Not Lords but Examples
I appreciate that someone like me who is not a victim or survivor of abuse will never be able to fully appreciate the immense harm that people, sometimes holding positions of power within the Church, have caused to others. Like many, I am immensely grateful to those who have bravely shared something of their experiences in the pursuit of justice and a safer Church for everyone. Such experiences have been on my mind a great deal since the February 2020 meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England of which I am a part. One cannot get away from the fact that the Church of England’s response to abuse, as with other churches, has been wholly inadequate. The impression we’re giving to the wider world is that we’ve been somewhat taken by surprise by abuse, firstly responding through denial and cover-up, before realising that something needs to be done. The panicked nature of the Church’s engagement with safeguarding has left serious theological reflection behind, to the extent that safeguarding training often appears to be good practice in search of theological justification. This is something of a scandal, since the Gospel of Christ offers the deepest of insights into human evil, the brokenness of the world and the true cost of justice and mercy.
As a Church leader, I’ve been attempting to think hard about the nature of my ministry. I have been significantly influenced by Christian summer camp ministry and the ecclesiology of Total Church, both of which have been exploited by abusers. What do I need to change? Through research, teaching and publication, I have come to know and delight in 1 Peter, so I have begun my thinking there. This has recently been published elsewhere (Benjamin Sargent, ‘Not for Shameful Gain: A Petrine Theology of Safeguarding’, Theology 124.2 (2021), 165-172) and I’d like to share one element of this in brief.
1 Peter 5.2-3 offers a unique probing of the motivation which lies behind Christian ministry. ‘Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them’ (NIV). What this means is developed in three couplets: ‘not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock’. These leaders, according to Peter, are both elders and overseers, shepherds and servants. They should not serve through compulsion, but because of eagerness. Their motivation should not be what they can gain for themselves (the Greek term usually implies financial greed), but what they can give to others as servants. Rather than elevating themselves above others as spiritual superiors, to whom the normal definitions of godly behaviour do not apply, they should behave just as they encourage others to behave. Leaders who have separated themselves from true accountability through a culture of deference, who do not belong to local churches where they sit under the word of God with everyone else: these are not the leaders the Church of Jesus Christ the cornerstone, the elect and holy people of God, need. According to Peter, there will be a day when the Chief Shepherd and Overseer of Souls appears in majesty to bestow a crown of unfading splendour upon those leaders who have eagerly served for the good of others.