Good Little Soldiers

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?

“Embracing Shared Ministry”– a Review of Sorts

I don’t normally write reviews, and this really isn’t one… more of an interaction perhaps. But before, I do, I will give a wee bit of background35

Two months ago, I found the book Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why It Matters Today by Joseph H. Hellerman. I found the book in one of those many bookstores here in the Philippines that gathers a large menagerie of disorganized books from the United States. Rarely I find books that interest me, but this one ALMOST convinced me to buy it. I wrote a short blogpost based on my quick glance of the book. Curiously, the author of the book commented on my post and hoped I would enjoy reading the book. As frugal as I am (of necessity) I still went back to the bookstore to find the single copy… gone. Ah well. This happens. But a month later, a seminary student of mine, from Myanmar, moved into our downstairs apartment. He welcomed me to peruse his collection of books. When I did I found the book… actually the exact copy that I had glanced through a month earlier. With that, it was settled. I was definitely meant to read it.

The book is definitely ecclesiological in aim, which is quite appropriate. It seeks to support the idea of team or plural leadership in the church. I have never had trouble with that, and in fact have always found it strange that my tradition (Baptist) has had trouble with it. Baptist theologians and pastors will  decry infant baptism, sacramental understanding of the Eucharist, purgatory, or bishops and apostles (as positions hierarchally above the local church), and many other things as inconsistent with the beliefs and practices of the primitive church. Yet when it comes to the Baptist practice of single (and, oh yes… has got to be male) leadership with respect to the primitive church, the response is suddenly very different with circuitous logic to work around the fairly obvious– that the early church does not appear to have leadership the way most Baptist churches do.

But, truthfully, I don’t really have a lot of interest in Ecclesiology.

My interests, however, are in two topics that provide pillars supporting his ecclesiological position.


Interest #1. Spiritual Abuse. Administrating a pastoral care center and acting as a pastoral care “counselor” in the Philippines means that I deal with a lot of cases that involve spiritual abuse. Some may argue that the problem comes from the Philippines being an Honor/Shame-centered culture (although not nearly to the same extent as some countries such as Indonesia are). Some may say it is due to the long reach of Confucian ideals of unilateral submission. Some may argue that it is centered on post-colonial mindset, or perhaps centuries of governmentally enforced submission to Catholic clergy. Regardless, authoritarian churches with church leaders that act abusively are common. Often the abuse is not only accepted, in many groups it is theologically/biblically justified. In some cases, it is not the pastor who is abusive, it could be some other member of the church– for example the patriarch of the church community in a culture that grants power based on age, or in a family church where power is centered in one or two blood kin, or in a traditional village wher one assumes the role of “datu.” Regardless, the external culture’s power structure is embedded in the DNA of the local church– and often given a theological stamp of approval.

To be honest, I have never really known what to do with this. As a counselor, I can help the victims… but should I challenge/attack the root cause? Or should I accept that it is a unique contextualization of the church in Philippine culture. However, much of the problems in the Philippines comes not strictly from home-grown authoritarian structures (ignoring for the moment the “Iglesia ni Cristo” religious group that is quite authoritarian and somewhat home-grown), but from a resonant response to outside influences such as the Korean, American, and South American churches that promote unilateral submission to ecclesiastical authority.

Hellerman’s book, in chapter 7 primarily gives some vignettes of those who have suffered at the hands of toxic leadership in church. These stories remind me of some of the examples in McIntosh and Rima’s book “Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership.” But this book focuses more on those on the receiving end of Paranoid, Narcissistic, and Compulsive leaders. Ron Enroth’s books, such as the classic “Churches that Abuse,” are valuable. However, here the value is somewhat in the “mundane” nature of abuse. Abuse is not always like Jim Jones or David Koresh with their respective groups… sometimes it is simply a pastor who calls the church council to have meetings for hours on end with no apparent greater purpose than to rubber stamp everything he says (been there, done that). Or a leader who will accuse and excuse staff, members, and self, based on little more than personal whims and insecurities. Normally, a person who said that he was accountable to no one but God, we would say they was lawless… and dangerous to those around him. However, all too many churches set up their church denying their clerical leadership of effective support… and accountability. And often seminaries are guilty of justifying it under the doubtful argument of tradition, or even Biblical mandate.

On this level, Hellerman makes a good argument that there is something inherently flawed with leadership without accountability. His suggestion that changing the structure to team leadership providing mutual accountability and support, is worthy of strong consideration. Of course, any organization will suffer to some extent with a toxic member.

