We are called to goodness, righteousness, and truth but that call begins with our relationship with God who is light. We are light in the Lord and therefore we are to be light. John anchors his moral imperative in our fellowship with God. “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:6). What John is telling us is that our union with Christ and communion with the Father will show up in the life and light of new relationship with the God who is light.
This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you,
that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5, NKJV)
If you were to send a message of truth to an atheist that would rock their world, what would it be? Likely, it would be “God exists.” Adoption of that single truth would require deconstruction of everything they have believed and require reconstruction of a radically different worldview.
John’s opening salvo of truth does the same for us. “This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). With that cornerstone in place, our building takes shape. If John’s reason for writing his epistle has to with how we can know we have eternal life (1 John 5:13), then front and center must be the person of God.
What does it mean for God to be light? Sometimes we understand something by looking at its contrast, what it is not. John takes that approach by going on to say that “in Him is no darkness at all.” It’s clear that John is speaking in absolute terms.
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By John Stonestreet and Glenn Sunshine — 8 months ago
I thank God for modern writers of hymns and songs, committed to producing music that is true and excellent for the glory of God and the people of God. Music is a gift of God, a unique way of connecting His revelation with our hearts and minds. St. Augustine is thought to have said, “he who sings, prays twice.” The Church must recover a more robust understanding and practice of music.
Today, January 13, we remember the Hussites who, on this day in 1501, published the first hymnal in history written in the language of the common people. The descendants of the Hussites are known as the Moravian Brethren, who carry on the rich tradition of hymns and church music today.
Christians have good reason to commemorate this event. After all, ours, like Judaism, has always been a singing faith. The longest book in the Bible, and the one at its center, is the Psalms, a word that means “songs.” David’s plans for the Temple included clans of Levites whose entire job was music. Choirs, soloists, orchestras, and antiphonal singing were prescribed parts of Temple life and practice, and an entire class of Psalms, the Songs of Ascent, were sung by the people as they traveled to Jerusalem for the annual pilgrimage festivals.
Throughout the biblical texts, music is also connected to prophecy and to dealing with evil spirits. Jesus and the apostles sang a hymn after the Last Supper, according to two of the Gospels. The Apostle Paul specifically associates singing with being filled with the Spirit in his epistle to the church at Ephesus. And, in John’s Revelation of what is constantly happening around the throne of God, there is lots of singing, sometimes accompanied by harps.
Music also is part of the culmination of the creation story. When Eve is taken from Adam’s side, Adam awakes and exclaims, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Many scholars believe this to essentially be a celebratory song.
Eliminating the musical element from the text of Scripture would be to gut them and the practices that have emerged from them. Monks chanted the Psalms daily, in some cases covering the entire Psalter in a week. Medieval thinkers thought of the human heartbeat, respiration, and daily cycle of sleeping and waking as “music.” They also believed the motion of the heavenly bodies was regulated by the “music of the spheres.”
By Steven Light — 7 months ago
The spiritually abusive leader creates an atmosphere of performance and law keeping that is beyond the reach of any Christian, even while publicly preaching and teaching the gospel of God’s grace. Although he does not hold himself to the same standard (the definition of hypocrisy!), those closest to him may begin to live in a state of fear, subconsciously afraid that they are condemned by the program they are supporting.
An elder and his wife have served faithfully for many years in a local church, but in recent years have felt a cloud of confusion and darkness. Although they hesitate to make the admission, a sense of inexplicable fear has crept into their Christian walk. Church life has been tumultuous with conflict and departures a steady theme, but they tell themselves that the principles and actions of the leadership have been the tough-love sort of faithfulness. Yet nagging questions arise.
This post is for those who may be on the inside of a leadership structure that has become spiritually abusive and do not recognize what they have become a part of. They are witnesses to dynamics that are hidden to the broader congregation, but they themselves cannot presently interpret them properly, though they may sense something is wrong. As Chuck DeGroat writes, Whole church systems and programs evolve within the waters of narcissism, and when it’s the water you swim in, it’s hard to see and even harder to confront.1
The distorting, deceiving power of a spiritually abusive leader is often underestimated. Such a leader is usually remarkably gifted for ministry in ways which impress many and seem to confirm his calling. To be close to such a leader and in his good graces can be a very positive environment, where individuals are made to feel that they are vital to the mission and loved deeply. The inner circle of leadership and staff will be constantly complimented as “the best.” And whatever events may transpire to expose the truth about underlying sin issues will be distorted and spun to maintain the narrative..
