From Unquestioning Submission to Speaking Out
Michelle Van Loon
My husband and I once belonged to a congregation where leaders took their cues from the Shepherding Movement. Emphasizing allegiance and church unity, they expected members to submit to their authority in all matters. One of their favorite mantras came from 1 Corinthians, using the King James Version for extra emphasis: Touch not God’s anointed. I was taught that to question a leader was to defy God himself.
I was a naive sheep in this flock until I stumbled upon the elaborate efforts to keep hidden the pastor’s porn addiction and infidelity with a congregant. Anyone who got too close to this secret was branded a problem. I found myself drafted into the uncomfortable role of whistleblower. After my husband and I brought our concerns to church leadership, the elders made it clear that we were untrustworthy and troublemakers. After a number of failed attempts to resolve the situation, we left the church.
It took a while to heal from the manipulation and misuse of authority my husband and I experienced at the hands of these men. Over time, others experienced the same treatment, which, turns out, was a demonically effective way of deflecting attention from the real problem. Over a decade passed before the pastor’s marriage fell apart and the truth came out.
I’ve watched from afar as similar scenarios play out as whistleblowers decry leaders-gone-bad in organizations and congregations across the country: Doug Phillips, Bill Gothard, Mark Driscoll. Especially online, we hear from these voices long before the pastor finally makes a grudging public admission of his wrongdoing.
When I see someone suggest those harboring hurt or suspicion toward the church are in sin, or that fellow believers would do best to ignore whistleblowers, my internal alarm sounds. Unquestioning allegiance to any earthly leader, even in the church, has proven in many cases hurtful rather than helpful.
Pastors and leaders unwilling to engage criticism or concern reveal a high stake in maintaining their ministry’s status quo. In last month’s CT, Ted Olsen calls on each us to wave a red flag if necessary: “Ask religion journalists which they’ve encountered more: false witnesses and discord-sowers, or people with firsthand knowledge of wrongdoing who stay silent.”
Certainly, habitual kvetching about church dysfunction can suffocate faith with bitterness and cynicism. Complaining is not a spiritual gift. But I do believe that some whistleblowers among us are exercising their gifts of prophecy and discernment when they raise their voices for the abused, marginalized, silenced, and disenfranchised for the good of the body. Whining can be the fruit of pride or immaturity, and tends to be focused on our individual, consumerist preferences. Whistleblowing is meant to awaken and protect others. As hearers, can we trust the Holy Spirit to sift wheat from chaff when we listen to their words?
Winston Churchill once said, “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” I believe that a whistleblower’s reasoned, loving critique is a gift of health to the church, and may be used by God to set a few captives free in the process.
The Price of Challenging Authority
Many of us read stories like Michelle’s and others’ and think, “They did the right thing.” We can agree that no one should have to put up with lies, manipulation, threats, and bullying… especially under the banner of the church.
We imagine ourselves making the same move in their situations, listening to our hearts and the prompting of the Holy Spirit as we declare, “This is wrong, and we won’t stand for it. Our consciences won’t let us remain silent.”
Sometimes, it’s not that easy.
The other side of the story—one I sadly lived through—reveals the very difficult roadblocks to being heard within a Christian institution actively working to keep its critics silent.
When working for a Christian organization that many saw going in a troubling direction, we said something. We submitted our criticism, attended meetings, and talked to leaders at each level. Initially, we trusted the proper protocols and official channels set up to give and receive feedback. But not only did those in charge fail to address our concerns, they began enacting policies to punish those who spoke up.
When church members criticize their leaders, they can find themselves subjected to gossip, shame, shunning, and even ex-communication. These consequences prove spiritually and emotionally damaging, sometimes enough to make people leave the church for good.
When it’s people employed by the institution, there’s another set of penalties. Out came the non-disclosure agreements, trying to buy our silence. Then many of our employee contracts didn’t get renewed, while others resigned on their own, refusing to work for leaders who lacked moral integrity. Our desire to call out internal problems had to be weighed against our desire to keep our jobs, get a paycheck, and feed our families.
When gauging whether a whistleblower is trustworthy, we often examine what he or she has to gain by speaking against a Christian leader or institution. Is this merely a slanderer motivated by financial gain or theological sparring or longstanding grudges? But we should also ask ourselves what these whistleblowers have to lose. Doing the right thing, even among Christians, can be costly. It can cost you your livelihood, reputation, and community.
Some believers may be sick of so-called watchdog blogs and the endless updates about wrongdoing in Christendom. But I certainly am not. Especially for victims of abuse—spiritual, emotional, and sexual—these platforms are powerful and necessary. Before we instinctually respond with a quote from Romans 13 about church authority, let’s listen. Those speaking out may come from a place of firsthand knowledge, personal sacrifice, and holy anointing.
Imagine telling Martin Luther not to nail his 95 Theses onto the door of All Saint’s Church in Wittenburg, Germany. He intentionally placed them where passersby could see. He had real grievances against abuses in the Roman Catholic Church of his time. He seemed to hold “bitterness and suspicion toward” his church and leaders—especially priests he thought were scoundrels. And he didn’t have too much love for the papacy either. I don’t believe Luther was trying to gossip. He was a whistleblower.
And what about Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail? He called out the Southern clergy who criticized his actions as “unwise and untimely.” Many leaders fighting for social justice throughout history spoke publicly about their grievances against society and the church, from British and American abolitionists to Nazi resistor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
When people go to their leaders in an effort to be faithful to the tenets of Matthew 18, and their leaders don’t listen, and even worse, when their leaders actively take part in abuse and mistreatment, they often have no recourse but to bring such abuses to light. Only under threat of public outing do many abusers and wrongdoers stop, apologize, or step down.
I pray for churches and Christian organizations to become places where sin isn’t shrouded in secrecy and skewed power dynamics, but recognized and repented of. I pray that those who see and experience wrongdoing would have the courage to speak up. For as King preached, “We must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil.”