Monthly Archives: March 2011

A Personal Reflection on an Acts 29 Church (part one)

Last Sunday night my family and I ventured to an Acts 29 church in Denver.  If you are not familiar with the Acts 29 movement see  We have friends who are quite excited about Mark Driscol’s ministry at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, and the church planting movement he established.  We also have a few acquaintances who are critics of Acts 29. So, part of the reason we drove the 70-minute trip was to see for ourselves what all the hub bub was about.

The church we chose to visit is one of the newer of the Acts 29 affiliates. It is only a few years old and is purportedly growing rather quickly. Within the past three weeks they relocated to a more accommodating place. It is a hundred-year-old (or so) Lutheran building of the early 1900’s Gothic architecture. The building, like the surrounding community, is in the middle of a remake. It’s a mix of old and new.

We were greeted at the door by a friendly young man and cheerful young woman who handed us glossy 5″ x 8″ cardstock fliers with “Welcome to Park Church” in white bold letters over a picture of Denver’s skyline. The two-sided brochure is very nicely done.  The young man was dressed casually; the woman attired in a stylish summer dress. The whole first impression was an odd mix of old Gothic and stone building on a crowded street across from dumpy houses but next to a newly remodeled complex, with young people on old steps, giving us sleek and modern materials. Eclectic is probably the word I’m looking for.

The entryway was “old doors flanking old steps meets new wood floor”, which opened up to a remodeled foyer. A large, clean, simple 2′ x 5′ sign made it clear we were welcome at Park Church, and also gave us a 2-second overview about where things were. There were a few dozen young people clustered in groups, most of them hovering near the tables that hosted large pots of coffee and all the accouterments. I did not check to see if it was Starbucks. Little children were chasing each other around.

To the right of us was a tall kiosk where a handsome young man and two lovely young ladies were waiting to answer any questions. While my wife talked with the two gals, I perused through ample literature that basically gave all the primary information you would need to know about the church. Three 4″ x 8″ (well, approximately) colored cards gave  very simple and unapologetic presentations of the Gospel. The materials fit our culture’s age of stylish tweets.  A few books by John Piper, Tim Keller and a couple others were for sale, along with CDs produced by (I think) the church’s music team.

The ladies gladly pointed us in the direction of the worship hall, which happened to be upstairs.  They really did not have to tell us because more clear and informative signs literally pointed the way. This informational arrangement met my penchant for visual info, and my wife’s auditory style. Little children zoomed passed us as we entered deeper into the aged building.  The dirty, maroon carpet reminded us of old hotels we’ve visited. More young people walked by us, and some even greeted us.

When, at last, we arrived at the top of the second story landing, we stepped into the worship area. The musty room was in an old theater-style arrangement with old and dark wood floors, except for the old maroon carpet in the aisles. The floor sloped toward the large stage.  I did not notice a piano or organ. The seats were wooden in old metal frames. You had to drop your seat down to sit, but you had metal arm rests if you were so inclined to use them. A u-shaped balcony hovered above us.  The plaster was cracked or missing throughout the room. Tall, beautiful stain-glassed windows lined the side walls. Big, shining candles were perched on the window sills.

As we got comfortable, it was then that our college-aged daughter exclaimed that this church was filled with people just like our friend, Mark. Mark is 30-ish. Yes!  it took me a while to realize that they were all YOUNG!  From what I could see, about 98% of the congregation were Gen-Y (born 1977-1994) with some Gen-X (born 1966-1976). I noted a couple who may have been in their late forties.  My wife and I were clearly the oldest folks (we qualify as antiques).

They were all dressed in their generational fashion. Very casual, dressy casual, but definitely in faded material with cool, brand-named t-shirts or wrinkled dress shirts hanging out of pants. It reminded me so much of my hippy days  where my cool generation all rebelled against the establishment by being ourselves (all dressed alike in torn blue jeans, tie-dyed shirts, with macrame belts, chokers and/or purses, and all the other hippy accessories).

I had been wondering where all the 20 and 30-somethings had gone.  They weren’t skipping church – they were in this church! Well, at least over 100 of them were. And, from what I hear, they are piling into Acts 29 churches all over the country!