Interest #2.  Cultural Anthropology. I teach courses, especially Missions, at a couple of seminaries. My favorite topic is Cultural Anthropology… and its first cousin, Contextual Theology. Hellerman spends a considerable part of the front end of the book explaining the culture of the Roman Empire, and more specifically the culture of the Roman colony of Philippi– especially as it pertains to honor and shame. There has been increased interest in honor-shame as it pertains to contextualization of the Gospel as well as theology. But, as noted by many, the Bible was written in a predominantly honor-shame environment. With that fact, one might think that theologians struggle more with guilt-innocence cultures than honor-shame… but church history seems to have achieved practical pre-eminance over Biblical history. The author makes a good case for the supposition that Philippi was more Roman in culture than Greek or Macedonian, and so carried with them the Roman views of virtue and honor more faithfully than any other city that Paul visited (with the possible exception of Rome itself).

If Philippi has a unique culture, a culture that Paul had personal experience with, it is reasonable that Paul’s epistle to that church was read through that cultural perspective differently than it would in other cities. It might also be reasonable to assume that Paul would write it so as to effectively and uniquely challenge those within that culture.

There is a risk here of over-simplifying in this case. Every culture has a range of beliefs that could be considered part of the norm. Additionally, individuals overflow the norms of any culture. Finally, there is the commonality of the humanity of all people. Because of these, interpreting through cultural “filters” can be problematic.Additionally, all cultures are complex, so it is risky to grab one characteristic and act as if it is the defining cultural trait in interpretation. Just because a lot of corn is grown in Nebraska doesn’t mean that “dirt farming” is a good cultural filter for interpreting a speech of the governor of Nebraska to his constituency. A better direction to go in would be to ask “Knowing the culture of Nebraska, with all of its unity, diversity, and uniqueness, how might the average citizen of Nebraska respond to the speech.”

I believe that comes closer to what the author here did. After describing the evidences in support to Philippi being a highly Roman culture with support of class, caste, and social capital, he goes to the epistle from Paul. There, he doesn’t really try to interpret directly through the lens of honor and shame. Rather, he seems more to say, “If a person in the culture comes to the 2nd chapter of Philippians and finds Jesus having the honored position as God (noting that the point here is not so much one of ontology), and how he eschews all divine and societal honor, and takes on the greatest form of humiliation in the Roman world, how would he (or she) react? And if this same person discovers in the same passage that people in his church should follow Jesus’ example (in apparent direct opposition to community norms) what does that say about how the church is supposed to operate?” Understanding the culture, and imaginatively placing oneself into the culture and interacting with the epistle, can help one to understand the true counter- (not “anti-“) cultural character of the letter.


As I said, this was not a review. If I was reviewing it, I would argue that the author does a good job of

  1.  Demonstrating the dangers of a single-leader church today, especially where there is no accountability structure in place.
  2. Supporting the idea that team leadership is ‘biblical,’ at least if one accepts that term to mean consistent with Scripture, as opposed to being “biblically mandated.”

The link between the cultural exegesis of the epistle of Philippians and the idea of team leadership is weaker, I think, although it does certainly seem to support at least a flattening of any church hierarchy.

However, while not directly tied to the theme, the book is valuable in

  • Understanding 1st century Roman culture and the importance of understanding it in interpretation of Scripture, rather than through layers of church and societal changes.
  • Identifying the link between spiritual abuse and both societal values brought into the church, and organizational structures that nurture abuse.
  • Seeing Paul as a man who challenged culture, through the very symbols of culture— genre, story, metaphor, and more.

Personally, I would like to know more about team leadership, and would love to see this structure attempted, counter-culturally, in the Philippines. It is also true, that I prefer a Congregational concept where authority is recognized as coming from God, mediated through the congregation and to a group of leaders. In effect, this creates a cycle where authority and power flow from people to leadership team, to ministry leaders, and back to the people. Of course, in saying this, I have to acknowledge that it rarely seems to work… but then again, what does?




Fromm, Freedom, and First Corinthians


In the movie, “Support You Local Sheriff,” James Garner as sheriff gets Bruce Dern to sit quietly in a prison cell with no bars in it, later even getting Dern to help him install the bars, by convincing him that crossing the imaginary walls surrounding the cell would be far more dangerous than sitting quietly and passively in his place. While humorous, it speaks to a human feeling that life is safer and better when one doesn’t push beyond certain boundaries. As a child, being wrapped up– cocooned– in my quilt at night seemed so much safer than exposing myself to the unknown darkness of my bedroom.

Erich Fromm was a German Psychologist, 1900-1980. One of his works was “Escape from Freedom” written in 1941 (aka “Fear of Freedom”)— a timely writing in light of the expansion of Fascism at that time (overlapping as well with Bolshevism, and later Maoism).

As one of Marxist sympathies, Fromm saw history in terms of economic and class struggles— with an overall historical progress. Such progress he saw bringing greater freedom to people. Yet, such freedom does not bring happiness. In fact, freedom tends to lead to social disconnection and loneliness. As such, people look for avenues to address the “problem of freedom.”

