Spiritual abuse or proper church discipline? Obedience and submission or rebellious spirit and trouble-making?
One thing many have in common on church abuse blogs is that most have been at odds with a particular church group and church leader/pastor…and were summarily shown the door, shunned, banned, moderated from participating with the church they once called home. This can be devastating for most. You lose friendships, family relationships, you’re called names like “troublemaker” and “instrument of the devil” and “not submissive” and “rebellious” etc. It hurts.
Pastors/leaders often feel justified in the particular banning as a proper form of church discipline….they are just “protecting the rest of the flock” as they say. Behind the scenes, often, it is the majority rules of that particular flock that is pressuring the particular pastor/leadership to deal with the dissenter or “troublemaker” and to deal with this individual or family once and for all.
From the perspective of the person being dealt with in such a manner…they feel they have done nothing wrong. They are simply trying to hold the particular pastor and/or leadership and/or church accountable for some perceived (real or imagined) wrong or injustice or inconsistency with a bible doctrine that needs to be remedied. The person takes their beef up the chain of command and when the pastor and/or leadership disagree…some sort of final judgment is finally made…often resulting in the particular person either “submitting” to the rules of the particular church group or facing expulsion.
“Spiritual abuse!”….or “church discipline for the good of the rest of the flock!”…depends (in general) on which side of that particular line you’re on.
Of course, there are many examples of clear wrongdoing by pastors and church leadership and there are clear cut structural wrongs within many church organizations. Let me be very clear that I am not questioning the reality and truth of “spiritual abuse” nor am I questioning the reality and truth of legitimate church abuses that need to be confronted and reformed. There are many many legit examples that are not mere “differences of opinion”….many of the stories and personalities who comment on this blog have very serious examples where churches and pastors crossed major lines. I’m referring to issues that are lower down the ladder….issues that also become “spiritual abuse” but from the other perspective are viewed as “protecting the rest of the flock” from a “troublemaker”. The line can sometimes be a fine line…sometimes it’s clear cut.
This issue is one that has peaked my curiosity for some time. I’ve observed the Group Dynamics of blog communities very much resembles that of a local church group.
Anytime a group of humans forms….there is a general dynamic that always occurs…this “Group Dynamic” is the sociological science that observes how those dynamics occur and how they generally play out in a group setting. It’s a fascinating area of study…one of my areas of interest since I was introduced to that science as part of my collegiate studies.
Blogs, like churches, take on a hierarchy over time. You have a central leader….the blog host…who becomes akin to the pastor. You have a “core group” of blog voices that participate regularly and contribute to the overall success of the blog as measured in comments and even sometimes in donating money or support…akin to regular church members who give regularly, volunteer to serve and serve as deacons or elders. The regulars in both groups support the pastor or blog host. They protect the pastor or blog host when outsiders come into the group and start “trouble”. The “good” church members and good core bloggers are generally very agreeable to the pastor’s rules and the blog host’s rules and they assume their particular roles within the group in protecting the group and the group leader…the group leader then protects the core group. It’s a very symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship.
Then comes the outsider…the “troublemaker”…who doesn’t conform to the group’s written and unwritten rules. The person may have a particular beef with the pastor, a beef with how the church or blog does things, a beef with a key member of the core group, a beef with a particular doctrinal or philosophical position….and then there’s conflict and trouble.
The core group generally rallies around the particular irritant like white blood cells around an invading virus. Conflict ensues. The rules are asserted and then broken again…and the core group appeals to the pastor or blog host to deal with the “troublemaker” once and for all….usually after some sort of disciplinary efforts of confrontation, moderation, sanctions etc. When all else fails, the core group calls for the “troublemaker’s” head in the equivalent of the group dynamic’s death penalty: Banishment from the group!
The leader exacts the penalty. The “troublemaker” is eliminated. All is well again within the group.
I’ve been the “troublemaker”, I’ve been a member of the core group, I’ve been the leader. I’ve experienced legitimate church abuse, seen the real thing many times. I’ve been the legitimate target of group discipline when I didn’t follow the rules. I’ve seen real “spiritual abuse” and fake. The distinctions can become blurred. Where is the line?