The demographic was also telling: the majority were Caucasian, with only a handful of what I would guess as Latino and a few Asians, and only one black woman.  But, they all dressed in the Gen-Y style (I don’t even know what you call it, which shows you how way out of touch I am!) We did not see any children in worship, even though there may have been some. The astonishing thing was that there appeared to be more young men than young women present.  I don’t know, perhaps 55% to 45%?

As we got settled, one of the girls in front of us turned around and introduced herself.  Like so many others, she was fairly new to the church. Like all of the young folks we talked with, she was from another church.  However, we have heard that many people were new to the faith.


At 6:00 PM four musicians started singing. A man on electric bass guitar played in the back, a woman was front left, with the lead singer on guitar next to her, and then a man with a guitar to the right.  I don’t know what style the music was in, but it was pleasant.

One of the pastors came forward and casually gave a few announcements. He talked about the congregation’s journey through the season of Lent, and then pointed out the donation box in the back.  He also said we could go on-line to support the church. He asked us to rise.

The music team led us all in the call to worship, which was projected on the large drop-down screen. With their beautiful voices they led us in a song, a familiar hymn and two more songs. In between we read a passage of Scripture in unison. The audio-visual people were having technical difficulties.  The songs were new to us, but very easy to learn.  The tempo and tunes were mellow. The words held strong, biblical, Gospel theology.

As a woman came forward, who had a hard time getting her hand-mic to work, we all sat down. She read the passage of Scripture for the message, which was Ecclesiastes 7.  Then the other pastor got up on stage.  He opened in prayer.  This pastor was also young, with stylishly cool glasses, faded jeans, and well, he blended in.

His message was filled with personal illustrations, contemporary and relevant stories, and examples from the latest news. He spoke Gen-Y vernacular. He was humorous, but at times was quiet, contemplative and moving.  Our daughter later noted that he sounded like so many of the other pastors of the same age in similar churches which she had visited in California.  He had a cadence of speaking quite fast, and then slowing way down and then speaking loudly and fast, and then quietly and slowly.  He made excellent use of pauses, and did not use the music stand, which doubled as his pulpit, as a prop.  His movements were very expressive.  He was a good communicator.

The message fit the text, which he wove in and through the ample illustrations.  He led everyone to agree with him about how our lives are so filled with plans and goals and things and stuff, but then ripped the proverbial carpet from under us and helped make us wonder, along with the preacher of Ecclesiastes, how life can suck sometimes. He pointed out what sin and wickedness can do, and what all the false promises and false hopes of our day can do – or not do. He concluded that God was not the deity who put everything in motion and then left the universe to fend for itself and left us to make life good for ourselves. Rather, God is sovereign and in control and often times puts us in bad situations with disappointments and failures and hurts and despair in order to bring us to the end of ourselves and to draw us to him.  At the end of nearly an hour he concluded by pointing us to Romans 8.

There was an admonition, but no call for a commitment, as I have heard Acts 29 churches are apt to do. He encouraged people to come forward to talk with him, to pray,  or to partake in the Lord’s Supper. It was at that point that four couples walked to the front, picked up ceramic goblets and loaves of bread and stood in the aisles next to the stage, facing the audience.  People began to get up and walk forward.

It was at that time that we left.  My old back was in pain from sitting on old hard seats. The mildew and dust aggravated my allergies and sinuses.  So, I had to get my old wimpy self out of there.

Mark grabbed me from behind. We had not seen him and his wife come in.  I was feeling physically miserable, so I excused myself and told him we could talk by phone later on.

On the way home from inner city Denver, we had much to talk about. I will share that in part two.


D. Thomas Owsley







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I’m in Charge Here

The Eighth Deadly Sin: Control
(an article from Leadership Journal)
“I’m in Charge Here”
When no one else would do it as well as you can, by James MacDonald
I think you’re a bit too controlling.” Even though the words were spoken by a friend, they were not especially hurtful. I had heard the accusation before and quickly reached for my bag of rationalizations.

For more than 12 years, I have been privileged to pastor a thriving church in suburban Chicago that my wife and I started while we were still in our late twenties.

More than once during that time, church members had spoken to me about “control issues,” but I had developed some pretty effective escapes—or so I thought.

