Saturday, August 17, 2013

Why Stay in the “Church of the Gospel of Discipline”? (What do SGM, Millennials, and Nouthetics have in common?)

Thursday's post reviewed the scandal at Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) as an example of spiritual abuse. After posting it, I found myself thinking again about my criticisms of some of the related articles I cited by the “Rock Star” Baptist leaders. While purporting to establish standards of conduct for churches, they presented many of their statements in the form of rhetorical questions which they used as talking points: “Should we stay in our local church?” “Should we go?” “Should we talk about why we want to leave?” Perhaps the church should ask better questions of themselves: “Why would anyone really want to stay here?” This question becomes especially poignant when considering that Evangelical Christianity was commissioned to make new disciples to faith in Jesus by sharing His Gospel – that which is supposed to be “good news” to those who hear it. “Why come?” “Why stay?” If people reach out to religion to find encouragement, hope, and meaning as they struggle with the hardships of life, why would they want to embrace a religion that ultimately takes these things away from them?

With Dr. John Weaver's post about nouthetic counseling waiting in this website's wings, he asks these same questions as he pursues a noble objective: limiting the damage done to good, earnest people by destructive ideas and practices. I could not help but think of this again when I read a new blog post by Brent Detwiler who commented on SGM's decree last week. They've discerned “the truth” for the world, noting that all charges concerning the lawsuit are definitively false. Elsewhere online, Spiritual Sounding Board highlighted the author's statement in particular, such another fine example of SGM's spiritual pride and privilege:
I am genuinely grateful to God for the clarity found in their unequivocal pronouncement. We now know the position taken by the new governing body of SGM. No accused leader in SGM is guilty of lying, deception, hypocrisy, conspiracy, or abuse.

The Gospel of Church Discipline: Reasons Not to Believe?

Some Evangelicals once popularized a slogan that “God hates sin but loves the sinner,” to engender discussion about the serious nature of repentance and holiness. Those who follow doctrines of predestination to focus on God's sovereignty will argue that “God hates both the sin and the sinner,” if that sinner is not part of the group of people referred to as God's elect. Because of the unbalanced focus of their perfectionistic, high demand churches, many young people have told me that they rarely heard or saw anything of the loving side of God along with these kinds of hard words. Mixing this doctrine with a lack of the love and care for others left these young individuals with some sad impressions and beliefs. In churches that seemed more like social clubs for the superficial, they primarily hammered away at the imperatives discipline and conduct above all else. All they heard were messages about the jealousy and anger of an authoritarian God.

Something quite unfortunate resulted in these churches and in the young people who grew up in them There are many who became pretty certain from their own experience that God not only hated sin, but He must surely hate pretty much everyone – including the elect. Some believe that they had no chance at election themselves because of how rigid and demanding the system proved to be. Pounding away at perfection, image consciousness and submission in the hierarchical system left many of them largely void of knowledge of the loving kindness of God. They knew all about Pharisee-types, but they never connected with the Good Shepherd who was patient, tolerant of their shortcomings, and kind to them. The rarely saw the loving, forgiving, and encouraging traits modeled for them in the adults who created the culture within their churches that exist for the purpose of purification.

Not Just a “Problem” with the Millennials:
Spiritual Harlots, Juice Bars and Skinny Jeans

For the past few decades, the subject of the decline in church attendance has fascinated all sorts of religious leaders. Hannah Thomas recently commented on an article that she read at Christianity Today's website which focused specifically on the generation of “Millennials,” the generation that has followed her's and mine. I've already written a great deal about this topic from many angles: about some of this research, the challenging trends we see in these young adults, approaches that aim at a family focus as a panacea to fix the ills of church and society, and other strategies that reach out specifically to this generation as they figure out how to translate the Word of God into the living epistle of their own lives. Apparently the article's author was not very familiar with some of the better literature and research on this subject, and they probably never heard about the Barna Group's resources. Instead, it “shook its finger” at people in the “culture of critics” like Rachel Held Evans for pointing out what I've also heard from young people in the churches who worship the sinner-hating God: “We don't find Jesus there.” The article even throws in some emotional blackmail claiming that the've taken on the characteristics of the very God that they disdain when they criticize rock star pastors.

