Christian Living England the Church The Free Church Theology USA

Does the Evangelical Church have a Systemic Sin Problem?

There is almost nothing that hurts as much as watching your fellow Christian leaders fall in public.   It’s such a depressing phenomenon – and one with which we are becoming increasingly familiar.   What Chrysostom wrote over 1500 years ago is still true today: “Therefore the devil rages with greater violence against teachers, because by their destruction the flock also is scattered. For by slaying the sheep, he has lessened the flock, but when he has made away with the shepherd, he has ruined the whole flock” (Chrysostom Homily I on 1 Timothy).

Admittedly there is a temptation with some to take pleasure in the fall of others – but such schadenfreude (delight at the misery of others)  is not worthy of the name ‘Christian’.     It doesn’t matter whether we have a personal like or dislike of the leaders involved, or whatever critiques we may have with their methodology or theology, it should grieve us deeply when leaders fall.   And for those of us who are leaders there needs to be a conscious awareness of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.

I was reflecting and praying about this as the news about Steve Timmis became public and there were further revelations about Jonathan Fletcher (and outwith my own tribes – Jean Vanier’s disgrace).  It was so dispiriting and I had no desire to add anything to the plethora of comments – until I watched this video. Mez McConnell and Matthew Spandler Davidson – both of Acts 29 and Twenty Schemes were in Sydney and appeared on Dominic Steele’s The Pastor’s Heart. Given that they were speaking at an Acts 29 conference on abuse, in the week that the CEO of Acts 29 had in effect been dismissed for abuse, it was impossible to ignore the elephant in the room. I thought that both handled it well – especially given the fact that this was not just their ‘boss’ but also a friend.   Both were wise and measured in their comments. I loved their comments on transparency and damage limitation.

It was mentioned that a lot of the comments were coming from those who were using the situation to attack Acts 29 – that struck a nerve. Because it is both true and defensive. Doubtless, those who don’t like Acts 29 – either its methodology or theology will take delight in using the whole mess to say ‘we told you so’. But what about those of us who like Acts 29 and support them? Are we to be dismissed as naysayers?

The trouble is we can be very defensive when faced with criticisms – especially about organisations and people we love and who have benefited us and others. Even more so when we work for them! It’s hard to be dispassionate – which is why those most directly involved should stay away from social media – when they are hurting and confused.

We also need to be wary of excusing whilst saying we are not excusing. For example, it is right and proper to express concern about Steve Timmis and his family – but we also need to remember those who have been affected in other ways. Steve was removed from his post because of multiple allegations of bullying – that has a profound impact on the victims and their families. And they are more than allegations – otherwise, why would Acts 29 have removed Timmis? It would be a great injustice if he were removed for something he did not do?

“The church of the Firstborn is no place for the demagogue or the petty religious dictator.   The true leader will have no wish to lord it over God’s heritage, but will be humble, gentle, self-sacrificing, and altogether as ready to follow as to lead when the Spirit makes it plain to him that a wiser and more gifted man than him has appeared.” A.W Tozer – The Alliance Weekly/Witness 1961

When these things happen to well-known leaders there are several knee jerk reactions – varying from delighting in their fall to seeking to excuse it. There are two such ‘excuses’ that bother me. Firstly the truism that ‘we are all sinners’.   It’s amazing how quick we are to say that when it is one of our own, and how slow to say it when it is a liberal or heretic!   Of course, we are all sinners – but when a particular sin is exposed it really does not help to come out with that line. Imagine that you had been abused and you hear someone saying of the abuser ‘yes, but we are all sinners’.   It does sound like an attempt to justify/excuse.

The other is the statement that big-name pastors are no more likely to fall than ‘small’ ones. Again like the ‘we are all sinners’ statement there is some truth in it – but it ignores the elephant in the room.   Yes – there are unknown pastors who fall and abuse, and yes there are well known who serve faithfully to the end.   But that ignores the fact that the ‘Big Names’ face particular temptations – temptations that come with power and money.   And this is where this dreadful thought struck me – what if this is not just a matter of individual sinners but rather a systemic problem within many areas of evangelical Christianity today?

