Why you must speak up

Abuse of power is a hot topic these days. And church leaders are able to misuse their authority just as much as anyone else. We believe ‘all have sinned and fall short…’.

In the congregational form of church government (see Matthew 18.15-20), the church meeting acts as the final court of appeal. The elders, or leaders, have a certain authority in the church (Heb. 13.17), but it is an authority subject to the word of God and to the church. Hence it is the gathered church which appoints elders and to whom they must answer if they go astray (1 Tim. 5.19, 20). So the church meeting provides a mechanism for checking and balancing the leadership’s power. It is, I suppose, similar to the House of Lords, which can return Parliamentary Bills to the Commons with the message to ‘think again’.

In a climate which is now extremely sensitive to the misuse of power, the church meeting needs to be healthy and strong – not simply an exercise in ‘rubber stamping’. Other forms of church government do have checks and balances, but congregationalism enables a church to self-correct and to do so speedily – which is a blessing. For good church

government therefore, members must be people who feel able to speak up and express their thoughts. This requires a loving atmosphere. We need churches in which people can voice different points of view (on non-essentials) and yet agree to disagree without recriminations.

What goes wrong?

Healthy discussion in the church meeting is often absent these days. Why is that?

First, it can arise from a good motive. Perhaps the church has known a period of blessing under the leadership – praise God – and there is a genuine desire on the part of members not to disturb that. But the trouble is that it can easily spill over into keeping quiet even when members know that things aren’t right.

Second, it can arise when members are simply a group of shy people and the leadership has never, gently but persistently, encouraged them to take responsibility and contribute to a church meeting. Maybe the leadership simply feel that if they don’t drive the meeting nothing will ever get done.

Third, silence reigns when members are too busy elsewhere, and just want to get meetings over with and get home.

Fourth, silence can arise through a mistaken view of spirituality which brings fear. To raise a question is not the same as being a grumbler. To raise a question is not to threaten the unity of the church. To raise a question is not to be disloyal to the leadership – it may actually come from a desire to help them.

Fifth, silence can prevail because of unhelpful church members who just love the opportunity to sound off belligerently at the leadership (much to everyone’s unhappiness). And so, sadly, anyone with questions fears being tarred with the same brush – troublemaker.

Sixth, of course, and most importantly, it can arise from the pride and ‘micro-management mindset’ of an eldership which feels they must control the church rather than nurture it. They are a leadership which needs to be seen to be ‘right’ all the time or else they think their authority is undermined. They find means to censor or manipulate what can and can’t be said at the meeting.

In all these ways we really have the church being silenced and that can turn into a low-level form of spiritual abuse. In such a situation ostracism is often the result of challenging anything.

The red box

Actually, the deafening silence robs a church. We learn through having our ideas or the way we do things challenged. Even secular companies have the sense to see this.

The Toyota car company in Japan, being concerned for continual improvement, painted a red box on the assembly line floor. It was a safe zone, where you were free to say what you felt needed saying without any comeback. Employees, especially new ones, were encouraged to stand in the box and make criticisms of what happened in the factory. This was a key part of Toyota’s success.

Is there any mechanism like that for your church? The members’ meeting ought to be something of a red box.

John Benton

John Benton is Director of Pastoral Support at The Pastor’s Academy, www.pastorsacademy.org

Photo: iStock

One thought on “Why you must speak up

  1. Reblogged this on JohnAllman.UK and commented:
    John’s piece sets out an important principle. At this point in history, it has a potentially controversial application, so his raising of the matter is very timely.

    This year, the secular government forced the leaders of every church in the land to take prompt and draconian decisions, without consulting the rank-and-file congregants of their churches at any sort of meeting. I am referring to the decision whether the church lockdown sought to be imposed fell within the God-given remit of “Caesar” set out in Romans 13 (and was therefore to be obeyed), or was akin to the prohibition placed upon Peter and John mentioned in Acts 4:18 (and therefore to be disobeyed, replying to the authorities in the same terms as Peter and John replied to the “Rulers of the people and elders of Israel” – verse 8 – in Acts 4:19).

    Twenty-two clients of Christian Concern, predominantly in positions of church leadership, brought a test case in the state’s courts in June, challenging the secular legality of the government’s church lockdown. When, last week, I applied for the court’s permission to give evidence and to make representations in that case, I learned that the case had been disposed of by way of a consent order behind closed doors. I have asked the court, the solicitor for the claimants and the Government Legal Department for a copy of that final outcome. The Christian Concern website continues to publish that this is still a “current” case.

    My evidence in support of my application to participate in the proceedings that, unbeknownst to me, had been closed with an outcome that the parties seem to want to keep secret, highlighted a difference between the interests of clergy and those of laity (so-to-speak). I feel that difference of interests feeds into the decision how to apply the wisdom that John has rightly exhorted in this most timely meditation of his.

    I wrote [sic]:


    The Claimants are predominantly in positions of leadership, office and/or influence within particular
    churches of a particular type. They are so-to-speak a sample of the clergy, though not numerically
    representative of all clergy in the UK as regards their churchmanship.

    During the lockdown, I searched high and low for a church that continued to meet, despite the regulations that I judged at the time were unlawful, for more-or-less the same reasons as are now pleaded by the Claimants. I sought out local churches all of which I had previously attended, including Anglican, Baptist, Pentecostal, Brethren and Eastern Orthodox – types of churches I had attended locally in recent years.

    I am a lay Christian, with a loyalty to Christ rather than to this or that church. I am a fairly good
    representative example of the Christian laity as a whole. The adverse affect of the impugned decision
    upon me and the rest of the laity isn’t identical with its adverse affect upon the Claimants. It would add
    value and save costs if separate counsel [to] represented me directly at the trial of the lawfulness of the
    regulations, and hence indirectly represented the separate interests of all lay Christians in the process.


    The original legal papers are here:

    My application to give evidence and to make representations is here:

    As things stand, my application isn’t being processed, because the court has “closed” the case, but the public and the media has not been told this. However, the subject matter is not closed as far as I am concerned. When I have more to tell, I’ll post an update on my blog, JohnAllman.UK.

    In the words of the barrister who spoke for me at the Birmingham trial of Birmingham City Council v Afsar (a case about RSE in which we and the public won, although the three named Muslim defendants lost), “losing is winning”. When a secular judge hears a righteous cause pleaded, the secular law is on trial, against the criteria of Romans 13, and God’s holy purposes are served, even if the secular judgment goes against the righteous cause.

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