- Revd Simon Austen
A challenge for the contemporary church
In a world which rightly champions accountability, Christian ministers have often found themselves in the spotlight. We are all too aware of situations in which the privileged and responsible position of pastoral ministry or eldership has not been as godly, honourable and transparent as we might have hoped – and as such the suspicion which might arise in the minds of some is understandable.
The tools available to us in our contemporary culture can be of great help as we seek to put structures in place in order to minimalize the risk of any abuse of power. Safeguarding, grievance and complaints procedures all have their rightful place in any organisation. They can protect the vulnerable and give voice to the weak. But at the same time it might perhaps serve us well as Christians to reflect a little more if we are to ensure that our churches develop according to Christian principles rather than the precepts of the world alone.
Our secular culture both internalises and individualises our response to situations, making my feelings or my story the sole arbiter of what is right and what is wrong. There might be some truth in such assertions – and yet the Bible reminds us that what is internal is not always pure and right. Jeremiah teaches us that ‘the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?’ (Jeremiah 17:9). The apostle Paul, so longing to do what was right before God, found himself hindered by warring desires . . . ‘for what I do is not the good I want to do; no the evil I do not want to do – this I keep doing.’ (Romans 7:9). It means that our problem is not only with others. It is with ourselves. Internally we are beset by the sin that so easily entangles (Hebrews 12:1). We all need Christ (Romans 8:1), whoever we are.
And when it comes to our individual stand on issues, even if they are right, we should still ‘in humility consider others better than’ ourselves (Philippians 2:3), doing everything without ‘complaining or arguing’ (Philippians 2:14), ‘bearing with each other’ and forgiving ‘whatever grievance you may have against one another’ (Colossians 3:13). Such truths must never be used to brush anything under the carpet, particularly if it relates to behaviour which Scripture rightly calls us to challenge, for we know that Bible ministry includes rebuke (2 Timothy 3:16), but our attitude towards such issues must be Christian; and our manner must be godly. No-one stands outside the requirement of saying ‘only what is helpful for building up others according to their needs, that it might benefit those who listen.’ (Ephesians 4:29)
This in turn has a bearing on the responsibilities of Christian ministers, for it is clearly possible for right rebuke from a Christian minister to be godly and loving, even when it challenges my feelings and my story. Such challenge is not abuse but love. Abuse finds fertile soil only when love is substituted for power.
And perhaps herein lies one of the challenges for the contemporary church. Christian ministers can abuse their responsibilities all too easily; but Christian ministers do have responsibilities, for which they are answerable to God. The standards are high (James 3:1), the criteria for office are demanding (1 Timothy 3:7); itching ears might wish for something else (2 Timothy 4:3,4), but a Christian minister is never-the-less obliged to exercise these responsibilities of office as a faithful and gentle under-shepherd (1 Peter 5;1-4). In our modern world the biblical expectation as to how we might respond to such teaching and to those who teach is unpopular (Hebrews 13:17), but rightly lived it makes the body of Christ more beautiful – and it turns individuality and internalisation on their heads.