of conservative evangelicalism and within its networks. Since then, Jonathan Fletcher, a figure revered by many, was found to have manipulated and exploited younger men for his own gratification and Steve Timmis, who ran the Acts 29 network of 800 churches, was accused of spiritual abuse and bullying and sacked. Timmis was himself the successor of Mark Driscoll who at one time was admired by millions before his anger, vulgarity, bullying and mega-ego were exposed.

And now there are allegations against another prominent leader in another network and against bishops who have utterly failed survivors.

It is all immensely painful for many. It is something of a truism but the family of the church, like the domestic family, has a unique capacity to help people, but it also, therefore, has a unique capacity to hurt people. After abusive episodes at best we may doubt our judgement and at worst people have been permanently harmed.

But none of us are immune. What is there to stop us, any of us, getting above ourselves as Christians and especially as leaders?

How might the future not replicate the past?

The other part of Luke 10 might help.

'The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!”

And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”'

Then turning to the disciples he said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”' (Luke 10:17-24 - ESV)

The scene is of the return of seventy-two return mission trippers and they are elated (vs17). Just buzzing with their success, on such a high as to what they’ve been able to do, and full of joy. They’re so excited: “even the demons are subject to us”. The demons even! They’re flushed with their triumphs.

But it’s not hard to see the dangers of that is it? How easy would it have been for them to get above themselves?

And see what Jesus says: he offers five insights into good leadership when seemingly on a roll.

Don’t forget the gifts aren’t ours… they are on loan.

Jesus in effect says to the pairs- “The power and authority are not yours - they are mine”.

In fact, the pairs offer some acknowledgement of that, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name” (vs 17).

The pairs do recognise that it is because of who Jesus is that the demons could be made subject.

But are there not lingering dangers? The dangers that the pairs start to trust themselves or start to think it is the form of words, the formula, almost like a magic spell that does the subjecting?

And so, verse 19, Jesus offers a corrective reminder:

“Behold I have given you”.

As we say, as a matter of routine in the funeral service, but not often enough otherwise - what the Lord gives the Lord can take away. Their power, the gift, is not their permanent possession to boast about. To the extent that the labourer’s work in the harvest field is met with success it is only due to the gifts given to them for that time.

We might wonder how many leaders would not have gone astray if they didn’t have, project and use an over-inflated sense of the importance of what they regard as their own talents?

Don’t forget to rejoice in the right things… their names are written in heaven.

Jesus tells the pairs, in their excitement, that they’re missing the real point. The real joy is not in their spectacular success but in their secure salvation. Vs 20,

“Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven”.

Might it be that at least one cause of the relentless scandals in evangelicalism is the pressure to be seen to produce ongoing success which leads to the driving, even bullying, of others in pursuit of that goal? And might the antidote be more regular reminders both that 'success' in ministry is God’s concern and that 'success', or no 'success', all believers have the most wonderful thing to rejoice over and need no more?

Don’t forget it isn’t about our cleverness… the Father alone reveals.

Just as Jesus tells the pairs that ministry is not about their natural gifts, he also tells them that it is not about the cleverness of their minds either (vs 21-22) .

It is not a simple concept- only the Father can reveal the Son and as the Son is revealed so is the Father seen. It is the Father’s desire to reveal the Son to the world that reveals the Father to the world as the world gets to know the Son. It isn’t simple, but what it definitely isn’t about, is human intellect, theological cleverness or scientific insight. It is God who reveals.

And that is what Jesus rejoices in. That is quite a thought - of all the things Jesus could rejoice in - creation through him, salvation in him, resurrection and new creation because of him - he rejoices in the Holy Spirit in the revelation of eternal truth. And what is so precious to him should be cherished by us.

Could any leader get too carried away if their constant joy was in thanking God for that?

Don’t forget the battle is spiritual… there is a bigger picture.

The missionaries are elated but Jesus says that they don’t understand the half of it- “.he said to them, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven’”.

Where the seventy-two see random demons expelled as they take their route to Jerusalem, Jesus looks into the heavenly realm and sees the beginning of the complete overthrow of Satan’s rule. The disciples only have a limited perspective from the door to door, hand to hand, trenches but Jesus sees the whole battle map.

A disciple or messenger of Christ who understands that the battle is ultimately a cosmic and spiritual one, will stay humble. Even our supposedly greatest triumphs are but a pale reflection of what is really going on - the ultimate triumph of God, not good, but God, over evil.

Don’t forget you are a child… that there is ongoing dependency.

Many of us have reason to hate the mirror- it shows us as we are. But Jesus says, “Have a good look at yourself”.

The pairs are hugely privileged - not because of their missionary success but because of their names being written in heaven. Moreover, the precious revelation made known to them is something that means Jesus can say, vs 23-24,

“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desire to see what you see, and did not see it and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it”.

But just as hugely privileged they may be, the seventy need to see themselves as they really are- (vs 21) never more than infants, never more than little children. Not so called “wise” or “understanding” but little children.

Little children, who, however sophisticated they and their learning may become are only little children called to simple childlike trust.

It doesn’t matter if we are the Archbishop of Canterbury, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther and St Augustine rolled into one… or if we think we are. We can never be more than an infant if our name is written in heaven. A king or prophet can only receive Christ as a child. Dependent, helpless, vulnerable, a risk to themselves.

Again, how many of us, how many leaders, could avoid getting above of ourselves if we had a daily reminder of our childlikeness and utter reliance? How many leaders if they accepted that they were weak, not strong, would then be bullies?

A leader who in their heart believes that they are, or need to appear, able, successful, clever, victorious and strong is a dangerous leader.

Avoid them and don’t become one.

Be imitators of Christ and only of leaders like him (1 Cor 11:1).


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