We believe in grace through faith, not salvation through works. So how could my church be performance-based?
The interesting thing about spiritually abusive groups is that, while doctrine and preaching say one thing, the actual working rules of the church say something else entirely. By working rules, I mean those unspoken rules that govern what people do or don’t do in a church.
One sign of an abusive church is the stress on performance. The teaching may say “grace through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God,” but in a performance-based church what matters most is a set of behaviors the pastor or leaders expect you to perform.
This isn’t always a list of do’s and don’t’s. Though the pastor can come right out and say that you must do this or should never do that, he doesn’t have to. Simply by castigating a behavior from the pulpit, or preaching in favor of another, he can make it clear what the rules are.
In a performance-based church, the pastor doesn’t need to say “You must attend Wednesday services to be saved.” Instead, he may just excoriate lukewarm Christians who "only attend on Sunday mornings." You get the message. If you don’t come on Wednesdays, the rest of the congregation will believe you are sinful or backslidden. You are not a “real” Christian if you don’t perform.
In a performance-based church, the pastor doesn't need to say that people who attend Saturday prayer breakfast or workers luncheon are more pleasing to God than others. He need only say that the devoted or committed believers will show up for a certain event. You know, then, that if you don't show up, you are not devoted or committed. You are a lukewarm Christian and God will spew you out of His mouth.
The pastor doesn’t need to say, “You must not wear make up, watch football on Sundays or wear shorts in public.” He only needs to make it clear that it is a worldly or reprobate type of Christian who partakes of these behaviors.
Since in abusive churches, authority is what the pastor is aiming for, the actual banned or promoted behaviors differ widely from church to church. To the abusive pastor, the behavior lauded or prohibited isn’t as important as the results that come from drawing the line and watching the people decide whether to choose their conscience or his directive. A feeling of power over others gives an instant emotional boost. Abusive pastors thrive on this. It is a mood booster. Abusive pastors will line up a series of situations that require someone to choose between the pastor's way or their own conscience. The pastor will intimate or even come right out and say that their way is God's way.
If the subject chooses the pastor's way, a little thrill of victory comes and he then begins to look forward to the next little test in the series.
The law of the pastor goes far beyond any reasonable interpretation of essentials of scripture. You'd really have to isolate scripture and twist it into pretzel-like contortions to believe that Jesus had in mind the laws that come down as unstated performance rules in these abusive churches. But rather than doubt the "man of God," many members do just that. They twist and bend the scripture, looking down on the inferior who don't quite make it -- and hoping the pastor doesn't discover their own little lapses.
In our abusive church the pastor and his wife made it clear that Wednesday night attenders were "sold out to Jesus." If you didn't witness frequently to friends and neighbors you were callous and uncaring, and not a committed Christian. They also made it clear that members who wanted to hold potlucks, host a Halloween alternative night, take children's church kids across the street to the park, play music at a bar, believe in intelligent design or bring up troubling issues to the leadership were all weak Christians.
Performance-based churches say that you are saved through faith, but insist you show your gratitude for salvation by doing x,y and z. But the x, y and z are always random issues the pastor brings up, and rarely line up with the issues Jesus thought most important.
People given "church discipline" are rarely given it for serious sin: adultery, theft, violence. Instead, it is the sins against the pastor or the leaders that are punished. It's called rebelliousness, gossip, lying, selfishness. Attitudinal sins become the biggest issue. These sins are punished more because they aren't sins against God, but sins against the pastor. People caught in fornication or theft may be given a talking to, or they may be prayed for. A man guilty of domestic violence might be counseled. But those who question a leader's decision will be shamed or shunned, preached against or disciplined for heresy, a critical spirit or rebellion. In abusive churches, discipline is usually reserved for sins against church leadership. Sins against God are generally overlooked if the member is in good standing with the leadership.
Punished infractions are surprisingly peripheral to the heavy concerns Christ voiced when He walked the earth. Whatever the issues are, they become a line in the sand and used as tests. Books you should read or not read, hair length, matters of dress, proper Bible translation, music you must avoid, proving you are worthy by babysitting the pastor’s kids, how you spend your money, tithing details, acceptable or unacceptable marriage partners. Sometimes the decree reaches into the most intimate of relationships, in places a pastor has no business dictating choices.
In our church, there were periodic loyalty tests. The pastor, out of left field, would make a bold statement sure to divide or, at the very least, raise questions. Or he would do something brazen to see if anyone reacted. Once, he replaced the church statement of faith with his own self-manufactured one and then waited to see if anyone complained. Another time, he simply disbanded the board.
Anyone taking issue with his strange remark or action would be shamed in some way, or have a ministry taken away. This, then, would become another loyalty test. How will the subject respond to the shaming or the whisking away of a ministry? Will the subject complain, or meekly go along? It was like prodding a beetle with a stick to see what it would do, a kind of game -- and the object was power over people.
To the abused, it seems as though the behavior itself is what is important, but to the abuser, the issue is secondary. How the subject responds to an outrageous, inappropriate or oddball prohibition is the important part.
Loyal members struggle. They follow the dictates as much as possible, but there are always areas where their conscience is troubled. They learn to keep quiet about certain subjects around the pastor.
The pastor thinks that those who see psychologists aren’t trusting the Bible? Well, then. We won’t mention that we see a counselor for post traumatic stress disorder. The pastor thinks that using the Internet is satanic? We won’t talk about the news sites we visit online. The pastor thinks using Time Out with your kids is worldly? We’ll just not say anything about it to the pastor. The pastor thinks that exercise videos are immodest? We'll keep ours under wraps.
Members constrain themselves to fit the pastor’s decrees. They may not follow as strictly as those decrees mandate, but they abuse their own conscience repeatedly, always wondering whether they are right or not in following, or not following to the letter, those behaviors the pastor equates with godliness.
It is a performance-based faith and has nothing to do with true grace, despite all the fine words to the contrary.