"My heart is stirred by a noble theme; my tongue is the pen of a skillful writer." - Psalm 45:1
Monday, February 27, 2023
Moose: Mentor of Men
Saturday, February 18, 2023
My Experience at Asbury: Full Streams
See my previous article, When God Does it Again.
“I came to experience God. I think something big is going to happen. When a lot of people come in faith, expecting the Lord to do something, amazing things will happen.”
That’s what Rocky, from Asheville, North Carolina, told me Friday morning outside of the auditorium at Asbury University where revival continued into its tenth day. Rocky, an associate pastor at his church, came with their staff: “We expect the Lord to do something amazing. We came expecting God to give us something that we can take back to others.”
Striking up conversations with people, I continued hearing similar hopes among the crowd. And a crowd it was. On Friday morning at 10:30, at 34 degrees with a light snow, hundreds of people lined the sidewalk waiting for the doors to open at 1:00pm. Before long the line stretched for a half mile.
My pastor in college in the '90s showed us a documentary one Sunday evening of the 1970 Asbury Revival. It lit a spark in me to study historical revivals – and to begin praying for God to pour Himself out again in this generation. Like many other people, testimonies from the First and Second Great Awakenings, the 1857 Prayer Revival, the 1904 Welsh Revival, the Shantung Revival, and various campus revivals, to name a few notable ones, showed me what can happen when God shows up in a supernatural way.
Another documentary on the 1970 Asbury Revival was titled “When God Comes.” And that reality - God showing up - makes all the difference. One succinct mark of a genuine revival is the manifest presence of the Lord. Theologically, we know the omnipresence of God – He is everywhere. But, He does not show Himself at the same level and power everywhere.
We enjoy a sunroom at our house with five large windows. On cloudy and rainy days, the room reflects the outside reality. However, on sunny days, light pours into the room, giving it a whole different dimension.
Malcolm McDow and Alvin Reid gave the church a gift in their book, Firefall: How God Has Shaped History through Revivals. They explain, “Revival is God’s invasion into the lives of one or more of His people in order to awaken them spiritually for Kingdom ministry."
And Stephen Olford called it a “strange and sovereign work of God in which He visits His own people, restoring, reanimating and releasing them into the fulness of His blessing.”
Welcome to Asbury University
Roy Fish said, "When the fire is falling, get as near as you can to the flame."
We first heard the news from Asbury last Wednesday, February 8, when chapel did not stop. One week later, after full days at church, my wife and I looked at each other and said, “We need to go.” So Thursday morning we packed up and drove seven hours to Wilmore, Kentucky. Through the day, I quietly sang in my spirit the song, "Holy Spirit, Thou Art Welcome," wanting to prepare myself for worship.
The little town was abuzz with activity at six pm, with cars parked on the street and in every available lot. Walking to the school, we saw dozens of people waiting in line to walk up the large outside stairsteps to Hughes Auditorium – the center of activity on campus. I’d heard of Hughes for thirty years – the same place God poured Himself out in 1970.
We waited in line about an hour. The 1489 seat chapel was packed. As people left, they called out a number of empty seats and let the same number in. The Salvation Army gave out snacks and coffee. A large mag screen outside showed the chapel service going on inside. And two overflow auditoriums were open for people not wanting to wait in line. A pleasant, friendly spirit filled the air with a strong air of excitement. People often greeted each other with, “Where did you come from?”
And people came from all over. We talked with people from all over the Southeast, Michigan, Connecticut, Oklahoma, and even heard of one woman who drove from Oregon. To date, I read that twenty-two colleges and universities have sent students to Asbury to experience the divine moment.
I met four male high school students who drove together from Nashville, Tennessee. One of them, Luke, told me, “We came to see what God is doing. It’s awesome.”
Another young man from Burundi, Africa, told me, "It’s a very rare moment in America, where people are so stuck chasing money, to see people coming together" to seek the Lord. Nova, who now lives in Lexington, said he knew he had to come.
As we stood in line, I told my wife, “I don’t know when I have had to stand in line to wait for a seat at an event.”
