By Norman Walford
This is the week that I found out that the publisher of my book How to Survive in the Pharisee Church has collapsed after being taken over by a fundamentalist Pharisee cult. Everyone else seems to have seen this thing coming for about the last two years. For me, who’s supposed to know about Pharisee things, I’ve just found out. Wake up Norman! Show a bit of interest in what’s going on around you …
I won’t tell the story in detail. If you want it, you can get it on this link: NotAfraidToTellMyStory
That’s the link to the blog of one of the main victims of the sad story. I’ll call her Juno for now, though in fact I think she has no desire for secrecy—quite the opposite in fact.
Very briefly, Juno and her husband founded Winepress Publishing in 1991. In 1996 they came under the influence of one of their published authors, for whom they had published a book with the strange-sounding name of Hating for Jesus. They invited him to come to their home town of Enumclaw and found a church, which he did. This had the equally strange-sounding name of Sound Doctrine Church (more of that name later). She and her husband joined the church, and as a consequence over the period 2000 to 2012, she managed to lose her husband, become estranged from her children, lose her house and her money, and ended up selling her publishing company to the pastor of the church for the princely sum of $10. Meanwhile the pastor was systematically enriching himself and his family while the rest of the church members were sinking towards the poverty line.
All this was a consequence of submitting to the authority of a bible-toting pastor with a ready bible verse to back up every ever-more-extreme self-serving pronouncement that he made.
I met Juno a couple of times at Christian Writer’s Conferences while I was writing my book. She’s not stupid and she’s certainly no pushover. She’s also a highly committed Christian, and the question inevitably comes up, as always in these situations, just how did she come to be gulled so easily?
One of the characteristics of people who get caught up in these kinds of situation—which is perhaps one of the saddest aspects—is that they do tend to be highly committed Christians, just like Juno was (and is). If they were lukewarm about their faith, they would run a mile long before they got deeply entrapped. It’s the people who are totally committed, who want everything that God has for them (plus maybe a bit more) who make themselves vulnerable to these sorts of scam.
So … how do we and Juno and others recognise the warning signs and take note? And let’s be clear that we are not talking here about out-and-out cults, but we are talking about cultic-type churches. These are not generally gnostic-style heretics, people who deny the gospel. They are churches run by people from a genuine Christian background who get into a position of authority, get carried away with their own importance, and pretty soon are sinking deeper and deeper into self-delusion. They know the bible, they believe the bible, and they quote the bible. They can be very convincing.
Perhaps it’s worth remembering here the oft-quoted words of Lord Acton written in a letter in 1887.
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men … There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.
I was going to follow this quote up with something like, “… and this is of course just as applicable to the Christian Church as to any secular form of power.” It was only when I looked up the quote to check the exact wording that I discovered what most people are probably unaware of—that when Lord Acton penned these words it was actually Christian leaders in particular that he had in mind. Acton was a committed Roman Catholic. At the time he wrote, Pope Pius IX was pushing through his bull on papal infallibility, to which Acton objected strongly, and it was this that triggered his remark.
The final sentence of the dictum is less well known than the first, but vitally important. The office does not sanctify the man. Being a pastor doesn’t make you a good person! That’s something we all do well to hold in mind.
But meantime I want to address myself to one specific aspect of this whole issue, relating to just what we mean by CHURCH, as this can be helpful in our quest to avoid religious abuse and exploitation. Specifically we will explore the concept that …
There Is Only One Church
If you want to be a manipulator, there’s a very useful trick to know. Take a word with two meanings, with two meanings, which may be related but are nonetheless different. Then get into the habit of using the meanings interchangeably. You can make a point or definition with one meaning, then subtly switch to the other meaning without specifying, and just carry on. Hopefully no one notices the switch—which they usually don’t. It sounds like you’ve proved your point when in fact you’ve done nothing of the sort.
Church is one such word, having two meanings. The first—I’ll use Church with a capital C—is the one universal Church, the sum total of all Christian believers throughout the entire world. The second—I’ll use church with a small c—is a smaller, specific body of believers, usually based at a particular location. I’d rather call this a congregation, ideally, but church is deeply ingrained and isn’t going to change so we’ll have to leave it.
Let’s be clear here. Church and church are two different things. They are related but they are different. And they are always getting confused. The confusion in fact goes back to the New Testament. Perhaps for the New Testament writers the difference was not that great. After all there was really only one church then (though geographically starting to get diverse), which at that time had almost the same composition as the Church, so their failure to always make the distinction is understandable. Now, the difference is huge and we need always to understand it,
When the New Testament writers talk about CHURCH, they are usually (but not always) talking about the big Church. Sometimes they are talking about individual congregations but more often it’s the Church. Similarly when God thinks about Church, usually (but not always) it’s the big Church.
When pastors and clergy talk about the church, usually (but not always) they are talking about the little church (congregation). And most of the time, human nature being what it is, they are talking about their own little church. Unless they’re being critical, in which case they’re probably talking about someone else’s little church.
When you and I become Christians for the first time, primarily we are becoming a part of the big Church. The one universal Church of Jesus Christ. We may well join a little church (congregation) at the same time. Most people probably do. It’s more immediate. It may have been involved in our conversion. It hits us in the face, and we join it. And often we have a woolly concept of the other, big Church. Sometimes they may not even have told us that there is any real Church outside the little church we have just joined. We may have been taught that they are the same thing.
If we want to avoid being dragged into Pharisaism, church abuse and so on, one of our most potent weapons is to understand and always remember that we are primarily a part of the big Church. Our membership of a little church is subsidiary to that, altogether less important. Apart from anything else the big Church is eternal, while the little church is entirely temporary. If we remember that all the time, we won’t go far wrong.
If you are evaluating a little church (congregation) to decide if it’s good, right, somewhere you might want to associate, there’s ONE KEY TEST you need to apply. Look at the attitude of the pastor to the other little churches that make up the big Church. If he criticizes other churches, if he takes the view that “our church is better”, that’s BAD. A true man of God will never do that. If he embraces other churches in an attitude of fellowship rather than competition, that’s GOOD.
Looking at the church Juno joined, one of the first things we come to is the name. It’s called Sound Doctrine Church. That name alone should be enough to set off the alarm bells. What it says is, “My church has sound doctrine.” What it implies is, “The others out there DON’T have sound doctrine.” Else, there is no point in the name. Immediately we are into division, into holier-than-thou.
Any congregation that claims to have a superior revelation to others is, by definition, wrong. Why? Because there’s only one Church, and all the little churches are a part of that Church, and God is the God of all of them. God doesn’t do “superior revelation”. One or two of the others may indeed have gone off the rails, and that may need to be drawn attention to; but to say one or two of the others have gone off the rails is very different from saying mine is better than all the others.
Juno lost touch with her primary membership, that of the one universal Church. She started thinking of herself as being a part of that little church, Sound Doctrine. And from there the errors compounded.
It’s good to be a member of a church. In fact I’m starting to think it’s good to be a member of two churches, that’s how much I respect the concept of church membership. Both of my churches have their strengths and weaknesses. Each keeps the other, in my life and mind, in balance. That’s great. But what’s better, by far, is to remember that first and foremost, we are members of the big Church, the one universal Church of Jesus Christ, and brothers and sisters to every other man or woman who professes the Christian faith across the entire globe. That’s a key to keeping the wolves from our door.
Print edition of How to Survive in the Pharisee Church may be unavailable at present. follow this link to download it as a free PDF file.