Tag Archives: church problems


Grace 101

There are words in normal church vocabulary that are supposed to be fully and easily understood by those within the church.  Those same words may have different or puzzling meanings to outsiders.  We don’t often think about church jargon, but we certainly have it.  If you tell your unchurched friend that you were “really blessed by the fellowship during the mission fest last night,” she may have no idea what you are talking about.

I think “fellowship” is one of those words.  I’m not even sure that most of us know what it should mean.  I have heard all kinds of messages on how important fellowship is, but in the same churches I have seen very little evidence of any real fellowship.  Oh yes, the people who like each other get together and have good times, but that happens outside the church as well.

Yet, when you open the amazing box of gifts that came with your salvation, you will find something that could be called “fellowship.”  Basically, it means that you are now part of a community, with all the benefits and privileges thereof.  In fact, it means that you are part of a body and all parts are important and connected.  Since you are an important part of the body, the rest of the body loves you and accepts you and supports you.  The church needs you, not to do work, but just to be who you are.

Honestly, the church hasn’t done very well with this part of salvation’s gift.  We seem to be much better at making people feel separate or unwanted.  The church often fosters competition and judgment that are inconsistent with the character of Jesus.  Some would go so far as to say that they have found more friendship and acceptance outside the church than inside.  That’s very sad.

But those who seek love in the body of Christ will find it.  There are good people among the believers.  There are people who will help and encourage and love.  Their love might be challenging sometimes, as they refuse to allow you to keep hurting yourself or deceiving yourself.  But there are people who care.  They care because Jesus cares and they are filled with His life.

Just understand that other believers are just as hesitant and immature and compromised as you are.  They struggle too.  They are failures who need a Savior.  I know that some of them act like they have it all together, but that’s also part of their struggle.  They are afraid to relax and let others know the truth.

I have been in full-time ministry for over 35 years.  I have known a lot of believers through that time.  Some of them I call friends.  A handful of them are people who share life and support.  Those few are precious.  They are not users or judges or critics.  They are just friends—and brothers and sisters in Jesus.

I know that some unbelievers are good friends also but my Christian friends are especially important because we share a common life, the life of Jesus.  We draw from Him a common strength and understanding, a love that goes beyond this life and this world.  As I look around the church I see many people that stretch my belief that we will all enjoy each other in Heaven.  I believe it, but I can hardly imagine it.  But these few friends—well, let’s just say that they are evidence that Heaven isn’t just a place far away.  A little of the love and acceptance of Heaven is mine when I am with them.


Filed under Church, Grace 101, Uncategorized

The Gospel of Pragmatism

Pragmatism is basically the idea that positive results are sufficient criteria for determining value, even truth.  In other words: if it works, use it.  One of the most famous pragmatists was a man known as Niccolo Machiavelli.  For Machiavelli, the goal of a strong and controlled kingdom was worth whatever it would take to get it and maintain it.  So he taught that any means was acceptable for the Prince, as long as it would accomplish the goal.  That freedom, even responsibility, would include means considered wrong for others to use for their personal gain. 

For example, the Prince could lie and should lie without compunction for the good of the kingdom.  While lying would still be a wrong action for the regular people, the goal would make it acceptable for the Prince.

It was Machiavelli who coined the phrase, “the end justifies the means.”  Specifically, he meant that the goal of the strong kingdom justified any means.  However, again, this same formula was not available for all to use.  If everyone did what the Prince did, the kingdom would suffer.  The Prince’s goal was above all others because it was for the “greater good.”  Suffering, deception, manipulation, abuse—all were acceptable for the goal.  The value and legacy of the Prince would be defined by how well he accomplished and/or maintained the goal.

Today, if you call someone, “Machiavellian,” you are referring to something negative.  Machiavelli would not think of his philosophy as a way to hurt others or a way to serve personal passions.  He would think of it as a higher level of good, where means normally unacceptable become not only acceptable, but mandatory.

I would submit that Machiavellian thinking has been in broad use among church leaders for a long time.  Some of the easiest examples would be found in fundraising techniques or in maintaining doctrinal control.  Whereas deceit would be unacceptable in other areas, it seems almost common among religious fundraisers.  Whereas separation and unkindness would be negatives within the church community, they become almost mandated in cases of doctrinal deviance.

Teachers who seem able to compromise for the sake of their ministry may see that ministry as a Machiavellian good, with value beyond normal work or ministry, and thus not limited to the same moral standards.  Financially inappropriate practices are rampant within churches and ministries.  Abuse and perverted behavior is overlooked or handled within the system.  Ineffective products or formulas are promoted for the image, rather than their real value.  All for the good of the ministry.

