Just for show

The corruptive nature of power can creep into church leadership

By Brooke Stacia Demott

Arthur Blessit was one of a kind.

In the 1960s, this ordinary Californian wanted to reach the hippies for Jesus so he launched a campaign to engage them in a pretty unusual way.

He constructed a 12-foot wooden cross, stuck a wheel to the bottom of it, and started walking.

But he didn’t stop in California.

Over the years, Blessit carried this cross over 38,000 miles, to 315 countries. He marched boldly through firing squads in Saudi Arabia and amidst deadly predators of the Congolese jungles, meeting often with heads of state in dozens of countries, solely to pray for their salvation.

No money or political victory waited on the other side of his life’s work. He was dedicated to fulfilling Jesus’ call to preach the gospel in his own unique, mild-mannered way.

But this isn’t what I remember most about him.

Blessit tells a story in his fascinating documentary, “The Cross,” about the time he traveled across the African continent, looking forward to a respite at a missionary rest center. He describes how after hundreds of miles on foot, he earnestly looked forward to a bed and a meal at this sanctuary.

When Blessit arrived, he greeted the inhabitants warmly. After explaining who he was and what he was doing, he requested respite for the night. Much to his surprise, he was turned away.

Apparently, Blessit didn’t have proper missionary credentials.

Broken-hearted, he left. A few miles down the road, a couple (who happened to be atheists) stopped their car when they recognized him. They said they’d seen him on the news, and offered him the only air-conditioned room in their home — their own bedroom — for as long as he needed to rest.

Blessit said in a tearful interview that, “God sent these kind atheists to minister to me, because I wasn’t good enough for the missionary center.”

That was a sobering story. How is it possible that a Christian organization could be so blinded to its own mission?

A few weeks ago, something similar happened to my husband. Brian — a father to seven children who is self-employed and travels for work — finds it difficult to invest in regular Christian fellowship. He recently indicated that he wanted to participate in a local bible study to kick off his week, and help him stay grounded in the scriptures.

He attended a congregant-led study, and after the first time, called me. With excitement in his tone, he expressed gratitude for the opportunity to participate in a men’s study again.

Unfortunately, his enthusiasm was short-lived. The pastors of this congregation have a personal dislike for my family, and because of this, immediately following my husband’s first visit, they moved toward preventing his return.

My husband was bewildered. He requested biblical cause from the pastor who, though he does not attend the study, insisted that my husband refrain from participating and was ignored. It was a decision made purely by personal disdain, and Brian was understandably hurt.

Preach but don’t practice

This isn’t a modern problem. Men who represent the Lord have, from the very onset of religious organization, had a tendency to forget their calling once they have a little bit of power. It’s an issue that Jesus addresses without a shred of confusion to the Pharisees of his own generation.

“The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.

They do all their deeds to be seen

by others. They love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the  synagogues; greetings in the marketplaces and being called “rabbi” by others.

But you’re not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you’re all brothers. The greatest among you shall be your servant.           Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

“But woe nto you, scribes and

Pharisees, hypocrites!   For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in.” (Selections from Matthew 23:1-13)

How could a missionary respite center turn away a missionary seeking respite, when Jesus’ invitation is “Come to me, all you who are weary, and I will give you rest”?

Why would a pastor — an ambassador for Christ — make efforts to physically prevent a young man from seeking the Lord in his own church?

The answer is these individuals have forgotten whose mission they are charged to complete. Jesus has not sent them out to erect their own kingdoms on their own terms, but to build God’s kingdom by the grace of Christ.

Jesus’ exhortation that they “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel,” warns us that the heart of our mission is lost when we’re blinded by policy, or personal ambition. In his letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul makes a stirring case for the necessity of having the right perspective.

The Corinthian Church was a wealthy, enthusiastic congregation, stemming from a tradition of paganism that placed a heavy emphasis on external, emotional shows of devotion to their gods. Much of that transferred to their new worship of Jesus, and Paul admonishes them that Christianity is different — grandiose shows of religious commitment benefit them nothing in the eyes of God, unless they are motivated by love.

“If I speak in tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have prophetic powers, understanding all mysteries and all knowledge, and faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13 1-3)

Love is the standard.

May we be reminded by the rebukes of Christ, the encouragements of Paul, and the power of the Holy Spirit, to lay aside the entanglements of both policy and pride and serve the Lord with a pure heart.

Brooke Stacia DeMott is a columnist with In Good Health newspaper. Got a question for Demott? Feel free to email her at brooketo@aol.com. The beliefs and opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of this newspaper or any other agency, organization, employer or company.