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EFAC Australia

Church Leadership

William Macquarie Cowper (1810–1902) was Australia’s first Australian-born clergyman. When Sydney Synod passed a motion unanimously to “place on record [the Synod’s] sense of the loss sustained by the Diocese, and its sincere appreciation of the valuable services rendered” he had served as a clergyman for sixty-six years, including forty-four as Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral.1

His exceptionally long ministry was dominated by the eternal future assured by Jesus Christ.Cowper

He learned this perspective from his parents, Rev. William and Ann Cowper. In 1827, they were prepared to endure the “painful separation” involved in sending their 16 year old to his university education in England for his own “great, and I trust eternal, advantage”, urging him to study everything “deemed likely to make [him] acceptable and useful among [his] fellow creatures for their eternal good.”2 By the time the 23 year old Cowper preached his first sermon after his ordination, on 15 September 1833 at Dartmouth, this eternal perspective had become his own. His chosen text showed that he was thinking of his ministry in the light of eternity: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” (Heb 13:17)3

He returned in 1836 as the Chaplain to Australian Agricultural Company and for 20 years his ministry was centered in Stroud. Here he helped establish gospel work in the northern parts of NSW and in what became the Diocese of Newcastle, as well as playing his part in wider issues of the colony, such as the public debates about education. Like many of his contemporaries, Cowper was deeply interested in education because it “involves alike the temporal and eternal welfare of the rising and all future generations”.4

“Since man, in his social and moral character, is what he is made by education, the question of his training, even as regards this world, assumes the very highest importance. How much greater still when we take into account the next?”

His time at Stroud came to an end after he lost his wife Margaret in October 1854, after a long and painful struggle with cancer. He drew inspiration from her own eternal perspective:

“Were it not for the faith which He has given me in His blessed Son—a faith which assures me that He will accept me, for the sake of that blessed Saviour who died to redeem me; were it not for this faith and this blessed hope, I should sink into utter despair and misery for ever.”5

As he left Stroud, the parishioners expressed their gratitude to one “who had for so long a period taken a deep interest in the present and eternal welfare of every member of the community”. Cowper, in turn, prayed that the Lord “may guide you in the path of life, and when your earthly pilgrimage is ended, may grant you all a place amongst his redeemed in glory!” His parting sermon (10 February 1856) looked towards eternity, since this occasion may well be “for the last time until we shall meet in the presence of our Great Eternal Judge”. His text was 2 Corinthians 6:1, and he spoke of the grace of God in the Lord Jesus Christ, turning to the famous look towards eternity found in John 3:16: that “whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have eternal life”.

When he moves towards his final exhortation, he spoke of the minister being entrusted with the mission to call people to accept salvation through Christ.

Naturally, therefore, he then called upon his congregation “in the name of the living God, […] the Fountain of all your hopes for eternity, not to receive the grace of God in vain.”6

In 1856, Cowper returned to ministry in Sydney, successively as the first (Acting) Principal of Moore College, St John’s Glebe, St Phillip’s Church Hill, and finally to St Andrew’s Cathedral as its first and longest serving Dean.7 In the early months of 1858, as he watched his father gradually fade, he noted that thoughts of “the great assembly of saints in the paradise of God, and the final triumph of the universal church with its Lord in Glory everlasting” were much on his father’s mind.8

Cowper’s eternal perspective came through strongly in funeral sermons. He confidently proclaimed the gospel light:

“which has shown us beyond all doubt, first, that there is a heaven of bliss, and secondly, by what means it is to be secured. Were it not for this revelation, what hope should we have to console us when mourning the death of friends, or to cheer us amid life’s manifold sorrows, or to support us under its burdens? None, my brethren, none whatever. A gloomy cloud would have enveloped the tombs of the departed, and fear and sadness would have rested upon every reflecting mind as it realized its own condition and dwelt upon its prospects. But how different now, is our lot, blessed as we are with the Christian revelation! Its declarations upon this subject are plain, simple, and unmistakable. It sets before us life and immortality as brought out from obscurity to light by the Gospel; it tells us that ‘as by man came death, by man came also the resurrection from the dead’.” [1 Cor 15:21] 9

The Dean explained that the Burial Service uses Revelation 14:13 in order, “to raise [our] thoughts from earth to heaven—from that which is mortal and corruptible to that which is spiritual and eternal; from the sighs and griefs of time to the rest and the joys of eternity.” When he summed up Richardson’s ministry amongst them, he reminded the congregation that “he sought to win your hearts to the Redeemer, and so to bring you to Him that when you should die, you might ‘die in the Lord’.”10 This reminder then led to Cowper making a personal appeal to the people, by asking what Richardson would say if he was able to address the assembled throng at his own funeral. Cowper was pretty sure he knew, and concluded by doing the same:

“Let me then urge this upon you in the spirit of love and concern for your everlasting welfare. And when the Saviour returns to gather His Saints unto Him, may we all be found among His sanctified ones and enter with Him into His eternal joy!” 11