(Note: these two excuses have the effect, whether intended or not, of silencing people because who of us is not a sinner in danger of falling?)

What do we mean by a systemic problem?

“A systemic drugdisease, or poison reaches and has an effect on the whole of a body or a plant and not just one part of it.”

“A systemic problem or change is a basic one, experienced by the whole of an organization or a country and not just particular parts of it:”

Acts 29

Acts 29 does a remarkable job. I was speaking to an Acts 29 pastor here in Sydney who has been supported, encouraged and greatly helped through his association with Acts 29.   They have done a great deal of good.   But there is a downside as well with Acts 29 and other non-denominational organisations. They are often a cross between a denomination and a corporation. They have a brand and a lot of their life depends on promoting and protecting the brand.   They are selective – choosing who belongs and who is in. I think that creates problems. Acts 29 already had the debacle with a previous leader – Mark Driscoll.   Matt Chandler – who in my view is one of the key leaders in the evangelical world and is a tremendous preacher (I regularly listened to The Village Church sermons) has had to face serious allegations about what appears to be cover up of a serious sexual abuse by one of his pastors.   And now history seems to be repeating itself.

My colleague and friend Steve McAlpine was deeply involved in the Steve Timmis case.   A couple of weeks ago we sat and talked about whether he should do an interview with Christianity Today . It was a tough decision for him because most sane people do not like to get involved in controversy, it hurt, and he knew the story would harm the cause and people he cared about. But I encouraged him in his decision to go public and do the interview – because not to do so would hurt people and the cause even more.   I admire him for his courage. Because although everyone says that they are opposed to abuse, when this is exposed, the one who does the exposing is often portrayed as ‘the troubler of Israel’.   No one likes a whistle-blower – especially if they are blowing against your team.

Chandler is in my view a great preacher and a fine Christian, but I’m not convinced of either his leadership abilities or even more importantly of the system that he is in. I know of several ‘big names’ who seem to be as controlled by the administrators and power brokers in their organisation, as much as they are in control of it. The brand seems to take over. The programmes kick in. And somehow the organisation becomes bigger and more important than the church.

This from the journalist Julie Roys set all kind of alarm bells ringing.

“Initially, Chandler said in a video announcement that Timmis was taking a four-month sabbatical to “rest and recover.” A day later, Chandler said that Timmis was being removed because of accusations of abusive leadership.

Chandler said the reason he wasn’t more forthcoming initially was “due to some legality involved for both Acts 29 and Steve Timmis.” However, Chandler said that when he and the board realized that the accusations about Timmis were going public, they decided to go public, as well.”

This combined with the fact that the initial five who complained about Timmis five years ago (not two weeks as was initially implied) were fired and as part of their settlement signed non-disclosure agreements- indicates, at the very least, a problem within the organisation.   Who asks for an NDA if they are being transparent and there is nothing to disclose?!   As Mez and Matthew pointed out – Chandler’s initial video to the Acts 29 staff was not transparent. I suspect that if the CT report had not come out then we would all have been none the wiser (except those in the know) as to the real reason for Timmis’s removal.

“There is positively no place in the church for sleight of hand or double talk. Everything done by the churches should be completely above suspicion. The true church will have nothing to hide”.   A W Tozer – The Alliance Weekly/Witness 1951

And this is where the systemic problem lies- the lack of transparency (whilst spinning how transparent you are), the legalese and the overwhelming sense that this is about brand protection as much as people protection – are not healthy.    If you criticise or question some people then the organisations that they are a key part of, make sure that you are ‘outside’. Your face does not fit, you will not get invited to the conferences and there may be difficulties in fundraising.   The threats are usually implicit, not explicit.

The Evangelical Anglican World

This is not just Acts 29.   And I’m not writing this based on any objection to Acts 29 or Matt Chandler.   I know it’s hard to believe in today’s world but the wounds of a friend are faithful.   I think there is a systemic problem within much of the Western evangelical church (and probably the rest of the world as well).

