Ascending Lower and Confronting Blatant Sin

Being a minister, an “amateur” theologian, and a sometimes keen observer of current events, I have come to an incontrovertible conclusion:

Our culture is not getting better, in fact, it is deteriorating by the day.

It was not all that long ago that a group of evangelicals were touting themselves as the “moral majority.” Just by reading the headlines, the “moral” is anything but, and the “majority”? – Pssshaw.

Throughout the life of this blog I have tried to emphasize that Christians win by losing, that we are stronger in our weakness, that the way up is by climbing lower. It is counter-intuitive, but it is the way of the cross. That is what Paul meant when he said the cross was foolishness and a stumbling block. It is just upside-down and inside-out.

But  am vexed with a problem – how then do we confront blatant sin? How are those who empty themselves as Christ emptied himself (Philippians 2) supposed to act when the world hurls so much garbage at our feet? I can think of a couple of ways that ascending lower does not mean.

First, it does not mean that we become so attached to the sinner that we fail to name the sin. I am becoming increasingly put-off by the so-called peacemakers who are so afraid of offending certain people that they refuse to call sin, sin. Particularly in regard to LGBTQ issues, the progressive Left has become so powerful that to even suggest that homosexuals or transgendered individuals might be sinners is to commit an unforgivable sin.

It is even worse outside the church.

Yes, I am suggesting that even, or especially, within the church the progressive mantra of “no offense” has so permeated our language that we cannot label sin as sin. How horrible that Paul could label some of the Corinthian Christians as formerly sexually immoral, homosexuals, idolaters, adulterers, thieves, greedy, drunkards and swindlers. (I Cor. 6:9-11)

You cannot be a former adulterer unless at one time you had been an active adulterer. You cannot have been a former homosexual unless at one time you had been a practicing homosexual. You cannot have been a former drunkard unless at one time you were an active, practicing drunkard.

You see, some people take the idea of “ascending lower” to mean that we cannot pass judgment on anyone, no matter how much in defiance they are living their life before God. That is NOT ascending lower. That is moral cowardice. That is cheap grace, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. That is abdicating our commission to preach the gospel, whether people want to hear it or not.

But, second, ascending lower does not mean that we “lower” ourselves to behave in ways that are actually beneath that of our contemporary culture. The apostle Paul became “all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22), but never in the negative sense. Jesus emptied himself – but never to fill himself with negativity. Paul followed in the footsteps of his master to empty himself in order to lift others up. We cannot do that by using the very methods our enemies are using against us.

When I say we are to confront blatant sin and yet to do so by “ascending lower” what I mean is that we label sin and confront the sinner for the purpose of having that sinful person redeemed by the blood of Christ. I will use a simple image, but one that I hope is illuminative.

My best teachers were not the ones who praised my work effusively and who told me that I was perfect and had nothing to improve upon. Well, in fact, none of my teachers said anything of the sort, but my best teachers were the ones who noted what was positive about my work, and then with the skill of a surgeon, reduced the rest to mere shreds. They did not excuse misspellings just because of my intent, they did not pass over poor English grammar because I was a quiet kid, they did not forgive obvious transgressions of logic and argumentation just because of my last name. They labeled each infraction with painful detail. And, then they taught me how to keep from making those mistakes again. And again. And again.

We do not serve the kingdom of God by excusing sin, whether it be closet racism or open homosexuality. We do not further the kingdom of God by tsk, tsking, when open confrontation is called for. We do not glorify God by minimizing the rejection of God’s revealed will. We cannot become more Christian by accepting behavior that directly violates the nature of God. We cannot lead people to the cross by telling them that all is quite well with their lives.

Every day I am confronted with the reality that this world in 2019 is not the world in which I reached my adulthood. In the immortal realization, if not the exact words of Dorothy, “We are not in Kansas, anymore.” That world, that life, that way of comprehending reality disappeared a long time ago.