Politicians, community workers, seminary directors, business managers, military leaders—all can be servants of the gospel of pragmatism, the Machiavellian goal.  How many times have we heard the phrase, “If it saves one life, it will be worth it all.”  The goal sounds noble, far above other responsibilities and worthy pursuits.  If the rules of the community are bent in the process, it is argued that the “greater good” was served.

Consider this: Many years ago, the teacher received what he believed was a call from God.  He dedicated his life to that call.So noble was the call/goal that he could justify dedicating the lives of others to it as well.  In fact, it was true service to God, in his mind.  All things could be utilized to serve the goal.

If a spiritual formula didn’t work, but still generally moved the ministry toward the goal, it was acceptable for use.  If the Scripture had to be twisted to fit, it was good to do so for the sake of the goal.  If people had to be used and discarded, that was not too high a price to pay for the goal.  Finances were necessary.  Loyalty was necessary.  People were necessary.  Control was necessary.  Anything necessary for the accomplishment or maintenance of the goal justified any means.  The goal is everything.

What’s wrong with this and what should be done about it?


Filed under Legalism, Narcissism, Theology and mystery

The Christian Narcissist

It’s Narcissist Friday!


All the narcissists I have known have been Christians.

Now, there are a couple of things that have to go along with that statement.  First, I mean they consider themselves Christians and they want everyone else to consider them Christians.  Second, I don’t get out much.

Recently a couple of readers suggested that I write something on the Christian Narcissist.  I have to admit that I find that designation to be troubling.  It seems like an oxymoron, a term that has two contradictory parts.  I am tempted to say that there cannot be such a creature, yet I do know some.  In fact, many churches have them.  So, here’s what I know:

  1. Christians are people saved by Jesus.  They draw their life from Him, but they draw their behavior from the patterns that developed throughout their early life and from the Holy Spirit.  In other words, sometimes we act like Christians and sometimes we don’t.  That’s true of all of us.
  2. Narcissism is a flesh pattern that developed in early life and became the coping mechanism of choice in handling the stresses of life.  This happened while the person was very young and has been reinforced constantly throughout life.  That means that if such a person would become a believer he or she would almost certainly continue to struggle with narcissistic behavior in relationships.
  3. Narcissistic behavior can be seen in almost anyone and appears in society as a continuum.  Those who practice it intuitively (without thinking) and regularly—to the detriment of their relationships—are the ones we label as narcissists.
  4. Those whose behavior and values warrant being designated as narcissists are unwilling or unable to care about others in normal ways and tend to use others in their process of handling life.  They think of little other than how to manipulate people in ways that benefit themselves or serve the image of themselves they want to promote.
  5. Narcissism is contrary to the Christian faith.  Because the narcissist will not admit failure or need, in order to protect the image, he or she will also not admit sinfulness or unworthiness and will not see the need for repentance or brokenness.  Those who receive Christ as life, do so as they understand their own failure and need.  Narcissists would find it very difficult to do this.
  6. However, Christian behavior is easy to fake and many in the church are naïve and gullible and are particularly vulnerable to the manipulations and deceit of the narcissist.  The church is a prime hunting ground for narcissists, with little real accountability and significant opportunity for attention and promotion.
  7. Narcissists are able and willing to adapt their behavior and words for the purpose of promoting their image and will use organizations, such as the church, to accomplish their goals.


So, what do I take from all of this?  That none of us should be surprised to find narcissists in church!  Are they Christians?  That isn’t mine to say.  While narcissism is contrary to Christ, narcissistic behavior may be just old flesh patterns at work in the life of the believer.  People who exhibit these characteristics will almost always be successful in persuading the majority of the people to accept and honor them, usually because the majority of the people won’t spend enough time to see the truth.

But what do you do about it?  Protect yourself.  Learn to recognize the behavior that hurts you and others.  You almost certainly will not be able to change the minds of church leadership toward the narcissist.  They are often the last ones to see the damage these folks can do.  If you must call attention to their actions, be sure to point out the behavior, rather than the motivation.  Tell what they do.  Maybe you can help others by pointing out what you see or by coming alongside victims when they are hurt.

I wish there was a more helpful and effective way of dealing with narcissists, particularly in the church.  But the truth is that these people usually win.  They are ruthless, willing to use whatever information and opportunities they are given to defend themselves and attack those who threaten them.  Most of the time it just isn’t worth it.  Churches and volunteer organizations are poorly prepared to deal with predators of any kind.  It would probably be better just to find another church.

Comments?  Questions?


