In the span of about ten minutes this morning, two friends shared with me three or four examples of people they knew who had suffered "spiritual abuse" at the hands of certain church leaders. The examples given were outside my particular faith community, and though the Seventh-day Adventist church certainly sees its share of "spiritual abusers," something suddenly dawned on me.
I know there are many within our ranks who lament over our church structure. They want more independence on the local level, with less involvement from the higher levels. More money should stay locally, etc., etc. But I don't know how many times I have been extremely appreciative for the fact that the Seventh-day Adventist church is organized the way that it is. Among other things, I believe our church structure does a fairly good job of weeding out spiritual abusers.
This is not meant to be arrogant back-slapping on my part. As I said earlier, I do recognize that there are problems that inherently surface in any church. Adventism is, by no means, immune from these problems. But I believe that our structure is set up in a way so as not to perpetuate the ever present component in the human heart to covet power. Hear me out for a second. . .
There are basically three types of church structures (and please forgive me for simplifying this). There is the Episcopal structure, which places much of the power in the hands of a bishop or bishops. The Roman Catholic church, Anglicans, and Lutherans are examples of this type of church governance.
More relevant to many Evangelical churches, there is the Congregational model, and the Presbyterian model - of which the Seventh-day Adventist church subscribes. Most Evangelical churches have some type of congregational government, and I believe this is largely to blame for much of the "spiritual abuse" that takes place (as was the case with all of these examples that my friends shared with me). Essentially, although there is a local board that ultimately governs a congregational church, if the local pastor can coax enough people to his side, he can, for all intense and purposes, "control" the church. Thus, the pastor's goal is far too often to learn how to manipulate, cajole, or do anything he can to gain power for himself.
This is even easier for the pastor who starts his own church. Because he is autonomous, and is not really accountable to any other human being, he figures out what he needs to do to control the masses that are coming to worship at his new church. The pastor becomes the arbiter and final authority on what can and cannot happen. Coupled with the fact that the more people he can get to attend his church, then the more money he can pad his wallet with, and one can see how dangerous a congregational model can be.
I don't think that it is a coincidence that all of the megachurches are non-denominational, congregationally-based churches. The pastor is the church. Bill Hybels is Willow Creek. Rick Warren is Saddleback. Joel Osteen is Lakewood. This is not to say that these men are wicked or they have bad intentions. It is to say that they know what they are doing. Neither is it to say that many pastors, when they set out to start a new church, have these motives in mind. But the heart is deceitful above all things (Jer 17:9), and the more a person tastes a little bit of power, the more power he wants. And when such a person abuses others "spiritually," it is a devestating fall (Jim Jones, anyone?).
I am glad that in the Seventh-day Adventist church, it doesn't matter how many members I have; how many churches I pastor; or whatever else is involved. I get paid what I am going to get paid, and it doesn't change based on how many people I impress or don't impress, or other circumstances. And, on many levels, my success in the minstry is not necessarily based upon how many people I can make happy or influence, or which big church I can convince to take me as pastor. Granted, this does happen. But, at least hypothetically, my ministry is based more upon external circumstances; about other men and women prayerfully considering where I should be placed as a minister next.
Congregational churches inherently attract a "maverick" mentality, and there are no true checks-and-balances that can address some of these challenges. If a pastor in the congregational model ruffles enough feathers in his present church, he might be driven out of town, but he can still go somewhere else and start pastoring another church, or perhaps even start his own (if all else fails). This, of course, happens sometimes within Adventism, but structurally, I don't believe that it is the inherent byproduct that it is in a congregational model.
This is why I think it would be a grave mistake for Adventism to become more congregationally oriented. Yes, the ultimate "power" is in the local congregation, but if we were to go down that route we would be setting ourselves up for more spiritual abuse, more power grabbing, more irresponsible autonomy. And, more than that, we would lose site of the fact that this is, indeed, a global movement. Just as democracy, though not perfect, is the best model of secular government we have, so, too, the Presbyterian/democratic model is the best model we have of church governance.