What has not changed is our commission – our outreach to the world. We have to be smarter than we were 30-40 years ago. We have to lighter on our feet and quicker with our response. We have to be more sincere, more honest, and more confessional. We have to be more humble and more self-aware. That is what I mean by ascending lower.

Let us, then, fearlessly proclaim the truth even as we bend over to wash a pair of dirty feet.

How Big is Your Church? (Pt. 2 of 2)

If you have not read part one of this thrilling series, I suggest that you do – because I don’t want to repeat myself too much here. Suffice it to say that I recognize that the church is NOT your church, it is Christ’s church – God’s church. But like it or not, and right or wrong, we do sometimes refer to “my church” and though it grates on my ears, I will use the term in its most colloquial (albeit incorrect) sense.

In my previous post I challenged a view that makes the church much smaller than it really is. We do it when we start shaving off all of the folks who don’t think like us, act like us, believe like us. Some say “to-mah-to” and we say “to-may-to” – so obviously one of us has to go. We divide over issues as weighty as the divinity of Christ or as trivial as a coffee pot in the classroom. We draw our circles ever smaller and smaller.

However, those who draw their circles too small are not the only sinners in this matter. There are those who go way too far in the other direction as well – and within the Churches of Christ this segment is growing exponentially. If those on the right demand adherence to every “jot and tittle” of their creeds (either written or unwritten), then the folks on the left don’t even recognize that there might be a “jot or tittle” that needs to be adhered to.

Let’s be perfectly blunt here – those who demand strict obedience to every thought and interpretation of a select group of gate keepers are best described as Pharisees. On the other end of the spectrum are universalists – those who welcome all regardless of beliefs or behavior. Universalists are so nervous about the appearance of Phariseeism that they bend over backwards to repudiate any level of boundary keeping. Is baptism too legalistic? Just welcome anyone who “accepts Jesus into their heart.” Is congregational acapella singing too restrictive of those gifted with musical talent? Hey, let’s start a worship band! Is limiting public leadership to one gender too oppressive? Well, let’s just let anyone lead in worship regardless of gender. And, while we are at it, let’s do away with the “gender binary” concept altogether and welcome anyone into the church regardless of what they believe about gender or sexual relationships.

If there is a “slippery slope” regarding drawing one’s circle too small, there is an equal but opposite “slippery slope” when one starts destroying every form of boundaries. For example, some who advocate for gender inclusiveness become apoplectic when it is pointed out that the same arguments they use for gender equality are used by the LGBTQ+ crowd for inclusiveness for any and all sexual behaviors. Righteous indignation or not, the fact is the exact same arguments are used by both groups, and unless you are willing to accept the argumentation of the LGBTQ+ groups, you had better be very careful about using those arguments for gender inclusion.

There is an “inconvenient truth” (to use a popular expression) concerning those on the extreme far right and the extreme far left. They disagree with each other so vehemently that they meet in the middle. What I mean by that is that both the extreme right and the extreme left are, at their core, humanistic manifestations of church polity. This infuriates those on the right, and embarrasses those on the left, but it is true. Let me explain.

Classic Liberalism (capital “L”) can best be described as a human effort to solve whatever problem is being discussed. That is to say, classic Liberalism admits of no supernatural solution to any problem. We humans are smart enough to fix anything, be it sin or a sanitation issue. Classic Fundamentalism was, and is, the direct response to classic Liberalism. Fundamentalism states that there are divine, fixed, immutable rules for everything, and we as humans must submit to those laws or our efforts are doomed to failure.

What both of these movements share is the core element of humanism. This is what ultra-conservatives refuse to see, and ultra-liberals are embarrassed to think that they might share something with the fundies. Both camps, however, exist through the power of the human being to determine what God does or does not approve, or will or will not accept. Within the Churches of Christ that means that on the one hand you cannot be a faithful Christian if you worship in a building that has a fellowship room; and on the other hand you cannot be a faithful Christian if you deny a woman the privilege of preaching on Sunday morning.

