A Christian businessman friend of mine, Dan Collins (his company is Fresh Tracks), twittered an article this morning that he had written for the website Financial World. Basically, he argues that if companies want to do well today, they should build a culture of trust, especially with their customers. He contrasts this to the woeful track record of banks, who have introduced cost-cutting policies at the expense of customer contact. Here is one striking story from the article. It appeals to me, because it refers to my native North London!
The example that first triggered this thought in my mind was a little restaurant in North London that was always full, predominantly with repeat customers. Despite being quite a trek from the centre of town it was renowned around the world. The reason being, there were no prices on the menu because there was never a bill at the end of the evening. Vasos Michael the 4’10” diminutive proprietor didn’t ever give his customers bills for their meal, he simply presented a list of what had been served, including drinks and asked that the customers paid what they felt the meal was worth. On the whole people rewarded his trusting nature by paying more than a comparable meal would have cost elsewhere and if someone abused the relationship by paying too little, Vasos wouldn’t hesitate to ask why, gaining either valuable feedback or the satisfaction of publicly embarrassing a miser.
I found it refreshing to read Dan’s piece today, not only because it was great to see a Christian friend writing something in the commercial world that is based on implicit Christian values, but because it made me connect with other thoughts.
For one thing, I’d put the breakdown in business trust earlier than Dan does. My father worked in the City for NatWest at the time of the financial ‘Big Bang’ of 1987, when regulatory practices were ‘reformed’. (Deformed, more like.) He always said that was the time when the old City ethic that a man’s (and it was generally a man, in the past) word was his bond. He saw time-honoured practices discarded recklessly by young bucks. That predates Dan – he’s too young to have been in the business world then, I think. But I’m glad to see him voicing these convictions, especially at a difficult time when businesses might be tempted to cut even more ethical corners to survive and prosper. Great stuff, Dan.
But it connects with church issues, too. Only last night I was reading that Todd Bentley may be back in public ministry sooner than expected. There is a large piece in the Canadian Western Standard, which I found via Bene Diction and Richard Hall. Now while there is a certain cynical tone to the Western Standard article that I might find uncomfortable, it isn’t surprising when you consider what it has turned up. Two points in particular stood out for me:
Firstly, Rick Joyner, who is supposed to be overseeing Bentley’s restoration process, now claims that God is overriding that process in order to bring Bentley back into ministry sooner. Secondly, the Standard provides evidence that in its opinion shows Bentley denying the formal relationship they believe was undoubtedly established between him and the Revival Alliance.
With regard to the second, I don’t doubt what the Standard are saying, but I think there was also an issue about what Peter Wagner and the others claimed was happening at Lakeland. It was a matter of considerable debate last summer whether Wagner said he knew Bentley well or not. (Here is what I wrote at the time.)
But the first point raises big issues of trust for me, not dissimilar from what Dan Collins was writing about in terms of business practice. Sin, repentance and restoration to ministry are serious matters. When people have suffered brokenness for a long time (and it seems to be that Bentley has honestly admitted that), then my experience suggests that the quick fix is rarely right or healthy. There is good reason for the process to take a long time. Some will be cynical about the motives behind any attempts to rush Bentley back into the spotlight. I can understand that. We like the crash-bang-wallop approach to spirituality in charismatic circles (or should I say, ‘Bam’?), because we have been seduced by an instant can’t-wait culture.
I can’t help thinking it would be much more merciful to keep Bentley out of the public eye. No videos, no nothing. It would be kinder to him. Remember how Jimmy Swaggart tried to wriggle out of the discipline imposed by the Assemblies of God when he fell? It didn’t look good, did it? Neither does this. I am so not convinced that it is God who is accelerating Todd Bentley’s return, unless others can provide some strong evidence to make me rethink.
In fact, to me there seem to be particular reasons in Bentley’s case why the restoration process needs to be long and slow. (And, I should add, ‘restoration’ is not primarily about a return to public ministry. It is first and foremost about a return to good fellowship in the Body of Christ. Public ministry may or may not follow, but it cannot be a priority.)
The particular reasons revolve around the nature of what brought an end to his ministry at Lakeland, and his personal history. The issue appears to be one of deceit, and that suggests a lot of learned habits to cover things up over a long period of time. There was deceit over the relationship with the woman who is now his second wife, even if there was nothing physically inappropriate. That deceit must have been towards Shonnah, his first wife, towards the now-renamed Fresh Fire ministry, towards the local leadership at Lakeland, and potentially others.
