On yesterday’s post, I noted that one of my most “popular” (as in, most trafficked posts) this year was The Anti-Evangelical Hate Machine. To date, it’s received the most comments of any post on this site (260+ ). I’m glad that post got as much attention — even negative attention — as it did. Why? It’s led to a number of significant discussions and friendships that, I hope, will bring all the parties closer to Christ.
The sites I linked to on that post employ a lot of satire and mockery, highlighting the “stupid things” found in Christendom. So why should that bother me?
- Do I think the Church is perfect? No.
- Do I think Christians don’t do stupid things? No.
- Do I think religious people aren’t sometimes a complete embarrassment? No.
- Do I think the Church doesn’t sometime profane the name of Christ? No.
- Do I think religious leaders shouldn’t be publicly criticized? No.
- Do I think think mockery and satire isn’t sometime effective? No.
One reason I think sites like those I mentioned — and the Bash the Church Bandwagon (#1, #2, and #3) in general – are potentially misguided and destructive is because they employ caricatures and cherry-pick the worst of a movement to make their denunciations. However, the main reason I think that critiquing this anti-trend is important is this:
Mocking religious extremism won’t heal you of its effects.
Permit me to share a little bit about MY dysfunctional religious upbringing. This is a long story, which I will seriously abbreviate, but hopefully be able to tell in longer form in the future.
As many of you know, I am an ex-pastor. I left the ministry when the church I was co-pastoring (a non-denominational, semi-charismatic, evangelical church), disbanded after six years. We had become completely dysfunctional. The senior pastor was accused of being a manipulative legalist, some even suggested he was cult-like in his leadership, and the leadership of the church split. I remained by his side not wanting to split the entire church and believing him to be an honorable man.
Our church had been formed from a church merger. I started my original church six years after I became a believer. I had no formal seminary training, had three kids with a fourth on the way, and a deep sense that God was calling me to something. A small, but strong core group of members rallied around me. While my teaching gifts became evident, eventually so did my lack of other gifts. I found myself deeply enjoying the study and the pulpit, but struggling with counseling, relationships, and the minutiae of management. Eventually, unable to secure a permanent facility and spiritually burned-out, we merged with this sister church.
It proved to be disastrous.
The two congregations and our pastoral visions and personalities grated against each other. There were evaluations, re-evaluations, tears, and defections. The senior pastor eventually suggested that I was the root of the church’s division, that I was proud, unsubmissive, and intentionally subverting his authority. In fact, we talked a lot about spiritual authority (which I learned later the over-emphasis upon spiritual authority is a HUGE part of dysfunctional churches). Eventually, my pastor suggested I should be publicly disciplined, take a cut in pay, and step down from preaching for a year. Listen, I knew I had issues. I was a broken man just trying to find my way. And he was a good man, whom I believed, had my best and the church’s best in mind.
So I conceded and was publicly disciplined for pride and being unsubmissive to spiritual authority.
Many of the members of my old church were angered. They believed the senior pastor was treating me unfairly and over-extending his authority. But I was at my end. I did not want to split the church and felt like, in the long run, it would be best to submit. As a result, the church began to fracture. People began to leave. I lost many once strong supporters. I was privately exhorted to stand up to him, to not hide my light under a bushel, to not lose my saltiness.
I was warned that I was being manipulated.
Either way, things just got worse. We eventually disbanded the church. It remains one of the hardest, but one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. At first, I was in limbo. I really didn’t have any marketable skills… save being able to preach a good sermon. I contemplated starting another church, but felt like I needed some time to gain perspective and rest. So I returned to construction work, with one ear to the ground. The family thrived during that time. I didn’t realize until I was out of the ministry how much wear and tear one takes. It began a new, healing season for me.
The separation from the church and my pastor caused me to see how absolutely dysfunctional an environment I’d been in. I started to come to grips with the fact that I’d been in a legalistic, manipulative relationship. It was quite revelatory! I felt betrayed. Then I felt guilty. What had I allow to happen? All those exhortations and warnings, all those brothers and sisters that I’d let down. It was an incredibly humbling time in my life.
But another thing happened. Many of those who’d left the church began to rage. Some fell away from Christ, hurling blames and insults our way. Others backslid, having lost confidence in the Church and its leaders. And many became bitter.
How could I blame them?
Thus, another war ensued. If anyone had a reason to bail on God, bail on the Church, bail on spiritual leadership, and become bitter, I did. How many years of my life, and my family’s life, had been eaten by the locust? It was tempting to start blasting my old pastor and join the crescendo of voices decrying organized religion. I could have easily been submerged in my anger. Yet becoming bitter and unforgiving was the last thing I needed to do. I needed healing, not more hurt.
And hating on people was not the way of healing.
I’m not sure why I decided to read What’s So Amazing About Grace, but it changed my life. I was familiar with Philip Yancey and loved his stuff. But after my season of “law,” grace was the theme I most needed. Grace was the message my soul thirsted for. Quotes like the ones below were a punch to the gut of my “ungrace”:
Grace is unfair, which is one of the hardest things about it… Grace is not about fairness.
Grace is Christianity’s best gift to the world, a spiritual nova in our midst exerting a force stronger than vengeance, stronger than racism, stronger than hate.
Forgiveness offers a way out. It does not settle all questions of blame and fairness–often it pointedly evades those questions–but it does allow a relationship to start over again, to begin anew.
Resentment literally means “to feel again”; resentment clings to the past, relives it over and over, picks each fresh scab so the wound never heals.
We nurse sores, go to elaborate lengths to rationalize our behavior, perpetuate family feuds, punish ourselves, punish others–all to avoid this most unnatural act [of forgiveness].
The gospel of grace begins and ends with forgiveness.
I was coming to the realization that I had to forgive those who’d hurt me and ask forgiveness from those I’d hurt. I couldn’t cling to regret, to bitterness. I couldn’t go on blaming someone as the “bad guy” and applauding someone as the “good guy.” I couldn’t laugh it off.
But how do you acknowledge there’s been dysfunction, manipulation, or abuse and still exercise grace?
All I knew was that I had to try.
So I’d been out of the ministry for several months, learning to breathe. I watched the “old” congregation splinter out into different orbits. Rumors and accusations flew. My previous pastor was preparing to leave the state. It was just too brutal to stay around here. But the more I learned about grace, about my tendency to be a man-pleaser, and about how much God loves His people and wants to restore them, the more I knew I had to confront him.
I had to forgive my pastor.
It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. The day before he left the state, I went to see him. I told him how much I loved him, how much I’d learned from him. I also told him that we had a dysfunctional relationship. I confessed that I was an enabler who empowered his manipulation. I told him that the charges of “spiritual abuse” had some grounds.
He didn’t take it well.
But it was essential to my own healing. It’s also one of the reasons why this subject is so dear to my heart.
All that to say, if you’re genuinely trying to detox from religious cultism, abuse, or manipulation, mockery and satire won’t do it. You need to let it go. Jesus said to turn the other cheek and pray for your enemies. Does that exclude Fundie nutters, Calvinistas, hyper-Puritans, and pastors with Big Man Syndrome? By all means, if a church is being abusive and criminal, then that should be brought to light. But just posting YouTubes of their corny songs and over-the-top preachers doesn’t help that cause. Nor does it help people really get over it.
It just perpetuates the pain.
Criticizing the Church is like shooting fish in a barrel. There’s a lot of stupidity in EVERY movement and denomination. And there’s tons of dysfunction. I’ve come to believe that the better way is not to keep handing out ammunition, but to put up our guns.