So, is there a middle ground? Is there a way to navigate between the Scylla of rabid fundamentalism and the Charybdis of vacuous liberalism?

In my first post I used the phrase, “tendentious interpretations of disputed texts” (or something like that). In my own little thought world, that is the crux of the problem. Fundamentalists reject the idea that there are any disputed texts in the Bible. For them everything is black and white, cut and dried. The liberals see everything as disputed (or at least disputable), and since nothing can be firm, there can be no boundaries of either doctrine or behavior.

The problem, as I see it, is there are disputed interpretations of texts (as the apostle Paul freely admits), and at the same time Paul clearly and unabashedly declares there to be matters of undisputed truth. Romans 14 is the clearest example where Paul concludes that there are just some issues that where there are going to be disagreements, and the way to handle those disagreements is to be generous and loving with each other, each Christian willing to forego their “rights” so as not to offend their Christian brother or sister. On the other hand, Paul handed Hymenaeus and Alexander over to Satan because of their blasphemy (1 Tim. 1:20). Paul unequivocally stated that there are matters of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). If there were matters of “first importance,” then there were certainly matters that did not matter as much (i.e., Romans 14).

Simply stated, we recognize and defend the boundaries that God has put into place, and we work as diligently as possible to tear down the boundaries that we humans have put into place.

Now for the personal confession – I too have boundaries that are important to me. I cannot worship with some who, biblically speaking, might be my brothers and sisters in the faith because they have chosen to practice certain elements that I believe violate Scripture, or at the very least, are divisive in nature. I cannot worship with others because I do not view certain practices as sinful, and they do. What this means to me is that I am a sinful human being, and there are brothers and sisters to the right of me and to the left of me who are sinful human beings. No one on this earth has a perfect, incorrupt understanding of Scripture. We all, despite our best efforts, sometimes fall either too far to the right, or sometimes too far to the left.

What I want to do is to defend and to protect the boundaries that God has created for his church. Boundaries matter. Doctrine matters. Ethics and moral behavior matters. If there were no boundaries, there could be no church. But I want to make certain that I am defending God’s boundaries, and not my own.

It is entirely too easy for me to draw my circle so tightly that only I am secure.

Let us remember that it is not our church. It is Christ’s church. It is the church of God. How big is that church?

God, and only God, can be the judge of that.

How Big is Your Church? (Part 1 of 2)

Okay, okay – its NOT your church. It is Christ’s church. It is the church of Christ, the church of God, the church of the firstborn ones. It is described in a number of ways – but I’m asking a question that is designed to prick in a certain spot. And so, I ask, how big is your church?

I have been thinking about this question for a number of weeks. In writing these two posts I do not think that I will solve any major issues, but maybe in putting some things in “print” I can work through those issues in my own mind. In this first post I want to discuss the mistake (sin) of making your church too small. Then, in terms of fairness, I want to discuss the opposite mistake (sin) of making your church too big.

The other day I re-discovered a story that I first heard years ago. It states, far better than I can, the ultimate end of trying to make one’s church perfect, and therefore to remove anyone who does not “fit.”

When I first became a member of the church my circle was very big . . . for it included all who, like myself, had believed and had been baptized. I was happy in the thought that my brethren were many . . . but — having a keen and observant mind– I soon learned that many of my brethren were erring. I could not tolerate any people within my circle but those who, like myself, were right on all points of doctrine and practice. Too, some made mistakes and sinned. What could I do? I had to do something! I drew my circle, placed myself and a few as righteous as I within, and the others without. I soon observed that some within my circle were self-righteous, unforgiving, jealous, and proud, so in righteous indignation, my circle I drew again, leaving the publicans and sinner outside, excluding the Pharisees in all their pride, with myself and the righteous and humble within. I heard ugly rumors about some brethren. I saw then that some of them were worldly minded; their thoughts were constantly on things of a worldly nature, they drank coffee, when, like me, they should drink tea. So, duty bound to save my reputation, I drew my circle again, leaving those reputable, spiritually-minded within. I soon realized in time that only my family and I remained in that circle. I had a good family, but to my surprise, my family finally disagreed with me. I was always right. A man must be steadfast. I have never been a factious man! So in strong determination I drew my circle again, leaving me quite alone. (Author unknown – I attempted to discover the author but was unable to with full certainty).

