Many will know that many of our students at Northern Seminary want to become writers, and it’s an element of our master’s degree in New Testament (MANT). Some write for this blog. This post is by Sarah Bucy Klingler, one of the MANT cohort of 2018.
A number of years ago a friend shared with me a concerning situation that happened at her church. She mentioned how there was something the pastor had said in his sermon the previous Sunday that didn’t sit well with her, and she wasn’t exactly sure why. After mulling it over for a few days she decided to bring her concerns and questions to her Wednesday night small group. These were women who knew her and with whom she had built some level of relationship. Unfortunately, when she broached the subject, she was immediately met with backlash, and one of the women told her it wasn’t her place to question the pastor. In fact, she used the phrase “touch not God’s anointed,” which is an Old Testament verse (1 Chronicles 16:22) taken completely out of context for this situation. Needless to say, my friend left that evening dejected, more confused than ever, and also determined to never ask a question (particularly in regards to pastors) in her Bible study or in any other space in the church.
I think this story highlights a serious problem we see in many churches. We are told not to question – congregants are not to question their pastors, children are not to question their parents, and adults and children alike are not to question any element of their faith. Unfortunately, while at first glance this might seem like a safe, wise idea, it actually sets a dangerous precedent in life and faith.
There is certainly an element of trust in living a life shaped in a Christoform fashion, in following a God we cannot see. However, this same God has also equipped us with personal discernment, intuition, Holy Spirit wisdom, and the gifts of curiosity and inquisitiveness. Verses about the obedience of children (Ephesians 6:1), songs about the need to “Trust and Obey,” which are good and right, become weaponized when they are used to silence, oppress, and overlook abusive behavior.
Boz Tchividjian, the founder of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) recently tweeted, "Abusers in faith communities know that from the earliest of ages, children are taught to 'respect and obey' those in authority. This propels these offenders to actively work themselves into leadership positions in churches and other faith based organizations." As an advocate for those hurt in churches, on the mission field, and in other faith communities, I have sadly seen this play out in tragic ways. Vulnerable children and adults unquestioningly trust “those in authority over them,” often ignoring that still, small voice telling them something’s wrong, telling them to run, or to disclose what has happened to them.
Jesus warned of false teachers and those even amongst his followers who weren’t to be trusted. Matthew 24:24 says, “For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.” Also, in Matthew 7:15 we read, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” These warnings should give us pause―not to default to cynicism and always questioning those in authority but to seek discernment, not putting our sole trust in everything leaders do and say. We need to provide safe spaces and be safe people, where others can ask questions. Yes, even children.
“Children are to be seen and not heard,” seems like a mantra of days-gone-by, but I think if we were being honest, we would admit that many of us default into this type of mentality. My eldest has been in small group settings at church, where she was discouraged from asking questions about “hot topics.” I’m so thankful she and our other children have a safe haven at home, where they are free to ask us hard questions about their faith and the world. What of the young people who don’t have that, though? Where will they go with their questions? Because it’s inevitable there will be questions. If they get pushed away too many times, perhaps they will stop asking, stop engaging, and stop attending.
Even in parenting, we oftentimes shut down children’s legitimate curiosity and desire to understand the reason behind decisions. We come up with pat answers such as, “Because I’m the parent, and I said so,” or “Don’t question me, I’m your mother.” God created the world with an imaginative artist’s brush and designed us to be curious about this canvas we call earth. Children, particularly, are full of curiosity and questions and a desire to understand what is happening around them. This is how we learn and grow and step fully into the people God has created us to be.
This is how we gain discernment and learn to trust our instincts when something feels off or unsafe. This opens up the opportunity for children to come to us and confide in us if things are wrong or if adults in their life are mistreating or even abusing them. In spaces where children or teens are present (whether at home, at school, or in a church setting), perhaps we can allow more opportunities for them to have more of a voice, to express their curiosity, to question and discuss, and allow the free-flow of ideas.
Let’s not be fearful of questions in the Church or in our homes. Let’s not enable abuse by refusing to listen to concerns about leaders. Instead, let’s believe our faith is big enough, and our God is powerful enough to walk us through, to help us as we think through answers, and to even admit when we just don’t know. God, grant us wisdom, discernment, and eyes to see and ears to hear. Thank you, for the gifts of curiosity and for your Holy Spirit, living, working, and moving in us. Amen.