by Deborah Porter
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~ 2 Corinthians 3:17 NIV ~
Have you heard the sound of an alarm ringing recently? The volume has been steadily increasing and, although not resoundingly loud, its warning is starting to catch the attention of Christians who are prepared to stop and listen.
That warning has been ringing louder and louder in my own heart, which is why I have finally followed God's prompting to share this exhortation. My intention is not to offend anyone, but rather to add a little extra volume to the warning that is crying to the church, "Remember God's grace!"
One of the most wonderful things about life in Christ is that we have liberty and freedom. The new life that we receive when we make Jesus our Lord and Savior, is an abundant one. Not only that, but we have each been given the Holy Spirit who will, in the words of Jesus Himself, "guide [us] into all truth." (John 16:13 NIV)
This is such a precious and priceless gift of grace, that it makes me wonder why so many Christian men and women are now so seemingly willing to surrender that freedom to the control of others – even when those "others" are their brothers and sisters in Christ.
Over recent years there has been a growing trend toward this type of controlling behavior within the life of some very rapidly growing and apparently successful congregations. At this point, it's very important that no-one misunderstands what I'm saying. It's not that these churches aren't Christian or that they have anything but the best of intentions for their members. I am certain that they believe they are doing the best thing for their congregations and for the extension of the Kingdom – and the results in regard to church growth do seem to back up that belief. However, best intentions or not, somewhere along the way the line has been crossed that divides encouragement from control, and exhortation from authoritarianism.
This crossing of the line does cause some concern, but what makes it worse is the knowledge that in this particular style of church, positions of great authority, such as small group leaders, are sometimes given to relatively new believers.
We recently had a teenager visit our church with a friend, and share that she was feeling as though she was being pushed into a role of leadership by her own church; a role that she knew she wasn't ready for. This young lady, "Tracey," admitted that she wasn't even sure if she really believed at all – yet, here she was being told that it was time for her to take on the responsibility of leading a small group herself. Based on the model of leadership being followed, this would place her in a position of spiritual oversight, authority and, to some degree, power.
Tracey also mentioned that she knew that her small group leader would be angry at her for visiting another church. As it turned out, Tracey was right.
Extreme spiritual leadership and excessive authority, in anyone's hands, isn't good ... but when it's given to someone who is quite young in the faith or uncertain regarding their beliefs, then it becomes horrifying.
Although this concern has been growing steadily in my heart for quite some time, the extent of this controlling authority was clearly shown when a young couple recently told me their story.
In their case, the young lady attended a church that followed this particular format, while the young man, on the other hand, attended a totally different denomination. When these young people decided that they would like to start going out together, the young woman was told by her "spiritual parent" (the small group leader) that she wasn't allowed to do so, as the young man didn't attend their church and hadn't been brought to the small group leader for approval.
Thankfully, the young woman was sensible enough to make her own decision. However, that's beside the point. No-one has the right to dictate the path that any other person should take. Even God gives room for His children to make their own choices – for right or for wrong.
The bottom line is that every Christian man and woman is sealed with the Holy Spirit, the perfect Counselor, and our guidance and direction should, first and foremost, come from the Word as it is revealed to us by Him.
That's not to say that He won't at times speak to us through another believer. However, even when that happens, we alone are accountable for the decisions and choices we make – whether they be in agreement with those who are trying to lead us, or not.
My 17-year-old son, Matt, probably summed it up perfectly when ministering recently to a girl who had been left emotionally bruised from a chastening encounter with her small group leader. When she said that her leader was angry with her for not following advice, Matt simply said, "Advice can be given, but it's up to us to choose whether to take it or leave it. No-one should tell us that it has to be received."
Oh precious and dearly loved child of God, I pray that you never forget ... "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty, emancipation from bondage, freedom." (2 Corinthians 3:17 Amplified)
Let no-one, even with the best of intentions, steal that away from you.
Something to Think About ...
Perhaps you are in a church that has stepped into some type of controlling or abusive behavior. If you recognize the warning and know that you are, then it has most probably been causing you distress. You may be feeling exhausted, depressed, out of step with the rest of the congregation, unfulfilled, isolated, alienated and out of place. It's even possible that you may feel a little guilty – almost as though there must be something wrong with you for feeling the way you do.
