Part 17 in the Series:
Questioning Church Authority
By Don Enevoldsen
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Recently my wife, Christina, read an email message to me from one of the readers on her website, Overcoming Sexual Abuse (overcomingsexualabuse.com). Among other things, the email recounted the hypocrisy she saw in church leaders who turned a blind eye to evidence that her father was abusing her. Rather than taking action to protect an innocent child, they chose to avoid any uncomfortable confrontation or conflict that might bring them negative attention—and which would certainly alienate a man whose support they valued more than truth. The woman, believing that God had no interest in protecting her, fled from the church as soon as she was able to. For a time she became an atheist, and then she delved into a variety of spiritual disciplines. She wanted nothing to do with the church.
Such is the fruit of silence.
Her email ended by describing her life today and the process and progress of healing from the trauma of her childhood. In addition to healing from the effects of sexual abuse, she is now finding her way back to Christ. She made the comment that what started that part of her journey was something I wrote about my experience with abusive church leaders. In her words, “I saw a pastor who could both believe in Jesus and also call out the BS.”
Such is the fruit of refusing to be silent.
As I read her words, tears filled my eyes. I consider it an honor to be part of the process. To know that I have made a difference in someone’s life more than validates the decision to end silence and begin speaking.
The emotions of the moment also prompted some reflection on the value of speaking up. I have been speaking out when I see abuse more in the past few years than the rest of my life combined, and there is now enough of a track record to assess the benefits and the challenges of open expression of truth versus conciliatory silence. I’ve learned a few things through my experience.
Lesson 1: Silence is a primary tool of concealment, and is usually implemented by whatever means are available, no matter how unethical they might be.
The most immediate lesson is that the phrase, “Silence is golden,” is most often spoken by people who have ugly things to hide, attitudes and behaviors that they want neither exposed or changed. Silence is the golden goal of abusers, liars and criminals.
The reason is simple. They don’t like having their corruption brought to any kind of accountability.
Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:20-21)
Any time a leader preaches that silence is golden, there is likely something sinister to hide.
I could not ask for a more blatant illustration of the tactics of silence than the efforts by Tom Anderson, my former pastor, after I began speaking about my experience with his ministry. Attempts have been made to intimidate, threaten, shame, bring pressure through family, and bribe me into silence.
A few years ago, when I first started writing about abuses I had seen in the Prosperity Message during my years on the church staff, I received a direct phone call from Anderson, in which he assumed as intimidating a tone as he could muster and demanded that I stay away from his leadership. That call was followed with a special staff meeting at the church, a special letter to all the pastors and elders of the church, and a special mini-sermon the following Sunday before the offering, all warning people that they should stay away from me.
The following week, I received an email from my mother-in-law, Mary Schamer. Mary is on the staff of Anderson’s church. In part, the email said, “When you encourage these teachers to teach your material you jeopardize my position and job.” To put that in context, you should know that about a year earlier, Mary said pretty much the same thing to her husband, Fred, and which she later told Christina was not true, but a ploy suggested by the pastors to keep Fred in line.
A couple of years after that, I wrote about Anderson’s bankruptcy, naming him specifically and detailing the deception he perpetrated on his congregation. (Read original post here.) The story prompted a lengthy and ongoing attempt to keep the truth suppressed, including emails, more phone calls, offers of future work, and even demand letters from attorneys. ( Read the Addendum to the original post here.)
And in the process, Anderson sought to elevate silence to the lofty heights of a moral imperative. In response to a question from the reporter who did the news story, he made the revealing declaration:
“The truth is an interesting word. Sometimes truth not said is better than truth said.”
In other words, the one exposing his wrongdoing is the bad person, not him.
Even many months after the story aired, Anderson was still teaching that everyone should keep quiet. In a sermon given at Living Word Bible Church on April 7, 2013, for example, he made the declaration:
“Silence is a virtue.”
As with the assertions already related, a pastor who abuses his position and lies to his congregation is not to be censured or questioned. The one who exposes him is the bad person here. To emphasize just how bad, Anderson added:
“The Bible says, and actually it says this: to shame a person in public is akin to murder.”
Keep quiet or you are a murderer.
Lesson 2: Silence turns people away from God.
At the beginning of this post, I described a woman who, because church leaders kept silent about the abuse she suffered from her father, left the church and turned her back on God, convinced that God had turned his back on her. Fortunately she is again finding her faith. Unfortunately, her story is not uncommon.
I have watched as one woman ran crying from a church service less than five minutes into the worship. She could not stand the emotions that welled up in her every time she entered a church building.
A man I know absolutely refuses to even visit any church ever again because of his disgust over the abuses that he witnessed during the first half of his life.
Another friend, visiting a church program in which a relative was performing, had to summon every ounce of self-control to keep from running out of the building screaming. After a long absence from church, the familiar surroundings brought back memories of how badly she had been treated.
Another friend has avoided church for half a century because his father, who was a pastor, regularly and violently beat him throughout his childhood.
Over the past few years I have communicated with dozens of people who have left church and turned their backs on any relationship with God because of the actions of church leaders. Some leaders are abusive themselves. Others go out of their way to protect abusers in order to maintain an image of unity and to avoid offending people who give large tithes and offerings. Even those who don’t reject their faith still find it very difficult to ever trust leadership again, greatly hindering, and often preventing, any chance of involving them actively in the life of the church.
These examples stand in stark contrast to the accusations leveled at me that by exposing corruption I am attacking the church. If the church is the people, then the abuse itself is the real attack, not the exposure of the abuse.
Lesson 3: Speaking out gives validation to victims.
I have already illustrated this with the email I quoted at the beginning of this post. The words, “I saw a pastor who could both believe in Jesus and also call out the BS,” illustrate the power that standing for truth can have in giving life and hope to people. Fortunately, this woman is not the only one reconnecting with faith I have heard from. In fact, I receive comments from people on a very regular basis, now that I’m speaking openly.
People who have lived their lives in an abusive system have been told repeatedly that they are the problem. If only they could be better, then the abuse would stop. When they finally come out of that system, they almost invariably deal with feelings of guilt over things done to them, as though they could actually have done something about it.
Hearing someone else speak the truth is often the only way they can find assurance that they are not alone, that they are not to blame and that they are not crazy. What was done to them was indeed wrong. I’ve been amazed to discover how deeply victims are inspired by seeing someone stand up to the lies.
Lesson 4: Speaking out gives voice to those who have no voice.
The email that I quoted from at the beginning of this post is one example of many messages I have gotten from people who found hope in the simple fact that someone voiced their concerns. When I began speaking out, I was genuinely surprised by the number of people who thanked me.
Most of the time, their comments fell into two categories. Some felt anger at the injustices they saw, but felt so isolated that they never felt speaking up would do any good. All they needed was one other person to say something, and they were instantly ready to join their voices and share their stories. In fact, it was hearing a few other people speak up that gave me the nudge to begin speaking myself.
The other, much larger group, is those who had been convinced by the church leadership that they have no choice but to keep quiet. They have been told for their entire lives that God will punish them if they disrupt unity, that any criticism is an attack on the church and an attack on God. They have had it drilled into them that they are really the problem, not the leadership.
In an effort to fit in, that is, to avoid being cast out, they show up every Sunday with happy faces held on by phony smiles, and they do their spiritual duty. Duty becomes a means to cope. They feel pain, but that is identified as the flesh dying, and their spiritual duty requires destruction of the flesh. The part of their inner person that recognizes something is terribly wrong and wants to cry out is silenced by their own efforts to gain the approval of the abusive leaders.
For these people, freedom has come from the realization that they have been lied to and that they don’t have to subject themselves to the control and manipulation that has characterized their spiritual lives. They have been trained to stifle their own voice, and need others to voice their frustrations for them in order for the cause of their frustrations to become conscious.
Lesson 5: Speaking out helps to prevent further abuse.
Silence allows a sexual predator to maintain an environment in which he can continue to prey on his victims without hindrance or obstruction. As long as all members of the family or the circle of influence are convinced that silence is their only option, no one will ever challenge the abuse. And it will then continue uninterrupted for as long as the abuser desires.
Likewise, silence allows a spiritual predator to maintain an environment in which he can continue to prey on his congregation without hindrance or obstruction. As long as members of the church family are convinced that silence is their only option, that God will be angry with them for accusing the anointed man of God, then the abusive practices will not be challenged. And they will continue uninterrupted.
In contrast to the effects of silence, speaking out can accomplish much. Pressure brought to bear by public opinion is usually an effective deterrent to abuse. Once abuses become common knowledge, leaders have an opportunity to repent and change. If they repent, their ministries will be stronger for it. If they do not, at least many others will be warned. This is the reason for Paul’s admonition to Timothy:
“But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning.” (1 Timothy 5:20)
The case could be made that when we have the freedom to speak, then we have an obligation:
“But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes someone’s life, that person’s life will be taken because of their sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood.” (Ezekiel 33:6)
Bonhoeffer had it right. Silence is not a virtue. Silence when corruption is affecting the lives of other people is evil. Not everyone can speak. Those under the pressure of oppression may not have the freedom to speak or to use their voice, but if you do, then use it. Regardless of what has happened to you, you do have a right to be heard. As Anne Lamott said:
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.”
It turns out that truth is golden. At best, silence is fool’s gold.
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.