Are you one of the many loyal and sincere church members who faithfully and cheerfully attend, support and participate in a local church, but have a nagging, persistent inward “thought” that “something is just not right here?”
Then, you begin realizing, somehow, somewhere along the line you began losing your joy, your zeal for the Lord. It used to be you could hardly wait for the services and to be involved; now it is drudgery to go at all. You used to have such a light and blissful feeling as you worshiped the Lord in the services; now you just go through the motions, feeling heavy, staring placidly toward the platform, sometimes wishing you were somewhere else. You used to be able to “look past” the leaders, and focus only on the Lord; now, all you see during the service is people, people behind the pulpit, people on the platform, and people in the pews. You used to feel God’s love and pleasure with you; now it seems all you feel is unworthiness, guilt, and that nothing you do is ever enough or pleasing to Him.
“What on earth has happened to me? What’s wrong with me?” you ask yourself. “Is it just me?” Then, you begin to look around the room and study other long-time members. You compare how they are now to how they were when they first came. Is their life, as it should be, appreciably better, or have they and their family experienced an inordinate share of tragedies, seemingly inexplicable difficulties, and reversals? By and by, you begin to realize that many of the other members have lost their “first love” too, their zeal, their enthusiasm, their joy in serving the Lord, and that, though Christians, like everyone else, certainly experience adversity, many of these members’ lives have been on a gradual, downward spiral, instead of advancement and blessing.
Does this scenario sound familiar to you? If so, don’t think you’re alone—myriads of sincere, faithful, and trusting believers attending ostensibly Christian churches are experiencing the same thing. They’ve had this inward intuition for quite some time that something was just not right at their church or in their group, but just couldn’t put their finger on precisely what it was. What is coming from the pulpit and platform “sounds” and “seems” right. Seemingly things having an outward appearance of being “good” are happening. Some members, seemingly, are being “used” in various “ministries” of the church. There’s an overall pall of “piety” prevailing over the various activities of the church. Still, this nagging inward sense something is awry persists. Something subtle. Something not on the surface. Something that’s hidden.
Often, these are the symptoms of a church or group laboring under the heavy-hand of hyper-authoritarianism. That is to say, the leadership is dominating, controlling, and manipulating their followers, and exploiting them for their own personal gain and private kingdom-building. Wholesale abuse and misuse of authority is an integral part of the very foundation, fabric, and functions of such groups.
Exploitative abuse of authority occurring in groups where these hyper-authoritarian systems of governance are instituted come in various shapes and shades, ranging from members having to receive the approval (usually referred to as “witness”) of their spiritual leaders to date and/or marry, to virtual sole dependence upon the supposed superior spirituality of group-gurus regarding every detail of their personal financial matters and requiring their leaders’ approval for virtually every significant expenditure. Commonly, in these groups there is constant allusion to the members as “dumb sheep” who must be “led” by the shepherds, ad nauseam. The definition of the term “led” in these groups is that the “dumb sheep” cannot trust their own judgment or ability to receive direction from the Lord for the important decisions of their lives, but must rely instead upon the transcendent wisdom and spiritual acumen of their “personal pastors.”
The proper role of human under-shepherds is to lead people to the Great Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and teach them how to be His disciples, in submission to Him and His authority. Hyper-authoritarian leaders, instead, lead people to themselves, and indoctrinate them to be their followers, in total submission to them and their authority. In essence, these dominating shepherds teach they are the church-members’ de facto lord, master, and savior, rather than Christ. They indoctrinate members to believe the spiritual leaders of the church themselves are the members’ “spiritual covering” (a totally false and patently unbiblical concept), and any member who ever leaves the church will be “out from under” their “covering,” be without any covering or what they call, “uncovered,” and will experience terrible curses and other horrible consequences as a result. From the pulpit often come “horror stories” about what happened to such-and-so person or family, who were so spiritually bereft or rebellious as to leave the group without the blessings and approval of their “spirital authority.”
In these groups, the “authority” of the “shepherds” is absolute, sacrosanct, and inviolable, that is, without reprisal. Any semblance of anything other than total and unquestioning obedience to the desires and counsel of the church’s leadership chain is considered rebellion and insubordination, and simply is not tolerated. Members live under the constant threat of being branded with the Scarlet Letter “R” for “rebel,” openly denounced and shamed from the (bully-)pulpit, and consequently shunned by the “covenant-community” for failure to comply with the unwritten, unspoken rules and expectations established by the leadership. An oppressive performance-based approval and promotion system keeps members in constant internal turmoil and fear as they jump through all the hoops the spiritual taskmasters put before them, in an attempt to seek their leaders’ approval and favor. Moreover, members are indoctrinated and compelled to accept the leadership-set agenda of the group, regarding which they have next to no real say, as their personal burden and responsibility, and thus to commit their time, talent, And most importantly, their tithe, to its successful completion. Sadly, most never see past the spiritual smoke and mirrors to realize that the so-called “church” to which they have sworn allegiance and promised their wholehearted and unflagging support, is nothing more than the personal “business” of its leaders, and not only are they free labor, but they actually pay out of their own resources for the privilege of being a participant, i.e., member.
