Churches That Abuse – Part 3

sheep-surprised

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. – Acts 20:28

Continuing the series on the book Churches That Abuse by Ronald M. Enroth, the focus for this post will build off the previous topic of control-oriented leaders and spiritual elitism.  For leaders to control and foster elitism there must be mechanisms in place by which control can be maintained.  We will consider aggressive shepherding, having a reporting system in place, and rigidity of lifestyle.

In Part 2, I included links for a movement in the 1970’s called the Shepherding Movement. Shepherding is a biblical concept, but over-shepherding is not.  Peter called it “lording over” or domineering.  Ezekiel describes it as harshness and using force:

The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. – Ezekiel 34:4

Luke writes that men will arise from within the ranks and they will use subtle means to draw people away from the truth (Acts 20:31).

Enroth explains elements often employed by authoritarian leaders to gain control over a group of people:

Spiritually abusive groups routinely use guilt, fear, and intimidation as effective means for controlling their members.  In my opinion, the leaders consciously foster an unhealthy form of dependency, spiritually and interpersonally, by focusing on themes of submission, loyalty, and obedience to those in authority.[1]

 

According to a former member of the shepherding movement, so-called because its members had “shepherds” who require full submission and taught the need for “spiritual authority,” these “leaders” had the true story of what was going on.  Pastors exercised control and manipulation through their sermons.  Certain themes came through regularly: covenant, authority, obedience, submission, serving, honoring… [2]

Systematically arranging the sheep takes time to implement, but through consistent shepherding, sermons, and studies the calculating leader can accomplish his goals given enough time and buy-in from the people.  Scripture will certainly accompany his methods, but it is often twisted and utilized with a desire to accomplish the objective.

It is a difficult job for one or two shepherds to keep the sheep in line, so one of the strategies often implemented is a monitoring system.  Who better to monitor the sheep than the other sheep, or to have the sheep “self-report” through their own public confessions?  To promote holy living and growth, the sheep interact with each other more often than the shepherd does, so reporting on one another is very effective at creating an atmosphere for abuse.  Once again, mutual accountability is a biblical principle, but is a principle that can run amuck in the wrong hands.

Public times of confrontation, confession, and repentance were common, lasting anywhere from four to twenty hours…  The airing of the most intimate details of one’s life was seen as opening the way for God to take one deeper into the spiritual life.[3]

 

The leaders encouraged people, even children, to reveal each other’s faults.  In a world with few material possessions, the most minor flaws became the source of guilt and self-loathing…  It became a community obsession to root out the most minute bit of evil in their lives with a ruthlessness usually reserved for members of restrictive monastic orders.  “It mattered how you acted, how you talked, even how you thought and looked.”[4]

With this type of living and monitoring, one cannot help but be forced into a rigid lifestyle; it’s a very natural outflow.  Everything matters when supposedly striving for holiness and purity of life.  With aggressive shepherding through control-oriented leaders, a spirit of spiritual elitism, and sheep monitoring other sheep, there is no other option but rigidity.  The table is set for the leaders to abuse the sheep and the sheep are not even aware they have been taken in and deceived.  It is no different than boiling a frog.  The heat is gradually turned up, the monitoring system is fully in place, and the shepherd knows the condition of his flocks.

Is this what the Christian life is all about?

These people may feel as though they are free yet are in bondage to a system of legalistic expectations set up and enforced by their leaders and by themselves.  As The Eagles sang, “So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key.”

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. – 2 Corinthians 3:17

Consistent with a number of similar groups, Pam and Tom’s fellowship attempted to live according to “first-century-church” standards.[5]

 

“We became victims of zealousness without knowledge.”[6]

 

As Pam looks back on the experience, she finds it hard to believe that when people called her brainwashed, she took it as a compliment.  “We were blessed to have a clean mind.  But it did reach a point where I didn’t decide things on my own.  Even vacations had to be cleared with leadership.”[7]

Pam and Tom’s experiences became increasingly more bizarre as leaders enforced a more rigid lifestyle the longer things continued.  “There wasn’t one area in our lives where we weren’t legalistic about something.”

Tom reflects, “It seems strange that during our time in the fellowship, you would think that the overwhelming evidence in the New Testament concerning grace would have had some effect upon our minds concerning these rigidities.”[8]

 

In addition, Pam notes, “I lived in fear of correction, while Scripture tells us to embrace and love it.”  Also, many of the rules and regulations were never actually spoken or articulated as a command.  One simply knew from experience that something was a rule, and, if not adhered to, discipline resulted.[9]

When rigid lifestyles and interactions are demanded, any kind of disagreement is suppressed.  It won’t be tolerated, it creates “division” within the ranks, uprisings are quickly dispatched.  “Conscience became externalized” and members are taught to not “trust their feelings, intuition, and emotions.”

“We stifled the voice of God within, mistaking common-sense reactions for the ‘rising up of the flesh.’”[10]

 

Pam knew that even when she desired to stand and say, “This is crazy!” or, “I don’t agree!” she would have been disciplined for disrupting and coming against authority.[11]

Tom Murray gives a final warning: “It is foolish to think that you can remain objective in an abusive-church situation for any length of time without being subtly influenced.  No one can consider themselves above the possibility of deception.”

The only way to avoid this deception and spiritual abuse is through the Word of God and by the Spirit of God.  If you find yourself in an abusive church, you must leave, but it’s never easy, and as I will write about next time, abusive churches are difficult to escape.

 

Kevin

 

[1] Churches That Abuse, 1992 by Ronald M. Enroth – Page 103

[2] Ibid, – Page 107

[3] Ibid – Page 86

[4] Ibid – Page 60

[5] Ibid – Page 128

[6] Ibid – Page 129

[7] Ibid – Page 129

[8] Ibid – Page 130

[9] Ibid – Page 130

[10] Ibid – Page 131

[11] Ibid – Page 131

8 thoughts on “Churches That Abuse – Part 3

  1. Wow, another fabulous blog. As I’ve consider your part 3 blog, I am overwhelmed, again, at Gods grace in my life to have set me free from an abusive church. I admit to struggling with feelings of anger and of being violated/abused by the former church.
    I am thankful for your overview of this book and it is so clear how sly and cunning the enemy works, even in our so called safe havens of the church! I look forward to part 4.
    Hugs to Jen and the girls,
    Trudy

    Sent from my iPhone

    1. Jeff , I am sad to see the hatred you have to hear & see th truth. You need to repent for your hard heart toward Kevin. You can unsubscribe to this blog. Don’t blame anyone except yourself. May God give you eyes to see & ears to hear.

  2. yes, thank you for this. We just left this kind of church and I knew it was abuse but my husband couldn’t see it. We were spied on constantly. It is so violating.

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