When I read Martin Bashir’s report on Jonathan Fletcher it was even worse. I could feel Christopher Ash’s pain: “‘The revelations have taken us completely by surprise; we have been shocked and astonished. When we first heard about them, they were so unexpected that we thought they must be false accusations.’

What the Fletcher case has shown is a systemic problem within the heart of orthodox, biblical evangelicalism within the Church of England (and because of its predominant influence – within the larger evangelical movement in the UK and the wider Anglican world).     One of the issues is that it was largely based on one model – the old boys network of the private school elites.   Again there has been tremendous good done through that movement – and a few bad apples don’t spoil the whole barrel – but I think the problem is when the barrel is limited to PLUS (people like us). Once you are ‘in’ and have any kind of position or authority or reputation – it is hard to lose that.   In other words, because it is not a local biblical church – there is no real church discipline. Again it becomes about protecting (with the best of intentions) the brand image and the group influence. It would take a brave or foolish person to speak out against a group they owe their living and significance to.

The Free Church of Scotland

I could name several other instances of this kind of systemic problem but let me finish with this one. Acts 29 and the C of E conservative evangelical movement are organisations I have a great of respect and admiration for – still.   But the affection for my own denomination, the Free Church of Scotland, goes way beyond that. And this is where it really hurts – I think that the Free Church has an unrecognised and unacknowledged systemic problem.   Those within cannot say it (even if they see it) because they would be dismissed as disgruntled trouble makers (and also because we ourselves are part of the problem).    Those outwith cannot say it because they largely don’t know and even if they did – would not want to be perceived as enemies. In the old days, we didn’t have a brand to protect because almost everyone despised us – but now we have lost that freedom and we have our own brand in the market place of contemporary society and the contemporary church.

We have not had our troubles to seek (as is the case with every church) but just as the Timmis and Fletcher cases in my view reveal a systemic problem in the organisations they were part of, so the problems that arise occasionally to the surface in the Free Church, show the same thing.   I hate saying this – not least because I don’t want to provide fuel for the disgruntled and the complainers. I know as Mez pointed out that people who hate the Free Church will use whatever ammo they can to attack. So why provide it to them?   Because there is a greater issue at stake here than being attacked by our enemies, or losing face – that issue is grieving the Spirit and losing the blessing of the Lord – and thus doing ourselves and others even greater harm.  We need to wake up and stop self-justifying or excusing.

Again Tozer summarises it succinctly.

“The church today is suffering from the secularization of the sacred. By accepting the world’s values, thinking its thoughts, and adopting its ways, we have dimmed the glory that shines overhead.” (A W Tozer – The Alliance Weekly/Witness 1962)

Spiritual trickle-down theories, entertainment worship, the corporatization of the church, the replacement of the prophet by the ‘communicator’, the attempt to influence by compromise, the reliance on the ‘big donor’ rather than ‘the widows mite’, the unawareness of cultural factors in church life, the ‘network’ culture, or accepting the world’s standards for leadership, rather than the Bible’s – whatever the factors involved – I believe that the church is suffering from the secularization of the sacred.   We are the ones who need to repent – and strengthen what remains.   Or we too can write Ichabod (the glory has departed) over large sections of the Western Church.

In all of this, I am profoundly thankful for the one truth that gives me hope – the words of Jesus “I will build my Church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it”. Praise the Lord!

PS.   One of the reasons this is important is because if there is systemic sin within an organisation it is much harder to deal biblically with individual sin.   Sometimes the organisation will hide and excuse – or it will go to the opposite extreme of demonising and throwing out.  There is rarely biblical balance

PPS. I realise that this will upset and annoy people for different reasons, but I would simply ask people to consider what is said and try not to reset to personal abuse. I have already been called a joke, sanctimonious, defender of abusers, fake, arrogant etc. Some of which may even be true – but when people react in such a way they kind of proof the point of the article. Judge what is said – don’t judge the motive of my heart. I’m not even sure I know that!

