In his new book, written with his daughter, NT scholar Scot McKnight takes on the subject of toxic church cultures-how to diagnose them and how to fix them. Their book, A Church Called Tov, outlines how to create and maintain church cultures characterized by goodness (tov) and organizational health. Join Scott and Sean as they unpack this important area for churchgoers, pastors and church leaders.

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. A podcast from Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University. I'm your host Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and professor of Christian Ethics.

Sean McDowell: I'm your co-host Sean McDowell professor of Apologetics.

Scott Rae: We're here today with a person we have not had on before who I'm not quite sure we haven't. But Dr. Scot McKnight, Professor Scot McKnight is a well known New Testament scholar, historian of early Christianity, theologian, widely written author. And has a terrific new book out that we want to feature that addresses the whole issue of power and how it's exercised in the church. Things like toxic church cultures, how to fix them. The book has a very interesting title to it. It's called A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing. So Scot welcome, it's great to have you on with us and a terrific book that we're looking forward to getting into with you.

Scot McKnight: Well, thank you very much for having me on. And I want to say hi to two of your colleagues, Matt Williams and John Lundy, two of my students.

Scott Rae: Very good two guys still doing a great job here.

Scot McKnight: Yeah, they're good people. Yeah.

Scott Rae: Yeah. Now Scot, you are known as far as I can tell, mostly as just the first rate New Testament scholar and you've written lots of stuff on very technical areas that had to do with new Testament studies and historical Jesus. But this book is a bit of a change of pace for what you have spent a lot of your academic life doing. What motivated you and your co-authors to write specifically about church culture in this book?

Scot McKnight: Chris, my wife and I and my daughter, Laura Barringer, who's the co-author and her husband went to Willow Creek. And we went to Willow Creek for 10 years because Laura was at the time we started because Laura was dating Mark at the time and we wanted to get to know him. So we have been deeply involved in Willow Creek. I've been in Bill Hybels office and I knew a lot of the teaching pastors and I've been on the platform a little bit. And when this story blew up in the Chicago Tribune, I knew the reporter and I knew Manya Brachear Pashman was an extraordinarily talented journalist. I contacted a couple journalists friends of mine and they said, "Yes, this story's true. We've got other stories." So I just sort watched it and it, and while I was watching it, I wanted to just counsel Laura, as she was asking me questions almost every day, emails, phone calls, et cetera.

Scot McKnight: So I began to jot out ideas. Eventually I wrote up something in an airport lounge one day, because I just wanted to get it down. But Laura was a pest. My daughter was a pest. She wanted me to put this into print and I did not want to write a book about Willow Creek. But eventually we landed on an idea because the stories became so clear that I wanted to help places like Willow Creek and even more my students who are pastors and friends of mine who are pastors and church leaders. I wanted to help them think about these issues and figure out what we can do in the future starting right now to create cultures that won't tolerate abusive pastors like this. So that's sort of the origin and I have an even weirder story about it. It actually started for me as a book. I was reading a book by Matthew Hockenos called A Church Divided from Indiana University press. It was about how the pastors are post-World War II, post-Holocaust in Germany how they responded so horrifically to the discoveries of what the German, the Nazis had done under Hitler.

Scot McKnight: And as I was reading this, I thought this is Saint Augustine come true. Human beings are sinful and they will find a way not to implicate themselves in sin. And so that's where the... And it became a chapter called False Narratives. So that's sort of the origin of the book.

Sean McDowell: When I first saw your book Scott, A Church Called Tov, I was mildly interested but I passed because I didn't know what you meant by it. And then I started to read some books on church abuse and realize this is what it was about. Opened it up and start reading it and my next thought was, "I can't believe I almost didn't read this because I think the message is so important and needs to be heard." Tell our audience about the title and in particular, the meaning of tov and why you chose to name the book that way?

Scot McKnight: Well, thank you, Sean. Those are kind remarks. All right. Tov is the Hebrew word for goodness or good. So for instance, God in creation in Genesis one, tov is used seven times. It is used hundreds of in the Old Testament. It's a master moral category. God is good. Everything God does is good. God wants his people to be good. Jesus taught his disciples to do good. Jesus is the good shepherd. Apostle Paul wants us to be filled with the spirit so we will practice goodness. Peter tells us to be doers of good works. So good is all over the Bible. And I think, unfortunately we've only remembered one verse there is none good. No, not one. And we've missed out on the calling of goodness. So I like this word tov and I began to use it in my classes at Northern Seminary.