A speaker who was obviously scheduled would get up and testify
or share some exhortations from the Bible. Then instrumentalists and a large
number of college students would come onto the platform and lead us in singing
for two or three songs. Then there would be quiet praying. During our three
hours, a faculty member gave a very clear gospel presentation, with a strong
emphasis on what Christ did for our sins, our need for repentance from our sins,
and the need to follow Him.
Giving an invitation, several individuals indicated decisions to believe in Christ, and they received a massive celebration from the crowd – and follow-up discipleship materials from Asbury after the public altar call. Another speaker talked to students about the need to submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ, die to self, and live a surrendered life, followed by another altar call. In between “movements,” a student or faculty member would get up, welcome people, and give basic “house rules.” We laughed when the student said, “The balcony is old, so if you are going to jump up and down or dance, please come down to the floor.”
I think I went with the expectation that it would be an emotional experience for me. I did shed a few tears, like when 1500+ people clapped and shouted exuberantly when five to seven people gave their lives to Christ. But overall it was not a strong emotional experience for me. I spent a good bit of time observing, wanting to see what happens in a time like this, praying quietly, and thanking God for what He is doing. And when we walked out of the doors at 9:45pm, the line was longer than it had been three hours earlier.
8 Observations from the Asbury Revival
Studying revivals and awakenings for three decades, what was happening at Asbury “checked the boxes” for what I know to be true about historical moves of God. Here are just a few of my observations about the movement:
1. The manifest presence of God, coupled with a strong spirit of worship.
God was in the house. And people were worshiping Him. This is not about a speaker, music group, or showman. Jesus is center stage.
I’ve read in testimonies from previous moves of God, and I’ve heard multiple people say about Asbury in the past week, it is as if time stands still in the auditorium. We were tired after driving all day, but we were not bored. We were focused. Three hours seemed like just a little bit of time.
McDow and Reid write, “The normal response in the midst of a spiritual awakening is an awesome awareness of the presence of the Holy God. A holy hush literally permeates the atmosphere.”
Timothy Beougher observed this week, "Within the crowd there was a mixture of times of quiet deep reverence and loud vocal celebration."
2. A stirring spirit of expectancy.
Miriam Cisneros of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, told me she drove and slept in her car for two nights. When I asked her why she came, she enthusiastically replied, “I am hungry. I want revival. I want to be a part of what is happening here.”
Ivan Litvac and his wife, originally from Moldavia, drove from Connecticut. When they left home, their six children gathered around them and prayed for them. Ivan shared, “I want more power and more fire. We want to take it with us. We want to be a part of what God is doing. There’s a new song here, and we want to flow in his presence.”
Bill Elliff, who has written a series of excellent articles, day by day on his blog, on the Asbury Revival. He explained to Baptist Press how the Asbury community has an expectation of God working:
“It seems to me – I’m not an authority on this – it seems to me that that particular school has an openness to this, a bent towards this. They want to see God come.”
“They believe in experiential spirituality, and I do too. And I’m not talking about charismatic theology, as much as just heart theology … and heart experience. And there’s a deep emphasis on prayer, and on surrender.”
Elliff also sees a faith component in the mix at Asbury.
“They are looking for and expecting God to move because of their past,” Elliff said. “I think across the board in America, because we haven’t seen a nationwide movement since 1970, and prior to that 1904 in the Welsh revival that dramatically affected America, because we haven’t seen that personally, most of us, then we don’t pray big."
“We can’t fathom that 15 percent of the population could come to faith in two years like it did in the first great awakening. So, we don’t even ask for it.”
As with any move of God, some religious people – and some Christians – will critique it and oppose it. Sometimes, God moves in ways that we don’t expect. It doesn’t fit our carefully constructed theological system. And if not careful, we can be like the people in Jesus’ home – filled with unbelief in the very presence of the Lord.
3. An emphasis on the gospel, conversion, and repentance.
During my three hours, I heard a clear gospel presentation. It was not a feel-good, self-fulfillment, God is here to make you happy and give you a great life. This was a “you are separated from your Creator because of your sin, Jesus paid the penalty for that sin, and you need to repent of your sins and turn your life over to Him.”
The leaders at Asbury are clearly wanting to lead people to faith in Christ. When we attended, those who responded to the gospel invitation included students and adults.
