Thursday, December 4, 2008

Why Doctrinal Statements Tell You Nothing of the Unwritten Rules of a Manipulative Group

In my email correspondence with Voddie Baucham, concerning what he apparently believes to be my somewhat unfair characterization of his beliefs, he wrote:
This group seemed to think that age segregation was a biblical model never to be forsaken, and that our church was out of bounds for failing to employ this strategy. Even though I pointed out in Family Driven Faith, that I do not believe every church has to be structured this way (see p. 213).

From page 213 of "Family Driven Faith":

Again, we probably can’t go out and transform our congregations into family-integrated churches. Nor do I think we need to. At Grace we have found a paradigm that answers most of the questions and concerns about multi-generational faithfulness and, more importantly, is closely aligned with the biblical model. However, our church is not perfect. We discover new weaknesses each day. And I am sure that we will discover still more tomorrow.

Thus I did not write this chapter as a blueprint to be followed to the letter. I simply wanted to raise the relevant issues and offer some solutions that have proven effective. I also wanted to offer some answers to the questions I have received over the past few years as I have preached and lectured on the topic. Therefore, while most people will not share the distinctives of a family-integrated church, we can agree on the guiding principles. We can and we must promote a biblical view of marriage and family, family worship and discipleship, Christian education and biblically qualified leadership.

The harsh reality is that unless we radically change the way we view the church and the family, we will not see an end to the decimation of both institutions in our culture. However, I believe that the tide is turning...

An interesting phenomenon occurs concerning expectations in manipulative groups, and I thought of it when Baucham wrote to me stating that merely reading the formal doctrinal confession for his church should clear up any concerns that someone might have concerning the legitimacy and the orthodoxy of all of his beliefs. Manipulative and authoritarian Christian groups manifest this phenomenon all of the time, with great predictability. One of the most significant problems with cultic groups stems from the many different *informal* rules that are held, communicated, and followed by the group, though they often do not directly communicate these rules to new members.

I was a mature Christian with a strong knowledge of the Word, I attended my church membership classes and yet, I attended the church for two years before I learned about their strong adherence to the teaching that prohibited a woman to teach men in our home group, thus usurping their authority by demonstrating or voicing knowledge that surpassed any man in the group. I was so surprised, because I’d probably been guilty of doing so for the full two years, but I never did so formally. How is it that this church doctrine escaped me? My husband and I poured over their materials, and we even requested additional information about their presbytery which they photocopied from files kept in the church office -- shared with us on the first day we attended there. We approached this aspect of selecting a church with all diligence.

This mystery escaped us because the group communicated this unwritten rule surreptitiously, and my husband and I were not given “informed consent” regarding the deeper layers of their belief system until we'd become more solidified members of the group. Johnson and Van Vonderan point out in “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse” that such controversial doctrines are held back from new recruits. By the time the aberrant doctrines and the “unwritten rules” become known to the follower, they already have invested what they call “sweat equity” into the system. By the time the true believer recognizes the troublesome rule, it becomes much more difficult to leave your ties to and good standing the group, thus losing all of your “equity.” Another serious unwritten rule and what Johnson and VanVonderan call “deeply ingrained spiritual codes that control and condemn” unknown to me when I joined my church was the belief that those who leave the church without the blessing of the pastor and elders would fall under a curse (terrible illnesses, loss of a job, deaths of their children, etc.). Had these two aberrant teachings been directed to me at the beginning in the membership classes we attended, we would have promptly left that fellowship. But I didn’t learn of these doctrines until more than two years as a very active and studious member of the group.

So I find the fact that claims have been made or that because something is not noted as a formal doctrine that such beliefs are absent from the congregation to be doubtful, and I would reject this statement by nearly anyone who made it. All groups have standards, expectations, and unspoken rules, and cultic groups are riddled with unwritten codes and expectations that are never brought into the light of scrutiny. Many of the doctrines and beliefs conveyed in Vision Forum type churches have been communicated through unstated assumption and vague implication. Their leadership can claim a deniable plausibility, yet they can communicate their vague meanings and intents very well. [By defining “A” and “B,” and noting that “A” plus “B” yield a terrible outcome, if they never actually utter what everyone understands (that “A” plus “B” equals “C”), they can technically deny that they ever said anything like “C.”] Many evangelical churches expect women to wear dresses to Sunday morning services, though only a rare, odd group will actually document this expectation as a standard for their congregants. But the consequences for failing to comply with this standard can range from formal and severe to informal and avoidant. (Note that these types of unwritten rules are also often present in dysfunctional families.)

The most notable and hobby horses of mine concerning Vision Forum surrounds their use of the terms “normative” and “non-normative.” Because of the way the terms are used, the process of social modeling, and the use of positive and negative reinforcement of behavior, the group communicates subtly what constitutes their ideal. People learn rather quickly that normative behavior is rewarded well, but “non-normative” is used in such a way that anyone who has experience with the group clearly identifies anything “non-normative” as a sin. But when brought under scrutiny (particularly when your founder and president is an attorney), the group can deny certain doctrines because there are no formal statements that support their claims. The group can then benefit by denying that they believe a certain thing, but when convenient, they can manipulate their following with the subtly conveyed meanings they communicated through these propaganda techniques of unstated assumption and vague implication.

So because Baucham has stated in his book that he does not seek to make other churches FICs, he can point back to that book to reinforce his claim. Yet he can participate with organizations that are exclusive, legalistic and condemning of those who fall outside their narrowly prescribed parameters and gain the benefits of those associations as well. He can claim that he is being persecuted for participation with these others, stating that he is trying to be an agent of positive influence with them. Baucham also purports to be strong in essential doctrine and aligns himself with reputable groups to counter claims that he does not hold to disturbing, extra-biblical doctrines. So he wants to be perceived as a part of both groups, the sound and the aberrant, without coming under scrutiny or criticism himself. I believe he uses this statement in his book and doctrinal statement upon which to rely for evidence to mollify his critics and to persuade the unsuspecting.