Power is one of the most pressing issues facing the evangelical church at the beginning of this new decade. How do we steward it in Christlike ways? How are we tempted to adopt the world’s (usually corrupting) approach to it? How can we avoid the many ways power and platform can ruin lives and slander the name of Jesus? As we enter a U.S. election year and look ahead to the 2020s, so much of the church’s mission and witness hinges on how we approach power.
Recent years have brought an array of shocking headlines about the power abuses of high-profile celebrity pastors, #churchtoo scandals, unholy political alliances motivated by fear of losing power, and various other grievous examples of power gone awry. Headlines like these—and their tragic, wide-ranging consequences—have sparked urgent and welcome conversations about power among evangelicals. This has included the release of several helpful books like From Weakness to Strength by Scott Sauls (TGC’s review) and The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb by Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel (TGC’s review), both released in 2017.
Sauls, Goggin, and Strobel—along with Michael Horton and Ann Voskamp—will speak next month at a two-day conference on how pastors and Christian leaders can wield power in healthier ways and “shepherd and lead in the way of Jesus.” In this Q&A I asked Sauls and Goggin to reflect on the topic and its relevance for the church in 2020 and beyond.
Why is power a critical topic for pastors and church leaders today?
Scott Sauls: On the one hand, power is entrusted to leaders by the Lord, so that we will use it for good. The more influence, resources, and opportunity a leader is given, the more potential he or she has to do good in the church and the world. On the other hand, power in the absence of gospel virtue and the fruit of the Spirit can become a breeding ground for all kinds of toxicity, injustice, inequality, abuse, and other injurious treatments of others. Sadly, the ministry is not exempt from this kind of corruption, because ministers, like everybody else, live with a sin problem. Power, like money and time and relationships, must be stewarded faithfully for it to remain a good thing in the hands of a leader.
Power, like money and time and relationships, must be stewarded faithfully for it to remain a good thing in the hands of a leader.
Jamin Goggin: Scripture makes the options simple. We either embrace the way of power from above, marked by humility and love, or we embrace the way of power from below, marked by the world, the flesh, and Devil (James 3). I am concerned we pastors spend little time considering how our view of power shapes our ministry. Consequently, we can fall prey to the way from below expressed through control, coercion, and manipulation. To be faithful to our call, pastors must attend honestly and prayerfully to their view of power and how it shapes their ministry.
Since writing your books, we have witnessed numerous pastors and ministry leaders in the evangelical church fall prey to temptations of power. How should Christians and churches respond to this troubling trend? What are the key lessons for the church?
Goggin: For many of us it can be tempting to respond to these stories, both public and local, with a kind of distanced judgment. But it’s dangerous to always view the problem of power in the church as “out there”: in those megachurches, those celebrity pastors, those denominations lacking the right form of governance and polity. To be sure, we need to consider the dangerous propensities of particular ecclesial structures and systems of governance. We need to take seriously the destructive effects of celebrity culture. And yet if our contemplation of stories of pastoral failure cuts no deeper than pointing fingers, we have missed an invitation from the Lord. I believe God is inviting the church in North America to pray corporately and personally: “Search me, O God, and know our heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23–24).
If our contemplation of stories of pastoral failure cuts no deeper than pointing fingers, we have missed an invitation from the Lord.
Sauls: Our first response should be humility and lament. When ministers experience moral failure, especially regarding the abuse of power, everybody loses. The best way to lead people through such losses is through honest, appropriate, public acknowledgments of what went wrong. Following this, every effort must be made not only to repent, but also to repair any damage that has been done, especially to victims. It’s also important for accountability structures to be in place to ensure power is stewarded from a place of humility and love, not pride and an iron fist. I also think too many of us ministers have too many fans and followers in comparison to our number of actual friends. To help correct this, churches must allow, even encourage, their leaders to cultivate an inner group of close friends to whom they are accountable and with whom they can share life. If those in this circle notice a dangerous character-trajectory forming, they should step in and intervene according to Galatians 6:1–5. Last, I think parity in leadership is important. No single person should be given absolute power in ministry. There should always be checks and balances.
In this election year, how should Christians navigate the power dynamics of politics in ways that glorify God and don’t damage our Christian witness?