The sad thing is, I KNOW individuals who fit this little story exactly!

The problem is, when we start shaving off pieces of the church because those people do not fit our concept of the “righteous remnant,” the shaving never stops. Eventually it gets down to just me and you, and to be quite honest, I’m not too sure about you, either.

TRUE STORY – Within the Churches of Christ we have a number of congregations that would consider themselves to comprise the “righteous remnant.” One of their well known preacher/authors was a man by the name of Homer Hailey. Brother Hailey was a well known evangelist and scholar who came to believe and to promote what is pejoratively referred to as the “anti” view within the Churches of Christ. These Christians do not believe, for example, that it is proper for the Lord’s church to support physical institutions such as orphan children’s homes, or schools of higher learning (thus, they are “anti-institutional”). Most will refuse to have any part of their building associated with a kitchen or fellowship room, and a great many of them will refuse to have separate classes for children and adults, some will refuse to pay a full-time, located preacher. Some insist on using only one cup for the Lord’s Supper (the “one-cuppers”). There are many varieties, however; for example, some will pay a preacher, but not have separate classes.

As I mentioned, Homer Hailey was one of the better known preacher/prophets of this wing of the Churches of Christ. Then, almost unknowingly and certainly unwillingly, Bro. Hailey was “excommunicated” from this faction of the church because he taught that an individual who had been married, divorced for a reason other than adultery, and then remarried prior to becoming a Christian did NOT have to then subsequently separate from their second (or later) spouse in order to demonstrate full repentance. To many in the “anti-institutional” group of the church this was just pure heresy – if one divorced for any reason other than adultery and then remarried they were living in an adulterous relationship and HAD to separate in order to be a faithful Christian.

Homer Hailey, hero and preacher extraordinaire, had to go. The circle got smaller.

(For the full story, see David Edwin Harrell, Jr., The Churches of Christ in the 20th Century: Homer Hailey’s Personal Journey of Faith, (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000), especially chapter 7.

The question is, how small is your church? On what basis do you exclude those with whom you cannot fellowship? I will freely admit that I have my circle too (see next post!). But – on what basis do we make those decisions?

I know of no one who “draws their circle” smaller and smaller who would admit to doing so for purely personal reasons. Everyone has a reason exterior to their own admitted whims and fancies. Roman Catholics use the “magisterium” of the Roman Church – allegiance to the Pope and to the church councils. Lutherans have their confessions of faith, as do the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians and the Baptists. As previously mentioned, within the Churches of Christ there are a bewildering number of unwritten creeds and confessions that must be adhered to in order for one to be considered a “faithful” member of the church.

And in Matthew 16:18, Jesus said he would build ONE church – His church. In Acts 2 those who believed and were baptized were added to ONE church. As dysfunctional as they were, there was only ONE church that one could be a member of in Corinth, Ephesus, or Rome. There were divisions, to be sure, and Paul wept over them and worked to heal them. But, there was only ONE church.

As I said way up above, I have no firm, rock solid, undeniable answer to this question. I do, however, have some serious issues with those who attempt to make the Lord’s church much smaller than he would make it.

My main issue is this – when we “draw our circle” smaller and smaller we are acting in the role of God – whether we want to admit to that or not. When we say that someone is “saved” or “lost,” “faithful” or “erring,” based upon tendentious interpretations of disputed texts, we are making ourselves to be divine arbiters of heaven and hell, and that is a VERY dangerous place to be. As one of my favorite professors once said regarding his own journey of faith, “I came to realize that being God was above my pay grade.”

