Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Can't Talk Rule or Don't Talk Rule

Various sources on spiritual abuse warn about the Can't Talk rule (or the Don't Talk rule) in abusive groups. In spiritually manipulative churches, pastors don't usually come right out and tell you not to talk about certain issues. (Especially concerns in the church.) They are much more subtle.

They might hint at "the enemy" who incites people to gossip, or they may denounce weak Christians who whisper. They might blast the motives of anyone who brings a legitimate issue to the leadership, condemning them as self-centered, divisive or lazy.
They might emphasize grumbling and complaining as among the gravest of sins. They might compare those who bring up church issues to scoffers in Moses' time -- implying that if you dare mention a weakness of the church you are similar to those ungrateful Israelites that the good Moses ( read: church leader) had to put up with.

They might tell you to "get in line with the mission," "submit to authority," or "stop dividing the flock," shaming someone who brings honest questions  -- in order to deflect scrutiny from themselves.
Some might tell you that you are not in harmony with "the vision or mission" of the church, which often is just a high-sounding way of saying that the leader's views are beyond question, and accountability is not the business of a mere layperson.

By whatever means available, abusive pastors will shut down discussion and prevent accountability for suspect practices. The unspoken "don't talk" rule makes this easy. Anyone who dares raise an issue to the light of day will be shut down, preached against, shunned, mistreated or shamed, either by open means or subtle means.

Perhaps some have left the church, and you wish to know why. Maybe the pastor has preached something that doesn't line up with scripture. Maybe someone has been kicked out of church or removed from a ministry. Perhaps these uncomfortable practices have been increasing. Maybe the finances are not open to public view; or business meetings are closed -- or nonexistent. Perhaps teachers or musicians have complained about mistreatment and you are not sure who to believe. A Sunday school teacher suddenly leaves or is moved elsewhere without any explanation. An elder resigns. A spouse or older child disappears and no one dares ask about it.

Those living under a Can't Talk or Don't Talk rule know not to ask questions. They have been manipulated into remaining silent, even though their active conscience urges them to speak up. The reluctance to speak up is often disguised as virtue. You're not a grumbler. You're not a troublemaker. It's someone else's place to ask questions, not yours. You're just a humble nobody.
So the pastor or leader remains accountable to no one. He can do what he likes without opposition, no matter how questionable, unorthodox, ungodly -- or in some cases, illegal.

If this describes the mechanism in place at your church, make sure to do a little research into spiritual abuse and see if other signs might not also be present in your group. The Can't Talk rule is an unspoken rule meant to stifle and hide anything that challenges the control of a leader or that has the potential to put a leader in a bad light. It is often the tip of the iceberg.

Image Consciousness

One sign of spiritual abuse, according to David Henke of Watchman Ministries, is image consciousness. (Item no. 2 on his list)

When I first saw this item on the checklist, I thought, well our group isn't image conscious. We don't advertise, we keep a low profile, we don't dress up or have new, flashy ministries.

So, at first, when I saw this item, I thought it was one of the few you couldn't check off concerning our group. Then I looked at it again and saw that Henke isn't talking about group image so much as individual image. Suddenly, the red flags popped up.

Our group, on an individual basis, was extremely image conscious. I would not want to park anywhere near a casino for fear the pastor might draw the wrong conclusion should he drive by, or anyone in the church, or anyone who knew me, for that matter.

I was afraid to buy wine vinegar at the grocery store for the same reason. It looks like a bottle of wine. (Though I didn't and don't believe alcohol was wrong, I do not drink for reasons other than religion.) How could I bring down the name of Christ by looking like a hypocrite?

I was constantly thinking, What would the pastor or his wife think of me if they saw me doing this or that? What if I had too many items in my shopping cart and I looked extravagant? What if my clothes look too expensive? Am I being Christlike by serving roast when others can only afford Mac N Cheese?

In short, image was everything. Or at least it was a much bigger deal than I realized until I was out of the group. It wasn't Christ's expectations; it was the pastor's, and the idea that since I was representing Christ to the world, I had to be perfect. Trying to avoid all appearances of evil is a full-time job.

I am pretty much free from this now. I park in front of bars and casinos if convenient. I don't detour around the liquor aisle. I don't pay attention much to what I'm wearing. I am free!

Here's what Henke has to say on the subject:
Jesus was not "image conscious." He was willing to associate with wine drinkers, cheating tax collectors and even prostitutes. He accused the legalistic Pharisees of "teaching for doctrine the commandments of men" (Matthew 15:9) and likened their showy, hypocritical outward rightousness to "whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness" (Matthew 23:27).

Neither was He paranoid. His ministry was conspicuously open to the public. When He was on trial (John 18) He was asked about His teachings and His reply was, "Why askest thou me?" Jesus pointed out that He always taught in public, and never in secret, so why not ask His disciples. He had nothing to hide.

