When you are in a conflict with a group of people over the course of several years, at some point you come to realize what kind of thing sets them off. Of course, as we have been dealing with the intoleristas in Moscow, it would be an excusable mistake for someone to argue that anything sets them off, or, at any rate, anything involving me. But actually, it really is more complex than that.
I bring this up because there are a handful of issues that really do get our antagonists going, and one of them is the issue of loyalty. In some cases, this is because they are watching us from outside, a group they have not taken the trouble to understand, and they simply project onto us any bad things that they believe could happen. In other words, they have been around, and they know many churches with “strong leadership” are simply using that description as a euphemism for various dictatorial outrages, and the “loyal membership” there is getting themselves set up for drinking the kool aid. And of course, this makes the observers worried.
Because dictatorial tyrants like to describe themselves as “decisive leaders,” we therefore tend to worry about decisive leaders. This concern raised as a question, prudently asked, is quite reasonable. But dogmatic a priori concern is not, because this really is a category confusion. Hitler was a tyrant. Churchill was a decisive leader. To outlaw Churchills in order to prevent Hitlers is really a very good way to not prevent Hitlers.
But there has been another kind of response to us as well. We have seen that the really sharp responses have tended to come from those we have known and who have been personally disloyal, and so their consciences bother them. So they take deep offense whenever the Christian virtue of personal loyalty is faithfully practiced by others, and they get really upset whenever disloyalty in the church (whether real or potential) is even mentioned or discussed for what it is.
But loyalty is a virtue — just like honesty, courage, faithfulness, kindness, and self-control. Like all virtues, it can be openly rejected, falsely approximated or feigned, or actually practiced. So in biblical terms, reversing the order, there is such a thing as true loyalty, counterfeit loyalty, and disloyalty. An example of the first would be Jonathan’s loyalty to David. The second would be the disciples’ loyalty to Jesus when they wanted him to call down fire from heaven to destroy a Samaritan town. Jesus told them they did not know what spirit they were actually of. They thought they were being zealous for the things of God but they were actually consumed by something else entirely. And an example of the third would the treachery of Judas, however Judas managed to explain it to himself.
Because loyalty is a virtue, and because we are Christians, we seek to practice it. Not only do we seek to practice it, we seek to do so without apology. But because we have enemies, it is in their interest to represent our (admittedly imperfect) attempts at true loyalty to be some kind of twisted, false, spurious loyalty. Down through history, true Christians have been thrown to the lions many times, or given their lives in other ways, and we rightly praise their loyalty. But human history is also filled with martyrs for other causes, who were willing to lay down their lives over some perversity or other. The men who flew the planes into the World Trade Towers were certainly “loyal” in some way to their cause. That doesn’t make it good. But we are guilty of another category confusion if, in order to prevent this perverse kind of loyalty from arising, we maintain that we must allow for disloyalty. If we are not loyal to anything, the thinking goes, we cannot be susceptible to the allure of a false loyalty. If we are loyal to nothing, we won’t fly planes into skyscrapers, and we won’t drink the kool aid. Right? But the argument actually goes a few steps beyond that. If we are loyal to nothing, what is to prevent us from getting people to drink the kool aid? Allegiance to nothing is no way to fight perversions of loyalty. This recalls Chesterton’s great aphorism that someone who doesn’t stand for something will fall for anything.
But the question necessarily comes down to particulars. Those who have followed the story here in Moscow know that there is at least one “mole” in Christ Church, someone who is feeding our church emails, minutes, information, etc. to our adversaries outside the church. There are also a handful of disgruntled former members out in the community, giving us the raspberry. Our public adversaries have not hesitated to take and use such things, but the point here is not to upbraid them for that. The point is that whenever we have made any reference at all to the fact that the mole is a dishonest church member, a pitiable sneak, breaking his membership vows, howls of protest immediately arise on behalf of this “courageous soul” who is merely taking on a tyrannical church establishment. This is not personal treachery, the argument goes, because it is simply assumed (for political purposes) that the “loyalty” we must be trying to practice is of the perverse and dictatorial kind. But some people have a seat right on the fifty yard line and have seen this entire game — I am one of them. A bad conscience — from those who should have been loyal to those who were loyal to them — wants very much for this duty of personal loyalty to go away. But it will not. I am reminded of a great T-shirt I saw once: “Gravity. It’s not just a good idea. It’s the law.” God has made the world in such a way that personal loyalties are necessary, and not just a good idea. When they are insulted and ignored, just as with the man who steps off a cliff, certain consequences follow. The one guilty of the insult must try to justify his behavior somehow, and usually retroactively. This is frequently done by demonizing the one who was betrayed. This is the same process by which a long-suffering first wife finds that she is being described as a bitch to her former husband’s new trophy wife.
We cannot slip off this point by saying that this kind of sneaking around has been made necessary because of “fear.” In our nation, church membership is a voluntary arrangement. If a person does not have confidence in the doctrines or practices of a particular church, he is completely free (and ought to be completely free) to head on down the road. But in this instance, if the person is paranoid enough to be afraid of physical harm, he should call the cops, and leave the church yesterday morning. What on earth would possess a person to belong to a church that he believed was capable of such things? The reply comes back that these people are not afraid of getting their kneecaps busted by the deacons, they are afraid of other intangible things, like ostracism or losing their job. This simply compounds the disloyalty with the additional sins of cowardice and irrationality. If a man worked for a local auto dealer, and he set up an anonymous web site attacking his employers (falsely) of being scoundrels, imbeciles and poltroons, does this person have a right to keep his job? Rather, he has a moral responsibility to leave it. If his charges were true, he is simply a plain vanilla coward. If they are false, he is a coward and a slanderer. As one philospher once observed, “You can’t work for MacDonalds and sell Wendy’s burgers.”
