What's Tony Thinking

The Sins We Don’t Talk About


Here’s a link to session 4 of “What’s Theology Got To Do With It?,” the video. We seem to run a week behind on getting these out. Last Monday, May 22, we did Session 5 live. Next week, on May 29, we will focus on chapters 9 and 10, “This Thing Called Church, Parts 1 and 2.” So I’ll probably get the session 5 video out early next week. Now, that I’ve thoroughly confused you . . .

In session 4, we’re on the chapters titled, “Beginning at the Beginning,” on the implications of confessing God as our Creator for healthy congregations, and “Why Nice Isn’t Enough,” or sin and the church.

My theme in the chapter on God as Creator is that our confession that God has created the world and calls it good, invites us the church to hopeful engagement in and with the world, rather than timidity or despair. I also work in a good bit on a false dualism in the church, and beyond, which sees spirit as good and body as bad. As I say, this is a false, if persistent and popular, dualism. The heresies of Docetism and Gnosticism.

In the “Why Nice Isn’t Enough” chapter I write about some of the sins we don’t talk much about in the church these days. At least in the churches I frequent we pay a lot of attention to the sins of racism, violence, sexism, homophobia — as indeed we should. We talk, that is, about the big systemic sins, but not so much about the other sins that more often actually disable churches and lead to their dysfunction.

I name three: leadership failure, bullying and playing the victim. Maybe calling the first “Leadership Failure,” I may be a little off. Having failures as a leader is par for the course. At least, if you failing, you are trying. The particular kind of failure I’m concerned with here is leaders that don’t even try. Leaders — or those in a leadership position — who fail to lead.

Leadership is neither a status nor a position. It is a function. Primarily, it means helping a congregation or other human group/ institution face its own most important challenges and to make progress on them. When you lead in this way, you put yourself in a dangerous position, which is why lots of people who hold leadership positions do not actually lead. It’s too risky, too hard. If you hear people say of their minister, “He’s not much of a preacher, but he’s a really, really nice person,” watch out!

Lacking leadership, congregations will drift and founder, which opens the way to the second form of sin I’ve seen a good bit in the life of churches: power grabs and bullying. Lots of people like power, they just don’t want accountability. If the called leaders renege on their responsibility someone, count on it, will fill the vacuum. Sometimes those people are also bullies. What bullies in the church! I thought people in churches were nice and caring! What better place for bullies to hang out than in a church where in the effort to be nice, bullies are often tolerated and seldom confronted.

One of the important functions of faithful, called leaders in a church is to protect the vulnerable from bullies. The vulnerable are often people that are easily influenced, people who want someone charismatic to follow, or people who — at noted — are nice to a fault. Bullying I think of as insisting on your own way and intimidating others.

A third chronic sin I see in churches has something in common with allowing bullies a free rein. But this time those bullies play the victim. Their aggressive behavior is passive-aggressive. They go on and on about how they’ve been hurt, or not given their due, or how much they just want to love others but people aren’t nice to them. Poor me. Again, in churches we often give such people way too much free rein.

While our church may be talking a lot about issues like racism and white privilege or intolerance of sexual minorities or the evils of capitalism, we may miss the sin that is right under our nose. The sin that tends to make congregations not only ineffective, but so tiresome or chronically conflicted that many of our best and more mature people say, “forget it!,” or “who needs this?”

This past week in Session 5, we had a great conversation about, surprise!, Jesus, who he is and how he helps us. We worked in some on the Holy Spirit too. And just in time. This Sunday is Pentecost, our celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is an astonishing power for it is the power of God working in and through us, here and now and today. I’ll be preaching at the Joseph (Oregon) United Methodist Church and using the most recent episode of Ted Lasso to speak of the work of the Holy Spirit. Next week, I’ll probably post that sermon here.

In the meantime, be sure to be watching the powerful third season of Ted Lasso, which is all about the way grace works in our lives through other people to forgive and to restore. In the unlikely event that you haven’t gotten into the show yet, you’ll find it on Apple TV.

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