4. A spirit of prayer and humility.
Roy Hession wrote, “Prayer is the foundation for revival, and testimony the spark that ignites it.”
Prayer permeated the atmosphere, modeled by the facilitators on stage, continued by worshipers all over Hughes, and maintained by people in groups outside of the auditorium. People gathered in the aisles for prayer. Prayer counselors prayed with people at the altar through the night. People spontaneously came to the altar for prayer. People all over the room prayed quietly.
Many people shed tears. Occassionally you would hear someone crying or groaning loudly. Beougher reminds us that "true revival doesn't begin in ecstasy, it begins with agony. It doesn't begin with laughter but with tears."
The book Firefall explains, “While the length may vary according to the nature of the awakening, the participants will remember the experience for their lifetimes and will not be satisfied with anything less.”
My wife told me Thursday night, “This is what church should look like.”
Pride will destroy revival. A very real understanding exists at Asbury that this is an act of God, He has gifted them with a divine moment in time, and they are trying to be wise stewards of His blessing.
5. Order, decency, and hospitality.
We were overwhelmed with how well the entire event is administrated.
Inside of Hughes there was order, but such that allowed expression. Volunteers were at every door. There were clear boundaries. There were plenty of people around to answer questions.
Outside of Hughes was amazing. A police presence existed. Nice, portable bathrooms, free coffee and hot chocolate, a food truck, and other details showed that they clearly wanted people there.
6. Freedom and a spirit of celebration.
A wonderful spirit of worship filled the place. There was such freedom of expression – people standing or sitting as they wished, lifting their hands or sitting quietly, shedding tears, moments of a quiet, holy hush, mixed with moments of loud celebration with clapping and shouting. Occasionally a few people would dance in the aisles or jump up and down exuberantly.
But as mentioned before, never did anything seem inappropriate nor out of order. And it never distracted from the central theme of worshiping the Lord.
Outside on Friday morning, hundreds gathered, waiting. People enjoyed walking around and talking with each other. Some huddled in groups praying and worshiping as the live stream from inside was broadcast. There was never a sense of being unsafe or unwelcome.
I encourage you to read Tim Beoughter’s comments, which are linked in this article, about the excesses of revival vs. staying “in the main.”
7. An emphasis on the lordship of Christ.
We live in a day with a huge emphasis on self-fulfillment. While not all of that is bad, a biblical worldview reveals that God’s biggest purpose is to glorify Himself – not just helps us live our best life now.
At Asbury, they are not just inviting people to find forgiveness of sins. There is a clear emphasis on submitting to the lordship of Jesus Christ. In the time we were in Hughes, we heard a clear exhortation on “dying to self” and living the Spirit-filled life.
McDow and Reid write, “The ultimate result of awakening in the life of the beliver is submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ. When Christ becomes enthroned, He impacts the total person, including emotions.”
8. Spanning generations and races.
Hughes auditorium Thursday night was filled with white, black, Asian, Indian, and Hispanic people. I enjoyed watching an Indian middle-aged man near me singing, standing, crying, and raising his hands. We noticed people of all ages – couples bringing babies, children, teenagers, young adults, middle aged persons, and seniors. Families came together. Old men and women came on canes and walkers. Occasionally small children would cry o make noise. I noticed one older lady with a cast on her foot wheeling in on a foot stroller. This is not a “youth revival.” This is touching all ages and many races.
For me, a real gem of this movement was not that I received something dramatic individually. It was watching so many people drawn together in the name of the Lord - the sense of "this is a taste of what heaven will be like."
The Implications of Revival
For years, I’ve told my churches that America has not experienced a nationwide movement since the 1904 Welsh Revival spilled over into the United States. That means there is no one alive who has lived through one.
Many people in our churches have not been taught about historical revivals and have no orientation to them. That’s one reason when an outpouring actually does occur, some Christians oppose it because they have no expectation toward it. They think revival is a series of meeting churches plan in the spring or fall. (View J. Edwin Orr’s The Role of Prayer in Spiritual Awakening and his History of Revival series.)
