The Break in the System

There is a renewed urgency today in Christian circles to address and solve large-scale problems.  It feels like we’re living through a break in the system.

On the one hand, we are facing a political reality that seems to be forcing our leaders and their parties further apart. On the other hand, the number of prominent leaders in the Evangelical church who suffer moral failure is increasing.

These failures have led some to ask if there is a systemic problem that is allowing, or even causing them to happen. And the public debate around these questions has been accelerating.

In recent Christianity Today podcast titled Who Killed Mars Hill?, Mike Cosper follows the ministry of Mark Driscoll who rose to prominence in the conservativeYoung, Restless and Reformed movement, grew his Seattle-based church to 18 campuses and launched the Acts 29 church planting movement.

But behind closed doors, Mark could be abusive, and was becoming more so in public. When confronted with these problems, Driscoll abruptly resigned and the multi-site church broke into separate congregations.

In the opening to this multi-part podcast, one person asked, “why are we not looking at the deep seated reasons for this?” And another states “We have a culture of church members who would prefer a narcissist leading a church.” This podcast explores the failure of a prominent leader in a doctrinally conservative church and church planting organization. And side by side are questions about systemic abuse and narcissism.

As the podcast demonstrates, it was not only what Driscoll did as a leader, but what his followers allowed him to do that ultimately made this situation untenable. The series explores the history of the the mega-church and multi-site approach, and draws parallels to the break-up of another major church planting network, that of the Maryland-based Sovereign Grace Network.

These organizations and leaders were models that other churches and organizations wanted to follow. But the reality turned out to be very different.

The Corruptibility of Systems

I just described Christianity as a system of faith, and indeed it is.  So, how does that work with the corruptibility of systems?

The central tenets of our faith are identified as systematic theology. This means there is a logical and sequential way to understand what we believe, which is not necessarily the order in which the Bible presents the narrative of what we hold true.

But this brings us back to our undiagnosed problem. Systems are necessary and indispensable, but any system is also corruptible. That means we are constantly caught between the expediency of developing and using systems and the certainty that they will go awry and cause harm as well as good.

The systematic theology of the Christian faith is an example of this. I have loved and taught systematic theology in nearly every church I’ve served over 20 years of ministry. However, I have also seen the problems that the misapplication of systematic theology can cause.

This harm is often the result of the enthusiasm one feels when certain aspects of what you believe suddenly fit together into a more cohesive whole. But that same enthusiasm presents you with the temptation to begin to extend that logic to things that are outside of what the Bible clearly teaches. While that may not be wrong in itself, it is only one or two steps further until you are espousing something that clearly contradicts Scripture.

And this is the nub of the problem: How do we know when we are getting off track? Here again, we rely on systems to protect us. These protections are built in to safeguard the integrity of the system itself. But if the flaws in the system are deep enough, they corrupt the safeguards themselves. In such a case, the whole structure is likely to collapse.

We see an example of this in the growing area of cyber security. There’s not an aspect of our modern lives that are not in some way touched by technology, and many areas can no longer function without it. (Just look at how cashless payment and online shopping have increased during the pandemic.)

But along with this greater dependency is the awareness that our systems are inherently vulnerable. Hardly a week goes by without news of some kind of cyber attack that exploited one of these vulnerabilities. More and more, these vulnerabilities and the expense of counteracting them have simply become part of the cost of doing business in a digital age.

Ransomware and identity theft are big problems, and we are collectively spending billions of dollars to try to manage them. But they pale in comparison to the other problems we face: How will we govern ourselves? How will we face global threats? How will we ensure the future of our children?

Each one of these problems has countless proposed solutions. And each one of those solutions relies upon some form of system. But this only brings us back to our central question. How do we know when our systems have gone off track?

How do we know when the solution has become the problem? How do we maintain any hope of a solution that doesn’t simply create more and greater problems down the road?

The System Behind All Systems

The System Behind All Systems

We rely on systems to manage our lives. But do we ever step back and look for the system behind all systems?

That begins to sound like a conspiracy theory or some kind of “deep state.” But if we’re honest, we all have moments when we wonder if the whole thing isn’t rigged against us.

A Downward Spiral

There is a system behind all these systems. And yes, this system has been corrupted. But this is not a system we developed. Rather it’s the system we discovered. In fact, every system we have is a reflection of this system to some degree.

Because this system was not our design, it’s not our problem to fix. Rather, someone else is already fixing it, and we have the opportunity to be part of that work.

I’m speaking of the simple story that God created the world with a specific purpose, it was corrupted when it fell into sin, but God has begun a process of redemption to restore the world to its intended purpose. That redemption was accomplished in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but the effects of that redemption are still being worked out in our world and lives today.

I believe, by faith, this is narrative is true. But how does that apply to the problems we are facing today? There are many excellent resources that will describe and seek to persuade you of the truth of what I’ve described above. But I’m trying to take a different approach.

I want an approach that is practical and hopeful. One that helps us see and feel immediate results, and make plans for the future. To do that, I look for where God is working in these systemic failures that burden us now.

That gives me glimpses into his solution for the brokenness of the world. Then I try to bring that hope into the brokenness of the systems in which I live and work.

The System Behind All Systems

Yes, that means I’m using a system to manage my systems. And based on what we’ve seen, that would only create more problems.

Unless there is a system that God created. That system would be perfect, and all our broken systems are just a poor reflection of it. But even a poor reflection points to the existence of the real thing.

But first, we must look at how God created his system, in the beginning.

Rising Threat Levels

rising threat levels

If anyone who isn’t like us becomes our enemy, we are asking our problems bigger. That’s what happens when we talk about problems in general terms. But what can we do here and now to solve the problems out there? Or are rising threat levels just a part of life?

Until we see these problems as ours to solve, we will expect someone else to do it. So problems get worse, and we blame others for not doing anything about them.

General Threat Response

This generalization of threats is another manifestation of the problem created by systems, and it affects the way we interact with people.

These systems magnify our sense that people want to do us harm, but they also generalize where that harm comes from. The result is that we go into many casual interactions already on guard, and suspicious of the ill intent that lies beneath that initial greeting.

Culture helps us manage our interactions with others. It creates a relational short-hand that allows us to communicate without having to establish all of the points of reference we would need to give our interaction meaning.

Culture helps us “get it” with other people, and more quickly creates a mutual experience of trust and shared perspective. But when we connect with fewer and fewer people, those outside that group are viewed with increasing mistrust and suspicion.

Problems Created by Systems

What’s the connection between these divisions and the systems underlying them? In short, these large-scale problems become large-scale because they are built on systems that expand their reach.

These are the same systems we hope will expand the reach of the message of the gospel, that God loves the world and sent his Son, Jesus, to make a way of salvation. But when something goes wrong, the harm done by these system-based programs is also multiplied.

This creates a tension. We are predisposed to trust systems, but intuitively know that no system will perform perfectly. So we compensate for this instability by relying on multiple systems in various places, and so hedge our bets against failure in one. This can lead to a contradictory and often chaotic view of the world.

Threat Levels Rising

We can keep these conflicting approaches working together for a time.  But when one fails, it can create a cascading failure in the others. Or in times of stress, we can’t keep it all straight. We end up performing for one system when we should be functioning in another.

Yet this all falls apart because of us. People don’t work as systems do, and the problems with people can’t be solved by systems.