What Churches Can Learn From Jane Austen

CassandraAusten-JaneAusten(c.1810)_hiresDon’t worry – it’s not soteriology or anything. There is no evidence that Jane Austen possessed saving faith, so taking theological tips from her doesn’t make sense.

But as a brilliant novelist, she understood people. Society might be different now than it was two hundred years ago: human nature is the same. And it’s Austen’s keen insight into people’s thought and behavior patterns that leave lessons for pastors, congregations, and individual members in our churches today. Here is one lesson from each of her three best-loved novels.

Pride and Prejudice: The Wickham who goes around letting everyone know his hard-luck story is often believed because Mr. Darcy can’t publicly discredit him without hurting innocent or wounded people who are involved. Mr. Darcy’s reputation suffers as he protects his sister, while Wickham goes on an endearing smear campaign. It happens to pastors every week. The nice, disgruntled parishioner goes around, quietly or loudly telling people about how dreadful the elders have been to him/her, sowing disrespect and discord in the congregation while retaining people’s respect and pity. Meanwhile, the elders can’t defend themselves publicly; in exposing the slander, they would be exposing wounded people who are counting on the elders’ protection.

If you’re a pastor, take heart: in the end, falsehood will be exposed. Wickham might nab his Lydia, but the true Bride of Christ will be brought through, including you. And if you’re a parishioner, the next time someone comes and tells you how dreadful those elders are, go to the elders and ask them about it, or simply don’t pass on the gossip, and see what comes out in the wash. Scripture has so much to say about gossip, that we should suspect it from the get go (eg. Prov. 11:12-13).

Sense and Sensibility: Bright, energetic Willoughbys will be welcomed quickly into close fellowship by bright, energetic Marriannes. Suspicious, quiet Eleanors will be called judgmental, cold, and harsh. This also happens frequently in the church. That’s how child molesters come to teach Sunday school. It’s one way men on ego trips get into pulpits. It’s how heretics spiritually overpower weak women (2 Tim. 3:6).

Elders need to be doing background checks. This is not to be nasty, but to protect sheep (who don’t mind background checks) from wolves (who do). It’s why we’re told not to hurry in putting someone into leadership (1 Tim. 5:22). Being inquisitive about someone’s past and present is not nosy if they are trying to get close to people in the church, especially via a leadership position. It’s just common sense seeking to avoid broken hearts and minds.

Emma: When we mess about in other people’s lives, we tend to mess things up, don’t we? By stirring Harriet’s pot for her, Emma destroys many relationships that later have to be rebuilt. Interfering without seeming to, arranging, and plotting might still land you in a happy ending in an English novel, but it rarely does in the church. It’s amazing how much of this happens, by phone, e-mails, social media, committee meetings, and even elders’ meetings. It can range from trying to maneuver your man into leadership, to getting the Sunday school curriculum you want, from controlling the music, to blocking someone from getting a denominational position. Whether we call it politicking, being concerned, convicted, or something else, it’s not right. Unless there is a biblical reason to intervene and alter a relationship, content, or leadership, we have no right altering due procedures.

Problem is, it’s so tempting. You don’t have to be clever, handsome, rich, and bored like Emma Woodhouse to want to run other people’s lives. You just have to have your own agenda. This sort of arranging is especially tempting if you’ve seen it bring about your results in the past. If we can just get what we want, things would be better. So we push and maneuver what we want, instead of minding our own business and letting the church run without trying to pull strings. But unless there is something unbiblical going on or someone asks for help, it’s not our place, regardless of our ecclesiastical position, to fiddle with providence and polity for our own convenience or liking. Besides losing people’s trust and creating factions, we will have to explain our interference to the One whose holy, wise, and powerful governing rules all of His creatures, and Who has established principles by which the church runs. It should be our ambition to live quietly at home (1 Thess. 4:11), not be piously manipulating.

There are many more church lessons and analogies that we could draw from lesser themes and scenes in Austen’s novels. These are just a few. Perhaps the last lesson is for couples with an upcoming date night: discussions about polity, church government, and your local congregation aren’t incompatible with chick-flicks.