In some past revivals, it appears that people who experience it firsthand then go other places where a similar manifestation occurs. This happened in the 1970 Asbury Revival, when student teams went to churches and schools all over the country and similar outpourings of the Spirit occurred. That’s why, in this current movement, Christians from all over the country want to travel and get close to the fire.
Timothy Tennant wisely shares, "An awakening is where God begins to stir and awaken people up from their spiritual slumber. This is definitely happening not only in Wilmore, but as this move of God spreads to other schools and communities across the nation and even the world. There are many reports that this is what is happening. [W]e must keep our hearts and eyes fixed on Jesus and ask him to complete the work he has begun so that, over time, there is a lasting transformation in the lives of those who are being touched by God. . . .
Someday, we will look back on these days and thank God that he visited us in ways we will talk about for years to come. But, what we are doggedly seeking is not lasting memories, but transformed lives long after the lights go out in Hughes auditorium or Estes Chapel or all other places which are experiencing this work of grace."
Last Wednesday night, I told our church that for years I’ve believed America will not last apart from a genuine, God-sent revival and spiritual awakening. We live in dark, desperate times. The good news is that historical moves of God often come during dark, desperate times, when God’s people have been crying out to Him for a fresh touch.
Dr. Tim Beougher, former professor of mine at SBTS, wisely writes, “every believer ought to be on their knees in prayer, praying for God to do something. Our churches desperately need revival. Our nation desperately needs awakening. We ought to all be crying out to God, asking Him to do something new.
“If this movement becomes a spiritual awakening, it won’t just be Christians talking about it,” Beougher said. “Everyone in America will know what’s going on, because it will be transforming our culture.”
Beougher wrote his master’s thesis on the 1970 Asbury Revival and its impact on Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and coauthored with Lyle W. Dorsett, “Accounts of a Campus Revival: Wheaton College 1995.”
“Ultimately, I think we have to fall back on the sovereignty of God,” Beougher told Baptist Press. “I think G. Campbell Morgan said it well. He said, ‘We cannot cause the wind of the Spirit to blow, but we can set our sails to catch the wind when it does blow.’”
The Streams of God
Kentucky experienced a huge amount of rain this past week. During the last hour of our drive to Wilmore, we saw creeks and streams overflowing their banks. The psalmist wrote, "The streams of God are filled with water to provide the people with grain, for so you have ordained it. You drench its furrows and level its ridges; you soften it with showers and bless its crops. You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance" (Psalm 65:9-11 NIV).
I thought as we approached Wilmore, "The spiritual streams are full, and God is pouring Himself out."
May the Lord continue pouring Himself out - and not just at Asbury - but all over the nation and world. "LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, LORD. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known" (Habakkuk 3:2 NIV).
Click here to sign up for my e-newsletter, Faith, Family, and Freedom. I also plan on starting a podcast later this year.
See my friend Wayne Atcheson’s book, The Asbury Revival: When God Used Students to Wake a Nation.
See also some excellent commentary on the Asbury Revival from Tim Beougher, Bill Elliff, Timothy Tennant, Bryant Sims, and Lee Grady.
See God is Moving: 10 Observations from Asbury Revival by Rob Jackson
See 40 Days of Seeking God: For Revival, Elections, and Key Leaders by Greg Frizzell
View J. Edwin Orr’s The Role of Prayer in Spiritual Awakening and his History of Revival series.
Resources on historical revivals and spiritual awakenings: Firefall: How God Shaped History through Revivals by Malcolm McDow and Alvin Reid; Fresh Encounter: God's Pattern for Spiritual Awakening by Henry and Richard Blackaby; Revival Now by James Burns with Tom Phillips
Tuesday, February 14, 2023
When God Does it Again
"Holiness Unto the Lord." Those words are engraved behind the platform at Hughes Auditorium at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. Since my own college days, I've heard of the outpouring of the Lord that occurred on Asbury's campus in 1970. My pastor showed a video one Sunday evening, a documentary about that 1970 divine moment. Like many others, since hearing about what God did then, I've asked Him many times to do it again.
One of my colleagues at BGEA, Wayne Atcheson, wrote a book two years ago about that divine moment: The Asbury Revival: When God Used Students to Wake a Nation.
For years, I've shown people the video "When God Comes," a documentary on the revival.
