The other day, I was reflecting back on the time of my life when I was a Christian. Yes, there were many good and great things that happened both when I was a Christian and because I was a Christian. But the feeling I get looking back at the fifteen years I spent as a true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool aspiring preacher/pastor was that I was living someone else's faith.
This, unfortunately, was in large part due to the fact that I became part of a church group that has a lot of the hallmarks of a cult, including:
a. An expectation of unquestioning or enthusiastic commitment to a leader/authority figure, and a deep reverence for the ideas, thoughts or literature of said leader/authority figure.
b. Questioning, doubt and dissent being looked down upon.
c. Mind-altering practices (such as speaking in tongues).
d. The leadership making authoritative decisions regarding, or interfering in, the personal lives of members.
e. An over-emphasis on reverence for the leaders and the leadership group in general.
f. Middle-tier leaders either have relatively little accountability, the accountability measures in place are vague or ill-defined, or the process to make a complaint about a leader is hard to instigate and/or slow to be acted upon.
g. The leadership induce feelings of shame and guilt in order to exert influence and control over members.
h. Members are expected to devote large amounts of time to the organisation, sometimes at great personal cost.
i. Leaving the organisation is strongly discouraged, and members remaining in the organisation are discouraged from communicating with people who have left the organisation.
(many thanks to CultResearch.Org for these definitions)
This church group I was a part of fit every single definition listed above, Even just typing that list out was very hard for me personally as it brought back memories. They say that when someone comes out of a cult, it takes twenty years of therapy to undo five years of damage. This is definitely true, if not an understatement.
But it got me to thinking - no-one owns Christianity. What I mean by this is that if there is a problem such a doctrinal issue, you can't write to the Christianity help-desk to get an authoritative answer from the manufacturer or reseller.
If you have a complaint about doctrine in a church organisation, typically the only complaints process in place is to talk to someone else in the same church organisation, and as we know from the various investigations into historic sexual abuse allegations, churches have a horrible track record when it comes to resolving complaints satisfactorily.
If you don't like your church, well, in some ways, churches are a lot like banks in that the best way to let them know that you're not happy is to vote with your feet. But some churches work very hard to ensure that members do not feel like leaving, and I mean work very hard.
In my particular case, when I decided I wanted to leave the cult, the leadership got my atheist mother involved. Imagine if a bank tried to manipulate your family members to pressure you into staying as their customer? Something that would be considered unconscionable conduct for a bank is actually something that pretty much par for the course in non-denominational Christianity!
[Now, I do draw a slight distinction between established denomination of Christianity (Catholics, Baptists, Anglicans, et al, that have defined and codified complaints procedures), and those denominations or church groups that are either considered outright cults, or those churches that are so small that the church fraternity becomes a cult of personality based on the leader/s and their literature]
But to highlight my point, let me take you through a hypothetical.
In this hypothetical scenario, I'm a resident of Topeka, Kansas in the United States, I'm a strong Bible-believing Christian, and I have a problem with the doctrine of hate that Westboro Baptist Church pour out. Who do I go to to complain?
Do I go to the police? The police can only intervene in matters of law and order - they can't settle a doctrinal dispute.
What about the courts? No-go again. The courts deal with matters of the law and legislation, not of religious belief. And given the very hands-off approach that the American Constitution forces governments to take with regard to religion, this is a big disincentive to go to the courts for doctrinal remedy. Plus, if you take Westboro Baptist Church to court, chances are they will win - a number of the Phelps-Roper family are lawyers by trade. So this leave either other church/Christian groups, or God himself.
Can I complain to other Christian groups about another church? Not if I want results. Complaining to other Christian groups about Westboro Baptist is like complaining to McDonalds that the Whopper you got last night from Hungry Jacks tasted funny. Furthermore, Westboro Baptist Church are not a part of the wider Baptist Church umbrella (thanks to some clever legal manoeuvring where they kept the name, but distanced themselves from the Baptist hierarchy proper).
And even if Westboro Baptist were somehow part of a larger Christian organisational umbrella, the person who takes the Westboro Baptist leadership in for a dressing down better be ready for a figurative slobberknocker.
So the last place to complain to is God himself. "Lord, these people are giving you and your gospel a bad name!". But the problem is that if God is going to do something, assuming God even wants to do something about the hate certain groups preach in His name, he is taking his sweet time. Westboro Baptist have survived numerous challenges to their existence and their methods, and their principle method of fundraising is by successfully defending litigation.
Or we have to assume the very worst - God, by not causing the Westboro Baptist Church to be disbanded/destroyed, tacitly approves and wants the Westboro Baptist Church to keep doing what they're doing!
No-one owns Christianity. No-one has responsibility for ensuring standards of ethics and practice are adhered to, or even behavioural standards (unless something contravenes legislation, then it becomes a law and order issue), except for the umbrella organisation each church is a part of (if even indeed it is part of one).
If you needed proof that Christianity is not an organised religion, but a collection of sects and cults that trade off the name, the book and vision of a person whose historicity has not been established, then what I have written above is it.
Until next time, stay positive, healthy and rational.
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