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It’s Not Just a Tetzel Problem
Of indulgence fame, Johann Tetzel is known today for representing the heretical preaching critiqued by Martin Luther in his Disputation for Clarifying the Power of Indulgences. From our vantage point in history, it seems self-evident that Tetzel was merely a symptom of a deeper disease. But things were not that clear in the early 16th century. Part of Luther’s aim in publishing the Disputation, or Ninety-Five Theses, was rescuing the church and the Pope from unjust criticism:
“To suppress these very pointed arguments of the laity by force alone and not to resolve them by providing reasons is to expose the church and the pope to ridicule by their enemies and to make Christians miserable.”1
Luther sought to defend even the pope from ridicule. Why? It was only well after 1517 that the Pope turned into the Antichrist, and the entire Roman Catholic Church was diagnosed as systemically corrupt. At this early stage of the Reformation in 1517, one might have described the matter as a “Tetzel problem” rather than a “church problem”.
I don’t know if any Roman Catholic clergy employed the rotten apple vs rotten barrel defense, but I see this view with some frequency today. This came to my attention most recently in a podcast from Preston Sprinkle and Patrick Miller. I have nothing against Sprinkle or Miller; I don’t know them, although Miller and I attended the same seminary. This critique is aimed at some erroneous and unjustified presuppositions, not the individuals themselves. I believe Miller is speaking in good faith, so I hope this critique is received in good faith as well.
Before going further, I want to be clear on what I affirm in Miller’s discussion. I agree that we need more stories of church fidelity. Not to combat the impression about the prevalence of abuse in the church, but because “beauty will save the world” (Dostoyevsky). In addition to prophetic exposure of church abuse, we need more stories of faithful shepherds who imitate the Good Shepherd; we need accounts of the beautiful, the good, and the true in local faith communities.
Also, similar to Miller emphasizing that he was not rejecting the need for abuse reporting, let me be clear that I am not disputing Miller’s contention about balancing of reporting issues. It will be clear below that I don’t agree that, for example, Christianity Today is doing too much abuse reporting, but that is not my concern here.
So, those comments aside, here’s what I saw first on Twitter:
This was on February 19. He didn’t respond when I asked clarifying questions. A few days later Patrick said this:
Notice the shift from “no one knows the prevalence of abuse in the church” to “I don’t believe abuse in the church is pervasive.”2
Miller spends a great deal of time in the podcast talking about and referring back to Christianity Today’s series The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. Initially, Miller really liked the podcast. However,
“My attitude toward that podcast began to change in the aftermath. It was kind of the blowback where I started having people come up to me, and they were asking me questions as though I was Mark Driscoll. You know? And I’m sitting here thinking, “Woh, wait a second, why am I holding the baggage for a guy whose ministry was 10 years ago who lived across the country who has nothing to do with me? Why am I doing that?”
Indeed, why should he have to answer for Driscoll’s crimes? It’s a Driscoll problem, not a church problem, right? A Tetzel problem, not a problem of systemic proportions.
Maybe Celebrity is the Problem?
The basis Miller offers for keeping the problem displaced onto the likes of Mark Driscoll is Christian celebrity-ism:
“Celebrity churches are different [from regular churches] in about every possible way.”
“Normal healthy churches bear the baggage of these celebrity churches that they have nothing to do with.”
This blame of celebrity-ism not defended or explained. While I certainly agree celebrity is a key factor in understanding our current church crisis, I’m not convinced that we can so clearly distinguish between celebrity and normal churches (more on that in just a minute).
I write from the perspective of personal experience with church abuse and as an advocate of spiritual abuse victims. Can I prove on the basis of my and others’ experiences that church abuse is more prevalent than Miller believes? Not really. But I don’t have to. Miller made the claim, and the burden of proof is on him to substantiate it. He offered none, ostensibly because “I doubt anyone” knows how pervasive it is or not.
But my guess is, being familiar myself with the trappings of white male privilege in America, Miller didn’t think it necessary to prove his assumption. He believed his own experience sufficient. Here’s what he said about himself:
“I feel like I’m trying to prove to everyone that I’m not a big jerk all the time, but I can’t, because you can’t prove a negative.”
