Spiritual Growth and Abuse: A Cautionary Tale

“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”  James 3:1

What is spiritual growth?  Surely, I thought, it can’t have anything to do with sitting in this tension-filled courtroom, my stomach twisting in on itself as I fight back tears, listening to these heart-wrenching testimonies of my dear friends.  This is overwhelming.  This was not at all how I expected things to end.  Not at all.

Spiritual growth was not on my mind three years before when I met all of these friends for the first time.  I had recently returned to the fold, as they say.  After spending my late teens putting Jesus on the back burner, I was now in my twenties and longing for Him once more.  I had returned to the church of my childhood, but was struggling to find a place in its “College and Career Department.”  Sure, there were social events, but they seemed contrived and flippant.  There was also a disconnect between the high-level training I was receiving in college (I was earning a BS in Biochemistry) and the teaching I found there.  I had questions that seemed unanswerable – the biggest being how I could possibly reconcile my knowledge of science with the ancient and allegedly outdated texts of my faith.  How could I be a scientist and a Christian?

Pressing as these questions were, what bothered me most was why I felt so empty.  I’d sit through services in the church’s old sanctuary, with its dark wood and cushioned pews, soaring ceilings, and light-filled stained glass, filled with a familiar child-like wonder.  Yet, I’d feel a void the moment I left the towering building.  I loved this old church where I had grown up, had given my life to Christ, and had been baptized, but I was unable to find my place here as an adult.  It was perplexing.

It wasn’t until I visited another church that all the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place.  A fellow college student had invited me after discussing spiritual things over lunch one day.  I had shared with him some of my doubts about Genesis and science.  He told me that his church discussed those kinds of issues on a regular basis.  I was intrigued.  “But, I must warn you,” he hesitated, “it’s not what you’re used to.  My church is very small and we meet in a house.”

A house church was the last place I thought I’d find myself.  Growing up in that large, well-known, and televised church, I didn’t even know what a house church was. Yet, in an unpretentious service in a cramped living room, I’d find the answers I had been looking for.  I’d find answers and much more.

What is spiritual growth and how are churches failing Christians in this area?  This was the central topic of discussion in this church.  In fact, it had been the driving force of its creation about fifteen years prior to my arrival.  How does one grow spiritually – how does a believer commit their lives to Christ, taking up their Cross daily to follow Him?  What does it mean to be “in Christ”?  Yes, I thought, these are my questions!  And here I found what seemed like reasonable answers.  I decided to leave that church of my youth and tether my life to this small gathering of believers, come what may.

There was nothing unorthodox about this church’s beliefs when it came to what I call the Nicene Creed core of Christianity.  The gospel was clearly communicated in the church’s Statement of Beliefs.  At least three specific things were taught as essential for spiritual growth and a healthy church environment:  1) a commitment to developing genuine, deep relationships within the church based on loving accountability 2) solid, high-level biblical teaching and disciplined personal, contextual bible study and prayer and 3) a relationship with a knowledgeable biblical shepherd.

They thought that if a church would consistently carry out these things, it would avoid the many pitfalls that had been experienced in other churches.  It was firmly believed that the New Testament set forth a church model that, if followed, would produce healthy, vibrant, and highly effective churches and Christians.  So, that empty feeling with which I had been struggling?  I was told that it wasn’t my fault, after all!  The church had failed me.

It all sounded very good on paper.  Admittedly, I was somewhat uncomfortable about the idea of accountability and being close to the pastor of this church.  The accountability part seemed scary – could I trust these people enough to share my life with them?  Would they hurt me?  Would they reject me when they discovered how sinful I was?

I was assigned a mentor to take me through some basic doctrine and spiritual growth materials developed by the pastor.  This was an essential process one had to go through before becoming a member.  There was also a membership covenant to be signed when these materials (called “the notebook”) were finished.  This was somewhat new and strange to me, but it made sense given how serious this church was about having committed believers.  They wouldn’t let just anybody in.