Furthermore, Bentley had a conviction aged fifteen for sexually assaulting a seven-year-old boy, along with other crimes based on his membership of a sexual assault gang. I don’t want to use the facts of those convictions in the way some of his opponents in blog posts have, to smear him, as if there were no such thing as forgiveness. I believe there is forgiveness for the worst of sins through the Cross of Christ. However, I would draw attention to the widespread experience of those who counsel sex crime offenders, especially those whose crimes are against children. Their regular testimony is that these people are astonishingly practiced in the art of deceit. Granted, Bentley clearly hasn’t reached the depths of many such people who so deceive themselves that they justify their behaviour, but they have to engage in serious deceit in order to cover up their deeds. It becomes ingrained.
That is why my own denomination will not anyone hold office who has been convicted of sexual offences against minors. Were Bentley to have been a British Methodist and not an independent, he would not have been allowed to minister in the first place.
Given, then, the likely history of deceit, it’s little surprise it came into play at Lakeland with the inappropriate relationship. This constitutes on the personal level the major breach of trust which Dan Collins laments in much of the business world.
There has to be a long journey back from such places. Real apologies. Deep repentance. New patterns of behaviour, tried and tested over a period of time. Attempts to make amends or restitution, if appropriate. And so on. Pastoral care is not a TV show. It is quiet and long term. That doesn’t seem to be happening here.
Perhaps, if I pursue this theme of trust, Rick Joyner and his colleagues would ask me to trust them. But I would struggle on this evidence. At best, I am concerned about the wisdom being shown in the ‘restoration process’. At worst, others will doubtless make more serious allegations about potential motives. I do not believe that what is being shown publicly presents the Body of Christ in a good light.
As on other occasions, I truly hope I am wrong. But to my mind so far, the evidence is pointing in a worrying direction.
Rick Hiebert of The Western Standard is the reporter who spoke with Bentley about his juvie record and sexual assaults for The Report back in 2001.
He has covered Bentley and Canadian neo-charismatics for 8 years.
When reporters follow such a broken person and such twisted beliefs, how do they balance skepticism and cynicism?
“Pastoral care is not a TV show. It is quiet and long term.”
Joyner’restored’ Bob Jones and Paul Cain also, and it wasn’t quiet and long term.
That was so well said, thank you.
And thanks for the link, blog on!
Thanks for your comment – and the link to the article. I didn’t know how long this reporter had been covering Bentley and others. I’m not surprised by the cynicism, I’m just trying to avoid it myself.
Thanks for your generally fair assessment of the situation with Todd Bentley. I have not followed the latest developments as I have been otherwise occupied. I need to get up to date again.
But I would like to say that I consider your position and that of the Methodist Church to be a gross and blatant denial of the gospel. Sins committed before conversion, and in this case by a minor, are entirely forgiven by God. But what God does not forgive is the refusal to forgive others – see Matthew 6:15. Yes, church authorities do need to be careful with people with a doubtful track record. But a denominational policy that such people are NEVER allowed to minister is evidence of a systematic refusal to forgive certain kinds of sins. A church body with such a policy can only expect God’s judgment.
Indeed, for anyone who has committed such sins
Todd has been through all this, for his juvenile offences. But if your attitude is that he can never be restored for those offences, then what chance does he have for his more recent sins?
You are the one who needs to repent of your sin of unforgiveness. So does your church. Then maybe after you have taken “a long journey back” and established “New patterns of behaviour, tried and tested over a period of time” you and your church will be ready to be restored to effective ministry. Until then your attempts to minister with unforgiveness in your heart will not meet with God’s blessing and your denomination will continue to decline.
Thank you for your trenchant comments. I checked your blog before writing this post, to see whether you had offered any reflections on this issue. Although we have often disagreed about Todd Bentley and Lakeland, I value the fact that you have tended to be the most eloquent, measured and reflective defender of the cause.
These particular comments of yours require a long response. Please bear with me.
First of all, let me make clear my own position and limitations. As a minister of the Methodist Church, I am required to affirm annually that I will abide by and administer our discipline. This includes the official position on those who have committed sexual offences against children. If I disagree with a particular aspect of the discipline, then either I resign or I work within it while campaigning for change. So, for example, as I read it (and as usual, I must add that I might be wrong), I read every Eucharistic Prayer in our Methodist Worship Book as upholding a doctrine of the Real Presence at the sacrament. I believe in a dynamic-receptionist view of the sacraments, and do not accept the Real Presence. However, I understand that those who favour the Real Presence try to argue from Scripture. This, then, is one of those areas where I disagree with official policy but uphold it in my leading of worship and seek to argue my case against it. To some extent, I think this is a little bit like the attitude John Wesley adopted in his battles with the Church of England in the eighteenth century. He technically accepted canon law, but looked for every loophole and every place where it could be stretched to the limit for the sake of the Gospel.
Having established that, I need to say that I think our official position on those who have been convicted or cautioned for sexual offences against children has its problems. (I shall mention one or two in what follows.) However, I believe it was brought in from a position of good intention and faith, rather than one of unforgiveness, which I shall try to outline. Therefore, although I am concerned about it at certain junctures (and because I have not lost my call to be a Methodist minister), I uphold it, albeit with some misgivings.
