Checks & Balances on Power


The founders of our constitutional republic knew what it was like to journey into in the lair of the great dragon, that ancient beast who has hunted and maimed the human race since before the dawning of written history. The lair is always filled with dead men’s bones and the beast’s rotten, living breath. The founder’s investigation pressed on into the darkness and stench with paper and goose quill in hand; they reeled and retreated only after their weak lantern finally flickered against the now gaping sharp-toothed mouth. Now fast behind them, the dragon’s serrated claws slashed at their calves and back as they made their safe exit.


That small band of educated, adventurous revolutionaries wisely discerned the threat of this ancient beast, and they became the repositories of a truth that was then so fresh yet today so easily forgotten: communities need not fear the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Communities rather need fear that ancient beast, that lust for power latent in the hearts of all men. As the constitution’s founders prepared their document, they could peer into the dragon’s lair by looking to themselves and to their neighbor.


The founder’s intimacy with this dark enemy gave them the wisdom they needed to fashion a government of laws and not of men, a government balanced between the will of the majority and the rights of the person.   Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. There could not be a stronger situationist statement.  The corrupt man does not corrupt the community. Rather, power corrupts the man. A bad tree puts forth bad fruit, and by a similar statistical relation, a bad barrel is where we find the ‘bad apples.’ Power just is the social situation in which one man or one dominant group owns the technology of control. 


Later in life, after a visitation from this ancient monster, some of us come to learn that it is this dragon’s lair that gives meaning to those droning grown-up words we recall from junior high: ‘checks and balances.’ It was far too easy to understand ‘checks and balances’ in terms of the ‘stocks and bonds’ of the class after and the ‘x and y axis’ of the class before. The checks and balances of social power – political power – is something far more sacred than this; checks and balances of political power is a correlate of our judicial system’s taming of the Furies. We hang by a thread over the twin fiery pits of vengeance and tyranny. How sweet yet how delicate is that thread of checks and balances.




By means of our community-living here in coastal North County San Diego, I came to find out about the historical checks and balances of a medium sized congregation just up the 101 highway from here, Carlsbad Community Church.    For eighty years the constitution of this church provided stability. Power was divided between three equal branches of church gbush-burns-constitutionovernment. The dragon had been making appearances within the church walls for a decade, but it was over the last two years that the beast was entirely unleashed. A small dominant group surrounding a vicious politician – who was then their new pastor – gained too much power, and the techniques for collapsing three branches of government into one were wielded with praiseworthy success.  After years of steady news coverage of the Bush administration, these techniques would have been all too well known, but the efficiency and stealth by which these men worked is to be commended. 


Former President Bush’s brain is same in type to all human mammals. It should not be surprising, then, that the successful grasp of power by the new dominant males at Carlsbad Community Church would release the same reason-numbing brain chemicals. The new leaders blinded themselves to the inventible aftermath. As the checks and balances quickly disintegrated, so did the attendance and so did the money. The congregation shrank from 1000 to 400! 


Were there protests?  Well, of course. . . . . As reiterated again two days ago, “So far, the leadership has tried to discipline and punish many who criticize them, using intimidation, isolation, fear of excommunication and harassment of Church members.”  In other words, the usual routine. Where did I get this quote?  It is found within a recent post of The Looking Glass,  an anonymous web site providing investigative journalism of what is going on inside Carlsbad Community Church. According to the story, some loyal members of the church, now powerless within their corrupted system of government, discovered a new tool of democracy – the internet.  The numbers vary, but on average, 20 people still inside this now 400 member congregation are feeding information to the Looking Glass’s administrators. Some of these members are unknown even to themselves, communicating in cellular fashion.


The goals behind The Looking Glass appear to be fairly simple: 1) restore a government with genuine checks and balances, with the effect of relinquishing power to the members of the church. 2) Further, those still in control are called to offer direct, unambiguous admission to what has happened, which allegedly includes a long paper trail of financial irregularities. The chief orangutan who helped create all this mess resigned a while back, walking away with plenty of cash falling out of his back pockets. But this resignation should not have been seen as the solution, which would be a failure to remember what our constitution’s authors knew. Again: communities are not to fear the wolf who sneaks in with sheep’s clothing. Communities need fear that ancient monster, that lust for power latent in the hearts of all men.


