Healthy Skepticism: Church Edition

If you know me well, you know I can walk into any room and tell you what’s wrong with it or how I would have done things. This isn’t a trait I’m particularly proud of either. I tell you this because it isn’t skepticism I’m showing — it’s pure judgment of how I believe something is or isn’t pleasing. I write this out as an attempt to help even myself understand the importance of skepticism versus judgment, and why healthy skepticism (as opposed to judgment) is important. Specifically regarding the Church.

The whole idea surrounding healthy skepticism was born from a quote I read:

Jesus stood as the fully innocent one who was condemned by the highest authorities of both “church and state” (Jerusalem and Rome), an act that should create healthy suspicion about how wrong even the highest powers can be. Maybe power still does not want us to see this. Much of Christianity shames individuals for private sins while lauding public figures in spite of their pride, greed, gluttony, lying, killing, or narcissism.

Even Jesus — “the fully innocent one” — was turned into the enemy. It’s hard to imagine Jesus walking the Earth in year 2019 and still found guilty … but I think we would not at all be surprised by it happening. He was a progressive radical in the eyes of Church leaders! He came to clean up — fulfill the law, set others free — and did just that.

The past year and some change has been rough on the Church body. I have written about this numerous times. I have such a high regard for The Church and its state of health. If I could peg one mission as the most important in my little life (besides Motherhood), I would say it’s discerning the health or unhealth of the Church.  I have discovered, in most cases, that it comes down to leadership. Pastors, elders, staff and high-ranking volunteers (those providing leadership to other volunteers) can set apart the local church we end up attending.

Most recently, we have seen the crash and fall of celebrity-like church leaders. Whether Bill Hybels or James MacDonald — both from neighboring suburbs of Illinois — or Catholic priests*, figures like these men have revealed something to me: Jesus meant what he said from the Sermon on the Mount.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” – Matthew 7:21-23

Before I begin, I should first note that I am the judge of no one’s fate. Only a good God can discern such a matter. What I do want to narrow in on is the light of healthy skepticism we should hold our leaders under. We see figures from a pulpit and conclude their “Lord, Lord” is genuine on all fronts, both from their inner and outer selves. We hear truth spoken yet have no idea what is happening on the inside. Jesus, so wise and full of the Spirit, said it best: “Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.” (Emphasis mine.)

Bill Hybels and James MacDonald built what are essentially empires for churches. The foundation from which they began may have been pure and well-intentioned, but somewhere along the path, the work of a powerful ego began drying up the good soil. From there, the uprooting slowly began. More than anything, this is heartbreaking. I mourn with those who attended these churches and feel the loss so personally. I’ve heard stories of others who have attended and are now completely lost. I think all of this confirms why the argument for healthy skepticism is so, so important.

When we hold our leaders accountable to the fallibility of humanity, we are healthy skeptics. We can consciously know they are not God and never will be God. While they are still held to the highest standards of healthy leadership, we know they are imperfect and capable of mistakes. Healthy skepticism is also wondering/hoping/praying the standards by which they are held accountable in their leadership looks like: humbly taking direction from others, doing their inner work, knowing when it’s time to step-down or aside, and being able to say “no” or “yes” without camping out in the gray areas.

Most importantly, healthy skepticism is knowing we, too, carry the same Holy Spirit. This is and will always be our greatest tool in discernment. I think many of those who were close to the leadership of men like Hybels or MacDonald or within the Catholic church, saw the withering roots. We know now from the many news reports they all discerned something unhealthy. Some said something while others sat back out of fear. It’s the human condition in the face of the seemingly powerful.

Either way, it still came to light.

There is no one way to perfect any church we are a part of. As a Perfectionist/Reformer, I have to remind myself of this constantly. Again, it doesn’t take much work for this personality of mine to find something to judge. My hope is to encourage the healthy skeptic in each and every one of us; to know the collective We are the ones that make up the Church body, and We all carry the discernment of the Holy Spirit. We can and should take “radical responsibility” in our faith journeys.

I think we all have something so important to learn from these very public failings of the Protestant and Catholic church. What I don’t want is the continuation of battered hearts justifying awful human behavior as a substitute for a good, good God. Of course there is always time and space for people to step back and deconstruct. I believe the Lord is still and will always be at work in those times. I hope we can begin lowering the pedestals of those in positions of power in order to set our eyes, minds, and hearts right. Maybe along the way we will aid in shifting the egos of those who lead us, which, in turn, keep us all humble.

*In the face of sexual abuse or harassment, there is no excuse. Someone who is held to these standards should always face the consequences of their actions. Be that firing, jail time and fines, no one who has committed such crimes should hold a leadership position.

Before I finished writing this, I asked for opinions on this subject from my friends on social media. Here are some responses:

“I would love to read your thoughts on this. With everything that has come out recently regarding my old youth pastor, I absolutely think there needs to be a reform of the modern day church when it comes to the treatment of their leadership.“

“Man oh man oh man. That’s such a good topic. And so hard to talk to those who are heavily involved in the church about this (or those I suppose, who have been heavily burned by the church)…. Personally I’ve just been sure to keep myself in check that I have my faith in the right place (In God, and not people) … a hard balance because obviously there are good people etc, but trusting my gut in that has proved itself over and over that our faith should always be in God and not “the church” because those really are different things and I don’t feel like a lot of people who go to church understand that.”

“I think you should. Most churches are basically cults. I’ve thought about writing something similar.”

“Being a healthy skeptic of the church leadership one is under is just that, healthy. I think it’s a good way of remaining aware and present to the reality that those who lead are human and broken which SHOULD keep us open, dependent, and hungry for The One who actually is Holy and perfect.”

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