#LeaveLoud The Church Current Events Pastoring & Leadership

Taking Spit: When spiritual abuse masquerades as anointing

Ally Henny

My good friend Jemar Tisby recently wrote an excellent article for The Witness BCC about the latest controversy to surround Transformation Church in Tulsa, OK and Pastor Mike Todd. In his article, Jemar offers a poignant response to “Spittlegate” and casts vision for the church as it should be. I hope that you will take the time to read it (full disclosure: I had the honor of editing Jemar’s post). 

After I read Jemar’s piece, I realized that we (The Witness BCC and our audience) needed another piece on the blog that picks up where Jemar’s article leaves off. Jemar discusses the task of the preacher and the responsibility of a congregation and church leadership in terms of how those relationships should function, and how they do function in a church with a healthy leadership structure.

But what happens when the leader of the church is seen as the primary source of the “vision” and “direction” for the church, and other leaders and people in positions of church governance are expected to “come under” the “spiritual head” of the church? What happens when churchgoers see “sermon illustrations” like Mike Todd rubbing his spit in somebody’s face as “gross” or “in poor taste,” but fail to discern how certain gimmicks can cheapen the message or, even worse, perpetuate harm and spiritual abuse in the church?

It’s much deeper than cringe

I am a survivor of spiritual abuse and toxic church culture. I have shared some of my experiences as they pertain to race and racism (Combing the Roots, PTM Pt. 1, PTM Pt. 2). I don’t often talk about some of the broader experiences that I have had in unhealthy church structures, mostly because I feel like others have had more notable and worse experiences than I have. 

I have spent (wasted) more time than I would like to admit serving in ministries propping up leaders, events, and “visions from God” that almost always seemed to prize platform and influence over helping the most vulnerable people in the church and society. I have served in ministry with men who had a strong sense of God’s call on their lives and were profoundly gifted at getting others to “buy-in” to the vision for their churches, cities, and even the nations. Those same leaders often struggled and failed to cultivate the constitution of character needed to steward their profound gifting, which made being part of their ministries a tumultuous affair. 

I have sat through more than my fair share of sermons with cringeworthy illustrations, dubious readings of the text, and remarks that were better left unsaid (and as a preacher, I have preached more than my fair share of these same kinds of sermons). If you’ve been in church for any length of time, you probably have, too. 

The issue at the heart of Spittlegate isn’t bad preaching, a bad sermon illustration, or even bad biblical exegesis. If this were the case, it could be easily remedied by the congregation and/or church leaders calling for their pastor to do better, as Jemar’s article suggests. 

The issue is that a lot of churches are structured in ways that make accountability hard because an individual pastor who “answers to” and “receives vision from” God sits at the top of the organization and holds the most power and influence within the church. Even if church members, elders, or other leaders want to bring accountability to their pastor for a misstep or harm, most of them can’t because the system is stacked in the pastor’s favor.

Church culture has taught us to prize leaders with a strong sense of their own calling and a relentless commitment to God’s work. Conviction, calling, and commitment are great, but these qualities can become sinister when they are exercised by a leader of fragile or underdeveloped character. Church culture is often loathe to address issues with leaders who produce results, especially when it is a pastor with a growing church. Unfortunately, this often leads to unstable leaders and churches where members’ commitment to God and to the individual church or leader become all but interchangeable (see also: Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill). 

A repeat offense

I don’t know the situation at Transformation Church, but I think that the fact that this wasn’t the first time that Pastor Todd used this same problematic illustration is quite telling. It’s hard for me to believe that Todd and Transformation Church didn’t receive any pushback about the spit illustration before now. It was awful in 2019, it was awful in 2022, and it will continue to be awful.

It seems that if there was any pushback (again, it’s hard to believe that there wasn’t) it wasn’t taken to heart until TMZ picked up the story. Todd issued an apology, but his apology only acknowledges that the illustration was gross, and not how others felt violated and harmed seeing the illustration. In fact, during the sermon in question, Todd (who treats the live illustration and the biblical text interchangeably) seems to be acutely aware of how his intended audience and other people might perceive his actions.

Mike Todd issued an apology in the wake of bad PR and not because he woke up and realized that his illustration was bad.

It concerns me that a pastor would continue to use an illustration that can be seen as demeaning, is unnecessarily gross, detracts from the message at hand, and is inadvisable during a global pandemic. Did anyone attempt to speak truth to power and advise Todd not to use this illustration again or did everyone just go along with it because it was part of their pastor’s sermon? If there was pushback, why did he keep the illustration?

It doesn’t pass the vibe check

Again, I don’t know the situation at Transformation Church, but I do know that it isn’t a good look when a leader seems to be clueless (at best) or utterly obtuse about how others interpret or are affected by their actions. It tells me that either a) the pastor/leader has surrounded themself with people who think just like them and so they’ve not had to contend with differing perspectives, b) they have surrounded themself with people who feel they can’t offer dissent or critique, or c) some combination of a and b. 

For me, Mike Todd’s public apology doesn’t pass the vibe check. His apology for the incident is a weird combination of apologizing for the wrong thing, spiritual bypassing, toxic positivity, church marketing, and corny jokes. It is more reflective of a PR strategy that employs some of the latest cultural buzzwords than it was evidence of deep self-reflection and repentance.

I am concerned because Pastor Todd and his advisors don’t seem to “get it.” He seems to understand that the illustration was disgusting, but his analysis stops there. How might people who have experienced interpersonal violence or abuse (in the church or otherwise) have seen his illustration? What messages about humiliation and consent does the illustration send? Could his brother or anyone have given true consent to participating in this illustration because of the power dynamics involved? How could this illustration be read or (mis)understood outside the ‘preaching moment?’ Todd and his advisors don’t seem to understand the implications of his actions or they don’t want to. Either way, it doesn’t look good.

The biggest cause for concern

What I am most concerned about, however, are the people who watched the sermon, were grossed out by the illustration, but don’t see anything wrong with what happened. There are a lot of people who have been quick to come to Todd’s defense or to try to explain away what happened. They’ve chalked it up to Todd’s relative youth and newness in his position as a pastor. They’ve excused it as a poor choice. They’ve insisted it was fine since Todd used his brother for the illustration. They’ve pointed to the size of Transformation Church and Todd’s other perceived successes as justification to give him a pass.

Transformation Church might be a healthy church, and Pastor Mike Todd might be a healthy leader who made a very public mistake. I have my doubts based on other things that Todd has said, however. With all that said, the problem is bigger than this incident or any single church or leader. 

For far too long, Christian culture has taught us to prize pastors who are “authentic” and to embrace their “rough edges,” even if it means tolerating things from them that we would not tolerate from anyone anywhere else. For far too long, Christian culture has cultivated fear and an uncritical, unthinking attitude when it comes to church leaders. “Touch not the Lord’s anointed” becomes a license to do all kinds of ratchetness in Jesus’ name. Having a preaching gift becomes license to say whatever one wants to people while being insulated from the consequences and implications of one’s words and deeds. Being called and anointed becomes a justification for poor character. 

As someone who has lived through spiritual abuse and endured toxic church environments, I know all too well how easy it is for people to normalize bad behavior and integrate it into their thinking about God and the church. It is easy to adopt toxic theology because it was preached with conviction. It’s easy to become convinced that your pastor or your church is experiencing a spiritual attack because people are calling harmful ideas or practices into question. It’s easy to normalize toxic behavior, unhealthy leadership styles, uneven power dynamics, and unethical systems when a church is growing or there is a lot of hype about “what God is going to do.” It’s easy to take spit when your pastor tells you that it will give you God’s vision. 

Protect Yourself

So, how do we avoid taking spit and enduring spiritual abuse that masquerades as anointing? 

Reality test. If you wouldn’t tolerate the same type of behavior on your job or in some other public non-church setting, you probably shouldn’t accept it at your church or from church leaders. A healthy church doesn’t expect you to set aside basic expectations of safety, dignity, reasoning, or anything else in order to be a full participant. Share your experiences with friends and family who don’t attend your church, who aren’t part of your particular faith tradition, or who aren’t churchgoers. If they respond with confusion or concern, then you should start considering that there may be some things that are unhealthy about your church.

Check yourself. Do you feel the need to defend, explain, or “give context for” your pastor or leader when people express concerns about their actions? When others express concerns about the church or leadership, do people quickly swoop in to defend, explain, or “give context?” If you, your fellow church members, or leaders within your church are quick to dismiss or steamroll over people’s concerns about the church, examine what’s behind that urge. Healthy churches prioritize righting their wrongs over having a good public image. Unhealthy churches prioritize managing and maintaining their public image.

Be wary of sectarianism. Unhealthy churches and leaders will often try to bind their members’ sense of calling and purpose to their organization. In other words, unhealthy churches and leaders try to position themselves as the thing that will help people live God’s purpose for their life. Seeing one’s involvement with a specific church or a connection to a specific leader as the fulfillment of God’s promises for one’s life makes us vulnerable and more apt to tolerate unhealthy behavior.

Beware of arrogance. Arrogance comes in many forms and loves to wrap itself in false humility. Beware of church leaders who are quick to point out others’ faults and slow to acknowledge their own shortcomings. Beware of leaders who tout their teaching, revelations, theology, doctrine, and/or methods as “biblical” or “from God” while failing to charitably engage with other viewpoints. Unhealthy churches will position themselves as having all of the answers (or at least having all the answers to the questions its leaders believe are important). We become vulnerable to spiritual abuse when we cannot ask questions or openly disagree with our leaders. 

Imperfection isn’t a license to do harm

There is no such thing as a perfect church. In fact, no organization that has people involved with it will be perfect. Churches will struggle to live up to their missions and callings. People will struggle to get along. Leaders will make mistakes. These things aren’t what make a church or a church leader unhealthy. 

Churches and church leaders become unhealthy when their sense of mission, vision, or calling makes them oblivious or inured to the needs and concerns of others. When a leader’s so-called  God-chasing starts to look like clout chasing, when protecting the vision of the church becomes more important than listening to people, and when following the leader becomes more important than protecting the vulnerable, it might be time to stop taking spit and #LeaveLoud.