The questions I hear most frequently among people who recently left our CLB (church left behind) are "How could this happen to our church?" and "Why can't our friends who are still there see what is happening?"
If there is a point to this post, it is to show that deception can happen among mature believers in a fairly healthy church. Hopefully, I can explain some of the dynamics involved that allow deception to take root in a community.
Let me describe for you how a relatively successful church became cult-like over a span of several years. One of the reasons it could happen was because it was gradual enough that otherwise intelligent, spiritual people were slowly lulled into accepting the deception.
A little background first...
Many of the families at this church attended for many years. It was a tight-knit group of people who had been in community through many seasons of life. The church itself wasn't perfect, but they had navigated successfully through several leadership changes over the years.
At the time the current pastor came on staff, the church had dwindled significantly due to the most recent leadership transition. However, the charismatic renewal and prophetic teaching brought new life, excitement, and growth to the congregation.
Behind the scenes, we soon discovered that the pastor with the wonderful pulpit personality was not only insecure, but incredibly calculating and manipulative. Within a few years he had rewritten the bylaws to his advantage and coerced resignations from the elders who sometimes opposed him.
Then an apostle entered the picture. He promised to provide direction, relational accountability, and support to the senior pastor. At this point, the pastor was in crisis on many fronts, emotionally and relationally, so it seemed like a good idea.
Through this apostle we were introduced to more extreme teaching concerning authority. As I said, the shift was gradual and most people were unaware (and some still are unaware) that the church they have aligned themselves with has become something significantly different than what they believe it is.
The leadership has used the social and relational strengths that already existed in the church to create an environment that influences people to accept things that they normally would not accept.
The upfront picture has always been about how happy we are together, what a wonderful group this is to belong to, and how important we are to the kingdom of God. When you first attend, you would be drawn into the close-knit friendships that are there. It is a wonderful and loving group of people.
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 like-minded. 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.
New titles and positions have been fabricated to reward those who want to move up in the organization. These positions add requirements and standards of commitment to prove who really is a team player. Compulsory meetings keep the members involved to the point that most of their time and relationships revolve around the church.
This creates an environment where people are eager to prove their commitment to the leaders and afraid to be seen as disagreeable. One way of proving loyalty is to be an informant to the leadership, letting them know of anyone who is questioning or struggling. Often thoughts shared in deepest confidence are reported to leadership.
Bill Kinnon describes this kind of church very well:
Too many churches of my acquaintance demand loyalty to the institution/leader over and above anything else. "Team player" language is used to command & control, and mavericks are to be removed.
People caught up in this world will not stand for any questioning of the leader or the institution - often exhibiting cult-like responses. They are desperate for the leader's approval and will do just about anything to get it - and would love to move up in the organization to be as close to said leader as possible. And these folk will defend near criminal activity on the part of the church leaders - as their leaders apparently "hear directly from God."
Why would people go along with this? Because they have been taught that the leaders do hear directly from God. Under the teaching of delegated spiritual authority, they must be in submission and obey these leaders who hear from God. The leaders themselves actually believe that they speak for God.
Elitism is another subtle form of control. When a group claims to have a better understanding of truth, it is implied that to leave the group will cost you your opportunity to be successful in what God is doing. The evidence that this is at work is in the attitude taken toward those who leave. Are they still viewed as brothers, or is it implied that they have fallen away?
It has been said that those who leave are not true disciples. This both diminishes the leavers and elevates those who stay in their exclusivity of being the remnant.
It is hard to understand why a group would go along with the idea of members being asked to leave simply for disagreeing. Yet under the teaching, these people are portrayed as a serious threat to the corporate ideal. They are painted as people who hurt the effectiveness of the team. The character assassination necessary to accomplish this is extremely hurtful to those who are targeted.
This is a good example from cultwatch of how character assassination works:
"One plus one equals three", says Ford.
"No I don't think so," replies Arthur.
"Arthur I have been a mathematician longer than you. How dare you disagree with me! You are obviously a very smug and prideful person. I think you are disagreeing with me because you are jealous of me, and your rebellion has really hurt me and a lot of other people too," stated Ford his face intimidatingly close to Arthur's.
You see Ford didn't answer Arthur's argument, instead he attacked his character. Character assassination is a powerful way to exert control.
Because of this tactic, no one raised an eyebrow when the police were called to keep a member from attending. The next person asked to leave resulted in half of the church also leaving. However, those who remain believe that these members were deserving of the treatment they received because they were not exemplary team players.
It is hard to imagine that things could become so bizarre, yet some really solid, spiritual people are still involved. The degree of deception is amazing. Even though they have now lost half of their church and are struggling, this is justified as being part of God's process, refining those who are willing to be a remnant.
Because of people's belief that they are involved in something special and important and their desire to be included, they have come under voluntary oppression to leadership that could be described as totalitarian or authoritarian. It demands allegiance without question or exception and becomes extremely hostile when confronted with a refusal to play along.
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. 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.
Idolatry of community has been shattered. A great group of mature Christians are now scattered. The group remaining will learn some valuable lessons.
In the end, perhaps we will all be more prepared to do church differently.