I wrote this piece several days ago in Mandarin and posted it here. But a friend of mine suggested to me to translate it into English to benefit more people. So here it is. I also made a bit of revision and clarification. If you are familiar with this incident, you can skip the “Background” section, and go straight to “A Pastor’s Model” section.
In the past few days, there has been a stir on Pastor Rick Warren’s Facebook page. It all started when Warren decided to post a picture of a red guard (to be more precise, a picture of ballet show called “The Red Detachment of Women,” the setting of which was in the 1930s but the story itself was written in the 1950s and later was turned into ballet at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution so that the picture well serves as a symbol of Red Guard), and he commented, “The typical attitude of Saddleback Staff as they start work each day.”
When several people complained in the thread that Warren does not understand what this picture signifies, and explained that Red Guard is not a figure one should use to make a joke, he responded:
“People often miss irony on the Internet. It’s a joke, people. If you take this seriously, you really shouldn’t be following me. Did you know that, using Hebrew ironic humor, Jesus inserted certain laugh lines – jokes – in the Sermon on the Mount? The self-righteous miss them all while the disciples were undoubtedly giggling.”
Dr. Sam Tsang later wrote a blog entry criticizing Warren for lack of cultural sensitivity. One day passed before Warren took down the picture and deleted all the comments under the post. He then commented on Tsang’s article, thanking him for his teaching. Tsang perceived it as an apology, even though many readers don’t think it amounts to an apology. A day later, Warren wrote on his FB page what seems to be an official apology:
“Finally back home. Staff handed me a hard copy of an email from someone offended by a picture I posted. If you were hurt, upset, offended, or distressed by my insensitivity I am truly sorry. May God richly bless you.”
Many are still dissatisfied with this statement and question Warren’s sincerity. There surely would have been hundreds of email and one should not use “if” in an official apology, as if the fault is still on those who feel offended.
Here are several other blog entries that were written immediately afterwards to address this issue. As of Oct. 2, there are dozens more, but I won’t list them here.
Just as one may think this incident is about to end, it got worse. Under the thread of Warren’s official apology, many people voiced their comments, but most of them tried to defend for Warren, claiming that he does not need to apologize, and faulting those who are “over-sensitive.” Some even said that Warren is being persecuted. Still others claimed that it is the Devil’s attack. Having seen these comments, I have some personal reflection I would like to make below.
A Pastor’s Model
In a church, it does not matter whether the pastor wants it or not, his behavior can easily be imitated. We know that nobody is perfect, so we can only expect that there will be some words or actions from the pastor that falls short of ideal. Hence what is important for the pastor is not to be as perfect as possible. The stress that comes along is too heavy that nobody can bear it. Instead, what is important is to constantly reflect on one’s words and actions, and their impact on the congregation. If a pastor finds that the congregation is encouraged love God and people more by some of his specific words or actions, he can consider keeping them up, but if he finds that his congregation exhibits some traits that he does not feel right, he can think about whether he also exhibits the same traits and is imitated by the congregation. If that is the case, he should try to correct himself.
This is more easily said than done. Usually people are blind to their shortcomings, or even consider them as positive traits. So what usually happens is that when the congregation starts to imitate their pastor, the pastor would see no problem, but even feels great!
To use an example, let’s say that because of lack of broad theological worldview or psychological security, a certain pastor thinks that all the teachings in his church need to be univocal (whether he is aware of this mentality is not important); thus he requires that all his staff and volunteers agree with him on everything concerning matters of faith. If a leader teaches something different in a Bible Study or cell group, he or she would be summoned to the pastor’s office to be “corrected.” Slowly but gradually, those who are uncomfortable with the pastor’s leading style all left the church. Those who remained are the obedient ones, who adhere to the pastor’s authority, and if they hear some teaching different than the pastor’s, they would frown on it and reject it without much thought. Even though this mentality is undesirable, the pastor would not see it as such, but is actually glad that his congregation is obedient and humble. He also would likely think that his way of guiding his congregation is faithful to his calling, and he would feel proud of himself. Thus both the pastor and the congregation are stuck in a situation where they cannot detect what has gone wrong.
I wish that nobody would want to be in a similar situation. So how can pastors avoid it? I think part of the solution is that the pastor needs to know that he is imperfect, capable of doing wrong, and has blind spots; thus he tries different means to correct himself and improve his ministry. He would often reflect on Jesus saying, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26) He understands that if he is in a situation where nobody points out his fault, or that if he denies every accusation or criticism (claiming that they come from the Devil, or other excuses), he would be in a very dangerous position. So he constantly tells himself to pay attention to different voices. Those who left the church usually do not tell the real reason, so he goes to visit them or treat them a lunch to ask them humbly which part of his ministry made them feel uncomfortable. Other than asking for opinions, he also tries to learn new things by interacting with other pastors (such as in an annual convention of his denomination), reading books, attending seminars, and even going back to his seminary to take courses that he did not take before. If a church is fortunate to have this type of pastor, the church will be a healthy one.
