In this series, I am identifying various ways that particular Christian beliefs can be distorted within Christian communities, often in subtle yet devastating ways that increase the likelihood of abuse and exploitation. We begin in this first article with what is arguably the central doctrine that defines the Christian life: the call to take up one’s cross. As Jesus put it: “Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) With this statement, Jesus is calling his disciples to follow his path of self-denial.
While the call to follow Christ in acts of self-denial (as symbolized by the cross) is key to Christian discipleship, the doctrine is also one uniquely vulnerable to a distorting lens that greatly increases the possibility of abuse and exploitation. Once we accept that we should be willing to subject ourselves to acts of self-denial, twin dangers arise.
The First Danger of Cross-Shaped Exploitation
The first danger is that we will become complacent in the face of abuse and exploitation, believing that these are normative patterns for the Christian life which we should simply accept. Before you know it, the doctrine of taking up one’s cross has become a cover to justify and rationalize the unchecked growth of abuse and exploitation. For example, some years ago Pastor John Piper offered this advice to a wife who is being verbally and possibly physically abused by her husband: “If it’s not requiring her to sin but simply hurting her then I think she endures verbal abuse for a season and she endures perhaps being smacked one night and then she seeks help from the church.” No call to seek the help of law enforcement, let alone advice to leave the abuser. Instead, Piper calls the woman to take up her cross by submitting to abuse, at least “for a season.” (Alas, the length of a “season” is not defined.)
The complexity here is that there is a kernel of truth in Piper’s advice: husbands and wives should recognize that marriage is an institution predicated on the moral formation of both participants through acts of self-service and self-denial for the other. That much is true. The danger arises when that legitimate and healthy insight blurs into a culture of complacency in the face of abuse. And the danger that lies in this blurred line can hardly be overstated. In short, it is one thing to support your husband when he suffers a serious illness and has a long road to recovery. It becomes quite another when he is regularly insulting you and threatening your life. And woe to the Christian pastor who cannot see the difference.
The Second Danger of Cross-Shaped Exploitation
The second danger is that bad actors will exploit this theological framework by insisting that faithful Christians submit to unjust and exploitive contexts “for the sake of the Kingdom.” For example, after a young woman is sexually abused by a predatory pastor, she is shamed into silence by the warning that if she speaks out, she will harm God’s work. For a less dramatic, but arguably far more common example, a parachurch ministry running on a shoestring budget skirts labour laws by not paying overtime. And when the beleaguered employees cautiously point out this is a breach of labour law, they are “reminded” that their unpaid toil is a glorious gift to the kingdom of God.
How can the Christian continue to affirm the call to selfless concern for God and others encapsulated in the doctrine of taking up one’s cross without thereby becoming complacent in patterns of abuse? To conclude, I will suggest three basic principles as a way to begin to answer that challenging question.
1. The call to self-denial begins with oneself.
First, always remember that the call to self-denial begins with oneself. If the preacher at the front of your church has gold rings on every finger and a Bentley parked out front, I suggest you find a church where the pastor leads by example. The call to self-denial, like charity, should always begin at home.
To be sure, some people are all-to-willing to subject themselves to abusive situations and then to implore the rest of us to join them, so we will need to turn to our final two principles for a fuller response.
2. Since God’s Kingdom Represents Justice, it Never Comes through Injustice
This second principle is of monumental import. We all know that predatory pastor who sexually abuses a young woman is a charlatan, but I suspect many Christians would be inclined to give the parachurch ministry that skirts labour laws “the benefit of the doubt”. Perhaps that is because some Christians do not recognize that labour laws are morally serious ways to approximate the just society and that we disregard them at our peril?
And that brings us to the key point: God’s kingdom is supposed to represent God’s rule of justice coming into the world. As the Lord’s Prayer has it: “Thy Kingdom come on Earth as it is in Heaven….” If God’s Kingdom is defined by justice, and labour laws represent morally serious ways to approximate the just society, then skirting labour laws (such as failing to pay overtime) constitute an act that runs precisely contrary to the Kingdom of God.
Let me be blunt: if a Christian ministry regularly violates labour laws “for the sake of the Kingdom,” the kingdom that ministry is seeking to build is not God’s.
3. Be Still and Know that He is God
When I was young, I chose two life verses, one from the Hebrew Scriptures and the other from the New Testament. My life verse from the Hebrew Scriptures is Psalm 46:10: “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” I am a ‘doer’ by nature, and this verse has always reminded me that God’s Kingdom is ultimately God’s doing, not mine.
Psalm 46:10 and the theology of providence that underlies it have profound import for our current conversation. A thousand moral compromises (such as the above-mentioned skirting of labour laws) are justified by an appeal to establish God’s Kingdom. We begin with the commitment that God’s kingdom represents justice and thus we cannot ever establish justice through injustice. Next, we add that it is ultimately God who establishes his kingdom and we are only called to be faithful. From there, we secure ourselves against moral compromise with a commitment to doing only what we can do in accord with the dictates of justice and allowing God to do the rest.
To conclude, the call to take up our cross remains at the center of Christian discipleship. But we should never allow it to be co-opted by dark forces or bad actors that would lead us to cultivating and contributing to the very opposite of the thing we desire: God’s Kingdom. These three principles do not provide a comprehensive guide for avoiding the dangers of abuse that lurk near this pivotal and profound doctrinal call, but they do provide a solid starting point.
Randal Rauser is the Director of Faith Based Organization Investigations at Veritas Solutions.