Churches That Abuse – Final Thoughts

Jesus_Saves_Neon_Cross_Sign_Church_2011_Shankbone

In this post I’ll be wrapping up my review of Ronald M. Enroth’s book Churches that Abuse, I have some final thoughts, admonitions and hope for this series.  I hope that someone may recognize the characteristics of an abusive church and know how to stand against them.  It is also an admonition and warning those that continue in and support these churches to stop supporting them and work toward change or leave them.  Since the garden, Satan has been working to disrupt and distract from the simplicity of the gospel message.  Christ has established the church to bring glory and honor to Himself and the adversary is constantly working to distract us from the gospel message.  Let us not forget it is Christ’s church.

Pastoral abuse can be spotted quite easily, at least in its advanced stages.  Abusive religion substitutes human power for true freedom in Christ.  Unquestioning obedience and blind loyalty are its hallmarks.  Leaders who practice spiritual abuse exceed the bounds of legitimate authority and “lord it over the flock,” often intruding into the personal lives of members. God’s will is something that they determine for you rather than something you individually seek to know.  Abusive leaders are self-centered and adversarial rather than reconciling and restorative.[1]

God’s sheep can experience abuse, but they can also be complicit in the act of abuse; Paul warned Timothy these things would happen.  Paul’s warning against “easy believe-ism” in 2 Timothy 4:3-4 applies just as much to conservative churches.

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.  2 Timothy 4:3-4

Notice, Paul writes about people having teachers “to suit their own passions…” Have you ever known a legalist?  They love legalism.

Have you ever wondered why it’s so difficult to leave an abusive relationship?

Abused individuals sometimes turn away from listening to the truth and they prefer myths. There becomes a level of comfort with the situation.  The Stockholm Syndrome can become a very real thing.  Abusive teachers stay in power because the people either tolerate them or even celebrate them.

What protects sheep from abuse?  Who monitors them?  Biblically, a plurality among leadership is helpful except when they all believe and support the same theories  or have one dominant personality or confrontation and disagreement is not allowed.

Confessions of faith are a safeguard, yet even confessional churches can fall into the trap of authoritarianism.  The 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 offers a remedy:

Chapter 26 – Paragraph 15. In cases of difficulties or differences, either in point of doctrine or administration, wherein either the churches in general are concerned, or any one church, in their peace, union, and edification; or any member or members of any church are injured, in or by any proceedings in censures not agreeable to truth and order: it is according to the mind of Christ, that many churches holding communion together, do, by their messengers, meet to consider, and give their advice in or about that matter in difference, to be reported to all the churches concerned;29 howbeit these messengers assembled, are not intrusted with any church-power properly so called; or with any jurisdiction over the churches themselves, to exercise any censures either over any churches or persons; or to impose their determination on the churches or officers.30
29 Acts 15:2,4,6,22,23,25
30 2 Cor. 1:24; 1 John 4:1[2]

It’s important for local churches to have other local churches that come together and solve problems that have moved beyond the singular local church.  But is it even possible for abusive churches or authoritarian leaders to seek and follow counsel from outside sources? Notice the purpose is not “to impose their determination on the churches or officers” but to counsel with them. Authoritarian, abusive leaders don’t take counsel from others.

Plans are established by counsel; by wise guidance wage war. – Proverbs 20:18

Most of the abusive churches I have studied are independent, autonomous groups.  They are not part of a denomination or network that could provide checks and balances or any kind of accountability.  As we have seen over and over again in these pages, their leaders are accountable to no one and resist any outside scrutiny.[3]

Author, blogger and open-air evangelist Peter Boland made the observation that, “Some of the issues are fairly widespread. It seems to have crept into the Reformed camp due to an overreaction regarding church membership. It’s an overreaction to ‘easy believe-ism’ and the ‘no commitment’ church attendance of the 20th century. So now there is this strong emphasis on the membership submitting to the authorities and powers that be, in order to prove, that we are somehow wiser and holier, and that we have more of a ‘healthy church,’ than those mainstream Evangelical churches of the 20th century.”

Abuse can happen on all levels but as people seek a deeper understanding of Christianity, they seek Bible teaching, they affirm and long for more than a surface level faith, and there can be an overreaction.  Sometimes young or growing Christians can swing the pendulum in the other direction.  The Marrow Controversy of the 18th Century exemplified some of the very same issues as Sinclair Ferguson has so eloquently written about in his book, The Whole Christ.

In the well-known sermon Ten Shekels and a Shirt, Paris Reidhead describes the prophet seeking a place to fit.  He was willing to settle for a paycheck and a garment of clothing.  He wasn’t terribly interested in pursuing the best interest of his congregants and ultimately the Lord.  While he may have thought he was, he had an ulterior motive.

Today’s abusive pastor has an ulterior motive.  His life doesn’t match his words.  As John MacArthur describes, “he’s a moral heretic.”  When power or position has been achieved, it’s difficult to let go.  It’s difficult for an authoritarian man to face the truth that his life doesn’t match his speech.  Is the expectation perfection?  Of course not! But these men are called to a high standard and blatant hypocrisy should never be accepted.

As long as Satan prowls around seeking whom he may devour, there will be abusive churches.

Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.  Acts 20:31

The antithesis of the misuse of power is gentleness, which is best seen and understood within the framework of strength.  Gentle leaders, pastors, or teachers do not force their insights and wisdom on the unlearned, nor flaunt their gifts before those in need.  They are patient.  They take time for those who are slow to understand.  They are compassionate with the weak, and they share with those in need.  Being a gentle pastor, shepherd, leader, or teacher is never a sign of being weak, but of possessing power clothed in compassion.[4]

 

This [gentleness] is in stark contrast to the style of abusive leaders, who, as we have seen, often lack compassion and a gentle spirit.  Power has a way of blinding the conscience so that those who spiritually and psychologically abuse others (like abusive parents) show little sign of remorse and repentance.  They deny any guilt for what they have done to people.  And they project their own weaknesses onto others.[5]

Be ever watchful dear friends, know the signs of an abusive church, know how they operate, and be aware.  The greatest defense against abuse is a knowledge of how abusive churches and leaders operate, and most importantly, having an intimate knowledge of the Scriptures.  May the Lord bless His sheep and keep them by His grace.

 

Kevin

 

[1] Churches That Abuse, 1992 by Ronald M. Enroth – page 217

[2]http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html?mainframe=http://www.reformed.org/documents/baptist_1689.html

[3] Churches That Abuse, 1992 by Ronald M. Enroth – page 217

[4] Harrold Bussell, Unholy Devotion (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1983), 70

[5] Churches That Abuse, 1992 by Ronald M. Enroth – page 219

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