A few days ago, I explored how this idea of spiritual abuse can be misused to falsely accuse ministers of the gospel who are actually simply preaching a pure gospel. Now I want to focus on the situations in which abuse can and does happen in our churches. I want to explore ways that pastors, teachers, and worship leaders have to intentionally fight in order to not become the manipulative, hypocritical, greedy, sinful, arrogant narcissists they are so often accused of being. Because, in reality, abuse and moral failure does exist in the church, and it is more prevalent than we know. And if we look at the surface-level sin we would describe moral failure as adultery, sexual immorality, and addiction. But moral failure is not the the signal of the beginning of a fall, it is the end of a very common process in ministry of separation from the presence of God that very often gives birth to moral failure. Before moral failure, there are rocks of fear/doubt and thorns of complacency and self-interest, caused by the cares of the world, love of money, deceitfulness of wealth, and desire for other things (Mark 4). Let’s talk about how the wrong methods of kingdom expansion can lead to these things and ultimately to moral failure.
The Method of Kingdom Expansion is as Important as the Goal of Kingdom Expansion
The goal of Kingdom expansion is a biblical concept. We see Jesus commanding us to make disciples of all nations and we see Him talking about the kingdom growing from small seed to very large tree:
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.” Matthew 13:31-32
The question is, how do we get there? What is the method? What does Kingdom expansion look like? If you ask a pastor, almost none of them will answer that kingdom expansion means bigger churches or operating budgets, at least not at first. Almost all would say, kingdom expansion means more people coming to Christ. How then, can we account for more and more ministers of the gospel going from being well-intentioned ministers of the gospel with good motivations to corrupt scandalous criminals? They did not completely die to self, and this made them susceptible to fear of self-ruin by losing ministries, by losing their “impact” and by losing their legacy.
It is these fears that motivate a person to hold on so tightly to God’s vision, that soon, they lose sight of “walking with Jesus” as the method to fulfill that vision. The vision becomes the focus, not Jesus. The fear of loss, fear of man, fear of failure, fear of being forgotten—these types of things are the rocks from the parable of the seed and soils. These things, if not taken out of us, will make the life of Christ in us shallow and when trials and temptations and persecutions come, that life in us will wither away, leaving us fruitless. We will fall into sin, and because sin causes shame, and shame makes us hide from God in avoidance, we will find ourselves separated from God—as “Christians” in ministry! And in this place of avoidance, complacency thrives—the thorns grow wild.
But Jesus had no fear that the Father would not provide (Matthew 6:26-34).
He had no fear of loss of legacy because He knew the Father glorified Him and He lived on earth to glorify the Father. (John 17:1-3)
He had no fear of people forgetting Him because He was already a King. It was promised. He knew who He was. He had authority already. He knew where He was going. It was a kingdom of another world, and here, for now, a kingdom of people (John 18:36). The kingdom is inside and among us (Luke 17:21)
The way to “walk like Jesus walked” is through the cross of Christ and taking up our own crosses (Matthew 16:24-26). You only get there through going lower (John 13:1ff). And this is because the mutual love we see in the Trinity is being offered to us as sons and daughters, so that it is in experiencing that love that all fear is removed. We have experienced His love, which is the best thing in the whole world. So He can slay us or prosper us and we will bless Him and offer our lives. He can ruin us or elevate us and we will rejoice in Him. Because it is not about our “self-life” anymore. We traded our lives for the right to participate in the glory of perfect mutual love with God and the Body of Christ.
Without fear, we are free to love (1 John 4:18).
Without doubt, we are free to trust (James 1:5-8).
Without self-life, we are free to obey the Father without caveat (Luke 9:23).
Our lives are simply re-purposed by us to be given as a willing sacrifice (Romans 12:1). That’s it. Not because we have to sacrifice, but we will to offer it—we love God and we obey Jesus in walking as He said to with no caveats. If He says to serve, “I will” to serve (I want to and I do). If He says to give my money away, “I will” to give it (I want to and I do). If He says the first in the kingdom will be last, I will move to the lowest, last place, because my greatest reward is not here, it’s His pleasure.
He may bless me as I walk this way, but if He does, I will pour that out too. Why? Because I believe His way is the way to life. Not only do I believe it, I have tasted and seen the goodness of it now in my life. He has won my heart, my allegiance. So I am working for treasure in the NEXT kingdom like Jesus said to do (Matthew 6:19-21).
Instead of seeking our own riches, renown and reputation, we start to ask:
Which altar Lord?
Where do I give my life for you today?
Where does my money go today?
What are you doing and how can I be a part of it?
