I was involved with a fellowship that was accused of being an example of 'churches that abuse.' That accusation was made on the internet, in a book, and continues, at least with some of those who were also involved, in this current era of social media.
I have had over 10 years now to reflect on the lessons that I learned from my 30+ plus year involvement in that fellowship. And to be honest, I still have some difficulty wrapping my arms around the word 'abusive'. I think part of that is due to the fact that I put a higher threshold on the definition of the word then has become socially acceptable. And part of it involves the fact that an amazing amount of gold was woven into my life in the midst of what was admittedly a mixed bag of life experiences.
It seems today that any snub, rebuff, harsh word or perceived offense can be categorized as "abusive." And while I understand, and support, the need to widen the traditional definition and viewpoint, I wonder if lumping everything under the category of abuse is helpful.
With regard to any organization, institution, group or gathering, I think there can definitely be the danger of an extremism and fanaticism that pushes well into the range of indisputable abuse. David Koresh, Jim Jones, Sun Myung Moon, Charles Manson, etc. are examples that come readily to mind. But I also believe that there are characteristics of the truly abusive environment that have their origins in a more benign and seemingly innocent setting. Unfortunately those characteristics can grow over time and have an equally profound and hurtful effect. I would characterize those elements as the warning signs of an "unhealthy" church or fellowship. And for the rest of this post, I want to use the word unhealthy instead of abusive, because I believe that any abuse we see in churches and other institutions is the end result of not treating unhealthiness when it first becomes manifest.
That said, I know that there are people that feel they endured truly damaging, hurtful, and even abusive treatment while involved with the group I was in. And I am not going to try and justify or minimize their experience in any way. It was, in fact, how they experienced life in that fellowship -- sometimes for many, many years. The negative impact on their lives cannot be dismissed or understated. When it comes to my case specifically, I can say that what started out as an incredibly wonderful opportunity to learn, grow and serve Christ, became increasingly more painful and debilitating -- physically, emotionally and ultimately spiritually. But the fact remains...I stayed until the end! I made that choice, notwithstanding the fact that "the door locks from the inside." I could have walked away, but I didn't.
And this is really the point of this post...when is it time to walk away? What are the warning signs of an unhealthy spiritual environment? How can I know when this is not the right place for me?
For some, these are relatively easy questions to answer. These are folks that have a sensitivity to what is unhealthy for them and the courage or fortitude to walk away - regardless of the pressure or consequences. For others, like myself, the issues are harder to face. Part of this is due to my powerful need for acceptance, inclusion and affirmation by others. By nature, I am willing to accept a lot of pain and heartache on the chance of being accepted and included...to be part of something. And then I are willing to accept more pain and heartache to ensure I remain a part of what is going on. Just writing this makes it sound pretty pathetic, especially since it creates a special form of cowardice when it comes to facing the cold facts about a situation. Mix that with an often misguided sense of loyalty and a sincere desire to change things for the better, and you a get mix that makes it almost impossible to pull the plug!
From that perspective, I want to suggest some of the things I have become aware of that characterize an unhealthy spiritual environment. A checklist, if you will, that signals when it is time to leave.
We lose sight of Christ as the head. This can be a particularly subtle thing, especially in the formative years of a group, because of the 'necessity' of a strong personality or charismatic individual to get things going and keep them moving forward. Very few works of God began as a group effort. Take Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, and Paul as biblical examples. Without their powerful individual leadership where would we be today? But unless that strong person or charismatic personality is truly exceptional, there is a tendency to take the top place in the group by default. As a result, over time, there becomes an increasing dependence upon their leadership and guidance, instead of taking hold of the head. We agree, at least subconsciously, to abdicate responsibility for our spiritual life in deference to the powerful, persuasive, degreed, ordained, collared and gifted in our midst. Col. 2:19 puts it this way, "They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow." If not checked, that dependence on the leader or leaders,instead of Christ, leads to the next characteristic of unhealthiness.
