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FIRST-PERSON: Time Magazine speaks to evangelicals

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–I don’t recall fearing writing an article, but this one scares me.

Recently, Time magazine published its annual special issue, “10 Ideas for the Next 10 Years.” Trend No. 9 — “The Twilight of the Elites” — caught my attention not because of its title, but because of its subtitle: “Why we have entered the post-trust era.”

The article starts ominously enough:

“In the past decade, nearly every pillar institution in American society — whether it’s General Motors, Congress, Wall Street, Major League Baseball, the Catholic Church or the mainstream media — has revealed itself to be corrupt, incompetent, or both. And at the root of these failures are the people who run these institutions, the bright and industrious minds who occupy the commanding heights of our meritocratic order. In exchange for their power, status and remuneration, they are supposed to make sure everything operates smoothly. But after a cascade of scandals and catastrophes, that implicit social contract lies in ruins, replaced by mass skepticism, contempt and disillusionment.”

From there, author Christopher Hayes, the Washington editor of the Nation, critically evaluates why it is that “so much of the country’s leadership in so many different walks of life performed so terribly over this decade.” While recognizing that no single theory can explain this failure, he nevertheless finds these themes to be recurrent in the failures: the concentration of power in a single person and the erosion of transparency and accountability in the system.

Hayes finds this problem evident in various walks of life, including the Catholic Church. Citing the work of Terry McKiernan, who founded “Bishop Accountability” in the wake of sexual abuse allegations in the church, he concludes that obsessive secrecy and the hierarchical nature of the church contributed to the crisis. McKiernan is even more direct: “I’m not surprised that people doing unexamined things do bad things.”

The problem is larger, though, than distrust of leaders, says Hayes. We live in a complicated society that rightly demands expertise and leadership and elites at times — but if a culture cannot trust its leaders, the result is a loss of authority even when that authority is desperately needed. That is, all leaders pay a price when other leaders fall.

There is so much here for the evangelical church. First, we ignore this trend only to our peril. How many agonizing stories do we know — the evangelist whose immorality cost him his ministry, the pastor whose financial dealings cast a web that entangled him, the church leader whose unchecked arrogance led to corrupt living — that were marked by secrecy and no accountability?

Perhaps more alarming, how many stories do we not know yet? How many leaders, invested in building their own kingdoms, believe that their success has inoculated them against failure? The evil one who tempted Jesus still offers us a kingdom if we bow to the altar of self.

Second, the accountability inherent in the Body of Christ is non-negotiable, even for leaders — in fact, especially for leaders. The qualifications for elders and deacons in 1 Timothy 3 not only assume examination and accountability; they demand it. Moreover, those qualifications are not simply a checklist to examine a pastoral candidate. They are stated expectations for the leader as he lives today, tomorrow and the future.

I am not one who believes that the Scriptures require a plurality of elders as the single model of a New Testament church, but the wisdom of shared leadership is clear here. Power centered in a single person breeds demonized independence that is nothing short of idolatry of the self. There are good reasons that the Body of Christ is “not one part, but many” (1 Corinthians 12:14) — one of which is accountability. Or, as Hayes concludes in his article when speaking primarily of secular institutions, “The elites’ failures of the past decade should teach us that institutions of all kinds need input from below.”

Third, the attitude of “we trust him just because he’s our leader” no longer works. Indeed, if Hayes is right, the more common attitude today is, “We cannot trust him just because he’s our leader.” From a secular perspective, unearned “trust” has fostered the failures that are the source of Hayes’ article. From a Christian perspective, the issue is even more basic. “Trust” separated from open vulnerability and intentional accountability is hardly Christian at all; rather, it is an open door for an enemy who himself sought to dethrone the One to whom we are all accountable (Isaiah 14:13-14). Sin crouches at the door (Genesis 4:7) when leaders are permitted to live unexamined lives.

So, what frightens me about writing this article? Fear that I have misread the Time article? No. Fear that a reader will not like what I’ve said? Absolutely not. Fear that I will be perceived as attacking a person? Not at all, as I know my motives. Fear that leaders who need to see themselves in this mirror will miss the needed reflection? Perhaps, but that’s not my primary fear.

What I fear is that I will not see my own tendencies to lead without accountability and responsibility. I fear that I will see the speck in others’ eyes but not see the log of elitism in my own (Matthew 7:1-5). God help me.
Charles E. Lawless Jr. is dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

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  • Charles E. Lawless Jr.