God’s Presence as Our Protection Against Moral Failure and How We Leave It In Exchange for Perceived Security
The greatest protection against moral failure is staying in the presence of God (John 14-16). Worship is about ministering to the heart of God (2 Chronicles 13:10). It happens when we look at His person and the fruit of our lips declare who He is to us, and as we obey Him and honor Him, we are enveloped in Him and He makes His home in our hearts (John 14:23). There we are seen, held, and disciplined in love (Hebrews 12:6). His kindness leads our hearts to repentance before anger becomes murder, before lust becomes adultery, before dryness leads us to drink from other fountains, before our fear and insecurity leads to moral failure (Matthew 5). We return in obedience when we are in His presence because we see Him clearly there—His understand His pleasure as priceless, we perceive His value as infinite, we perceive His beauty as blinding. When we are in His presence, seeing Him rightly, we cannot sin. And it is obedience and trust that allows us to stay there.
In the presence of God, He gives us assignments. “Go here and do this.” (Acts 8, 1 Corinthians 16:6)) But He rarely tells us how to do those things in advance. The right response is simply do the next step as obediently, immediately, fully as we can. But instead, yes…we start brainstorming, almost as if our planing proves that God had a good idea. It’s a big idea, but now, with our ten year plan, we can do it! And this is how we trade rest for false sense of security.
And we start planning all the things that we see as needing to happen before God’s promised vision takes place. And soon we find ourselves in the same place as David planning to build an unwanted temple with human hands (2 Sam. 7:5-7, 1 Chron. 17:4). We make alliances we never should have made (Isaiah 31:3). We find ourselves as Peter, cutting off the ear of a soldier. fighting a battle Jesus never intended to fight (John 18:10).
We misunderstand a KEY concept in the ways of God. He wants us to depend on Him for the process and the next step. Like in the wilderness. To rest secure only in Him. To rely on His leadership even if it looks like everything is impossible. Haven’t you noticed, He loves to save the day? He wants to be our King, our Boss, our President. But that is a completely different method of operation than we are taught in this world, even in our Christian denominations, organizations and institutions.
How “Love of God” turns to “Love of Money and Power”
Now, if we start setting up the do-able steps in a 10-year plan, what happens next? We don’t really need God anymore. As one pastor I knew put it, “every pastor needs to run His church like a business.”
We just need to execute the plan we have decided to pursue. We need to finance that plan.
But as people commit to their big projects and structures “for God,” they start to doubt…what if God will not provide? What if this was my idea and not God’s? Well that’s a great question, but by then it’s too late to figure that out. It is here that doubt and fear tempt us in very similar ways that Jesus was tempted by them in the wilderness (Luke 4). (worry about provision, proving His reputation, and securing His renown). Jesus passed these tests, but humans rarely do, especially when the mess they are in is of their own making. Christians have the authority and power to resist fear and doubt through the Holy Spirit, as long as they have stayed in His presence and chosen the leadership of God rather than having a “sure plan” for success framed out in worldly models. This is our motivation for steering clear of fear and doubt and so avoiding sin. Walking out God’s vision step by step, like Jesus did, without the goal to look big or look impactful to the outside, is the only way to grow in purity of motive and pleasure with God.
Jesus said, my Kingdom is not of this world. If we were to look at the kingdom-expansion methods of Jesus as He modeled it, we note that he did not use the strategies of the world to accomplish the vision of the Kingdom. The nature of the kingdom is not of this world. We are not to conform to these worldly patterns. (Romans 12:2) You won’t be able to see a visible rule here until He returns. The kingdom here looks like servanthood, going lower, and taking up crosses. It looks like suffering and internal victory. It will not look like riches, prosperity, and peace, although we have great peace inside and among us. He purposely did not use a worldly military or business model.
Notice also that Jesus never took tithes for his ministry. He had a support team, and accepted gifts, but we have no records of Jesus asking people to tithe to his ministry or to help him build buildings to house 4,000 people. Why? He didn’t have a building…on purpose. When He told people to sell their things, He told them to give the proceeds to the poor, not to His ministry. Why? Wouldn’t it make sense that Jesus would set up shop in a central location and franchise out from there? While we do not know for sure, I think He was keeping Himself pure and unpolluted by the world. He could have covered more distance with a chariot than walking. He could have gathered zealous human warriors to fight alongside Him, even angels (Matthew 26:53). Why didn’t he choose this model? Similarly, we can ask, why didn’t he just take over the Roman empire with His angels through war? He could have been King already. But “though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does.” (2 Corinthians 10:3)… “For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.” (1 John 2:16)
Here’s why. He was already King. He had nothing to prove, nothing to gain, nothing to lose. His only task was to do the will of “Him who sent me.” (John 6:38) That is, the Father. And even though the way the trinity works is mysterious, we know enough to know that Jesus and the Father and the Spirit are one. They are the same person. They have the same mind and heart. Though we will never be gods, we are invited to share the same heart and thoughts and motivations through the Holy Spirit, so that we move with Him in perfect alignment, transformed in our minds, even though our perception of things is limited by our humanity.
Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. 2 Peter 1:4
We do not have to see the future to have the vision of God. And we do not have to replace trust with a ten-year plan to start walking that vision out, one step at a time in obedience and reliance, listening as we go. In fact, we should resist the ten-year plan unless God says, “here is your ten-year plan that you need now.” Even James says to hold our plans loosely,
“Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” James 4:13-15
Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. 1 Corinthians 3:18
Jesus proposed a new model. He did not rely on setting up top-down power positions, or corporately run business structures, because the kind of kingdom He was building was going to be a monarchy of brothers and sisters united in love and purpose, funded on willing, free-willed generosity, not mandated gifts, and not love of money or power. It was not going to be a taking over by force, it was going to be accomplished by winning the people’s hearts back to Him through repentance. This is not an empire of forced submission or taxes (tithes), it is a kingdom of mutual love and service. If you look at who supported the ministry of Jesus, it was women who wanted to help (Luke 8:1-3) and the hospitality along the way (people of peace). Jesus never demanded or required anything from anyone not willing to give. And for those willing to give, they learned His love required everything (not just money), not because He is greedy, but because He wants to be one in Spirit with us.
Determined to Die to Self
Fear, doubt, and self-interest require repentance. When I say “repent” in this context, I am not talking about an accusation or judgment toward you or anyone else. I am talking about what happens in our hearts if we do not deal with our temptation to fear, doubt, and self-interest. It will lead to sin. So repenting of these warning signs, returning to trust and submission to God, before those things become full-grown moral failure, is our lifeline. Like a gardener preparing the soil or weeding the garden, a good crop requires maintenance and sober vigilance. And this vigilance happens in the presence of God when we open up to Him and His Word and allow Him to discipline, re-frame life experience for us, and soften our hearts by His Spirit.
We know that there is no fear in love (1 John 4:18). This is because fear has to do with punishment. It comes from a conscious or subconscious belief that God is not loving to you, that He is not faithful to you, that He does not care for you, that He is not competent to protect you, and that He does not want the best for you. Someone who has found true identity in Christ will have no fear (or quickly put it to death when tempted by it), 1) because they are righteous in Christ, living in obedience; and 2) because they know fear comes before disobedience (Genesis 3). And we have the ability and authority (by the power of the Spirit) to be and remain free from sin. Not only that, but anyone who has really put sin to death and wants to stay free and strong against trial, will have to also kill fear and doubt. And to do that, they have to die to self.
Jesus said, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” John 3:3 And in order to be born again, the old self must die. If the self-life has not been put to death, you will almost always see indicators of fear and doubt which prove it’s still there. In almost every situation of spiritual abuse, you will see a concern for preservation of self as evidenced in a “love” or “focus on” riches/provision (fear of lack), renown (fear of not being known), and reputation (fear of not being respected). What is tricky about this is that most leaders do not realize the roots of those things are a danger to them. They start off with good intentions-namely the growth of God’s Kingdom. But if love for riches, renown, and reputation are not put to death quickly, moral failure will almost assuredly follow, EVEN IF the goal is to live for God’s glory. Furthermore, if love for these three soul-killers (riches, renown and reputation) were surrendered to the Lord, they can still sneak back into our lives if we are not spiritually sober and vigilant, in which case they must be identified quickly and burned out by the presence of God and radical repentance resulting in a return to obedience.
Fear, doubt, and double-minded self-centeredness must be constantly put to death, or we will try to fulfill the visions God gives us with human strategies or wealth-building and corporate-expansion. If we build with those man-made strategies, we will end up being ruled by money and its streams of revenue. The very systems we construct with good intentions (new buildings, staff, projects) will require immense fundraising, projected budgets, and so forth. Soon, those operating budgets require new streams of income. But how will you get the money? Now your churches become businesses and the elders businessmen, who start thinking and talking about how what they have is marketable, appealing to the people. Why not start selling branded merchandise to “support ministry” and “get people on brand and on board with the mission” so you can reach more people.
It works! We’re known. Surely God’s hand is on this because it is successful! People adore us. Our success and my personal success is proof of the blessing of God. We have established God’s Kingdom here—a “city on a hill.”
Did you though?
Can you still hear Him?
Is this still His vision or yours?
Or are you far from Him?
If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. John 15:6
You might be surprised how many leaders are leading from a dry place of fear, doubt, and self-interest or self-preservation. These leaders are only a short step from moral failure. What masqueraded as “good management” is now unveiled as prideful kingdom building.