How awesome to hear this past week of a similar outpouring currently going on at Asbury.
One of my former seminary professors, Tim Beougher, sat in Hughes Auditorium on Monday of this week. He wrote the following thoughts about this campus revival:
"I have had several people ask my thoughts about what is taking place at Asbury University right now. For those who don’t know me, I have a bit of background with college revivals. I wrote my Th.M. Thesis on the 1970 Asbury Revival and how it impacted Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. I was one of two faculty members present for all the revival services at Wheaton College in 1995. I have written book chapters on what took place in 1970 and 1995 and another book chapter on Student Revivals throughout history. I have taught courses on Revival and Spiritual Awakening at Wheaton College, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I have studied this subject for over four decades. Now none of that means my viewpoint is automatically correct, but I’m not a newcomer to discussions about revival.
For some background and interpretation of what is happening at Asbury, I direct you to Facebook posts from four men whom I respect: Lawson Stone, Denny Burk, Bill Elliff, and Kenny Rager (you can find all these men on Facebook – those who are more tech savvy can perhaps give links to their postings in the comment section below).
I spent the afternoon today (Monday, Feb. 13) in Hughes Auditorium, followed by a delightful dinner and conversation with Dr. Robert Coleman. Dr. Coleman was a student at Asbury during the 1950 revival and was a professor there during the 1970 revival.
I’m not going to repeat all the helpful observations/insights posted by Stone, Burk, Elliff, and Rager – you can read those for yourself. Here are a few random thoughts from my time there today.
1. The manifest presence of God filled Hughes Auditorium. I experienced that same overwhelming sense of God’s presence each day/night during the 1995 Wheaton Revival. Joseph Tson came one night during the Wheaton Revival and told me the manifest presence of God there was exactly what he had experienced in Romania.
2. The leadership there did a magnificent job of balancing 'freedom' and 'order.' As one of four faculty/staff at Wheaton College who bore that responsibility for 5 days in 1995, I know the incredible challenges of trying to maintain that balance. Pray for those in leadership that they will continue to steward well this divine moment.
3. How do we know if what we think might be a revival is a genuine work of God? One unmistakable sign will be repentance. J. Edwin Orr, the great historian of revival, once remarked that we really don’t understand what we are praying for when we pray for revival – we think we are praying for ecstasy, and yes, joy is a by-product of revival. But true revival doesn’t begin in ecstasy, it begins with agony. It doesn’t begin with laughter but with tears. The Bible teaching this afternoon and several of the testimonies focused on repentance – not just feeling sorry for our sin but with the Lord’s help seeking to remove it as far as we can from our lives.
4. Related to a deeper work of the Spirit, I mentioned to my church recently that I haven’t heard much talk among evangelicals in recent years about 'dying to self.' As a new believer in the 1970s, that spiritual discipline was thrust before me on a regular basis, but I don’t hear much about it anymore. This afternoon there was teaching on dying to self that was followed by a directed prayer time asking God to help us do just that. The focus was clear: die to self and live for Christ and others. I do think that is biblical.
5. The worship leaders did what worship leaders should do – they were not performers but led us to the throne of grace in worship. Within the crowd there was a mixture of times of quiet deep reverence and loud vocal celebration. I’m not a shouter – either by temperament or by tribe – but some of our brothers and sisters are – and they worshipped Christ with exuberance.
6. A word of exhortation to all who journey to Wilmore. In Luke 7 we read the account of a woman washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and anointing them with perfume. The Pharisee who was there was indignant at what he saw as a waste of valuable perfume – in his eyes, Jesus wasn’t worth such extravagant worship. This passage reminds us that in every worship setting there will be three groups: the one being worshipped (the Lord); the worshippers; and spectators. How can you tell if you are a spectator and not a worshipper? Because you will be critical of how other people are worshipping, without realizing you aren’t worshipping at all! For years my prayer when I enter a sanctuary has been, “Lord, help me today to be a worshipper and not a spectator.” I whispered that prayer as I entered Hughes Auditorium this afternoon, and God graciously answered. I had sweet fellowship with my Savior, surrounded by hundreds of others doing the same.
