A few weeks back, I wrote about the need for polity reform in SGM. However, there is another dimension of reform in SGM that is more difficult to describe, much less define. It has to do with ethics and culture of SGM. I am loathe to write this because as I mentioned in my last post, I am no longer optimistic about reform in SGM, save for the churches that are radically calling for change. So this may very well be the last constructive critique of SGM from this blog other than to comment on other happenings as they occur.
Before I launch into the substance of areas in need of reform, let me say that there are many good things that I’ve received as a longtime member of an SGM church. In fact, I plan to do a blog post on these benefits in the future. However, in my mind, the good that we have received does not discount the present issues uncovered in the SGM culture. I believe that both an appreciation for the good and a critique of the bad can co-exist. And, SGM leaders should hear this – this doesn’t make for a disloyal or disgruntled member or church. Often constructive loving critique is actually a sign of an engaged and caring membership.
I should also add that I offer this critique with a view that I play a part in this culture because of my long time participation. To some degree, I reflect this ethical and cultural dilemma. Also, let me say that this is not a comprehensive list but just my view into a few critical issues related to SGM ethics and culture. I offer these humbly to any in SGM leadership who might listen. With that said, here are the following key ethical and cultural areas in SGM that have need for reform.
Love of Reputation – This is a fundamental problem within SGM and has been for a long time, perhaps almost from inception. I guess when you start (or join) a movement based on a belief that you’re going to do church better than others (i.e. restoration of the NT church), it shouldn’t be surprising that you end up in a less than desirable state. In my humble opinion (and it is just an opinion), it seems to be a craving beneath the surface of the public face to be viewed as super-sound in principle, super-competent in practice and super-humble in disposition. Unfortunately, all this adds up to a subtle kind of pride.
There can be pride in reading the right books and knowing the right doctrine. There can be pride in our ability to apply teaching. There can even be pride in being humble. I believe that some of the over-the-top displays of faux humility is compensation for the underlying pride we know we carry around. Outward displays of humility are easier to come by than true humility. True humility is dependence on God. True humility is forsaking everything for the treasure of Christ, even if it’s your stellar reputation.
Resistance to Acknowledging Corporate Faults and Mistakes. Linked to the first point is a distinct inability to acknowledge mistakes and faults. It’s why we never got a “we got it wrong” note that we changed our views on “apostles” or moved toward Reformed theology or when the understanding on sacraments were “clarified”. These may seem more benign but in the past 15 months, we’ve come to see how the inability to say – “we messed up – we were wrong – we need to change” can be more insidious and damaging to the broader association of churches. Some like John Loftness think the release of Brent’s documents led to suspicion of SGM and CJ. That’s giving Brent and the blogs way too much credit. Brent’s accusations would have been immediately neutered if what followed was a humble mea culpa. Instead, we got excuses, defensiveness and a railing against critics. It was the unveiling of this aspect SGM corporate culture that has given many of us concern and stolen our trust.
This is also evidenced in the way SGM corporate communicates . In a style best described as old school PR, SGM is often too focused around positioning statements and talking points that offer the escape hatch of plausible deniability. (re: Louisville move). Why not more straight talk and less spin? It’s the only thing that works in this new social media world but more importantly, that’s how Christians ought to communicate with fellow partners in the gospel.
Pastoral Exceptionalism – it’s a phrase goes to the heart of how many SGM pastors have related to their members. It’s rooted in the idea that pastors are a special class – above the sheep – more wise, more attuned to God, more humble, etc… It’s led to a culture in SGM churches that is distinctly pastor centric. A ministry isn’t legit until a pastor is leading it or endorsing it. This idea of pastoral exceptionliosm also rears its ugly head by the exercise of heavy handed oversight that is a carry over from the “shepherding movement”. I do want to add that from what I’ve been told and have observed,, this is has changed and continues to change in many of the churches that are calling for reform – CLC, SGC Fairfax, Grace Church, San Diego, just to name a few. But to deny that this exists in the movement overall…well, all I have to say is – read points #1 and #2 again.
Lack of respect for the priesthood of the individual believer. I think this goes hand in hand with the prior point. There is a low view of the individual believer that pervades the church culture. It’s subtle so it can be difficult to spot. It’s also not true of every church or every pastor. But there is a lack of respect that God can powerfully work directly in the hearts and conscience of individual believers to understand and apply his word. I’ve heard of pastors concerned that members may be having unsupervised bible studies, presumably because they have no control over what might be taught. In most churches, members getting together to teach each other about God’s word would be celebrated, not feared. Unfortunately, that’s what happens if you think of yourself as exceptional, your pastoral leadership as indispensable and the individual believer as incompetent to hear God’s word directly. Sadly, this points to not only a low view of the believer as priest before God but also, a low view of Scripture.
Teaching Moralism vs Gospel Principles – I think this is something that exists in lots of churches so I’m not suggesting this is unique to SGM. Interestingly, despite much emphasis on the gospel and the cross, there is still a lack of gospel practice exhibited in a willing acceptance of others who do not conform to certain traits – homeschooling, modesty checklists, personality quirks, etc… I think it takes its biggest toll on our young people and perhaps on those for whom SGM is their first or primary church experience.
Being a gospel inspired church means being clear on what is gospel truth and what is subjective judgments on how to apply God’s word. The first we must hold firmly to – live and die for. The second is not worthy of such commitment and we must afford our fellow members liberty to apply God’s word as they see fit. We need to
permit celebrate the freedom for individuals to express themselves in the many and varied ways that are not inconsistent with biblical truth but instead reflect the image of God in them.