This post, as well as the next, is designed not so much to provide an answer, but to get us to probe one of the most critical questions we can ask ourselves – how big is our church and upon what criteria are we going to make that determination?

As always, thanks for reading, and I hope my meandering thoughts somehow point you closer to the heart of the One who died for us.

Make My Life Easy, Lord

The people said, “Make my life easy, Lord, make my life easy.”

And the Lord looked down and said, “Abram, pack your bags and leave this place. You need to know what it means to trust in me, and you can’t do that if you are comfortable working your native soil.”

The people said, “Make my life easy, Lord, make my life easy.”

The Lord looked down and said, “You’re going to have to be uncomfortable living in this desert for a while until you learn what it means to trust me. It was nothing for me to get you out of Egypt, but apparently it is going to take a little bit longer for me to get Egypt out of you.”

The people said, “Make my life easy, Lord, make my life easy.”

The Lord looked down and said, “You know, it might be in a fiery furnace or it might be in a lion’s den, but you are going to have to learn to trust me again so I can lead you out of this strange place. But you will never know what it means to be forgiven unless you feel the whip of punishment on your back.”

The people said, “Make my life easy, Lord, make my life easy.”

And the Lord looked down to Peter and Paul, James and John, and said, “I called you boys for a purpose, and you can’t get that job done unless you hear the jail doors close behind you. The brightest diamonds are forged in the greatest heat. I didn’t call you in the hope that you might become great, I called you because I already put the greatness in you. Now get out there and shine!”

And the people cried out, “Make my life easy, Lord, make my life easy!”

And the Lord said there would be wars and rumors of wars, and earthquakes, and pestilence, and starvation. The rivers will dry up and the deserts will get bigger. Men will kill each other and women will kill their own babies. Philosophers will call evil, “good” and the good they will call evil.

And the Lord asked, “Will you believe me anyway? Will you trust me anyway? Will you seek justice and love righteousness, will you defend the defenseless and speak for the powerless? Will you have the courage to ‘march into hell for a heavenly cause’? If you get tired running against men, what will happen when you have to race horses? Don’t ask that I make your life easy, ask me to give you my strength – and you will never grow weary!”

And I kneel by my bedside and pray, “Make my life easy, Lord, make my life easy.”

I think I have a long way to go in this faith business . . .

A Call to Confession

I recently read a book review that piqued my interest (in the positive sense). I am always on the lookout for new books, especially those that challenge me and/or provide me with a different perspective than what I currently have. I should say that the book provided me everything I was looking for, and perhaps more.

I am not going to provide my typical “book review” (although, in a purist sense, I never provide an honest-to-goodness review). What I would like to do is to share some reflections after reading the book, which, hopefully, is what any good book is designed to foster.

The book is titled, A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard, and published by Grand Central Publishing (2001). I have only had a passing acquaintance with the speeches of Dr. King, and have never really spent much time learning about the Civil Rights Movement or of Dr. King’s life. So, reading these speeches was truly an eye opener for me. So, on to my observations:

  • I was struck how, in virtually every speech, Dr. King urged (even begged?) his audience to maintain the purest form of non-violence. Compared to the vitriolic speech of so many today (both white and black), the tone of Dr. King’s speeches is profound. He knew that acts of violence would not achieve his goals, and indeed would turn many people against his movement who might have otherwise been willing to follow him. These speeches are a case study in the process of working against unbelievable hatred using non-violent processes.
  • Reading these speeches clarified for me, perhaps as no other format could, how we as a culture misunderstand the concept of sin. When we (and perhaps I am speaking primarily of the dominant white culture) think of “sin” what we typically visualize are individual “sins” – lying, stealing, cheating, murder, rape, adultery, etc. What we fail to see is that “sin” is systemic, it is a part of the culture in which we exist. I do not want to minimize the reality of individual sins – the Bible is full of lists of individual sins. But what we fail to see is how sin becomes ingrained into the very process of how we live our lives. When we try to eliminate the little “sins” in our lives we are going to be utter failures unless we confront the larger issue of sin. Jesus did not come and die to make us more moral people – philosophers stretching back at least to Socrates (if not further) had been doing that for centuries. Jesus came and died to make us new people. If we lose that reality we have no prospect of addressing the individual “sins” in our lives.
  • Reading these speeches I felt, probably for the first time, what it must have been like to have been denied the right to drink from the same water fountain as a white person, or to use the same restroom as a white person. The “Jim Crow” laws were brutally dehumanizing – and there simply is no other way to state it. Those laws declared black Americans to be sub-human, in the exact fashion that the laws enacted by Adolf Hitler declared Jews to be sub-human in the 1930’s. Christians who rightly shudder in horror over the Nazi pogroms shrug our shoulders when confronted with our own racial atrocities.
  • As I have stated elsewhere, I shudder to think what I would have done if I had been an adult in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. I know how hot-headed I was (and still sometimes resort to being!), and I just cannot bring myself to think about what I would have said and done had I been a part of the white mobs that confronted those who were marching for the right to be considered equal, and not separate. It is easy for me to sit where I am today and to say that I would have marched with Dr. King. I hope I would have.
  • I was completely unaware of the connection between the Civil Rights Movement and the protest over the Vietnam “war” (we never declared a war, so calling it the “Vietnam War” is a misnomer.) Dr. King expressed some things that I have never heard before, and his words have got me to thinking. I need to study a little deeper – but if what Dr. King said was true, if the Vietnamese were fighting for their independence from France, if they were looking to our Declaration of Independence for inspiration, if they looked to the United States for solidarity in the hopes of becoming a free people, if France did pull out and recommend strongly that we withdraw our military as well – then what I have been told for decades is at the best a white-wash, and outright lies at worst.
  • The lives of Dr. Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer share a profound number of similarities. Speaking truth to power demands a special kind of courage, and frequently ends in martyrdom.
  • I could not help but notice, however, how utterly and completely Dr. King’s vision and mission has been hijacked by his latter-day followers. Dr. King excoriated the southern “Dixiecrats” who worked to keep the black people from gaining any kind of power in the south. Today I see the white power structures in the south as just as racist, yet with a peculiar difference – many black leaders have made their peace with these modern “Dixiecrats” and work just as hard to keep the underclass blacks right where they are. After all, if everyone is healthy, where would the need for a physician be? If blacks are truly given all the freedom and equality that they deserve, where will the need for these modern white slave owners and their black minions be? Somehow, I just do not think Dr. King would be happy with the way modern Democrats push policies that are deeply wounding to the overwhelming majority of blacks (welfare, for example, weakens the family structure by providing help only to those who are unmarried; abortion is disproportionately used by black women). To be honest – I do not see much help from the Republican side either. Both political parties are grossly negligent in promoting the vision of true equality that Dr. King sought.

The title of the book is A Call to Conscience. For me it was a call to confession. I see the world a little differently now, and it is not at all comfortable. The last few days I have been challenged, and I hope (and do pray) that moving forward I will look at my world a little more clearly.

Thanks for “hearing” my confession.

Confronting Toxic People and Maintaining a Submissive Attitude

Talk about serendipity. I have been struggling for a while with a particular situation in my life, and just today saw something that just leapt out at me. Because the overall scenario relates to the focus of this blog, I thought I would share some stray thoughts and maybe help some other folks along the way.

The truth of the matter is that every single one of us has to deal at some point in our lives with toxic people. By toxic I mean poisonous – they are simply not happy until they ruin other people’s happiness or fortune or both. They will scam and cheat to get to the top, and if they are not on the top, they will do everything in their power to destroy or dethrone those on the top. If they feel threatened they will not just respond in kind, they will respond with exponentially more aggression than they feel has been directed against them. Our current president of the United States is a poster child of a toxic personality. The president he replaced was just a step below him – powerful positions attract toxic personalities just as light bulbs attract moths.