Filed under Legalism, Narcissism

“Grace as a Tool for Hate”


Did that title grab you?  The words grabbed me when I first saw them.  Each day WordPress tells me the search phrases people use to get to this blog.  They aren’t necessarily searching for this blog, but they have a topic and Google directs them here, among many other suggestions.  I like to read what people are asking about.

So a couple of days ago I came across these words, “grace as a tool for hate.”  What?  That is so foreign to me that I find it hard to read.  When I learned grace, I learned love.  How can anyone connect grace to hate?  It is hard to find any sense to these words.

But then I stopped to think about it.  Yes, it is certainly possible to use even grace as a pretext for hate.  In fact, I can think of three ways someone might see that happening.

First, there is a sense of elitism when we begin to understand grace.  I have commented on this in a variety of groups, but most find it hard to acknowledge.  Grace people sometimes think of themselves as above those who are “still stuck under the Law.”  They believe they have reached a higher plane and they mock those who don’t understand the truth they have found.  Yes, some pretty nasty things are said about legalists and certain churches—even friends and family.

What we forget, of course, is that we can’t take any credit for discovering the meaning of grace.  If we understand grace at all, we should be able to admit that our understanding is a gift of God’s love.  Our prayer and our mission should be to help others understand the incredible message we have learned.  No matter how much legalists have hurt us, we cannot hate.

There is no hate in grace.

Second, grace is a popular word today.  Legalist churches use it all the time.  I remember one teacher who claimed to have the only right interpretation of grace, one that put his people in bondage to standards and rules and laws.  The most legalist organizations and people use the word, “grace,” because it connects them with the New Testament.  Rejection, shame, condemnation—all in the name of grace.

But that isn’t grace.  There’s no condemnation in grace.

Finally, I have rarely seen more hate in theological discussion than what I see between the Calvinists and the Arminians.  These two groups came from the same movement just a few hundred years ago, but you wouldn’t know it today.  Labeling someone an Arminian seems to allow all kinds of name-calling, rejection, even charges of blasphemy.  And, of course, the reverse happens as well.

But the center of that battle is the meaning of grace.  Both sides use grace as a weapon and charge the other with its misuse.  The Calvinist idea of grace is an abomination to most Arminians; and, again, the reverse is true as well.  So, in the name of grace, one man calls another apostate and seeks to remove him from ministry.  Not that long ago in church history, people were killed for not believing what the other side believed.  All in the name of grace.

But there is no rejection or murder in grace.

Now, I don’t know what the seeker was looking for as he/she wrote those words.  It might have been one of these situations that was in mind.  It might have been something different.  But, I have to say, it breaks my heart to think that anyone could link grace and hate.  If that’s you, please respond to this post or write to me through the blog contact page.

You see, I believe grace is “the activity of God’s love.”  That’s a definition I have used to explain grace.  God has used the message of grace to show me His love and to open my heart to love others in ways I never would have before.

Grace is all about love.


Filed under grace, Grace definition, Legalism, Theology and mystery

To Trust Again

“Trust is not something to be earned, but a gift to be given.”  Those are my words over many years of ministry.  I don’t know if they are original.  I know others have said similar things.  My concern is whether I still believe them. 

I know that many of those who write to me or read this blog have difficulty trusting others.  Some have been victims of manipulation, lies, or abuse.  Some have been part of a system that taught people to judge and condemn others and have felt the betrayal of “friends” who turned against them for the sake of rising within that system. 

Trust is not something that returns easily for those who experience abuse or betrayal.  Nor should it.  Suspicion and isolation serve an internal purpose of protecting ourselves against pain.   The problem comes when we find ourselves living in that cave.  Relationships become difficult.  We see others through the glasses of fear. 

Unhealthy mistrust is something that happens inside.  It has less to do with the meanness of others than with our judgment of ourselves.  We feel weak and vulnerable, somehow accountable for the fact that others have misused us.  We become angry at ourselves for allowing the abuse, for not seeing the truth earlier, or for simply being so stupid.  So we build walls with the idea that we might not have to suffer that again.  But the walls do more to keep us imprisoned than to keep others from hurting us.

Many of us grew up trying to be nice.  We were taught to think of others as better and more important than ourselves.  In a good world, things like deference and openness are positives.  For many people, the world is not good.  It is filled with people who use and shame and hurt.  Deference and openness are tools that can be turned against us.

Part of learning how to trust again is the willingness to lay the sins of others at their own feet.  It is not un-Christian to understand that someone has hurt you and that what they have done is wrong.  How can you sincerely forgive someone unless you accept that they did something wrong to you?  When you reject the idea that it was all your fault, you begin to see the real world and you begin to heal.  You can face the world again if you understand at the outset that others fail and sin and sometimes they will hurt you. 

The one you give the gift of trust to is yourself. 