Scot McKnight: And I was sort of gobsmacked by how quickly my students took on the term and began to use it in all kinds of ways. And I thought, "This is a little bit catchy." So we titled to book that and the editor said, "No, we can't have Hebrew words in the title. And I said, "Oh, I think we can." I said, "I think this is a pretty good word." And they said, "Well, we don't do that." And I said, "Well, just try it." Then I said, "Just try it in your office someday." And the next thing you know, they thought it was a great word and a great title. And so we didn't have that contest anymore, but it is a way of saying something familiar in a fresh way. And it is a catchy little term that captures the essence of the biblical vision for virtue or character and character formation.

Scot McKnight: And I know at your school, spiritual formation is big and we talk about Christ likeness. I like crystal formity. But the word tov is another way of saying this. Is that we are called to be tov people because our God and our Lord Jesus are tov and so we need to be tov. That's where it came. It unites the whole book.

Scott Rae: Now, Scot right at the very beginning, you dedicate the book to a group that you term the wounded resistors. I love that term, but to clarify for our audience who specifically constitutes this group of people?

Scot McKnight: Well, first of all, there's an argument in the family as to who came up with this expression. And I think I did, and my daughter says she did. Now that I have the platform, I'm going to say I did.

Scott Rae: Well, we'll give you full credit for it.

Scot McKnight: Thank you. We became so conscious of people who have been wounded by churches. And I want you to know that in the last year I have probably listened to 100 stories or more of people who've been wounded in churches. So we were concerned with the wounded and how Jesus shows compassion and empathy on the wounded. This is a Greek, the term [Splunk needs OMI 00:08:30] to show compassion, to exhibit empathy, et cetera, is a great term about how Jesus responded to people who were in pain. And so we started focusing upon them. But what we noticed is many of the people who resisted toxicity in churches because they had been wounded, were rewounded by the way the churches responded to them. So they did some gas lighting and they did some false narratives and they did some accusations and just over and over.

Scot McKnight: Women who've been abused by pastors and churches have been rewounded. So at one point I, not my daughter, said, "We need to dedicate this book to the wounded resistors." And that's who we're talking about. And it is those people in churches who have been hurt by churches, who have done the right thing, spoken up, spoken out, gone through the proper channels and eventually probably have been silenced and suppressed and have had to go a little bit more public. And one of the most common ways people go public when they get desperate today is to go to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram in order to get it attention. And we have dozens of stories of people who were being silenced and suppressed and gas lit who did not get one step inside the door until they went on Twitter. And that is a sad witness to church leaders for not being willing to listen to stories and do the right thing.

Sean McDowell: Scot, recently I was speaking with an outspoken atheist who helped bring to the surface an abuse in a particular ministry, and just hearing his story, his experience and at the end he goes, "I have a question for you." He goes, "If the church is really filled with the Holy Spirit and it's God's people, why do we see so much abuse and misuse within the church? Shouldn't we expect to see them living with a qualitative difference?" What response would you give to that question?

Scot McKnight: I have a friend who works with problematic people in a megachurch and he asked me this very same question. And I wish I had an answer that was satisfactory. It's pretty simplistic, isn't it? To say, "Well, we're all sinners." And it's pretty dismissing to say, "You can't expect Christians to be perfect." Okay. There's truth in both of those statements but I read the New Testament and I follow with Jesus and I listen to an apostle Paul who believes in the Holy Spirit. And Jesus calls his disciples to have a righteousness that greatly suppresses the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. The Apostle Paul tells us that people who are filled with the spirit don't do the works of the flesh and their categories are not... You're going to fail a lot even though the disciples did fumble and stumble in the gospel protects, they don't give, give in too much on these grounds. They call people to transformation. And if I had a simple answer to it, I would be writing about it every day.

Scot McKnight: I don't have a simple answer, but I think it's a combination of the culture of the churches that we live in that tolerates a lot of flesh. I think it's the gospel message that we preach that is sort of pray this prayer and you'll go to heaven when you die. And you can't lose it because we're Calvinistic enough to believe that salvation is eternally secure. And we've a lot of examples and a lot of culture where things are pretty corrupted and fleshy. And before long, we just don't live in a culture that sort of constrains people toward godliness and toward holiness and toward a loving compassionate virtuous life.

Scot McKnight: Just think of what it was like, and it's an extreme at times for people mostly because of stereotypes, of what to Puritan society was like in Boston in colonial America. We are dealing with people who took Christianity so seriously that they expected people to do what God had called them to do in scripture and to live a life filled with the Holy Spirit. And I think we have surrendered that message for any number of reasons and I want to be part of the solution to that problem. And I think Tov is one contribution to that problem or solution.

Scott Rae: Yeah. Scot, one of the things you point out early on in the book is the notion that every church is a culture. And I admit that I don't often, and I think many of our listeners would be in the same place. I don't often think of churches as cultures, but when you think about it seems almost self-evident especially in light of these scandals that come out periodically or maybe more regularly than we'd like to admit. But spell out a little bit more specifically what you mean by the idea that every church is a culture.

Scot McKnight: Okay. Let's use the word homeostasis, which is a typical term used in social fabric and family dynamics. If you grow up in a family where mom and dad yell at one another and hit one another, your children, those children will grow up thinking that yelling at one another and hitting one another is normal behavior. They won't grow up thinking that this is totally abnormal. They have never known another reality. And when they go to a home where people don't yell at one another and they treat one another kindly and they don't strike one another, they think, "Wow, is that normal?" Well, that's just a family homeostasis. Churches have a similar type of dynamic, workplaces have a dynamic. And if you don't see this, it's because it's color of water and you're swimming in it but it is there. Is that the places we work are a culture that shape us to be the kind of person that is comfortable in that kind of workplace.

Scot McKnight: In a church, we are acclimated, assimilated and, accommodated to a church culture that constrains our behavior and shapes our behavior so that we feel comfortable in that church. All of us have been in churches where once we've been in a few weeks, we think I, "This just isn't my place. There's something here that is not the way I expect things to be done. It's just not me." That's because you've perceived the culture even if you can't articulate what you're feeling. So all churches are a culture. All cultures work for homeostasis that is to keep people in the system that is there so that they don't create instability and knock around the homeostasis, the normal behaviors. And we have to recognize that all our churches are cultures. And we have to ask if we have the skills to discern the sort of culture that our church is so that we can measure it against life in the spirit or obedience as disciples to Jesus. That's what we're talking about.

Scot McKnight: And I think this is a whole lot bigger than I can describe right here. But culture is a huge issue that is impacting the church today. And we need to work very hard at shifting culture. My daughter and I are just about done with another book that we have as a title right now, Tov Unleashed.

Scott Rae: Wow.

Sean McDowell: Very Good.

Scot McKnight: And it is about how to transform church cultures. What are the practices that can lead to a transform culture?

Sean McDowell: Well, let us know when that's out. We'd love to have you and your daughter back on. That'd be really fun. This morning on the way here, I had a conversation with a friend who like many people has just been going through a difficult time during COVID spiritually. And he described to me... For different reasons he said, "I just don't feel comfortable going to the senior pastor." He said, because the senior pastor is and fill his name in the blank. Meaning he's kind of, I think a rock star with a lot of authorities. The impression I got, this is a decent size church. And my instant thought when he said that, because I've read your book and a few others is, "This strikes me as an unhealthy sign of communication potentially takes place in this church." What warning signs would you give to people, and I know you talk about this in the book, of an unhealthy church culture? Is that one of them? If so, what other ones would you include?

Scot McKnight: Well, yes that's a penetrating question with a lot of implications and I think this person's hesitancy about going to the pastor is a telltale sign of some toxicity going on. Okay. What I would say, because we've been working on this topic so much lately, is I would say the most indicative sign of an unhealthy culture is how power is used. Is power used to dominate? Is it used to do and accomplish, to coerce people to get done what, let's say the leader, the pay as the elders, however, those power structures are formed, so that they can get done what they want? Or is power used for other people? Is it used to build up and empower others? Is it power with, in other words, do I share my power with you or do I make it very clear that I have the power, but I'm going to let you do this?

Scot McKnight: Do we actually distribute our power to other people so that they can exercise the gifts of God? God's power is unlimited, human power is limited. When churches see power vested in one person or in a small circle of people, they have limited the power of God, but we have the power through the spirit. We have the calling, I should say, through the spirit to unleash God's spiritual power in our church in every person there so that the power of God is magnified rather than constrained and contained and used for the sake of one person's celebrity or glory or fame, whatever you want to say. So to me, discerning how power is used is very big, but there is also what we have a chapter, a section on narcissism. Narcissism is characterized by self-grandiosity, a sense that someone is great and it is characterized by a lack of empathy and the response to threats turn into rage and seething anger to, let's say, experience or to it perform revenge against a person.

Scot McKnight: Those are characteristics of narcissism of course, power is tied into that. So to me, narcissistic personalities and the use of power are the first two indicators that people need to have a radar for in order to discern the kind of culture that is at work in a church.

Scott Rae: God, that's really interesting that you make the point about narcissism and how much of a warning sign that is. It seems really ironic to me that a church that claims to follow a crucified savior, tolerates narcissism like we do. But I think the part that really got my attention was the connection you made between power and empathy and how the misuse of power actually reduces our inclination to show empathy to the people around us. Can you spell that out a little bit further, how that works?

Scot McKnight: Well, there's studies on this and I referred to one of these studies in the book. Laura and I both read this. It was really, really quite amazing. What happens is, and my wife's a psychologist and I talked to her about this as well, is that certain kinds of behaviors that we perform and emotions or feelings that we have in a sense, rewire our brains and begin to adjust the chemicals in our brains. And one of the clear implications of narcissistic people who love power and continue to use power is that they become incapable of empathy. And in a sense, they can no longer identify with the feelings of other people and all they think about is themselves.

Scot McKnight: It is a characteristic of leaders to be tempted toward narcissism and Chuck DeGroat, who's written a wonderful called Narcissism Comes to Church, which is not exactly a wonderful in the sense that it's going to encourage you. It's going to reveal some of the problems go on in churches.

Scott Rae: Yeah.

Scot McKnight: Chuck told me on a podcast one day that every pastor and then he said, "And professor Scot, that's what we are, is on the spectrum of narcissism." He said, "Who else gets up in front of people and tells them what to do?" So he said, "It is the important thing to recognize that we're on that spectrum and to discipline ourselves and to work at, let's say diminishing our temptations to narcissism." So all of us who stand in front, the people and preach the gospel and call people to do what God says to do are going to be on this spectrum and we need to be aware of it. But I think a sign is how do we respond to people who are in pain? If we look at them and say, "They deserved it, or they're reckless, they should stop doing what they're doing."

Scot McKnight: We are indicating very clear signs of narcissism. If we are moved to compassion, the way Jesus was, which is probably an expression that speaks and describes his tears in his eyes and the visceral turning of the stomach, pained in the face. If we are not moved that way, then we need to practice seeing people in pain and learn to respond to people in pain. Get to know their stories and the more we get to know these stories the more empathy we will develop. Mother Teresa saw so much pain in her ministries that her body could no longer handle it. That's the human incapacity to take in more pain than is permissible for a human to do. God can take it all in. So I just think that we need to become aware of our, let's say we need to become aware of our evaluation of our description of our capacity to empathize with people who are in pain.

Sean McDowell: Scot, it's interesting my daughter gave me a mug that said, "I don't need Google. My dad knows everything." And obviously it was partly funny, but partly when you're a professor, it's your job to research and have answers and know things like you said, there's such a temptation of power. I've also heard her said that who uniquely is susceptible to power would be doctors because there's potentially power over life and death. But the reality is we all have varying degrees of power, even if it's just using Twitter. And the question is, how do we use that? Is it to love people or is it to silence and mistreat people way you're describing? So it's tempting for people to hear this and go, "Well, I'm not a professor like these three guys. I don't have that power." And I think what you're saying is, "No, all of us have varying degrees." Jesus is going to hold us accountable for how we use the power that we happen to have for whatever reason. And I think that's a humbling thought now.

Scot McKnight: Well Sean, didn't you say you've been reading Diane Langberg?

Sean McDowell: I have. Yeah.

Scot McKnight: Yeah. She has that wonderful section that all of us have power because we're made in the image of God. And so we have power in certain contexts, but leaders have more power. And I would say people with guns have power or too.

Sean McDowell: Yeah. That's true. And leaders are held to a higher standard because of the power they have.

Scot McKnight: Yeah. I agree.

Sean McDowell: Reading again, Diane Langberg, people like Wade Mullins, your book, Rachael Denhollander is you start to realize that there's a script of how people in power respond when abuse is discussed, when it's covered up. And it's almost like I've heard Rachel say, "Well, here's what's coming next." And then it happens. So what are some of these steps that we see in toxic responses to abuse generated by toxic church cultures?

Scot McKnight: Well, we developed this in a chapter where we have eight false narratives. I don't think I can give them all out of my head. But one of the things that is a really good sign of this sort of response is silencing the other person, blaming the other person Darvo is one of the common expressions. Deny, Bill Hybels denied that he had any inappropriate relationship with women. Accuse, so you deny and then you accuse and reverse the victim and the oppressor or the perpetrator. So all of a sudden, the person who is being accused of power abuse, spiritual abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, flips the script and blames the other person for being the person who triggered it. And that is by far the most common way sinful fleshy human beings respond to allegations. And it is a characteristic of corrupted leaders and church boards that they will respond to accusations in ways that flip the script.

Scot McKnight: There's another side to this, it's called betrayal blindness. And that is if you have been betrayed, let's just say that you experienced sexual abuse or spiritual at the hands of your pastor in a really dramatic way. And you have untold respect, and love, and admiration, and almost idolatrous worship of this person. You will be inclined to blame yourself and to blind to the heinousness of the sin. And you create your own blindness because if you admit it, you realize that everything you have trusted and believed has been betrayed. And it's a pretty shrewd category, betrayal blindness it's so that we need to be aware of in churches, because one of the most common experiences or stories we heard in the last two or three years of studying this issue is the number of people who said, "I cannot believe that people in the church did not say something."

Scot McKnight: And why did the leaders, I've been asked by this by a dozen women. Why did major church leaders not stand up for us against say a megachurch celebrity pastor? Why did they not stand up for us? And it's very pervasive issue that people who've been abused cannot comprehend why people don't stand up for them and people who are in those churches refuse to stand up and speak up and speak out. Because if they do, they feel like everything they've trusted has been betrayed. And it's a pervasive issue in churches that we need to be aware of so we can work against it.

Scott Rae: Got one final question for you. And I realize that we've structured this, I think in a way that might mislead our listeners a bit to what the book is about, because as we've focus sort of on everything in the first half of the book where you expose the problem. We need our listeners to know the there's a second half to the book that's about solutions. And you mentioned earlier that you and your daughter have a follow up book to this too about specific practices to implement those solutions. So I want to end on a positive note here and ask you just to briefly summarize what is involved in creating this kind of goodness culture in a church as opposed to sort of defaulting to a more toxic one?

Scot McKnight: Well, I appreciate this because that was the heartbeat of our book. It's so easy to find the stories that are negative and it's hard to propose solutions. Some people think the solution is just to call people out and blast them on Twitter. But we developed seven characteristics of tov that flipped the script in toxic churches and toxic leaders. One is to nurture empathy. A second one is to nurture grace. And I mean, a full scale theological understanding of grace is outlined by John Barkley or written up about by John Barkley. Put people first, instead of the institution. Tell the truth. This is very difficult to do. Just tell the truth just, "Okay, if you did that, just say it." Nurture justice and by justice, I mean, in the biblical sense of doing the right thing at right time. And sometimes people don't have the courage or conviction even to do the right thing at the right time, they wait five years and then do the right thing and that's better than not doing the right thing.

Scot McKnight: But it takes a person of character and valor to do the right thing at the at right time. When they see corrupted things in churches, they need to speak up even if they know it could be painful. And our sixth one is to nurture service in a church so that we are knocking down constantly the tendency toward celebrityism. And I believe major leaders who have significant status, reputation, fame, glory, whatever you want to call it in churches need to become people who practice acts of service that they don't tell anybody but their spouse about. And they don't use it as sermon illustrations. I have a friend who worked with the homeless for one year without telling anybody about his wife so that he could learn what practice of service was all about.

Scot McKnight: And finally, we summarize it with the word Christlikeness or crystal formity as the summary term for what a tov culture is like. And those are the major themes of this, let's say 65% of the book is that it is about developing these habits and practices in churches so that we will practice in such a way that a new culture forms and constrains us to be people who act tov rather than with toxicity.

Scott Rae: Thanks so much Scot, for that summary. There's a lot to unpack there that we will do when the follow up book comes out. Do you have a title for that yet?

Scot McKnight: Well, we're calling it right now, Tov Unleashed, but publishers are the ones who make decisions on titles ultimately. So we're going to do our best to get that title, but we'll see. But it's something about developing the seven practices that will help transform church cultures.

Scott Rae: Well, we look forward to that coming out and to having you back when that does and we'll definitely have your daughter on with you when that comes out as well. Thanks so much Scot for being with us.

Scot McKnight: Thank you.

Scott Rae: And for a really timely and helpful book entitled A Church Called Tov. Our guest Dr. Scot McKnight, a well known New Testament scholar who through deep personal experience has delved into this area of toxic church cultures and how to fix them. So we're very grateful for what you and your daughter have written. Saddened for the experience that you've had and the stories that you've had to be a part of as a result of the research and just the listening that you've done. I'm sure there's deep sadness that comes out of these many stories that you've been exposed to. But we are really grateful for your work and grateful for your tackling this particular subject at a particularly timely period.

Scot McKnight: Thank you. Thank you very much. It's great to be with you and bless your work there. Thank you.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. The Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Tablot School of Theology at Biola University. Offering programs in Southern California and online, including our Masters in Christian Apologetics now offered fully online. Visit in order to learn more. If you enjoy today's conversation with Scot McKnight, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.