top of page
  • Writer's pictureGODVERSITY

What Makes a “Good” Church? Reflections on A Church Called Tov

What makes a “good” church? What are our standards and priorities when considering or recommending a local church, and how do we assess whether our church is “good”? Are we drawn to a church by sound expositional preaching, dynamic worship in song, welcoming people, a robust doctrinal statement, programs for the kids, an attractive website, good coffee and pastries in the lobby, or perhaps a convenient livestream option? Relatedly, what makes someone a “good” pastor? Do we measure a minister’s effectiveness by his book sales, Twitter following, or the weekly attendance at his church? Or do we consider other metrics that are more difficult to observe from afar, such as biblical faithfulness, prayerfulness, and hospitality? These are pressing, perennial questions for pastors, seminarians, and church members, particularly in the wake of accusations, controversies, and scandals concerning high-profile evangelical churches and pastors in recent years.

The “Tov” Proposal

Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer offer a clear proposal for what makes a “good” church in their recent book A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing.1 McKnight is a well-known biblical scholar and author who teaches New Testament at Northern Seminary, and Barringer (McKnight’s daughter) is an elementary school teacher and co-author of Sharing God’s Love, a children’s book based on McKnight’s The Jesus Creed. McKnight and Barringer recount examples of “toxic and dysfunctional churches” (p. 4), focusing on two Chicago mega churches: Willow Creek and Harvest Bible Chapel.2

McKnight and Barringer appeal to Christ’s example of compassion towards the harassed and helpless crowds (Matt 9:36) to support their premise: “Because there are so many wounded, Jesus says, we need a host of wounded healers” (p. 7). Then they summarize, “Our book is about wounded healers and wounded resisters: women and men who did the right thing, who told the truth, who suffered rejection, intimidation, and re-victimization, but who persevered in telling the truth so the truth would be known” (p. 7). McKnight and Barringer write as wounded healers themselves, regularly drawing on their own story of hurt, betrayal, and loss as former longtime attenders of Willow Creek, and they “honor the courageous women of Willow” in the book’s Acknowledgements (p. 223). They dedicate A Church Called Tov to “the wounded resisters,” who were troubled by abusive leadership practices and a sick culture in their church, spoke out at personal cost, and sought to promote healing and change.3

So what do McKnight and Barringer propose? Part 1 of their book explores how a church’s culture can become “toxic.” They explain that every church has a culture that reinforces beliefs and behaviors; the leaders guide a church “toward a particular culture” through their narratives, teachings, actions, and policies (p. 14).

Chapter 1 contrasts a compassionate church culture that exhibits a safe, secure, and open environment with a toxic and dysfunctional church culture.

Chapter 2 examines two warning signs that a church’s culture may be toxic: “narcissism and power through fear” (p. 25, emphasis original).

Chapter 3 explores how “toxic” churches and their leaders respond poorly to criticism with defensiveness and denials, while chapter 4 discusses eight “false narratives” that such churches present to protect their own interests while discrediting and doing further harm to the “victims” and “wounded resisters” who resist abuses of power and seek to bring truth to light (p. 56).

Part 2 proposes key characteristics of “tov churches,” using the common Hebrew word regularly translated “good” in the OT. McKnight and Barringer call goodness the “executive virtue,” the short-hand summary for how a good God wants people to live (p. 87). They explain the gospel as “the message of tov”; it is “about God’s tov coming to us in Jesus, who is tov, and thus making us into agents of tov” (p. 94, emphasis original). Tov churches with a “goodness culture” nurture these seven elements. (p. 96):

  • Empathy and compassion

  • Grace and graciousness

  • Putting people first

  • Truth telling

  • Justice

  • Service

  • Christlikeness.

Such churches will “resist abuses of power, promote healing, and eradicate the toxic fallout that infects so many Christian organizations” (p. 8).

This article seeks to engage appreciatively and critically with McKnight and Barringer’s proposal for tov church. The authors rightly lament unbiblical, worldly leadership practices in the church and commendably call for Christian communities to cultivate qualities like Christlikeness, compassion, and truthfulness. The question is this: how do we promote “good” churches that reflect Jesus’s truth and love to one another and to the watching world? I argue that the tov proposal ultimately lacks the proper theological, ecclesiological, and missiological foundations for building healthy churches. Let’s examine the authors’ treatment of church membership and discipline, their vision for pastors, their model for confession, and their summary of the church’s mission, then return to the question: what makes a “good” church?