In the first half of 1902, when Cowper faced his own final days, he had to endure five months of illness. When he was saying farewell to a friend, he said, “We shall all meet in a better world”.12 Cowper left this world in June, just short of his 92nd birthday. His coffin was placed in St Andrew’s Cathedral for the whole night before his funeral. It was bedecked with “white hyacinths, a fit emblem of ‘sure and steadfast hope’.”13 After a joyous service, he was taken through “a dense, sympathetic, and deeply respectful crowd” to Randwick, to be laid in the family vault. There the crowd sang his favourite hymn, whose words capture Cowper’s own perspective, which he considered so essential to life and ministry:14

Jesu, Lover of my soul,
let me to Thy bosom fly […]
Safe into the haven guide;
Oh, receive my soul at last.
[…]

Plenteous grace with Thee is found,
Grace to cover all my sin;
Let the healing streams abound;
Make and keep me pure within
Thou of life the fountain art;
Freely let me take of Thee;
Spring Thou up within my heart;
Rise to all eternity.

NOTES

1 Proceedings of the Second Session of the Twelfth Synod of the Diocese of Sydney, New South Wales, September 16th to September 23rd, 1902 (Sydney: William Andrews, 1902), 75. Emphasis in quotations mine.

2 W.M. Cowper, Autobiography & Reminiscences (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1902), 222–223. In all quotations, italics are my own.

3 W.M. Cowper, Sermon preached at Dartmouth, 15 Sept 1833 (Sydney Diocesan Archives: 1994/67/1)

4 W.M. Cowper, The Christian Training of Children by their Parents. A Sermon, preached in St Philip’s Church, Sydney, on the 11th January, 1852 (Sydney: Kemp & Fairfax, 1852), 5.

5 W.M. Cowper, A Brief Account of the Closing Period of the Life of Mrs W.M. Cowper, who departed to her eternal rest, at the Parsonage, Stroud, October 21st, 1854. Derived principally from memoranda made during her illness (Sydney: Reading and Wellbank, 1855), 6. See also J.M. Tooher, ‘Margaret Cowper (1806–1854): A Woman of Eternal Hope’, in E. Loane (ed.), Proclaiming Christ in the Heart of the City. Ministry at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney. Dean Cowper, Dean Talbot and Dean Shilton (Sydney: St Andrew’s Cathedral, 2019), 167–190.]

6 W.M. Cowper, A Sermon preached at Booral and Stroud, Port Stephens, on Sunday, February 10th, 1856, on the Occasion of His Resigning the Ministerial Charge of that District [2 Cor 6:1] (Sydney: Reading & Wellbank, 1856), 21, 24, iii, 5, 8, 14.

7 See my ‘William Macquarie Cowper (1810–1902): The First Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral’, in Loane, Proclaiming Christ in the Heart of the City, 49–90.

8 Cowper, Autobiography, 61–62.

9 W.M. Cowper, & W.H. Walsh, Two Sermons preached in St Mark’s Church, Darling Point, on Sunday, January 3rd, 1864, on the occasion of the death of Rev George Walter Richardson [Rev 13:14] (Sydney: Joseph Cook, 1864), 9, 10, 15

10  Cowper, Two Sermons, 15.

11 Cowper, Two Sermons, 16.

12 Cowper, Autobiography, 245.

13 Cowper, Autobiography, 248.

14 Cowper, Autobiography, 249.

Bishop Anthony Nichols died on 24 August 2019. This is an edited version of the eulogy his wife Judith gave at his funeral at St Lawrence’s Dalkeith, WA on 3 September 2019.

Anthony Nichols was born in Sheffield, Yorkshire to a working-class family. He never sought honours or preferment. Being a bishop did not define him as a person so there are no pictures here of him in clerical garb today. Like many people from Yorkshire, Tony took frankness to an Olympic standard, as many of you know. His dad was aspirational and liking the free-spiritedness of Aussie airmen with whom he served during the war, brought the family to Australia in 1947. They subsequently moved to Wollongong, an industrial city south of Sydney where Tony and his brother Roderick were educated.

Tony’s Christian journey began at 14 years of age when he was asked to teach Sunday School, so he thought he ought to read the Bible. The first text that gripped his heart was Ephesians 2:4-5, “but because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in our transgressions - it is by grace you have been saved.” The church he attended with his family was spiritually dead but he often claimed it was through the prayer book service that he learnt of the need to follow Christ wholeheartedly, for forgiveness through Christ’s death on the Cross and the absolute certainty of the resurrection of the dead and judgement when Christ returns. His university days laid a strong biblical foundation for his faith through the Christian Union and he was challenged by the opportunity to share the Gospel with overseas students. He was the first Caucasian member of the Overseas Christian Fellowship. He taught for 2 years at Temora in rural NSW where he established follow up bible studies after the Billy Graham Crusade because none of the churches were willing to hold them.

For this he was temporarily expelled from the Anglican Church.