Let’s think about this more…


Filed under Freedom, heart, Legalism, Narcissism, Relationship

Following Jesus

(We are making the move back to CO and the office, school, church, etc.  Please enjoy these posts from the archives.  You are welcome to comment as usual and I will respond on the other side.)

A while ago I received an email from a pastor who truly appreciated the grace message but felt that he could not promote it in his church because it would be divisive.  He had seen a church split because of the battle between legalism and grace.  He asked some good questions.  I sent him a lengthy response that addressed several of the things he brought up and carried on a conversation for a time.

The next several posts will be from my correspondence with him, beginning below.

Isn’t it sad that such a wonderful message is divisive within the church? But, you know, it has always been this way. The church, like each of us individually, is “prone to wander.” The church seeks order, control, predictability – and finds these things in rules and standards (or law). The message of grace is about a personal (and corporate) relationship with a living and active Lord who is not predictable, controllable, nor tame. It is far more risky, in a fleshly sense, to simply follow Jesus than it is to have a list of regulations and expectations to follow. For one thing, it takes a real relationship with Jesus and we have not done well in teaching people what that means. How many believers know and hear His voice today? I am not talking about being Charismatic or mystical, just about being one of His sheep. Following Jesus means going to Him with our questions and listening with expectation for His leading. Following Jesus means knowing His heart (very different from “trying to be like Him”) and acting in accordance with His will. Following Jesus means that I take my eyes off the list and actually look for Him.


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Filed under Grace definition, Legalism, Relationship

How to live with a Legalist

(This blog will be offline for a couple of weeks while I travel.  Please enjoy these posts from the archives.  Feel free to comment or ask questions.  I will be able to respond when I return.)


From time to time I get a question asking how to deal with legalist family or friends.  Here’s one answer I gave:

Rejoice in the Good News! Don’t condemn anyone or judge anyone and only condemn sin that is real sin. Don’t let those in your care condemn others without a challenge from you. Remind them to love and accept the people of God. Remind them that they are not better than others because of the things they do, that all are equal in Christ. All of these things you can back up easily with clear (untwisted) Scripture.

Use their vocabulary, but turn it back to Jesus. Let’s say some young man comes into church wearing a sweatshirt with the logo of a sports team. After you hear a comment, you could say “I can’tsee in Scripture where it is a sin.” In fact, be quick to say that you just don’t see some of their issues in the Scriptures. You don’t have to argue with them, just make it clear that you don’t agree. Talk about God’s love for all people, even those who don’t dress or act the way your friend thinks is right.

If you are consistently positive toward the things of the Lord and if you are unwilling to accept their nasty and negative perspective, it will cause them to wonder. Some of them will begin to ask the question you have raised: Is it really in the Scripture? Then, you have to trust the Holy Spirit to do His work.

I know from a great deal of experience that most of these folks are unhappy, frightened and even angry. They can never measure up! They try hard, but they never get it right. I heard several people talk about attending conferences and feeling discouraged and frustrated. They haven’t been able to make these laws and standards work in their lives up to this point and now they have a bunch of new ones. One man, who attended a certain conference every year, said something like, “Oh boy, it’s time to go get our annual dose of guilt!” Many of them really do feel like that.  The only good feeling they get is when they can point out the sins of others.

And there you are, happy and positive in your relationship with Jesus. You live a good life and you are walking with the Lord, and you are a source of encouragement and blessing for those around you. That doesn’t make sense to them.

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Filed under Church, Grace definition, Legalism, Relationship

Narcissistic Legalists?

(This blog will be offline for a couple of weeks while I travel.  Please enjoy these posts from the archives.  Feel free to comment or ask questions.  I will be able to respond when I return.)


More on the connection between legalism and narcissism…

I suppose the two feed each other.  The narcissist must control the way others see him.  He must excel in his own eyes.  He must have ways of measuring himself against others and coming out on top.  Legalism offers a great opportunity for the narcissist—under the guise of being spiritual.

On the other hand, the legalist must focus on himself.  The whole idea is the measurement and accomplishment of spiritual progress.  As he focuses on himself (in a task which can never be complete) he cannot empathize with the struggles of others.  Instead, he sees others as a means to build his own image.  If he can control his family, he will look good.  If he can manipulate things in his church, he will feel better for his association with it.  Legalism is all about serving the flesh.

Narcissism is a technical diagnostic word in psychology and should be used carefully by the rest of us, no matter how popular it is becoming.  That’s why I prefer to talk about “image addiction” as narcissism relates to believers and church relationships.  Those who suffer from image addiction have an obsession with the image they project to others.  They will lie, manipulate, and even attack to protect and build up their image. 