Tov Church Membership

The closest thing to a definition of “church” comes in the book’s final chapter: “A church is not a business.… A church is a local community of believers who are striving to be like Christ, both as a congregation and as individuals” (p. 215). Churches should be marked by interdependence, not hierarchy, as people work together “under the exclusive headship of Jesus Christ” (p. 216). They call the church “a society of reciprocity” (p. 119) and stress that “church is about soul work and confession of sin. Church is about relationships and community… about knowing and being known, loving and being loved, serving and being served” (pp. 214–15). But questions linger, such as, "How does Christ exercise his exclusive authority in the church?"

McKnight and Barringer take particular issue with how church leaders mishandle or misapply three NT passages—Matthew 18:15–17, 1 Timothy 5:19, and 1 Corinthians 6:1–8—in a way that seeks to silence critics, cover up wrongdoing, and control the narrative in response to accusations (see pp. 47–53).4 They stress it would be “psychologically and morally inexcusable” to apply these texts to cases of sexual abuse (p. 50), and they counsel wounded resisters to go public with their grievances (p. 144). McKnight and Barringer also take particular issue with membership covenants, which appeal to principles from Matthew 18 and other biblical texts to direct the conduct of church members, including how they will resolve disputes and conflicts with other members. The authors argue that these covenants, along with some organizations’ use of nondisclosure agreements for departing employees, “are a way for church leaders to prevent negative information from becoming known” and protect the institution from lawsuits (p. 70).

Unfortunately, McKnight and Barringer do not propose which biblical texts and principles should guide churches when handling credible accusations of scandalous sin (e.g., 1 Cor 5). They highlight ways that some people have grievously twisted the Scriptures for their own purposes and rightly call for wisdom and care in handling claims of sexual abuse. However, they do not clarify how Christians should properly and wisely apply Matthew 18, 1 Timothy 5, and 1 Corinthians 6 (as well as other biblical teachings) to handle known sin, accusations of wrongdoing, and conflicts in the church. By focusing on examples of pastoral malpractice without presenting the normative biblical practice for dealing with disputes and serious sin within the community, the authors foster suspicion and distrust of church membership covenants, pastoral admonitions, and appeals to Scripture as self-serving “spin.”

In a healthy church, clearly defined standards for membership offer a basis for proper accountability, discipleship, and, when needed, removal of those whose conduct dishonors Christ and harms those within the community.5 Jeremy Kimble explains, “The NT recognizes that false teachers and unbelievers will enter the life of the church as members, and the mechanism for dealing with such situations is church discipline.”6 McKnight and Barringer do not mention church discipline in their proposal, nor do they present a process for evaluating accusations of abuse or other serious sin within a congregation. Rather, they emphasize that women in tov churches “will be believed and comforted and supported” when they bring accusations of abuse (p. 106). They assert, “Sometimes the most biblical thing we can do is to expose evil to the light of truth by going public” (p. 144). They acknowledge in passing that it’s wise as a general practice to go to an offender one-on-one first before involving others, but they repeatedly stress that it is “profoundly biblical” to take “prophetic public action” (p. 145—more on this later). By “going public,” they do not mean “tell it to the church” (Matt 18:17) or mandatory reporting of abuse claims to law enforcement;7 rather, they mean “tell it to the world,” presumably via news outlets or social media.8 This makes the court of public opinion the arbiter of “the truth” and dispenser of proper “discipline” for those within the church, which runs contrary to Paul’s explicit teaching: “If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? … Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church?” (1 Cor 6:1–4 NIV). A healthy, well-functioning church practices meaningful membership in which believers test and publicly affirm one another’s profession of faith, take “steps of brotherly correction” 9 when members sin, and act to “purge the evil person from among you” (1 Cor 5:13; cf. Deut 13:5) in matters of public, serious, and unrepentant sin, 10 thereby preserving the church’s health and maintaining her public witness to Christ in the world.