Going back to the example mentioned above, if the pastor has such a healthy self-awareness, even if he start off with the wrong mentality that all the teachings in his church must be univocal, he would discover that some of his congregation are unhappy of his “dictatorship” and choose to leave. He would then start to reflect on his leadership style. He would study more on leadership, and discover that his way of leadership seems not to be the best one. He would read more theological works, and discover that there are riches in different theological traditions that he previously was unaware of. He starts to be open to different points of view and is more careful on using the label of heresy. He does not insist on his congregation agreeing on everything he teaches anymore, but would even encourage his congregation to do their own research. If somebody asks him about a topic he is not familiar with, he feels OK to say he does not know the answer, and encourages the person to do research on it and come back to educate him. The congregation that grows out of this leadership style would be vastly different. They do not treat the pastor as God incarnate, as they are aware of the pastor’s shortcomings that he freely admits. They are passionate to do their own study on matters of faith so that they actually own what they believe, instead of simply accepting whatever they are taught. They would imitate the pastor’s attitude of openness. When they see other people do wrong, they have more patience and are more willing to extend forgiveness, for they know that they themselves are not perfect. When they hear different points of view, they are willing to give benefits of doubts, instead of outright rejection as if they already know everything.
We all know that pastors are under a lot of stress because all eyes are on them. We also know that whatever the pastors do, it affects the church’s direction and atmosphere. Usually pastors cope with this kind of stress by acting as holy as he can, wishing that people can also act as holy as they can. But I think a better way of coping with the stress is to admit wrong whenever it surfaces and put up no pretention to be holy. After all, it is the scribe’s prayer that got recognized, not the Pharisee’s. (Luke 18:10-14)
I believe that Warren really wants to serve God and wishes that his ministry can glorify God; thus I regret that this incident happened. If he could admit wrong at the first reaction, instead of criticizing people for not getting the “joke” with sarcasm, the incident would have been over before people know it. Now he can still make remedy by calling out to his congregation not to defend for him and not to criticize the Asian population anymore. Warren can even turn this incident into a valuable lesson to be learned and shared, illustrating the importance of inter-cultural communication. If he had done so, many who at first reject Warren’s need to apologize may think again, and be educated.
Today, Oct. 2nd, I heard some very regrettable news. Instead of issuing another apology that looks more genuine, or even just staying silent afterwards (which would be less ideal, but still acceptable), Warren used his pulpit on Sept. 29 to criticize those who are offended. Here is the video. The criticism starts at 18:49. And here is a transcript, with Chinese translation. This is what he said,
“First verse is Philippians 1:15, it says “It’s true that some preach Christ because they are jealous and quarrelsome”. Circle the word quarrelsome. That word in Greek is the word “Eris” E-R-I-S, and it means “they love to argue”. Have you ever meet anybody like that? They love to argue. They love conflicts, they enjoy creating controversies. They enjoy getting into catfight. These people are contentious, they are divisive, they are critical. Have you ever heard a radio preacher like that? They are out there. Have you ever read a blogger, or saw somebody in social media who was contentious, and critical. Somebody’s ministry of this and that. If you haven’t just go to my website, you’ll find hundreds and plenty. Notice here, it says “they are jealous and quarrelsome”. Notice that these critiques, they are mostly jealousy. When people criticizing somebody it is usually jealous of it.”
These words prove that his previous apology was not genuine at all. He does not think that he has done anything wrong, and the problem lies at those who feel offended. Warren thinks that they criticize him because they are simply jealous of his ministry. This is a very arrogant but ignorant statement. If Warren had used a picture of a Nazi, not a Red Guard, he would not get away with it that easily. But the fact that the congregation giggled as he mentioned there are hundreds of quarrelsome people on his FB page shows that his congregation imitated him well, exhibiting the same cultural insensitivity and lack of empathy. Starting from today, I have lost all respect for Warren.
With his kind of mentality, I suggest that he or the Saddleback Church does not try to plant churches in Hong Kong. For a person ignorant of Chinese history, exhibiting no empathy and no cultural sensitivity, it is truly a JOKE that he wants to plant a church in Hong Kong. Check out their website for Hong Kong mission. It’s all in English! I am so surprised that even in 21st century, there is actually a church that think they can reach Chinese population by speaking English. But wait! After this Red Guard picture joke, maybe I should not be so surprised at all.