Ministry Theology

Our Abusive Leaders: Do We Love God?

And Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37–40, ESV)

The recent and growing number of stories—sadly all too believable—of repeated and grotesque abuses of power by evangelical leaders are wearying and burdensome to read. But it is important not to shut our ears and close our eyes to them, nor to close ranks and shut down those who cry for justice.

There are many reasons for (evangelical) Christians to vigorously oppose and deal with these recent abuses within our midst. Many of these reasons will, rightly, focus on the harm that preening bullies have caused their victims, and the ongoing harms that these victims experience. That is to say, it is right—absolutely right—to be motivated by love of neighbour.

But beyond and above that, a Christian’s greatest motivation is love for God. This is the first and greatest commandment. Love for neighbour is like it, but comes second.

The deepest scandal of these men’s lives and ministries is, in fact, not that they have hurt and damaged people (dreadful and inexcusable as that is). The deepest scandal is that although they claimed to speak God’s truth on God’s behalf, in their bullying abuse of their positions of power they have revealed that they are liars. Liars about God.

In the midst of his rich treatment of human happiness (beatitude) as the end and highest good of humans, Thomas Aquinas makes a profound observation on the nature of power.
Thomas asks whether the exercise of power is what constitutes our highest good and true happiness (Summa Theologiae I-II.2.4). 
One (wrong) answer to this question, is to say Yes—because God is powerful. Therefore, to exercise power is godlike. The more power we have, the more we are like God. It’s easy to see the attraction of this position!

In response, Thomas notes that happiness, as our supreme good, is incompatible with evil. In contrast, power can be exercised by both good and bad people. Then, in a profound move (but one made almost casually), Thomas responds to the wrong answer that to have power is to be like God. It all turns on the doctrine of divine simplicity. “God’s power is his goodness,” says Thomas (because God is simple not compound; cf. ST I.3). Therefore, “He cannot use his power otherwise than well. But it is not so with man. Consequently, it is not enough for man’s beatitude that he become like God in power unless he become like him in goodness also.” It is a profound theological move, beautiful in its elegance and (pardon the unintended pun) simplicity.

As an aside: Isn’t it striking that the doctrine of divine simplicity—far from being an abstruse piece of metaphysics—is, for Thomas, deeply and immediately practical?

What Thomas does here is give us a deep ontological grounding for the vital importance of godly character in Christian leaders.
Charisma, gifts, decisiveness, intellect, education, leadership achievements and experience, all are profoundly ungodly, opposed to God…unless united with goodness. Of course, the Pastoral Epistles also tell us this.

This raises uncomfortable questions for conservative evangelicals (I confine myself to this tribe, as it is my tribe). Why is it that (in my experience) gifts of clear teaching and confident leadership are valued more highly than gentleness, self-control, kindness, humility, patience, and love? (There are a number of conservative evangelical leaders who do model these qualities and value them in others. I thank God for them. However, although not true of some individuals, my characterisation does, I think, mark the culture as a whole.) With that caveat in place—What have we failed to understand about Christian leadership, and so about the gospel that forms Christian leaders, and of which they are stewards?

To put the question more sharply: in the light of Thomas’s observation, what have we failed to grasp about God? What, in God’s being and character, have we neutered or downplayed? (And so, given simplicity, denied the true God entirely.) Why is it even conceivable for us to defend rude, controlling, bullying, and misogynist leaders with hurried references to their gifts, achievements, fruitfulness? Why would we do this? And in doing it, what are we communicating about God? 

But let’s put it more sharply still: do we even care what God is like? Have we, in fact, become (however unwittingly) functional atheists? Do we fear God? Love and adore him? Are we drawn to God in all his beauty? Do we long to be like him (in a creaturely manner) in every respect? Even when that involves painful mortification of sin? Dare one ask: Do we even know him? Or are we being exposed as having been devoted to a godling, remade in the image of what, deep down, we like and aspire to? (Please note the pronouns in use here.) If we do—or want to—know the triune God of Scripture, and so be like him, what will repentance look like?

Although I’ve been asking pointed questions, perhaps someone might ask whether this really matters. After all, doesn’t it hang on a rather abstruse theological technicality? But if what I have argued is correct, then unless we address serious defects in our theology proper, no amount of tinkering with safeguarding, protocols, accountability, or ministry styles and expectations will save us.