Tov Pastors

A Church Called Tov castigates the “celebrity pastor” phenomenon and calls churches to resist “a celebrity culture” while cultivating a culture of service (pp. 183–200). McKnight and Barringer offer several examples of servant-leadership: the senior pastor holding babies in the nursery or regularly visiting his mother with Alzheimer’s (pp. 196–97). They make few positive references to preaching, though they note pastors ought not think too highly of their own homiletical prowess and should regularly share the pulpit and preach inclusive sermons that incorporate stories of women, marginalized, and wounded people (p. 110). They celebrate several examples of tov leadership and community outside of the church, such as an accomplished NCAA basketball coach declining a raise. (pp. 90–91) and the city of El Paso, responding with empathy and compassionate support for a grieving widower (pp. 100–102). They also write, “Perhaps no one in recent memory exemplifies a people-first perspective and the virtues of dignity, respect, and integrity more than Fred Rogers,” the longtime host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (p. 122).

Unfaithful, worldly leadership is a real problem facing the contemporary American (and global) church. Pastors called to shepherd God’s people and herald God’s word have misused their influence to promote their own “brand” 11 and to satisfy their own cravings for fame, power, money, and sex. To be emphatically clear: this is a perversion of the pastoral office that dishonors Christ and does serious harm to Christ’s church, and McKnight and Barringer and others rightly lament it.

Yet this is not a new problem facing the church, but an ancient one addressed repeatedly in the NT and throughout church history. “Self-promotion and celebrity-adulation are nothing new,” writes David Starling.12 For example, Paul confronts the church’s divisions over loyalty to human leaders (1 Cor 1:10–13), its confusion of human eloquence for “wisdom” (1:17; 2:1–6), and church leaders who “peddle the word of God for profit” like the traveling rhetoricians of the ancient world (2 Cor 2:17 NIV).13 He warns the Ephesian elders that “fierce wolves will come in among you … and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29–30). 3 John 9 refers to Diotrephes, an early church leader, “who likes to put himself first” and refused to recognize the apostles’ authority. The Didache charges that any traveling prophet or apostle who asks for money “is a false prophet,” and those who do not wish to work for a living are “trading on Christ” (Did 11:6; 12:5).14

NT authors are very clear about such challenges and threats within the church—how do they respond? They do not jettison authority in the church but provide principles and boundaries for its proper exercise. Biblical writers stress the high doctrinal and character standards for those who aspire to serve as overseers (1 Tim 3:1–7; Tit 1:5–9), they warn against hastily appointing people to leadership positions in the church (1 Tim 5:22), they hold forth the high standards for teachers of God’s word (Jas 3:1), and they establish standards for adjudicating charges against elders and rebuking leaders who sin without showing favoritism (1 Tim 5:19–21; cf. Deut 19:15). At the same time, Hebrews instructs believers to “remember,” “obey,” and “submit to” leaders who speak the word of God, keep watch over people’s souls, and set an example of faith (Heb 13:7, 17). Pastoral ministry is both “a noble task” (1 Tim 3:1) and “a “dangerous calling,”15 if ministers eschew accountability and fail to keep watch on their teaching and lives (4:16).

Early church fathers and later voices from church history express similar sentiments. Clement responds to divisions in the church by calling the Corinthian church to obey, honor, and submit to the elders (1 Clem 1:3; 57:1; 63:1), while the Didache instructs Christians to “appoint for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are humble and not avaricious and true and approved” (Did 15:1). Writing in the mid-17th century, Richard Baxter recognized the particular temptations facing preachers as well as the weightiness of the calling of gospel ministers: “See that the work of saving grace be thoroughly wrought in your own souls,” and “preach to yourselves the sermons which you study.”16

McKnight and Barringer rightly critique celebrity pastors who seek self-glory and power at the expense of faithful, humble care for God’s people. One thinks of Ezekiel’s blistering prophecy against Israel’s unfaithful shepherds who feed themselves but fail to feed and help the sheep (Ezek 34:2–4). But the authors do not move from criticizing such abuses of authority to offering a positive vision for biblically qualified pastors who teach the whole counsel of God, seek out healthy accountability with others, and model for the congregation “the beauty of submission and humility … between the plurality and the senior leader.”17 We need to lament the painful effects of pastoral failures, and we need to recover a biblical vision of humble, godly servant leadership that reflects God’s love and authority and that’s measured by “faithfulness … according to God’s design.”18

Tov Confession

Having considered McKnight and Barringer’s approach to church membership and their vision for pastoral ministry, let’s now turn to a specific example of how a tov church operates in the area of public confession. Chapter 9 present Israel’s Day of Atonement practice as a model for churches committed to nurturing confession, repentance, and truth-telling. The authors insist, “Yom Kippur is all about telling the truth” (p. 150), and they urge churches to develop a litany of confession to come clean about “their complicity, their sinfulness, and their failing of all who have been abused or exploited in the church” (p. 154). This Yom Kippur vision of confession is presented in sharp contrast to those churches (such as Willow Creek) that are unwilling to humbly “surrender” to the truth but instead circle the wagons to protect the reputation of the church and its leaders.

