A Dissenting Life

sock puppet

Sock puppets don’t talk back

1 John 4:4-6New King James Version (NKJV)

You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error

I have spent most of the last twelve years immersed in dissent or at least it seems that way.  But most of this is a correction to the previous decades wherein I rarely spoke up about anything, did not have an opinion and went out of my way to be tractable and agreeable even when what was going on went against everything I personally held dear. I used to think this was what Christians did.  Since then I have been learning the value of critical thinking, which despite what it seems, is not about criticising everything all the time. It is about testing what you hear against what you know to be true. It is about following those gut feelings that something is wrong and doing the necessary research.   It’s not a comfortable life, but the world is falling apart as you read. You can no longer assume that there are any safe places.  And as one musician whose name escapes me once said ‘There are no de-militarised zones in the Christian life’.  We are in a battle for souls and it seems also for truth.

Here’s the thing.  We spent 15 years in a religious cult.  Women in particular were oppressed and marginalised.  Everything that went wrong was their fault.  Either they were not obeying the elders or they were not obeying their husbands, and the word ‘obey’ was not used loosely. This covered everything from what you believed to what you made for morning tea.  It was like living with Hitler’s S.S.  People were driven to nervous breakdowns and families were destroyed.  I think you can gather why we left.

It took a very long time to understand what had happened to us, not the least because our brains had been sucked out of our skulls with high pressure religious vac-blowers.  We had to learn to think objectively all over again.  In fact, what we realised over time was that we had not even been able to think objectively before that because we had been trained by dysfunctional parenting not to question anything and to see ourselves as useless, helpless idiots with no skills and no hope for a successful future.  That was for the star kids in the family were chosen at birth to be everything we could not be. Anyone raised by narcissists will know to which I refer. Anyone not familiar with this term, please google it, there is a lot of research and testimony to be read.  So joining a cult was the natural outworking of being raised in one, and again, I am not using the word ‘cult’ loosely.

So all of this finally produced people who were very wary but also produced an extreme sensitivity to false doctrines of any stripe. When you have seen what false doctrines do in practice to people’s lives, you take them very personally and seriously.  You also gain a deep understanding of the power of the gospel.  When something is not gospel but being treated as such, it will have no power.  Hence the scripture “a form of godliness but denying the power thereof” (2 Timothy 3:5). In the final analysis we have become your ‘canary in a coal-mine’.  But it is impossible to convey this to anyone in person, it sounds like you are bragging.  It’s not, its the simple truth.

Many ex-cult survivors have done very little to work out what happened to them, they have simply gone their way and ‘recovered’ as best they can and live lives that are comfortable to them.  To be fair to them, they are often too traumatised to do much else. Eventually though, you must do a thorough investigation of how it was that you were able to spend the majority of your adulthood in a ‘church’ which treated people like this or you are going to miss out on all that God has for you. Not only that but I must reiterate that old adage about learning from history or repeating history. I am afraid that in our observation, if you don’t understand what true doctrine actually is, you will make the same mistake of following false doctrines over and over. Get your spiritual herescope working before you go join another church.  There are far too many ‘normal’ looking churches out there which have either imported false doctrines or manufactured their own.

Its important to know why you didn’t sense danger, why you didn’t recognise false teaching and why you were so susceptible to the love bombing which inevitably encompasses first time visitors to abusive churches.

Some members of our family recently visited a church and stayed for a couple of months and noticed some marginally disturbing trends amongst the young adults there, then started to pick up that the leadership were not doing anything about the problems, and in fact were contributing to the problems.  They had to make a decision, which for one person was not that difficult, but for the other was extremely difficult. Nobody likes to think that their fellow Christians are not walking in the light, but in these last days, scripture tells us that there will be many whose love for the truth will grow cold.  Added to this, a quick survey of individuals soon proved that there were those who simply will not brook any dissent or questioning even if that questioning comes from a genuine desire to know why things are the way they are.  One young adult got very hot under the collar because they were questioned about whether the leaders were aware of what was happening amongst the young people. Not only that but it appeared from that same line of questioning that there was a concerning trend towards the old ‘shepherding movement’ culture of confession and ‘mentoring’. This did not look good.

The only way you are going to find out if your initial concerns are warranted is by asking questions.  Most congregation members do not question either because they don’t pick up that there is anything wrong, or because they don’t want to rock the boat especially that early in the piece.  My advice is – ASK.  If you don’t ask early on, you will end up becoming more and more emotionally and probably fiscally enmeshed with the group and you will find it harder to be objective when it comes to making decisions when you finally do find out that this is not a good place to be.  On the other hand, if you ask questions you may discover much to your delight that this is a church where questions are welcomed and the answers not only prove the leaders are mature and gracious but that they themselves ask questions in order to safeguard the community from false teaching.