I could share other observations, but the four men mentioned above have captured many more elements in their posts, and I encourage you to read what they have written.
One final caution – throughout the history of revivals, critics have pointed to some type of 'excess' accompanying a revival and tried to argue that 'excess' discredited the entire revival moment and meant it wasn’t truly a work of God. Jonathan Edwards answered that criticism during the First Great Awakening by using a helpful phrase: 'in the main.' What is at the heart of the movement? What is happening 'in the main?' There will always be “excess” on the fringe, due to overly excited and not yet completely sanctified human beings and/or to Satanic opposition, but what is taking place 'in the main?' That is a helpful grid as we evaluate movements like that taking place now at Asbury.
What every believer should be doing right now, regardless of what you think about the early reports out of Asbury, is praying. Who would deny that we need revival in our churches and spiritual awakening in our land? God has visited this nation with powerful awakenings before – we study those great movements of revival in church history classes. Is Asbury the spark of another awakening? I don’t know – but I’m praying – and you should be too!"
It's estimated that more than a million Christians in America have been praying - with many fasting and praying - for genuine, Holy Spirit sent revival and awakening - for more than two decades. I've told my congregations for years now that only such a move of God will save this nation.
LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, LORD. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy (Habakkuk 3:2 NIV).
Check out the article, Revival Breaks Out at Asbury University, by my friend and former BGEA colleague, Lee Weeks.
And Bill Elliff writes from a first-hand account about the quiet order of the work of God at Asbury.
Read other reports about the current Asbury Revival from Dr. Timothy Tennent, Bill Elliff, and Lee Grady.
Read other reports about the current Asbury Revival from Dr. Timothy Tennent, Bill Elliff, and Lee Grady.
Click here to sign up for my e-newsletter, Faith, Family, and Freedom. I also plan on starting a podcast later this year.
Click here to sign up for my e-newsletter, Faith, Family, and Freedom. I also plan on starting a podcast later this year.
Monday, February 13, 2023
Lessons Learned from Church Hurt
So writes Anne Graham Lotz in her book Wounded by God's People, where she shares her own experiences of mistreatment by churches, pastors, and spiritual leaders.
As a new, young pastor right out of seminary, for a couple of years I found myself hesitant at denominational meetings around our state to mention the name of my home church. Time and time again, sitting around tables with other pastors, someone would ask, "So what church did you grow up in?" I would cringe and tell them, and inevitably someone at the table would immediately erupt with, "Have you heard what is going on at that church these days?!" or a similar question. On more than one occasion I heard other pastors use the word "rape" to describe the situation.
I wrote an almost 300-page doctoral thesis called Moving Forward: The Factors that Make People Resilient to Spiritual Abuse in Southern Baptist Churches. Please pardon the fancy, academic title! And the study was in no way a slam against Southern Baptists nor pastors. I belong to that denomination, have been an SB pastor, and interviewed people who had been in SB churches. The following are some excerpts from that study . . .
Like the pastor who wanted his church to relocate. They disagreed, so he paid his son to burn down the building!
Or the realtor who voiced opposition in a business meeting to the pastor's grandiose dream of relocating the church to a price of more than $10 million. Shortly thereafter, the man was called into the pastor's office and told he was not qualified to teach Sunday School anymore (after teaching for about 20 years in the same church) because he had been divorced decades earlier.
The pastor who had people write down the names of people who disagreed in business meetings with his ideas.
The senior pastor who taught his people that their job was to submit to him and obey him - even if he was wrong!
Or the denominational worker who came in to handle a church conflict between a staff and the senior pastor, and he and insisted that the women who worked in the church office were not allowed to discuss with their husbands what went on in the church office!! (That is a huge red flag, and it reeks of manipulation. The Bible says that a husband and wife are one flesh.)
Those are just a few of the many, many nauseating situations I have heard of, experienced, or read about.
is achieved as free people freely submit to one another. How it happens is
a mystery; the process is often very messy and requires mutual risk-taking.
Unanimity or uniformity, on the other hand, can be achieved with
autocratic controls. It can be prescribed, measured and monitored. It
is essentially external, whereas true unity is first internal. Uniformity
looks for correct behavior, whereas unity wants a right spirit. Unanimity
demands that we all experience God in the same ways and express that
experience with the same vocabulary. Unity delights in differences.