In 1962 he went as a short-term missionary with CMS to the remote British colony of north Borneo, now Sabah, to teach at St Patrick’s Tawau—a small town surrounded by jungle with a coastline infested by pirates. While teaching he also founded a teachers’ Christian fellowship and established friendships that have lasted down the decades. (Tony returned to Sabah with Judith in 2012 to teach in a Bible College. He returned again in 2017 for the centenary of the church in Tawau whose congregation now numbers 3,000. Tony never despised the day of small beginnings).

From Tawau in 1962 Tony journeyed deck class on a cargo ship via Japan to Shanghai. He was temporarily arrested for distributing tracts. China occupied his imagination and he enrolled in courses in Mandarin on his return to Australia. He wondered how Christians could survive there and came back to Australia sick, emaciated and with tropical ulcers but determined to minister cross-culturally.

He entered Moore College to study for the ministry. Tony originally believed that he was called to a parish but with an eye to missionary service. However, he was asked to stay on at Moore College as a junior lecturer and his life took a different trajectory. We met at a friend’s wedding and married in 1968. Our marriage was an adventurous and loving one. But in all honesty, I can’t say that there was never a cross word. Tony’s interests were wide. He completed a Master’s in Education as he was interested in the rights of parents to choose schools in accordance with their beliefs whatever they may be.

In 1972 we set out with Elizabeth and Naomi for Salatiga in Central Java to teach at Satya Wacana Christian University. It was a dangerous time not long after the attempted communist coup. The best medical care then was of a pre-WWII colonial Dutch standard. Daniel and John were born there.

NicholsTony and Judith Nichols and family

One of our colleagues was murdered by jihadists and Tony and a fellow missionary took it in turns to fly to Jakarta to take services and live in the house where he had been stabbed.

We loved Indonesia and have had many opportunities to return there since to teach.

Tony was invited to become the Principal of Nungalinya Aboriginal Training College in 1981 preparing the first ordinands and community workers from a traditional background - a new culture had to be learnt. He was appointed as the result of a dream from the aboriginal students who overrode the decision of the white council. Tony adapted aboriginal learning styles to the teaching curriculum, and he developed a strong empathy with aboriginal people. During this time, he began his doctorate in Sheffield on translation of the Bible because he believed translation of the text often reflected a western mind set. Tony never thought of himself as an academic. He wrote well but never pushed himself to publish. However, in preparation for preaching and teaching the Bible he was indefatigable. He was a great letter writer with a ministry of encouragement.

Tony was called in 1988 to train cross-cultural workers at St Andrew’s Hall.

In 1991 he was elected Bishop of the North West.

There followed 12 years of endless travel, recruitment and seeking funds, preaching and teaching from Dongara to Kunanurra. Tony recruited wonderful people who taught the Bible and lived sacrificially; the diocese became Gospel focussed with a biblical ministry in each centre.

On retirement he taught at Trinity Theological College and attended Dalkeith Church where he preached regularly, led a weekly Bible study and ministered the gospel to children, teens and adults.

Tony had a strong social conscience, but he believed that the only way societies could change for the better was through the preaching of the Gospel. He also firmly believed in a liturgy that facilitated the learning of Scripture.

We miss Tony deeply, but Tony is now in the care of that same Lord who kept him safe during the air raids of Sheffield, communist insurgency in Sabah, arrests in China and Indonesia, crash landings, a mugging in Jakarta, riots in Indonesia. How much more is that same Lord Jesus keeping him safe now in his glorious presence.

Habit formation is part of how we are wired, but what place do habits play in Christian discipleship? Habit formation is part of how we are wired, but what place do habits play in Christian discipleship?

Ben Underwood is Associate Minister at St Matthew’s Shenton Park. Thanks to James Clear, DanGroenewald and David Brooks for some of the ideas in this article.

I suspect you don’t decide your life afresh every morning

How often do you wake up with the whole day stretching before you, without plans or obligations, ready for you to decide what you will do with the day as you lie there gazing at the ceiling? I suspect for many of us it is pretty much never. There’s always something to be done—right now, then after that, and after that all the way to dinner time and beyond. We live busy, planned, scheduled lives, and if you want to have any chance of shaping what you do this week, this month, this year according to what you really want, then you need to learn to get better at taking control of the routines of your life.

What do you want to be?

Suppose you want to be a mature Christian. You want to be someone with a good knowledge of the Christian faith, a strong involvement with a Christian community, and an attractive Christian character. How is this going to happen? Well, you are going to have be a person whose way of life is to learn the Christian faith, to be a committed member of a church and someone who reflects on themselves and their conduct humbly, puts off what is ugly and wrong, and puts on what is handsome and good. How will this happen? Spiritually speaking, this is the work of the Spirit of God, but we are told to ‘live in accordance with the Spirit’, to ‘walk by the Spirit’, and so we can pay attention to the very human activities of living and walking, which is to say the daily habits and routines of everyday life.

Identity: I am a person who learns their faith, who’s involved at church, who’s growing like Christ

Jesus and his apostles are keen in the New Testament to impress on Christians that they belong to God and that God will bring them to Christian maturity. ‘Now you are light in the Lord’, says Paul in Ephesians 5:8. If you see yourself as a musician, as someone who will play an instrument, and play it throughout their life, you are more likely to persevere in practice and go on to play long term and competently. If you believe what the Bible says about you as a Christian—that you are God’s dearly loved child (Eph 5:1); that God will teach you truth and reveal himself to you; that you belong amongst his people in the church; and that he will enable you to bear the fruit of the Spirit—then I suspect you are more likely to persevere in learning, churchgoing and repentance than otherwise.

