Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Churches that abuse people part 2

My comments will be in this color.

Uncovering Churches That Abuse People
by Henry G. Sheppard

The following questions come from the book: Recovering from Churches That Abuse, by Ronald Enroth, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervon, 1994.

1. Does a member's personality generally become stronger, happier, more confident as a result of contact with the group?

In an abusive church, the use of guilt, fear, and intimidation to control members is likely to produce members who have a low self-image, who feel beaten down by legalism, who have been taught that asserting oneself is not spiritual.
One of the first disturbing characteristics to be reported by relatives and friends of members of these churches is a noticeable change in personality, usually in a negative direction.

I must say that it was a downward spiral emotionally and spiritually. It got to the point where I dreaded Sunday's. If you questioned anything you were made to feel inferior. There were also a lot of legalism issues in this church. It was amazing how dramatic our personalities changed after we left this church. Especially my wife's. It was even noticed by other family members and friends, some of whom still attend this church.

2. Do members of the group seek to strengthen their family commitments?

Nearly all unhealthy churches attempt to minimize the commitments of their members to their family, especially parents.
Young people may be told that they now have a new "spiritual" family, complete with leaders who will "re-parent" them.
Church loyalty is seen as paramount, and family commitments are discouraged or viewed as impediments to spiritual advancement.

This was a big one for me. You were expected to be at church anytime the doors were open. Some people have a family life and fulltime jobs. You would get the "look" or asked where you were on Sunday night or Wednesday night. It was almost a scolding of sorts. So in their own way, they were saying that your family was not as important as being in church.

3. Does the group encourage independent thinking and the development of discernment skills?

Control-oriented leaders attempt to dictate what members think, although the process is so spiritualized that members usually do not realize what is going on.
A pastor or leader is viewed as God's mouth piece, and in varying degrees a member's decision making and ability to think for oneself are swallowed up by the group.
Pressure to conform and low tolerance for questioning make it difficult to be truly discerning.

I saw a lot of stuff go on that truly bothered me. There were times that people were up front being prayed for and others would grab their hands and tell them to lift them up in praise. I'm sorry, but that's between you and God. Not another person.

4. Does the group allow for individual differences of belief and behavior, particularly on issues of secondary importance?

A legalistic emphasis on keeping rules and a focus on the need to stay within prescribed boundaries is always present in unhealthy spiritual environments.
Lifestyle rigidity in such groups increase a member's guilt feelings and contributes to spiritual bondage. This rigidity is often coupled with an emphasis on beliefs that would not receive great attention in mainstream evangelicalism.

This church was very legalistic. I remember hearing a sermon one time that said you should abstain from alcohol. My Bible says nothing about drinking alcohol. It does however speak about drunkeness. I myself am an alcoholic. I choose to abstain. But a glass of wine with dinner will not send you to the pit of hell folks.

You were also told not to listen to secular radio stations. Not to go to R rated movies. Wasn't the Passion movie rated R? Oh yeah, but that ones okay.

A gal one time got her tongue pierced and was told that she could no longer be on the worship team. Give me a break. This was a young gal too. I think God cares about what's on the inside, in your heart, not whether or not you have your tongue pierced. I could go on and on about this one but I won't rant. People are different. What's the problem with a piercing if they are a follower of Christ?

Why major in the minors?

5. Does the group encourage high moral standards both among members and between members and non members?

In intense, legalistic churches and religious organizations, the official, public proclamations usually place special value on high moral standards.
In some instances, there is a double standard between those in leadership and those in the rank and file membership.
Abusive churches tend to have incidents of sexual misconduct more often than most conventional churches; leaders sometimes exhibit an obsessive interest in matters relating to sex.

I never saw any sexual misconduct. I did however see a "dress code" imposed on youth group worship leaders. I have to agree that today some kids dress not so good. I would tend to confront the issue with that person and suggest that maybe that would not be appropriate to wear while you were leading worship. But this was really pushing it in my opinion.

The church I attend now is very casual in dress. I remember a guest preacher come in one Sunday morning and he had visible tattoos on his arm while he was behind the pulpit. He was not told to cover them up or go get a long sleeved shirt on.

