I just watched a couple of videos that I found quite interesting… in a disheartening way.
First, was a new video by Chris Stuckman. He is a pretty successful movie critic on Youtube. He spoke of his upbringing in the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It probably is not as painful as some of the stories that I have heard of people feeling trapped within a coercive religious group, but the discomfort comes from it being mundane. It is a normal situation of a normal person brought up in an authoritarian structure. You can CLICK HERE TO WATCH IT.
Second, was a video sent to me by one of my daughters, put out by INC. This is a Philippine-based authoritarian religious group. INC stands for Iglesia Ni Cristo (“Church of Christ”). It has an authoritarian structure and an Arian theology. This video is to teach young children something important about that church. The song is pretty simple so I will write down the first verse.
“Always submit to the Church Administration
For they were placed by Lord God to lead His nation
If we obey then we will receive salvation
Sing along with me.”
Note here that this is essentially a preschool song that has little children for over three minutes singing this song over and over again. Also note that the song is captioned where only God and the “Church Administration” are capitalized. You can CLICK HERE TO WATCH IT.
Of course, it is easy, and rather satisfying, to point fingers at some of these other groups (often called “cults,” but I will say “religious organizations that embrace coercive authoritarian control over their members”). But I know this happens among Christians as well.
I was raised up in a Fundamentalist church, and although Fundamentalist groups do get a bad rap, I don’t really feel that the church I was in was coercive or authoritarian. However, there were some other churches in my area that were. Some, for example embraced a very strong form of Separatism. I had a friend who attended a Bible school that taught that Christians should have ZERO non-Christian friends. This is pretty similar to what Chris Stuckman said about his JW experience. I have seen some churches TRY to do the “shunning” that the JWs do who were “marked” or “disfellowshiped.”
My first, personal experience with this sort of coercive experience came years later when I was an associate member (not a full member, thankfully) of a church. The pastor started teaching a doctrine that was part of what was called the “Shepherding Movement” or the “Discipleship Movement.” Since the doctrine is bad, I don’t like to attach it to a good term (like ‘shepherding’ or ‘discipleship’) so I will call it the “Umbrella Movement.” That is because it commonly is explained in terms of umbrellas.
God seeks to cover/protect all people with His umbrella of grace, but chooses to do it mostly through mediators. So it is like He gives out smaller umbrellas to others. God’s umbrella covers church leaders (“the Church Administration”) who then ‘cover’ the members of the church with their own umbrellas. The men in the church also cover their wives and children. If that sounds strange… good. Because it gets worse.
In practice, this umbrella of protective covering is really about authority. God has authority over the church leaders, and the church leaders have authority over church members and the men in the church have authority over their families. Here is what makes this worse. SUBMISSION TO AUTHORITY IS UNI-DIRECTIONAL AND UNLIMITED. As the pastor of the church I was an associate member of said, “If the pastor tells you to do something and you don’t do it, then you have sinned. If the pastor tells you do do something that is wrong— sinful— and you do it, you will be blessed by God, because you obeyed your pastor.”
Obviously, there are flavors of this doctrine. Not all would say this. Some who do, like to draw on the Military model. If a superior officer tells you to do something… you just do it… no questions asked. Of course, if you were in the military, you know that is not true. You must obey lawful orders, but should not obey unlawful orders. If your Department head tells you do the opposite of what the captain commanded, you must follow the captain. In church, if the pastor tells you to do something that God has said is wrong, you must obey God, not your pastor.
“Cultic,” coercive, authoritarian groups step on God’s toes. They say that God has given authority such that, in practice, God has no authority in the lives of the members. In the preschooler song above, obedience to the “church administration” is the way to receive salvation. This can happen in Christian churches as well. The church I mentioned before… I left pretty quickly after the teachings of the Umbrella Movement were being touted. This is despite the fact that I was told that since I was a missionary I was worthy of receiving the same unlimited submission as the senior pastor. No thanks. I left the church with NO qualms, but another person who was younger in the faith was struggling. He REALLY wanted to leave that church, but was afraid. He was told he would lose his salvation— in effect he was rejecting his umbrella.
Strangely, the Bible teaches bilateral submission… we submit to each other. Human shepherds in the religious setting are still fellow sheep (see Ezekiel 34). God is the only one deserving of unreserved submission. And yet, God chose to voluntarily submit to mankind (see Philippians 2).
When a church takes on the full authority of God and claims to control who is saved and who is damned, there is a serious problem. I know Peter and the Twelve were given the “keys to the kingdom” but it is pretty clear that John knew that this did not mean he had that level of control. If he thought he did, the book of 1st John would be much different. In that case people would know if they were children of God if the apostle declared it.
The apostles did not assume that level of power. The closest they came to that was Acts 5. But even there they made no suggestion of having control of the eternal destiny of Ananias and Sapphira. (And frankly, even that story in Acts 5 appeared to be out of sorts with how they behaved as servant/serving leaders later on.
These simple little videos point to Spiritual Abuse. It is sad when it happens to people, especially children, among the JWs and the INC. But how much worse when it happens in (historical) Christianity?