Some thoughts that came to me when I saw the movie Concussion. I see a lot of parallels between the NFL and the modern evangelical Christian church. There is a lot of corruption, and those dedicated to preservation of a system that is (spiritually) killing people. These are some thoughts that rolled through my mind in a dark theater that led to this post.
“There are times I wish I never looked at Mike Webster’s brain. It has dragged me into worldly affairs I do not want to be associated with. Human meanness, wickedness, and selfishness. People trying to cover up, to control how information is released. I started this not knowing I was walking into a minefield. That is my only regret.”
Dr. Bennett Omalu
“We live by revelations, as Christians, as artists, which means we must be careful never to get set into rigid molds. The minute we begin to think we know all the answers, we forget all the questions and we become like the Pharisee who listed all his considerable virtues, and thanked God that he was not like other men. “
“My daughter I see more Pharisees among Christians then there were around Pilot.”
Margaret of Cortona
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. 28 Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness. 29 What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you build tombs for the prophets your ancestors killed, and you decorate the monuments of the godly people your ancestors destroyed. 30 Then you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would never have joined them in killing the prophets.’ 31 “But in saying that, you testify against yourselves that you are indeed the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Go ahead and finish what your ancestors started. 33 Snakes! Sons of vipers! How will you escape the judgment of hell?
Matthew 23:27-33 NLT
Mike Webster (played by David Morsein Concussion) was a beloved icon in Pittsburgh. He played for the Steelers and won four Super Bowl rings from 1974 to 1979. Some regard him as the greatest center in National Football League history. After retiring from pro-football he dealt with depression, amnesia and dementia. He lived out of a truck between Wisconsin and Pittsburgh and huffed turpentine. To deal with the pain he tasered himself. He died at 50 of a heart attack where he was studied and autopsied by a Pittsburgh forensic pathologist from Nigeria named Bennet Omalu. (Played by Will Smith) Omalu couldn’t figure out why he died so young, it didn’t make sense. He had asked if he could study Mike’s brain in detail and he got his blessing by his boss Dr. Cyril Wecht (Played by Albert Brooks). In doing tissue analysis from specialized slides of stained brain tissue Dr. Bennet Omalu made a discovery. There was a lot of tau protein which should not have been there. He had other medical professionals review the findings and Mike Webster’s brain as had identified a new disease. He labeled the discovery and wrote a paper called “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player.” The constant hits, from football resulted in head injuries, as the brain was shaken. The proteins that are released in as a result cause memory loss, hallucinations, and more trauma. One by one former NFL greats died early or committed suicide. Legends such as Terry Long of the Pittsburgh Steelers committed suicide by drinking antifreeze. Andre Waters who played for the Philadelphia Eagles committed also committed suicide by shooting himself in the face. Then there was the case of Pittsburgh Steelers Justin Strzelczyk. Known as “Jugs” he was quite popular. His health declined and he was having similar mental health issues to Mike Webster. He led police on a wild chase for 37 miles sometimes at a rate of speed 100 miles per hour before crossing lanes and driving into a tanker truck. He committed suicide as well. His brain was examined and like Mike Webster he had the same issue, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.
Omalu thought the NFL would be happy to have this discovery. That they could learn and better prepare and protect football players. That people would welcome the news and that the organization and the medical science would work together to solve the problem. The reaction was the exact opposite. The NFL dismissed his medical work and criticized him. He received death threats and had his work scrutinized. There was one person who believed him, it was Dr. Julian Bailes, the former doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The system came down on Dr. Omalu and eventually forced an investigation on Dr. Cyril Wecht that was basically harassment on frivolous charges. The NFL was aware of the medical condition for years and they suppressed the findings and hid them. They were concerned with image, money and the perception of the organization. They were not as concerned with the players safety. After all the NFL owned a day of the week. The faith and belief in the system that Dr. Omalu had was challenged. The NFL by its policies was stonewalling and killing players. The GQ article that inspired the movie Concussion can be read here. There was one touching scene at the end where Omalu met with the NFL Players League. He talked about honoring our warriors and protecting them. He reads the names of people who have been lost to CTE, people who died. Its an emotional moment as people who knew those that were deceased cried.