The most recent display of a bad conscience was posted on a local web list by a former church member who continues to remain appropriately coy about his real name. He signed this particular post with the name “Benton Falkirk.” The meaning of Falkirk should be obvious — the kirk will fall, at least in his dreams. More subtle was Benton. In C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy, the tag used for the devil there is the Bent One. In Scripture, the devil is the accuser of the brethren, and he loves to accuse. In biblical terms, the accusing spirit is a diabolical spirit. Or perhaps it simply means “bent on the kirk falling.” In either case, the name reveals a self-conscious awareness of his goals, which are an ongoing attempt to retroactively vindicate his right to have been so disloyal.
In the midst of his accusations, all having to do with this crucial matter of loyalty, Falkirk said that if I wanted people to believe that Christ Church was such an open place as what I had described, I should encourage the city council to use our pledge of loyalty from our staff agreements as “a benchmark to determine whether or not common sense governs the Moscow zoning process.” In short, the implication was that we are obsessing about loyalty and the city council is not. But the last city council meeting I attended opened with everyone there standing and saying . . . what? The pledge of allegiance. The Moscow City Council takes a loyalty oath every single meeting. But there is nothing inherently wrong with loyalty oaths in themselves — we say the Apostles Creed every Lord’s Day.
Our practice of loyalty as Christians is really very simple. We seek to love one another, protect one another, and sacrifice for one another. We seek to do this when we agree with each other, and when we don’t. When new members come into our church, they take membership vows that review their commitment to the gospel, and in which they promise to seek the “peace and purity” of the church. This does not mean that members can’t differ with me or the elders, or with the church constitution, or with the church’s Book of Confessions. In other words, even though we are a Reformed church, non-Reformed Christians are welcome to join with our congregation and remain just what they are. In our church, people with different doctrines of baptism, eschatology, church government, etc. worship together, love each other, and work together. This is all consistent with biblical loyalty. What would not be consistent with genuine loyalty would be for one of them to set up a anonymous web page attacking another member for having the wrong view of baptism — being unwilling to use enough water, say. And if we caught such a web accuser, he could not defend himself by saying that he was actually preserving the “peace and purity” of the church because he was only attacking that advocate of insufficient use of baptismal water over there. Living together in community is impossible apart from a web of shared loyalties, and at bottom this means loyalty to one’s neighbor.
There is one other set of commitments to loyalty that is important to mention. The elders of our church subscribe to our confessional documents in a way that the members are not asked to do. The elders and staff also commit to work together with mutual respect and harmony. Some people are so bothered in their conscience that they see nothing but nefarious motives in this, but it is always important to consider the source.
Every pastor with any experience at all knows what it is like to deal with members or former colleagues who for one reason or another get sideways with the church, and feel like they have to go. As I have pastored this one congregation over the course of almost thirty years, I have seen people come and go in almost every conceivable way. When some people leave, they do so in a gracious and kind manner, maintaining full fellowship with everyone as they do so. When people have sought to do this, I have visited with them, fellowshipped with them, prayed with them, and asked God to bless them richly. I was privileged to do that with some departing members just last week.
But alas, it is not always thus. Some do not leave because of doctrinal conviction, or differences over liturgy, or because they are moving from the area. Some leave because of a profound disloyalty fueled by bitterness, harshness, legalism, or inability to manipulate the elders. When this happens their stated reasons for leaving are not the real reasons for leaving, and they are soon caught up in need to justify themselves, if only to themselves.
And this brings us to the situation that Christ Church is in. As I said, every experienced pastor knows about this, and has seen it multiple times. But imagine a circumstance when such departing members are welcomed by a waiting cadre of church opponents in the larger community. The departing members have the back of their pick up truck filled with their overgrown zucchini grievances, and they suddenly discover that, when they show up at farmer’s market, they are in a seller’s market. There are people out there who will pretty much believe anything about Christ Church. And this person with a grievance has “street cred,” a former member is saying these things. A former staff member even. And this is how the strange alliance of disgruntled former members and homosexual and secular activists has been formed. The problem of disloyalty is so advanced that people who know better are encouraging people to believe and say anything about us. The truth does not matter — only “plausibility” as defined by the animus of the gullible. And thus it is that we have found ourselves slanderously accused of fomenting murder, establishing a neo-Nazi haven in Moscow, wanting to reinstitute slavery, and so on ad nauseam.
I have little doubt that the handful of people I am talking about — those guilty of this ongoing personal disloyalty — will read this. I would ask the many faithful readers of this blog around the country to pray that this statement of their sin would pierce their consciences in a way that nothing else has done so far. And I would ask those people themselves, in all honesty, to remember that God sees the heart, He sees every anonymous attack, He sees the disloyalty for what it is, and He promises to bring everything under judgment at the Last Day. Not only so, but because Jesus died on the cross, put there by the personal treachery of Judas, in fulfillment of the perfect will of God the Father, even the sin of personal betrayal can be forgiven. Judas died unforgiven, but Peter’s betrayal was forgiven. Because of Jesus, God stands ready and eager to forgive this sin. And because of Jesus, so do I. We sing the Lord’s Prayer every week in worship, and every week I ask God to deal with my trespasses against Him as I deal with those who have trespassed against me.
Those who want me to repudiate our “commitments to loyalty” want me to walk away from this duty to love one another. We forgive others as we are forgiven, and that is the foundation of all true loyalty. Because loyalty is really nothing other than love in motion.