New Wine Needs New Wineskins
Because abuse & trauma are bursting a narrow limited church
If churches implement policies and programs to care well for the abused without repenting of old ways of exercising authority and power, it is new wine in old wine skins. The skins will burst, the sheep will continue to be eaten, and the old system will remain intact, unchanged and in control.
Jesus’ parable of new wine in new wineskins has been applied in numerous ways throughout church history (cf Matthew 9:14-17; Mark 2:18-22; Luke 5:33-39). For example, “Augustine interprets it to refer to the fleshly senses and the new person, Origen to law and grace, Chromatius to the church and the perfidy of the “old” synagogue, Luther to the righteousness of the law and of faith.”1
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It is a rich image, one which Christians have interpreted in unique ways to fit their present context and concerns. The core of Jesus’ parable points to the rupture caused by discontinuity, and sometimes even incompatibility, between old and new.
The present crisis of authority in the evangelical church is a call for new wineskins. As I chronicled in a previous newsletter, there has always been, and until Christ returns sadly always will be, the problem of abuse of power by leaders in the church. Power and control are the root cause of why abuse allegations are blowing up individual churches and smearing Christ’s name across the globe. Control is an old wineskin, incapable of expanding with the spreading need of care for the abused.
In story after story, allegations are made against a church leader, and rather than widen the circle, they circle the wagons. Indeed, I once heard a church elder say it was “time to circle the wagons” because of allegations about abuse. Why?
It’s so familiar we don’t take time to think about it: the phrase “circle the wagons” is a reference to how groups of travelers would create a defensive circle with their wagons at night to ward off potential attacks. Indeed, it appears to be such a natural, common sense strategy that it shows up throughout history in many parts of the world. One simply does not say “circle the wagons” without the presence of fear. And why the connection between fear and abuse?
Allegations of abuse—which at root is always an abuse of power—unsettles us because it calls into question the trust we place in ourselves and our positions and our friends. “Him, an abuser? No way, I know him, he would never do that.” It provokes fear because of stories about accusations causing people to lose jobs and livelihoods. We fear because the truth itself is dangerous: what happens to my faith when I realize the one who fed me was a wolf? We also fear punishment, whether from God, the state, the flock, or the court of public opinion.
Although God promises that “perfect love casts out fear”, it is not a guarantee, “For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1 John 4:18). Fear of punishment is an old wineskin and an old garment. It is incompatible with the need to love the vulnerable and oppressed. Yet fear is in every one of us, and fear contracts. We curl into a protective ball in the presence of threat. Contraction, circling the wagons in fear, is a manifestation of control, and an old wineskin.
Leaders may be on board with reforms to provide greater protection and care for the sheep. They may genuinely want to help. But to the degree that fear rules, control will always be the crutch used to manage a crisis.
We need new wineskins for the new wine of caring well for the abused. Wineskins that expand to allow examination from the outside. Culture that welcomes critique. Churches that are alert to the presence of wolves. Leaders that follow Jesus in sacrificing their lives for the safety of the sheep. A society of Jesus followers which finds its identity in Jesus and prizes likeness to Christ above the allure of power and control and influence.
In a word, this new wineskin is being clothed with Christ (Galatians 3:27). It is the only cloth that won’t tear but will match the needs of the vulnerable, wounded and oppressed (Luke 5:36).
Quote from J.C. Ryle
The evils that have arisen from trying to sew the new patch on the old garment, and put the new wine into old bottles, have neither been few nor small.
A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture that Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing, by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer..
How do you assess your church culture? This is a question for all Christians, not just leaders. To use McKnight and Barringer’s phrase, do you know if your church has a “tov culture”?