The Danger of “Image Maintenance” in the Church
When there is sin in the church, we panic. I believe that this is one of the reasons churches and pastors so often give terrible counsel to victims of abuse. We are the Church! We are Christians! We aren’t supposed to sin! This is a disaster, and it is up to us to fix it lest “Christ’s Name” be tarnished. I put “Christ’s Name” in quotes because I really think that if we would all be honest, we would have to admit that it is really more about our own image maintenance than it is about Christ’s glory.
Whenever we as individuals or as a church set out to put on a mask, set up an image of ourselves that really isn’t true, we are headed for big trouble. I saw a lady yesterday in the big city that was in just such a trap. She wasn’t unattractive, but she had gone to extravagant lengths to look 20 years younger. Elaborate makeup, painstaking hairstyle, carefully selected younger-generation wardrobe, and hanging on the arm of a man at least 20 years her junior. Why did I notice? Because I could see it in her look. She was trying sooooo hard to find self-worth in all of these things, and I knew it wasn’t going to work. By watching how the man behaved toward her, I would not be at all surprised if she has gotten herself tied up with an abuser. Oh, what a charmer he was! Before he is done with her, I wonder how much of her money and her life he will have taken? Images are dangerous. They lead us into serious error. They are a lie in picture form.
As pastors, as churches, we often construct images — names for ourselves — reputations. But they are not consistent with who we really are. And when something happens that is not consistent with the image we crave — like the appearance of sin in the church — well, we launch into a defense and damage-control mode. And NOTHING good is going to come out of that. Nothing!
So, for example, when a woman who is being abused by her husband comes to her pastor or to one of us for help and relates to us what is happening, I can tell you what the dynamic is that so easily and readily kicks into gear. Image protection. Damage control. “Oh, no! This kind of thing can’t happen here! We have to fix this. You can’t divorce. It makes us….er, Christ, look bad! No, you must be exaggerating. Let’s sit down and talk this out.”
And so they talk, perhaps. But nothing changes. Except maybe for the worse. So the wife says she is leaving. “No! God hates divorce! You can’t. his is your calling, to persevere and suffer for the glory of God.” But what is really going on, so often? We don’t want our own spotless image soiled with word getting around that such a thing happened in our church. That our people are somehow less than perfect and might even be capable of …. sin!”
And what then happens to the victim? She is the whistleblower. Have you ever read the story of a whistleblower? Someone who exposes corruption in government or some big business or a giant religious organization? What generally happens to whistleblowers? They are slandered, they are fired (ex-communicated), and sometimes they are even killed. The Lord Jesus Christ was the greatest whistleblower of all! He exposed sin and corruption – and they killed Him for it. Governments have some laws in place to protect whistleblowers. Churches do not. Abuse victims become a threat to the image. And all too often, their churches respond to them with efforts that, frankly, are designed for nothing else than to make them shut up about it.
This sounds so harsh, doesn’t it? I can hear voices out there saying “You are so negative! This is way too judgmental.” Honestly, I wish that is all there was to it because then I could just repent of saying these things and come to my senses and realize that none of this is happening after all. But it is. Witness after witness after witness has come forward and told the story of what happened to them at the hands of their churches when they blew the whistle on their abuser. Shut up, admit you are wrong, or get out.
Why? Do we actually believe that our churches are incapable of having hidden sin operating within and among them? Do we think that no wolf in wool could possibly ever be found in our pews? Are we so naive that we refuse to admit that there could well be a marriage in our church that is not at all what it appears to be? Or that a member of our church is in fact a hypocrite who is merely putting on a saintly facade while at home he is the devil incarnate? Does our Lord tell us anything different in His Word? Has He not given us repeated instructions and warnings about this very kind of thing, and even told us how to handle it? Does He not, in fact, bless us when we expose these things and deal with them as He has told us to? Where in the world in Scripture do we ever find that the body of Christ has to keep up an image of perfection?
I can remember a number of years ago talking to the leaders of a church of some 300 people. The pastor had hit the road with the church secretary, both of them abandoning their spouses. Immediately not only the church leaders, but especially the denominational representative charged into a campaign of image maintenance and public relations damage control. I remember asking them if they had handled this sin biblically. The absconding couple were in no way repentant. So how were they handled? They were informed that they were terminated from employment and given the suggestion that they seek counseling. Then, all of the efforts of the church leadership and denomination from that point on were aimed at getting any tarnish off the image. I asked the denominational representative if the church intended to obey Christ’s instruction and follow the church discipline process — not only for the good of the church, but for that of the pastor and secretary as well. He accused me of being too quick to run to judgment. Well, guess what? They never did implement church discipline. As a church, they never acknowledged that just perhaps their own pride had played a part in this whole sorry mess. They just wanted to get back to “normal.” But normal there had never been good. It still isn’t to this day. The image reigns.
And it reigns in many if not most of our churches today. Wherever there is an image, there is idolatry. And where idolatry prevails, Jesus is not present.