Still, it was obvious that the members of this church had a genuine and deep love for each other.  They were committed to doing this difficult Christian life together, like a family, and seeing this helped me understand at least one source of the emptiness I had been feeling.  I had been lonely without realizing it.  These people really knew each other!  I saw Christian community in action with them as they truly spurred one another on to love and good deeds.  I learned from them what it meant to be long-suffering and letting love cover a multitude of sins.  The latter was absolutely necessary for these people were really close.  I began to long for this.  With such people, I couldn’t help but open up.

Another attraction was the teaching.  Like I said, I had been struggling with the lackluster level of teaching at my old church.  Here, this new pastor was truly gifted.  He excelled at the difficult task of bridging the gap between the scholarly world and laity without losing any depth.  It was from him that I learned that one could approach the Bible as literature – that each book fit into a literary genre, had structure, and a flow of logic that could be followed and explored for meaning.  This was a far cry from the memory verse, topical sermon approach I had known up until then.  He didn’t condense all the riches of the text into an alliterated, five-point sermon.  Instead, he taught each book as a living whole, with each verse and passage as part of a larger context (literary, cultural, historical, and biblical).  Through his teaching, a love for God’s word – its wisdom, beauty, power, and significance – reignited in me.  Most significantly, the quality of his teaching was no different from the kind I was receiving in my science courses at the university.  In a way, we were receiving a free seminary level education through him.  This was much more than I had even known to ask for!

Over time, my doubts about him being my biblical shepherd faded into the periphery, too.  It was obvious that the church respected him tremendously and not just for his teaching abilities.  I heard story after story about how he selflessly poured his time into people’s lives – helping them overcome various problems like broken marriages, rebellious children, difficulties with extended family members (and there were many), addictions, etc.  He had a library of almost 10,000 books, many of which were books on psychology and counseling.  When someone had a difficulty, he’d put hours into researching how to help them.  I was told of countless sleepless nights he spent helping people in the church.  In what little spare time he had, he was also developing bible study software.  He seemed to truly take his calling as biblical shepherd seriously and I began to believe that I could trust him with my life.  And, so I did.

No one is perfect.  Sometimes, we are willing to give a person the benefit of the doubt, perhaps even going so far as to overlook obvious faults, because of all the wonderful things they do.  When this is done enough, eventually we grow a kind of blindness to that person’s inconsistencies, especially if we feel indebted to them in some way.  It’s easy to become numbed.  We did this.  No one is perfect, after all.

After the newness wore off, little things that had escaped my notice began to bother me.  For one, the pastor had nothing good to say about other churches and ministries.   The level of focus he spent every Sunday criticizing others disturbed me.  He had a peculiar victim complex, too, for there were leaders from other churches that questioned his maturity and motives.  This is strange, I thought, for he teaches us to think of others and not of ourselves, yet, he spends so much time focusing on himself and how he was been misunderstood.  And, I saw that though he might teach forgiveness, he shows very little mercy to believers in other ministries outside our church.  Still, like everyone else, I gave him the benefit of the doubt.  Look at all that he does for us, I reasoned.  He knows so much more than I do, too.  I made excuses.

Another concern was the public shaming that would occur from time to time.  The church took personal sin very seriously.  Sometimes, people that had been struggling with some kind of habitual sin were put through a process of restoration.  However, it wasn’t really a private matter.  The church was made aware that these people were in something called “Special Care Status.”  This disturbed me.  But feeling like such a babe in matters of spiritual growth, I decided not to make an issue of it and chalked it up to my own inexperience.

In fact, I’ve only named a few, but there were many of the pastor’s behaviors that church overlooked.  Excuses were made like “Look at all that he does” and “He has it so hard in ‘this’ and/or ‘that’ (fill in the blank) area of his life, that’s why he does what he does” and more.  He had difficulties with his own family, a key point being that his wife wanted very little to do with the church.  We always believed him when he’d represent his behavior as “above reproach” with them, though.  It is a deep regret many of us have that we didn’t listen to them.  They had it the toughest by far, as we’d eventually learn.

It soon became evident to me that everyone was afraid to question his authority, too.  He had a strong, domineering personality and he could be intimidating if someone disagreed with him, often destroying their credibility with others as a result.  After all, who else knew all of our deepest struggles and faults?  As our biblical shepherd, we gave him access to our innermost sins and failings.  He would make merciless use of this private knowledge if anyone crossed him.  With all of our talk about accountability, he had none.  In a sense, he was in a separate category from everyone else.  Still, amazingly, we overlooked these and excuses were made for him.