6. Does the group's leadership invite dialogue, advice and evaluation from outside its immediate circle?

Authoritarian pastors are usually threatened by any outside expression of diverse opinions, whether from inside or outside the group. When outside speakers are given access to the pulpit, they are carefully selected to minimize any threat to the leadership's agenda.
Coercive pastors are fiercely independent and do not function well in a structure of accountability.
For the sake of public relations, they may boast that they are accountable to a board of some sort, when in actuality the board is composed of "yes-men" who do not question the leader's authority.

There were a lot of "yes-men" on the boards I saw. I also saw a lot of them that finally saw the light and resigned from the board. Some even left the church altogether.

7. Does the group allow for development in theological beliefs?

Another hallmark of an authoritarian church is its intolerance of any belief system different from its own.
They tend to measure and evaluate all forms of Christian spirituality according to their own carefully prescribed system, adopting an "us-versus-them" mentality.

This church believed in their doctrine alright. Their emphasis was on the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the speaking in tongues thing. It just seemed that that was the whole emphasis of the services. Again, why major in the minors? Isn't it about your relationship with Christ that matters the most?

How about more emphasis on servanthood? Loving others like Christ.

8. Are group members encouraged to ask hard questions of any kind?

A cardinal rule of abusive systems is "Don't ask questions, don't make waves."
A healthy pastor welcomes even tough questions. In an unhealthy church disagreement with the pastor is considered to be disloyalty and is tantamount to disobeying God.
People who repeatedly question the system are labeled "rebellious", "unteachable", or "disharmonious to the body of Christ".
Persistent questioners may face sanctions of some kind such as being publicly ridiculed, shunned, shamed, humiliated, or disfellowshiped.

I remember a time when I was ready to leave the church and I was. I sent an email to the Pastor telling him we were leaving and why. His reply was to bring him the keys to the church. My wife was not ready yet so we ended up staying and suffering for another year. I was told that I did not take management or supervision well. I guess that could be "rebellious" or "unteachable". Funny thing is, I have never been told that by a manager before. I have always been a model employee. Even when I was a drunk I received high marks. But to this pastor I was unmanageable.

9. Do members appreciate truth wherever it is found even if it is outside their group?

Whether they admit it or not, abusive churches tend to view themselves as spiritually superior to other Christian groups.
This religious elitism allows little room for outside influences. There can be no compromise with external sources, who, the leadership will say, really don't understand what is going on in the ministry anyway.

All I can and will say about this is that it was this denominations way or the highway. Constitutions and bylaws, yada yada yada. Legalism issues and doctrine issues are crap.

10. Is the group honest in dealing with nonmembers, especially as it tries to win them to the group?

Sometimes abusive groups illustrate a "split-level religion". There is one level for public presentation and another for the inner circle of membership.
The former is a carefully crafted public relations effort, the latter a reality level experienced only by the "true believers".
Recruitment tactics are usually intense, even if they are not actually deceptive or fraudulent, they can be manipulative or exploitive.
Sometimes high pressure religious groups are evasive about there true identity: "We really don't have a name, we're just Christians."
A healthy Christian group should have no qualms about revealing who it is and what its intentions are.

I did not really have any issues in this area. I never saw any dishonesty in the leadership or any attempts to decieve.

11. Does the group foster relationships and connections with the larger society that are more than self-serving?

First impressions are not always correct. Sustained contact with an unhealthy church, however, will usually reveal a pattern that is consistent with the characteristics we have identified.
Members will be requested to serve, to become involved, to sign up for a variety of activities that, upon closer inspection, appear to maintain the system and serve the needs of the leadership.
Abusive churches thrive on tactics that promote dependency.
Emphasizing obedience and submission to leaders, these churches often require a level of service that is overwhelming to members, resulting in emotional turmoil and spiritual breakdowns.

Bottom line here is, we were expected to be at the church for every single service and that to me and my family was overwhelming enough. It did result in emotional and spiritual turmoil and so we left.

My only suggestion to you is this. Pray about it if you feel you are in an unhealthy church. Don't try to change the church you're at and cause an uproar in that congregation. Simply pray about it, seek wise counsel from others you respect or admire, and move on.

I thank the Lord for leading my family to where we are at now and I thank our new Church Family for welcoming us with open arms, wounds and all. We have grown so much in the past year with you. Thank you for allowing us to serve in areas we are gifted at.

I still pray for my old church too. We still have many friends there. How could you not after 10 years? May we all show our communities the love of Christ and may they see Christ in us.


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