Spiritual abusers are able to impose unanimity and uniformity because of the
authoritarian hierarchies they construct.
A Call to Unity
Arterburn and Felton write, “Often a strong leader mistakes a position of leadership for a position free from accountability. The leader will set up a toxic-faith system that allows for free rein and no accountability. There may be a board of directors, elders, or deacons, but when the authoritarian ruler picks them, he or she picks people who are easily manipulated and easily fooled. What appears to be a board of accountability is in fact a rubber-stamp group that merely gives credibility to the leader’s moves. These board members become the co-conspirators of the persecutor and permit the toxic leader to persecute without interruption. Then when a practice is called into questions, such as an extremely high salary, the persecuting dictator justifies it by saying the board made the decision or approved it. The illusion of accountability becomes more dangerous than those organizations that blatantly disregard accountability,” 141-142.
In many abusive churches the leadership emphasizes Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority,” in a way implying absolute obedience, or obedience unless asked to specifically violate a clear biblical teaching. Mary Alice Chrnalogar points out the error in this approach. First, the Greek word translated obey, peithomai, refers to voluntary trust in response to proven character and the power of persuasion, not absolute obedience. The Bible uses another Greek word, peitharcheo to refer to implicit obedience (Acts 5:29). Second, the word translated “submit” means to yield or get out of the way rather than following an order. It implies not hindering the leader’s work. Third, the word authority, though inserted in the New International Version and the J. B. Phillips, is not found in the Greek text. So, the verse means to listen to your leaders , and if they win you over by persuasion, yield to their advice. Mary Alice Chrnalogar, Twisted Scriptures: Breaking Free from Churches that Abuse (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997; 43-44, 90-91).
Don't be deceived or manipulated to follow or protect a leader displaying punitive behavior in the name of "not touching God's anointed." Book after book on spiritual abuse say that line is used repeatedly in abusive situations to “protect” the abusive leader.
The co-conspirators, driven as well by the need to conquer, are the most dangerous followers whose goal is to make the persecutor look good. They are the caretakers of the entire system, staying close to the persecutor; their role is to protect the leader’s image. This person or persons will be the heavy, or sometimes colloquially called “the hammer,” in carrying out the desires of the persecutor; often it is the co-conspirator who organizes the other followers for polarization, mobilization, and labeling. Because of his proximity to the persecutor, he often gains the trust of other followers. Wayne Oates calls the co-conspirators the “palace guard.” According to Oates, in “order to stay in power and on top, they [the persecutors] surround themselves with a palace guard that protects them from and informs them about those whom they distrust.”
The enablers, unlike the co-conspirators, are driven to survive, not conquer. Instead of rocking the boat, they give blind adherence to the system and its leaders. It is almost impossible for these people, usually good people, to embrace the notion that the establishment could be wrong. The enablers carry out the dirty work of the persecutor and co-conspirator, have the primary goal of maintaining peace and the status quo, and turn a deaf ear to criticism of the system. Much like enablers in the dysfunctional family system of an alcoholic, they overlook the wrongs done and support the leadership, unable to bring themselves to leave or dismantle the system in order to do what is right.
The fourth role in an abusive system is that of the victim. These people are compliant, blindly supporting the leadership and never rocking the boat. They may go to great personal sacrifice in order to support the pastor and church. Because of a deep need to be valuable to and a part of the system, they will easily play into the hands of the persecutors and co-conspirators, who manipulate and exploit them. The persecutors and co-conspirators will use manipulation and threats to silence the victims and keep their victimization a secret if necessary. If the victims ever discover the system is abusive, they feel a great sense of betrayal and disillusionment.
Many of the people in these systems are victims. They are good people. They love the Lord, their pastor, and their church. They want to do right. So if you find yourself in such a situation, try to remember that many people are good folks just caught up in something bigger than them, not as good as them, and often that is using them.