The two most common ways of dealing with toxic personalities is to either (a) punch them in the nose and attempt to get them to back down, or (b) allow them to run all over you in the hopes they will tire of their aggression and move on to a more belligerent opponent. I will address each of these responses in turn.

First, there is truth in the maxim that the only way to deal with a bully is to back him (or her) down. One thing toxic people depend on is that no one is going to call their bluff, to make a stand. Toxic personalities are frequently the result of low self-esteem, and that generally means a deep seated fear. Expose that fear, and the bully will run. In point of fact, Jesus stood up to the bullies in his life, and that demonstrates that sometimes you must stand up and challenge the toxic personality and deny them their self-ordained superiority.

Sometimes.

The danger is that by attempting to make a justifiable stand, all we do is verify in the mind of the toxic personality that the world is against them and it is they who are justified in their belligerence. It is a mighty fine line that we attempt to walk when we decide we must back a bully down. I believe the key to help us understand when and how to do so and maintain our Christian attitude is found in Matthew 5:39. This passage, which has been all too frequently mis-translated (and thereby mis-applied) does not mean that we are never to resist an evil person, but that we are not to resist evil using evil means, or using the policy of “eye for eye” (see Romans 12:17-21 for Paul’s confirmation of this assertion!) If a disciple is to never resist an evil person, then Jesus is the chief sinner – for he resisted evil (and evil people) at every turn. But – and this is the truth that Jesus is teaching in the Sermon on the Mount – we cannot confront toxic people using our own concoction of toxic poison!

So, there is a truth in the idea that toxic people in our lives must be confronted, but that confrontation must be according to God’s will, and not our own desire for revenge or, even worse, or own sinful desire to be “top dog.” Chances are if a person is acting in a belligerent, toxic manner to you, they are also being abusive in other situations, and there is a very high likelihood that others are at risk. We cannot allow others to be hurt just because we are afraid of confrontation. There is a time and a place to protect ourselves and others that we know are in danger. We must, however, be extraordinarily careful lest we fall into the trap of revenge or one-upmanship.

Which then leads to the second of our options, and that is to just do nothing and let the toxic person have his or her way, and hope that soon he or she will tire of the game and move on to a more worthy opponent. I must admit a certain weakness here, as this is my default response. That is, until I have a belly full of being pushed around, and then I erupt in the most unChristian  of behaviors which really does not serve me – or anyone around me – very well.

Once again, there is Scriptural precedent for following this course of action. Returning to Matthew 5, it is clear that Jesus is suggesting that personal resistance is not the preferred choice of action. Paul repeats that teaching in Romans 12. But, and make no mistake about this, both Jesus and Paul did offer resistance when resistance was not just available, but was also the appropriate response. Jesus did stop the mob from stoning the woman caught in adultery. Jesus did challenge the Pharisees and others as being a bunch of hypocrites and snakes. Jesus did clear the temple of the money-grubbing merchants. Paul did forcibly confront Peter in the matter of withdrawing from the Gentiles. Paul did forcibly confront the Galatian heresy, and he did hand Hymenaeus and Alexander “over to Satan.” Paul had to deal with Alexander the Silversmith, John had to deal with his Diotrephes.

And yet Jesus allowed himself to be arrested, as did Paul, and both surrendered to events that would lead to their deaths because they had first surrendered to the will of God in their lives.

As I see it, and as I am struggling mightily to apply in my life, if the issue is larger than my wants and my feelings and my personal situation, then I must act to confront the toxic person and either remove them or terminate their authority, if possible. If, however, the conflict in my life is nothing more than a conflict of personalities or if the situation appears to only revolve around my perception of my own self-importance, then I am not justified in acting in a toxic manner myself.

