|Thornbushes in Samaria|
Jotham, in the Book of Judges, tells The Parable of the Thornbush. The trees want to anoint a king. However, all the useful trees don’t want to give up their pleasant, beneficial work for power.
The olive tree says, “ ‘Should I give up my oil to hold sway over the trees?’ The fig tree says ‘Should I give up my fruit, so good and sweet, to hold sway over the trees?’ The vine says ‘Should I give up my wine, which cheers both gods and humans, to hold sway over the trees?’
However, the thornbush, agrees to be king, provided that the other trees “take refuge in his shade” (which is negligible, and means they will remain stunted, and never grow taller than the thornbush). And for those who did not agree, he says, “let fire come out of the thornbush and consume the cedars of Lebanon!”
What a brilliant description of controlling, toxic church leadership. Submit, hold yourself back, minimize who you are, pose no threat, or be destroyed. What is important in such a church is not encouragement of the spiritual gifts of the congregation, but submission to the leader–to be less than “the thornbush,” to be in his shade.
And the only people who would seek power and significance in such an environment are those who have no useful role to play at work, in society, or in their own families or circles of friendship. Insecure people needing validation. People, who for that very reason, should not be leaders, or in positions of significance or power.
If you are an olive tree, a fig tree, or a vine in a church in which the leader is an insecure thornbush who wants you to be in his shade or be destroyed, you will never flourish. Flee, oh man and woman of God!
* * *
We are each significant to God, and so he designed us to be born into little circles of significance: the apple of our parents’ eyes, our friends’ beloved friend, and to steadily develop circles of significance and influence in which we can be a blessing. The desire to be significant is a natural, not an unnatural desire.
But we Christians live in an upside Kingdom. If one wishes to be significant in one’s church, or in the body of Christ, one way to go about it is the way of the politician. Find out who’s important, toady up to them, drop them when they lose significance, manoeuvre, volunteer, be humble until you can afford not to be. And sure, you can work your way up the church’s inner power structure that way.
But not peacefully. You will surround yourself with other Inner Ringers (in C.S. Lewis’s phase) who also desire power. You may be friends with them, but you will be dropped once you are no longer significant, or potentially useful to them. You have to keep on the right side of the king-makers, and what shifts and compromises and flattery and biting back of your true self that will take. Oh horror!!
I once attended an Anglican charismatic church which was run like a court (with a mediocre, insecure king and queen, sort of Macbethish.) Stephen Arterburn notes in his book Toxic Faith that those deeply involved with toxic churches were “physically ill, emotionally distraught, and spiritually dead.”
I was at lunch with a group of inner circle people from my old church recently and was surprised by two things. One, as Arterburn says, almost all of them were ill with a variety of psychosomatic, but painful, illnesses. Many were unhappy, overwhelmed and distraught, as he observes.
Secondly, much of the talk was about power—their relationship with the Rector, the small groups, women’s groups, prophecy groups they were leading, or angling to lead… “No, no, no, first things first,” I wanted to say. “Flee to the secret places for real strength, not to leadership.”
* * *
Jesus understands the human drive to be significant. It’s universal—because he put it in our hearts. No one wants to be the least interesting person at the party, the last one picked. He watches guests angle for “places of honour” at a party, and observes that seeking honour is fraught with danger and humiliation—for there will, sooner or later, be someone “more distinguished” than ourselves, and we’ll be told, “Give this person your seat.” Don’t seek honour, Jesus advises; instead, take the lowest place, so your host cries out, ‘Friend, come higher.’ “Then you will be honoured in the presence of all the other guests.”
So when we move to a new town or a new church, and no one knows our name, or our talents, or our specialness, and we don’t like being anonymous and invisible, the stressful, pointless thing we can do is to elbow ourselves next to the important people, like the banquet guests Jesus wryly observed.
But there are useful ways of being significant. Seek out those you can be a blessing to. Whom you can bless with your extra-virgin olive oil, figs and wine. And you will be precious and beloved to them. In accordance with your free time, seek one-on-one ministry, or the ministry of meals, the ministry of the welcome team, or the ministries the church implores for help with, unheeded, Sunday after Sunday, until such time as, if God wills, when his time is ripe, you hear him say, “Friend, come higher.”
And inevitably, He will, because that is the way the Kingdom works.