Filed under Legalism, Narcissism

Pastor Narcissist pt2

It’s Narcissist Friday!

I wish this wasn’t a true story.

Pastor Narcissist continues merrily on his way as the dead bodies of his former staff line the halls of First Church.  But he’s okay.

(For those of you who don’t remember Pastor Narcissist’s story, it begins here.)

Pastor A came to First Church to make a difference and he has certainly accomplished that.  Many of the people have left, but those who have stayed believe that he is the greatest blessing God ever gave the church.  The core purpose of the church hasn’t been talked about for a while, but that’s okay because Pastor A has had so many problems to deal with.  The staff has stood against him and so many former members have challenged his leadership.  The supporters know that Pastor will come through this and the church will be stronger.  They just have to stay with him.

The last to go was the associate pastor.  AP held the church together after Pastor X left.  There was considerable interest in making him the senior pastor, but AP wanted a support role.  He wanted to believe that a dynamic new pastor could take the church forward in significant ways.  He was surprised when the church leadership called Pastor A, because his style and focus were so different from Pastor X, but AP was positive and things went well.

Eventually, however, the truth began to dawn on AP.  No one was safe.  The more supportive a staff member was, the more advantage Pastor A would take.  AP did the work and Pastor A stood before the church and took the credit.  Pastor A would make a mistake and blame it on AP.  As long as AP was willing to keep his place, Pastor A was happy.

But Pastor A made too many mistakes.  He really is an incompetent pastor.  His primary skill is self-aggrandizement.  He knows how to make himself look good.  He is well-connected, popular, and smooth.  He just doesn’t know how to put together a sermon, or a committee, or a project.  Other people are supposed to do those things so he can take the credit.  That’s what staff members are for.

Yet, staff members who do well are a threat to a narcissistic leader.  If they become noticed for doing well, they might be able to stand against him.  So Pastor A had to do something to make himself look good.  When he tried to do something on his own, though, it turned out badly.  So, he had to blame it on AP.  Pretty soon it looked like AP was so incompetent that he would have to be replaced.

So the pushing began.  Support in front of the congregation: “We are standing with AP during this difficult personal time.”  Negative behind the scenes: “I don’t think you are fitting into our new direction.”  AP was supposed to quit.  That way anything and everything could be blamed on him.

But AP didn’t quit.  Pastor A had to work for this one.  People of the church remembered how AP had helped so much through the transition.  The nature of AP’s job connected him with almost all the people in personal ways.  AP had support.  So the traditional bomb had to be used.  “We are not at liberty to discuss the nature of the problem.”  Whoa!  What did AP do?  The innuendoes and the gossip began, fed by comments from Pastor A, until much of the support for AP was gone.  No one wants to stand by someone who might have done XXX.

Finally, after several grueling months, it is over.  AP is out.  This one cost Pastor A a little, but it was worth it.  For the next year, any church problems can be blamed on AP and on the battle.

Then the clincher.  On the last day of AP’s time at the church, Pastor A takes him out for lunch and asks, “So are we okay?”

You know, narcissists can push people past reasonable.

This is the stuff murder is made of.

Ruthless destruction followed by disingenuous kindness.

The narcissist does not care.

He only wants to look good.


Filed under Narcissism, Uncategorized

Drinking at the Mall on Sunday

One of my favorite stories is about the missionaries who went to Europe and were shocked to see believers drinking wine and beer.  Knowing that all consumption of alcohol was sin, these missionaries couldn’t connect with their brothers and sisters in Europe.  However, they noticed that the believers there often looked at them and made comments under their breath.  When the truth was finally revealed, the European believers were scandalized that the Americans went shopping on Sunday.  (I suppose they eventually compromised and determined that they could fellowship as long as no one drank alcohol at the mall on Sunday.)

You see, this is what happens when we try to live under a religious flesh system.  Whose system do we use?  How specific should we get?  How do we relate to those who do not share our system?  The Church has spent a great amount of its energy fighting these battles.  The only thing that happens is that our religious flesh system becomes more a part of us as we justify it in relationship with others.

We were never supposed to follow a system.  The systems, whether religious or not, are part of the broken world.  We are called to a relationship with the One who will lead us personally.  Yes, He has given us His Word, wonderful information to help us through our days, but even His Word was never supposed to be taken apart from Him.  He spoke to us as our Friend, our Father, our Redeemer, our Lover, our King—but never outside of a relationship.

He loves you and He wants you to come to Him.  Ask Him His will.  Tell Him your concerns.  Listen for Him to respond to you in love.

Questions?  Thoughts?



Filed under Freedom, grace, Legalism, Relationship