Submitting to  one another, loving one another, being genuinely concerned for one another, does not mean, and even cannot mean, that we allow toxic people to control our lives or even worse, to control the church for which Christ died. But let us be so very careful that we do not allow that truth to so color our perception that we fall into Satan’s trap and become the very poison that we so rightly abhor.

Let us serve, and let us lead, by ascending lower.

Leadership and Submission

Today a question: If it is almost universally agreed that we should all be submissive to one another (Ephesians 5:21, one would have to be fairly obtuse to object to that directive from the apostle Paul), what happens when a person is placed in a position of authority? How can one submit to those he (or she) is actually given authority over? How can you lead from below?

I hate it when I ask myself these questions. I ask better than I answer. But here goes anyway –

First of all, leadership is not inimical to submission. If it was, Jesus was the worst leader of all time. In fact, you could say that Jesus is the answer to the question how to lead from below and that would be the end of it, but then what would become of the rest of this post?

Leading from below involves certain behaviors that come from certain traits of character. First, leadership from below involves listening – not just hearing but actual active listening that forces one to accept and to process what the other is saying. Active listening itself comes from a trait of compassion and caring. The first thing you learn about someone who cannot listen is that they really do not care very much, either.

Second, leadership from below involves participation in the lives of those being led. In more bucolic terms, the shepherd needs to smell like the sheep. The best managers of an assembly plant are those who understand from the bottom up what it feels like to work on the line. If you are going to lead an elementary school, you had better know what it feels like to get down on your hands and knees with the kindergarteners. The best boss I ever worked for in my secular work life actually climbed in our planes and flew them occasionally. That let me know he trusted our mechanics, and it was kind of nice to see him on the flight line, too.

If you listen carefully and participate fully, then that means that occasionally leadership from below means suffering. No one is perfect, everyone makes mistakes, and that means leaders as well. Perhaps less bucolic, but certainly no less colorful, is the illustration that was impressed upon me a long time ago: the higher you climb up the flag pole, the more people are going to see your rear end. When the water boy makes a mistake, no one in the stadium will know. When the head coach calls a time-out that he does not have, or when the quarterback throws an interception to end the game, everyone knows. Leadership from below means that we accept our frailty, and also accept that our mistakes are going to be more visible, and potentially more critical, than the mistakes of our followers. Leaders have to stand up and absorb the shots – and have the ability to grow from them.

I guess by way of conclusion I should say that leadership from below also involves a great amount of joy. I simply cannot express the joy I felt when I saw a student return from his/her check-ride and realize that there was a new pilot, a new instrument rated pilot, or a new commercial pilot, or a new flight instructor in the world. Of course I was responsible for teaching them (and a failure meant the FAA would be looking at my teaching skills), but the student had to study, to practice, to actually pass the exam. It is nothing but pure joy to see the “light bulb” come on and see a new babe in Christ emerge from the waters of baptism. So, not all is doom and gloom in terms of leading from below.

I guess it goes without saying that the opposite of these traits pretty much describes bullies and autocrats. They don’t listen, they do not help or participate in the lives of those being led, they certainly do not suffer, and I would suggest they are the most joyless individuals in the world. And the church is full of autocratic bullies. Heaven help the congregation that is led by a man (or men, or women) who refuse to listen, who never get their hands dirty doing ministry or teaching the kindergartners, who are too hoity-toity to even expose themselves to suffering, and whose faces would break if they smiled. God has a message to those who lead from the ivory tower, who dictate but never participate, who “bind heavy burdens on those who seek to obey, but do not lift a finger to help:”

He wants His church back.

Listening, participating, suffering, joy – what else would you add to the list in terms of “leadership from below?” I know my list is not exhaustive, probably not even comprehensive. But, I do hope that I have laid a foundation for the concept that leadership and submission are not mutually exclusive; indeed – they have to be inter-related on a very fundamental level.

Let us learn to lead from below!