Automate the habit so it becomes a powerful and enduring way of life

Suppose you want to embrace the identity that I am a person who goes to church—or, if you are a parent, that we are a family who goes to church. Prove it to yourself by turning up to church once. But then think about how you are going to automate the habit of going to church so that it is as much a part of your life as brushing your teeth. You might find it helpful to break down the habit into smaller habits and plan a sequence of habits that will become one powerful and enduring routine. If I need to leave at a certain time, what needs to happen in the hour beforehand to make departure as easy as possible? If we are going to be back at a certain time, what needs to be done so coming home again does not present problems that deflate me on arrival? You will need to anticipate what might disrupt this routine and plan what you will do about it when that happens. When someone asks you or your child to a social event that clashes with church what will you do? Because you are person who goes to church, this invitation will have to respect that reality. So maybe you will decline it. Or maybe you will go to church at a different time that day. But you are not the person who lets social occasions habitually trump church, because you are a person who goes to church. It is the way of life that is building you into a mature Christian and that is the core of who you are. There is more to think about, and in any case you won’t be perfectly consistent at church, but you will be consistent. Your habit will be going, not missing. And you will learn to live as the child of light that you are.

 

 

Claire sat across the table from her friend, the leader of an evangelical Anglican church near the rapidly-changing inner ring suburb that God had been laying on her heart.Gathering her thoughts, Claire began to speak. She excitedly laid out her vision for a new church that would engage with the highly diverse mix of people moving into the suburb. She shared about how God had begun drawing together a team who were eagerly praying with her about this new endeavour. To top it all off, she spoke about the affirmation she’d received when she communicated her vision to another church planter from a different denomination who had launched his own church in the same suburb several years before. Although his view of women’s leadership differed from Claire’s, he had greeted her overture with enthusiasm: “Terrific! There are heaps of people in this area who need to be reached for Jesus. I can even think of a few people currently involved in our church who would probably get on board with what you would do.”

Claire paused to draw breath and hear from her friend. But rather than shared excitement, it was like a bucket of ice had been dumped on the conversation — and their relationship. What Claire had anticipated as a moment of collegiality and convergence around a new mission initiative turned out to be anything but. Far from an opportunity to be welcomed, her announcement was treated as a threat by her friend. Instead of joining her in dreaming and strategising, Claire’s friend was worried about the families from his church who lived in the suburb Claire wanted to plant in. He didn’t say it out loud, but she could tell what he was thinking: “Sheep stealer!”

Her heart sank. Well, it would have if this conversation — and Claire — was real. It’s not. It’s an amalgam. But the emotional trajectory of the conversation is only too real. The announcement of a intentions to church plant is greeted with fear and defensiveness at least as often as it is by joy and excitement. Church planting is regarded by many among the leadership of established churches as a foe — or at least as unwelcome competition in the already-challenging work of fishing for people in shrinking pond. This sense of competition or antagonism is not helped by the cheerleading of some who promote church planting. Much of the romance and rhetoric around planting overplays its superiority.

In his seminal article, “Why Plant Churches?”, Tim Keller — the founder and key thought leader of City to City, the church planting network I work with — claims that “the only way to significantly increase the overall number of Christians in a city is by significantly increasing the number of new churches.” The argument Keller makes in support of this is not without merit and nuance, and the evidence for it is not wholly lacking. But it risks underestimating the effectiveness of and potential for spiritual renewal through healthy, established churches.

Most church planters are concerned to avoid the label of “sheep stealer,” and church planting agencies like Geneva Push are rightly committed to “evangelising new churches into existence” rather than depending on transfer growth. But the stats tell a messier story. Transfer growth is involved with almost every new church plant in some way— whether in the original core/launch team, or as fringe members of other churches come to check out the new church on the block. And more than one church planter would be able to tell you about missteps they’ve made in recruiting such people — and even thrusting them into leadership — without adequately consulting the leaders of the churches they hail from.

What is more, well-intentioned as they often are, church planters sometimes speak and act in ways that undervalue the ministry of established churches. In fact, some church planting looks like the old-school Protestant tendency to fracture and divide, dressed up in glad rags. Tim Keller calls this “defiant church planting.” His observation about the motivation for this kind of planting rings true in an uncomfortable number of situations I’m familiar with: “Some people in the church get frustrated and split away and form a new church — because there is alienation over doctrine, or vision, or philosophy of ministry.”

Without a doubt, there can be a thin line between (i) someone whose burden for reaching new people combines with a resolution to give that a go by trying something new (resulting in a church plant), and (ii) a dissatisfied assistant pastor who feels that things aren’t being “done right” by the leadership of their current church and who therefore starts something new in reaction to it.

