A Goodness Culture: A Review of A Church Called Tov

July 1, 2021
Title: A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing
Author: Scot McKnight, Laura Barringer
Publisher: Tyndale Momentum
Publishing Date: October 6, 2020
Pages: 256 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-1496446008

Tov is the Hebrew word for good. In A Church Called Tov: Forming A Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing, authors Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer seek to lay out a vision for goodness culture within church congregations and in church leadership.  

Not long ago I was listening to my colleague, Dr. Randy Smit, Professor of Business and Accounting, present his research on internal controls for accounting in churches. He encourages churches to have internal controls in place to reduce instances of fraud and embezzlement. In the context of his talk, he introduced to us the concept of the fraud triangle. The fraud triangle includes opportunity, pressure and rationalization. If conditions are right, that is, if there is pressure to take advantage, a way to rationalize the behavior and the opportunity presents itself, individuals often take advantage. And what begins as perhaps a minor transgression of swiping $20 from the offering plate while counting money may lead to bigger and bigger offenses as the opportunist realizes that no one is really watching or holding them to account.  

As part of the Reformed tradition, I am fully acquainted with the concept of total depravity and its effects on all of creation. Still, I am surprised and truly dismayed when trusted church and community leaders or beloved Christian celebrities are outed as manipulative abusers. Or, even worse yet, when there are cover-ups within an organization that protect and enable the abuser and attempt to silence or exile the victims. How does this happen and why does it keep happening? Why do churches and other Christian organizations engage in toxic and dishonest behaviors to protect abusive leaders?  

A Church Called Tov is a helpful book for anyone who has had similar questions. Drawing on the experiences of Willow Creek, Harvest Bible Church and other churches, the authors explore factors at play that contribute to toxic organizational culture that enables abusive behavior. The book is structured in two parts. The first part focuses on the formative and deforming aspects in church culture and in the second part, the authors lay out a vision for what they call a goodness culture.  

McKnight and Barringer begin by emphasizing the importance of culture within a church. They distinguish between cultures of compassion and toxicity. It is within the toxic culture that leaders and even the congregation behave in unhealthy ways. Goodness and compassion, which should be hallmarks of a church community, are left behind for power-grabbing, fear, and diminishing of others. It is tempting to always place the blame at the feet of the leader, but the authors also argue that there are ways in which complicity and lack of accountability contribute to toxic cultures. The book is right to point out as well that the culture of celebrity with American evangelicalism contributes to allowing toxic cultures to develop.

The authors draw heavily on the example of Bill Hybels and Willow Creek to illustrate this point clearly. In that instance and many others, a major contributing factor is that the fame or celebrity of the pastor(s) is seen as central to the success of the church and its ministries. Many of these larger churches also operate outside of denominational structures, removing another layer of possible oversight and accountability. Without attentive accountability, a narcissistic leader can begin to manipulate those who are meant to hold that person to account and can also create a culture of fear and competition amongst their subordinates.  

Recognition of the power of culture and situational conformity is accepted as a powerful force in organizational and social psychology. Zimbardo, of Stanford Prison Experiment fame, in his more recent book Lucifer Effect1 , considers it unlikely that people will do the right thing when placed in a culture or situation that encourages otherwise. We sinful beings are often not the heroes of goodness and righteousness that we often think we are, especially when we are pressured to behave in a certain way. Manipulative leaders are certainly cognizant of our believer’s mentality that being good means being obedient. They may take the opportunity to use that for their own purposes if we let them. 

The authors also spend time in chapter two identifying warning signs of toxic culture. The first is narcissistic leaders, which has been explored on In All Things before2 . The second is the development of a power through fear culture: “the most common temptation for church leaders is to wield their assumed authority and positions as weapons of lethal, wounding power. When a leader manifests the power hatchet, a culture is formed that adjusts to the blade of fear” (p. 31). Current research evidence on the impacts of power on the brain are presented, and it is perhaps surprising to find power influences the brain, causing the powerholder to be less empathetic towards others and more inclined to risk taking (p. 32-34). The rest of part one is helpful in exploring various aspects of toxic culture including response to criticism and the development of false narratives to shift blame or attention away from abusive behavior.  

Part one helps to satisfy our questions about how this happens in churches and with church leaders. Part two sets forth a vision for a culture of goodness within the church in order to resist abuses of power. Throughout the book, the examples of abuses of power include spiritual, emotional, and sexual abuse. The authors articulate this vision with what they call “the Circle of Tov,” which includes nurturing habits of empathy, grace, putting people first, truth telling, justice, service, and Christlikeness. Each of these habits has a corresponding chapter where the concept is explored further. A way to nurture these habits of goodness is to have careful accountability for leaders and for members as well. The culture of tov focuses less on a powerful leader and more on the active local church community committed to key virtues of goodness that promote healing and health within the church community. I would like to see a part three in this book that includes suggestions for structural changes in governance and policy-oriented solutions that could be employed in our churches to reduce abuse and avoid toxic cultures. There are resources available like safe church policies, and the book includes examples as well, but this could be a place where more can be developed to flesh out the vision of a church culture of tov 

It may be odd to say, but I am not convinced that most of us have a developed enough sense of the totality of depravity in each of us and in the created, social world. Sin is not only there, but it is as present here too–in our Christian churches and organizations.Sin is not only out there, but it is as present here too—in our Christian churches and organizations If we embrace a fully developed sense of depravity, it would be of a priority for us to establish systems of accountability and governance that curb sinful and abusive behaviors. Instead of being surprised that this keeps happening, we should be thinking about the conditions, like those presented in the fraud triangle—opportunity, pressure and rationalization—that were present to allow a sinful person or group to continue along in their abusive behavior without accountability. A Church Called Tov brings to light that goodness within our churches and organizations can happen only through intentional and structural preventative work.   

About the Author

  1. Zimbardo, Philip. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. New York: Random House.  

  2. https://inallthings.org/the-trial-of-transformation-a-review-of-when-narcissism-comes-to-church/?highlight=narcissism  

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