If that's the case, then it's time to step back from the situation and ask God to guide and direct your path ... to do so is the desire of His heart. From a vantage point outside the influence, you may start to see things in a whole new light.
Father God ...
Never trade it for old chains.
May we live as You direct Lord,
Washed clean from all sin’s stains.
May we live within Your liberty
Knowing freedom every day.
Set free from every bondage
By a price we didn't pay.
May we nurture all Your children
May You use us as their guides,
But always as Your servants Lord,
Without a hint of pride.
* * *
© Debbie Porter – May 2005.
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Thank you for listening to God's wake-up call and giving a heads-up to the body about the subject of legalism. Taking into account the degree of Christian liberty's abuse, also extant, it took courage for you to do that. I came out of overt legalism into mainstream Christianity, certain I would find refreshing pools of grace just waiting for me to wallow in. Being a slow learner it took some time for me to realize legalism is not restricted to a single denomination; it can take an interesting variety of forms in any church or small group. And I am not talking about rules, either: some rules are necessary. I am speaking of manipulation of human hearts in their most vulnerable state. That might mean the spanking bright conscience of a new babe in Christ, or an old heart like mine, trying to recover. The pendulum bangs painfully against walls both directions, but the answer of course is we always have the Lord himself in the center to creep to and to raise up voices such as yours this morning. In addition to being good medicine for many, your article answered a personal need of mine and the timing was perfect.
Awesome, Deb. Well done.
Fabulous choice of topic on which to write! My husband and I were just discussing this sort of thing last night! I have attended a church before where some of the leaders were seemingly (forgive me) self righteous and made comments to me and my family that made two of my family members uncomfortable and raised a feeling of confusion and unworthiness in me. I felt as though they were telling me I was not at their level of Christianity, could never reach that level of Christianity, and should go home and pray to God about whether or not I was capable of being truly “saved” and walking the walk not just talking the talk. I could not help but feel judged – or rather misjudged! My husband said, “I thought churches are supposed to be accepting.” I feel they should be both accepting and encouraging! Thank you for sharing your work! Please continue to share God’s word! May the Lord bless and keep you. May He shine His face upon you and give you peace. Best wishes.
Hiya Deb, Karen E recommended I read this! A timely reminder. And isn't it the churches where the leaders have no accountability that this type of thing thrives. How easily we abuse the statement: 'The Lord told me.' How much we need to marshal His courage and reply: 'But He didn't tell me! :-) Yeggy
Excellent anointed article full of Godly wisdom and council along with a Beautiful Inspirational Poem! In Christ Jesus,Dee "Numbers 6:24,25,26"
Deb, Your advice and admonishment are timely and right on. In an effort to promote church growth, (numbers), some churches are getting too far from the practices and precepts that Jesus taught us. I see it all around me. Pastors caught up in filling pews and forgetting to fill hearts. Their intentions sound good, but if you look close you can see the real or underlying motivation. It seems to be about growing attendance and not allowing the Holy Spirit to do the work of who attends where. Thank you for this post, Deb. “My people perish from lack of knowledge.” “Let him that have eyes see and he with ears hear.” You are greatly loved.
This is a very important article for the body. I believe we all have a direction that we will lean, either towards the abuse of freedom or towards works/legalism. I was involved with a group that slowly went from healthy to frighteningly legalistic. The problem began when the teacher had interpreted scripture and knew what it said (run... how could a human being ever interpret the entire living, breathing Word of God Almighty. She began to "speak" for God and had no accountability or teachability. She did some terrible damage. In her quest to become holy and make her flock holy, she threw out love (or the 1 Cor 13 definition anyway). Thanks for sharing your thoughts Deb.
Right on, Deb! I am currently reading an expose of Bill Gothard, who has taught hundreds of U.S. seminars since the '70s, leading hundreds of thousands of Christians to lead in this damaging way. Thanks for the heads-up! As usual, breathing fresh air is lovely. Rejoicing in His amazing grace, Kay
Oh, Deb...well done! Bless you for speaking up about what has become a dangerous "spiritual" epidemic! We serve only God and He is the One who has full authority over us. He created us with the ability to make decisions and understand right and wrong. Your statement about having the right to accept advice or not is the key to this whole issue. EXCELLENT - and thank you for voicing what so many believe! God bless you! Love, Peggy