Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Damage We Do To Each Other

"We are inclined to believe those whom we do not know because they have never deceived us."
--Samuel Johnson

I have been struggling with my faith for the last year or so. That is not to say that I am struggling with the concept of God or whether there actually is one. Instead, I have been struggling with what it means to be a follower of Christ. Which of the many beliefs that have been imparted to me over the years, through some sort of spiritual osmosis, do I actually believe...and why? I have never been one to accept part and parcel of whatever someone has told me to believe. I have always had the need to look over things for myself and come to my own conclusions, which sometimes were the same and sometimes drastically different from those around me.

When we left our church about two and a half years ago, it left me with a lot of collateral damage. Although there had been a tipping point, which ultimately made us make the painful decision to leave, things had been brewing for about 6-9 months previously. The church had started pursuing a doctrine of deliverance from demons that was disturbing on many levels. This particular doctrine held that all the Old Testament generational curses still had effect in the present world. One could be a Christian and simultaneously controlled by a demonic force of some sort. Careful to try and not run everybody out the doors in a mad stampede, the leadership pastor labeled this control "oppression", avoiding the highly charged term "possession".

The teaching went something like this--If you, or your parents/grandparents, had participated in some sort of occult activity, or habitual sin, then you had some sort of "hook" within you that could be used by Satan to "oppress" you and cause you to struggle with the same sin or let Satan have a portion of control within your life.

It was based on Exodus 20:4b--

"I the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me."

and Deuteronomy 5:9--

"You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me"

An intricate theology was built around these verses, replete with detailed descriptions of "soul ties", how to rid people of them, and what might happen when praying for people who were demonically "oppressed". Needless to say, such a dramatic turn in theology at a non-charismatic, biblically conservative, evangelical church caused enormous problems. It wasn't helped by the fact that the pastor had begun teaching these principles in a very under-the-radar kind of way, beginning with a small session on Sunday nights, and later beginning a prayer group on Wednesday nights to implement this new spiritual practice of praying for people's "deliverance". He was very careful in the way he introduced things to the congregation. Some would say he was being cautious, others would say manipulative was the right term.

I have come to believe the latter is closer to the truth.

Once the pastor had developed a core group, who had come to accept this new teaching, he was emboldened to begin introducing it in the normal Sunday morning service; even inviting the proponent and originator of this particular doctrine to use our church as a "school" for teaching lay leaders how to "deliver" others in their respective congregations. That was pretty much the beginning of the end as far as the health of the church went.

As the rest of the congregation became aware of the intricacies of the teaching being presented, several important questions began to arise.

1. Does the regeneration of a Christian break all claims that Satan has on an individual?

2. Is the individual Christian really at the mercy of the actions of their forefathers?

3. Is it true that committing some type of sin "opens the door" for Satanic influence and control in the life of the believer?

There were many more nuanced questions, but these were the biggies.

What made things worse was that the congregation had been covertly divided. In any church, there will always be members who disagree on doctrinal issues. Most of the time, they are not important in the big picture and there is room for a certain amount of freedom in the individual's life and spiritual bent. As long as members don't make it their mission to "convert" everybody into their identical way of believing, peace and diversity can be had. Of course, the essentials of Christianity must be held in common--Jesus as the Son of God and Savior, Sin, Forgiveness. A standard reading of the Apostles' Creed or even the Nicene Creed conveys the roots at the core of Christianity. Anything more detailed than that is usually up for grabs.

The pastor's decision to make this a new article of belief for the church, and any newly appointed elders, and to have certain ministries dominated by these questionable teachings had upset the balance of co-existence. Also, it is hard to argue against a teaching that states that believers can be controlled and influenced by demonic forces. Objecting to the teaching instantly places you in a category of a possibly "oppressed" individual being used to cause strife and division in God's Kingdom. Nothing like head games to cast doubt on other people, their motives, and their spiritual state--a very useful tool in the hands of someone pushing an agenda.

The problem with all of this was that by the time the teaching had wormed its way into the church, several couples/families who were devoted, godly, salt-of-the earth kind of people had fully embraced it. Their motives were pure. They were loving people. How do you look people you respect--and have come to know over the course of seven years--in the eye and say that they have bought into something that is not only wrong, but damaging to the church and to an individual's spiritual life? How do you pray with people who think you are less spiritual or demonically influenced because you haven't accepted the "truth" they believe in? How do you listen to a pastor who has begun to use the pulpit manipulatively, in one sermon comparing those who reject his new teaching to the people of Gerasenes who asked Jesus to leave when he healed some demon-possessed men.

You can't. You worry about what visitors who just walked into the church are thinking. You wonder how an elder board, half of which doesn't believe the teaching, can be persuaded to sign a statement that says that everything is hunky-dory. You wince as a member is asked to leave because he is a vocal opponent of the teaching. So, you make the painful decision to leave people you care about because you no longer feel comfortable inviting people to the church you attend. You walk out the door, your spirit torn asunder and bloody from the most disillusioning experience in your life. You lick your wounds.

The damage my faith has sustained has been extensive. It isn't based in my belief in God, or disappointment with my life. I do not falter when things go wrong, because I have no expectation that following Christ means that I will never suffer or never have obstacles to overcome. However, my faith in others' abilities to "hear from God" or "be led by the Holy Spirit" has taken a huge beating. I don't even completely trust myself and my own experiences at times. I look back at things I have believed or said and question which ones were "true" and which ones were merely some form of emotional rationalization.

It's been hard. There have been a few things I have flip-flopped on--decisions that sometimes seem providential, and at other times mere flukes. I have had to rethink what it means to be "inspired" and what the purpose of my experiential spiritual life is. I'm still uncovering and examining the layers within and without me.

I have come to the conclusion that the most damaging thing to most people's faith is not our relationship with God, but the relationship we have with other Christians.


Rick said...

Reading your post, "I feel your pain" on many levels, I guess. I've been through something similar, and the problem seems to come from grabbing onto any one thing - with you it was the deliverance thing, with me it was a particular charismatic legalism, with others it might be just about anything. But when there's an unbalance, a lack of harmony between things that might be able to co-exist, I think we tear things apart. What you've described, I can also point out in scripture. But it's not enough to build a whole doctrine on, at least not one that's worth having. And then we hurt others who don't buy in, just for having a different opinion, or maybe just not the same intensity. We judge motivations, get judged motivationally, etc. Anyway - I pray you're finding healing in all this, or at least moving forward in something vaguely positive from where you've come.

terri said...

Thanks rick!

In general I'm OK...and definitely better off than I was about a year or so ago.

However, I have found that certain spiritual muscles have atrophied. I catch myself thinking some things that I previously would have found shocking or resisted without giving a second thought. It cuts both ways. Sometimes it has given me freedom, at others it has made me cynical.

Thanks for stopping by!

Jazzki said...

Yah, definitely, Terri: other believers can be a sore disappointment. I've been thru that several times (tho not 4 the same reason you here so heartbreakingly describe). That and the inscrutability of God eventually brought me to the pt. of where for me, the bottom line of the Xtian life is "In hope against hope he believed" and "Tho He slay me, yet will I trust Him."

BTW, do ya think mebbe the guy needed a theology tune-up? ;)