The authors offer a ten-part example of liturgy related to the Bill Hybels scandal, which begins this way:

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

There is evidence that Bill Hybels’s accusers told the truth about him, that he abused them with his behavior and his words.

We believe Bill was wrong.

We believe we were wrong for supporting a culture that allowed abusive behavior to occur and continue.

We lament the way his accusers were treated.

We apologize, seek their forgiveness, and publicly affirm them.

Lord, in your mercy, forgive our sins. (p. 154)

Such public prayers of confession have at least five “essential elements,” according to McKnight and Barringer:

  • Affirm the truth teller(s).

  • Name the perpetrator and all specific wrongdoing.

  • Confess all complicity (whether intentional or by neglect) of other leaders and the congregation.

  • Publicly acknowledge the harm done to the victim(s), express sorrow, lament, confession, and repentance, and ask for forgiveness.

  • Publicly acknowledge the desire/intention to change. (p. 158)

These essentials (and the lengthy exemplar prayers) stress the need to apologize thoroughly, penitently, and publicly with particular concern for victims and the wider community. Yet the authors’ model confessions that they commend bear little resemblance to the examples from Scripture or the traditional liturgy of the church. Strikingly absent from their “essential elements” are an emphasis on the holiness of God, the judgment that our sins deserve, and the hope of reconciliation through Christ’s atoning work. Perhaps the authors take these as assumed theological truths but choose to focus their attention elsewhere to correct common gaps in contemporary confession. They do reference the work of Christ as an analogy for the costliness of truth-telling,19 but Christ’s atoning sacrifice for sinners is peripheral to their entire discussion of “Modeling Yom Kippur.” Contrast this with the following OT confessions, which reflect an altogether different theological center of gravity:

Against you, you only, have I sinned

and done what is evil in your sight,

so that you may be justified in your words

and blameless in your judgment.

Hide your face from my sins,

and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,

and renew a right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:4, 9–10)

O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. (Daniel 9:4–5)

O Lord, the God of Israel, you are just, for we are left a remnant that has escaped, as it is today. Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this. (Ezra 9:15; cf. vv. 4–14)

A traditional liturgy of the church reflects this God-centeredness of confession:

Most merciful God,

we confess that we have sinned against you

in thought, word, and deed,

by what we have done,

and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart;

we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,

have mercy on us and forgive us;

that we may delight in your will,

and walk in your ways,

to the glory of your Name. Amen.20

Or consider this 17th century Puritan prayer for repentance:

I have grievously sinned against heaven and before you, O Lord. I have transgressed all your commandments, not only through negligence, but often through willful presumption—contrary to the motions of your Holy Spirit reclaiming me from them.…

I pray that all my sins and uncleanness may be so bathed in [Christ’s] blood, buried in his death, and hid in his wounds, that they may never more be seen, to shame me in this life, or to condemn me before your judgment seat in the world to come.21

The tov church may affirm, authentic, and sincere, but by failing to emphasize that sin is fundamentally against the holy and righteous God and not merely against other people, the authors offer a shaky foundation for promoting true repentance, forgiveness, and change. These are theological essentials that must not be simply assumed but regularly rehearsed in the church’s prayers and teaching.

Tov Mission

McKnight and Barringer regularly refer to the “mission” of tov churches. For example, they write, “A Christlike church culture always has its eyes on people because the mission of the church is all about God’s redemptive love for people” (p. 23). What does this mean, exactly? In context, the authors draw a sharp contrast between “toxic, flesh-driven” church cultures and “Spirit-formed, Christlike” cultures. The latter foster truthfulness, service, justice, “redemptive grace and love,” and healing for hurting people (p. 23). This statement about the “redemptive” mission of the church hearkens back to the Introduction: “This is a book about defending the redemptive value of the church” (p. 7, emphasis added). They expand on this in chapter 1: “If the reinforcing culture is redemptive and healing and good (tov), it becomes systemically good. A tov church culture will instinctively heal, redeem, and restore” (p. 17, emphasis original). Thus, the focus is on the sort of culture that heals or redeems wounded people, especially those who have been hurt by abusive church leaders and “suffered rejection, intimidation, and revictimization” along the way (p. 7).