A key element of seeing through the smoke and mirrors is the issue of hypocrisy. Jesus said, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1). This alarm is sounded because leaven starts small and unobtrusively but it is deadly. There are brands of hypocrisy which are quite subtle, but nonetheless the hypocrisy eventually leavens the whole lump of the church. Every Christian in spiritual leadership must be on the lookout, knowing the deceptiveness of sin. In an abusive leadership structure, hypocrisy will unfailingly manifest itself. What follows are some key areas to watch carefully and important questions to ask.
Is a pastor or leader treated with greater deference and charity than others? Are reports about the harshness, anger, or bullying from the leader quickly rationalized, discredited, or ignored, regardless of the fact that there is a steady stream over time of such reports? When partiality is at work, these reports will be pre-judged as slanderous. They will be explained as a convenient way for unrepentant sinners to shift blame. If such reports come second hand, they will quickly be labeled “hearsay” and therefore dismissed without further investigation. Those in Christian leadership need to understand that in cases of alleged abuse, victims often cannot and should not directly confront the abusive leader. This does not mean that an impartial investigation cannot be conducted.
When a leader makes allegations or insinuations about others (and an abusive leader will do so repeatedly), are these accepted without questioning? Are other individuals instantly blacklisted if he criticizes them? Is his testimony elevated above that of others? While elders and pastors need to talk amongst themselves in the course of shepherding, the swift and extreme denouncements an abusive leader will make on the thinnest of grounds are far outside the pale of shepherding. The willingness of others in leadership allow this behavior and accept his judgments is an indicator of partiality. Giving such latitude to the leader while immediately bringing the hammer down on those who allege abuse is hypocrisy.
Are discussions of potential weaknesses or missteps of the leadership viewed as slanderous? Is asking questions suppressed and discouraged? If individuals feel they have been mistreated, are they punished for seeking other counsel? The ethical demand for confidentiality is first and foremost upon leaders entrusted with the care of souls. They are handling the information of people who are vulnerable as they open up their lives and talk about their sins. When leadership reverses this and demands that individuals under its authority remain silent about possible failings and abuses, or even demand that individuals remain silent about discussion of public actions, the leadership has hypocritically turned the principle of confidentiality on its head.
In a spiritually abusive system, when individuals do criticize the leadership, confidential issues in their lives will be brought forth to discredit them. Insinuations will be made about them from the pulpit and in conversations. The narcissistic leader will know no boundaries of confidentiality in order to neutralize the “threat.” This demand for confidentiality with respect to the failings of the leadership while at the same time breaching confidentiality when it comes to others is hypocrisy.
The Best Staff, the Worst Staff
What is the track record of staff relationships? Chuck DeGroat writes about how the narcissistic characteristics will manifest in a pastor’s relationship with his staff. His need to be special and grandiose is affirmed by his “talented” staff, who stay if they live in service of his ego and leave, often messily, if they do not. Is there a long line of staff departures with little explanation?
The hypocrisy is detectable in the fact that staff members will receive the highest praise, appear to be protected from outside criticisms, and be seemingly unable to do wrong in the leader’s eyes. But what will seem most of the time like a very positive relationship with the staff actually is understood by his drive for grandiosity and need for people around him to enable him. For staff, this can feel like working amid a hurricane. The dizzying array of ideas and visions may be explained away by the pastor as “creativity” or “passion,” but a pastor who doesn’t see the impact… on a staff will quickly find a tired, overwhelmed team…One reason for this phenomenon is that the narcissistic pastor must live in a constant state of ego inflation.2
The flattery of the leader clashes with his unreasonable demands; requests made at all hours; changes to major programming at the last minute; new initiatives to organize and launch when already plates are overflowing. But most revealingly is the steady stream of staff members over time who once received highest praise but were ultimately discredited or discarded due to the narcissistic patterns of broken relationships. This hypocrisy will take place time and again.
