For years I was involved in a controlling church that can be described by these verses......
"Jesus said, The religious scholars are competent teachers in God's law. You won't go wrong in following their teachings on Moses, but be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don't live it. They don't take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. They don't practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious rules and demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden. Everything they do is for show. They wear robes with extra long tassels, and they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplace and to be called Rabbi. Don't let anyone call you Rabbi, for you have only one Teacher, the Messiah, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters. And don't address anyone here on earth as Father, for only God in heaven is your spiritual Father. The greatest among you must be a servant. But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." (Matthew 23:2-12)
The leaders I was under in my former church placed unreasonable demands on people and never lifted a finger to help. People were expected to lay everything else aside to meet the needs of the pastor and his family. I saw staff members working around the clock, giving up time with their own families and the leaders never seemed to care. Men were expected to work many hours on projects, even to the point of being physically worn out. The physical health and emotional well being of people was never taken into consideration. The pastor preached on the importance of spending time with family and yet it didn't seem to apply to the ones that were doing work for him. I knew 2 ladies, who each had a small child, and they never had time to spend with their families. It always bothered me because I am a very family oriented person and I knew these children needed their mothers. But these ladies knew, just like everyone else, you didn't say "no." There was much teaching on the importance of taking vacations and the pastor would take 2 week vacations, but staff members weren't allowed to be gone on Sundays or Wednesdays, so we took 2 or 3 day vacations for many years.
I know a young man who recently left a staff position at a church just like my former church. This young man was treated terribly by the leaders and talked to in harsh, inappropriate ways. His privacy was violated and lies were told about him. Many people who have spent years in these types of churches have resolved themselves to believing this is just the way it is. Certain friends told him to stick it out because these things go on in every church. I can't help but think if people could just step away and see a church that is loving God and loving people and keeping it real, they would see how wrong this behavior is. I don't believe it's supposed to be that way in churches! God is all about love, not control and keeping someone under your thumb for your own personal gain. I have to believe there are leaders and ministers out there who operate in love and treat others right. I have to believe there are pastors who will provide pleasant work environments for the staff and will walk in God's love and gentleness. I realize it's not always going to be easy and perfect, but there should be many more good times than there are hard, harsh times. I have seen people in the secular workplace treat their employees much better than some pastors treat their staff. Leaders and managers all over the world keep their word and pay people what they are worth. They pay overtime when it's due and they provide insurance when they have already promised their employees that they would. Why should Christians who work in a church be treated with any less respect? When someone does a good job they should be rewarded for it.
I know of one pastor (in another state) who called a work day and several ladies showed up to help. He put them to work shoveling pine bark, while he stood to the side and pointed where he wanted it to go. I'm sure these ladies had good hearts and were glad to help, but what's wrong with this picture? First of all, why should holding the title of "pastor" mean that he no longer has to be a gentleman? A true gentleman steps in and does the hard work for a lady. And second, why does holding the title of "pastor" mean to some men that they no longer have to do any work at all? As the verse above says, it seems like some of these controlling pastors, never lift a finger to ease the burden, but they pour more work on everyone else. It's not right or fair for things to be required of people that the leaders are not willing to do themselves.
On the flip side, I know a pastor who goes to work days, rolls up his sleeves, and gets in there with the rest of the men and actually does work. He doesn't see himself as better or higher than others and he doesn't have an ounce of pride. He wouldn't ask anyone to do something that he wouldn't do himself. I can trust a man like that. I know another pastor who went to teach a Bible study in someones home and when the people tried to give him money for coming, he wouldn't take it. He knows the concept of giving and receiving, but he didn't go for the money. He went to love and share with the people. These are two examples of men who are in the ministry because they love God and love people. They are not in it for the money or for honor from men. They are not in it to have others serve them, but they are serving the body of Christ and being a true example of Jesus Christ.
I read on a blog yesterday that the SBC did a survey of "unchurched" Americans, which is about 61 million people. The survey found that 72% of the unchurched believe in God, but they complain that religious institutions are full of hypocrites. Over half said, "Christianity is more about organized religion than about loving God and loving people." They said, "We want to love God and one another, but religion no longer seems to be the place where we learn how."
You can see from this survey that people are looking for the real love of God. It's no wonder people don't want to go to certain churches where people are treated in ways that I've described. They don't want another person telling them they don't measure up or they have to do "one more thing" to earn their right standing with God. When leaders and churches are doing it right, people can see the love. When I first walked into my new church all I could do was cry because I realized how starved I was for love, fellowship, and true worship. I finally felt loved and accepted. I finally heard a pastor teach the simple Word of God and give me things I could actually use during the week. I didn't fear that something harsh or inappropriate would be said because I could tell that the pastor had love and compassion for people. I knew he would not use his pulpit to criticize others, like some have. This incident happened right before I left my former church.....
