Part 16 in the Series:
Questioning Church Authority
By Don Enevoldsen
“The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone.’” (Genesis 2:18)
Who would have thought that the first thing God identified as not good would become the strongest tool of control and abuse in history? Human beings recognize how undesirable isolation is, and they prove it by their willingness to do anything to avoid being alone. That fact explains a wide range of dysfunctional behavior, from the tendency to stay in unhealthy relationships to a fanatical devotion to abusive churches and church leaders.
I was recently asked why people stay in abusive churches, not only refusing to leave, but actively defending the system, even when there is overwhelming evidence of hypocrisy, deception and unethical behaviors. A variety of factors combine to produce this state, and while motives can be complex, they generally revolve around the fear of losing connection with the community. Instinctively, most people prefer the familiarity of an unhealthy community to abandonment by the community. Better to belong to something, even if it’s bad, than to be alone.
The threat of being ostracized hangs over every part of abusive church systems. It has always been this way. Recall the parents of the blind man Jesus healed. They avoided defending their own son out of this fear of being cast out.
“His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.” (John 9:22)
All their son did was tell the truth. Their fear prompted them to distance themselves from his defense, even though they were his parents and they saw for themselves that he’d been healed.
Why is this drive so strong? Why is being alone so terrifying? There might be many reasons, but the one that dominates my experience can be seen by examining what causes members of an abusive church their greatest anxiety. Having spent many years in a church where the pastors understood how to push all the right buttons to keep people in line, I’ve had considerable opportunity to observe abuse at its most subtle and its most effective.
For many years I worked very hard at this church. I was head of the drama department, writing and directing plays, Easter pageants, Christmas musicals, and helping to create illustrated sermons. I taught Sunday School classes, did the midweek service for many years, acted as church liaison for many community and political events, and did hospital visitation.
Significantly I had most of those responsibilities before I was on the church staff. Like most volunteers, I sat on the edge of my seat every time the pastor talked about something I was involved in, hoping to hear my name mentioned, even if it was only in passing.
People work incredibly hard for the smallest pat on the back, in the form of some sort of public mention or a title or a small, inexpensive thank you gift. Anything to feel that our efforts were noticed. We see it as an acknowledgement that we have earned a position in the organization. We belong to something bigger than ourselves.
Conversely, we are terrified of what might happen if we do not perform well enough or if we make a mistake. Someone else might replace us and we will suddenly be on the outside looking in. We can’t conceive of not being part of the group. Our sense of who we are becomes so enmeshed in the organization that being kicked out would confirm our worst fears that we might not have much value. No identity and no connection. Alone and forgotten.
It’s not hard to manipulate such people. My pastor often said that they were the best employees because they worked so hard. They are often thought of as people pleasers, but it needs to be understood that the reason for people pleasing is the fear of being sent away. A pat on the back, balanced with the hint that failure to be good enough will result in removal of all approval, and such people will do almost anything. I can assure you that in those days, I would. And I saw it in many others.
Add to that a steady diet of sermons about obeying leaders and submitting to authority if you don’t want God to be displeased with you, and the result will be a loyal, devoted fanatic, for whom no amount of rational argument will be adequate to break the hold of the abusive system. They will defend the pastor and the church against all comers. Note the reaction of Creflo Dollar’s congregation as detailed in Part 13 of this series. The facts of the case don’t matter.
It is in our nature to seek community. A healthy community thrives on the diverse contributions of healthy individuals. Members of the group are encouraged to grow, to express themselves, to find their individual, unique identity and to discover their purpose in life—for the good of themselves and for the benefit of other members.
An unhealthy community thrives on hierarchical control that forces its members into subservient roles—for the good of the organization, not the good of the members within the organization.
It is in our nature to seek community, but it is also in our nature to seek individuality within the community. We must express our unique identity to ever find genuine contentment. Express yourself in an abusive community, however, and they won’t allow you to hang around. You are a threat to the power structure. Until you start questioning the authority, you might never see the overt hostility. Question leaders, however, and you are guaranteed to see it firsthand. Abusive leaders never react nicely.
Where you fit into this dynamic says a lot about you. People stay in abusive systems because the desire for community has overwhelmed all other needs. Fear of abandonment has obscured the necessity for individual expression. Fear of not being good enough has twisted commitment to the community into a self-destructive duty, devoid of personal fulfillment or satisfaction.
Why do people stay in abusive churches? Because they have been taught that disapproval by the church or by the leadership equals rejection by God. And if you’re rejected by God, where can you go? That kind of fear is not easily overcome.
Though difficult to understand or accept when you have been indoctrinated in an abusive church, churches that foster genuine community do exist. Healthy people are never alone for long. They find other healthy people and they form healthy communities. The irony is that until you risk being alone, you will likely never notice those people.
Go to the beginning of the series, Questioning Church Authority: Part 1: False Prophets
Do you have an additional thought on this subject that will assist our search for truth? Please join the discussion and share your insights.