Depreciating Humility: The importance of being the best at being right

Shortly after I posted, Where are the Voices?  The Continued Culture of Silence and Protection in American Evangelicalism, I received an email from a pastor of a church in College Station, Texas.  Thad Norvell's email moved me in a profound way as he expressed deep concern about the manner and spirit some evangelicals have approached recent issues relating to claims of child sexual abuse and institutional "cover up".  In short, I think Thad hit the nail on its head.  I invited Thad to share his thoughts in greater depth in this guest blog post.  Thad, thank you for being another voice. - Boz Tchividjian

_____________________________________________________________________________________

I haven’t slept well in a week. I just cannot shake some of the recent developments in the unfolding saga of apparent abuse and, by many accounts, systematic breach of pastoral trust within Sovereign Grace Ministries. So in my bleary-eyed, restless state, I have two confessions:

I am a bit annoyed that this story is keeping me up at night.

I am just as annoyed that this story isn’t keeping more of us up at night.

See I have no real affiliation with anyone involved — not the victims, not SGM, not C.J. Mahaney, and not Together for the Gospel or most of what is commonly referred to as the neo-reformed movement. While I have many friends who travel in those circles and we share some common roots, I’m far enough removed that I should be able to grieve over the harm done and move on. To be frank about it, I honestly don’t have time to be preoccupied with the drama of other churches. I am a pastor among a beautiful, healthy, but predictably flawed community of believers in Texas, and we have plenty of drama all our own, thank you very much.

Still, I can’t move past this one, and not only because of the horrendous nature of the sexual abuse allegations. I’m stuck because this is not just a story about one church or one pastor or one ministry. This is a story about what could become of any church and any pastor and any ministry. More to my point (and insomnia), it is a story about what is becoming of many churches and many pastors and many ministries.

Let me be clear, the allegations of sexual abuse in this story are horrifying, and stories like these are more personal to me because my wife was abused as both a child and a teenager. By God's mercy she lives in remarkable freedom from the weight of those experiences, and she graciously and gracefully tends to others who are hurting and broken in those (and many other) ways. But for her and any survivor of abuse, the journey toward freedom is long and indescribably grueling. For those of us who know that road, whether from our own pain or from sharing in the suffering of those we love, stories like these still cause us to ache in a different way. There is little that simultaneously grieves and angers me more than abuse, oppression, and the perpetuation of shame by those claiming to be the Body of Christ.

But that’s not what’s keeping me up at night — at least it’s not the whole of it.

As soul-churning as the stories of abuse are, and though I have every reason to be consumed by them, there is another scratch on the record of my heart and mind that won’t let me move on, and the line that keeps playing over and over is this:

It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor [oppressed] than to divide the spoil with the proud.

This is the killing-me-softly, lesser known sentence following one of those verses from Proverbs we’ve paraphrased and misused for so long it no longer has much bite for us (“pride cometh before a fall”). It is a sentence that haunts me.

That began the night that Al Mohler, Mark Dever, and Ligon Duncan released their statement regarding C.J. Mahaney and the partial dismissal of the civil suit against him and SGM (of which he is a named defendant). Just before I went to bed, I read their words on the Together for the Gospel Facebook page, along with dozens of comments that were removed from public view a few hours later (a bizarre, suspicion-arousing move given that almost all of them were simply civil expressions of disappointment from folks within the camp).

I read. I reread hoping I had missed something crucial. I hadn’t. And then Proverbs 16:19 began its relentless march...

It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor [oppressed] than to divide the spoil with the proud.

The chasm between these words and the statements released by both Together for the Gospel and The Gospel Coalition is immense. Boz Tchividjian’s important response to the two statements rightly diagnoses much of that gap, and I applaud his courage. Like him, I believe both statements reflect either naiveté or overt blindness to the need for a deeper humility on the part of Mahaney and his friends, even if only a fraction of the accusations are true — even if only what already has been acknowledged is true.

