Sunday, August 31, 2008

Too Much Power

As I think back over the years of being in a controlling church, it bothers me when I think of how much power I had given to a man I called my pastor. In many ways I gave a man the place God was supposed to hold in my life. I let a man assume a place of authority that God never intended another person to have over me. We were told that because of the office our pastor held, when he spoke, it was God speaking - if we didn't listen and obey it was equivalent to disobeying God. But in the New Testament Jesus didn't talk about an office or position that He held and He never forced anyone to honor Him. He simply came and spoke the truth. God Himself doesn't even exert His power over us and He never controls, drives or pushes us. He loves us and gently leads us, and then He leaves it up to us to follow. This is the way it should be with leaders in the church, but this is not always the case.

In an article on spiritual abuse, Craig Von Buseck said, "Spiritual abuse can be difficult to detect at first if you have never encountered it. In a manipulative church, the pastor subtly positions himself to take the place of the Holy Spirit in people's lives. They may try to put undue influence on the choices that people in their congregation are making. They might try to sway some one's decision in a matter to keep them under their control, or to keep them from leaving the church."

I experienced this first hand on several occasions in my former church. One of those times stands out vividly in my mind. My husband and I had made a decision about something concerning our children that we thought was the right thing to do. We had talked about it and really felt like we were following God. I made the mistake of telling someone about what we had decided to do and the information went straight to the pastor. The following Sunday, we were called to his office after an evening service and questioned. He proceeded to tell us that we were wrong and that we were going to have to change our decision. Being the loyal church members we were, we told him that we would reverse our decision and do what he wanted us to do. We left his office feeling like we were little children that had been reprimanded and we had no choice but to obey. He used the power that he knew he had over us. We see now that we had given him too much power in our lives.

Looking back, I wish we would have said, "No, we are the parents and this is what we feel is best for our children." He should have supported our decision and trusted in our ability as parents, but he didn't. This type of thing happens over and over in controlling churches. People place the responsibility God gave them into the hands of leaders that they trust. The sad thing is, some controlling leaders don't always have the people's best interests at heart, because they care more about their own image than the people. In the situation I described above, I have a suspicion that what he wanted us to do really had nothing to do with what was best for my children. I am just thankful that everything turned out okay in the end, even though I went against my own heart. I share this example in hopes that some will see that it is okay and right to follow your own heart and not give into pressure from someone else. It's so much more important to follow God rather than a man, because God always knows what is best for you and your children.

If a minister tells you something, it should be in line with what God has already impressed upon your heart. If it doesn't line up, you should pray about it and not just jump because it's a pastor or a prophet telling you to do it. The Bible says in I John 4:1, "test the spirits," another translation says, "carefully weigh and examine what people tell you." You are responsible for you and your family and it's important that you find out what God's will is. God and His Word must come first in our lives - it comes before what anyone else says, even a pastor. Yes, God puts people in our lives to help us, but not to take over and tell us what to do. I think some people have felt beat down and have felt almost scared to step out and even make a decision on their own. Some have lost their confidence and they are scared to do anything without asking their pastor first. But you can trust your own heart because God lives there. You have the same Holy Spirit that any minister has. In fact, a minister should be happy for you and encourage you as you learn to develop confidence in your ability to hear from God, instead of trying to keep you under his thumb.

Sincere Christians have suffered much grief because they listened to a man instead of following what they really knew was right in their own heart. In his book, "The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse," Jeff Von Vonderen says, "Many have innocently come under one of the various "authority" movements that periodically sweep through the church - usually variations on the same heresy, that "vision" or "guidance" must come only through a spiritual "head," which ultimately denies an individuals ability to hear from God." I think many of us have found ourselves in this place and we didn't mean to give our power over to someone else. It was something that happened over time. God never intended for one person to have control over another. In His eyes we are all equal. He doesn't love one person more than another and He wants all of us to live the same wonderful life of grace in Christ, focusing on the things that really matter - loving God and loving people.


D said...

Another excellent post, right on target. Unfortunately, the entire "clergy-laity" system is a perfect set-up for abusive leaders to develop. You can know the will of God for your own life, thank God.

Anonymous said...

I would hate to be in the position of a man who exercised false authority over others and manipulated them. Ultimately, I believe he will answer to God for the results. How frightening!

S. said...

It is with some sadness that I read your entry here. My husband and I never had that depth of "looking to the pastor". You are very honest in sharing your experience, and I hope it does remind others that they can stand on their own two feet with the Holy Spirit as their guide.
Before we left our former church I began to relate for the first time to how Jim Jones had control over people and how the people allowed it. I also started seeing a "mafia-like" situation. These feelings were NOT comfortable.
Hopefully, people will take long, hard looks at situations like these and come out "on top" as we have.

Anonymous said...

It's sometimes so subtle, that you don't know what's happening until you're in deep. In our church, the pastor would come down with great authority on gray areas, like holding a Halloween alternative night or letting teachers take Sunday school kids across the street to a park. Whenever questioned, he'd pull the I'm-the-pastoral-authority card. Before long, he was kicking people out of church, getting rid of board meetings, singlehandedly changing the statement of faith and cutting off all forms of his own accountability. We can see it now, from a distance, but at the time, we just didn't want to be "rebellious."

Anonymous said...

I learned early on that in a church like this, if you want to remain in good standing with the pastor, you have to do it his way. You can forget ever wanting to have a mind of your own. If you don't follow his "vision" your only option is to leave or he will make your life miserable. You can't stay in a place like that and continue to do things your way. It's no different than being in a cult.

Getting out is the only way you will ever be able to have any sense of self-confidence. You don't even realize how far in you've gotten, but when you are out you see the seriousness of how deep you were in. In a place like this, you just walk around wondering when you need to duck or hide. When you are out, you can finally be yourself again. The concept of actually being able to think for yourself and make your own decisions is a actually a good one. Imagine that!