The Sin of Spin – The Politicians, the Media and the Church

Pray for the Church – Why We Should Be Concerned About the Sins of the Church

Someone sent me this which I found really helpful…

14 comments

  1. Thanks David. Very kind and bold of you to write this. I guess the question is what is the way forward? How do we deal with this? It seems Biblical passages are simplistically applied eg Matthew 18 when it is not simple an interpersonal relationship problem.

  2. I’m grateful to you for addressing this. There is some schadenfreude going on, for sure, but mostly what I see is anger. I see anger from those who are asking for transparency and accountability because trust has been broken repeatedly. I see anger from those who are defensive in leadership. They are pitted against each other, and there shouldn’t be any reason for that.

    I think a lot of leadership is being given very, VERY bad advice about how to handle these events and transgressions. They’re being coached like a secular CEO would be coached. They’re acting like a company protecting a brand instead of a church protecting a flock. And people are angry about it. They’re angry because they’re afraid, and they’re right to be.

    The leadership is defensive. Some are defensive because they’re doing what they were told is the right thing. Some of them are being defensive because they have been complicit and don’t want to face that truth. Still more are being defensive because they honestly, in their hearts, don’t think the abuse was abuse. Some of them look at a man’s life of achievement and value that over the suffering of that man’s victims.

    That last segment, which is loud and offensive but admittedly quite small, has utterly enraged the American Protestant laity. They are practically spitting lava, they’re so hot about it. This is the response to obvious cover-ups, leaked emails that brought “real opinions” to light, and threats from church leadership in several instances. It feels like a criminal organization closing ranks instead of a body of godly men trying to find God’s will in how to move forward. The powerlessness of the average Christian in America to do anything at all about it is…well, it’s infuriating. What the Christian women of America are feeling is explosive beyond even that, to be honest. I keep referencing America because I can’t speak to any other place, really. I’m not there and going to church there and talking with people outside of my own country, but I imagine it’s much the same in other places (like yours).

    It’s a mess, and those of us who sit in pews aren’t quite sure how we’re supposed to respond to it all. These are generational and systemic sins, and the changes we see in the aftermath will probably be jarring. The mercy in all of this is that it has been so big that it cannot be shoved back down into a box. Too many people have seen it. Too many people are refusing to let it get swept away. The old boy’s club you mentioned is blustering and bloviating because that’s always worked for them in the past. It isn’t working this time, and I think the genuine and godly men who are caught up in all of this at the top; they will eventually work through it.

    I’m just terribly sad for all of the collateral splash damage that so much hostility and posturing is causing. So many good pastors and teachers are being defamed and run out of their jobs and pushed out of their church homes…by tyrants. That damage is great. It’s so very sad.

    1. Hi Amy. Thanks for a very clearly articulated response which has helped me grapple further with this issue. Thanks also for a new word – bloviate – which I was entirely unaware of until you used it in the perfect context! Incidentally, in response to your heart-cry that ‘those of us who sit in pews aren’t quite sure how we’re supposed to respond to it all’ please see the link two comments further down than yours. A short book ‘the Man in the River’ was written especially to help just such people. God bless you.

      Will

  3. One of my first thoughts was that in this day and age it is impossible to deal with any church infarction confidentially, in house and that bringing it out is ultimately a dishonour to God.
    Then I looked at Nathan’s (private) exposure of King David, and his response of repentance (Psalm 51 in particular). Sin of his leadership, affected, many, self, sons, wife, deeply personal, down generations, the nation. Consequences were many and varied, and he still went on to count his army.
    Was this a systemic failure? I’m not sure. A failure in leadership? Certainly.
    Was God dishonoured? Yes.
    We’re his purposes thwarted. No.
    This isn’t fully thought through, but sin needs to be acknowledged and repented as a start.

