In a circle of East African Anabaptist leaders this spring, comments flew with dizzying rapidity. We talked about forgiveness, reconciliation and repentance. We struggled with authority and control and how to lead by modeling visionary obedience to Christ rather than verbal idealism. We explored the challenges of building strong relationships with churches in the West. We talked about how to build strong teams.
Then a bishop asked, “What about unhealthy dependence? How do we keep from falling into that trap? How do we get out when we’re caught?”
I paused. Indeed, how? I’ve seen plenty of unhealthy dependence, and it’s terribly difficult to escape.
I thought the question might be unanswerable. Then I remembered a comparison that had been growing in my soul for many years but that I had never articulated. Now, surrounded by Africans, it came pouring out.
In non-Western churches there are many instances of unhealthy dependence on the West. These are related to failures among senders as well as receivers. Dependence on Western money, development expertise, educational resources, theological frameworks — the list goes on.
Nevertheless, unhealthy dependence is just as big a challenge in the West as in the Global South. It is not just the subtle enablement of dependency we use to make us feel important, though that is a temptation. Rather, it’s the blight of unhealthy dependence among ourselves.
The church in the West suffers from an unhealthy dependence on professional leaders. Without admitting it, we are saying, “Let them do our religion for us.” Specialization is a characteristic of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12), but when that is defined and ordered in human terms rather than in corporate obedience to Jesus as Lord of the church, it is deadly.
Since many of our leaders are salaried, their focus can shift from dependence on God to dependence on those who pay their salary. This produces bland Christianity that loses a prophetic edge. It turns the congregation into a country club. Yes, it’s good for leaders to be supported, but we flirt with disaster when that support turns into a business proposition.
The Western church suffers from its dependence on wealth. Yes, I’m talking about financial assets but also educational and political wealth. We would find it hard to live without our material security, our knowledge and our power. Our dependence on these things makes us self-satisfied and arrogant.
A group of Ethiopian Anabaptist leaders told me they are grateful we are praying for the persecuted Christians there, but they are praying for us, because they think our wealth is a more dangerous assault on the soul of the church than their persecution.
The problem of unhealthy dependence is just as great in the Western church as in the Global South. Quite likely even greater.
The solution? In whatever corner of the globe we find ourselves, we must renew our covenant of total dependence on God and the leading of the Holy Spirit, while acknowledging the interdependence (without borders) to which we are also called as members of the body of Christ.
The Africans smiled.
Richard Showalter, of Irwin, Ohio, travels as an overseer, mentor, consultant and teacher in the U.S. and global church and is adjunct faculty at Bethany International University in Singapore.