A Church Called Tov, by Laura Barringer and Scot McKnight

Book available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Church-Called-Tov-Goodness-Promotes-ebook/dp/B085FZMTT6/

This book is a mix of telling the facts about Bill Hybels’ fall from Willow Creek Church and showing how that can be generalized to describe a toxic church culture. Besides, it takes the second half of the book to propose what are the characteristics of a good church, or a Tov church (Tov is the word for goodness in Hebrew).

Laura and Scot (the authors) are daughter and father, and they were members of Willow Creek Church for many many years, having contact with multiple of the women that denounced Hybels misconducts. At the same time, Scot McKnight is a well known New Testament scholar, so he brings his expertise to this book to analyze some of the biblical passages misused in these cases of church abusive leadership.

“Our purpose here is not to get sucked into the vortex of Willow, but to use this example as one of several illustrations of what can happen when a church’s culture becomes toxic.” (p. 3)

Abusive Leadership

In the context of churches, we need to be vigilant for abuses of power, which are often connected to sexual and spiritual abuse. This is an unfortunate reality since there is a clear hierarchy in the church and whenever there are people with more power than others, we are prone to misuse this power. The culture of the church must resist abuse and promote healing, safety, and spiritual growth (p. 4).

As a consequence of this concentration of power, pastors will also receive a lot of attention: “Whether narcissists simply find their way to the top (which must be somewhat true) or the top of the leadership tower attracts narcissists (which also must be somewhat true), far too many churches have narcissists in leadership.” (p. 25) This can be a bigger problem in nondenominational churches, since they don’t report to any committee outside the church. However, I need to point out that denominational committees are also prone to abusive leadership, given their even higher position in the hierarchy of the church.

OK, but how to prevent these problems, then? It’s important that the people in the church are not merely looking for entertainment, but are involved in the development of the church. This can be a virtuous or vicious cycle, depending on their attitude: “We form church cultures, but we are simultaneously formed by the cultures we’ve helped to form.” (p. 18)

The most important points of the book are the clear examples of what *not* to do in case of a pastor being accused of something bad. There are too many ways that our behavior in these cases will set in motion a toxic culture in the church. It’s already really hard for anyone to have the courage to confront an abusive leader, either face to face, or through other channels, so the role of a healthy church is to make this as easy as possible, and handle any allegation with grace towards the victims. Of course, if it turns out not to be true or not to be exactly how it was presented, the church must know how to navigate that as well, but it should not be the default position to have a defensive posture and the first instinct to blatantly deny what happened.

When an allegation arises against a pastor, a leader, or a volunteer within a church, what the pastor or leadership does first will reveal the culture of the church — whether it is toxic or tov. If the response is confession and repentance, or a commitment to finding the truth if all the facts are not yet known, that church probably has a healthy, tov culture. On the other hand, if the pastor’s first instinct is denial, some form of story or narrative about “what really happened,” or a defensive posture against “those who would attack our church or ministry,” there are toxic elements at work within that church’s culture.” (pp. 41–42)

One biblical example that is used by toxic churches is the passage in Matthew 18:15–17: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” This is good advice and probably what Jesus meant to say for cases of minor disagreements, or where two equals are in conflict. But how would this passage apply to a case of sexual abuse? “When a woman or a child who has been sexually abused is required to meet one-on-one with the perpetrator, it becomes morally inexcusable and psychologically violent to insist upon legalistically following Matthew 18.” (pp. 48–49)

Goodness culture in the church

What does a Tov culture mean? Tov is the Hebrew word for “goodness,” but can mean various aspects of this goodness. Tov is God’s “executive virtue” (p. 86); it may refer to “God’s covenant making and generous acts of salvation” (p. 86); tov is also that which is “visually pleasing and pleasant, … desirable, … high quality” (p. 87). But Scot McKnight summarizes Tov as a different attribute of God: “Loving God and loving others is “all” we are called to do — though it is an all that goes to the depths of our being and transforms our character into love. To love is tov.” (p. 87)

Thus, our attitude towards others will define a tov culture:

