Having been involved in church leadership for the best part of three decades my wife (Bev) and I have seen our fair share of debate and controversy. Not too long ago such discussions took place in colleges, conferences, and the letters section of journals but now we have a greater level of access to the various opinions on offer.
Even with these changes there is an aspect of debate that seems ever so familiar: when the discussion is in full flow it seems that some people are all too ready to suggest that the good that is done by a particular church, preacher, or ministry should somehow protect them from criticism; it seems that, for some, the ends justifies the means. This can take many forms but most recently Bev and I came across it when debating the relative merits of a particular mega church pastor’s teaching and it’s negative effective upon the lives of many people.
“But just look how big his church is” we were offered, followed by “but what about all of the people who have been saved through his ministry”
For most well meaning Christians it almost seems churlish to argue with such reasoning as if it reflects some well quoted passage from Corinthians. Perhaps such an idea, however, requires further scrutiny.
How much good needs to be done by said preacher for them to reach the point of being free from criticism. Is there a formula we can use to deduce that the correct level of positive outcome has been achieved thus rendering any damage done as no longer significant. If so what would such an equation look like; if more people are helped than hindered then should we just remain silent.
(Number of people helped) divided by (Number of people hurt) multiplied by (the number of the preacher’s books we own)
Unfortunately I haven’t found anyone to offer such help when questioned further on the idea of the ends justifying the means. It seems that if good can be found, however anecdotally it is offered, then the rest of is should just remain silent for fear of rocking the boat.
Professor John Kay said ‘the pursuit of our goals is inextricable from the mechanism by which we achieve.’
His comments were aimed at the business world in order to suggest that the pursuit of profit at all cost is not always productive. He goes on to suggest that it is more often the oblique approach that produces the best results.
So what does this mean for the church with regard to the way we both understand success and offer a critique of bad practice and theology.
The evangelical church has had a long history of being crucicentric almost to the exclusion of other parts of the gospel story. We have had to import ideas about the incarnation from other traditions in order to flesh out our understanding. Perhaps this narrowness of view has lead us towards the idea that the cross is more important than any other part of the work of Christ; as if everything else is incidental. In this regard we could be forgiven for thinking that the incarnation is little more than a convenient means to a soteriological end.
Theologically this cannot be the case. We see how purposeful God was, in Christ, in announcing and bringing in the kingdom. We must conclude that every encounter that Jesus had was more than an incidental sub story to the main narrative of the cross and the resurrection.
The teaching of Jesus confirms this idea when he speaks of leaving the ninety-nine in order to find the one. This imperative to search for the ‘one’ indicates a radical questioning of both the cultural values of first century Palestine and of our own highly corporatised world.
In this teaching Jesus shows his followers that not only is the ‘one’ highly esteemed but that any value the ninety-nine might ascribed to themselves is only of significance in relation to the ‘one’ who remains lost. In a sense the ‘lostness’ is transferred to them by the actions of the shepherd.
Now compare this to a notion that suggests we should not critique the shepherds because they have taken care of their own constituency of a metaphorical ninety-nine rather than looking out for the ‘one’. It just doesn’t hold together.
In the kingdom of God, where the cross sits like a jewel immovable from its setting in the incarnation, the ends can never justify the means. Even when we are forced into extreme measures in order to offer hope for the down trodden we can never allow the result to free us from the need to self reflect and analyse whether we may have crossed the line from defender to attacker.
Given a different set of circumstances and another context the preacher we choose to critique may so easily be one the one that we need to aid.
This, however, does not mean that our voices should be silent when we see those with the responsibility to look after the ‘one’ choose the safety of the applause that the ninety-nine might give.
In the teaching of Christ it seems the direction of his challenge is of vital importance. Towards those already downtrodden and vulnerable he offers grace and hope; to those who occupy the seats of power he reveals both their advantage and their responsibility to care for those who are lost.
After several decades in leadership I find this call to inhabit the place of tension between leading the crowd and leaving them an awesome challenge. If we don’t take seriously the call to offer a critique on behalf of those who are most hurt by the church we are possibly in danger of:
Allowing leaders to raise funds without any need to declare how the money is spent.
Letting churches and leaders cover up abuse in the name of church unity.
Leaving vulnerable people at the mercy of leaders who extract personal stories only to use them against those in most need.
Making church members believe that leaving an unhealthy church is the same as disobeying God.
Supporting, by our silence, theology that dehumanises those who already treated as second class in society.
If you care to look you will soon realise that all of these things exist; sometimes in even the most successful looking churches and movements. We can chose to remain silent in the hope that the good done will outweigh the harm but please note that in the kingdom of God the ends can never justify the means.