Dealing with Preconceived Ideals of Church, When you Encounter Corruption
We all have pre-conceived notions of how many institutions, government, medicine, or the education system should work. It’s a part of being human. In this scene in the movie Dr. Omalu describes how he came to the United States from Nigeria and how he viewed the United States. In his mind it was just short of heaven. It was safe, free of corruption and problems. He was a pathologist in Pittsburgh doing his job, he never intended to discover something that would strike fear into the NFL. It wasn’t what his life was meant to become. He deals with the preconceived notions of the United States he realizes that he is wrong and is struggling with the cold hard reality of the situation. His autopsy of Mike Webster turned everything on its head. (Pardon the pun!)
The Christian church is generally viewed as a safe place. Corruption, sex abuse, financial fraud, bad theology, manipulation, church hijackings, questionable church discipline, nepotism, questionable ethics, or fundamentalism are all things that don’t go through your mind. You don’t think your pastor can be corrupt. You don’t think the Youth Pastor is a sexual predator. You come to church with this notion that the church is there to heal, help, nurture, and grow people’s faith. We all are taught to believe that by the church. We often get involved trusting the church. That is how I used to view church for years. Even in the midst of problems and challenges I still considered the church in that mindset and followed the preconceived ideals. Often we are all like that all of us who have been veterans of the modern evangelical church. We are all like Dr. Bennet Omalu in that regard.
How many here can remember the first time they encountered corruption or a red flag from a church situation that gave you pause? Here are some of the red flags that I have encountered over the years:
- A woman shouting profanities outside the book store in Milwaukee’s Elmbrook Church in 2003 or so. Being taken back by that and thinking…”what did I just witness?” I wrote about that in this post here.
- Having an Air Force Captain invite me to a Sovereign Grace Ministries church plant called Redeemer Arlington. I knew nothing about SGM, and thought to myself, it would probably be okay. When Andrew told me about SGM Survivors I thought it was nothing. A couple of disgruntled people who have an axe to grind I initially thought. I’ll check it out and I am sure its going to be nothing…that is what I thought. I recall the first time I looked at SGM Survivors and came across the issues. I was stunned, and froze. This wasn’t just one or two people…it is a thriving online community. I read story after story…from Noel, Happymom and Wallace, Anon’s Set Free’s, ExCLCer, and on and on it went. I knew something was wrong. I just stumbled into something that gave me pause that told me that Sovereign Grace wasn’t as healthy as Andrew White told me.
- I remember when I was at Fairfax Community Church I was in my first church after a faith crisis that consumed half my thirties. I dealt with Andy Gingrich and I recall how he came down in a totalitarian manner that was stunning. His roots in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church are still there I would suggest. I ran his emails on a situation I was in by Dee Parsons who told me that his actions and behavior were controlling. I didn’t want this to be an issue, as I wanted my first church after my baptism to work out. In time I would find out that I was wrong as Fairfax Community Church is not a healthy church environment.
- I also remember when I was reeling in pain from a false accusation which I wrote about here. I was in Fairfax Community Church and so desperately needed stability. I needed something to put my back against. Then I remember late one night when I was in my kitchen and stumbled across information that stunned me. Eric Nickle, the Care Director of the church was on the Virginia sex offender registry. The church had concealed this from the entire congregation. I read the post about how one person tried to talk to FCC about it and they left in frustration over how the church acted. Then there was me…I was the person who had this issue fall in my lap. I didn’t want to know this ..it was uncomfortable, awkward, and weird. I went to small group, church and carried this burden. I was one of the only people in the congregation who knew this information. I was frustrated as I wanted my new church to work. Privately as time passed I also got angry, angry that this was thrust into my lap. Why didn’t Rod Stafford and the leadership of FCC do the right thing? Why weren’t they honest from the beginning? Why did Fairfax Community practice so much deceit? In time I left, notified SNAP and eventually wrote this post here.