A small group of leaders at Carlsbad Community Church has now decided to file a law suit against The Looking Glass.  Some of you might remember Ligonier Ministry’s law suit against the author of the anonymous web site of ‘Frank Vance’. Ligonier had a lot of money – in fact, their legal bills had been skyrocketing – and Vance was likely just one individual. But the law suit still backfired.  After embarrassment from national media coverage, financial harm, and further exposure of the corruptions within the ministry, all Ligonier could do was spin as many lies as they could get away with for their loyal following and retract the law suit.


It turned out that ‘Vance’ was connected to some corruption himself, and so a law suit in that case might have proven indirectly beneficial. But this is an approach that just does not seem to work unless there is clear, verifiable libel – in content and intent.  The corruption associated with ‘Vance’ was later sufficiently addressed by the work of my friend Matthew Chancey, involving investigative journalism on a mere low-cost web site, mrs. binoculars, managed on the side. The ability of the internet to unleash the power of free speech is too sacred to risk jeopardizing. The internet is a media that has the capacity to solve the problems it creates.


This is at least true to a point. Anonymity still proves to be a significant problem. Recall the teenage girl Megan Meier who killed herself last year after receiving psychological maiming from an anonymous ‘friend’ on the internet; the culprit turned out to be a neighbor down the road, mother of one of Megan’s acquaintances. We do not have laws to prosecute this kind of behavior, much less curtail it; this, I believe, should change (although there has apparently been one successful prosecution ).


Unfortunately, The Looking Glass is fairly anonymous. This is a complicated matter, though, since the evidence so far suggests that someone behind the web site is a genuine member of Carlsbad Community Church.  The judicial nature of the writing does not lend itself to the description of an ‘anonymous attack site’, and I have had the benefit of observing all this as a genuine third party.  And many of the people who have provided primary documents or testimony are not anonymous. Just the other day, someone else was willing to attach their identity to their comments. 


I looked up The Looking Glass only after my wife was told by a member at the church – one with a stake in the matter – that the web site was just “demonic.”  After a brief look at the site – boy, deja vu: Morin, Phillips . . .  - it was clear that this interpretation was the result of strong self-defensive social mechanisms well in place.  


This post has been approved by The Looking Glass for factual accuracy.  I have also submitted this to the leadership of Carlsbad Community Church, eager to make any corrections in the facts and in whatever tone the genuine situation might warrant.  I am still waiting for their response. To my knowledge, there is no statement available on this from Carlsbad Community Church. Someone I know attended a sermon there that merely encouraged the congregation to not read any relevant web sites or emails.


The human mind is a curious thing. If only we were by and large rational mammals – we would no doubt have a bit less war and violence, and in this case, our number of law suits would be reduced by at least one.

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  1. I found your article to be very thought provoking and disturbing, all at the same time. After visiting the looking glass and reading some of what they have published, it would seem your assessment of the situation is right on target.

    At what point in time did it become OK for Churches to behave in a corrupt fashion? How is it right, when one considers the the separation of Church and state in the USA, along with the freedom of religion and freedom of speech guarantees, how is it right for a church to spend money destined for God’s work in the pursuit of a lawsuit designed, apparently to seek revenge?

    You did a good job on this article, keep it up.


    Comment by Nick Bertolli — March 7, 2009 @ 3:15 pm


  2. Nick,

    Thank you for the kind note. I would say that it has almost always been OK for churches to act in a corrupt fashion. Your inquiry reminded me of the words of David Bell:

    The ninth and tenth centuries were dark indeed for the history of the bishops of Rome. The lives of many of the people will not bear close scrutiny and their deaths were often violent. Hadrian III was probably murdered; Stephen VI and Leo V were strangled; Benedict IV may have been assassinated; John X was suffocated; and Stephen VIII died of his injuries after being tortured. As for Pope Formosus, an educated and, for the time, exemplary pontiff, nine months after his death his successor had his body exhumed, arrayed in pontifical vestments, put on trial, condemned, mutilated, and flung into the Tiber. Most of the popes, in fact, were little more than dispensable pawns in a complicated and bloody game of chess being played by certain of the noble Italian families. Perhaps the lowest point came in the pontificate of John XII. The political maneuverings of his father had assured him of the position, and when he became pope in 955, he was barely eighteen. He was known to be a womanizer and a debaucher and many said that he had turned the Lateran Place into a brothel. As a hard-nosed politician and intriguer he was fairly effective, but within a decade his sins had caught up with him: when he was about twenty-eight he suffered a stroke while in bad with a married woman and died a week later.