So, yes, we are a pain in the neck to church leaders.  We not only ask questions, we ask questions.  If you get my meaning.  It’s one thing to simply find out what kind of worship service they have – smoke machines and strobe lights verses hymns and pianos for example – but you need to ask the really uncomfortable questions. What are their eschatological beliefs for example. That’s bible college geek speak for ‘end times stuff’. You might think that this makes very little difference because it is not what is termed an ‘essential’ doctrine.  This term is taken from a quote much used by reformed scholars “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity” and has been attributed to Augustine, but there is no actual evidence for this.

I don’t believe this maxim does scripture credit.  All of the gospel is important.  If we can’t find unity on these things, it is because we don’t have the mind of Christ.  If we don’t have the mind of Christ, it is because we are still worldly in some measure, and of course we all are to some extent, who should not be to any extent. Christ is one with the Father and Spirit, therefore we, as His body, need to be of one mind regarding any and every doctrine whether others deem them essential or not. Unfortunately, for as many who deem one doctrine essential there will be others who do not agree. Disagreement is not the hallmark of lack of faith, or heretical failings.  Disagreement is in fact a sign that people are thinking for themselves, and vocalising their dissent. You have to search to find, you have to ask to know, you have to take it all to the Lord in prayer, and sometimes you just have to come down on one side of the fence or the other. A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways. We ought to know. There is no virtue in ‘havering’ when it comes to matters of doctrine and faith.  We need to be workmen in scripture, and we need to test the spirits. Its a work of both intellectual and spiritual design, and God approves of those who seek after the Kingdom of God. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness.

Let me say this again with clarity. Dissent is NOT a sign that you are a heretic or trying to rock the boat, or are judgemental or have ‘issues’ with leadership or authority.  Leaders who imply that there is something wrong with you because you are asking questions are simply proving their own fleshly irritation with needing to provide answers to those with whom they would rather not have to deal.  They may be short of time, in the middle of some problem which they are struggling with or some other reason, but there really is no excuse to dismiss a seeker’s questions, especially if they are presented reasonably and respectfully. They may also be heretics themselves, and refusal to discuss  heresy with others is often the first sign you are dealing with a ‘spirit of error’.

Recently Steve and I had a conversation with a church leader who seemed very reasonable and mature at first. However, it became clear throughout the conversation that he was not used to talking to women like myself who have researched and read widely and ask questions when they want information. While both Steve and I talked roughly the same amount, Steve sat quietly while I spoke and did not interrupt or correct me as he used to do while in the cult.  We were presenting as equals and this seemed not to be to the liking of the pastor.  I think he preferred the demure Christian wife who sat silently and nodded enthusiastically while her husband talked unless she was being addressed by the Pastor. When  I asked him if he was a dispensationalist, he sat looking at me momentarily and then growled in a rather refractory tone “I don’t know what that word means”.  Now this was a mature man of retiring age who had presumably been a Christian for a long time. There was no reason to assume he did not know what this term meant or that he would not have heard the term before.  I was taken aback at his response, and while I stopped to try and work out how to explain it, he then proceeded to prove that he knew exactly what I was talking about “If you mean do I believe in the rapture, then yes I do”.

Later I tried to talk to him about something and he interrupted with a remark which made absolutely no sense. In my former ‘demure’ life I would have simply let it pass, but this time I asked him what he meant by that. His response was equally ludicrous. At this point even his wife was wanting to know what he was on about.  The conversation carried on however until we got to the point where he said in no uncertain terms that women in his church were not allowed to speak. In his words he wanted me to know so there were no ‘nasty surprises’. Why did this pastor assume that it would be a ‘nasty surprise’?  Surely he was again telling us who he was and what he expected from us if we came to his church.  He didn’t say that women did not preach at his church, he said they weren’t allowed to speak which implies oppression. We didn’t want to jump to conclusions but after our conversation (which on the whole had been civil despite the things I mentioned) the pastor got up from his chair without saying goodbye and walked away. He did not even bother to see us to the door. He was telling us we were not acceptable. Here is a clear case of ascertaining the true nature of a man and his work by asking questions.

Pastors like this are not the rule fortunately. Its actually amazing how many times Steve and I have come across them though. Sometimes it feels like they come out of the woodwork whenever we are around. Give people some opportunity to prove themselves. Bad seeds will always make themselves known and if you do enough bible study and internet searching  and prayer God will show you the truth you are looking for.  I should like to provide my own version of the above much flung about maxim…

In testing the Spirits, wisdom, In asking questions, love, In leaving the church, much prayer, in finding another one, much patience.

Anita Brady

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