Even the most noble and other-person centred church planters acknowledge the possibility of mixed motives — the human heart is mysterious and has depths that can conceal unrecognised ugliness!

It has been said that God frequently uses church planting to do at least as much work on and in the planter/s as through them (in this sense it’s a lot like cross-cultural mission work). From my own experience walking alongside church planters, almost all of them sooner or later are led to face and, in God’s kindness, repent of their tendency to fashion ministry around their own preferences.

An example: a planter can act on the assumption that their preferred style and shape of church experience is automatically what will resonate most with those they’re trying to reach. Sadly, such “missiology by mirroring” is unlikely to be resoundingly successful (believe me — I’ve tried). Worse, it typically flows from a lack of personal maturity and failure to lead as an equipper and empowerer of others in God’s mission. Significantly, however, the simmering hostility between new and established churches is not reduced by treating church planting as an enemy rather than a partner in the work of reaching people.

On the planting side of the equation, the data about multiplying church movements tells us that good relationships with a sending church (or better yet a whole group of churches who partner in sending out a church plant) make a massive difference to the health and likely longevity of a new church. In a sense, this should hardly be surprising. The New Testament authors link Christian unity and partnership with mission effectiveness on more than one occasion — no doubt taking their cue from Jesus, who makes this connection in his “high priestly prayer” in John 17.

So planters beware! You trash talk the ministry of established churches at your own risk. Not only do you face the danger of alienating potential mission partners — or, more prosaically, preachers who could step into the pulpit when you need to take a vacation (and you’ll need to take a vacation!). You also risk having to eat your words if and when in God’s grace your church plant becomes an established church itself. Even more dangerously, you put your soul at risk. And that’s not me being overdramatic. It was Jesus himself who said (Matthew 5.22):

“I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Whoever insults his brother or sister, will be subject to the court. Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be subject to hellfire.”

Nursing contempt, dismissiveness, and superiority in your heart is spiritually a very, very bad idea.

Equally, however, those who lead existing churches need to grapple with the fact that church planting is demonstrably good for the established church. There are well-documented benefits of church planting for existing ministries as well as the wider mission in an area. It’s not only church planters making this point (and believing their own hype). It’s also strategists and those who research trends in church life — both here and abroad. For instance, NCLS Research, who conduct the National Church Life Survey in Australia, have consistently found that newer churches (up to ten years old) have a higher than average proportion of “newcomers” — who are defined as people with no active connection to a church in the previous five years (so include both unchurched and dechurched people). According to their 2016 survey data, the nation-wide average across all types of churches is 6% newcomers. A 2015 study into church planting in the Diocese of Sydney, suggests that in newer churches that number jumps up to 13% — although the study notes that these numbers vary depending on the model of church planting adopted.

This may still feel like a relatively modest proportion of a church. Yet what would constitute a healthy proportion of newcomers is an interesting question to consider. Presumably not 100% (a church that was entirely “evangelised into existence” would have some very significant needs in terms of establishing and maturing all these new believers). It may not even be 50%. Those who study group psychology tell us that the dynamics of group cohesion mean that a fairly substantial majority who already “belong” is required in any group for it to be able to integrate new members well. As one church planter admits, “I don’t want transfer growth (but I probably need it in order for evangelism to lead to discipleship).”

Of course, it’s not the case that simply starting a new church is an ironclad guarantee of a solid showing of newcomers, let alone of fruitfulness in evangelism and disciple-making. The findings of a significant study undertaken by LifeWay in the US indicate that engagement in evangelistic activities — even simple and “old fashioned” activities like door-knocking — is strongly correlated with effective engagement with the unchurched. In other words, you’ve got to do something to engage and reach your community (and it may not matter so much what that something is).

Established and newer churches are on a level playing field here — with the odds possibly even slightly in favour of healthy, well-resourced established churches. Activating our congregations and mobilising their members in evangelism is a crucial task. It is a matter of both faithful discipleship and fruitfulness in mission - whether we’re in a new or an established church.

In this vein, there’s a strong case to be made that church plants contribute to the health and vitality of all the churches in an area.

On the one hand, the lessons new churches learn in seeking to reach and disciple people often find their way back to more established churches. Perhaps it’s the community-service strategy they stumble into as they scramble to secure a community grant or qualify to rent their preferred venue — without quite realising it, the new church’s credibility in the local community goes through the roof. Or maybe it’s the excellent kids program they run because they happen to have some gifted people in their launch team — families with young kids love it because they’re desperate for ways to break up their seemingly-endless weekend. Or maybe it’s the carefully-tracked social media campaign and letterbox drop ahead of the launch service — a deliberate attempt to experiment and learn what sort of community contact is most effective that can directly inform the strategies of established churches in the area. In all these ways and more, church plants can function as missional R&D departments.

This mirrors a lot of what leaders in the business world have observed about the transferability of lessons learned in a startup context. A recent Harvard Business Review report, for instance, argues that the agility, learning stance, and growth mindset that startups need for survival can benefit every type of business — especially given the rapid pace of change all companies are facing. In my view, little is different in the church. The incredibly rapid changes in the social position of the church in the wider culture prove potentially more disastrous if we fail to adapt, or adapt poorly.