I fear those public statements reflect the private thoughts of men who, whether by will or ignorance, are clustering around the spoils of the proud when their calling is to be of a lowly spirit with the poor and oppressed. Even if Mahaney is a victim of some false accusations, his rush back to the platform and the efforts of his friends to protect his place at the head table ought to prompt some deep, Gospel-driven questions about how insulated some of these men seem to be from the thousands of sincere, Gospel-loving followers of Jesus they lead, formally and informally.

While the temptations to love being right, to yield to pride, and to tolerate or even celebrate arrogance are always lurking for the Church universal, I believe that they present some unique challenges among a group who assumes a vanguard identity (in this case the preservation and resuscitation of the true Gospel). In other words, in a movement where correcting error is a central task, these temptations loom large. And, when they are indulged, they easily can be mistaken for virtue and become almost self-sustaining.

The cycle goes like this: The urgency of the cause reinforces the importance of being right, which further fuels the notion that the most important people in the cause are those most skilled at being right in front of the most people. And if that is true, then those people must be protected and kept on stage at almost any cost.  Question them without an air-tight case of disqualifying sin, and you risk being sacrificed for the greater cause.

It’s all very logical. And it’s very common. It just isn’t biblical.

I don’t intend to imply that this is a significant struggle for all (or even most) churches who would place themselves somewhere in this particular camp, but I believe it is sufficiently prevalent, chronic, and serious to demand a wider conversation. While the details of this case and its context matter, again, this is not an anomaly of the neo-reformed movement. Other local churches may be free of the sexual abuse stories apparently so prevalent in SGM's history (though these too are painfully widespread), but there are many, including some of our flagship evangelical churches led by beloved, well-known personalities, who are following very similar plot lines. The church’s identity becomes deeply entangled with the names and teachings of popular Christian leaders who members of the church will never truly know (and therefore whose authority is rooted as much in personality and skill as personal character). Narrow, extra-orthodox notions of what one must believe and do to be "right" crop up. Pastors, elders, or deacons sit at the head of a relatively impermeable and inaccessible group of leaders, and, often with success and mission as justifications, become either removed or authoritarian (or, far too regularly, both).

When shepherds refuse or fail to live humbly among the people - when leaders are consumed by agendas (however noble those agendas may be) other than caring for the community of God’s people “like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thes. 2:7) - when pastors are inaccessible, unapproachable, or just too busy to listen to and know their people...these are not secondary ecclesial breakdowns. They are an abandonment of primary pastoral calling that signals a stunning disconnect from the evangelical ethos Jesus declared (Matt. 22, Jn. 13) and prayed into being (Jn. 17) and that John affirmed as central to Gospel identity (1 Jn. 3).

Our zeal and skill for expanding the doctrine of the Gospel simply cannot obscure or replace our humble submission to life in the crucible of the Gospel’s work — the community that the Gospel creates where the greatest become least and the last become first. (And if that does not mean that the vulnerable, the weak, and the exasperating folks in our churches get at least as much attention from us as our successful friends and heroes, I do not know what it means.)

The Church is not first and foremost an audience for our sermons and our books; it is the people of God among whom we are our real selves. If we live above or apart from that Church in any way, our doctrines and words about the Gospel become theory and conjecture, not a testimony to a truth we know by experience. As pastors, teachers, leaders, and authors in the Church, for the sake of our churches and for the sake of our own souls, we ought to weigh carefully the words of the Lord delivered through Obadiah:

The pride of your heart has deceived you,
   you who live in the clefts of the rock,
   in your lofty dwelling,
who say in your heart,
   “Who will bring me down to the ground?”
Though you soar aloft like the eagle,
   though your nest is set among the stars,
   from there I will bring you down,
declares the Lord.

If those words expose us to be drifting from the simple and clear message of Jesus, the time for coming clean — that time was yesterday. Yet by God’s mercy we have been given another day, so may we heed the prophetic call:

Repent, for the Kingdom of God, which belongs to children and the lowly of spirit who dwell among children, the poor, and the oppressed — that Kingdom is at hand.

 

Thad Norvell is a pastor at Community Church in College Station, Texas.  When Thad is not doing pastor stuff, you can read some of his life's musings at Home Anywhere.