By Jim Candy
Is today the best time in history to be a spiritual bully?
Like many others, I’ve been listening to “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” produced by Christianity Today which chronicles the Seattle megachurch’s implosion.
Its senior leader, Mark Driscoll, was accused of being a bully, to staff, congregants and just about everyone else. I won’t cast judgment on Driscoll, because I’ve got “planks” in my own eye, but it’s disturbing to live in an era that doesn’t just tolerate spiritual bullies, it adores them.
Bullies are not new, but now we have congregations full of bully enablers; people who tacitly, or otherwise, support the kind of aggressive, mean-spirited leadership alleged at Mars Hill.
1. We Outsource Spiritual Leadership
Many of us are desperate to be led.
We are overwhelmed at work, home, family, with our finances and health. It’s true, perhaps especially, of our spiritual lives. We feel like failures and wonder if God is really in our corner.
When someone we perceive as “strong” comes along, we can attach to a compelling leader who might lift us from our self-perceived failure.
And if that leader comes with some “rough edges”, often a cruelty toward the church staff or others, well… we’re willing to overlook it because we are enjoying the short-term ROI of our loyalty and where else would we go anyway?
“People crave leadership and strength and someone who stands for something,” a friend texted me. “And then it starts turning sideways, but you’ve climbed on board that train and it’s too humiliating to jump off and your sunk costs are too big, so you stay. Until you personally get hurt.”
My friend is not speaking hypothetically. I admire the self-awareness, because most people ride that train and end up nursing spiritual wounds for years, even subconsciously.
Spiritual bullies existed in Jesus’s day too.
The Pharisees used their power for control and power. They were incredibly deceptive because, although they falsely portrayed the nature of God, they knew their Bibles well. Really well.
To the average church member today, struggling to survive the normal pressures of life, it’s hard to deny the persuasiveness of a strong leader who seems to know their Bible. Some of us have allowed a strong Biblical teacher to become a spiritual proxy for the person we believe we can never become, even if their actual life looks nothing like that of Jesus Himself.
Contrast our cultural moment to Jesus’s response to bullies: He confronted and refused to enable them. Yeah, you say, but he’s Jesus and can handle bullies.
It cost him his life.
But Jesus knew allowing Pharisees to control the spiritual narrative would have spread a distorted image of the loving God.
And that’s where we find ourselves today.
Every time a Mars Hill scenario plays out, a false concept about the nature of God persuades outsiders that, since Christians enable unhealthy, sometimes cruel leaders, our beliefs can be dismissed.
2. We’ve Adopted the World’s Idea of Masculinity
My 8th grade football coach was angry he wasn’t good enough to play in the NFL and took that frustration out on us.
I struggled during conditioning drills, and he grabbed my facemask more than once snarling.
“Candy, you $@!#%@! I’m going to replace you with a girl!”
Welcome to Boulder, Colorado in 1988. I can still picture his face, inches from mine, cheeks bright red as spit flew from his furious, screaming lips.
Ever notice men have always tried to motivate other men by bullying them about not being real men?
At Mars Hill, this strategy, dressed up with Scripture, passed for years as normative pastoral leadership.
But it’s not just at Mars Hill. I met a pastor recently who beamed with enthusiasm about his church’s massive growth, even during Covid. This church tripled in size. God must truly be at work, right?
“Wow, what did you do differently than everyone else?” I asked. “Most churches I know feel good to be at 60 percent of their pre-Covid attendance.”
He leaned in.
“No one is attracted to weakness, Jim, especially men,” he said. “The local churches near us showed nothing but weakness during the pandemic. Men don’t respect that.”
Translation: this church never missed a Sunday during Covid, blew off every government assembly mandate and openly mocked mask wearing. All the frustrated political conservatives from other nearby churches flocked to their services, and the whole thing is being called a “revival.”
But he (God) said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
- 2 Corinthians 12:9-11 (NIV)
The ancient Church in Corinth was obsessed with the world’s definition of “strong” leadership too and tried to build their church accordingly. The passage above is Paul’s response.
Despite our misunderstanding of strength and masculinity, God loves to use us when we are at our weakest. Why?
Weakness is the breeding ground of humility, and humility is the breeding ground of discipleship.
Any form of masculinity that ignores this reality is like a teetering Jenga tower. Once the humility piece is removed, just watch, it will tumble. Pray you don't get hit by the falling pieces.
Which brings up the biggest problem of them all…
3. We Don’t Know Jesus Well
My sheep will know my voice… - Jesus
The Church needs people who know His voice.
Picking out something false becomes easier when you intimately know what’s authentic.
My wife can say just a few words before I decipher:
1. If it’s her or someone else
2. Her mood
3. What she’s thinking and feeling
4. If I’m in trouble for something :-)
Can we pick out Jesus’s voice in the sea of voices around us?
“Relationship is a function of time spent,” an old mentor of mine said. “If you spend time around someone, you will know them well. If you don’t, you won’t.”
“Spending time” with Jesus is puzzling, slow, inefficient and… essential. I wake up daily and try to learn His voice more, occasionally with success. I do this, not out of some goofy notion of religious requirement, but because I like Him.
And I think He likes me.
And I get frustrated with him for not speaking more clearly. And I get frustrated with myself for not being a better listener. My problem is in my pocket. Everyday my smart phone gets smarter, the battle for my attention intensifies.
Jesus speaks in stillness, not frenzy. His voice is usually quieter than the competitors, by choice. He loves you too much to be reduced to one more form of “content” you consume. Hearing Him will take more effort than that.
Without that quiet voice, we are susceptible to voices who claim to be from God but aren’t.
BONUS REASON: Social Media Loves Bullies
Let’s rewind to that church that exploded during Covid.
My curiosity got the best of me, so I listened to a sermon online. The pastor used Genesis 3 to berate “wacky, earth-loving environmentalists” who, by caring for the environment and not exploiting it, are “Satanic.”
Satanic? Wow. Because I recycle?
Here's the sad reality: too many pastors have discovered that using polarizing, aggressive and demeaning hyperbole leads to more blog clicks, attendees, social media followers and financial resources. The more extreme, the bigger the audience. Click.
I’m not going to tell you this particular church or church leader’s name, and I will not go back and listen to another sermon. I gave him one click and that's enough. I’ve got no interest in helping him sign a book deal.
I write this with conviction, not out of some cathartic personal need to vent, because the stakes are high. I personally know many 20-something-year-olds actively deconstructing the faith they were taught as kids; trying to conclude if this “faith thing” is actually true or if they are being asked to buy into a system seeking to make them a pawn in the awful culture wars they’ve grown up in.
We can change the narrative by supporting creative, thoughtful, compassionate and, yes, humble leaders. When you find one, you've found gold, even if they follow more people than follow them on social media.
So... a prayer for today:
Jesus, teach us to hear your voice with humility, speak loving truth to those who distort it, and care for those whose scars show the painful aftermath of enabling.
As always, I appreciate you sharing this, liking and passing along to others. I'd love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.