Allegiance to the leader or group is seen as exactly equal to allegiance to Christ. 'Allegiance' is not generally the word that is used in our evangelical world; 'submission' is. And the fact is there is biblical authority to substantiate teaching the principle of submission -- at least 7 specific references in the New Testament. Younger people are to submit elders, each of us are to submit to leaders, wives to husbands, all of us to each other and we are also submission to secular authority and law. So submission is taught in scripture, but when it is distorted and taken to the extreme, it is then not about obedience to Christ but rather about establishing and maintaining authority and control. This manifests itself in the teaching that submission to ‘leadership’ is equivalent to submission to Christ, ie., if I am not subject to the leadership in my fellowship, I am not subject to Christ. From this unhealthy perspective it is never communicated that biblical submission is an act of yieldedness and responsiveness on the part of an individual to the profound, Christ-like love manifested in another. We are subject to Christ in response to his profound love for us. Wives are subject to the their husbands in response to their selfless and sacrificial love for their wives. We are subject to those who "guide us" because of their faithful example of practical Christ-likeness. At the end of the day, we can demand submission, but the fact remains that it is a gift given by the other person, not something that can be taken from them. that gift needs to be treasured by the one who receives it, not exploited and used. When leaders demand submission, it is time to walk away.
Conformity and performance supersedes authenticity and identity. One of the manifestations of losing connection to the Head and the development of unhealthy leadership is the increasing emphasis on conformity and performance. It becomes all about doing and conforming to standards and ‘norms’ rather than living out of who we are in Christ. Part of the reason for this is that the way to maintain your place or prestige in the group becomes increasingly linked to how you measure up. Instead of being able to grow together through failure and weakness, we are expected to maintain the standard of 'godliness' that is being defined by leadership. That standard is generally a 'do as I say' mandate that has little to do with their own reality. They are hiding behind 'doing' and demanding that we do so as well. The fact is that legalism is a binding and limiting thing and never results in the experience of the life of Christ in us -- Galatians is the great commentary on this. In contrast, grace sets us free to live and serve with joy. So what is the appeal of conformity and performance? While it is certainly unhealthy, it is 'safer' and 'easier' to live under dictates and standards than to live openly, honestly and authentically with others.
Creation of a culture of shaming and blaming. The constant necessity to live behind a mask of irreproachability, eventually leads to a culture of shaming and blaming. After all, shame is a powerful tool to keep people in line and blaming removes the spotlight from our own failures and shortcomings. As such, scapegoating becomes a key strategy for deflection and protection in the midst of an increasingly toxic environment. Scapegoating, when taken to the extreme, is such a destructive force in a community that M Scott Peck, in his book People of the Lie, characterizes it as the predominant characteristic of those he defines as evil. "...in their hearts they consider themselves above reproach, they must lash out at anyone who does reproach them. They sacrifice others to preserve their self-image of perfection...Utterly dedicated to preserving their self-image of perfection, they are unceasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity. They worry about this a great deal. They are acutely sensitive to social norms and what others might think of them...Their "goodness" is all on a level of pretence...This is why they are the "people of the lie...the lie is designed not so much to deceive others as to deceive themselves...We become evil by attempting to hide from ourselves." While Peck's comments might reflect the extreme manifestation of scapegoating, it is a very slippery slope if we resort to that as our relational strategy with one another.
Building walls instead of doors and windows When hiding from ourselves and others becomes the cultural norm, we need to build walls to 'protect' ourselves from the incursion of 'defiling' and 'compromising' influences. After all, we want to do everything we can to protect our 'purity.’ I think the insistence on building barriers to other points of view and perspectives is more about keeping people ‘in’ than keeping negative influences out. As early as the third century, believers were prohibited by the church from having access to the Word of God. Only the church hierarchy could read the Word due to their divine connection to God that the common person lacked. They would then dispense 'truth' to the masses as they saw fit. For over a thousand years the church, using fear, torture and death, tried to keep that wall up to protect their power, privilege and place. Today, we build walls instead of opening the doors and windows, by limiting or prohibiting discussion on controversial or troubling topics, by vilifying or demeaning other works and ministries, and by elevating our own perspective above all others. But the fact remains, healthy environments require fresh air!