The article suggests that the “culture of critique,” is a negative trait. But taking a Berean's approach to beliefs IS a negative trait in a high demand system – because challenging ideas and voicing criticisms are considered to be “unofficial sins.” Thomas' Juice Bars and Skinny Jeans post points out the problem of most of these types of churches: they are completely out of touch with all members, because they said and did the same things with us in the previous generation, too. Thomas points out also that the author offers a short and tidy “to do list” of “shoulds” for Millennials and critics for their “theologically false” perspectives. How can a perception be false? A perception is what the perceiver says that it is. Why can't the author just come out and say what they think? The whole generation is sinful, but “theologically false” sounds less offensive on the surface of it.

The Christianity Today article ends with a rebuke that the author tries to hide under his attempt at a soft coating that says to just love the church anyway, and to try doing a little evangelism. Why on earth would you want to be evangelistic and how can you be if you are disenchanted with a superficial, discipline-obsessed church to which you can't relate let alone love? If you're insulted by the church foyer juice bar as a bone that's been thrown down to placate problems, you can wear your skinny jeans to a juice bar down the street, and no one will “smack you down for Jesus” there because you asked hard doctrinal questions or criticized one of the unquestionable rock stars.

Authoritarianism Encased in a “Culture of Silence” is the Problem

Just like the leaders in groups affiliated with SGM and the system itself, the article also misses the major points of contention that Millennials have with these spiritually abusive churches. These places and big organizations and parachurch groups exist to perpetuate their own existence, even though they likely did not start out with that objective. They blame the fallible members who have always been and will always be fallible for their fallibility, and they put the onus back on the member as the source of all problems. Yet these groups scapegoat the very people for whom they're called to provide and care – to protect and perpetuate the system, not the individual.

In the upcoming article by John Weaver, I see the very same kinds of problems of the “gospel of discipline” with the system of nouthetic counseling. All people encounter complex and painful problems as they traverse life, and we turn to things like religion and the answers that religion offers to help us overcome our problems. It is also true that some problems can't be overcome, and it is especially in such situations that we need religion to help us transcend those problems. We look to religion to help us find meaning in the lives that we have, despite the suffering – and sometimes because of it.

But what happens when systems stop offering help to people, and their “cures” for our our problems become far worse than the “disease” we had What if their ideas about religion are treated as absolutes, and we are told that if we don't fit the man-made paradigm that we are hopeless and helpless? What do we do when we are cooperative, humble, and contrite in the most healthy of ways, but we are too honest to settle for a “cure” that does little but create an alternate set of problems?

What if those who proffer these systems turn to denial when we tell them honestly that we are suffering? What does one do when the leaders of the system are so blind or afraid or controlling or perhaps even dishonest that they will not even look at us when we bring our burdens to them, particularly when they've heaped those very burdens on to us? What do we do when they show us their complete lack of empathy and accountability? What if they take things even further by wrongfully blaming us for wrongdoing, scapegoating us as the problem because their closed system of authoritarianism demands it? And what if we are told that we're not permitted to talk about what happened to us or the problems that we see in the system that we do love (otherwise we wouldn't say anything but would simply walk away from it)?

We see some of these leaders asking questions to use them as talking points to indoctrinate their followers so that they will curtail their criticism and yield themselves more deeply to their system of hegemony. They need to ask themselves why any of us would want to stay or why new people would want to join. The answer to that question is not more authoritarianism. It's not more hierarchy. It's definitely not the juice bar in the foyer. We crave accountability and brutal honesty, but people (leaders) must participate in mutual respect to manifest them. That's why people are walking away from churches. Jesus' traits of honesty, accountability, sacrifice, and mutual respect are no longer there.

More to come soon about nouthetic counseling,
and a guest post by Dr. John Weaver.