The harsh words laden with angry flew from the preacher’s mouth, flowed through powerful overhead speakers and dripped on the thousands seated in the church. This wasn’t the first time he’d used guilt to promote godly behavior; it wasn’t the first time he’d remonstrated his listeners for their failings, but it was the first time I decided something was wrong. With me.
I’d experienced shunning over a book selected for study in an unofficial small group in a previous church, and now I was listening to an equally angry pastor—at least this one didn’t know what I’d read. What in me was attracted to another judgmental pulpit thumper? I cut myself some slack as this pastor wasn’t the one that attracted me to the church; he had left the staff about a year ago. But I was in another unhealthy environment and wanted to understand how I got there.
At the start, the process appeared to be quick and painless. Several years, multiple counseling sessions, not a few books, and reams of Kleenex later, the process continues. What I’ve gained is understanding about myself and others that will better guard me against the pull of toxic leaders.
The first protection is self-awareness. While we become new creations at conversion (2 Corinthians 5:17), there remains much within us still in need of transformation. We must acknowledge these wounded places and the protective measures we employ. Each of us is charged to continue to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12-13) and stay in the growth process. For it is in the process of uncovering these wounds and letting God heal the pain that we become less susceptible to following or becoming an unhealthy counterbalance for our weaknesses.
Second protection: study the life of Jesus and how he conducted himself. Then examine your church leaders. In my setting I asked, “Can I envision Jesus saying the words coming from their mouths? Would Jesus demean those who are immature in their faith or hold back those who ask questions and seek intellectual understanding? Would Jesus prey on people’s emotions and wounded places to advance his ministry?” Learn how the authentic Shepherd calls his sheep and cares for them, then you’ll recognize a powerful but misguided voice when you hear it.
Third protection: study the New Testament’s accounts of the first-century churches. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians emphasize the oneness and equal value of each member of the body of Christ. Read through Acts and see the deep love Paul had for the churches he planted, particularly in Ephesus and Philippi. Does love characterize your pastor’s relationship with his flock?
In Galatians Paul reprimands them for falling back into legalistic practices and forgetting the grace which saved them. James scolds Christians for favoritism toward the rich and powerful. Paul challenges Timothy to choose godly leaders, deal rightly with false teachers and care for the widows. Treasure the Bible’s honesty about problems in the first churches, then find out how your church deals with them.
If we do the work necessary to raise our self-awareness and protection, we’ll be less likely to step into a toxic situation whether for the first time or the third. The work to know ourselves and God’s ideal is a continuous venture that bears rich rewards like greater discernment and knowing a healthy church when you see one.