On the other hand, churches that actively partner with new church plants frequently report significant benefits — even amidst the pain and grief of giving away people and resources. Whether it’s by becoming a “parent,” sending out a new church plant, or by some other kind of partnership — e.g., sending some members to join or temporarily serve in the plant — it hurts to let go of core, motivated leaders (or potential leaders). Things never feel the same in an established church after commissioning and sending off people. But the space it creates can allow new leadership to emerge, new things to be tried, and new connections to be forged. Even if it can never compensate for it perfectly, the new opportunities created by releasing people can be meaningful — and are never lost in God’s economy.

In conclusion, may I humbly suggest that those on both sides of the church planting vs existing ministry divide would find it worthwhile to meditate on the words of Nathan Campbell:

“The reason it’s scary to hear about a schmick new church plant led by cool people with great ideas is because we’re (and by we I mean me) often insecure about what we bring to the table, and to our city... focusing on the size of the mission field and trying to reach lost people, rather than the limited pool of human resources around, is the best way to get a bit of perspective about this insecurity.”

All of us need to cultivate a bigger vision for mission to overcome our sense of competitiveness and insecurity — whether about the prospect of a new church plant in our “patch” or about the existing churches that don’t seem to share our enthusiasm for what we’re talking about starting (and, reality check, no-one shares your enthusiasm for it to the extent that you do). Many of us enthusiastically preach on Jesus’s instruction to ask the Lord of the harvest to raise up workers. But if we’re honest we probably prefer to see them raised up within our ministry, where (as God knows!) the need is real and the resources always feel scarce. Nevertheless, the Father who sends his Son in the power of the Spirit for the sake of the world in the overflow of love, is not threatened by scarcity. Indeed, Jesus endured the ultimate scarcity and deprivation, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on our behalf on the cross. The perfectly rich and free Lord of creation became poor and subject to death in order to bear the deprivation and judgement due us for turning from our Creator. And it is only to the degree that this fills our hearts that we’ll be able to lift our eyes from our apparent scarcity — as a planter or an established church leader — and see each other as collaborators rather than competitors.

You can check out a full interview with Chris here: https://youtu.be/HOcKBK1kVJE

How Does a Church Come to Terms With Revelations of Abuse by a Leader?

This article was prompted by some behaviour disclosures in the UK. Details (and a longer article by the author) can be found at walkingwith.uk. Christopher Ash is Writer-in-Residence at Tyndale House, Cambridge.

I recently wrote a blog post asking in general terms, how we should respond when a church leader falls. This paper follows on from that and asks the more specific question: how does a church come to terms with revelations of abuse by a leader? My general reflections in the previous blog post still apply. But I want to consider the more particular, and distressing, situation where there has been abuse.

In 1 Timothy 5:19, the apostle Paul writes, “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” Referring back to an Old Testament law, the expression “two or three witnesses” is a Bible idiom for careful and independent attestation of the truth of the accusations. This acknowledges that false accusations are sometimes levelled at church leaders. This paper is written for a situation where the facts have been established.

This paper is limited. It does not seek to address three vital questions. First, how ought we to comfort, love, and help victims of abuse? This is of paramount importance, but I am not addressing it here. Second, what lessons need to be learned by a particular church or denomination or Christian agency? That is to say, are there previously unrecognized elements in the culture of the church (or mission agency or para-church ministry) that may have allowed abuse to take place? Third, following from this, what can be done to guard – as best we possibly can – against any repetition of this abuse? While recognising that no church can ever be completely safeguarded, we will want to put in place every possible good safeguarding practice. This too I have not attempted to cover in this paper.

My reflection is in three parts. First, I want to focus on the dangers to our own hearts in even engaging in this response. Then I shall try to help us come to terms with the disorientation and even disillusion that may result from disclosures of abuse. Finally I seek to point forwards in terms of our corporate lament and prayer life.

A. We need to guard our own hearts…

Revelations of abuse arouse in us first disbelief and then dismay, shock, and horror. We rightly distance ourselves from abusive behaviours and see how terribly wrong they are. And yet the moment we do this we are in great danger. I want to suggest three dangers against which we must guard ourselves.

1. …against self-righteousness

There can be no place for self-righteousness (Luke 18:9-14). The danger with expressing our horror and revulsion at abusive behaviours is that we slip into a pharisaic smug complacency, thanking God that we are not guilty of these sins. We must not do this. We have not, please God, been guilty of, or complicit in, the abuse that may have been uncovered. But there are many sins of which we have been guilty. We have been proud, we have been self-centred, we have cherished idols, we have loved the praise of people, we have indulged in lust, we have given space to greed in our hearts, we have been lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, and in many other ways we have sinned. We need deeply to repent. This scandal ought to move us to a fresh and honest repentance of our own sins. We stand before God as sinners forgiven in Christ; we have nothing of which to be proud, and we never shall.

