On an individual level, sanctimony refers to someone trying to appear holy without actually working to be holy. On a cultural level, sanctimony refers to a group of people who elevate others for appearing holy. Without a doubt, modern Christianity is a very sanctimonious culture. This toxic culture has allowed predators and misogynists to thrive in our midst, and the innocent will keep suffering until we address the root of the problem.
For Every Cockroach You See, There are a Hundred in Hiding
“Both prophet and priest are ungodly; even in my house I have found their evil, declares the LORD.” - Jeremiah 23:11
I can’t help but eye-roll and sigh every time I hear someone say they are “shocked and stunned” by the news of another sexual scandal in a church. Angry? Good. But shocked? You aren’t paying attention. The recent Willow Creek scandal and a fresh round of reports about Catholic leaders aren’t exceptions. Sadly, they are the rule.
It is wishful and irresponsible thinking that after each of these stories come to light, leaders say, “It was just a few bad people.” It wasn’t, and it isn’t. These are just the ones we are catching, and behind the scenes this is more prevalent than we are admitting. When we lift people up as exceptions to society, we are enabling them to act with great exception to social standards.
A Cult of Identity
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” - 1 Samuel 16:7
Protestants and Catholics have very different views of church leadership, but they share something very similar and dangerous: false identity. Catholic priests and Protestant pastors gain and maintain status in a community by filling an image. For Catholics, it is a very scripted image well-defined by tradition. For Protestant, it is a cultural image determined by trends and peers.
So there is the core problem: There are not expectations in the communities that surround priests or pastors for them to be transparent or actually commune with the people. In fact, they are expected to be the opposite: to be polished, opaque, champions of our ideal selves and kept at a distance. In this distance is the dark, damp, safe trench for all temptations and evils to fester without fear of sunlight.
Why We Give Human Beings the Power of Icons
Anytime we replace a human being with an image, or ideal, of a human being, we give that human being permission to do anything as long as they don’t break the illusion in public. In fact, we will even conspire to help them maintain the illusion for our sake. How else did hundreds of priests survive for decades abusing children? Those around them felt the image of the priest was more valuable than the children.
We participate in these conspiracies ourselves. We ignore and ridicule whistle-blowers; we make excuses for the predators; and we refuse to scrutinize our icons. We do this because THEY are a reflection of US. We want our priests to look holy because then we feel holy by association. We want our pastors to look successful because then we feel successful with them. Human beings have historically lived more through their leaders and icons rather than their actual individual selves.
We Need More “People” and Less “Priest”
Heathens organize themselves by strength, status, and hierarchy, but the Church was always supposed to be a priesthood of equals. So much so, that God tore the curtain from the Temple separating the priests from the community upon the death of Christ (Matthew 27:51, Hebrews 4:14–16). While we always need leaders, those leaders are supposed to be servants of the community, not rulers. However, as being heathens is our first nature, we have mixed-and-matched as we go.
It is time to realize that the cost of compromise is just too great. The Church can no longer survive under the old ways of lifting men up beyond their own humanity. We need to rethink our systems of accountability, status, and the culture of spiritual leadership. Communities organized around personalities and icons are cults, not churches.
We Are ALL to Blame
As shocking as the latest round of news has been, this is not the end. We haven’t addressed the problem. This is just going to keep happening. As long as we practice a religion through social status, outward appearances, and style over substance, we will give too much cover and power to flawed human beings. We might as well be placing our children in the offering plate as payment for our need to create illusions of perfection and religious status.
You might say, “But people didn’t KNOW this was going on!” To that I say: What would your reaction be if someone accused your pastor or priest of wrong doing? In the back of our minds, we pickup on signs and signals, but it is our values and priorities that determine what we act on. Yes, congregations are complicit in the actions of their leaders.
It is a fact that even the parents of abused children will often accuse their own children of lying rather than believe their priest or pastor has done wrong. I know, and I have seen it happen myself. Women and children always pay the price for the delusions of the community.
How We Fix This
If nothing changes in our churches, then we are choosing to allow this to continue. This is a profound moment of self-reflection in Christianity that could very well determine if it has a future. Major action needs taken, not small apologies and shaking of heads. An entire system created this problem, and only by changing the fundamental structure of the system will we fix it.
- We need more women in leadership. By more, I mean at least half. Bad behavior by men is tolerated more when leadership is all men. If we had mixed leadership, there would be no “boys club” issues. We need women priests, pastors, elders, etc., and we need them now.
- We need cultural diversity. Homogeonous cultures lead to identity-based social classes. With diverse people and cultures in our congregations, having an “ideal person” fades away. When one man wears a suit, and another wears a robe, we no longer have a consistent image.
- We need to grow leadership from within our communities. Our practice of hiring pastors and priests from outside contributes to their seperation. If we grew our leadership from within our congregations, there would be more accountability and transparency.
- The Catholic Church needs married priests, and the Evangelical church needs to open up about sexuality. All Christian communities are guilty about trying to suppress human sexuality to an “optional” part of life. This means that people are motivated to hide their sexuality for social status, and that creates a dark underworld.
- The LGBTQ community needs to be welcomed and embraced. The greatest blessing of the “gender spectrum” is that it removes sexuality and marriage from being a status symbol. The truth is that Christians have made being “ideal men” or “ideal women” too much of their identity. With LGBTQ acceptance, we can focus on just being “people.”