In some church settings, hierarchy is built into church government. But in many churches, particularly those functioning in a Presbyterian manner or similarly, governance is explicitly to be conducted with the parity (equality) of elders. The senior minister may be described as the “first among equals,” but the emphasis is on the “equals.” Each man around the table has one vote, and none are to set themselves above the others. If such is the expectation and standard of government, the question should be asked if that is actually taking place or has it become a hierarchy. Unfailingly, the abusive pastor will work to take full functional control of the leadership. This leads in the direction of not only hierarchy, but tyranny, hypocritically contradicting the church’s standards and the command of Christ (Matt 10:43).
This hierarchy will be evident in the near total deference to one man’s judgments on issues of significance. Other intelligent, godly men who once were able to think for themselves will essentially function like yes-men; sycophants. Is there a leader at the table that everyone knows is above criticism? Whoever holds such a position is controlling that body. Are there gradations on the elder board: unspoken tiers or influence and authority, with those closest to the narcissistic leader being at the highest level? Is there a pastor or leader who is highly critical of other leaders behind their backs, discrediting them – particularly those he perceives as a threat on some level? Perhaps he quietly tells others that certain elders who raise questions are just not mature enough to see issues clearly. Perhaps he makes quiet statements like, “that elder has utterly failed as a husband and father.” This is to strategically put other leaders on a lower spiritual tier, functionally undermining the parity of elders.
Another question to consider is whether there is tolerance of behaviors from a leader that would be unacceptable in others. Specifically, is a leader given freedom to express anger to a level that would be shocking if seen in others? All of these marks are symptoms that the leadership has become hierarchical, and at the top is a tyrant. This hypocrisy will be present in a spiritually abusive ministry.
Demonize with Standards for Them, but not for Me
A final form of hypocrisy takes place in the process of discrediting or demonizing people, which will be a theme for a spiritually abusive pastor who is constantly viewing critics as adversaries and pushing them out. Is there a steady stream of criticism coming from a leader toward congregants and other leaders? As Michael Kruger puts it, “A key characteristic of an abusive leader is that they lead through fault-finding.”3 In order to demonize a perceived opponent, actual sins or suspected sins in people’s lives will be brought forth and embellished. At times they may be fabricated altogether, as the leader manipulates others to maintain his control. As he does this, however, he is creating an untenable ethical atmosphere. Sins that are common to all Christians such as lust, overeating, insecurity, worldliness, and many more, will be used to bring people’s integrity into question and discredit them to others. “I am so disappointed that this elder bought a Mercedes. He is so worldly.” “She asked for prayer about the weather for the wedding; how incredibly immature, and evidence of her husband’s poor spiritual leadership.” “He admitted to having a momentary mental fantasy about a woman in the church – he is not safe around anyone.” “Did you see the political posts she made on Facebook? I am ashamed to be in the same church as such a woman.” This tactic works: it is effective at discrediting and neutralizing the perceived “threat” since the leader carries the weight of his spiritual authority behind such accusations. But it also distorts the gospel and the grace of God.
The spiritually abusive leader creates an atmosphere of performance and law keeping that is beyond the reach of any Christian, even while publicly preaching and teaching the gospel of God’s grace. Although he does not hold himself to the same standard (the definition of hypocrisy!), those closest to him may begin to live in a state of fear, subconsciously afraid that they are condemned by the program they are supporting. This weakens the Christian in many ways and is an indicator that something is very wrong. The leaven of the Pharisees has been sown into the dough.