How does their description of a redemptive church culture relate to the NT emphasis on Christ redeeming us from “the curse of the law” (Gal 3:13) and “from all lawlessness … to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Tit 2:14; cf. Gal 4:5; Heb 9:15)? McKnight and Barringer offer their clearest answer in the book’s final chapter: “Those who align themselves under the headship of Jesus as Lord identify with the redemptive work of salvation accomplished by Jesus on the cross (and brought to fulfillment by his resurrection and ascension), and they are brought into restored relationship with ‘the God who saves’” (p. 216). The authors consistently emphasize that a “good” church offers healing and restoration to wounded people who have been hurt by churches and their leaders. They acknowledge Christ’s saving work on the cross, but they focus attention on salvation from corrupt pastors and toxic churches and do not clearly connect this to the fundamental need of all people to repent and seek forgiveness for sins against a holy God. Further, while the authors stress the church’s “redemptive and restorative” agency in people’s lives (p. 216), they do not relate this to the normative activities of preaching, evangelism, or making disciples.22 Without this context, the “mission” of tov churches highlights the goodness and healing power of Christian community but has little to do with the Great Commission.

Reconsidering the “Good” Church

A Church Called Tov commendably calls out carnal, celebrity-seeking leadership in the church and calls for churches to cultivate Christlikeness, compassion, truthfulness, and other admirable qualities. We want local communities of believers who strive to follow Christ, confess sin and bear fruit of repentance, use their gifts to serve the body, and have meaningful relationships marked by mutual love. The prolonged COVID-19 pandemic, deep divisions among Christians over politics and various social issues, and a string of scandals in evangelical churches and institutions have taken a toll on believers and their churches.23 Many people have stopped gathering with a church at all for one reason or another. There is a need now—and in every generation—for church revitalization and a renewed commitment to the biblical vision for the local church. As McKnight and Barringer rightly assert, the church is not a business, an organization, or a building; it’s a redeemed people gathered in Jesus’s name. The church of Jesus Christ should be marked by goodness, truth, and love, not squabbles, controversies, and power struggles.

Unfortunately, McKnight and Barringer fail to supply the sure foundations for building “good” churches. In my reading, the authors effectively downplay biblical preaching and teaching, cast suspicion on church membership and discipline, focus confession on affirming hurting people more than dealing with God, and present a vague and truncated vision for the church’s mission.

It is instructive to compare the qualities of “tov churches” with other summaries of the church’s essential characteristics. For example, Calvin famously writes, “We have laid down as distinguishing marks of the church the preaching of the Word and the observance of the sacraments. These can never exist without bringing forth fruit and prospering by God’s blessing.”24 John Gill explains, “Sound doctrine, salutary truths, the wholesome words of our Lord Jesus, are what pastors are to teach and feed souls with.”25 Herman Bavinck calls preaching “the greatest and highest part” of Protestant religion, for “through preaching, the congregation is protected in its purity, encouraged in its battle, healed in its sufferings, established in its confession.”26 In fact, as Gregg Allison explains, pastors shepherd and protect their flock “by the faithful preaching and teaching of the word of God and through the exercise of church discipline.”27

McKnight and Barringer insist that “the purpose of church is not the preacher” (p. 213). In their proposal for a “good” church culture that promotes healing and redemption, preaching is assumed but marginalized, and church leaders (especially men) are suspect. Tov pastors should be more like Fred Rogers and nothing at all like Bill Hybels. The tov church evidently eschews membership covenants and so does not have a clear mechanism for rightly disciplining those in the community who commit serious, public, unrepentant sin in the community in order to preserve the church’s purity and health.

This book presents a vision for the church that is hopeful, inclusive, non-hierarchical, encouraging, and safe—a church in which wounded people “come … just as you are” (p. 214), “go public” with their grievances, and leave the church as a “prophetic” act when they deem necessary (pp. 146, 149). But it is dubious to claim that the OT prophets’ actions such as burying a loincloth (Jer 13) or breaking an earthenware jug (Jer 19) offer a precedent or analogy for a Willow Creek pastor to resign or for Christians today to publicize grievances or leave their local church (pp. 144–46, 149).