2. …against an unhealthy interest

In the context of a Christian being “caught in...transgression,” Paul exhorts his readers: “Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). We may not be tempted by the ugly features of any particular abuse. But it is easy to gossip and, especially when (as often) abuse may have sexual content or sexual overtones, there is a terrible danger of indulging a prurient interest and wanting to know more and more. But sinful behaviour of any kind sticks to us like dirt; knowing about ugly actions is a little like pornography; it lurks in our memories and drags us down in our thoughts and emotions. Rather we need afresh to hear the exhortation, “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

3. …against a twisted gladness

When Judah came under the judgement of God at the time of the Babylonian exile, the prophets have a special word of condemnation for the Edomites, who cheered on the Babylonians and rejoiced at the disaster that befell Judah. “But do not gloat over the day of your brother in the day of his misfortune; do not rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their ruin,” warns Obadiah (Obadiah 12). Schadenfreude is the German word that expresses this twisted delight when something bad happens to someone else. This too is a danger for us, and perhaps especially when a Christian leader falls. While the event of a leader’s fall is sobering, the responses to that fall can be darkly revealing about those who respond with something approaching gloating. Hidden agendas, long-nursed resentments, can surface at such a time. We need to guard our hearts against this.

B. We have to face our deep disorientation and even disillusion and trust afresh in Christ alone.

The shock of all revelations of abuse is peculiarly acute when the one whom they concern has been a blessing to many; this is so often the case when a church leader is guilty. How can something so good be intimately associated with something so evil, and all bound up in the same person? It is deeply disorienting to find that a man (for it is usually a man) we thought we knew, perhaps the man some looked up to as a father-figure1, is not the man we thought he was. It feels like the foundations are being taken away from beneath us. There is a painful sense of loss, akin to a bereavement. How are we to make any sense of this apparently senseless coming together of good and evil in one person?

One immediate response is perhaps to remind ourselves of the depth and extent of our sinful depravity. The heroes of faith in the Bible are flawed people; even the great and pious King David committed adultery and was complicit in murder (2 Samuel 11). Solomon had great wisdom and failed terribly. We too are deeply sinful even as regenerate people (Romans 7). This is true. Any one of us is capable of committing all manner of terrible sins. And, if we think we are not in such danger, we need to take heed lest we fall (1 Corinthians 10:12).

But while this is true, it does not entirely explain the particular tragedy of abuse by a church leader. What I think we need to grapple with is how good things and evil things can be very close. We are talking about the deceitfulness of sin.

Let us begin with a wholesome model of pastoral care. A pastor who is a more mature believer in Christ takes a younger believer under his (usually ‘his’) care. He prays for them. He instructs and encourages them. He keeps in touch with them. He meets with them and, in the context of friendship, exhorts them to keep on following Jesus faithfully. Many a young person has been grateful to God for such pastoral care; I am myself, from those leaders who mentored and encouraged me early in my Christian life.

But then extrapolate from this. Perhaps the loving care is so intense that the friendship becomes a little exclusive. The older believer begins to think of this younger believer as ‘his’ – not only his pastoral responsibility, but his prerogative, so that no one else is really allowed to encourage this younger person in their faith. It is perhaps not difficult to see how a wholesome pastoral care might metamorphose into something much darker, and the younger man ends up being used for the purposes of the older pastor rather than the older pastor sacrificially serving the younger disciple. Who knows what are the thoughts and intentions of the heart in this process? Probably the leader is not fully aware himself, such is the deceitfulness of the human heart.

What might be the warning signs of this dark exchange? Exclusivity might be one. Favouritism might be another. When there is a perception that some are ‘the favoured ones’ and others are not, danger lurks.

C.S.Lewis2 makes the point that it is precisely in the human experiences that most closely approach the character of God that we are most at risk of confusing them with God. He uses the analogy of being almost home at the end of a ramble, but finding ourselves at the top of a cliff overlooking our home. On the map we are close to home, but in reality we have a lot of walking still to do. Lewis applies this to erotic love and patriotic love for one’s country, both of which are like God’s love and yet very far from it. Perhaps in a slightly similar way, the kind of close and affectionate pastoral care that approximates the care of Jesus our Good Shepherd may begin to arrogate to itself the prerogatives of authority and influence that belong properly to Jesus alone.

And so, by a diabolical alchemy, something wholesome and nourishing metamorphoses into something abusive.

But even if we can slowly begin to grasp something of how the abuse might have happened – and such a grasp will be at best tentative, for we cannot see the heart of another – even then we need to face the frightening fear that the blessings we thought we had experienced through this leader might not be true blessings at all. Might they not be in some way invalidated by these revelations, tainted beyond recovery by the sin with which we now know they were associated? These are truly frightening questions, for the blessings we are considering concern salvation and eternal destiny.

Paul encourages Timothy to “continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it,” presumably meaning Timothy’s godly mother and grandmother, and indeed the apostle himself (2 Timothy 1:5; 3:14). As Timothy remembers the godliness and integrity of those from whom he learned faith in Christ, he is encouraged to continue on the path of faith. But what if we discover that one from whom we learned the things of Christ did not have the integrity and godliness that we thought he had? Is that not deeply disturbing? It is.