Each of you reading this has your own story. Dee Parsons can tell you how someone she knows at Providence Baptist confided in her that the church run by David Horner knew of the situation with Doug Goodrich long before the church let on. Some of you recall that first moment you heard that your child was sexually abused in your church. Others recall being in that awkward situation where the church did something shady and you think “not my church…that’s someone else’s that’s not mine…” It is in this moment that your pre-conceived notions of the church are challenged.
Going Against the System, Why the Truth Must be Told
In this scene Dr. Bennet Omalu is interacting with NFL affiliated doctor Joe Maroon. Joe contests and pushes back against Omalu’s research and work. Omalu’s life has changed because his situation has taken him against the system. He’s going against the NFL. The NFL is about money. Money is its blood, passion and oxygen for the organization, as money is how it lives and thrives. There are many parallels with corruption in Christianity or corrupt organizations like The Gospel Coalition, Sovereign Grace, Fairfax Community Church, and even Andrew White from Redeemer Arlington. The system has to preserve its status quo and defend and keep the money flowing in. That is why The Gospel Coalition defended C.J. Mahaney. D.A. Carson, Kevin DeYoung, and Justin Taylor had to attack a rape victim. Think about that…to attack a rape victim. C.J. Mahaney is about money and what is driving Carson, Taylor and DeYoung I would suggest is money. The status quo needs to be defended and maintained. When you go against the system it often isn’t planned, often times people are forced to act. Did Rob Smith expect one day to stand against Mark Driscoll? Did Happymom and Wallace ever imagine in their life they would be involved in discussions about child sex abuse and that they would release a statement and push back against C.J. Mahaney? In these situations it is often a lonely road. But one must stand up to the system and the amazing thing about people like Rob Smith, Happymom or Wallace is that they have what many other Christians lack. Principle…and conviction as many people choose to go with the flow. I had an amazing weekend that in the course of time I hope to share when its appropriate, but I met a lot of people who have amazing principle in how they are acting. Just like Happymom, Pam Palmer, Rob Smith and others they are standing up against a system, and their courage inspires me.
In this post I will talk about Pharisees as I believe it to be quite appropriate. One indicator of Pharisees that I would suggest is that they are dedicated and devoted to the system. They support the system over the people. When the system is trampling people and people not only support it but they go after the person trampled, well that is how Pharisees act. That is why many of these corrupt churches or ministries are run by Pharisees. They are “white washed tombs” because they are about image. But they don’t give a damn about the interior of their heart. I talk a lot about Fairfax Community Church here in the D.C. area let me use McLean Bible to make a point. I wrote a post recently about McLean Bible being a part of The Gospel Coalition. I wrote about the concerns and issues members and attenders should be raising. If you have members or attenders of McLean Bible who are committed to defending the system, especially if the system is trampling people then you have a problem. The Pharisees were all about protecting and upholding the system at all costs. The Pharisees believed the system should be followed at any and all costs. They followed the law to the extreme and in the process people were hurt. Jesus was concerned with the “least of these.” He was concerned for those trampled by the system. Its part of the reason why the Pharisees hated him.
Eventually the truth must be told to the system. You see that in Concussion. Dr. Bennet Omalu kept pursuing the truth and refused to let it go. Following the truth and sticking to it in a Pharisaical system can have its consequences. Jesus is a prime example…look at what the Pharisees did to him in the end. They killed him, they had him murdered. Its my contention that religious Pharisees will cause more problems and harm than atheists, agnostics, people outside the church, or in other faiths. That is just how it is unfortunately. In that scene from above Dr. Omalu tells Joe Maroon that he must tell the truth. If the NFL doesn’t tell the truth men will die and families will be hurt. Going back to how Pharisees operate one day they will tell the truth. One day they will be exposed. Its just a matter of time. You tell the truth so that more people are not hurt, and wounded.
One day C.J. Mahaney will tell the truth about how Sovereign Grace allegedly covered up child sex abuse. The very presence of C.J. Mahaney in Christianity is a cancer. He is but a tumor who is spiritually killing people every day.
One day Mark Driscoll will tell the truth abut what happened with the finances and money from Mars Hill Seattle.
