Nasty Systems: Look at the Root

There has been much ado about “systemic” this or that in recent years.

The concept of relational systems was largely popularized “in the 1940s in the work of the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy who initially sought to find a new approach to the study of life or living systems. More broadly, Von Bertalanffy envisioned general system theory as a way to address the increasing complexity of the world’s problems.”1

Scientists historically saw the “whole” as explained by the “part.” With Bertalanffy that was turned upside-down: seeing the individual parts as affected by the whole. The complex environment – events, people, places, things – was understood to affect and form the individual.

This is very apparent as we walk into a situation where the “group” is acting or speaking a particular way and we feel the influence of being marginalized because we don’t see things the same way. We are often tempted to go with the crowd. It is easier and safer to do so. And we might even be worn down by their PR over time.

Or we so often see it as a child grows up in a abusive home, deeply traumatized by it, and yet becomes abusive or marries an abuser later.

The impact the whole has on the part is very apparent. Yet, many Christians are suspicious of systems theory because they think in a “western individualistic” way. However, the Bible was written largely to a much less individualistic culture and speaks much holistically to both individual and group think.

We often refer to this as “drinking the Koolaid.”

Climate change

Recently, I was reading about a major ministry and its woes of toxic leadership. A director had been arrested for embezzlement and perjury charges while working in a previous job. In addition, an oversight organization had recently put the ministry on probation for “conflicts of interests” and a “climate of fear and intimidation.”

In these cases, we need to look at the “system.” Though these are individuals who are acting poorly, there is likely a toxic environment that provides a flourishing of the virus that periodically becomes visible to the watching world. I would withhold judgment in this particular case if it weren’t for a discussion I had with an individual who had suffered abusive leadership under the ministry’s head honcho many years ago. These stories are nothing new to this organization.

Toxic systems attract toxic individuals.

Go to the Root

So, in order to bring help and healing to such an organization, it is not enough to just work on its parts. It is like treating the symptom and failing to get at the root cause. There is a need to look at the fundamental vision of the “group.” What is their group-think? How do they view their ministry and Jesus, Who is supposed to be Lord of it?

But remember, those who are part of the system are not always toxic but may simply go along to get along. But in so doing they keep the system alive and are complicit. In essence, they become part of the whole.

The church needs to be careful in its rush to throw the baby out with the bathwater in regards to systemic issues. Systems can be a means of working on a problem from the root up. When we see a toxic leader, we need to consider why that leader gained his position in the first place.

And the root may be a systemic toxicity.


A. Montuori, “Systems Approach,” in Encyclopedia of Creativity (Second Edition), ed. Mark A. Runco and Steven R. Pritzker (San Diego: Academic Press, 2011), 414–21,

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