Here were three of my best:

“You’re just jealous”
Eighteen months after starting our church, 12 of our 18 pioneers pulled up and pulled out. The church was growing quickly and attracting some worshipers whose style made some of the founders uncomfortable. They wanted me to quiet the music and “keep the hands down,” lest anyone think we had gone over the edge. When I refused, there was a painful confrontation. As they walked away, I was devastated, especially by their accusation that I was controlling. After all, I had worked hard to find common ground and maintain a consensus.

In reality, I learned that I was not the first pastor they had tried to run out of town—and I have not been the last. It was their way or the highway, I decided, and they were simply ticked off that they hit the pavement instead of me.

In years to come when we as elders would hear control rumblings, I would remind the men, “Only people who desire control resent the ones who have it. They’re just jealous.”

“Do your job”
As our staff grew, I began to learn about management and how to build an effective ministry team. Our experiences with pastors and support staff have been overwhelmingly positive. I have had the same personal assistant and the same associate pastor for all 12 years of our church’s history.

Most of our other staff members have remained with us through the challenges of growth, facility acquisition, and multiple services. However, there have been a few—I guess it’s inevitable—with whom I have been disappointed: individuals who had to be called to come to work, monitored while on the job, and relentlessly pursued if anything were to be accomplished. Of course, eventually a staff member like that has to be let go.

Before we came to that painful decision, we tried to manage them through it. OK, I tried to micromanage them through it: “Keep a time log, come and go with surgical precision, and more detail on your goals, please.” All of this was to no avail. People who don’t do their jobs resent others who hold them accountable, and they often yell “Control!” over their shoulders as they pack their bags.

“So? I’m a strong leader”
Only those stubborn pioneers and a few difficult staff members had ever called me controlling, so I felt pretty sure that it wasn’t an issue.

Oh, there were a few other minor skirmishes. Some Brethren brethren tried to make us Brethren and then walked out, refusing to act like brethren when we refused to affiliate. (I’ve seldom seen the Lord provide breakthrough thinking from people headed for the door.)

And sure, we’ve had the usual struggles over philosophy of ministry, church discipline, and where and when to build. I recall hearing some whispers about control during those times, but I quickly dismissed them.

“You bet I’m strong,” I remember telling myself. “You have to be to keep the ministry going in the right direction every time someone tries to jerk it off the tracks.”

Every prominent ministry I’ve studied had the same whispers in the hallways. “What leader isn’t strong and direct?” I said to myself, brushing the criticism aside.

I had heard the research that Christian executives generally were more authoritative than their pagan counterparts. And I was familiar with the studies showing that Christian leaders tend not to seek input from their subordinates as readily as do unbelieving administrators (see Dan E. Maltby, “Authoritarians at Work,” Christian Management Report, Nov/Dec 2000).

So for almost 12 years, I dismissed the accusation of control, because the ones who brought the message were not credible in my mind. Our elders weren’t saying this. Our best and most fruitful staff would lay down their lives for me, as I would for them. The criticism wasn’t coming from hard-working and happy church members.

At least not until the management audit.

Turning point
One of the men in our church is a recognized management consultant to Fortune 100 companies. He began mentoring me in some of the things you don’t learn in seminary. Last winter he suggested that we do a management audit of our top staff and lay leaders.

He would gather them in groups of eight to ten and ask them three questions:

What are the church’s greatest strengths?

What are the church’s greatest weaknesses?

What steps, if taken, would most improve the quality of our ministry?

Participants were promised anonymity and access to the full report (with no edits) in a large-group forum.

For three months we waited while he did the interviews and wrote his report. I remember well the day I held the 40-page document in my hands for the first time. The first section contained actual comments from the participants, grouped according to theme. The second section offered recommended action steps in providing solutions. Most of it was exactly as I had expected: ministries need to be better coordinated, communication needs to be shored up, more volunteers would relieve some strain, and so on.

But then I came to the section titled “Senior Management Style.” There, before my eyes, were criticisms I could not dismiss: “There’s too much micromanaging going on,” “More delegation is needed from the top,” “The executive pastor is empowered to a certain extent, but the senior pastor has ultimate authority.”


And there was more: “When the senior pastor’s energy dies, things die,” and “The bench mark is WWJD—what would James do?”

Ouch! OUCH!

