Church Poker: How to Choose a Church – or at Least Spot a Bad One!
There’s an old saying that if you ever find the perfect church whatever you do, don’t join because you’ll only ruin it! Of course that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for a good church to belong to, although our ideas of ‘good’ may change from culture to culture and from person to person. For one person the freedom of charismatic worship, for another the solemnity of formal communion. These are not primary issues in making a good church choice and we should always respect sisters and brothers in Christ whose style may be different to our own.
But if style isn’t the deciding factor what can help us work out if a congregation is being well-led or badly led, and hence whether it is a safe or unsafe place to be?
In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul spends a lot of time justifying his ministry and his message to the church that he planted because, in his absence, others have come along and started teaching a different Gospel. The theological issue is that they claim supremacy of the Hebrew law over grace in Christ, and Paul is having none of it. But what I found interesting is that in the last four chapters of the letter he does this funny thing which is to attack the false teachers with endless sarcasm, ridiculing the habits and values they extol. This is really cool because it gives us insight into the leadership style of these false teachers as we ‘reverse read’ Paul’s outburst. I call these the ‘poker tells’ of a bad church - you know the little things on the side which tell you when things are not as they should be.
The First Tell comes in chapter 11 verses 7-12; it is an unhealthy attitude to money. Paul compares himself to the false teachers contrasting his apparent lack of professionalism with their ministry which obviously brought them considerable financial reward. Paul cost the Corinthian church nothing because he was supported by believers elsewhere, so the contrast must be that the false teachers made sure that they earned a good living because “they were worth it”.
Now remember in chapter 8 and 9 of this letter Paul is appealing to the Corinthian church to be generous in giving financial aid to the church in Jerusalem, so the issue is not about a church leader asking the congregation for money, but it is about what the pastor chooses to do with that money. Churches where people parade their ‘blessing’ by driving their Porsches to prayer meetings; or where propaganda encourages every member to become a millionaire so long as they give regularly; or where luxury becomes the acceptable norm. These things should be warnings to us that the church is not as it should be.
The Second Tell comes in chapter 11 verses 16-21; it is an unhealthy attitude towards power - the false teachers “enslave, exploit, take advantage, push themselves forwards or slap you in the face”.
This is not about authority… it’s about abuse! The whole point of Paul’s letter is about setting the record straight on his authority because with Paul’s reputation lies the reputation of the gospel of grace that he preached. Paul is talking here about deliberate manipulation of people to serve the purposes of those who are in authority. It may be with Paul’s ‘slap in the face’, but it is as likely to be with quiet emotional manipulation, or an obsession with hierarchy or chauvinism, and often served up with just enough of the right language to make it sound plausible.
All of us are fragile human beings and some of us sadly find our security only in our status or our exercise of power over others. Beware! My old friend Hartmut talks about church ego: the church being driven to division by people whose ministry has now become their source of self-esteem in place of confidence in Christ.
The line between good authority and unhealthy control can sometimes be hard to spot, but our congregations should be places where we see the marginalised loved, the young nurtured and all people built up lovingly into maturity in Christ.
The Third Tell comes in the first part of chapter 12 and is to do with an unhealthy attitude towards fame!
Paul deals here specifically with people who claim a spiritual superiority over others; something which makes them a little bit ‘more special’ than the average seat-warming congregation member. We may not have the same issue in our churches, but we should watch out when people seem more concerned for their fame or their particular gifts than for the glory of God: people rushing to lead worship because it panders to their egos; people with no knowledge of New Testament Greek sitting as if reading the Greek text in church; people boasting of their experience or training or connections. You know the stuff. It is what happens when something that could and should be good and for the benefit of the people of God instead turns into something that someone uses for their own own fame and glory.
These are the three tells. What they indicate above all else is that the church culture has based its self-esteem on the worldly values of wealth, power and fame. In contrast, Paul’s counterculture sees money, leadership and gifts only serving to bring attention and glory to Jesus.
It’s a helpful thing to be aware of when we’re looking for a church to belong to. It is also incredibly helpful for us to be aware of when we have a role or responsibility within the church. What is my motivation? How can I prayerfully safeguard my opportunities to serve Jesus against the sinfulness of my own heart? How can I pray for those in leadership in my church?