I encountered the so-called ex-church survivor movement shortly after I began blogging in 2005. I didn’t consider how extensive a movement it was until about a month or so ago.
After surveying the uncountable number of websites on the internet, I am confirmed daily these are folks who have a profoundly unhealthy preoccupation with the alleged wrongs done against them by bad pastors and church leadership. The attitudes I see displayed on these sites are not a good thing.
By creating websites like “X” church survivors or “X” church watch that chronicle with scrutinizing detail every slight done against them, either real or imagined, people can quickly become inwardly- focused, disgruntled navel gazers. The “survivors” come across as angry, vindictive, unforgiving, suspicious, and in some cases, paranoid. Going through life after a bad church experience with dark clouds of bitterness trailing behind you should never be a mark of a Christian. (And I am not say these folks aren’t Christians, btw, lest someone yell at me in the comments).
When I wrote up my first post highlighting Julie Anne’s case, I had two thoughts in mind. First, I was using it as a stepping stone to what I see is a much larger problem with survivor blogs. Specifically the bitterness, strife, narcissism, vindictiveness, petty name-calling, anger, antinomianism, and anti-authoritarianism I see splashed across these blogs and website. If you think I am mistaken about my claims, just drop by Julie Anne’s comment pages and read the nasty comments left by folks who brand me a fake Christian sexist hater. They blast leaders who allegedly stifle dissent and criticism, but when I raise questions about the motives and claims of survivor bloggers, attempts are made to shut me down and dismiss me. Irony, much.
Secondly, I was also amazed how easily the media, as well as self-described “Christian” commenters under the various reports about Julie Anne’s case, would immediately support the victim while demonizing the so-called abuser. Probably 99% of the people didn’t know either party. They certainly didn’t know all the facts nor were they privy to all the background leading up to the situation. Only those “facts” supplied readily by the abused party were considered. Who’s to say she is right and the church is wrong? I agree the pastor and the church is misguided with filing a lawsuit against an ex-member, but am I to believe that misguided move on their part makes them a “cult?” The pastor a mind-controlling wolfish cult leader? Really? That’s what I am suppose to automatically conclude? And just because she is being sued by a misguided pastor does that make his claims against her false? Could there be any merit to what he says she has done even though he isn’t handling the situation correctly?
At any rate, in response to my contentions I have with survivor bloggers in general, a number of commenters at Julie Anne’s place raised some questions and objections they want me to answer. I’ll hit on the key questions I see repeated, as well as respond to one particular slight against me.
There are churches that do not overtly transgress orthodoxy and yet are very cult like in their behavior. Do you agree that such churches exist? If so, how do we spot them?
At the risk of being pilloried by my detractors as mocking, this is a loaded question. I’ll point out that if we agree such churches do in fact exist, then it is only obvious there has to be some marks that allow us to spot them. Thus, we don’t have to make up phony “marks” indicating so-called “cult like” behavior. Either they are cult-like or not.
Moreover, if there are genuine “marks” to consider, where the disagreement lies is what we think those marks indicating “cult like” behavior may be. But that could differ from person to person. What you may think is “cult like” behavior may not be what I think is “cult like” behavior. Hence, the term “cult like” is too subjective and ultimately unhelpful. The idea of “cult” has a specific meaning: It primarily defines pseudo-Christian heresy. I personally do not believe the bulk of those churches accused of “spiritually abusing” the sheep by Bible-believing Christians are “a cult” in the common, technical sense of the word.
Now. Moving to the question. The qualifier of “do not transgress orthodoxy” obviously means a distinction exists between Bible oriented churches and say those of the Kingdom Hall variety. So we are not talking about churches that deny essential, historic Christian doctrine.
Probably what is in mind here would be for example churches where legalistic preference issues have been elevated on the same level with biblical doctrine and are made to control the lives of individuals. Such things, anti-CCM, or men can’t wear shorts, women can’t wear pants, whether it is worldly to watch movies, etc. Certain strains of independent, Fundamentalists Baptist and Pentecostal groups fall into this category.
Preference issues are not a bad thing in and of themselves; it is how those preference issues are applied to the body life of a local church that can be a problem.
My take is that if a pastor insists certain preference issues are determiners of one’s salvation and spirituality as a Christian, along with faithful Church membership, this is a red flag in my mind. Let’s say someone sees you going to the movies, or reading a Harry Potter novel, or some other preference considered “sinful” and the pastor confronts you and demands an account of your actions or there will be consequences, I would say that is overstepping his bounds as a pastor. But I distinguish this approach from a pastor who may admonish you regarding the same preference issue, yet leaves it up to you as to whether or not you will continue practicing it. Some folks may not like the pastor stepping on their toes, but he is not overstepping his bounds.
As odious as the application of preference issues can be in churches, however, that doesn’t necessarily imply the church or pastor are “cult-like.” So we have to turn our attention to what the Bible says about the qualifications of a shepherd. Here is where we can address a man’s personality and abilities to lead a church.
Paul provides those qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Peter further elaborates on them in 1 Peter 5:1-5. Some of the key qualifications listed in these passages are sober-mindedness, not quarrelsome, nor pugnacious, nor manipulative, nor demagogic. When spiritual abuse victims complain about “controlling” pastors, it is more than likely the opposite of these characteristics the abused person has in mind. In other words, the pastor or leadership are quarrelsome, pugnacious, manipulative and demagogic.
