For about a dozen of my formative young adult years, I was immersed in a very controlling religious group. All of my major life decisions that were made during that time, and many less major ones, were affected. The group was part of a network which was the size of a small Christian denomination, and the degree of control over members varied according to the desire of the local persons in charge. The co-dependent nature of the groups could not be maintained indefinitely, and within about fifteen years of their springing up, they began to break up. Some of my dearest friendships were forged in that context, and in the years since, our interaction has sometimes turned to criticism of what "he or they did to me." Some of that has been necessary to understand what went on, and to be able to grieve over loss, to forgive, and then to move on. It is not my main purpose for this writing, however, to rehearse or to criticize that past, so I will not be using names or specific details. Rather, my purpose is to learn from it for the present and future.
As we moved on, many of us landed in healthier Christian churches, whether traditional or non-traditional. Some of us, unfortunately, left church and/or God altogether. There is a smaller, third group which has caused me to really scratch my head. One would have thought that people who had been jerked around like we were would avoid joining similar groups, but a few friends from that time, and more recently a few children of friends, have gotten involved with groups which seem to be as bad or worse. This has gotten me wondering “why are they doing it again?” Surely they’re not looking for abuse, and they ought to be sensitized by their or their parents’ previous experience.
This has got me thinking that perhaps part of the problem is in the methodology of one's spiritual/church life. Can something be thought of as “normal” Christian faith and church life, which might not be? I want to suggest thoughts for consideration. I’m not trying to be comprehensive. While most of my content has been floating around in my mind for some time, I got some help for the structure of this writing from comments by Greg Koukl on the Stand to Reason radio show/podcast on February 24, 2015 (www.str.org/podcasts).
I should inject at this point that when I entered the group as a very young adult, I had three areas of hindrance that would have affected my life’s directions regardless of my spiritual environment. The first is that I had a very significant inferiority complex. God has helped me enormously with this. The second is that I had significant theological confusion. Charismatic excesses and end times speculation were factors. The third is that I had a gifting for analysis that I did not know how to use well, and sometimes used foolishly. So I am not claiming to having been a pure, perfect young person who deserved so much better. My personal issues played into what happened.
In my mind, there were two foundational methodological problems that paved the way for the rest.
First, there is the issue of “hearing” personal messages from God. In Christian spirituality there is personal, or subjective, religious experience and objective religious experience. They both belong in the Christian life. By objective experience I mean those things we experience that come to us from outside of us, like hearing the Bible read and taught, receiving the Lord’s Supper, submitting to Baptismal waters, and the like. Personal, subjective experience includes the inner confidence we have that we belong to God and the “aha” moments of spiritual understanding we have. There are also claims of specific, personal, subjective messages, or “words” from God. Let me go on record saying that God can do whatever He wants. If He wants to say something to me, then, like Ross Perot used to say, I’m all ears. (Ross Perot was a 1990’s politician with protruding ears the cartoonists liked to exaggerate). In my knowledge of the Bible, though, when God spoke to people, it seems there were two things that were clearly factors when we are given enough detail to know what happened. One is that the person was clear that it was God who was speaking. It was not their desires, fears, imagination or last night’s pizza causing the thought. They were clear that it was God. One exception was when God spoke to the boy Samuel. At first, Samuel thought he was being called by his mentor Eli, who realized it must be God calling to Samuel. The passage also states, though, that young Samuel did not yet know God. Later, Samuel did not have an issue knowing who was speaking to him. The other thing that was clear when God spoke was the content of the message. There was no ambiguity about the message, no progressively better knowing what was said, and no getting better at receiving it. God never failed to communicate. God’s ability to speak is not limited by the hearers’ ability to hear. If God speaks, people hear. Supernatural things, like communication, are secured by God.
Second, there is the issue of understanding the Bible. Christians know that the Bible is a very important book, even that it is the Word of God. But the Bible says many things in many ways about many people and situations over a long period of time, and it was finished being written almost two thousand years ago. Poor interpretation techniques can lead to big problems. The largest problems I experienced were reading Bible verses and passages out of context, and making poor analogies from the Bible.
With these thoughts in mind, there tends to be a progression common to wayward groups. Mine was no exception. To start out, we and our leadership were a nice, normal Charismatic group. But even in the beginning, we emphasized personal, subjective experience like prayer, worship, and “hearing God” over objective experience like inductive Bible study. Over time the gap grew much wider. Many, many prayer meetings. Very, very few Bible studies. Some of us, including myself, were attracted to the group by the promise that by being linked to a more mature leader, we would be able to synergistically hear God better, since for me at least, the practice of hearing God never worked out as well as advertised.