A Warning to Leaders
For Christian leaders connected to such leadership, complicity is the grave danger. Narcissistic leaders specialize in pushing out perceived adversaries and gathering loyal supporters to leadership. These supporters will be trained and deployed to carry out the program of the leader. Failing to recognize hypocrisy and call it what it is leads inevitably to enablement of the behaviors and participation. As Michael Kruger points out, the biblical record of God’s judgment on Eli for enabling the abusive behavior of his sons in the temple reveals “a critically important principle: God will hold accountable not only the bad shepherd but also those who protect and enable them. This is a weighty warning to all churches and the elder boards that lead them.”3
Participation in this sort of hypocrisy results in confusion, burden, and fear. Are such fruits present in the heart and mind? This is no fruit of the Spirit. Indeed, it is a bellwether indicating something is diabolically wrong. The deeper someone goes with such a leader, the more likely he or she will experience the rising sense of condemnation and fear as hypocrisy and legalism poison the well of grace found in the gospel alone. Confusion will enter as nothing and no one will be spared from being demonized and reality will be distorted. The soul will be burdened tremendously, for this person is serving a man and not Christ (Gal. 1:10).
If these marks and signs are present in the church, seek help and have nothing to do with such “leaven” of hypocrisy. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).
Steven Light is a member of a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) congregation in Jacksonville, Fla.
1DeGroat, Chuck & Mouw, Richard, When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community From Emotional and Spiritual Abuse,. Intervarsity Press, 2020, Introduction.
2Ibid., ch 4.
3Kruger, Michael J., Bully Pulpit: confronting the problem of spiritual abuse in the church, Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 2022, p 28.
4Ibid, p 48.
By Megan Basham — 1 year ago
In a recent op-ed for the U.K. Sunday Times, Douglas Murray observed that the reason the wheels have come off the #MeToo movement is that it discredited itself by overstating its case and conflating unmistakable instances of abuse with messy adult entanglements. “The MeToo movement had some cases that were very clear-cut. Others were not,” he wrote. “And the insistence that a historic reckoning was occurring made the line between the two uncomfortably easy to breach.”
The same line-blurring could describe what is happening in the second-largest religious denomination in the U.S. (and the largest Protestant denomination). Known for its theological conservatism that includes reserving the pastorate for men, the nearly 15-million-member Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is currently undergoing what many major media outlets are characterizing as a reckoning over sexual abuse.
Indeed, some go further, with ex-SBC leader Russell Moore calling it an “apocalypse” and evangelical pundit David French calling it a “horror,” proof the denomination does not merely contain some bad apples, but is, in fact, a “diseased” orchard.
While purple prose has been flowing freely in regards to the SBC, little of it has bothered to detail what the apocalypse looks like in hard statistical terms. That’s likely because, according to the recently released report generating all the coverage, a total of 409 accused abusers were found over the course of 21 years in approximately 47,000 SBC churches.
Lyman Stone, demographer at the Institute for Family Studies, told me the actual data contained in the abuse report, the result of an eight-month investigation by Guidepost Solutions, does not come close to meriting the hyperbolic terms that are peppering coverage in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and CNN.
“Statistically speaking,” he said, “there were not that many cases. This is not actually that common of a problem in this church body.”
Stone went on to estimate that there are about 100,000 to 150,000 staffers in SBC churches, but many thousands more volunteer in their ministries. Of all the allegations that Guidepost investigators reviewed, they found only two that appear to involve current SBC workers.
“If you wanted to argue that based on this report, executives of the SBC mismanaged the cases that were brought to them, then fine,” Stone said. “But if you want to say this shows that [the SBC] is corrupt, hypocritical, and rife with sexual abuse — the report doesn’t demonstrate that.”
Stone added that he was shocked that Guidepost investigators only found two current cases, given how many exist in the general population. “I mean, if I had been betting beforehand, I would have bet for a couple of hundred,” he said. “Because if you’re talking about 100,000 to 150,000 people who are disproportionately men, just your baseline rate of sex offenders tells you, you should have gotten a couple thousand sex offenders in there just by random chance.”
He concluded that while the report may show the need for reforms in responding to allegations, it does not show an endemic problem of sexual abuse, adding, “It is important to distinguish these.”
Advocates like attorney and Larry Nassar victim Rachael Denhollander have argued that misconduct within the SBC isn’t just a question of numbers. They also take issue with the executive committee’s resistance to creating a public database of the “credibly accused,” assembled by third-party investigators like Guidepost. But a deep dive into how Guidepost handled the most prominent allegation of abuse in its SBC report should set off alarm bells for anyone interested in maintaining a biblical standard of justice.