So what recourse do church goers have when they encounter a pastor who is manipulative, controlling, and abusive?
The Bible does not prohibit confronting a pastor. Paul writes that an elder can be confronted in 1 Timothy 5:19, 20, but any accusation brought against him must have two or three witnesses confirming it. That way, there is consistent, affirming testimony as to the charges leveled against him.
If the pastor doesn’t teach heresy, yet he behaves abusively according to biblical standards, and there are a number of other members who confirm the same pattern of abuse, well then it is certainly within biblical parameters to confront him. Just as long as the accusation isn’t contentious because you didn’t like him confronting your sin, or disagreed with his counseling, or didn’t like some decision he made.
And what should a church goer do if the pastor won’t hear a complaint against him and dismisses his accusers as trouble-makers?
Every situation is different because of the people and surrounding events. However, depending on the circumstances, if a person or persons have respectfully confronted a pastor or church leadership about what they consider are serious personality behaviors and those people are waved off as disruptive trouble-makers, that’s when those folks need to leave. It real is that simple.
Respectfully means you don’t make a scene by spreading gossip and strife about the pastor(s) and then leave the church. You don’t need to be dramatic and send the pastor(s) a certified, FED-EX letter explaining how you are “removing your membership” or any such nonsense. Just tell the leaders the reason why you are unable to fellowship and leave. If people ask “why” tell them the truth about why you are leaving. If they press you as to your claims, be prepared to give examples of what you mean. If they persist that you are mistaken, don’t argue, just thank them for their concern and move on. There really is no need to leave negative website reviews or start a “survivor blog” detailing your issues with the church. Let it go.
But someone needs to warn others about that church and the abuse they may receive.
Perhaps, but that may not be you. Certainly leaving negative reviews and starting a survivor blog daily journal isn’t the wisest course of action, either. First it makes the person appear to be mean-spirited and divisive when in fact that may not be true. Second, it only serves as a magnet for genuine troublemakers who are utterly ignorant of the situation who will only stir up real strife with their input. Third, falling into a “survivor/victim” mentality only keeps a person focused on that bad experience from a selfish perspective. “Look what they did to ME.” “I got hurt by them.” etc. This is not a means of being sanctified in the truth.
Your criticism show no compassion for those hurt and come across completely uncaring for anyone genuinely abused
I don’t doubt there are people who have genuinely experienced spiritual abuse at the hands of incompetent and manipulative leadership. I am sympathetic to their plight. But rather than enabling their continued wallowing in a state of perpetual victimization and self-pity by applauding their on-line “Wall Watching” efforts, isn’t the better course to refocus their thinking away from their own self interests and toward how they can learn from those difficult circumstances so that they can honor Christ? That has been one of my key reasons for being critical of survivor blogs.
From my view, Fred’s question is clearly sexist. … It’s sexist because he writes it in the context of an argument concerning the credibility of complaints against a pastor. In effect the question says, “Julie Anne, your perspectives and feelings don’t really count because you’re a woman.” Was that Fred’s intent?
I noted in my original post addressing survivor blogs that it is my observation a good many of them are maintained by women. I can understand why knowing how women are by nature more emotionally invested in such things as men typically will be. That is not meant to be a sexist remark, but just an acknowledgement of basic human nature between the sexes.
That said, when I have interacted with Julie Anne, I have asked her what her husband thinks about her spiritual abuse blogging. I certainly don’t mean to imply anything sinister with that question.
I work from the assumption that Julie Anne is a Bible-believing Christian, which means she has a biblically informed understanding of marriage. Scripture describes a husband and wife as being one flesh (Genesis 2:23, 24; Matthew 19:4-6) and that a wife submits to her husband as the church submits to Christ (Ephesians 5:22-24). What a wife does publicly impacts that relationship. The husband mentioned in Proverbs 31 could safely trust in his wife (vs. 11). The implication being that the virtuous wife brought honor to her husband and family with her public interactions outside the family.
Again, assuming Julie Anne is a committed, Bible-believing Christian, what her husband thinks about all of this is an important question. Does he see the alleged abuse the same way Julie Anne sees it? What is his take as a man and husband with regards to the claims against his and Julie Anne’s ex-pastor? Does he have the same opinion of him being “controlling” as Julie Anne does? He left with her, didn’t he? I am not saying her “perspectives and feelings” don’t count as the commenter suggests, but a husband may have a complementary perspective that may bring things into focus.
The charge of “sexism” is lame. Not only does it display an attitude that diminishes the fundamental significance of a Christian marriage, it also reflects worldly thinking. This is how liberals argue against conservatives in politics.
Along with that, the charge of “sexism” has a tone of anti-authoritarianism ringing through it. Christian marriages are defined by particular spiritual parameters, namely a husband loving a wife and the wife submitting to her husband’s authority. The world thinks of marriage in the opposite fashion. That being, a woman loses her identity as a person if she “submits” to a husband, and so a man is considered “sexist” if he suggest she must. This is not the Christian way to think about marriage relationships, and calling me “sexist” is not only worldly, but it’s a dishonest way to dodge my questions.