Embracing an attitude of exclusivity. With the emphasis on building walls comes the insistence that we are "special." We convince ourselves that God has given us special revelation and insight that nobody else has. And if they want it they need to become one of us! In our case, it had to do with God's truth about the church, the kingdom and most especially the inheritance. And I have to say that there was much valuable and insightful teaching on those topics. But it fed an attitude of exclusivity, that what God was doing in our midst superseded what he was doing elsewhere.And while he did do something special in our midst, we should have opened our hearts, minds and arms to those around us, celebrating and engaging in, whenever possible, what God was doing in and through them as well. I truly believe that gatherings raised up and sustained by God have a unique contribution to make in their community and the world. But that contribution is manifested through largess and generosity of spirit, not a crippling attitude of superiority. When the attitude becomes that we are the people with 'special' truth, we have fallen into error and deception.
Personal advancement/reputation trumps washing one another’s feet. Within the walls of that exclusive community, it becomes increasingly about one’s own ministry and gift rather taking the low place of humility and service. I do want to mention here, that even at our most unhealthy state, there were literally scores of folks in our midst that were true servants in every sense of the word. They were the first to pick up the towel and basin and kneel down to meet the need of another. But over time, being part of the various ministry and leadership 'in groups' had increasing significance resulting in escalating unhealthiness in our midst. While we preached 'every joint supplying' some joints were more important than others! As human beings we just instinctively want to build hierarchies, and those at the top will naturally insist on priority, privilege and exception based on their gift and abilities. The true indication of spiritual health is the willingness, can I say eagerness, to be a help and blessing to others without the promise of recognition, place or privilege.
Unresolvable internal conflict become a way of life. When we are in relationships there are always conflicts that arise. Some are external, between individuals, and can be resolved by humility and discussion. Others are internal and have to be dealt with the help and wisdom of those we love and trust. But then there are those 'unresolveable' internal issues that come from being in an unhealthy environment. The last 4 or 5 years of my involvement in the fellowship became a time of increasingly unresolvable internal conflicts for me. There were so many things that I saw that were going south in our midst, and it didn't seem like there was anything that could be done about it. We became increasingly repressed, isolated, legalistic, hierarchical, and exclusive. It became more and more difficult to be authentic, open and honest about what was going in our lives and fellowship. It was in fact an unsafe, unhealthy environment and frankly I was relieved, in one sense, when it came to an end. This was partly because those unresolvable conflicts had destroyed my health and happiness and threatened my marriage and spiritual well being. I remember at the time, that I hoped something fresh, new and vital would rise from the ashes, because I truly valued the richness of authentic spiritual community I had experienced at one time. But, unfortunately, so much damage had been done that it was impossible for this to happen. This speaks powerfully to me of the cascading damage caused by those unresolved conflicts -- both internal and external. Maybe I should have spoken up more forcefully sooner, maybe I should have withdrawn from leadership earlier, maybe I should have walked away at the first indications of those unresolved, and unresolvable, conflicts. Maybe, maybe, maybe...I will always have questions like that to ponder. But I can say that, as a result of that experience, I learned that when things deteriorate to the point of being 'unresolvable conflicts', it is a sure sign that it is time to pack up and go. The other thing I learned is that I need others to help me do it. The fact is that I am not wired to make the hard choice in these situations, I need the help of those that can see clearly and provide the support I need to pack my bags.
This has been a somewhat painful, but also healing, consideration for me. I don't honestly know if our fellowship should be considered abusive, but I do know that by the end, it was a very unhealthy environment for me, my wife and daughter. I am grateful for the gold that was woven into my life. I treasure the life-long relationships of love and trust that developed over the years. I appreciate what I learned about community (both positively and negatively) from my involvement in what I believe was a serious experiment in what it means to live for Jesus. And I am humbled by what God has shown, and is showing me, about love, grace and authentic community.