Not everyone accepts Fromm’s thesis. I recall listening to an old audiotape by a Libertarian/Objectivist speaker who argued that he and people he knew embraced freedom. He may be somewhat correct but I suspect that a broader sampling of the public would support Fromm’s view that freedom is rather scary. Additionally, the speaker appeared to be speaking with the opinion that absolute freedom would position himself as one of the “winners” rather than one of the “losers.” This is a fairly dubious presumption. In the seesaw battle between Freedom and Security, people gradually shift their resources toward Security.

Fromm argues that three bad ways that groups address freedom are:avt_erich-fromm_9948

  1.  Authoritarianism.  Find security by allowing an individual, someone else, make the choices… having both control and responsibility for what happens.
  2. Automaton Conformity.  In the Philippines one might say “Pakikisama” (at least in its negative sense). Individual choice is replaced by control via group norms and taboos.  This forms a closed or legalistic society.
  3. Destructiveness. People struggle with choice and deaden the fear of freedom with addictive, criminal, and other self-destructive behaviors.

All of these have relevance in church. Authoritarian churches place their power in one charismatic, controlling leader, who makes decisions for the group. Other churches place a lot of fear, shame, and guilt on individuals within the church to ensure conformity to church values (often become quite legalistic as these norms are eventually given moral weight). The third one, destructiveness, is typically more individualistic than characteristic of a church as a whole, except in times of corporate stress (typically as a church splits or undergoes a crisis of leadership), or in embracing heresy.

All of the above are linked to spiritual abuse in some manner, but especially the first two.. Authoritarian churches have the abuse primarily centered on one single abuser (or a small power bloc), while with “automaton conformity” the abuse is more tied to the overall culture… a repressive conformity.

Healthy response to freedom (and in Christ we do have freedom) is seen by Fromm as “self-realization.” Within a Christian context, this may be transparency and mutuality. The body metaphor of the church (each part working together for the good of the other) seems quite relevant here. It seems like, applying some of Fromm’s thoughts, the church can’t simply declare we have freedom in Christ. People struggle with such freedom. Rather, it must train people how to embrace such freedom in a positive interdependent way.

Different people have different comfort levels when it comes to freedom in the church. Paul gives wisdom when it comes to the question of whether one can eat meat sacrificed to idols. Paul’s answer is YES you can. However, don’t eat if it bothers you (be uncomfortable by this freedom) and don’t act on your freedom so that it causes problems with others.

With this in mind, I believe we can now get to I Corinthians 10:23-24.

All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor.…

The church of Corinth struggled with freedom in Christ. I have heard these verses used to push radical individualism and an antinomian mindset (Destructive response to freedom). I have heard them used to form a new quasi-legalism (Automaton Conformity). After all, since there is always the possibility of a “weaker brother” lurking somewhere, we should always avoid exercising Christian freedom. And I have known people who, so disturbed by the freedom they have that they run desperately to an authority figure to tell them what to do (Authoritarianism).

But a better understanding is not found filtered through individualism, but through a relational, mutual, community of the “Body of Christ.”.

I have great freedom to do as I wish in Christ. However, I support and build up members of my church as they, likewise, support and build up me. So I exercise freedom as it is healthy for myself and others. And I limit the exercise of my freedom, not out of coercion, but out of love.

If you are interested, you can read Fromm’s book on-line HERE.

A review of Fromm’s book from a church perspective by Barnabas Ministry is HERE.

Power Without Accountability, Part 3.

My suggestion in the previous two posts is that the church has brought in the Power structures of history and surrounding social structures. Yet the church is meant to be unique in many ways. Among those, we are supposed to turn power upside down.

accountability-jokeWe have trouble with this. I have a(n) FB friend who has been challenging a guy named Creflo Dollar (a religious TV personality… heard of him… haven’t heard him). It seems this guy is trying to get people to send him money so he can buy an airplane (as a missionary struggling financially in ministry, and knowing many worthy missionaries in an even worse state than myself… this, rightly I believe, offends me.) Curiously, apparently the wife of this Mr. Dollar is saying that people that challenge her husband are under God’s curse. I don’t know the story first hand (repeating what I was told). But if that is true, that seems to be a serious unwillingness to have use of (or perhaps abuse of) power challenged.

But the church should really be different.

1.  It is to be countercultural. In other words, the church is not supposed to fail in the direction of mimicking local culture, but neither is it to gainsay the local culture. The surrounding culture typically supports a certain structure that defines the esteemed and the ignored. The church should empower the ignored, and honor the disgraced. It should also humble the esteemed and the powerful.

2.  It is to be mutual. The church is made up of members where the power relationships are multiplex and even. That is, church members are supposed to honor one another, bear one another’s burdens, exhort on another, receive one another, and submit to one another. Jesus modeled it, and we are to practice it.