  4. Hi Weeflea. Thanks for another excellent article. When you mentioned the secularization of the sacred and Tozer’s reference to the ‘dimming of the Glory overhead’ it reminded me of the reason I wrote a short book a couple of years ago. The thought of a God-less Church is terrifying for most faithful Christians and the book is designed to bring understanding and comfort. It is free on Amazon Kindle and only takes about an hour to read. I would certainly value any comments you may have. Here is the link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B07MXJJRKJ?pf_rd_p=f20e70b1-67f9-48d1-8c78-ba616030b420&pf_rd_r=520TJ7HZ97BSWMGDZHJB
    Will

    1. Problems stem from leaders being placed above critique from within. Protected by a guard of fellow leaders selected for their ‘loyalty’. This means they develop blind spots, excusing the warning signs. Teaching that warns Christians to ‘touch not the Lord’s anointed’ under pain of God’s displeasure. The NT is full of criticism! There needs to be ways and means to address concerns more openly whilst filtering out the vexatious. Always will be a falue judgdment.
      Many ‘greats’ of the past would nowadays be called out as bullies! eg William Booth. What is their heart? Is it for the kingdom, are they sold out for the Lord, or cementing their own position? A godly leader may be impatient with petty feelings but should respond to respectful critique – eventually! Not many are touchy-feely. Jesus spoke sharply to His disciples sometimes too and demanded a great deal. Niceness isn’t a fruit of the Spirit.
      The #MeToo movement and bullying exposé have created new levels of sensitivity, an ever-growing list of perceived threats and criminality in dealings between staff and the sexes. Not all good, somewhat controlling and bullying of themselves. Is the world invading the church in this way too? A victim culture?

  5. Thanks for this article David. You’ve done a superb job describing a difficult subject and I’m grateful. As a separate issue I think your encouragement of those closest to the issue to stay away from social media looks like you are (maybe) trying to dismiss people who disagree with you. Those closest and most hurt shouldn’t be silenced – even if what they say might disagree with you be wrong or intemperate or sinful. I love. What you do but I hope you don’t mind me saying- heaven forbid that yours is the only legitimate voice. I know you don’t believe that, it’s just how it looked to me. Best wishes,
    Steve

  6. Thanks for this article David. You’ve done a superb job describing a difficult subject and I’m grateful. As a separate issue I think your encouragement of those closest to the issue to stay away from social media looks like you are (maybe) trying to dismiss people who disagree with you. Those closest and most hurt shouldn’t be silenced – even if what they say might disagree with you be wrong or intemperate or sinful. I love. What you do but I hope you don’t mind me saying- heaven forbid that yours is the only legitimate voice. I know you don’t believe that, it’s just how it looked to me. Best wishes,
    Steve

    1. No I’m absolutely not telling people who disagree with me to stay away from social media! To read that into what I say is to read the worst possible motive. And those who have been most hurt (some of whom have been in touch to express appreciation that someone is speaking up for them) know that social media is not going to help.

      1. Thanks David.
        I apologise for my comment. It was unnecessary and a distraction from something very important, (feel free to remove it) It’s a great article and should be widely read. Thank you for all your work.

      2. Steve – thanks for that…it is much appreciated…but if you don’t mind I will leave the comment there because there may be others who are under the same misunderstanding…I should have made it clearer….but my motivation for writing was largely from knowing one of the victims..

  7. David,
    If there is systematic sin in the church, how that is defined, then it possibly exists because there is not enough light, or should I say transparency. By that I mean, if sin happens in the heart, and people do not wear their hearts on their sleeves and live with one another in the light, then it is hard to spot and address. It is only when it reaches bursting point that we find out, hence the great falling from grace.
    A gentle nudging (or rebuke) when it is spotted could save these high profile painful episodes. There though lies the rub, because we create these ‘mega’ leaders, who has the authority to challenge, other than people who faithfully write blogs etc.
    I am aware of widespread misogyny within the church, not huge sexual and/or abuse scandals of recent years, but just little elements of hardly noticeable ingrained prejudice against women.
    I think it is, for me at least, at that level that we can all address issues.
    Slightly wandered off topic there, but thank you for your offering on this.

  8. Hard reading but thank you for this article. “…that issue is grieving the Spirit and losing the blessing of the Lord.” 💔

Leave a Reply to Amy Nix Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: