Perry Noble and Cowboy Christianity

Yesterday, NewSpring Church announced that Perry Noble had been removed from his duties as Senior Pastor, due to 'personal issues related to alcohol.' This came as a shock to many people, including (as every news report I've read mentioned) almost every member of NewSpring.

In his statement to the church, Noble mentions that 'for the past year or so,' he has been finding refuge in alcohol instead of Jesus. He goes on to say that it was a 'spiritual and moral mistake.'

Some thoughts: 

1. First and foremost, I have nothing but hopes for recovery and healing for Noble and his family.

There have been some indications that he's receiving psychiatric care, and stepping into treatment is a brave step, no matter who you are.

 

2. These types of events are inevitable in the current Christian culture in America.

We've placed so much emphasis on individualism that we look down on asking for help. We recite lines about how all you need is a personal relationship with Jesus, ignoring the fact that God created us for community. And not the 'community' we show videos about before the service starts, the ones where people are passing out coffee in slo-motion and everyone is shiny and smiling.

We were created for deep, messy community, where people step into each other's pain and hurt. Where we discover the beauty of collapsing into each other's arms. Where we know we can't fix things, but that more important than quick solutions and cheap promises is the simple loving act of being present in one another's pain.

This is what we were created for, and it requires our vulnerability. People cannot love you if they don't know what is hurting you. (Tweet)

We need to share more and listen more, instead of assuming everyone else is great and feeling the pressure to seem like we're great as well. For all our talk about our shared state of broken humanity, we show very little of it.

 

3. This pressure is undoubtedly worse for church leaders.

I've never been the pastor of any kind of church, so I can't even begin to imagine the pressure felt when 30,000 people are looking to you for their weekly guidance. Unfortunately, it's a self-feeding cycle: we expect our leaders to be perfect, largely because they are.

They're not actually perfect, obviously. But when's the last time you heard a pastor talk about his or her struggles openly, without bringing it around to an inspiring end to prove a theological point? What would have happened if Noble (or any other pastor who's had to step down over the few years based on an unfortunate situation like this) had felt like he could ask someone for help? What if, instead of turning to alcohol for a full year, and only getting help when it cost him his job, Noble had known the people surrounding him would help him get healthy 6 months ago?

Now, I'm not pretending to know all the facts. But there's been more times than I can count where I felt like it would be better to try and deal with something myself than risk the judgement and embarrassment of facing those in my church community.

'They'll assume I don't know Jesus because I don't have constant joy,' I've thought. 'They'll know I'm not good enough to be [whatever leadership position I might've been in at the time.]'

This individualistic, cowboy, pull yourself up by your bootstraps type of culture has become so ingrained in American culture that we've accepted it as a rightful part of our Christianity as well. But it's not.

Jesus never said to be perfect, or to only admit faults you'd already conquered, or that asking for help was a sign of weakness. He had Mary roll away the stone to get to Lazarus. He sent Ananias to heal Saul/Paul's sight. He works in and through us, and He created us to need each other.

I wonder the powerful message it would've sent had Noble admitted he needed help a few months back, and shown 30,000 people it was ok to ask for help. If our churches are to become places where we are open and honest about our pain (and can ask others for help), it has to include our leaders. Hell, it might have to start with them.

 

4. NewSpring's reaction is kind of terrible.

"Over the course of several months our executive pastors met with and discussed at length with Perry these concerns regarding his personal behavior and his spiritual walk, Perry's posture towards marriage, increased reliance on alcohol and other behaviors were of continual concern. Due to this the executive pastors confronted Perry and went through the steps of dealing with sin in the church as outlined in Matthew 18" commented Executive Pastor Shane Duffey.

Several months ago, the leadership of NewSpring knew Noble was struggling with alcohol use. And instead of getting him some professional, medical help, they had him go through 'the steps of dealing with sin,' whatever those might be. Duffey references Matthew 18, and the portion labeled 'Dealing With Sin In The Church' has this to say:

If your brother of sister sins, do and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

So for several months, the plan was point out his faults. I'm not trying to critique Matthew 18, but if this is your only plan for months on end for someone who (assumedly) you care for when they're battling something heavy, you need to rethink that.

And part of why this plan didn't work is this: understanding a substance use problem as just a sin is a staggering and harmful oversimplification. (Tweet)

This kind of thinking (Noble himself called it a 'spiritual and moral mistake') is toxic, and it feeds back into my earlier points. There are so many factors involved in substance use and dependence that experts agree there's no one thing you can point at. So why does the church insist on blaming hurting people instead of helping them get the treatment they need?

Genetic factors? Nope, just sin.
Environmental factors? Nope, just sin.
Neurobiological, physiological, or other physical factors? Shut up, just stop sinning.

It's like if every time someone showed up to church complaining of a sore throat, we kicked them out of their leadership or serving roles until they repented. It's ridiculous and harmful and I can't be the only one tired of it.

 

So I will pray for Perry Noble, for his recovery, for his family.

I will also pray that our leaders start showing us how to ask for help. That our pastors and clergy and priests find the courage to stand up and say 'I'm hurting and I've invited people into my healing process because I can't do this without other people and that's how God designed us.'

And I'll pray that the rest of us do so too.