In the battles with Calvary Chapel, there are some clear-cut examples and many that may just be typical group dynamics in play where a person just doesn’t conform to the group consensus and bucks the norms there.
In blogging in many online communities…Christian, Atheist, Political, Economic, etc…I’ve noticed clear group dynamics in play…very consistent patterns, rules, core groups, leaders…and every group responds to “troublemakers” in a similar way. Is the “troublemaker” always the victim of “abuse” when they are shunned and banned even though they think they were right to buck the norm of a particular group and challenge its rules, its sacred cows and its leaders etc? Probably not.
Sometimes conformity is a requirement to be part of a group. Those who are non-conformists often have a difficult time remaining part of a group…whether it is a church, a blog, a club…whether it be Christian, Atheist, Liberal, Conservative, Libertarian, you name it. My observations from testing a broad range of groups is that they all tick the same, essentially. Conformity is the primary aspect of being a good and healthy group member.
My practical advice if you want to remain part of any group is this: Learn what the written and unwritten rules are. Learn who the core group members are and don’t challenge their authority within the group. Know the leader’s sacred cows and pet peeves and steer clear of pushing those buttons. Conform quickly and demonstrate submission to the core group members and leader….and slowly build trust with them. Over time, if you play by their rules…and if you pay your dues…you can become part of the core group…and then you can incrementally challenge some things in very small steps and progressions…and affect some small changes over time without arousing suspicion and getting kicked out.
Personally, I am largely a non-conformist and I have a rebellious streak…more due to my abusive high-control upbringing, out of principle and due to my ability to see beyond the surface that blinds most folks with regards to systems of Control. Most have no clue as to the dynamics in play and are rather confused when they find themselves at odds with another professing group of Christians (or insert your particular group here). Much of the time it is not anything spiritual at all….it is simply group dynamics. The folks violated the dynamic and most don’t even know what happened until they’re kicked out. The easiest explanation, often, is “abuse!”…when in fact, it’s simple non-conformity and part of what you’ll face in any group if you don’t notice the rules and don’t get in line.
I know when I’m bucking the group and when I’m going along. I’m rarely surprised. You have to make the personal choice: Do you want to fit in and be a part of this group?
Some don’t want to fit into a group…there are legitimate troublemakers…the internet era has identified them as “trolls”….these are serial non-conformists who like conflict and controversy and exhibit the “dark tetrad” from a psychological perspective…they are akin to sadists who enjoy hurting people through their words. You see these sorts of folks in online forums as well as in physical church groups. There are also folks who like to test their disagreement within a group they disagree with…you see this with atheists participating in Christian forums…and Christians participating in atheist forums….liberals and conservatives in political forums, etc. Sometimes there are folks who are just socially unaware and can’t gauge the dynamics and step in it seemingly every time they try to become part of a group. I once thought there was some sort of “right” and righteous Christian ideal in play…an ideal that trumped the humanness….an ideal that grace was to be given to the worst of the offenders.
There is no pure ideal in play. There is no truly free grace, not within any group. Conformity is the price one must pay.
I’ve conducted some social experiments to see if there was some sort of truly free grace ideal that truly existed…if there truly was some sort of spiritual ideal that trumped human group dynamics. I can confidently report to you: No, there is no spiritual ideal that trumps human group dynamics. There is no Christian “grace” for troublemakers who don’t go with the flow. I even tried to hold a principled line on this blog…wow, I was proven wrong in spades. Matthew Perri shows up and disrupts the group here…everyone reacts adversely to Matthew’s behavior and calls for his moderation or banning….that this isn’t a safe place, I’m not doing my job as a leader to protect the fold, I’m not being just, etc.
Groups like their status quo, they like their rules, they like conformity. Groups want a King to enforce it. There is no spiritual ideal that turns the other cheek and administers blind grace even to the most irritating non-conformist. There are rules. There is a hierarchy. There are sacred cows. There is a symbiotic relationship between the core group and the leader. There is a control structure that expects conformity. Get on board, or get out.
The consensus Christian gospel message is the same: Conform…or go to hell. Grace is earned through conformity. Conformity is required to be in the group.
That’s the truth as I currently know it with regards to this issue after much testing and hashing out.