What we were counseled to do with concerned family members was perhaps the worst part.    My parents weren’t at all happy that I left their church to join this small one.  They were skeptical and resistant, especially of the pastor and the level of control he exerted over my life.  When I shared this with others in the church, they said that this was normal.  Many parents of church members had the same reaction and were cut off as a result.  Thankfully, I had come in on the tail end of the church.  It was only three years after joining that I’d be sitting in that courtroom.   My parents didn’t have to wait long to get me back.

There is much left out for the sake of time and discretion – several lives were profoundly hurt by this pastor and it’s not my story to tell.  He was found guilty of sexual assault that difficult day in court and, I believe, some modicum of justice has been served in this life, as a result.  He had been abusing his authority as pastor/counselor to prey on women in the church.  Suffice it to say, there is tremendous wisdom in the admonitions of the New Testament to hold church leaders to a higher and more stringent standard.  By virtue of their station, they have great influence over their flock and their abuses are more powerfully damaging as a result.

I can say now that spiritual growth is not nearly as simple and controllable a process as I had believed.  There are not a set of guidelines to follow that will ensure “success” (whatever that is). We are messy and unpredictable and we bring this into any church we join.  Our lack of predictability and messiness is a truth at the core of the gospel and I think it is something that, in our idealistic zeal, we thought we could master.  That is why we were willing to put up with so much interference in our lives and inconsistency in our pastor.  We reasoned that it was a small sacrifice to pay for the greater cause of creating the best church possible.  Somehow, the highest aim – that of seeking to know and love our Lord Jesus – got lost in our grand, earthly mission.  In the end, this pastor wanted us to follow him more.  And, in the end, we did and he led us down a dark path.

Even so, the Lord could be found at work on that dark path.  I can see aspects of my character that were refined during that time. Sometimes, I laugh in thinking that perhaps God had to allow me to go through such intense flames to burn through some of my immaturity and pride – they were that entrenched.  If not for the crucible, I might still have some of the same destructive patterns of belief and behavior today.  Maybe, I was simply too dull in these areas for a milder process to work.
As an aside, I must say that the laughter helps, too.  “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly,” quipped G.K. Chesterton, and there is much wisdom to be found in this.

Sometimes some of life’s greatest gifts are wrapped in pain, aren’t they?  I have mentioned a few of the gifts that I received in this church – a wise mentor and some life-long friendships.  In fact, it was these very relationships that enabled most of us to hold on to our faith in the face of so much pain and disillusionment when the church failed.  Finally, I met my wonderful husband there.  If this is what I had to go through to meet him, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

It has taken a long time to process the events of those turbulent years in that little house church.  Not a week goes by that I am not reminded of it in some way.  I still feel pangs of regret that dive deep into my soul.  I imagine I will learn from that time for years to come, perhaps until I die.

It was just a few years after that day in court that I would be reading the children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit, with our firstborn (unknown to us, I was pregnant with her at the trial).  The following well-known passage rang true in a new way – ringing in a clearer key, if you will:

“‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’

‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.

‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’[1]

What is spiritual growth?  In the end, I can see that it is something that happens to us more than it is something we do.  Our Lord loves us and as the Apostle Paul says “He who began a good work in [us] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”[2]  We can trust Him with this process.  I didn’t know this.  I am still learning this.

Our God does indeed work in all things for the good of those who strive to love Him.  I have experienced this first hand.  Like the Velveteen Rabbit, we may become battered and bruised in the process, but, in the end, we will emerge a bit more real and a bit more ready for heaven, a place that C.S. Lewis wrote was more real than this life, calling heaven “reality itself.”[3]

Here is a beautiful sonnet by poet and priest Malcolm Guite that reminds me of our experience and brings to mind the truth of our Lord as  “The Good Shepherd”.

[1] Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit (Marshfield Hills, MA: Moon Lady Press, 2007)

[2] Philippians 1:6, ESV

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York, HarperCollins, 2001), 70

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