Leaders began introducing things not Biblical at all. Ironically, this was sometimes done with the Bible itself. Authority texts were taken out of context, such as Hebrews 13: 17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (ESV) Taken alone, that could seem to give leaders a green light for whatever direction they felt was right, with the probable exception of actions which were clearly immoral. But less quoted were verses like 2 Peter 5: 2-3, “ shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” (ESV) There was also the use of poor analogies. The actions and words of Jesus toward his disciples would be used as example of authority for human leaders. The problem was there is a big difference between Jesus and human leaders. He is God incarnate; they are not. A normal reading of the New Testament epistles, which were to instruct the young church, does not indicate military-style church organization and authority. So what use was made of the Bible was often not very helpful. Along with this, there was a growing sense of separation and spiritual superiority compared to other Christians and groups that did not “get it” like us.
Teachings contrary to the Bible came next. This is just a ramping up of the previous point. I attended a regional men’s conference in which one of the speakers stated something to the effect that “if you haven’t given the reins of your life over to your pastor, you haven’t given them to God.” When we returned home, this was the theme of leadership for several years. This control entailed all parts of life leaders wanted to control, including relationships, education, jobs, residency, finances, and so on. I want to state very strongly that most of the time this control was exercised with love and friendship, but the methodology was bad, and spoiled much of the fruit. With it all at least in theory being based on “hearing God” the wisdom model of divine guidance was neglected or underdeveloped. By the wisdom model I mean what is also known as “sanctified common sense.” When a choice can or should be made, one makes sure not to go in a direction that is clearly evil. Then one views the options on the basis of what can be done with good motives Biblically, and what is in the best interest of the parties involved. Then make the decision and move on, not worrying about peeking behind the veil of God’s providential knowledge and will. They are not for us to know, unless He pulls the veil back at His initiative for a particular reason, as he did with the prophets and apostles of Scripture.
Finally, authority is advanced, and those who disagree are threatened, if only by implication. There is the understanding that our group is the true group, and opposing us is opposing God, or at least that leaving the group would mean accepting less than God’s best. A friend of mine went to his leader to express disagreement with the leader about something. The leader told him “You’re out, unless you agree this will never come up again.” Another time, a young woman left our group. We were told about it by a leader in a small group meeting I attended and also told she was out being unfairly critical of the group. I don’t know if she was being unfair or not. She might have been telling the truth. One member of the group asked the leader how we could pray for her. The leader shook his head and said, “I don’t know.” All of us in the meeting understood that if you leave, you’re unfortunately wrong, at best.
Believe it or not, the purpose of the previous discussion has not been to dwell on the past. Rather I wish to show readers who are unfamiliar with this kind of group how bad things can go in groups that start out with the best of intentions. Now I wish to share a prescription that Greg Koukl shared on his show, with my own additions.
The New Testament’s Second Letter to Timothy was the Apostle Paul’s spiritual last will and testament, written to his spiritual son and colleague. Paul knew he would soon die, and so he wanted to use this opportunity to emphasize what was most important.
The beginning of chapter 3 tells about trouble in the world. The beginning of chapter 4 tells about trouble in the church. Between these is the prescription for persevering in truth in the midst of trouble. 2 Timothy 3:14 says, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed.” (ESV) The verb “continue” directs Timothy and us to look backward to sound teaching, not forward to some new ‘move of the spirit.’ Verse 16-17 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man (or woman) of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (ESV) Continuing in what we have believed is not committing Christians to some old, outdated, irrelevant religious book and practice, but to the timeless revelation of almighty, wise, indwelling, loving God, the creator of all things created, and redeemer of His people and creation. What new spiritual way could possibly top that? When we come into contact with something that claims to be God’s new and improved movement in the world, we are free to reject it and to continue in what we have learned and firmly believed.
Knowing that being in the Bible and church life can possibly lead toward the kind of trouble I have described can cause some to avoid them from fear. Or they wonder if the Bible can be trusted. Or they are not sure how to read the Bible for a sound understanding of its message. These are understandable concerns for which I’ll offer some help.
For starters, one can gain confidence in the historical reliability of the New Testament here: http://coldcasechristianity.com/2015/four-reasons-the-new-testament-gospels-are-reliable/ .
Some suggestions for how to conduct personal Bible study can be found here: http://coldcasechristianity.com/2014/tips-for-studying-the-bible/ .
Helpful principles for understanding the Bible are here: http://www.str.org/Media/Default/Publications/Enhanced%20Solid%20Ground%2011-13%20Do%20You%20Take%20the%20Bible%20Literally%20-1.pdf .
One more time, this writing has not been produced in order to drudge up abuses from my past, but to show what can go wrong and how. It is also meant to be a warning to those who see or hear of similar approaches to Christian spirituality. Finally, it is meant to be a prescription for prevention of, or cure from, involvement with controlling, abusive religious groups.
2 Timothy 4: 22 (last verse), “The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you.” (ESV)