John Wimber used a string of metaphors to describe what the Church is and how we’re supposed to engage with one another and the world. John said, “The Church is called to be a family, a hospital, a school and an army.” We experience the truth of these metaphors, not just through their positive characteristics, but through their negative characteristics as well or the unintended consequences of functioning in these ways together.
A question I’ve been asked many times in pastoral ministry has been in relationship to one of the Ten Commandments. The question goes something like, “How do I honor my father and my mother when they’ve…” and there is a spectrum of things with which you can fill in the blank that range from the cruel and criminal to the thoughtless and absent. Family is like heaven when it’s good and it can feel like hell when it’s bad.
If that’s true, it’s just as true about church family. And it can really scramble our eggs when this family we’ve become a part of is the setting of both our healing and our hurting. What is true of family systems can be especially true of our denominational or ecclesiastical systems. And the special kind of grief and hurting that family systems generate for those within, our church government systems will not only duplicate but even amplify because of the mixture of familial relationship and the practice of faith in God.
In the church system of today there is a culture that has developed that further compounds the hurt and harm done. This culture is found in many or most of the expressions of the church in North America today but is probably most prevalent in the Fundamental, Evangelical and Charismatic sub-cultures. We’ve taken this beautiful idea of “honor your father and mother” and turned it into something controlling, shaming and dismissive. An “honor culture” has come to dominate our culture in a way that makes, “speaking the truth in love” seem abusive or at least disrespectful and wrong.
I’m not suggesting this is something brand new but I am saying that we are now reaping the full effect of this dysfunctional way of relating to each other as the family of God.
How does the honor culture manifest? We have come to believe that honoring men is more important and pleasing to God than telling the truth about abuse or neglect. When someone in leadership is doing or has done something wrong we quote, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” As if it actually says, “Love covers up a multitude of sins.” And that we are somehow honoring God by protecting the reputations or speaking well of those in leadership because God places a higher value on honoring people in power than calling them out for the hurt they cause. And while there are egregious examples that make the news and we can all shake our heads over and feel good that we’d never “do that,” it is the result of the very same culture that we’ve allowed to develop wherein a senior pastor speaks in ugly and disrespectful ways to the worship pastor on staff and we make excuses and insist on everyone holding their silence and telling ourselves that the number of people coming to faith is more important than calling the leader out and insisting their behavior stops.
In family systems there are rules that develop. The members of the family aren’t given a manual or asked to watch a video detailing the rules and yet the same rules come up again and again in these dysfunctional families. A counseling organization’s website lists some of these rules:
Here are some typical spoken or unspoken rules in unhealthy family systems:
Do what “looks good”, even if it is dishonest
Don’t be a bother and don’t rock the boat
Deny things you don’t want to see, and they will go away
Do what I say, even when I do the opposite
Express only happy positive feelings
It is wrong to be angry or sad
You must never question our behavior, but go along with it
You must conform to what we expect of you, no matter what
Your needs are not as important as our needs
So, here’s a simple question. Have you ever heard or felt any of the above coming from the leadership of your faith community? Your denomination, network or your movement? Do you think God is more interested in “honor” or health or truth? Do things usually get better because we look the other way or do things tend to only improve when we speak truth to power? Ask yourself, do the people who we ask to follow the rules feel as empowered as the people who make our rules?
There’s a risk here, whether it’s in our biological family or our church family, denomination or movement. If you rock the boat and speak up you are likely to be told you have a rebellious spirit or told you are being cynical or have a spirit of cynicism or told the only problem is that you keep complaining when no one else is or, and this is the hardest cut of all, you'll be ignored until you go away. When talking to others who are feeling the need to speak up in family situations like these I always offer the same warning, don’t bring it up unless you are fully prepared to have the family shun you – we are quicker to turn on the person who turned on the light than the person who brought the darkness to begin with. This is especially true in our church families.
But I still have this conviction that these words are true, “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
What rule of dysfunction have you broken? How can we honor each other without ignoring the harm we and others in our family system do?