Jeremiah explains that he acts as he does because he received a specific command from the Lord (Jer 13:1, 5, 8; 19:1, 3, 10). Throughout the Scriptures, “prophecy is always the communication of something the Holy Spirit has ‘revealed’ or disclosed to a person.”28 “Prophetic” is not synonymous with courageous or principled activity; it is a claim to speak God’s words. If ever there was a leader who wanted to resign from ministry and leave for greener pastures, it would be Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, who “invested in the ruins of Judah.”29 To be sure, there may be good and legitimate reasons to leave one church to seek a new church home, and there may also be good reasons to remain in a church through transitions or difficulties. But we need not call such a decision “prophetic.”

A Church Called Tov seeks to address the present cultural moment in the American church, and it regularly employs contemporary therapeutic categories to do so. For example, the term “toxic” appears over seventy times in the book. There are many books and articles (Christian and secular) published the past few years related to “toxic” emotions, relationships, leaders, spouses, workplaces, and, of course, churches;30 but very few studies were addressing “toxic” people and organizations even two or three decades ago. Similarly, how many pastors and theologians of previous generations emphasized that the church should “promote healing” (outside of Pentecostal and charismatic circles, of course)? They do not elaborate on the key term “wounded healers,” which I first encountered in the writings of Henri Nouwen.31 This concept has ancient roots in Greek mythology and philosophy,32 and it was popularized in the twentieth century by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung.33 One could argue that this book and others like it are responding to problems that are particularly acute in our time (such as the internet-fueled church celebrity culture) or that were present yet latent in the churches of our grandparents and great-grandparents (such as domestic abuse). At the same time, by focusing on the crises of this cultural moment without retrieving the insights from Christians of previous eras who faced plenteous problems in the church themselves, McKnight and Barringer provide a rather shallow vision for the church’s goodness and health.

So we return to the question: what makes a “good” church? The NT describes the church in various ways: it is a local assembly of baptized believers in Jesus who meet regularly for instruction in the word, fellowship, and prayer (Acts 2:42); a family or “household” that displays and protects the truth (1 Tim 3:14–15); and a holy temple founded on Christ and indwelt by God’s Spirit (Eph 2:20–21). God has designed the church of Jesus Christ to display his manifold wisdom and resound to the praise of his glory (Eph 1:12; 3:10). A “good” church “is fundamentally God centered,” committed to faithfully preaching the gospel and displaying that gospel through baptism and the Lord’s Supper.34 “Good” pastors of “good” churches should serve their people by faithfully teaching God’s word, caring for the weak, correcting the wayward, equipping the saints for ministry, and seeking their maturity in the faith. To sum up: a “good” church reflects its true identity and purpose in the world by rightly worshipping God, growing in holiness and Christ-like love, and gathering other worshippers through the gospel. A “good” church may not have a famous pastor, an impressive building, or a professional-quality worship band; but gospel faithfulness, spiritual fruitfulness will mark it, and furthering the Great Commission.



[1] Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2020). Hereafter, I use in-text citations when referencing this book.

[2] By my count, they refer by name to Willow Creek (or Willow) 128 times and its former senior pastor Bill Hybels eighty-six times, and they mention Harvest Bible Chapel (or Harvest) fifty times in the book and its longtime pastor James MacDonald sixteen times.

[3] Cf. Scot McKnight, “For Wounded Resisters,” Jesus Creed, 27 October 2020,

[4] For similar claims, see Wade Mullen, Something’s Not Right: Decoding the Hidden Tactics of Abuse and Freeing Yourself from Its Power (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2020), 72.

[5] See, for example, the extended argument of Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline, 9Marks (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010).

[6] Jeremy M. Kimble, 40 Questions about Church Membership and Church Discipline, 40 Questions (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2017), 29.

[7] Cf. Jeremy Pierre and Greg Wilson, When Home Hurts: A Guide for Responding Wisely to Domestic Abuse in Your Church (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2021), 130–31.

[8] For example, the book’s opening sentence refers to “a breaking news story in the Chicago Tribune” related to accusations against Bill Hybels (p. 1).

[9] John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, trans. William Pringle, reprint ed. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 2:352.

[10] Jonathan Leeman, Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus, 9Marks (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 54–55.

