What Could I Have Done? A Call to Responsibility as Christian Leaders

Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

– 2 Corinthians 12:6-10

 

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This week I’ve been listening to a crime-expose, produced and distributed by The Australian Newspaper, called: “The Teacher’s Pet”.

Have you ever heard a news story so awful that it changed your whole mood and outlook, and yet for whatever reason you were compelled to dig deeper and learn more? I find stories of crime mesmerizing; and I know i’m not alone in this. For some reason which is difficult to identify, staring into that abyss of human evil is not only painful, it also fascinates us.

Teacher’s Pet is a true crime expose, uncovering the horrific culture of abuse and exploitation that was going on in a Sydney Northern Beaches high-school in the early 1980’s. In the wake of an enormously destabilizing “sexual revolution”, amid a culture where people were valued more for their bodies and “beach-worthiness” than for their being image-bearers of God; Sexual misconduct was normal enough that even though it was happening with the full knowledge of multiple authorities and members of the community, nothing of consequence was done about it and nobody seemed to care; even after it escalated to murder.

What strikes me most about these cultures of abuse which we have grown used to hearing about in the wake of the Royal Commision, is the bizarre combination of inordinate power afforded to community leaders, alongside a complete lack of personal responsibility in those leaders for anything.

On the one hand, for an abuser to effectively exploit a victim we would expect that they would need to be operating without any oversight, transparency, or accountability. You would think that say, a teacher in a public school with numerous agencies operating above them, and with limited authority and a public community that is constantly watching… it would be difficult for an abuser to operate over a span of years without being disciplined. You would be wrong.

In the story named above and sadly in many others, there was sufficient transparency that everybody knew the abuse was happening. There was sufficient authority in the hands of community leaders that something could have been done. And yet, nobody did anything of consequence to stop the abuse. As school principals, parents of victims, friends of perpetrators, fellow teachers, and even police officers are interviewed… one haunting phrase stands out more than any other: “What could I have done?”

The absurdity is palpable when in a school of approx. 1,200 students with a large teaching staff, in which abuse was common and known about. Not a single individual felt that they had the authority to actually do something about it.

This should challenge the conventional secular wisdom on cultures of abuse. That the power structures are too rigidly centralized. That greater visibility and democratization is needed. These sins were not committed for lack of visibility, or for any lack of accountability either. The abuse was sustained, not only because a few individuals had power in a given community. But because all of those who had any actual power to affect the situation, didn’t perceive the problem as being their responsibility. Which is it? Was there too much power in the hands of community leaders? Or perhaps not enough? Or could it be the case that irrespective of the power structure itself, human sinfulness can make the best (or rather worst) of either situation.

It would seem to me that a single principle, or deputy, or police officer, or even a parent wishing to escalate the issue and go to the media; likely could have blown the whistle loud and clear. And yet none of them apparently had the courage or gall to take a stand, exercise what power they did have, and say “enough is enough”.

And now, years on as the blood calls out from beneath the ground; as buried secrets come to light and sin comes home to roost. Those who once said “what can I do”, now bear the burden of a great and intractable guilt.

 

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I can’t help when I hear stories like this but consider how the gospel might come to bear on them. It’s this strange sickness I have where for some reason, some fanatical and obviously deranged part of me can’t help but look for Jesus in everything.

What might the gospel of grace say to those who now cannot carry the weight of personal guilt they feel for having done so little? How would the fear of the Lord have affected a sense of duty in those who ought to have intervened? How can Christian leaders demonstrate the Christ-like and humble exercise of authority? And why in so many occasions have Christians proved no better at preventing cultures of abuse than the world at large?

These latter questions are particularly biting when I consider my own life. A Christian leader, with some small authority in a very large organization. It is a sobering reality to reflect that people in my position have in past either been perpetrators of abuse, or passive enablers who probably remedied their own guilt with those same poisonous, five words: “What could I have done?”

The answer to that question should be obvious. You could have been a leader. You could have stood up to injustice. You could have been faithful.

But of course, this kind of critique is easy from afar.

Our primary question as we engage the subject of leadership is not “what ought others to have done”, but rather “what kind of leaders ought we to be”.

With that in view let me take a moment to reflect on the passage from two Corinthians above, as I make a few points about a Christian theology of leadership; which I hope looks neither like the brazen abuse of power, or the weak and bureaucratized abdication of responsibility already mentioned.

 

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Christian leaders are servants

Has it ever struck you that it is a rather strange thing to call our Church leaders “ministers”, and our Church work “ministry”. The word “minister” doesn’t actually mean leader, or king, or anything close; it means “servant”.