Your point about our policy enshrining an institutional attitude of unforgiveness is one that was made passionately when the policy was first proposed about seven or eight years ago. I recall being in a District Synod at the time when one of our brightest young theologians, Angela Shier-Jones, argued that it meant we had changed our doctrine of forgiveness. Her point went all the way to Methodist Conference, where it was rejected. I was not at that Conference, so I do not know the exact minutiae of the debate, but I believe the essence of the rejection was something along these lines. Conference reaffirmed the total forgiveness of sins, much as you would call for. However, it pointed to the kind of issues I tried to outline in the post, namely those of deceit and the lack of evidence of transformed lives among sex offenders. They might point to the example of my friend to whom I referred on the blog recently, who was convicted last November of surfing paedophile websites under a false name and looking at images of girls below the age of consent. He wrote on his blog before his arrest about the problems of images not disappearing from one’s memory. That would make me nervous what he were to be thinking about if he ever met my children.
(There is a whole area for us in the churches to be concerned about generally, here, though, in terms of the lack of difference between our lifestyles and those of people who do not share our faith, but that is another subject.)
That, however, creates another doctrinal problem – not of forgiveness, but of holiness, which is ironic in a denomination that grew up with a strong doctrine of holiness, even to the point of Wesley’s controversial teaching about ‘entire sanctification’ or ‘Christian perfection in love’. We who in Wesley’s time believed that anything was possible in terms of holy living now seemed to be saying there is one group of people for whom no such hope exists. That would still be the contention of some people in Methodism who remain uneasy with this policy.
However, there is an alternative argument that is made, and it is about ethics and Christian witness. It runs something like this. Christian ethics are never about my rights, but about my responsibilities. Sometimes we have to forego our personal rights for the sake of good witness. Paul did this in not demanding the churches support him financially. Therefore, runs the argument, in a world that is deeply troubled about paedophilia and the like, we ask those who have been cautioned or convicted of such crimes not to hold any position of responsibility in the church for the sake of a good corporate witness.
Even then, though, there is a problem with a blanket policy, which this is. Soon after it was introduced, I ended up talking to a minister who was being forced to resign. Many years before the policy, he had successfully ‘candidated’ for our ministry and had openly declared the fact that he had a criminal record in this area. It was investigated, and he was accepted. Once the policy came in, though, everything was reversed and he had to resign. Similarly, I know a friend (not a Methodist) who bought a second-hand computer where the hard drive had not been reformatted. It contained criminal sexual images. He had to accept a police caution, because ignorance was no defence in law. Yet if he were a Methodist, that caution would prevent him from holding any office in the denomination.
In conclusion, then, neither my position nor that of Methodism is that of unforgiveness. It is about ethics and Christian witness, but the policy has weaknesses in its approach to holiness and its blanket enforcement. I have to ask myself whether the policy is imperfect or fundamentally contradictory to the Gospel. I believe it is imperfect. Therefore I uphold it, while looking for something better. If I believed we were contradicting the Gospel, I would need both to resign the Methodist ministry and resign from the denomination generally.
I hope this long reply clarifies a brief part of the original post. You may well want to come back on this – feel free. Equally, perhaps some of my Methodist friends who read the blog will want to offer their reflections.
Dave, thanks for your measured response to my rather strong words. You are of course right to work according the agreed position of your church whether or not you personally agree with that position. Since it seems that you do not personally endorse this policy, I would like to withdraw any criticism of you personally and take issue only with your denomination and its policy.
It is interesting to read that there is a real and active debate about this policy within your church. I take the point that the policy is supposed to be about Christian witness, but what kind of Christian witness? Yes, Christians should avoid being unnecessarily offensive to the world around on matters unrelated to the core of the gospel. But this is a core gospel matter. Even though the Daily Mail may support it, the popular campaign of hatred against paedophiles and even those very marginally suspected of such activity is in fundamental contradiction to the gospel. So the proper way of being a Christian witness is to take a strong stand for the true Christian position on this matter, which is surely of forgiveness for all, with the possibility of complete restoration for those who show clear signs of genuine repentance and changed behaviour.
I accept that in some serious cases there may be no realistic possibility of a change of behaviour sufficient to allow that person to minister independently. But that does not apply to all, such as the two cases you mention or the transient misbehaviour of the hormonal adolescent Todd Bentley. That is why my strong objection is to a blanket lifetime ban, not to decisions that particular individuals at particular times are unsuitable for ministry – as indeed many people are for all kinds of reasons of which this is only one.