[11] See, for example, Mike Cosper, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill Episode 6: The Brand,” Christianity Today, 2 August 2021,

[12] David I. Starling, UnCorinthian Leadership: Thematic Reflections on 1 Corinthians (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014), 18.

[13] For example, Socrates reasons that the traveling “sophists” in his day were not really masters of wisdom but of clever speech; they “take their doctrines the round of our cities, hawking them about to any odd purchaser who desires them.” Plato, Protagoras 312c–313d, trans. W. R. M. Lamb, LCL 165 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1924).

[14] Translation from Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, updated ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 265, 267.

[15] See Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).

[16] Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, ed. William Brown, Puritan Paperbacks (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), 53, 61.

[17] Dave Harvey, The Plurality Principle: How to Build and Maintain a Thriving Church Leadership Team (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 49.

[18] Jonathan Leeman, The Rule of Love: How the Local Church Should Reflect God’s Love and Authority, 9Marks (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 148.

[19] “Just as grace is not cheap but was purchased for us by the shed blood of Christ, telling the truth comes at a cost, as well” (p. 149).

[20] “A Penitential Order: Rite Two,” in The Book of Common Prayer, reprint ed. (New York: Church Publishing, 2007), 352, emphasis added.

[21] Lewis Bayly, “Prayer of Repentance for the Evening,” in Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans, ed. Robert Elmer (Bellingham, WA Lexham, 2019), 276–77, emphasis added.

[22] McKnight offers an extended treatment of the church’s mission in Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to Radical Mission of the Local Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2014). However, his usage of the term mission and his explanation of the concept of mission are unclear, according to Stina Busman Jost, “Review of Scot McKnight, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to Radical Mission of the Local Church,” Missiology 44 (2016): 353. It is noteworthy that McKnight in Kingdom Conspiracy makes only one passing reference to the Great Commission (Matt 28:18–20) and does not discuss key missiological passages such as Luke 24:47; John 20:21; Acts 1:8; Romans 10:14–15; and 2 Corinthians 5:18–20.

[23] See Collin Hansen and Jonathan Leeman, Rediscover Church: Why the Body of Christ Is Essential, 9Marks (Wheaton, IL Crossway, 2021), 11–18.

[24] John Calvin, Institutes 4.1.10, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, LCC (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1960). The Westminster Confession of Faith 25.4 expresses a similar point: “Particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.”

[25] John Gill, A Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity (London, 1769), book 2, ch. 3, §4a2c,

[26] James P. Eglinton, trans. and ed., Herman Bavinck on Preaching and Preachers (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2017), 73.

[27] Gregg R. Allison, The Church: An Introduction, Short Studies in Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL Crossway, 2021), 85, emphasis added.

[28] Sam Storms, Understanding Spiritual Gifts: A Comprehensive Guide (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), 179.

[29] Paul R. House, “Investing in the Ruins: Jeremiah and Theological Vocation,” JETS 56 (2013): 6.

[30] See the influential, earlier work by Jean Lipman-Blumen, The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians— and How We Can Survive Them (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[31] See Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society, 2nd ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1979). For example, Nouwen presents “hospitality as a central attitude of the minister who wants to make his own wounded condition available to others as a source of healing” (p. 97).

[32] “Physicians … would prove most skilled if, from childhood up, in addition to learning the principles of the art they had familiarized themselves with the greatest possible number of the most sickly bodies, and if they themselves had suffered all diseases and were not of very healthy constitution,” writes Plato, The Republic 3 (408D–E), trans. Paul Shorey, LCL 237 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1930).

[33] “It is his own hurt that gives the measure of his power to heal,” according to C. G. Jung, Practice of Psychotherapy: Essays on the Psychology of the Transference and Other Subjects, ed. Gerhard Adler, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed., Collected Works of C. G. Jung 16 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), 116. Jung draws on the Greek myth of Chiron, who was wounded by Heracles’s arrow and later became known as a great healer. Cf. Serge Daneault, “The Wounded Healer: Can This Idea Be of Use to Family Physicians?,” Canadian Family Physician 54 (2008): 1219; Claire Dunne, Carl Jung: Wounded Healer of the Soul, reprint ed. (New York: Watkins, 2015), 119.

[34] Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, How to Build a Healthy Church: A Practical Guide for Deliberate Leadership, 9Marks (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 32.

Author: Brian J. Tabb

Brian Tabb is an academic dean and professor of biblical studies at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis and general editor of Themelios.


bottom of page