My family always sat on the front row or near the front in our former church. About a year before we left, I started helping in a certain department. I was told by the person in charge of that department that I had to sit on the back row because I would have to leave the service early. I was perfectly okay with sitting on the back and I actually got use to it. I met a whole new group of people and made some good friends. I worked in that department for about 6 months and then the leadership brought someone else in to take over because I had other duties to do. We decided to continue to sit in the back because we didn't want to move back to the front and take someone elses seat. I also didn't want a certain friend we sat by every week to think we were being rude and deserting him.
One Saturday morning I got a phone call and I was asked to come and have a meeting. In this meeting I was questioned as to why I was not sitting on the front row any more. I thought I gave a perfectly reasonable explanation to this question by saying that I was told to move to the back when I started working in this certain department. I explained that after I stopped working, we stayed where we were because we didn't want to move back to the front and take someones seat. Even after my explanation, I was told that I needed to move back to the front row and I was told that I needed to "press in." I was puzzled by this meeting and I wondered what the reasoning was behind this request. I was very uncomfortable with the situation, but I "obeyed" and took my family back to the front row the next morning.
Would you like to take a guess at what the message was about that morning? He spent at least 10 minutes talking about where people sit in the church! Ummmm - coincidence? I don't think so. I had been an "obedient" church member, I did what I was told, and went back to the front, but I guess he felt like he needed to keep me in line by correcting me publicly. He talked about how the woman in the Bible with the issue of blood didn't make her way from the front row to the back, but she "pressed in" and made her way from the back row to the front. He said that when people go sit on the back row it's because the Word has leaked out of them and they are empty. It was obvious to everyone around that he was talking about me and my family because we had been sitting in the back for months and suddenly this one morning we appeared on the front row. I felt as though a red flashing light was over my head saying, "He's talking about me." He was wrong in his assumptions! I wasn't empty! I was sitting on the back because I had been told to sit there! I was embarrassed, hurt, and confused all at the same time. He was saying these things with such an attitude and he knew that I knew he was talking about me because of the meeting the day before. All I could do was ask myself the questions, "Would God do this to me? Would he embarrass me like this? Would He hurt me and make a mockery of me?" I didn't think so, but here is a man who was supposed to represent God and be an example of Him and he was doing this to me. I had my sights set on the door and I knew as soon as the amen was said I was making a run for it. But it didn't stop there. At the end of the service he came over and stood in front of me and my family and started saying, "Ha, ha, ha." I can't describe the feelings that were rising up inside of me. Why couldn't he have taken the approach of thanking me for all the years of service I had given to him and that church, instead of badgering me when I hadn't done anything wrong?! Why did he have to make such a big issue out of something that really didn't matter at all? There were much bigger issues that needed to be addressed in that church, rather than which seat I was sitting in! Besides that, does it really matter to God where people sit in the church building? Everyone can't sit on the front row, so is everyone from the 5th row and back empty and backslidden? I know that's not true!
I left there that day never wanting to step foot back in that place again, although I did. I had been treated like this before, but I had begun to see glimpses of truth and I decided I was not going to allow anyone to treat me like this any more. At some point you have to say enough is enough and after 22 years of being treated like this and watching others be mistreated, now was my time. Situations like this have caused people to question and become disillusioned about the very nature of God. I had been in a place of wondering if I wanted to trust the God these men had made Him out to be - a distant, uncaring God, but getting out from under the control, being around loving Christians, and reading about His love has caused me to have a totally renewed picture of God. I now know God is loving, gentle, kind, and compassionate. He has been misrepresented many times by selfish men and I know He would never do things like this to me. He is my loving Father that will take care of me - not throw me under the bus.
Controlling, abusive churches have caused many people to have the same stories as the one above. A church is supposed to be a place that builds you up and leaves you better off after being there. Many people who leave a controlling church feel down right beat up. If you find yourself in a situation that resembles anything like what I've written, you have to know that no good will come from it. I wish things could be different and I wish everyone would see the truth and walk in God's love, but it just doesn't seem like it's going to be that way. Don't fool yourself any more and stay in a hurtful situation. Jesus wants to set you free! When the leaders tell you that all the people who left are lying, you need to ask what it is they are lying about - (although you can't ask questions in controlling churches, so maybe you should ask the people who left.) Why would hundreds of people who are trying to move on with their lives and live for God, make up a bunch of lies and bring more hurt to themselves? Find out what the truth is - it will set you free!
I want to leave you with a quote that helped me to see another glimpse of God's unconditional love. It's not supposed to be any other way but this.....
"It is a joy to wake up confident about being loved by God every day, without having to earn it by any act of righteousness on your part. That is the secret of first love. Don't try to earn it. Know that you are accepted and loved, not for what you can do for God, or somehow hoping that you will be worthy of His acceptance, but because his greatest desire is to have you as one of His children. Jesus came to remove any obstacle that would prevent that from happening. There's not one thing you can do to make Him love you any more today; and there's not one thing you can do to make Him love you any less either." - Jake Colsen