This post is a little longer than my usual book reviews. Whilst I will offer no comment on specific cases – given the reality of this issue in the UK church at them moment (and it is a sad fact that no tribe great or small is able to claim they are immune from this problem) I have dwelt more on this than other posts. Forgive me if there are moments of harder reading or oversimplification, there is too much to say on this issue in one short book, let alone one short blog post. If you read this as a victim of abuse in the church (or elsewhere), please know that as I write and post this I am praying for you, and praying to a God of justice, mercy, and immeasurable love. Do seek support, and do seek Him.
This short book was brutally tough reading. My normal practice with a book of c.160 pages is to sail through it in a day or two and write up a brief review. This one took much longer. In part because of my own experience of some of the issues Honeysett deals with, in part because digesting this topic and its implications for friends and those I know in the UK church was particularly rough. But having now reached the end, I offer a few of my thoughts below.
Honeysett confronts in this short book an issue that the UK church simply has to come to terms with. As stories come up on a frighteningly regular basis (both historic and ongoing) this issue of abusive and evil leadership simply cannot be ignored. All too often such stories are wrongly labelled as trivial – dismissed as distractions to the focus of the mission, as unhelpful obsessions or character assassinations. Whilst we should certainly love and care for all involved, we cannot simply ignore what has happened. Sin has consequences, and the distortion of Christian leadership for abusive ends is a grotesque and horrifying offence to God. As Honeysett puts it clearly:
“Without being melodramatic, behind misuse of power are principalities and powers of darkness. It is evil and we must take it with the utmost seriousness.” (93-94.)
It is evil. It has no place among the people of God, and our disinterest in responding to stories of abuse in the church ought to be a source of ongoing shame. We do not worship a God whose power is used to coerce and control, but one who willingly embraced death, even death on the cross, so that in loving kindness we might be redeemed.
The most profound reflection on this book I can offer is that, wonderfully, the tools for us to respond to this complex issue have already been offered to every Christian believer. The tools for a clear and forthright opposition to abuse and evil are found in Scripture. As Honeysett makes clear time and again, Christians ought to be at the forefront of vocal opposition to abuse, because abuse is so far from what and who we are called to be. All through this short book, Honeysett hangs his argument on the clear and wonderful truths of Scripture. Every believer is called to follow our Heavenly Father, and a life of humble submission to Him, lived out practically in the loving care of a local church family, is the simplest means of opposing abuse. The church ought to be a place of sanctuary for the broken, compassion for the wounded, and care for the needy. It ought to be a community defined by love, grace and kindness – the very things shown to us by our Saviour. That’s why this issue is so sickening. Because the abuse of Christian leadership is a perversion of what God so clearly calls His people to be. As Honeysett repeatedly reminds us, God’s word equips us to oppose these wolves in shepherds clothing, offers the means of healing from the damage they cause, and calls us to protect those who seek refuge from them.
The Slippery Slope
The commendations on this book suggest it to be ‘urgent’, ‘vital’ and ‘essential’. A personal bugbear of mine is when reviewers (or anyone really) label a book a ‘must read’. And I’ll stop short of that here. But Honeysett’s short book is certainly well written, brutally confronting, and desperately needed by many in the UK church at this time. Honeysett writes from a place of pastoral and organisational experience, with decades of wisdom poured into twelve short, deeply challenging chapters. I would urge any Christian leader to find a copy of this book, and humbly respond to the questions asked by it. I would encourage any victim or observer of abuse in the church to read it with an open mind; to see that Scripture so clearly speaks out against those who abuse power in the church, and to find encouragement that the cause of their suffering is the antithesis of the Gospel – God’s message to humanity is not one that leads to pain, shame and hurt. It is quite the opposite. This is an excellent book.
Much of the book’s excellence comes from its realism. Honeysett does not generalise, nor play into hyperbole, he recognises that each case of abuse looks different. Some set out to serve the church and fall into abusive behaviour. Some set out to serve themselves, and are predators on unsuspecting and needy sheep. Honeysett begins by setting out the simple Biblical picture of Christian leadership. Healthy servant leadership looks so different from worldly leadership, and it was refreshing to be reminded of God’s pattern for Christian leaders. I am deeply grateful for the model of this leadership I was shown in my church growing up, and that I experience in my church now. The book then moves to consider what Honeysett labels ‘the Slippery Slope.’ In five chapters, the book walks through the corruption of healthy to unhealthy power, recognises the blurring between formal and informal power and leadership, and ends with a profound discussion of the most serious abuse of power and the impact that has. This whole section requires the leader to buy into Honeysett’s framework, but rewards methodological cooperation with fruitful insight. I read this as a church member, not a Christian leader, but there was a wealth of riches for me to reflect on, and Honeysett’s wisdom and humble reflection is clear.
The third part of the book asks ‘what next?’ for a number of different groups. Chapter by chapter, Honeysett asks that question for victims and survivors, whistle-blowers, leaders, churches, and finally cultures and tribes. Though I will pick up on one specific point below, this section was again enormously helpful. All of us fit into at least one of these categories, and ought to read and reflect with humility. Each chapter made it painfully clear that we can and must do better to support victims and whistle-blowers, hold out the Gospel to abusers, and educate churches and cultures. Honeysett’s closing chapter on cultures and tribes was particularly prescient.
“Sadly, it usually takes issues of power abuse to cause a culture to take a long hard look at itself, by which time a great deal of harm has been done.” (146.)
Honeysett provides plenty of detailed questions, and it would be helpful if many of us reflected on them. It is horrifying to see new articles and reports of scandal after scandal. Whilst we will never erase the presence of sinful people in our cultures and organisations (that would require removing ourselves!) we can certainly think about the areas we open ourselves up to allowing abuse to flourish, the ways we as a culture and as individuals chase after worldly godlessness and call it success. It is a sad truth that the above quote rings true – often these damaging stories come to light before a culture reflects on the potential for abuse and evil to flourish within itself. May this short book and other helpful resources help awaken us to the presence of abusers and predators in our cultures, and may we take action before it is too late.
