The media is reeling after the news broke last week that Joshua Duggar, the eldest son of the famed Duggar Family from TLC’s hit show “19 Kids And Counting” was guilty of molesting family members and other children when he was 14 years old. Duggar, who was the spokesperson for FRC Action, the non-profit legislation arm of the conservative evangelical public policy organization Family Research Council was forced to resign from his prominent public position in light of this scandal being uncovered. TLC also suspended his families hit television show after it was revealed that Joshua’s father, a pastor, business owner, and family man, Jim-Bob, had known about the molestation for over a year before he took any significant action to address the situation.
The Duggar controversy is just one of dozens of painful scandals that have emerged from within conservative Christianity in recent years. From the Sovereign Grace Ministries child abuse scandal, to The Village Church disciplining the wife of a pedophile, to the spiritual and psychological abuse from within Mars Hill Church in Seattle, it seems that abuse and cover-ups have become as common to Evangelical Christianity as the sex-abuse scandals once dominated popular perception of the Roman Catholic Church.
In the midst of the tidal wave of scandal, we must ask whether these abusive situations are a matter of coincidence or symptomatic of a much larger issue with the religious system in which they are occurring? What is it about conservative Christianity that seems to continue to breed environments of such toxicity? I want to suggest that the fundamental problem at the heart of all of these scandals is that many evangelical churches and leaders have exchanged the call to servanthood and sacrifice for celebrity and self-interest. Let me explain.
For nearly four decades, evangelicalism has been the predominate religious voice in the United States. Out of this fledging faith movement has come a conglomerate of businesses, publishing houses, media companies, political organizations, and churches that have turned evangelicalism from being a mere religious movement to a cultural force itself. Instead of warring against culture like the fundamentalists that evangelicalism sought to differentiate itself from, evangelicals sought to imitate the “ways of the world” in an attempt to create our own “redeemed” culture. This looked like adopting the methods and practices of many spheres of American culture- from the entertainment industry to Fortune 500 Companies- and using it as a means to grow in influence while spreading the Gospel.
Adopting this mindset has fundamentally shifted the way that many religious leaders view and practice their ministry. Instead of being a shepherd, dedicated to serving and caring for their flock, many evangelical pastors view themselves as celebrity teachers and CEO’s, whose primary concern is to grow their brand and expanding the size of their fan base (or “church”). If you were to examine the life of the average evangelical megachurch pastor, you’d find that there is little that differentiates their lives from the lives of a famous television personality or the visionary CEO of Apple. While there are some “celebrity” pastors that seem to have found a balance between being celebrity CEO and being connected intimately to their congregations, many others have created organizations that do little more than promote and protect their sense of self-importance. And when you lead an organization of thousands of people and millions of dollars dedicated solely to you and a message, it’s easy to become blinded by ego and forget what it means to be called to public ministry.
When a church becomes nothing more than a venue for celebrities, the very real lives and struggles of the congregation become seen as stumbling blocks to the growth of “the brand”. Many churches are more concerned with brand development and church growth than they are about the actual people who attend their congregations. It’s about how many books they can sell, how many seats they can fill, and how much money they can collect rather than the health of the congregants.
So what happens when allegations of abuse arise in from within the congregation? Naturally, these accusations are seen as first and foremost a potential PR nightmare. Therefore, before extending proper care and support to the abused and even before investigating the charges of abuse, the church staff must determine the best way to protect their brand and the image of their pastor. They fear that if such a scandal were ever to become public, it would threaten the brand and public perception of the church, which could lead to a steep decline in attendance, sales, and giving. So they must do whatever they can to keep the conflict in-house, without involving any outside help that could damage the “witness” of the church.
And what happens if it is the celebrity pastor who is accused of the abuse? Well, look no further Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill Church in Seattle who spent years attempting to silence any accusations against him and the church. And even after the entire organization did finally blow up and Driscoll was forced to resign as pastor, it took less than a year before he slowly has begun to rebrand and recreate a new platform to promote his celebrity. Or look at Jim-Bob Duggar, who believed that properly reporting his sons sexual abuse could lead to a scandal that could very well cost his family their positioning as public figures within conservative Christianity. I am not against Christian pastors or teachers being famous. I am not against religious celebrities.
I am not against megachurches. I’m not even (in theory) against television shows like 19 Kids And Counting. All of these things can be done in healthy and honorable ways that actually help improve the lives of thousands of people. But when pastors, public figures, and churches lose sight of what matters most, they quickly become nothing more than personality cults and oppressive organizations concerned more with power, wealth, and fame than about the flock that they have been entrusted to care for. And this is where abuse, neglect, and malpractice can flourish.
The problem is much bigger than a few isolated incidents. The number of reports of abuse and malpractice coming out of evangelical churches and organizations are stunning. Boz Tchvidijian, who runs GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environments) has noted that the evangelical church is “worse” than the Catholic Church in regards to the frequency and magnitude of abuse that occurs within our environments. It is clear that there are a number of factors at play beyond the celebritizing and corporatizing of evangelical churches. But it seems to me that if pastors, public figures, and church leaders returned to the biblical job description for pastoral ministry, we would see a dramatic decline in cases of abuse and cover-ups.
And what is that job description? I think the Apostle Peter summarizes it best:
Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.
(1 Peter 5:2-3)
Shepherd. Guide. Oversee. Not for material gain, not domineering, but living as examples of what if looks like to follow Christ. Loving. Giving of yourself. Being a person of justice and righteousness. This is the high call of Christian leadership. It’s a call to lead by example. To be the power, person, and presence of Jesus to the congregation that God has entrusted you with. Yet so many Christian leaders have failed to follow the way of Jesus, making themselves a servant of all. Instead, we have made ourselves the center of ministry and spiritual life, and insodoing created an environment where thousands of people are being harmed and mistreated.
It is my sincere hope that all of these incredibly sad situations will be a reminder to all religious leaders and public figures of the high standard and responsibility to which we’ve been called. None of this is supposed to be about us, or our books, or our brands. We have been called to ministry so that we might care for other people above and beyond our own self-interests. We have been called to be protectors of the flock, healers to the wounded. The hands and feet of Christ to his people. When we lose sight of the real struggles, challenges, and pain of the real people who sit in front of us every Sunday, who read our books, and watch our television shows, we have failed to be true ministers of the Jesus, the servant of all. When we allow abuse to occur or attempt to silence the victimized, be have lost the right to be called ministers of the Gospel.
May all of us who are privileged to serve as pastors, ministers, and public figures heed Peter’s words and use our position to promote justice and redemption instead of ego and oppression. This alone is the ministry to which we have been called.