One of the top podcasts in the country is Christianity Today’s “Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” a series that explores the founding, dynamics, scandals, and aftermath of Mars Hill Church, founded by Pastor Mark Driscoll in Seattle, Washington. It joins a slew of documentaries, exposés, and historical dramas that explore cults, spiritually abusive groups, and prominent (but ultimately dysfunctional) ministries.
Some of these institutions are Christian in origin and doctrine; others are not. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the watching and listening public of America is fascinated by the nexus of faith, narcissistic personalities, avariciousness, and power dynamics that one finds in such stories. Abusive religious groups and their scandals cannot help but create a reaction.
Many Christians have reevaluated bylaws, canons, institutional structures, rhetoric, and practices to stave off predatory personalities, insatiable egos, and very real harms inflicted upon Christ’s flock. To see the Lord’s sheep fleeced in the name of biblical fidelity and Christian discipleship is a particularly ugly blasphemy, with its fair share of sacrileges. Others respond by questioning ancient Christian doctrines and practices; more than a few people question the benefit and validity of religion (or, rather, religious communities) altogether.
Nevertheless, one theme emerges from all of these reactions: a desire that such abusive projects never occur again. There is a deep aspiration to tamp down if not extinguish the popularity of religious gurus, whether they be Rajneesh (the Bhagwan) or abrasive, manipulative pastors who flee from church discipline and accountability. In fact, some seem willing to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater to achieve such ends, tossing out fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy to ensure safety and sanity.
However, Christians must not be naïve about the realities at play when it comes to spiritually abusive groups. People really are driven to strong personalities for leadership and identity, regardless of the era or the place. At the same time, we live in an era of immense disintegration and alienation, even while we are social creatures. We will crave a place to belong. Similarly, relativistic views and secular discourse that stifle deep spiritual investigation and devotional meditation starve us religiously. Biblical illiteracy exacerbates lack of discernment, at least in more Christian societies. And, perhaps most crucially of all, what is “normal” in our society is deeply contested and, in some areas, deeply wrong. As school boards, parents, and magistrates argue over the reality of male and female, and as Christian norms, values, and teachings are increasingly sidelined, mocked, and suppressed, two important trends will likely arise.
First, sincere, biblically faithful Christians will seek out pastors, speakers, writers, and other leaders who reject such errors forthrightly, boldly, and even dramatically. Brash behavior and rhetoric against the spirit of the age will draw in supporters. Meanwhile, idiosyncrasies and doctrinal confusion not only go unaddressed but are doubled down on as beneficial or even essential. To gain a loyal following, one must often be “weird.” More seriously, the sins of beloved leaders may receive a blind eye all in the name of the good they do for others and their necessity for an institution’s survival. Why kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, even when the goose is preaching poison from the pulpit, exuding a far-from-blameless character, or unjustly enriching himself?
Second, it will be much harder for clergymen and laymen alike to vet religious personalities and their ministries. Simply put, if the average American cannot distinguish between a boy and a girl, then what is now mainstream cannot be used as an accurate gauge of what is normal or acceptable in the Church. When the strange and immoral become normalized, the doctrinal and moral “sniff test” becomes much more difficult to apply and use. When is someone being counter-culturally faithful, and when is someone leading others in a sectarian, exploitative, or heretical trajectory? Christians cannot trust in the surrounding culture to form and accurately assess what is and is not acceptable in a preacher or teacher.
What is a Christian to say? What are Christians to do?
It is important to remember that corrupt religious figures have haunted history’s pages for a long time; similarly, faithful, loving Christians have also exerted themselves in ministry, often at great sacrifice. To this day, there are good people fulfilling their vocations, being salt and light to the world. There is no need to reject religion altogether. In fact, it is almost assuredly impossible to do so. Also, Christians must not feed their fascination for the novel, shiny, and faddish. New doctrine and strange practices, while exciting, do not always belie good intentions — in fact, quite the opposite.
Finally, pastors must be vigilant watchmen and wise gatekeepers for their flocks, which is exactly what ancient Christians expected of pastoral leaders (as outlined in such texts as the Pastoral Epistles). Pastors, along with well-informed laymen, must help congregants exercise discernment. This entails a certain familiarity — if not working mastery — of certain fields of study germane to such sober-minded religious assessments. This means seminaries (if they will still exert major influence in the Church for the coming decades, which seems likely) must double down on the unglamorous traditional subjects required for the M.Div. and equivalent degrees: thorough training in biblical languages, church history, and theology.
General knowledge of logic, philosophy, and history will also prove a helpful foundation. Unfortunately, even evangelical seminaries haven’t been completely immune to fads or cutting academic corners on helpful subjects, often pushing for fewer years of study or deeply investing in novel counseling theories. Schooling is far from the end-all or be-all of pastoral ministry and ecclesiastical health, but divinity schools of various stripes remain an important and helpful step in the clerical pipeline.
However, even with such preparations, corrupt religious leaders will still gather followers. Certain people have the talents and desire to lead others, and, in this case, they happen to excel at leading others spiritually astray. The hope is that Christians in faithful churches won’t be so easily deceived and that they can effectively help others to avoid or escape toxic personalities and organizations for better pastures.
Originally published at Juicy Ecumenism.
Barton Gingerich graduated in 2011 from Patrick Henry College with a B.A. in History. He serves as a priest at St. Jude’s Anglican Church in Richmond, Virginia, and previously served on the staff of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.