As part of our study of Ephesians 4, I want to tell you of another time my husband and I witnessed abuse from church leaders. I hope it will help you identify the root causes of sinful treatment of others. Remember, God intends these negative experiences to teach us valuable spiritual principles.
Oh, the charm, beauty, and success of these leaders! They were magnetic; they drew people to them. It was narcissism cloaked in the gospel. Their chief control technique was to reward with their approval if you did what they wanted. But, of my, cross them at your peril. It felt so “in” to be in that light. You wanted to be a part of their in-group. We were soon convinced “we” were the only ones who really understood the gospel and could properly interpret the Bible. When someone quit coming, the verse from I John was repeated, “They went out from us because they were not of us.” Of course, the real meaning was, “You are either with me–or you aren’t a Christian.” That fear of being “out” and labeled soon hung over the group as more received the condemnation of unbelief.
My trouble started when I refused to attend the ladies Bible class because I preferred to take my children to the park and beach instead of with a babysitter. I was visited by the pastor’s wife and two of her cohorts. I would not budge, so guess what? I soon found myself being asked, “How did you become a Christian?” And then, “Really, as a child? Now, now, that just couldn’t be. How could you have understood the gospel and Jesus’s sacrifice for you?” Soon the verdict was, “She isn’t a Christian. Just leave her alone.”
I noticed I was soon not alone. Anyone who made a decision contrary to the accepted norm of the leader and her in-group was ridiculed behind her back. One lady felt she had to go back to work. God forbid! Christian women did not work outside of the home! Another one decided to leave her kids and go to her sick father during his dying weeks. How could she put her father and mother before her duties to her husband and children?
It seems so silly as I write this. The slander was explained as being “for her good” and as a “teaching moment” to help others make wiser decisions. What the leaders were actually doing were keeping everyone in line and maintaining an emotional strangle-hold on some financially blessed people who paid their way handsomely.
We left the church. It continued on for awhile and then just faded away when their covetousness became an open book. I learned that charisma is not very valuable in building a church and being the ‘only ones’ with the gospel is ridiculous. I also learned that worldliness can poke its head into any Christian organization. This abusive leadership was really all about maintaining a lifestyle marked by covetousness. We wanted to be generous to our pastor, but we never again offered to always pick up the check or give him cash or a car for vacations. I also learned that it wasn’t always WHAT was said as the way it was said. A sweet smile can cover a dagger. And when I saw it again, I knew what it was…hypocrisy.
THE TAKEAWAY FOR YOU
Even charisma can be used in an abusive manner. And the idea that “we” are a little better that all the other churches out there should set off your alarms. Try to identify the root causes of the control techniques used. In this case, it was the desire to have it all, a deep-seated worldliness that manipulated the legitimate duty of each local church to provide for their pastor’s family. Maintaining control of everyone was a way to keep the money coming in! Demanding one’s own way, selfishness, public and continual violation of any of the Ten Commandments, pride, etc. could be a link to abusive church leadership. It is all so hard because by the time things get to this stage, your own emotions are flaring. It is difficult to go to someone in authority to ask them to examine their attitudes. So never do it alone; take two or three people with you who agree that the root of the problem is an identifiable deep-seated sin that has now become public knowledge.
During all of this, keep reading your Bible and guarding your own relationship with God. Don’t drop out of the local church; it is the biblical instrument through which God has chosen to work. Why else would Paul have written those letters to local churches? Corinth, Thessilonica, Galatia, Ephesus, Rome, Philippi, Colosse had community based churches. But remember, John told us that individual churches won’t always last:
“Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked; …and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see….as many as I love, I rebuke and chasten; be zealous therefore, and repent…To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with thy Father in his throne (Revelation 3:17-21).
Charisma and exclusivity and worldliness and other problems in the local church can be overcome through the grace that comes from the Lord Jesus Christ.