Discover more from Once A Week
Thin Skin and Red Flags
Warning Signs before the Bully Pulpit Bites Again
Puffed up balloons are more susceptible to popping with rage at the slightest prick. A 10-minute read (according to Substack’s algorithm), because I like sharing lots of long quotes.
When we see defensive, reactionary responses to disagreement and criticism, we must wave the red flag. *Warning!* *Danger!* A man that will yell at staff whom he perceives as a threat to his self-image will not be a man that protects vulnerable sheep, whether from himself or other wolves. But are we able to discern the pastor behind the curtain?
I became open to more honest assessment of my heroes after reading John Owen and English Puritanism: Experiences of Defeat by Crawford Gribben. John Owen has been a theological hero and spiritual guide for 15 years. I have read almost all of his collected works and edited a compilation of 365 daily devotional readings. Suffice to say, Owen is a dear friend. But we tend to ignore faults in our friends more readily than acquaintances and enemies. Gribben’s biography of Owen revealed aspects of his personality that don’t come through his writings.
On the one hand, Owen made justly famous and inspiring statements like this:
I hope I may own in sincerity, that my heart’s desire unto God, and the chief design of my life in the station wherein the good providence of God hath placed me, are, that mortification and universal holiness may be promoted in my own and in the hearts and ways of others, to the glory of God; that so the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ may be adorned in all things.1
On the other hand, Owen left very little autobiographical material records, and without the aid of skilled historians we can easily assume that the man in the books was the man in reality. Sadly, Gribben showed me an Owen that was not only brilliant, industrious and committed to the cause of Christ, but also prideful, vain, questionably ambitious, and susceptible to thin-skinned defensiveness. I am grateful to know my hero better, and see him as a sinner like myself. I am also grateful because it has helped me be wary of similar tendencies in powerful religious leaders (of any amount of power relative to lay people, not just megachurch pastors).
I recently finished Bully Pulpit by Michael Kruger. He makes a commonplace observation that “Abusive pastors are notoriously thin-skinned, seeing even the slightest bit of criticism as a threat to their power.”2 This reminded me of a side of John Calvin that became apparent after reading Refusing to Kiss the Slipper: Opposition to Calvinism in the Francophone Reformation by Michael Bruening. He cites repeated examples of Calvin’s defensive reactions to his fellow French-speaking Protestant critics. While I am a Calvinist, or even because I am a card-carrying 5-point Calvinist, I think it’s important we that we avoid hagiographic pictures of the great French Reformer. Not simply as a misunderstanding of the man himself, but because of the real possibility that his heirs are prone to similar sinful characteristics.
“Even the denominational tribes that we might consider the most theologically solid and the most doctrinally faithful are not immune to this problem [spiritual abuse/bully pastors]. Rather, it is sometimes precisely these groups that are most vulnerable because they often presume from the outset that the purity of their pastor's doctrine must somehow guarantee the purity of their pastor's character. Perhaps a little more humility about the former may have occasioned a little more self-reflection about the latter.”3
I would add that communities that place a strong emphasis on doctrine and theology are vulnerable to producing bully pastors because “knowledge puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1).
Puffed up balloons are more susceptible to popping with rage at the slightest prick.
I invite you to consider these statements from letters Calvin wrote to the pastors and city council of Berne in 1555. In these letters Calvin was responding to Berne’s decision to ban his theology, a political power-move even if religiously motivated. In reading them, consider that if Calvin is capable of such thin-skinned defensiveness, perhaps your favorite pastor/preacher/writer is, too.
“will it be lawful for me to devour in silence the reproaches which the professors of the same gospel throw out against me? … more than a thousand men all over their territory keep up the cry that they had settled [defeated] the heretic [Calvin]. Were it not better to have been put to death ten times over, than to live to see one’s self so contumeliously proscribed?”4
Apparently for Calvin, being cancelled by Berne was worse than being put to death 10 times! If Calvin were alive today would critics of “wokism” etc. presume Calvin to be a “product of a therapeutic victim culture”?5
“Without adducing other examples, had he not the effrontery to say that I laid too great stress on the humanity of Jesus Christ? To which reproach I reply, that if Jesus Christ were not in all respects man, and in all respects God, he could not be our Redeemer. But such people care very little about that, provided they can detract from my reputation.”6
Here Calvin can sidestep and dismiss theological critique as baseless because the motive, as he presumed, was not really truth but character assassination.
“But what is worse, both Jerome your preacher at Servant with whom I never had any dispute, and Corbeil deacon of Morges, in whose favour I interested myself when he was in prison, have openly proclaimed in the streets before sufficient witnesses, that you have condemned me as a heretic. This fiction is now so current in your country, that people speak of it as confidently as if it were the gospel. Now I think it is not just, when I labour day and night in the service of the church, and for the maintenance of the truth, that I should reap such sorry thanks for my pains. True it is, I shall never on account of the world's ingratitude cease to do what God commands me, nevertheless it is your duty to see that I be not wrongfully oppressed, since my labours, on the contrary, deserve that I should meet with encouragement.”7
In other words, “my gospel ministry deserves only thanks and praise not accusation and slander, from which I should be defended.”
