From Tragedy to Restorations: “Sunday Slipper Dysfunction,” Article 8 of 10

Sunday Slipper Dysfunction
Article 8 of 10

By Elizabeth Lane Miller and Helene Fisher,

Gender and Religious Freedom (GRF)

This article is part of the series Pursuing Partnership: Men and Women in Ministry.

My church dysfunction feels normal to me, just as I imagine that yours feels normal to you. For example, five years ago, my (Elizabeth’s) home church realized that we had around 73 different ministries, but only about 400 church members. Considering that children’s Sunday School alone needed nearly 60 volunteers, it struck the leadership as a questionable ratio. Since this revelation, almost nothing has changed. We’re remarkably comfortable with the status quo, although we still complain about shortages of volunteers and overly busy congregants.

Familiar dysfunction can be like a well-worn, much-loved pair of favorite shoes. We might call the church version: Sunday-slipper dysfunctions. I may even be so attached to it that I defend my dysfunction as a really good thing. But everyone else can see that my tattered slippers are badly in need of repair.

Not all our dysfunction is organizational; a lot of it is relational or about personal boundaries. For example, the pastor who insists on being the guiding voice of the decorating committee. Or, the church administrator who, in spite of not having any musical training, decides to ‘save’ the music process by taking control of one of the music groups. In each case, the church authority figure is mystified to find their actions resented rather than applauded.

Unchallenged exercises of power within church circles can turn into the most harmful abuses of authority: the pastor who says he needs private time with a young woman to “pass on” the Holy Spirit in a very special way; the abuse of children; the elder who sells his daughter to a trafficker; Ravi Zacharius.

Each of these weakens the Christian community from within. Failing to call to account these abuses, as in the Mike Pilavachi decades, further weakens the resilience and witness of the church. Perhaps the damage isn’t visible at first. Like osteoporosis, everything still seems to function for a while, even as the structure becomes fragile and compromised.

In places of religious repression and hostility to Christianity, the very existence of persecution and oppression is an atrocious manifestation of distorted Authority and Submission. Governments and people groups abuse their power through repressing the individual’s freedom of conscience as well as their physical well-being.

Distorted models of authority can seem to threaten Christian communities from both outside and inside the church.

Yet the authority given by God to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden was meant to bring blessing to the creation they had been given dominion over. Satan’s twisted version of authority leads our worship away from the creator and relies upon Control.

We fail to realize how dangerous it is to fall prey to what Restorations IRL calls Scheme #4: Servants of the Wrong King. As a result, we often enable ‘low-level’ manifestations of dysfunctional authority within the church context as we allow individuals to develop a series of self-serving, mini-kingdoms ‘for God’.

Most well-meaning church members don’t mean to set up their own mini-kingdoms. The power imbalance is invisible to them. Unless we have an unusually acute sense of our own underlying agendas for our relationships and achievements, we won’t see the self-serving nature of even our ministry efforts. When Jesus rebuked James and John for seeking a place of privilege – did they fully realize what they were doing?

Jesus’ gave them a different model: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Those in Christian leadership, whether male or female, constantly run up against our worldly picture of what a “good leader” looks like. The charismatic, directive leaders is praised, while we fail to recognise quiet leaders who build up others, developing their gifts, and equipping them for the Christian life. We might even criticize the non-controlling leader as one lacking in real authority.

Our behavior is reminiscent of the Israelites, asking for an earthly king who we can look to, and who will make us recognizably established to the people around us. We are drawn to being servants of visible mini-kings rather than the invisible true King. God initially said “no” to the Israelites because His plan for us is a “flat” structure in which only God is the King.

If our theology elevates men as mini-kings requiring particular honor, then the skewing will also have a gender element.

One indicator of the dysfunction is that it asks for a broken form of submission. Women and men who have experienced abuse often have a very complicated relationship with Authority and Submission. For them, it can feel like their only option to escape the Control is to leave the church.

Jesus’ harshest words were for religious leaders, and He was completely unconcerned by what the Romans would think of His disrespect for those leaders. Jesus’ model is so self-sacrificial; he also taught that “being on top” is bad for the person who is in that isolated power position. Unless deeply refined by the Holy Spirit, our best attempts at authority will not bless and serve.

Jesus’ concern was “to proclaim good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, set the oppressed free.” For all Christian leaders, Jesus offers a model in which authority constantly rejects privilege and instead embraces service, humility and love for others.

Next week, we explore the role of Shame and look at how not recognizing the 5 Schemes and 5 Distortions of Restorations means that in persecuted situations, We Kill the Church.

With permission: Throughout this series we will draw upon the church training material available through Elizabeth and Helene are the pioneering co-authors of Specific Religious Persecution reports published between 2018-2023 by Open Doors International’s World Watch Research.

This article is submitted by Wendy Wilson of Missio Nexus and of Women’s Development Track.  Women’s Development Track is a Missio Nexus member.  Member organizations can provide content to the Missio Nexus website. See how by clicking here.

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