    Churchman were not ignorant of the fact that their church had become corrupt. The problem was the lack of any candidate for the papacy who was sufficiently strong and sufficiently concerned to do something about it. There were attempts, that is true, but it was not until the pontificate of Leo IX (1049-54) that these attempts really bore fruit. (Many Mansions, 29-30)


    Comment by Michael Metzler — March 7, 2009 @ 6:00 pm


  3. No system of laws, checks, and balances can overcome a dominant personality within an organization. The best way to limit power is to spread it out over numerous smaller, sovereign units. Yes, incompetent or abusive leaders would still do damage, but the consequences will be limited and the number of victims will be smaller.

    When it comes to an organization like a church, maybe the solution is to limit the size of churches. Once a church becomes much larger than, say, 125 people, plant a new one. It is less likely that pastors, elders, or other church leaders would feel so self-important and go on power trips in such small environs.


    Comment by James Leroy Wilson — March 8, 2009 @ 3:58 pm


  4. Hi James. You are more versed on the subject of political theory than me (congrats on the book recently released). I am curious how this approach to church government applies to U.S. government. Do you see too different principles at play or the same?

    I think the OPC denomination shares the same opinion about keeping churches small. A Catholic friend noted that priests are moved from church to church on a regular basis so that their personality does not become the dominate glue for the community.

    By the way, feel free to note your websites and book if you are able to write back.


    Comment by Michael Metzler — March 8, 2009 @ 5:25 pm


  5. Thanks, Michael. My blog is linked with my name below; my book is found at Amazon and CreateSpace.

    What makes government different from churches (and other organizations) is largely two-fold.

    1. It has a monopoly of force. This is an argument for smallness, to contain the injustices. A bad law hurts fewer people in a small country than in a large one. A country with a small army is less likely to go to war than a country with a large one.
    2. It has a monopoly of allegiance. Nobody wants to be called “unpatriotic.” Everyone condemns someone who “broke the law” even if the “crime” had no victims. And governments are unlike burger joints or churches, you can’t just drive one more mile to find another one.

    This makes reducing the size, scope, and geographical jurisdiction of government seemingly impossible. But like any organization, governments can self-destruct, and people can withdraw their consent. One or the other is inevitable; the question is when.


    Comment by James Leroy Wilson — March 9, 2009 @ 3:18 pm


  6. James,

    Thank you for the link to your book.

    I like your analysis here. Being ‘in’ our big American system all my life, it is hard for me to stand back and understand it from a more objective point of view. This comparison between church government and American government is helpful in doing this.

    There is one qualification I would make. With communities, such as the Kirk, that provide ‘deep’ narratives and special identity and status – as well as social hierarchy, comfort, and control – members are typically not in a position to just leave and go to the next joint down the road. Particularly in a genuine ‘cult’ situation, it would be much easier to leave the country in order to bring one’s community to a foreign people as a missionary than it would be to switch to the ‘denomination’ across the road.

    I think this is perhaps the most important aspect to the conflict between American liberty and communitarian identities so many Americans enjoy. They do have an allegiance, and typically – in terms of their immediate psychology – one far more stronger than any patriotic impulse. This allegiance is not indirectly enforced by guns, but by psychological and social threat – which inevitable has a physical component. I have come to believe that psychological threat is a fiercer enemy than gunpowder and shrapnel. Becoming an Other or a Heretic or an Enemy is perhaps much like ‘breaking the law,’ but far worse.


    Comment by metzler — March 10, 2009 @ 8:54 am


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