“I’m not Mark Driscoll. I’m not that guy.”
I hope it’s obvious that in reproducing these quotes I am definitely not questioning Miller’s character. But Miller references himself and other pastors who have complained to him about how no one trusts them anymore, and his solution is to say (not an actual quote), “It’s not a me problem, it’s not a church problem, it’s not a local institution problem. Rather, it’s a celebrity problem, it’s a media org problem, it’s a Mark Driscoll problem.”
The only way these claims make sense is if Miller is right to generalize from his own experience and from pastors he knows personally. I am not seeking to falsify this, but rather show it is not a good argument. Assuming church abuse is not prevalent without any data is easy when abuse is not part of your experience. This is like white Americans assuming racism doesn’t happen because they don’t see it or experience it. Ask any person of color and undoubtedly they will recount, not statistics, but real life experiences. And the more one listens to stories of oppression, the more it looks like it really is a big problem.
A Non-Celebrity Church Abuse Story
While The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill was still being produced my wife was on staff at a medium-size church, roughly 300 people. Obviously not a celebrity church. And one of the pastors who was listening to the podcast remarked to my wife, “At least we don’t have to worry about a Driscoll here, I’m thankful [the senior pastor] is not that kind of pastor.” Well, turns out that guy was dead wrong.
The senior pastor, a reformed presbyterian in no obvious way influenced by Driscoll or celebrity-ism, was also listening to the CT podcast. During some disagreements over a case of abuse this pastor told my wife, “You know, Mark Driscoll got a lot of things wrong, but he was right about one thing: you either get on the bus or get run over by the bus.” And when my wife tried to defend a women who was abused by an elder, she got fired.
She was run over by the bus.
Not at a celebrity church. Not by a celebrity pastor. Probably no one has heard of this church. Probably no one knows who this pastor is. Yet I can imagine the senior pastor saying to his clergy peers something similar as Miller: “I’m not Mark Driscoll. I’m not that guy.” And they believed him.
We are speaking at a high level here. I’m not making a case that abuse is prevalent in church. Only questioning the assumption — one I hear most often from pastors and church leaders — that says abuse is not prevalent even though no one really knows. That statement only makes sense when pastors center their own experience to the exclusion of others’.
If people want to spend time critiquing excess media coverage of church abuse, that’s fair and fine. As I said, I’m all for more stories of beauty, stories of faithful shepherding, stories of goodness and truth and integrity. Eugene Peterson’s biography, a story of pastoral beauty and goodness, has meant as much to me in the past year as resources on healing from spiritual abuse. What I am decidedly against is using unfounded assumptions in said critiques of media stories. Assumptions like:
Abuse in the church is not that prevalent, not as big a deal as people say.
Abuse committed by celebrity pastors in megachurches doesn’t happen in your average local church.
Local pastors miles away from Seattle with no tangible connection to Mark Driscoll should not have to deal with the fallout of his larger-than-life story.
That last one is like Christians in 16th century Europe saying to Luther, “What does Tetzel have to do with me? I’m not a Tetzel. Don’t be making such a fuss.”
Here’s what Luther said about that kind of message3:
“And thus, away with all those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “Peace, peace,” and there is no peace!
May it go well for all of those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “Cross, cross,” and there is no cross!
Christians must be encouraged diligently to follow Christ, their head, through penalties, death, and hell,
And in this way they may be confident of “entering heaven through many tribulations” rather than through the [false] security of peace.”
What do you think about Miller’s complaint that “I feel like I’m trying to prove to everyone that I’m not a big jerk all the time, but I can’t, because you can’t prove a negative.” Is this a valid complaint? Or might it be that faithful shepherds are being called upon in this reformation-esque #churchtoo era to provide safe sheepfolds for wounded sheep, part of which might be proving their trustworthiness even though they did nothing to erode the sheep’s trust?
The Annotated Luther, Volume 1: The Roots of Reform, ed. Timothy Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), p. 45
As a side note, Miller’s comparison to media coverage of COVID-19 is a complete non-sequitur. Yes, media reporting can bias perception towards false conclusions, but to merely assume that is equally true about abuse reporting simply doesn’t follow. It’s apples and oranges.
The Annotated Luther, Volume 1, p. 46.