And yet we must come back to the fundamental truth that

the blessings we have – all the blessings we have – come to us through and in Christ, and Christ alone, in whom there is no sin, in whose life we see pure goodness, unbroken sacrificial service of others, and the polar opposite of each and every kind of abuse.

Repeatedly the scriptures warn us not to put our trust in people other than God and his Christ. “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes” warns the King in Psalm 118 (Ps.118:9). “Put not your trust in princes,” warns the psalmist in Psalm 146, for blessing comes only to the one “whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God” (Ps.146:3- 5).

So, while it is a good thing, and an encouraging and reassuring experience, when those from whom we learned the things of Christ prove to be godly and to have integrity, it is not essential. Writing from prison to the church in Philippi, Paul is sad that “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry”; but he takes comfort that, whatever their motives – whether bad or good – “Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Phil.1:15-18). The channels through whom we hear the good news of Jesus will never be perfect; sometimes they will prove deeply flawed, whether through bad motives (as in Paul’s day) or even through the ugliness of abuse. But the blessing comes from Jesus Christ, and no flaws in the channel can take away from us the sheer goodness, beauty, and kindness of God given to us in Jesus.

The reformers grappled with a similar question. Article 26 of the 39 Articles of the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England is entitled, “Of the unworthiness of ministers.” In it we read this: ALTHOUGH in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ's, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving of the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God's gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ's institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.

The article goes on to say, “Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally being found guilty, by just judgement be deposed. ”

But for our purposes the point is this: the blessings of the gospel (in the preached word and also signified in the gospel sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper) are effective in our lives “because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men”.

Suppose someone came to faith in Christ through the ministry of this leader, or someone else looks back to a signal time of growth in grace and faith through his preaching, or another is in Christian ministry or cross-cultural mission because of this leader’s encouragement. How are these now to view their conversion, their growth in grace, or their being in Christian ministry?

The answer I think is this: they may be grateful to God for his overwhelming kindness to them, that God appointed a channel through whom they heard the gospel, through whom they grew in grace, through whom they entered ministry. Nothing about any of those blessings is invalidated by the subsequent sad discovery of the flawed behaviour of this leader, for all these blessings rest upon Christ and not one of them rests on the character of this leader or any other leader.

There may need, for some, to be a period of painful readjustment. We may need to hear afresh the admonition not to put our trust in “princes” (including Christian leaders), perhaps to repent if our trust has become mixed, with some of it focussing unhelpfully on a leader, but in the end to take fresh comfort from all that is ours in Christ.

C. We lament together, repent together, and are humbled together under the mighty hand of God.

I want to conclude with a brief reflection that focuses on the church of Christ corporately.

When the Old Testament church, the assembly of the covenant people of God, came under God’s judgment in the Babylonian exile, those who were true and even blameless believers were caught up in the judgement with those who were arrogant idolaters. We hear the voices of these true believers in a number of places. In Psalm 79, for example, provoked by the destruction of the temple and the sack of Jerusalem (verse 1), this godly Spirit-inspired psalmist grieves when the surrounding nations taunt them all with the mocking question, “Where is their God?” (verse 10). It is said to him also; it is not said only to those whose idolatry had provoked the exile. In his prayer in Daniel 9:1-19, the godly Daniel laments the “open shame” that has come “to us” (verses 7,8) for we have all “become a byword among all who are around us” (verse 16). The godly Nehemiah laments that, because of the ungodliness of the people, “we are slaves” (Neh.9:36); all of us come under the shadow of this disciplinary judgement of God, whether or not we have individually and personally been guilty of covenant-breaking and idolatry.

When abuse from a church leader is exposed, we must expect that the whole church of Christ will be reviled. We will be taunted as hypocrites. We will be laughed at when we seek to speak of godly virtue and the law of God. We should not be surprised when this happens. Some who are lifelong enemies of the gospel of Christ will use these sad events as a vehicle to make life miserable for the church of Christ. Others – and this is more tragic – who might have seemed to be seeking and to have a genuine interest in Christian faith, will be driven away from a message whose messengers now seem to them to be hypocrites or worse.

All this is desperately painful and we must expect it to be so. As believers did after the exile, we too may learn to lament together for the desperate and sad state of the church of Christ. We grieve for the victims and seek to love and care for them as best we can. We grieve for the honour of Christ.

And yet, even as we lament and repent afresh of our own sins, we still claim and hold on to the promises of God. For Jesus Christ has said he will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matt.16:18). That promise stands on the darkest day. So let us encourage one another to hold more firmly yet to the gospel of Jesus Christ, in whom is our only hope.

REFERENCES

1. Incidentally, the whole concept of a “father figure” is fraught with danger. While it is true that Paul can address Timothy as “my beloved child” (sc. in the faith, 2 Timothy 1:2; cf. 1 Corinthians 4:15), we need to heed the warning of the Lord Jesus to “call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9). This warning needs, at least metaphorically, to be emblazoned above the office of every pastor.

2. C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (London: Fount Paperbacks, 1977). pages 10-12.

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