3.  It is to be accountable. We all need people who hold us accountable. One reason I like the congregational structure in churches is that the power is shared by congregation, and is dispensed to spiritual leaders while holding them accountable. But for those that don’t have that structure, or where this accountability doesn’t work, there needs to be outside accountability. We once were part of a church without a good accountability structure.  The accountability structure ended up being police tacking a tax lien on the house of the pastor. While this may work, it is ideal that a better structure was in place. My wife was part of an NGO where the head began to wield power in a manner that was not healthy for its members. Fortunately, there was a board of directors who were able to hold the leader accountable.

EVERYONE needs to be held accountable. The greater the power, the greater the temptation to abuse, and thus the greater the need for mutuality, and accountability. Only God is not accountable to anyone else, and even for God, based on the prophets in the Bible, it appears He does not mind being questioned or challenged.

Power Without Accountability. Part 1.

“Abuse of Power”. Seems almost like a redundant expression, doesn’t it? In Christian Circles, another abuse pops up in the news nearly daily. Such abuse may demonstrate itself in different ways:

  • Sexual and Physical abuse. Of course, the Catholic Church has taken a hit on this one. Once reports started hitting the media, that denomination has slooooowwwly begun taking responsibility and action. Sadly, the Protestant church, for the most part, has not… and still goes into “hush hush” mode. One of these years, the press will shift its gaze from the Catholics to the Protestants, and we will wish we had taken the time and effort to address this matter ourselves. We need to self-police… accepting mutual accountability.
  • Simony (“Spiritual” Abuse). Simony is the sale of spiritual blessings or grace for money or “earthly” favors. As Protestants, we look back with (justifiable) horror at the abuses of “indulgences” of former centuries in the Catholic church. Some today may also be concerned with the practice of Mass cards, that essentially do the same thing. Again, as much as Protestants like to point fingers, simony is alive and well in Protestant churches as well. It can show itself in a fairly literal sense… with special “blessings” given by religious leaders for cash donations. It can be seen in particularist Protestant groups that claim everyone outside of their own specific church and rulership are damned. It can be seen in favoritism given to big tithers in most churches. It can be seen in clergy allowing the superstition that their own prayers are just a little bit more heard by God than the laity to perpetuate.
  • Selfish Frivolity. Power (in all groups, frankly) is commonly used to meet the “needs”, desires, petty whims of those with that power. Recalling Ezekiel 34, power and leadership is used to feed the leaders, not the led… or the leaderless.
  • Power as a Virtue. Many Protestant church leaders and evangelists, and preachers speak to their listeners about the importance of “power” and how they are to have “power.” Some even build a theology around this that God’s blessing is tied to the acquisition or attainment of “power” or the earthly trappings of power. The problem here is that it (1) encourages people to have such trappings of power to make themselves look or at least feel more “holy”, (2) it builds up leaders who seem to have such power and, in so doing, lessens the listeners who appear to lack such, and (3) it makes people want to have “power” (however it is defined) when most of us (all of us?) really can’t handle power very well. To teach that people who lack the character to handle power, are to seek power, is akin to encourage 8 years olds to seek to have assault rifles.

So what is the problem? I believe that we set up systems without accountability and without mutuality. In other words, we lack healthy COMMUNITY.

Part 2 will look at some theological reasons (at least) why church has problems with power without accountability.

Part 3 will look at some very basic strategies to correct this. Part 3 will be highly speculative and will definitely need the helpful insights of others.

Spiritual Abuse Parts 1-5

Below are the 5 presentations I have done so far on Spiritual Abuse. They are (intentionally) a bit redundant at times. Some things need to be resaid. A much more detailed article is added written by a different person (submitted to Slideshare by “arulmraj” but I am not sure if M.A. Pragasam is the author or not). It is much more detailed and I think some might find it fascinating.

Spiritual Abuse Presentation#2

This is part 2 of a series on spiritual abuse. This presentation continues the thoughts of the first presentation, but focus is placed more on spiritual leaders who are (generally without realizing it) abusive. Here is the Slideshare presentation. It is also available in the PRESENTATIONS section of this website.

<div style=”margin-bottom:5px”> <strong> <a href=”; title=”Spiritual Abuse 2″ target=”_blank”>Spiritual Abuse 2</a> </strong> from <strong><a href=”; target=”_blank”>Bob Munson</a></strong> </div>

Some Characteristics of Spiritual Abuse

Religion, spirituality, and faith all relate to aspects of power, which means that they are at risk of being abusive. That is because abuse is essentially the (selfish) misuse of power.

<div style=”width:425px” id=”__ss_12823374″> <strong style=”display:block;margin:12px 0 4px”><a href=”; title=”Spiritual Abuse I” target=”_blank”>Spiritual Abuse I</a></strong> <div style=”padding:5px 0 12px”> View more <a href=”; target=”_blank”>PowerPoint</a> from <a href=”; target=”_blank”>Bob Munson</a> </div> </div>