The following are some of the signs and symptoms, or common characteristics, of hyper-authoritarian groups, churches, networks, and ministries. It simply is not feasible to elaborate on them in an article such as this. However, I have addressed most of them in various books, booklets, and articles I have written on the topic. Bear in mind that the list is by no means exhaustive, and that these are general, rather than, exact descriptions.
- Apotheosis of the leadership — exalting them to God-like status in and over the group;
- Multi-level authority/government hierarchy;
- Absolute authority of the leadership;
- No real accountability of the leadership to the corporate body;
- Hand-picked sub-leaders, based on their demonstration of submissiveness to the ultimate leader rather than on the basis of their leadership skills, spirituality, and anointing and appointment by God;
- Pervasive abuse and misuse of authority in personal dealings with members;
- Paranoia and insecurity by the leaders;
- Abuse, misuse, and inordinate incidence of “church discipline;”
- Personal materialism, covetousness, and self-aggrandizement by the leaders;
- Members and/or sub-leaders must make a “spiritual covenant,” sometimes a signed covenant agreement, pledging their total commitment and financial support to the leadership and church/ministry;
- Partitioning of the group into smaller groups that are led by internally “raised up” lay-leaders who have not been anointed or appointed by God for leadership within the church;
- Financial exploitation and enslavement of the members;
- Inordinate attention to maintaining the public “image” of the ministry;
- Doctrinal demeanment and devaluation — the requisite of espousing and teaching “sound doctrine” is demeaned and devalued;
- Theological incompetence by the leadership, especially with respect to the rules of hermeneutics and Bible exegesis employed in the formulation of doctrine, giving license to twisting and adulteration of Scripture in order to provide proof-texts for unorthodox and invented doctrines;
- Spiritualism, mysticism, and unproven doctrines;
- Abuse and misuse of prophetic giftings as a means to dominate and intimidate;
- Devaluation, disallowance, disregard, and displacement of the true Fivefold Ministry within the church;
- De facto legalism, or works mentality, and its resulting loss of the “joy of salvation,” though “freedom” is forever preached from the pulpit and the church is constantly touted as being a “safe church” by the leadership;
- Esotericism — hidden agendas and requirements revealed to members only as they successfully advance through various stages of “spiritual enlightenment,” i.e., unorthodox, unproven indigenous doctrines;
- Isolationism — corporate and individual, especially with respect to exposure to outside ministry sources;
- Performance-based approval and promotion system of members predicated on “proven” “loyalty” (i.e., submission) to the leadership;
- Devaluation, suppression, and non-recognition of members’ bona fide God-given talents, abilities, gifts, callings, and anointing, as a means of subjugation;
- Requiring members to perform menial tasks, such as cleaning toilets, setting up chairs, and acting as the leader’s personal valet or slave, as a supposed means to humble them and teach them to “obey their leaders;”
- Constant indoctrination with a “group” or “family” mentality that impels members to exalt the corporate “life” and goals of the church-group over their personal goals, callings, and objectives;
- Members are psychologically traumatized and indoctrinated with numerous improper fears and phobias aimed at keeping them reeling in diffidence and an over-dependence or co-dependence on their leaders and the corporate group;
- Corporately, there eventually develops an inordinately high incidence of financial, marital, moral, psychological, mental, emotional, and medical problems, including sudden deaths and contraction of “incurable” and “unknown” diseases;
- Lack of true personal spiritual growth and development, especially in terms of genuine faith and experiencing the abounding grace, forgiveness, goodness, blessings, kindness, and agape-love of God;
- Members are required to obtain the approval or “witness” of their leader(s) for decisions regarding personal matters;
- Frequent preaching from the pulpit regarding not getting out from under the “spiritual covering” of the leadership;
- Members departing without the prior permission and blessing of the leadership leave the group under a cloud of manufactured suspicion, shame, and slander;
- Horror stories frequently told by leaders about individuals or families who left the group without the prior permission and blessing of the leadership, and the terrible consequences and curses they suffered as a result;
- Departing members often suffer from various psychological problems and display the classic symptoms associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
So, what should you do if you realize that you have been exposed to the spiritually and psychologically devastating actions of authoritarian abuse?
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