I’ve had several ideas over the past month regarding this month’s blog. And here it is, the end of October already and I haven’t been feeling solid about “the topic”---until today—just two days before deadline. In my solo private practice, I had about three different sessions that had a common theme—all were experiencing difficulty as the result of a toxic faith community. So I figure that with such an in-your-face kind of “coincidence”, maybe God’s trying to tell me something.
This is a tough topic to talk about, y’all. It’s the CHURCH, and it’s not a “feel-good” message. Now of course I don’t mean every single church body, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the church as an institution is not doing too well.
Now people, I haven’t set out to be a contrarian. I really do have the spiritual gift of exhortation—really! But we have to start talking about the obvious. You just can’t tell someone to go to church these days, because what someone may get is, in essence, “another gospel.” Here’s what I know as a psychologist: we tend to find church families that mirror our families of origin (the family that we grew up in). So someone who has not healed from childhood abuse wounds may gravitate toward a church family that abuses them in much the same way. It’s comfortable in a strange sort of way—it’s what is known. Today, I heard about an elderly woman whose pastor was fleecing his sheep rather than feeding them. He had found a way to fund his retirement by having elderly widow ladies sign over their property to him.
How about the young lady that I spoke with this morning that felt she needed to leave her church and has been shunned and told that she is deceived by Satan? She was in church most days out of the week for various reasons because it was the “godly” thing to do, and she lived by a rigid set of rules and regulations set down by the pastor. Most of those were things you shouldn’t do (go to movies, dances, etc. etc. etc.) This woman was abused as a child and was berated and chastised and abused as a parishioner. She is hurt and confused. Yet a part of her deep down tells her that God loves her still.
Unfortunately, I no longer think that toxic churches are in the minority. I live in a large metropolitan area where there are hundreds of churches. While I don’t dispute that there is a lot of good work and Word spreadin’ going on out there, by the same token there is a whole lot of bad stuff going on. I’m distressed that Christians don’t want to talk about it. Just because it’s a church, does not mean that it’s healthy.
I have had an interest in toxic faith issues for some time. It’s been difficult for me to talk about publicly, however. This is by no means a popular subject topic around the Church. To be perfectly honest, while I have been in church most of my life, church has never been a safe place for me. I never seemed to be the “way you are supposed to be.” There always seemed to be some sort of spiritual template and I have never fit.
I guess that’s why God had to prompt me with His three messengers today. It’s not like I don’t often think about “that topic”, but you know, couldn’t we talk about something a little more light-hearted and a little more popular with the folks—I’m already known as “a bit out of the mainstream”. That’s about the nicest way I’ve heard it put to date.
In mulling this over, I believe I have detected a common thread among toxic churches. In general, they appear to be very “Old Testament” to me. In other words, it looks more like the pastors have assumed the role of a king who is ruling over his kingdom rather than the type of leadership that Jesus exemplified as modeled in the New Testament--the “servant-leader”.
Kings are served, exert power over others, have dominion over others. They make the rules, they issues edicts—they are rulers. Jesus, although God incarnate, seemed to lead quite differently. He actually empowered others, humbled himself, submitted to the Father—related to others face to face. He served, he gave (He gave ALL, actually.) Jesus calls us His brothers, sisters, and Friends!!! He said “greater things will you do” to his disciples as He prepared them for His return to the Father. How amazing is that?
By way of example, let me tell you a true story that will make my point clear. Again, this illustration is true, and as my husband says, “you can’t make this stuff up!” There is a pastor in our area that had his picture taken for the church front of the church bulletin. He was wearing elegant purple robes and had a king’s crown atop his head. However, in his hand was a long shepherd’s staff and at his feet were gathered---sheep!! Okay, I’ll admit it—at first, I laughed hysterically, but after a time the severity of this began to sink in. It was a confusing picture—was he a king or a shepherd? What was this all supposed to mean?
This confusion seems to mirror the types of toxic churches of which I am speaking. It all boils down to this question….Do you intend to FEED your sheep….or FLEECE them? Are you there to serve….or be served? The answer to that question is crucial, brothers and sisters.
It just goes to show how clever Satan is, doesn’t it? I mean—it’s CHURCH, after all. Just like he did when he confronted Adam and Eve in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New, Satan aptly uses the Word, but tends to skew it just a bit--and the result of that adulteration is destructive and hurtful.
Posted on October 12, 2007
by Dr. Rebecca Thomas