Notice that Paul doesn’t boast in himself. His boast is in Jesus, and he is secure enough in Jesus, that he himself can admit weakness. It often puzzles me that so often, those who attain positions of leadership in the world are so insecure. So unable to tolerate criticism and unwilling to admit weakness or failure. Then again, this makes sense I suppose if you see your own dignity and reputation as the most important thing in your life. Pursuing the gospel which makes Jesus look great is liberating, precisely because we can be free to admit weakness. We are only servants, we are not great or particularly important. We serve one another, because we serve a God who is himself a servant king.

In our life this has many implications but within any institution, it means that our own reputation, advancement, and success… must always take a back-seat to doing good. We must not be afraid of repercussions in our careers, in our relationships, or even in the Church itself when we speak out against injustice and evil. The reputation of Christ is not planted on lies or watered by deception. We are to be people of truth and light, exposing sin and calling it to account. If you lose your job in this life because you have called attention to harassment or abuse, then you can still feel glad. You have gained much more in Jesus for your integrity in the gospel.

 

Exercising leadership is important for all Christians

You might not think of yourself as a “leader” in the the Church but actually, in a Christian community we do not look for great power or titles to identify our leaders; we seek to be shaped and influenced by those who serve and live by example. In fact Paul even says that God’s power is made perfect in weakness! There is no such thing as a Christian who is too “weak” in their influence or stature to make a difference for the gospel. The same Holy Spirit who was at work in Paul, is also at work in every Christian.

We do have formalized forms of leadership, and of course the bible teaches that this order is right. There should be overseers, and specially appointed teachers, administrators and paid staff to watch over and maintain the Church as a whole. And yet, we also believe that there is an order which permeates the life of the Church all the way through, so that in some sense, everyone except perhaps our littlest infants are called to both lead and to be led by others. Older women lead and instruct those younger, likewise the men.

Formal or informal, what matters is that all of us take seriously our charge to be humble servants who follow, as well as being courageous leaders who take their call to follow Jesus personally; being wise with whatever measure of influence we do have. All of us who are saved by the gospel of truth, have a responsibility for the truth. To champion the gospel, to discern false teaching, and to denounce evil. Not one person in a Church community should ever say “what could I have done”, all of us who have the Spirit of light are responsible for shining a light on sin. 

 

We recognize that real power, is God’s alone

A Christian should never aspire to power, God’s power consists in our weakness. I am careful when I say this. I don’t mean that a Christian should never aspire to a formal position of leadership. What I mean is that Christians who recognize that God is in control, and that whatever else they might think people really aren’t, should see leadership as an opportunity to call attention to God’s authority; seeking to lead in obedience to his word and wisdom. We do not seek power, in fact we can never really have power. The only power is God’s, and he is sovereign over every moment of our lives. If we lead, it is by his will alone.

You might have heard the phrase “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. I think this is backwards. There is one absolute power and he is God, and he is not corrupt. Power in and of itself does not corrupt people. Power is inert in itself. Neither good nor bad, what matters is the person wielding it. Christians, believing in the universal sinfulness of all human-beings, should recognize that any human authority will wield power with some measure of corruption. All of us will find ways to sin within the system we are in. There is no way to distribute power so that human evil is no longer a problem; and yet there are ways to mitigate the worst behaviours of individuals.
What this means to us is that we should not buy into that thinking which says that human evil is only the result of rigid, normative, power structures. We do not have to deconstruct and democratize every aspect of human authority to pursue justice. In fact, I think it could be well demonstrated that the relative anarchy which arises when the hands of authority are tied can result in its own form of evil. When too much power is in the hands of too few, we see excesses and abuses on account of the sinfulness of the powerful. When too little power is in the hands of too many, we see evil proliferate in cultures of abuse wherein nobody has the authority to affect change.

Whatever system we are within. A Church episcopacy. A constitutional democratic monarchy. A McDonalds staff team. Whatever it may be; Christians recognize God’s authority and power over whatever authority structure they find themselves in. They acknowledge the reality of human sinfulness which which cannot be fixed on a deep level by any systemic intervention. And Christians commit to truth and justice, as far as they are able within the system they have received, not by turning the wheel of power this way or that, but by calling all people to repent and follow the real power. The one king. The risen Lord Jesus.

It is every Christian’s job to call out sin. It is every Christian’s job to call for obedience to God. It is every Christian’s job to speak the gospel of grace. I pray that you will be leaders. I pray that you will never ask when confronted with evil: “what could I have done”.

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