From the broad outlines of Jennifer Lyell’s story, it’s easy to understand why the members of the executive committee might have felt some hesitation to unquestioningly label her as a victim of abuse.
In 2004, Lyell was a 26-year-old master of divinity student when she met cultural anthropology professor David Sills, who is 23 years her senior, on the Louisville campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Shortly after, she became close with the entire Sills family, including David’s wife, Mary, as well as his college-age son and teenage daughter. She alleges that it was on a mission trip with Sills and his daughter that Sills first “sexually acted” against her.
That incident, she says, began a pattern of abuse that lasted 12 years until she was 38, continuing even as she moved to Chicago in 2006 and, later, Nashville, to further her career in publishing. During the time that Lyell was a publishing executive, she often worked with Sills, contracting with him for books, and, arguably, holding more power over his career than he did over hers.
In essence, Lyell was claiming that Sills was able to continue committing acts of sexual abuse against her even after she’d left the state because she would return to visit the family.
In 2018, at the height of the #MeToo movement and two years after her contact with Sills had ended, Lyell told her boss, Eric Geiger, at the Christian publisher Lifeway of the allegedly abusive relationship. Geiger, in turn, arranged a meeting with Southern Seminary’s president, Dr. Albert Mohler. In short order, Sills’ employment was terminated. A year then passed before Lyell provided her account to the Baptist Press for an article she hoped would present her as Sills’ victim.
As the house media organ of the SBC, the Baptist Press (BP) falls under the authority of the executive committee. When committee members read Lyell’s account, which did not contain any concrete description of violent behavior, in a March 2019 BP draft, they had doubts about framing it as she wanted, in part because they feared Sills might sue. They asked BP editors to replace the word “abuse” with “morally inappropriate relationship,” though the story retained a quote wherein Lyell accuses Sills of “grooming and taking advantage” of her. The editors informed Lyell of the change shortly before going to print.
Once the story was published, commenters on BP’s Facebook page criticized the fact that Sills had lost his job while Lyell had not, prompting her to demand BP restore the term “abuse” to the article or link to a statement from her rebutting their word choice.
Months of sporadic back-and-forth communications followed, in which committee members weighed options for coming to terms with Lyell. Then, at an October 2019 SBC conference on sexual abuse, Denhollander recounted Lyell’s story from the stage, identifying Sills by name and calling Lyell a “survivor of horrific predatory abuse” who was “cast away” by BP editors and the executive committee. Almost immediately after, Denhollander threatened the executive committee with a defamation suit on Lyell’s behalf.
Executive committee sources who agreed to speak with me anonymously say that the SBC’s insurance agency did not want to settle with Lyell, believing she did not have a strong case. But already facing bad press over Denhollander’s conference comments, committee members feared further fallout from dragging the issue out. In May 2020, the same sources say the committee paid Lyell just over $1 million, thinking that would be the end of the matter. It wasn’t.
When Guidepost issued its report on May 22, Lyell was by far the foremost accuser in it.
Again and again in the 35-plus pages that feature her case, Guidepost investigators claim Lyell’s version of events is “corroborated.” What that would mean in a police investigation is that witnesses offered other evidence against Sills. What it appears to have meant to Guidepost is that Lyell told her story to Geiger and Mohler, and both men said they believed it, according to the Baptist Press. In fact, Geiger, the first person to whom Lyell revealed the alleged abuse, told me Guidepost never even asked him to provide statements or evidence.
The report does briefly mention testimony from unnamed employees at Sills’ missions agency and his former pastor — referring to Dr. Bill Cook — but both Guidepost and the task force refused numerous requests to provide me with the agency staffers’ specific comments. And Dr. Cook told me that in his case, once again, all “corroborate” means is that he found Lyell’s story credible, not that he had any additional evidence to offer.
Guidepost defends its choice to refer to Sills as an “abuser” rather than an “alleged abuser” by noting that they didn’t find any evidence that “indicated that the interactions between Ms. Lyell and Professor Sills was anything but sexual abuse.”
Perhaps that’s because they weren’t looking very hard.