One day Mark Dever will tell the truth about how much money Capitol Hill Baptist received from C.J. Mahaney. It is well within reason to ask that question. Mark Dever is also a cancer to the Christian faith. His enabling, and defense of C.J. Mahaney is killing people also. The blood at SGM Survivors is on Mark Dever’s hands.
One day K.P. Yohannan will tell the truth about what happened with the finances at Gospel for Asia. One day he will tell the truth of the employees who were hurt. K.P. Yohannan is a cancer on the Christian global stage. He is giving the faith a bad image in India.
One day Mark Mullery at Sovereign Grace Fairfax will tell the truth about the situation of child sex abuse in the church. One day it will all be exposed.
One day Andrew White will have to face the false accusation he leveled at me. I have time on my side. Actually I have all the time in the world. Until then I will keep praying that he can do the right thing and repent.
One day Rod Stafford will have to be honest about what happened at Fairfax Community Church and both the situation with Erik Nickle and a Better $tory. Rod Stafford will own up to the deceit that took place. He can’t run from this situation forever.
In all the above situations its a matter of time. You can’t run from the truth forever. In the end it catches up with you. That is why you are honest from the very beginning. You tell the truth because its not only the right thing to do, but in the course of time people get caught up in their lies. You tell the truth because it honors the Lord.
When the System Attacks, Attempts to Silence
Before I get into this section I have to say, Concussion is a difficult movie to watch. I went into it nervously after all I both played football and love watching it. So I was anxious about watching this. I never planned to pen this post but when I saw how the NFL reacted, it reminded me of how toxic churches, and religion can be. In the case of Concussion the NFL comes down on Dr. Bennet Omalu. It seeks to discredit his work and make him look like a fraud. They place pressure and push back hard. It’s not just Dr. Bennet Omalu but those who work with him. His supervisor Dr. Cyril Wecht faces a harassing investigation. You can read about it here and the lengths in which he was dragged. There is one key issue when it comes to the system. In these situations given the extent of the corruption the system in the course of time attacks. The system attacks to silence the problems. For example how does the system attack?
- Tells people to be quiet.
- Tells them they are too negative.
- Tells them to not “gossip” (and in the process redefine what gossip is)
- Tells them not to associate with former members/attenders
- Tells them they need to submit to authority.
Then there are the people in the system who are but tools of the system. This is what they do.
- They enforce the party line and make sure the church’s wishes are being followed. The pastor or church says to shun someone they act like an agent to make sure others are carrying out those wishes. They also act like a snitch in that they report back to the system. Even Joseph Goebbels would be impressed by their loyalty to the system.
- They have a “win at all costs” attitude and do what it takes. A false accusation, public ex-communication, public shunning, go after someone’s job, they want to demonstrate their authority at any and all costs.
- They seek to maximize pain and make an example of one so that the message is driven home to the community. Why is church discipline for slight offenses done so publically in some churches? They want to “execute” one person to create and drive fear into the body.
So what does it lead to? It leads to shattered families, harmed people, destroyed congregations and limping sheep. In my case I had to have a false accusation by Andrew, if its wasn’t that it would have been something else. That is how a True Believer operates. The system has to use the hammer and has to impose its authority because in the end the system must win. To achieve the desired end, any and all means are acceptable.
Characteristics of Pharisees and the Preservation of the Status Quo
Lets step back and examine the characteristics of Pharises. After exploring scripture I would suggest the following applies:
- Pharisees impose a burden that is heavy and often impossible to carry. They impose a system that is harsh, controlling and wears a person down. I believe Matthew 23:1-5 and Acts 15:10-11 reflect this in many ways.
- Pharisees are often blind in their behavior. They can’t see how they are hurting others. Often what you have is a situation of the blind leading the blind. Matthew 15:14 is what I will draw from in this claim.
- Pharisees are concerned with external appearance. External appearance is everything to them as they care highly about perception and how they are perceived. Images is everything.
- Pharisees have deep seated corruption. Their corruption is internal and systemic. They can’t or will not see their corruption.
