Toxic Churches? Toxic People? Not All of Us

Over the past couple of weeks I have read or listened to paradoxical stories. On the one hand I have read how some have been treated in the Church. By “in the Church” I mean to say there are some who are “in the Church” who treat others “in the Church” poorly. Our way of using language tends to suggest “the Church” treated them poorly. Now I realize for some this will be a semantic game. To those I would simply appeal to wanting to invoke a different language for the narrative thereby placing the events squarely on fallible people who tend to inhabit the Church.

On the other hand I have listened as one young lady described how those in her Christian community of faith had opened up new vistas of opportunity allowing her to follow the call to action she hears from the Spirit. In this and other instances it appears those “in the Church” practice the grace and mercy we all hope would be “the Church’s” characteristic feature.

In both cases we must place the actions where they belong. Either people faithful to the way of Jesus offer mercy and grace or they do not. Rather than impugn “the Church” it would be far better to suggest those whose lives and actions do not comport with the mystery of grace and mercy found in Jesus bear the brunt of our indignities rather than summarily dismissing “the Church.”

In some parallel way we could conjure the conversations going on in American politics. We can say that America invaded a country in pre-emptive move of aggression or we can say there seemed, at the time, to be cause for concern over the tacit approval if not outright engagement with terrorist organizations. This seems to be the polarity of the left and the right in the matter. No one group would like to be singled out as though they were the other. So, we would say it was not America for many in America did not nor would want to have led such an action. Yes, we suffer the indignities from other countries but many resist wearing the blame.

If in politics some may say they showed a continued lack of support for such a move and do not want to be lumped in with “that” group who led the way, those of us in “the Church” should be allowed the same move. That is, to say we are as appalled at un-grace as the next person. But, we do not want our Christian community of faith impugned and maligned because some in another place could not, would not, bear witness to the grace and mercy of Jesus with those “in their” fellowship.

I have long followed Emily and Ronnie’s journey. I am saddened for them. I am hopeful that though shaken they see the witness of Jesus’ grace and mercy in others, though they could not see it in this instance. There are others stories to which I did not link. You know many more than that. The call for we who are hope-filled is to bear witness to the grace and mercy of Jesus and stand for such at every turn.

About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.

4 comments on “Toxic Churches? Toxic People? Not All of Us

  1. dave says:

    Thanks for mentioning this. I think I see where you’re coming from. I may be reading it wrong, but maybe I can share my perspective on the issue: It may help, when thinking of those who share their horror stories of the Church, to think of the “Church” as a sociological system, whereas the people are individuals within that system…as you are suggesting. However, while people are within the system, they also make up the system, are highly influenced by it, if even subconsciously, and they also influence it and others within it; so it’s like a spider’s web in which every action moves the whole, and the whole moves every action on an almost imperceptible level, but even tiny movements can make big waves. This is what perpetuates an unhealthy culture. Within an unhealthy culture are unhealthy people. Unhealthy people hurt other people. Most importantly, in my experience, the leaders and the inner circle around them can be highly skilled at perpetuating this culture, because the culture may be all they know…plus, it pays the bills.

    This is where the focus on individuals comes in from complaints. And the worst part of it is, I have not seen many (leaders or congregants) who dare to stand up and call out the inherent weaknesses of the system..maybe only because they can’t see it because it’s all they know. And these are usually people who many others look up to, and they are the model to which many aspire. And thus the system is further perpetuated….BUT again, unfortunately, it’s the only way so many people know….Much like politics in Washington or trading on Wall Street.

    I know this dissertation seems filled with generalizations and vagueness, so maybe a trite example might help: Again, this is a terrible example, but the easiest/quickest to describe. It also might be a fairly common one. Let’s say a pastor’s wife gets some plastic surgery…a nose job and boob job, and word gets around the church and everyone knows it. Without commenting on any associated debates about plastic surgery…let’s stick to the sociology of it all: You now have a “model Christian” up on stage whose every move influences people. Is it her fault her every move has such influence? Maybe not…but maybe so…after al, she hasn’t complained about the attention her assistant and hairdresser give her. Anyway, her appearance will influence the actions of others. And maybe, just maybe, some high-school girl gets the idea, during the time just before the offering when the pastor’s wife is giving her mini-sermon, that her boobs aren’t big enough and her nose is too big because they’re not like the pastor’s wife’s…and the pastor’s wife is close to God, so the thought comes “What’s wrong with me?” And because every other girl in the youth group dresses almost like a stripper at every youth service and they don’t pay as much attention to her because she can’t fit into clothes like that, so she becomes more and more self conscious and isolates herself from the popular church crowd…and this social context extends into the school, because after all, the church has its own school…and so on and so on until somebody rejects all notions of church because of the forces of peer pressure, and ends up being a very imbalanced person.

    Now, is this the preacher’s wife’s fault? No….and yes. Is it the congregants fault? No…and yes. Is it the Church’s fault? No…and yes. Or is it just sociology? Yes..and no. I think it’s church leaders’ responsibility to be aware of the system that influences their actions, and to make their congregants aware…not to an overproduced fault, but in a healthy way. But the first step is to realize that the Church can be a very unhealthy sociological structure, with or without God. Certainly, no one is a flawless person, and I think it’s crucial that church leaders and their inner circle continue to reiterate that to their congregants…and not just talk about it by saying things like “We’re authentic…We’re just people too.” But to show this in the way they structure their unwritten heirarchy…their cliques, and even in the way they live their everyday lives. Because, if you take another example, say, replace the big-boobed pastor’s wife with a pastor who implies that if someone isn’t tithing regularly that is why they’re sick and poor…things can get very ugly.

    And we know this goes on in churches throughout the world, and therefore it is not at all a stretch to say that this is the successful monster that we have created…it’s what “The Church”…yes, the global Body of Christ, has turned into. It’s like Star Trek’s “Borg.” So many have been “assimilated.” And things will never change until church leaders within their own communities wake up and say…”This is an unhealthy culture…I grew up in it, so I never realized it…and I’ve been unknowingly perpetuating this! People are getting hurt!”

    Sorry this was so long. Just some thoughts.

    1. Dave,
      Thanks for the thoughts. I would agree on a number of levels. The Church is a sociological system to be sure. And, it is apparent I have in mind a “Body” that emulates the “Head” if you will. Likely my argument falls on the sword of idealism. On the other hand, my contention may well be for us to look at our systems, and as you say be prophetic enough to challenge those systems – be we a voice from the inner circle or a voice in the desert.

      And, while we certainly cannot deny the “web” effect you describe, it certainly stands to reason some of us who did grow up in an unhealthy system who are standing where we may to say, “Enough!”, should well be able to contend those whose lives do not comport with the way of Jesus do not represent me and we long to work toward a Body that demonstrates the dazzling diamond that is God’s grace.

  2. Todd, thanks for this brief reflection. I am in agreement. Thankfully, I am in relationship with a number of Christ followers who exhibit grace, mercy, and love on a regular basis. They are the ones who continue to call me forward into becoming the kind of person who is a part of the kind of community that walks by the Spirit and exhibits his fruit. For now, Ronnie and I are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. Thanks again.

    Grace to you,


    1. Emily,
      I recently heard Sarah Thomas offer her testimony. It sounded peculiarly similar to what you note, “they are the ones who continue to call me forward.” Sarah noted how it was the community that both helped her hear God say, “There is work to be done,” and offered her a way to live into how she believed the Spirit called her to respond.

      Peace to you and Ronnie.

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