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The Empathy List #92: Healthy Skepticism
Who gets the benefit-of-the-doubt?
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I’ve decided to split up my twice-a-month essay and my curious reads into separate emails.
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Hello friend, Liz here.
Here’s what I said: “I don’t have anything against Matt Chandler. I don’t know him. I’m sure he’s a fine sort of vanilla person. Probably even loves Christ. I don’t know. But I would say, I don’t think repentance looks like getting back on stage the first chance you get.”
That bolded part is the one that got attention. Maybe my bluntness raises your hackles.
Social media is not a place for nuance (it’s a place to catch limited attention spans… which has its own issues).
But I’ve decided to expand what I mean here, because I have a hunch you might have shifted in your thinking in similar ways that I have. We’ve all witnessed evangelicalism’s cultivation of celebrity leaders and the rotten fruit that has resulted.
Turns out, that’s changed what I believe a bit.
I used to believe that if someone is preaching God to a crowd, then they can be trusted.
Because they have obviously been vetted, cultivated, trained, and discipled by other trustworthy leaders. Right?
Because they have intimate relationships where people of character hold them accountable. Right?
Because they must know—from lived experience—the truths that they are expounding. Right?
Because they love Jesus. Right?
Now I believe that faith is not something to be taken for granted or assumed.
I no longer extend the benefit-of-the-doubt to Christian leaders who I do not know personally. I do not think a stage or microphone means that God approves—not necessarily.
I have had to learn the hard way what Jesus meant when he taught his disciples to be as “wise as serpents and as innocent/harmless as doves.”
That phrase comes from Matthew 10:16, which is when Jesus sends out a crew to preach repentance to all the Jewish villages in the region. The rest of chapter 10, before and after this verse, is perhaps the most conflicted of the gospels, apart from the narratives of Jesus’s own death. Jesus describes here how his message will create civil wars amongst families, will result in public humiliation and death, will produce name-calling and will expel his followers from communities where they once belonged.
In the middle comes this famous verse (I’m quoting the expanded translation ‘cause I love the attention to the words here):
“Listen [L Look; T Behold], I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. So be as clever [wise; shrewd; cunning] as snakes [serpents] and as innocent [harmless] as doves.”
Don’t miss the first part of verse 16: Christ warns his followers that their work—preaching the gospel of repentance to the “lost sheep” of Israel—will be dangerous because they’ll be sent out as “sheep among wolves.”
The metaphor of “wolves” and “sheep” is not a new. Christ drew this metaphor directly from the writings of the prophets.
From Ezekiel 22:26-27 (this time in the more readable NIV): “Israel’s priests do violence to my law and profane my holy things; …I am profaned among them. Her officials within her are like wolves tearing their prey; they shed blood and kill people to make unjust gain.”
Ezekiel calls the Hebrew religious and societal leaders “wolves” and the people
they lead are “sheep.” In pursuit of power, fame and wealth, Israel’s leaders devour their followers as “prey.” But God sees through their act and threatens them with justice.
So when Jesus refers to “sheep” and “wolves” in Matthew 10, we’re meant to remember Ezekiel’s message. We’re meant to read “wolves” as fallen and abusive leaders, the same ones who become Jesus’s main detractors, adversaries and ultimately, his executioners.
Why do I bring up wolves and sheep?
I’m not saying that Matt Chandler or that any particular pastor is a wolf; actually, I pray that our leaders are NOT wolves.
But to follow Jesus’s advice, we must not assume what we do not know for sure.
Personally, I have seen too many leaders fall, propped up by systems that reinforce—rather than curtail or protect from—behavior that offends Christ and harms Christ’s people. I have seen this in the privacy of my own family-of-origin, in handfuls of churches to which I’ve belonged over the years, and in the larger scale white American evangelical culture as a demographic.
I believe it’s natural to make positive assumptions of our leaders. But the reasons we “assume the best” have little to do with Christ and more to do with those reasons Israel begged God for a king.1
(Remember when we called former President Trump a “baby Christian”? Remember Ravi? Remember Joshua Harris? Remember Ted Haggart? And Mark Driscoll? I could go on and on and on. This is the instinct behind Jesus and John Wayne.)
My default setting has changed. I no longer assume any Christian space is safe space, nor that any Christian leader is trustworthy. Automatic trust is, in fact, dangerous to myself and others.
Instead, I weigh actions and words patiently. I try not to be impressed by celebrity or to weigh the VIPs as more valuable, godly or right. That’s not how things work in Christ’s upside-down kingdom.
As I’ve said before, the road to forgiveness offers no shortcuts. It’s narrow and not all of us fit. I feel great sadness over this fact, but I take comfort that God is not barring the way. God has actually done EVERYTHING POSSIBLE to make a way for every single one of us. So, if we are not on that narrow path, it’s because we have refused God, not because God has refused us.
Now I’m getting preachy, so whatever, you get the point. ;-)
I’m saying that we should not give away our trust so easily. The benefit-of-the-doubt should go to the people we know and love (and love us) IRL, not on a stage or a screen.
What’s your “default setting”? Are you more likely to trust or be skeptical? There’s room for both! Tell me all about it.
I have one more thought regarding leaders and the way of Jesus, this time about fame generally.
I believe that fame entices us away from Jesus every time.
I don’t want to mince words—both for my own sake as a writer building up “a platform” on which to sell books and for your sake, too. We need to be very clear about what power does to us humans.
Power is deceitful and the way of Christ opposes its demands.
Take the example of David, the one king the Bible holds up as exemplary, who believed his own hype and suffered God’s wrath because of it. (So many others suffered, too!)
I have more thinking to do around this, but I’ve taken great interest in narratives of healthy leaders lately—Eugene Peterson’s delayed fame and 30 years of unremarkable church ministry, Henri Nouwen’s self-imposed stint in an asylum for priests, Bonhoeffer’s2 countercultural resistance and rejection by his church and culture, Parker Palmer's rejection of academia and the stage of activism, Dorothy Day’s outsider ministry among the poor… Plus many others whose names are less familiar— the less known are usually women and BIPOC folks, by the way—but whose example has fed me.
The Christian leaders I respect are the ones who weather fame by submitting humbly to other leaders and lay people within intimate communities where they’re expected to regularly pouring themselves out.
These leaders have, in one sense or another, rejected the narrative of fame, perhaps by moving out of a prestigious job (as Nouwen did, leaving an ivy league classroom to live among disabled persons instead) or onto a farm in the country. Or maybe they died young and became famous only after their deaths!!
For Christians, fame requires wisdom and strict accountability to navigate.
Consider how few Christian leaders openly address the complexity of fame and power (and the money that often accompanies it). We should be troubled by this. At least we should pause. At least we should determine to wait and see before we hand over our trust. Let them earn it.
Because pride burns down the whole house, friends. All it takes is a spark.
Thanks for reading. And by the way, say hi! I’d love to hear from you, so reply to this email or leave a comment. :-) I’m a friendly extrovert and love to meet readers!
Warmly, Liz Charlotte Grant
Psst, did you know the Empathy List is supported by readers like you? If you like what I’m doing here, invest in my efforts to create a more curious & empathetic Christianity. A paid subscription is $21 per year, which is the lowest amount Substack allows me to set. ;-) Thank you!!
Not sure it matters to say or not, but when I said on Instagram of Matt Chandler that “he probably even loves Christ,” I was not meaning to strip a pastor of his credentials or to hit below the belt by questioning his salvation. Actually, I was trying to be generous with him based on my new stance! ;-)
I know, I am not a fan of Eric Metaxas. But this biography has fed me. So it’s still on my shelf.