Emerging Grace (not her real name) has done it again… and this time with a painful post on How to Ruin a Church. She offers an overview of her experience with a badly-run church and the abuses of its leadership and the aftermath thereof. If I didn’t already know otherwise, I’d be inclined to ask her outright if I don’t perhaps know, perhaps sharing a common CLB or something. Well, I don’t recall an instance of the police being called to keep an ejected member out of a meeting… in my recollection, it was the elders and/or ushers ejecting a member upon whom church discipline had been exercised; but I digress.

Grace sets about illustrating how sane, mature believers with good intentions in a healthy church body can set about an unwitting descent into deception, manipulation, and spiritual abuse. Yup. I’ve seen that first-hand as well.

Insightfully, she outlines teaching and emphases on agreement, submission, unity, and likemindedness as key factors or tools used by the leaders in creating and maintaining this kind of environment. Of her CLB, she describes this in part:

But what about life within the group? It is difficult for people to grasp that the reality is drastically different from the idealistic picture that they want to believe is true.

Now it has become more of a pseudo-community. The teaching emphasizes the necessity of unity and being likeminded. The corporate ideal is promoted, and anything threatening corporate unity is challenged. Disrupting corporate unity will hurt one’s social standing in the group.

This produces the attitude that in order to be accepted, you must get with the program. The fear of losing relationships silences questions and keeps people in line. They have seen that if you disagree or leave, then you will lose your friends.

Flattery is used to nurture people’s feelings of inclusion and importance. Prophetic words are given to reward those who perform well and to lure back those who appear to be wavering.

She goes on to describe the use of terms like “team player” and an environment where people are eager to prove their committment to the leaders and loyalty to the “team”, where thoughts shared in confidence find their way back to the leaders of the community. From there, it moves on to elitism and a false dichotomy between the true disciples inside the community and the less-than-true outside, including particularly those who have left or were put out.

In this whole milieu, a division is drawn or enhanced between leadership and laity; of the negative aspects on that, see also my earlier post on entitlement, referencing a good post by Ted Gossard.

Grace presses her point home by citing an example from Cultwatch on how character assassination works. (Chilling bit, that.)

How long will this unchecked political power continue? When will people realize that they are free to break away from the bondage?

Things continue to unravel. They lost half of their congregation. The senior pastor has taken a sabbatical. I do not know what the end will look like.

Sometimes I think, “what a waste!”

The real loss will be in relationships that are destroyed, including marriages.

I remind myself that, in the end, none of this will hinder God’s purposes in the lives of those who love Him.

There was an idolatry of community that has been shattered. There is a great group of inwardly-focused, mature Christians who are now scattered. The remaining group of still-naive believers will learn some valuable lessons.

The aftermath is downright depressing, especially for those — like Grace and me — who were part of the leadership of these churches, and who finally had to leave. It’s painful to see or hear about people who once looked to you as leaders in the community, now on the other side of a crass unwritten line drawn to represent an inside/outside dichotomy. You know they’re suffering in an environment that is toxic, that is likely ultimately to hurt them spiritually, whether they can see it or not. Oh sure, some people seem unaffected by it all, they appear to thrive in this environment and be happy. But I don’t believe they’re free, not free like Jesus meant them to be… not “free indeed.” Not “truly free.”

It’s of course easy and obvious to ask, “Don’t they see it?” But in the thick of it, it’s not that simple. People who leave, as Grace observes, lose their friendships — and in the situation she describes, friendships of 20+ years. So if you can live with it, you toe the line and keep your friends. Truly sad.

Now, I’ve been criticized at times for being too negative about my own CLB, for little jabs and comments I’ve made… often out of my pain or my concern for others. Yes, I referred to the group of men being trained by the senior pastor for leadership roles as “The Stepford Boys.” I’m trying to cut back, but we’re not talking about healthy communities here. Like Grace does at the end of her post (which I still strongly recommend reading despite my lengthy comments above), it’s helpful to remind onesself that “in the end, none of this will hinder God’s purposes in the lives of those who love Him.”

And though I might be rather inclined to call down fire upon them (hey, I can still be a disciple!), God remains gracious for reasons I cannot fathom. I can simply be rebuked by Jesus and move on to the next village… perhaps God has in mind that rather than cause those in your care to stumble, it would better to have a millstone hung round your neck and be cast into the sea. That’s somehow rather foreboding.

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