- Pharisees are condescending and arrogant. They look down on others and extol themselves. They consider themselves to be better, elite and above others. I would use Luke 18:10-14 to buttress this claim.
- Pharisees lack love. They have a lot of contempt for those not of their system. Love is not in their vocabulary.
- They try and trap people in their actions and behavior. They are not honest or forthright. I would refer you to Mark 10:2-12 where they try and trap Jesus on divorce.
- If I am wrong please correct me on this final point. Pharisees are condemned to hell. They are called a “brood of vipers” for a specific reason. Pharisees destroy lives and families. While I believe we will be surprised as to who makes it to heaven in the end unless a Pharisee repents, has a change of heart, I am not sure where they will end up. In Matthew 23:31 Jesus speaks about Pharisees being judged in hell. In addition can I suggest is this what Jesus means when he says not everybody who calls me Lord will enter the Kingdom? Honestly I hope I am wrong on this last point.
So who are the Pharises today? Legalistic and controlling churches. Pastors and leaders who are manipulative. Mark Driscoll, Mark Dever, John Piper, and C.J. Mahaney I would classify as Pharisees. Why Driscoll, Dever, Piper and Mahaney? They have deceived. They have imposed a burden that is heavy to carry and straddles people. This burden comes from Sovereign Grace or 9 Marks. They are focused on their image, are arrogant, and could care less about the least of these, meaning a child sex abuse victim, or domestic abuse victim. As Matt Redman said…a faith system that protects the celebrity pastor at the expense of the least of these is a faith system that is worthless.
When Religion Spiritually Kills…The Bodycount Left Behind
What happens when a person leaves the system, Chris Borland as an example.
The closing scene of Concussion is powerful. In a room which has the NFL Players Association (I believe, btw I looked for the last scene online and could not find it) present and meeting Dr. Omalu speaks about CTE. He talks about how we are to honor our warriors. And he reads a list of the players who have been killed.
As he reads the names of people who are deceased you see those in the room who are acquaintances be moved and crying. When I was watching this film come to a close and watching that scene I was thinking of all the people I know and have spent time with over the years who have been burned, fried and hammered by fundamentalism. I can picture their faces, hear their laugh, or recall their comments they made to me. Even today I hear a laugh of a friend that I was close to in Milwaukee. Then they were hurt and they were spiritually killed by fundamentalism. My list would be the following:
and on it goes….those are the victims of fundamentalism. The list is going to grow. The other day someone who was once involved in Covenant Life Church emailed me and told me that a majority of her children are done with Christianity. I predict others like Andrew White to have problems and became causalities in the course of time. In the movie the other day I learned that the Twitter hashtag is #fortheplayers. I would propose that the theme of this blog and like minded blogs is the following hastags #forthechurch, or #forthebody. People may ask me…do I realize what I am doing or what I am saying in some of what I write here? My response is a loud and vocal…YES! I write such difficult posts to draw attention to a topic that many people don’t want to admit is a problem. I draw attention to something in light of the deep and searing pain that came from someone in a position of leadership at Redeemer Arlington. I write all this to help hold churches accountable and make sure that no one, no one at all will endure what I have gone through. Many parts of society has accountability…it’s time the modern Christian faith have accountability. I can’t believe how many Christian churches or ministries I have been involved with have struggled with how to handle a sex offender or had child sex abuse. I can’t believe how many churches I have investigated that have been theologically hijacked over the course of time. I can’t believe how many churches act move like Fortune 500 companies then an actual church. I can’t believe how many pastors are accountable to no one. That list includes Mark Dever, Rod Stafford, and countless others. When a pastor surrounds himself with nothing but “yes men” how the hell is that accountability? Or when key people in a ministry or church are relatives by blood and there is rampant nepotism how does that help? Fundamentalism spiritually kills. Here is a question that also haunts me that will consume my brain for a while. If God cares about his church why does he let wolves like C.J. Mahaney preach at T4G or Mark Driscoll start to plant another church in Phoenix? As always I invite your comments below. As always I love you guys. I am going to close out with some Matt Redman.