For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. (Revelation 3:17)
For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low;…The Lord of hosts has purposed it, to defile the pompous pride of all glory, to dishonor all the honored of the earth. (Isaiah 2:12; 23:9)
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 1 Cor. 6:9-10
Why does God ruin the honored? One reason, He does not share His glory with another, and so the best thing is to yield and to live for the Lord’s leadership and renown. Furthermore, because He is so good, it is a joy to submit to Him. He desires our joy.
The problem is, people prefer to follow leaders, not God. And this is a VERY hard problem to stop once it starts. Soon, the mobility and movement you once had as a minister of the gospel is locked down. You cannot travel to preach or church plant because you “need” to be in a pulpit, or to be counseling your members. You cannot be led by the Spirit because you’re booked solid. Everyone has to come to you for ministry. Hire more pastors, more secretaries to help carry the load. And this means more salaries coming out of tithe. Your church grows so big you need a bigger building. More financial commitments, more branding, more production. You become a leader, and you see God expanding your ministry, but is this really what Jesus meant when He said expand my kingdom?
Of course not.
Kingdom expansion is not about expanding our ministries. It is about ministering—to God’s heart, to the poor, to the fatherless, to the foreigner, to our neighbor.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:27
And now we can see that how good intentions with the wrong method of expansion entangle us in love of money, renown, and reputation and set us up for moral failure. It actually is the rare Christian who can withstand the pressure to expand their ministry in favor of expanding the Kingdom. Therefore, we have to make sure we die to self in the areas of our desire to influence and our desire for legacy. We seek to only shepherd under the chief shepherd until a disciple can hear and learn from Him directly, then we serve alongside one another as brothers and sisters (even to the point that we do not call one another Father, Rabbi, or Instructor. There is still leadership in this model, but it is leadership that goes lower in service and visibility. Not higher. It resists honor. It must decrease so He can increase! This kind of leadership actually resists legacy. It embraces service. It embraces anonymity. It seeks out simply one necessary thing, to do the will of God by listening an obeying.
Promoting a Strategy of Worship and Shema Lifestyle (Listen/Obey)
By resisting earthly money, power, and position, Jesus’ ministry remained a movement, which was grown not by might, nor power, but by the Holy Spirit. His kingdom was not of this world and so needed no proof of it’s existence, no reporting, no fundraising. Jesus taught an organic model of growth—like a seed, like a crop, like a tree. If God says to do it, then we obey and He provides direction and support, both spiritually and financially.
This is a multiplying growth that will bear fruit constantly in a way that is not controlled by human oversight or strategy (Jeremiah 17:8). We worship often because ministering to the heart of God brings us together into the goal of humanity, bringing pleasure to God and experiencing His pleasure in us. In this way, we remain open to ask God to search us and know us (Psalm 139). We resist the temptation to power that comes from idolizing one person to cast a unique vision. It is not our vision that we are promoting, it is the Kingdom, and we promote it through a lifestyle of “shema” (listening and obeying), being led into deeper trust, into deeper reliance on God.
We have nothing to prove, no numbers to reach, no measurable impact to achieve or maintain, and we can put all our energy into seeing the kingdom multiply in a million small ways.
How do you get out of this web if you are in it?
- Be Seen By God. Ask God to help you identify the core fears or lies that are driving your decisions. Fear of Loss? Fear of Humiliation? Fear of failure? Fear of Man? Fear of Being Forgotten? Fear of Poverty? Fear of Shame?
- Repent. Ask God and your community to forgive you for operating in the wrong methods that seemed right but led you to unknowingly operating against the principles of the Kingdom and potentially into moral failure. Do you need to repent of any of these things? Self-Determination of Future, Self-Reliance, Self-Confidence, Self-Worship, False Worship, Idolatry of Pastors/Mentors/Musicians, Love of Money, Love of Power/Influence?
- Be Accountable. Set up a system of mutually desire accountability among all eldership/church staff and lay out the Biblically based social and communal ramifications for your moral failure. If anyone is not willing to be held accountable, they should not be in leadership positions. This is not forced accountability. It is your choice whether or not you desire to be in leadership, but the requirement of leadership in a church body is mutually desired accountability. Example “If I physically commit adultery, indulge in sexual or physical abuse, or find myself enslaved to addiction, I understand it will disqualify me for eldership and mean a public revelation of my sin and a loss of my position of leadership in ministry. To that end, I willingly invite these people to ask me the hard questions, regarding not only my sin, but the underlying motivations of my heart, and hold me accountable to my actions and discipline me according to scripture.”
- Purpose to Go Lower not Higher. Your goal, for this lifetime, is now to disappear and let Christ be the only thing that is remembered about you. Your legacy is Christ’s name made great, not yours. Make it your goal to serve and give radically while remaining anonymous.
- Walk as Jesus Walked. Obey the commands of Jesus as closely as you can. Understand the principles of the Kingdom and make your life about seeking His Kingdom. This is how we see the Kingdom grow.