I don’t think that I would in good conscience be able to remain a minister within a denomination which treated fellow ministers in the way they treated that minister who was forced to resign. (Incidentally, he would probably have been able to get a large amount of compensation for wrongful dismissal.) I would at the very least state my strong objections to the policy and work openly for it to change. On some matters, I would consider, loyalty to a denomination and proper respect for employers must take second place to the fundamentals of the gospel message.
Thank you for your reply, Peter. Unfortunately, the minister concerned would have had no case for wrongful dismissal, because in law we are not employees, we are ‘office holders’. The law says God employs us. This too is a matter of concern and debate. The Government has contemplated changing the law to protect ministers, and some clergy have joined the ‘faith workers’ section of the union Unite, which campaigns for us. However, while a change in the law would protect us from church bodies acting abusively towards us, it is not without its complications. If we were employees, then churches would be able to tell us what we may or may not do. That would undermine the tradition of the stipendiary ministry, where we are paid not a salary but a stipend. The distinction is important: a salary is (allegedly) the rate for the job, whereas a stipend is a living allowance so that we may be free from want and free to pray about how we are led to exercise our ministry. That latter freedom could go as the price of employment protection. It’s not an easy question, unfortunately.
Yes, I understand. That’s the position with Anglican ministers as well, but I thought only with them because of the state church issue.
But what’s this about “churches would be able to tell us what we may or may not do”? Surely the Methodist Church can do that already, in that it claims the right to move you around the country as it wishes with no consultation. I don’t want to comment negatively on the internal affairs of another church, but it seems to me that your “free to pray about how we are led to exercise our ministry” is already illusory. Yes, you are given some freedom within the responsibilities prescribed for you, but no more than would be given to any trusted professional employee. In effect you are an employee, you are treated as such by your denomination, and it is only by a legal fiction that you are denied your proper rights as an employee.
Good point, Peter. You are right that we are under the discipline of the Methodist Conference. In that sense, some have compared us to being more like an order of, say, Franciscans. The freedom to pray about how we exercise our ministry is within the confines of a particular appointment. I have greater freedom than some conventional employees in how I order my day and decide to prioritise and carry out my duties. I may choose to place an emphasis on a certain aspect of ministry, and a colleague may do so differently. A person’s employment status is based on case law. Some aspects of our work make us look like employees and others have the character of self-employment. In the end, we’ve come out as this strange beast of being office holders, something we share with ministers in a number of other (but not all) denominations.
To return to the central issue, of forgiveness and the possibility of convicted sex offenders being allowed to hold office – there is an further issue, and that is one of protection. The Church has a responsibility to be a safe place for the children (and indeed adults) who come. Given the propensity of sex offenders to be very plausible liars, the safest policy is to prevent anyone with a conviction from being in a place where they may be able to reoffend. It is also a pastoral matter with regard to the offenders themselves: I would not give a recovering alcoholic responsibility for running a bar, or someone who had served a sentene for fraud the job of church treasurer. This is not a lack of forgiveness, but protecting them from either a recurrence of the earlier weakness, or the suspicions of those who might accuse them of something they have not done.
Further on the issue of forgiveness and freedom: when I was a prison chaplain, I regularly celebrated communion in the prison chapel. Many of the inmates who came, and in some cases had been converted during their time inside, were lifers. When we shared communion, including sharing the peace together, I had no doubt whatsoever that their sins were forgiven. They were my brothers in Christ. But I could not suggest on that basis that they could be released from prison. They did not cease being convicted murderers because their sins were forgiven.
Now, by analogy with your earlier comments, Peter – would you argue that a convicted killer who has become a Christian should be released from prison? Or do you agree that there is a distinction between forgiveness of sins and freedom to ignore the past? On the basis of that issue I suggest that your “strong words” may have been a little too strong.
Tony, I am of course aware of the issue which you bring up. It is important not to allow anyone who is not fully trustworthy, and that includes many people with convictions of this kind, to minister in places which might be dangerous for them and for those they work with. I did write before that “church authorities do need to be careful with people with a doubtful track record” and “in some serious cases there may be no realistic possibility of a change of behaviour sufficient to allow that person to minister independently”.
My objection again is to a blanket policy which does not allow for the restoration even of those who can safely be allowed to minister, such as the man who was technically guilty for failing to delete from his computer pictures which had been left on it by someone else, or the adult who as a hormonal teenager had done bad things with children but had (we presume) grown out of such behaviour and impulses. The analogy in some cases is not with recovering alcoholics but with people with a single youthful conviction for being drunk and disorderly. Would you say they could never be allowed to run a bar?
I accept that criminals should serve out their sentences, but that they should then be rehabilitated and allowed to return to normal life as long as that is safe. I would presume that any convicted criminal of any kind who applied to be a Christian minister would already have served their sentence. Yes, murderers and paedophiles should finish their sentences. But what you are advocating seems analogous to locking them up for life and throwing away the key.