Misuse of power
A dysfunctional system is one that does not function the way it was intended. God intends the church to function as a place characterized by order, health, and edification. Leaders receive entrusted authority to guide people in God’s will and to benefit followers. When that power is consistently misused, abuse occurs. Bloomer writes, “Spiritual abuse, much like sexual abuse, is the perversion of something beautiful; this altering disrupts God’s designed order in the life of a person, family, church, or other system.” The misuse of power includes several qualities: authoritarian, punitive, demanding, closed communication, and no accountability.
Abusive churches have authoritarian leadership that expects unquestioned obedience to her pastors or other structural leaders. Arterburn and Felton say that the first rule of a toxic-faith system is that the leader must be in control at all times. This attempt at controlling the church fosters “an unhealthy form of dependency, spiritually and interpersonally, by focusing on themes of submission, loyalty, and obedience to those in authority.”
Some authoritarian pastors may have been misled by a historical mentor. Watchman Nee, noted Chinese pastor and author, wrote a book entitled Spiritual Authority. Nee argued that God delegates his authority to human leaders who represent God to their followers. The response of the people should be unquestioned obedience; authority replaces reason, right, and wrong. Even if the authority is wrong, Nee argues, one should obey them unto the Lord. Though Nee provided many helpful resources to the Body of Christ, this one teaching has probably added to much confusion and misuse among spiritual leaders. Both Henry Blackaby and Ken Blue challenge Nee’s teaching. His error may have added to the tendencies and structures of some abusive leaders and structures.
Blackaby writes, “It is easy to see how dictatorial leaders could abuse this teaching in order to justify their tyrannical leadership style. Cult groups demand absolute obedience to their leaders. They denounce independent thought by their followers. Nothing could be more unbiblical! . . . God does appoint leaders into secular as well as religious leadership positions. . . . Nevertheless, while God may choose to work through leaders to accomplish his purposes, obeying a leader is not necessarily equal to obeying God. God will tolerate no substitutes for a personal relationship with Him. He exercises his lordship directly over his followers. People who obey leaders as though they were responding to God are in danger of committing idolatry. ” Henry Blackaby and Richard Blackaby, Spiritual Leadership: Moving People on to God’s Agenda (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 2001), 90-91.
I have given away Ken Blue's book Healing from Spiritual Abuse probably several dozen times. Years ago, I gave a copy to a lady who had just left our home church. She emailed me in a few days and told me that she had ordered ten more and given them all out!
Blue shares helpful insights, such as the "no-talk rule" that often occurs in an oppressive religious situation . . .
Allowing such deception and suppression to exist within a fellowship not only fosters numerous abuses but is a flat denial of the meaning of Christian fellowship. If there are certain issues – such as leadership, decision-making, or how money is spent – which you cannot discuss with members of your church, you do not participate in Christian fellowship with them."
Another abusive result of the “don’t talk” rule is that when people from inside the group finally break the silence and begin to talk about the group’s problems, they are persecuted. They are told that everything was just fine until they started causing trouble. (Incestuous families react in the same way toward the first daughter to blow the whistle on her father and her family.)
If the whistle-blowers reveal the group’s problems to the outside world, the group will mobilize to discredit them. Often the troublemaker’s mental and emotional state is brought into question. Almost never are the actual issues raised every admitted, let alone dealt with. The real problems are not acknowledged; instead, the whistle-blowers themselves become the problem. Thus honest examination is averted and denial maintained.
Hope in Jesus
I never saw my own parents so devastated and defeated as I did then by the way a few people treated them during that time many years ago. My mother told their next pastor that if her father and sons weren’t pastors, she would have never gone to church again. One woman I interviewed told me me at the time that leaving her church was more difficult emotionally than going through her divorce. I’m so thankful those days are over and that so many of the people who were treated maliciously did for the most part move forward positively. And that the church itself eventually regrouped and moved forward positively to better days.
People abused by churches can easily wallow in bitterness, shame, or dysfunction. Some can even lose their faith.
How important it is to slowly move forward. Some of the resources highlighted in this article can be a great help if you or someone you love is going through such a situation. If you want to start with just one resource, I recommend Ken Blue's Healing Spiritual Abuse.
I’m thankful that our hope is not in a church, structure, or person(s), but our hope is in Jesus! There is help and healing in Him!!
Anne Graham Lotz. Wounded by God's People.