Now, I’m not on an anti-Calvin agenda. I am a Calvinist and have benefited greatly from Calvin’s legacy. But I’m convinced that we uphold Calvin and his teaching ministry similar to how we uphold present-day pastors: glory in their gifts, and excuse their errors.
The reason why we know about the dark side of Calvin’s character is because his authoritarian control generated vocal criticism. But the inner circle justified his anger. Consider these words from his first biographer, Theodore Beza:
There are others who have found him too angry. I do not want to make an angel of a man, this notwithstanding, because I know how wonderfully God has made use of this vehemence myself, I must not keep silent about it and what I know about it. Besides his self-prone nature to anger, the marvelously quick wit, the indiscretion of many, the multitude and infinite variety of affairs for the Church of God, and, at the end of his life, great and ordinary things had made him sad and difficult.8
Is the “bully pulpit” syndrome a product of believing “how wonderfully God has made use of this vehemence”? I really hope not. Because anger and defensiveness go hand-in-hand, and defensiveness among church leaders inevitably protects pastors over the sheep.
Paul instructed Titus that “overseers…must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined” (Titus 1:7-8).
The problem with discerning these character qualities is that being temperate, slow to anger, and self-controlled without a position of power and spiritual authority is quite different when granted such power. How do you know if your pastor is thin-skinned? You might not know until it’s too late.
Earlier in his ministry Calvin criticized Martin Luther for venting his anger on friends rather than enemies of the truth. Ironically, as Calvin’s power in Geneva grew, would-be friends of the Protestant cause repeatedly criticized Calvin for his own boiling temper. But when he wrote this to Bullinger on November 25, 1544, Calvin’s power and influence in Geneva were far from solidified:
Often have I been wont to declare, that even although [Luther] were to call me a devil, I should still not the less hold him in such honour that I must acknowledge him to be an illustrious servant of God. But while he is endued with rare and excellent virtues, he labours at the same time under serious faults. Would that he had rather studied to curb this restless, uneasy temperament which is so apt to boil over in every direction. I wish, moreover, that he had always bestowed the fruits of that vehemence of natural temperament upon the enemies of the truth, and that he had not flashed his lightning sometimes also upon the servants of the Lord. Would that he had been more observant and careful in the acknowledgment of his own vices. Flatterers have done him much mischief, since he is naturally too prone to be over-indulgent to himself. It is our part, however, so to reprove whatsoever evil qualities may beset him, as that we may make some allowance for him at the same time on the score of these remarkable endowments with which he has been gifted.9
Calvin was aware of the danger of flattery, which not only enables “over-indulgent” anger but also keeps flatterers from experiencing it themselves. You probably won’t see arrogance and a quick-temper as long as you feed rather than starve a leader’s ego. But if you have felt the bite of the bully pulpit, you will probably hesitate to follow Calvin’s recommendation to “make some allowance” for a leader’s sin on account of “remarkable endowments.” On this point, we would rightly remind Calvin of his own advice from the Institutes that leaders, especially the remarkably gifted, deserve more discipline, not less.10
Ability is no excuse for anger. Brilliance does not balance out bullying. No amount of talent justifies any amount of defensive temper. When we see these traits, lets be theologians and call them what they are: destructive sins that signal, not shepherds, but wolves.
Quotes from Richard Foster
Power can be an extremely destructive thing in any context, but in the service of religion it is downright diabolical. Religious power can destroy in a way that no other power can.
What we must see is the wrongness of those who think they are always right. Jesus Christ alone is always right. The rest of us must recognize our own foibles and frailties and seek to learn from the correction of others. If we do not, power can take us down the path of the demonic.
Humility is power under control. Nothing is more dangerous than power in the service of arrogance. Power under the discipline of humility is teachable…Power destroys when it is not coupled with the spirit of humility.
When the Holy Spirit instructed Christ’s church that “overseers…must not be arrogant or quick-tempered…or violent” (Titus 1:7-8), were these requirements, or just recommendations? Stipulations, or suggestions? Imperatives, or just helpful information?
Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, in Works of John Owen, 6:4.
Bully Pulpit: Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church, p. 31.
Bully Pulpit, p. XV.
Letter to Bern pastors May, 1555, in Letters of John Calvin, edited by Jules Bonnet, translated by Marcus Robert Gilchrist (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1858), vol. 3:174.
Bully Pulpit, p. 37.
Letter to the seigneurs of Berne May 4, 1555, in Letters of John Calvin, 3:179.
Letters of John Calvin, 3:180.
Max Engammare, “John Calvin’s Seven Capital Sins,” in John Calvin - Saint or Sinner?, edited by Herman J. Selderhuis (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), p. 28. Please note, Engammare reproduced the Beza quote in French, and my copy is merely from Google Translate. I lament stopping French after my sophomore year in high school.
Letters of John Calvin, 1:433.
“It is becoming that the people should be ruled by a kindlier, and, if I may so speak, laxer discipline; that the clergy should be stricter in their censures, and less indulgent to themselves than to others.” The Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.12.22.