Jesus did not fear to criticize the religious leaders or their faulty doctrines (e.g. Matthew 15:1-9; 23:1-39, etc.). And when confronted with criticism or with treacherous questions designed to discredit Him, His response was never to simply demand silence or only positive recognition from His accusers. Rather, He gave answers - scriptural and reasonable answers - to their objections (e.g. Luke 7:36-47; Matthew 19:3-9).

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Murmuring in Church

When your pastor faces legitimate criticism or inquiry into the practices of the church, does he respond with a sermon against "murmuring"? Are the "murmurers" (or relatives of the "murmurers")  disciplined, ignored or driven out? In abusive churches, it often works this way.

Today, I was reading Acts 6, and I found it interesting how the early church dealt with murmurers. Acts 6:1 says this:

And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.

The Greeks were complaining about what seemed like unfair practices, and they felt the leadership should stop preaching and start serving more, something like that. Who else could the murmuring be against?

So here is an early church example of murmuring and what to do about it. Notice the response of the apostles.

Do the apostles preach against the murmurers? Do they get angry at the Greek widows? Do they get all huffy about their own authority and start kicking people out for touching God's annointed apostles? No. They look into the matter. Acts 6:2-5

Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables.
Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.
But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.
And the saying pleased the whole multitude:

Several things to notice here. First, the apostles appeal to reason. There is nothing wrong with reason! Human reason is given for a reason:) The apostles disagree with the criticism. They know that whatever the criticism, whatever the urgency, whatever the need, they still need to be in the word. It isn't reasonable that they should leave the word of God to serve tables. Probably, the critics didn't state things that way, but using reason, the apostles restate the problem in such a way that the critics could see why their own viewpoint and criticism is somewhat faulty.

Second, instead of getting all upset that their authority is under attack, they actually set about seeing what they can do about the problem. They take the problem seriously. They don't leave what they know is right for them to do (preaching the word) BUT they don't ignore or attack their critics either.

Third, they don't preach against criticism, or castigate the widows for slander or gossip. They come up with a very good plan on how to deal with the problems that arise. The result? Everyone was pleased.

Exploring elitism

One common sign of an abusive church is a sense of elitism. Just what IS elitism? It's a feeling that your group is special, better, far superior than other churches or groups. Most churches feel that they are on the right path, that their particular doctrines are right. That's not elitism. It might be a kind of pride to look out for, but it's not elitism to feel that you are doing what you think is right.

Elitism goes beyond just thinking that your doctrines or practices are correct. It's a hyperactive puffing up about it. Your group thinks not only that it is on the right path, but that almost no one else is.

Elitism is a sense of a special mission or a special equipping for a mission. We have better gifts or use our gifts in special ways. We care more about lost souls than others around us. We are more committed to saving souls, or helping the poor, or supporting missions, or being true to scripture, than almost anyone else. We are IT!

Extreme groups begin to think they are the only manifestation of Christ's work on earth, or at least in their area.

There are a couple of ways elitism is expressed. One is that the leaders come right out and say it. The pastor or leaders might preach that the group has a special call or a unique mission. This will be a repeated theme in abusive churches. It tends to isolate. If you are so special, God's own favorite children, why would you even want to hang out with the "unspecial"?

It also takes subtler forms. The pastor might not focus much on your special calling. He might instead spend time cutting down other groups, focusing on their perceived weaknesses and problems. If he does this enough, you get the idea. Church X doesn't really stress scripture (unspoken lesson: WE DO!); Church Y doesn't really preach salvation (unspoken lesson: WE REALLY CARE); Church Z doesn't live out the gospel (unspoken lesson: WE LIVE THE GOSPEL).

What elitism does is unify church members. They get the message. THEY don't want to be like the worldly groups out there that don't care about lost souls or the poor or missions or the scripture. They want to make sure they are among the chosen few. To do this, they will hunker down, they will keep to the group, they will make sure the leadership knows they are loyal and true and not heathen like those other groups outside.

When things get messy and they are tempted to leave, elitism is a powerful handcuff. Members have spent so much time looking down on other groups and playing up their own gifts, that to leave means they have to reverse their thinking, and that's very hard to do. Suddenly, they are thinking about no longer being part of God's special group, and also about joining up with groups they - along with the church leadership - have looked down on for so long. That's a hard reversal to stomach.

Besides bragging about gifts and callings, and besides castigating other "inferior" churches, another sign of elitism is when the pastor or leaders won't meet with other community pastors. They will not join ministerial alliances or Christian groups in a community. They are too good for those lukewarm Christians. They are far above them and will not deign to rub shoulders with them. While many elitist pastors do meet with such groups either just for show or because it lends credibility to the group, the very hard core elitists will not. If your pastor won't meet with other pastors unless they are of the same denomination, it is a big, bright, red flag that he is an elitist and possibly abusive.
Elitism can be blatant or subtle, but it's a common trait of abusive churches.

To see an example of classic elitism, go HERE to see how a Harold Camping defender attacks critics using elitist language.