“If we as individuals in the church will pursue Jesus’ tov way of life, we will help to create a tov church culture. A “church called tov” is designed by God to accomplish his purpose in the world by doing it his way… Tov churches are the work of God’s Spirit set free to create tov — and the eight other fruitful attributes outlined by Paul in Galatians 5. What God has in mind is a loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, tov, faithful, and self-controlled body of believers.” (p. 96)

The authors will spend many of the next chapters defining, discussing, and exemplifying each of these characteristics of a tov culture, similar to the fruit of the Spirit outlined by Paul in Galatians 5. Even though the examples and deeper analysis are helpful, I’ll limit myself to just add one citation that summarizes each of them:

  • Empathy: “Churches that follow Jesus don’t simply take up a cause for one specific group; they develop a culture in which they hear the cries of all the distressed, all the wounded, and respond with compassion.” (p. 103)
  • Grace: “Creating a grace-based family of siblings requires trust, the invisible glue that binds people together. Power and fear can undermine trust, but grace creates it. Without trust, there can be no genuine siblingship.” (p. 118)
  • People-first: “The church may not do this intentionally, but as any organization grows, there is a tendency toward “institution creep,” in which the needs of the organization — which may be coldhearted, misdirected, and anything but grace-filled — begin to supersede the needs of the people in the organization. That’s when people get squashed.” (p. 121)
  • Truth: “As difficult as it might be to revisit the pain of abuse, people who have been wounded want their stories to be told… People who have been abused need for the truth to be told so they can begin the process of healing… if darkness needs the light in order to root out evil, sometimes the most biblical thing we can do is to expose evil to the light of truth by going public.” (p. 143)
  • Justice: “So, what is justice? Equality, fairness, impartiality, goodness, neutrality, a legal decision by one authorized to make decisions? Yes, each, in some way. Notice that each of these terms operates according to a standard, so we might say that the foundation of justice is a standard by which we measure what is just or right.” (p. 166)
  • Service: “For the servant pastor, everything is different. A culture of service turns everyone toward one another instead of toward themselves. People are first, grace matters, empathy is a first response, truth is told, and doing what is right shapes the mission of the church… In a tov church, leaders maximize their giftedness when they empower others to maximize their own giftedness.” (p. 176)

Conclusion

Now that we have seen multiple examples of what not to do or how not to behave in situations of abusive leadership in the church; and now that we have seen many of the characteristics that will lead to a healthy church; let’s become a church and a church people that is more like Christ: “Goodness (tov) becomes an agent that influences every aspect of our lives. And the more we practice tov, the more the culture becomes tov . . . and round and round the circle of goodness we go!” (p. 201)

As I have heard in many sermons in American churches, it is a common practice to treat your church as you treat the last club you signed up for. At the moment they stop providing the services in the way you like, you stop going. But Laura and Scot challenge us to be different. The church is a community and it needs to be cared for and corrected as such. Let’s build a better culture and be more like Jesus!

“We’ve come to understand that “church” is not an event, and it is not about the pastor’s sermon. Church attendance is about joining a community of believers and being nurtured in the faith. Church is about soul work and confession of sin. Church is about relationships and community — which take time to build.” (p. 214)

Further reading

As it is becoming frequent in this blog, I tried to come up with a list of possible books for you to read next on the same topic. Other than the book from Beth Allison Barr, which I already posted a summary of, I didn’t read any of the others. I hope this list will incite you to continue to learn about this important subject and dive deep into creating a better culture for the church you are in.

  • Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989).
  • Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2019).
  • Stanley Hauerwas, A Community Of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991).
  • Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: BrazosPress, 2021).
  • Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (New York: Liveright, 2020).

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Philosophy & Theology nerd (MA degree). Christian. Software Eng. Brazilian. Doubt the premises; find the hidden assumptions; live the conclusions consistently.

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Helton Duarte

Helton Duarte

Philosophy & Theology nerd (MA degree). Christian. Software Eng. Brazilian. Doubt the premises; find the hidden assumptions; live the conclusions consistently.

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