A Question on Forgiveness
Addressing whistle-blowers in Chapter Nine, Honeysett writes the following on the subject of forgiveness.
“While Christians do have a general duty to be soft-hearted, forgiveness is dependent on repentance. To forgive in the absence of repentance is to validate sinful behaviour. And even when someone does genuinely repent, and forgiveness is appropriate, there should be no obligation to remain under their leadership – nor for them to remain in leadership.” (103.)
I don’t want to dwell on this at length, as it is a minor point in an otherwise deeply helpful book. But I can’t help but feel that this short section on forgiveness rather misses the mark. Absolutely, forgiveness does not mean there are no consequences, and an abusive leader must face those consequences both spiritually and professionally. But Honeysett seems to be implying that victims or whistle-blowers ought to withhold forgiveness unless the abuser displays a repentant heart. Forgiveness in the absence of repentance is by no means a validation of that behaviour. Jesus taught that as His followers, we ought to “Love your enemies . . . bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-8.) This does NOT mean that we are to erase what they have done, indeed the Psalms teach us time and again that we can bring our broken, raging heartache to the Lord. But as Jesus prays: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12.) We stand before God as a forgiven and redeemed sinner; to hold on to bitterness, revenge and hatred flies in the face of the grace that we have been shown. And for victims and survivors it will destroy us. It will eat away at our compassion, our desire to see humanity in even the most torrid of our fellow man. Hear me clearly, this does NOT mean that we as limited and damaged individuals are responsible for achieving redemption in the life of the abuser, but I speak from personal experience when I say it is nigh on impossible to pray and bless those who you are actively refusing to forgive – instead you allow them a psychological hold over you, renewing cycles of abuse in place of relinquishing it before the Lord and coming to Him for healing.
(Much of the above is fleshed out in this article by John Piper. It’s not perfect but I think it captures the call to forgiveness more clearly than Honeysett does here.)
Horror, Loyalty and Justice
Before wrapping up, I want to return to my overarching encouragement to read this book. A few flaws aside, this is a deeply profound resource. Honeysett is a wise and loving brother in Christ, who has painstakingly committed what must have been some deeply hard truths to reflect on into writing. Three words described some of my main takeaways from the book: horror, loyalty and justice.
The horrific reality of the abuse of power and position of Christian ministry is that it is so completely counter to what the Lord intended for Christian leadership. Honeysett rightly makes much of the biblical picture for Christian leadership, loving and sacrificial under-shepherds caring for God’s flock. Having quoted 2 Tim 3:1-5, Honeysett reflects: “the frightening thing about the 2 Timothy passage… is that wolves don’t look like wolves, but have an appearance of godliness.” (68.) My personal reflection is that, certainly in the ‘cultures’ I overlap with, we do not see the horror of this truth. We do not see the disgusting reality that we accommodate those who harm the children of God because they dress themselves up in the things of God. We value success metrics (something Honeysett frequently challenges) over godliness. We scorn prayerful humility for platforms and prestige. We do not care when sheep are harmed, as long as the mission rolls on. One disgraced US pastor infamously said of his church that “there is a pile of dead bodies behind the [church] bus, and by God’s grace, it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done.” We see God’s children as collateral damage in the human glory of our mission, a chilling and horrific reality that finds no basis in Scripture.
Loyalty is another word that struck me throughout. The theme of the danger of personal loyalty jumps out time and time again. Abusive leaders surround themselves with protection, and demand loyalty to themselves as God’s ordained leader, chosen spokesperson, or enlightened guru. When our loyalty is to our leader ahead of to our Saviour, something is dangerously off course. I can think of multiple examples in our own UK context where this has been a major theme, and one that bears reflection and repentance.
Finally, flowing throughout, there is nonetheless a wonderful echo of God’s justice. Honeysett was not focused on this theme, his aim is rightly to confront practically and spiritually the abuses of power we risk or tolerate. But from the very first page, where he opened with Ezekiel pronouncing woes upon the godless leaders of ancient Israel (Ezekiel 34:1-2), to the very last, where Paul was quoted reminding us that it is in Christ’s power that we lead (2 Cor 12:7-10), this book was saturated with God’s Word. Time and again Honeysett quoted or reflected on God’s Word: leadership should not look like the abuse and pain we see. God’s plan is for so much more. Something so much better. Something so much more of Christ. And He will make all things right. He will hold abusive leaders to account. He will bind up the wounds of the broken. He will make all things new. The Gospel story is the redemption of sinners, the restoration of the lost, and the final triumph of Christ our King over death, sin and evil. Come Lord Jesus.
There is much more I could say on this book, and I have plenty myself to reflect on in response to what Honeysett offers in this short read. But I will keep my own musings to simply this review for now. I agree with the warm commendations found on the cover of this book – it is a timely and vital publication. We cannot deny that this issue of the abuse of power among Christian leaders is not a pressing issue. Scripture warned us nearly two thousand years ago that it would always be a danger. We only need look at the church in this country to see it is most certainly still the case. I’m grateful for this book, and pray it might be read and used widely. Whether you are a leader, victim, whistle-blower or simply a church member, I think there is much in this book for us to digest and reflect on. It cannot say all there is to say on such an issue, and at no point does it claim to do so, but it provided this reviewer hope that in some corners of the UK church we are waking up once more to the prevalence of abuse of power, and the sobering reality that it is the antithesis of the Gospel we delight in.
Powerful Leaders? is available from IVP, having come out earlier this month.