A couple of years ago, I was made aware of a wide-ranging survey of religious beliefs in New Zealand. The survey uncovered some fascinating insights into the perceptions held by my fellow countrymen and women regarding Christianity.
Particularly interesting was the section about the causes of negative viewpoints towards Christianity. By a significant margin, the number one factor repelling people away from Christianity was church abuse.
No specific example was given by the authors of the survey but, now in 2021, I presume things such as the revelations about Ravi Zacharias’ duplicitous life might fit into a broad category of ‘church abuse’.
Additionally, I speculate that the unreported individual instances of some Christian leaders being hypocrites and frauds are also causing people to turn up their nose and say, “yeah nah, not for me thanks”.
Some housekeeping first
Before I go further, I have to rein these horses in for a second and note down a couple of things.
Firstly, as Christians, we know that all people are prone to sin and, therefore, leaders are prone to sin. If we are asking “how could he?”, the answer is always “he could.” Sin, no matter the perpetrator, should be sad but, in a sense, not surprising.
Secondly, to a certain extent, people will latch on to any excuse they can find to not believe. We humans love our sin and so the church’s message of repenting from that sin is always going to be unpopular; it is easy to just label churchgoers as hypocrites to avoid thinking about sin.
Because of this I want to stress that we should not allow the opinions of those outside the church to be the determining factor about whether something gets done inside the church. The only conforming the church should do is to Scripture.
Here’s the thing though. I would be fine if the church was disliked because Christians stood against sin. But with this issue, the problem is the opposite. Church abuse is oftentimes a case of not calling out sin.
And therefore, the words that should cause us to tremble are not found in newspaper headlines but in the pages of our inspired text—the same pages that frequently warn of false teachers.
The long and the short of it is that bullies and frauds have infested the church like bedbugs crawling through a stately hotel and we don’t seem to have noticed that the bedbugs have mutated into gargantuan monsters and the guests are now in danger of losing their limbs.
Put another way, there is something deeply sobering to realise that non-believers are noticing wolves in the sheep paddock at the same time (or before) the sheep themselves do.
We have stepped in something
Since I am a farm boy at heart, let me give us a lesson in rural etiquette: When we open a gate, we must not leave it open. If the gates are left open, the stock are vulnerable.
Applying farm manners to the damage left behind by church abuse, we need to ask, “Has the gate been left open?”
It has. The gate is open, the sheep are loose and the wolves have crept in.
One reason for this (and this is not every case) is that we have elevated individual personality and charisma over the clear teaching of Scripture on qualifications for leaders: being above reproach, being well thought of by outsiders, not being a recent convert, managing his own household, etc. (1 Timothy chapter 3 and Titus chapter 1).
We are too easily enamoured by someone’s eloquence and ability to draw crowds, rather than their faithfulness to sound doctrine.
Somewhat gullibly, we remark, “My, what big teeth you have, Grandma”, and then wonder how we missed the warning signs. It’s a template with ready real-life examples—simply replace “Grandma” with a headline-making-but-not-for-a-good-reason celebrity preacher and replace “big teeth” with something like “narcissistic behaviour” and “lying”. You know, warning sign kind of things.
Closing the gate
I grant that in many cases, the warning signs are hard to spot. Certainly, it is hard to spot those razor-sharp canines in the middle of that winning smile. And I am not being glib; it really is difficult.
Also, I add that these wolves can do two things at once: pull the wool over the eyes of others while also wrapping it around their own shoulders.
So how do we close the gate?
Closing the gate means carefully following the instructions the Bible lays out on qualifications for elders (references above).
Closing the gate means ejecting the trespassers as soon as they reveal themselves to be trespassers. How? When sin arises, it needs to be confronted and unrepentant leaders are to be publicly rebuked on the testimony of two or three witnesses (Matthew chapter 18 and 1 Timothy chapter 5).
Closing the gate means handing criminals over to those with authority to punish (1 Peter chapter 2, verses 13-14).
I’m letting you know.
The gate has been left open.
This article first appeared in Christianity Today and was used with permission.
Jason is a freelance writer based in Christchurch, New Zealand.