Sauls: Christians have a great opportunity in 2020 to either blow our witness or establish it. We will blow our witness if we continue to conflate our Christianity with partisan platforms, especially when we do so from a self-serving, uncharitable, and blindly partisan posture. We will, on the other hand, establish our witness if we approach the political landscape in the same way we are called to approach every landscape—with honesty, humility, and charity. It will do the Christian witness much good if we engage the political process in such a way that praises the virtues and confronts the vices of every party, including the ones we support. For no party is completely virtuous, and no party is completely vicious. I love what Michael Wear once said about the chief purpose of the voting booth: it is a realm from which to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Since writing your books, how have you personally sought to embrace Jesus’s way of power in your own pastoral ministry? What new things have you learned in the process?
Sauls: First, I have made every effort to avoid isolating. When pastors isolate, it’s only a matter of time before problems and character issues start to emerge. For me, this has meant developing transparent friendships with several men (and, with my wife, other couples), some of whom are in our church and others of whom are not. It is understood in all these friendships that if I begin to drift or isolate, these friends are sanctioned to pull me back in.
Second, I seek to be appropriately transparent from the pulpit. My congregation knows I have struggled occasionally with anxiety, depression, and fears about my health, for example. Some regard this kind of transparency as a sign of weakness, but most receive it as a sign of strength and pastoral accessibility. An added benefit to appropriate transparency—the kind that contains humble self-disclosure but that also resists the urge to bleed on your congregation—is that it helps the people understand there is only one rightful pedestal in the church. Only Jesus belongs on top of it. The shepherds are also sheep, and this is important for everyone to know.
It will do the Christian witness much good if we engage the political process in such a way that praises the virtues and confronts the vices of every party, including the ones we support.
Goggin: It was not long after I finished writing my book that I received a call to a shepherd a new church. In many ways, it was a church in transition, looking to establish a new sense of identity and culture. In my attempt to shepherd under Christ in this context, I’ve noticed how tempted I still am to wield my strengths and abilities to generate stability or control a particular outcome. I’ve sought to maintain an ongoing dialogue with the Lord about these temptations.
For example, I’ve noticed an obsessive tendency in my heart to craft the perfect sermon. In a church that has undergone significant change in recent years, it’s one area I feel I have control over. It’s also a place I feel more competent, in contrast with other areas where I don’t feel as gifted to lead. Therefore, I can be tempted to use sermons as a means of wielding or controlling certain outcomes in my church. The subtlety of this temptation is all the more potent because the desired outcomes are good—for people to mature in Christ, for the church to have a deeper sense of unity, for new believers to come to Christ.
It’s so easy to be seduced by the allure of “platform” and “influence” in today’s social-media age. How do you think a healthy understanding of power and weakness should apply to how we use social media?
Sauls: I don’t know if I’m the best person to answer this question, as I’m sure I don’t always use social media well. I do think it damages the credibility of our ministries if we only show the highlight reel and not the full picture. Ministry is a grind just as much as it is a joy, and vice versa. Social media, just like a sermon, should demonstrate the full range of life before God and neighbor, over time. For pastors in particular, I wonder if the best use of social media is to simply share (a) some aspects of our personal lives, so people can experience us as something less than “larger than life,” something more ordinary, and (b) short-form insights that are similar to the things we share in sermons. One thing I’ve become sure of is that getting into spats on social media is not a good idea for people in ministry.
What does embracing weakness look like practically for a Christian in today’s world? Are there practical habits we’d do well to implement?
Goggin: God is inviting us to embrace our weakness in our day-to-day life. We don’t have to look hard to find our weaknesses. Our bodies, our relationships, and our jobs all have a way of exposing our frailties and failures. When our weaknesses are exposed as we parent, or study for a test, or go to physical therapy, God is inviting us to meet him prayerfully and honestly. He has also graciously offered us ecclesial and devotional practices by which we can intentionally pay attention to our weaknesses and learn to rely on his grace alone. The ecclesial practices of worship, baptism, communion, and the proclamation of the Word, properly understood, all expose our weakness and invite us to trust in God’s power. The devotional practices of prayer and Scripture reading likewise should expose our fragilities and sins, and in turn reopen us to our exhaustive need for God’s strength.