Sixteen comments in all were directed at me, the elders, or some portion of our senior leadership team. The first time I read the report I was stunned. I reached for my bag of rationalizations and carefully tried each one, but none seemed to fit. These people were not quitters; they were totally committed to our mission and in for the long haul. They were not harsh critics trying to exact a penalty because their play for power had been thwarted; they were friends who loved me and wanted to see my leadership prosper.

I was busted, and I knew it.

Taking my lumps
I have always tried to live by my father’s threefold outline for successful pastoring: (1) feed the people; (2) love the people; and (3) admit when you are wrong.

Over the years I have seen many a pastor go over the edge by failing at number three, and so I knew that was not an option for me. I would have to admit publicly that our leadership, and mine in particular, had been too controlling.

The report was circulated to each of the 100 leaders who came to a three-hour meeting to discuss its implications for our church. I was very nervous about their reaction and somewhat fearful that acknowledging my need to grow in this area would give others the excuse they needed to do their own thing. I was wrong.

I stood in front of the entire group. “As pastor, I have held too much authority in the church,” I said. “And our executive pastoral staff has also held too much control over the direction of our church. From our elders down to every level of leadership, we need to find ways to empower those under our servant leadership to do the ministry God has called them to.”

We defined empowerment as “the capacity to bring one’s gifts, skills, and knowledge to bear on one’s responsibilities without undue checks, balances, and approval levels, resulting in more effectiveness on the job.”

To balance my fears, we made it clear that we would not be moving to the days of Judges 21:25 where “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

The meeting was extremely positive, and the leaders left enthused. Many reported an increased sense of security in knowing that the senior leaders were willing to acknowledge where they needed to grow and to model that for others. There was no discernible residue of frustration, and everyone seemed excited to enter a new season.

In an effort to increase empowerment at every level, we required each staff member to meet one-on-one with three or four close co-workers. We asked them to discuss three aspects of their work:

“Keep doing these things—they help increase my effectiveness;

“Do these things more or better;

“Do these things less, or stop doing them altogether.”

These discussions have been well worth the time and effort. Since then, our staff members have experienced greater openness in their communication and increased authority and freedom in their respective areas of service.

My conclusions
We took a number of steps to increase empowerment at every level, but of course, the real issue was change in my own heart. If I did not release greater amounts of authority to those under me, it was futile to think that they would change, and I knew it.

As I reflected upon the lessons I was learning, I formed several conclusions:

1. Some complaints can be ignored. Many of the people who accuse leaders of being controlling are doing so for less-than-honorable reasons, and an effective leader does need to “consider the source.”

2. Some complaints must be heard. When mature people are given an opportunity to give feedback, they will do so in a loving way that helps the leader grow.

3. Leadership styles must be adapted. Church planting is different than church leading. In the early days, my way was literally the only way. Later as some leaders gathered, my way was often the best way. More recently, however, my way is only one of the ways and many times is not the best way. As more capable leaders gather and grow, making that transition in thinking is crucial to empowering others in a developing ministry.

4. Proximity promotes control. In order to release and empower others, I have found it necessary to withdraw from certain areas. Simply being there makes it almost impossible to keep from inserting myself and my preferences. Steering clear is the easiest way to limit my tendency to control.

For example, our adult ministry team has spent the last few months evaluating and overhauling our method of assimilation.

As a result, we are abandoning several processes that we have used for many years but that are no longer effective. It has been very rewarding to watch our team work. They were encouraged when I approved the final plan with no adjustments. I truly believe that the outcome is better than if I had been directly involved.

The key becomes knowing when to step in and when to stay out, and I’m still growing in my ability to make that call.

5. Control can hurt, even when unintentional. Though it is not my nature to injure others through control, the “security” benefits of controlling others often makes that my default position. It’s not my heart, but it happens under pressure if I do not intentionally pursue a different course of action.

6. Personal growth takes time. Attitudes are patterns of thinking formed over a long period of time, and they don’t change overnight. I am working hard on the matter of control, but victory comes in increments that include occasional relapses and the need to apologize. How thankful I am for a gracious team of ministry partners who let me grow, even as I seek to let them do the same.

As you can see, I am still in process. I have been encouraged by the positive response from others who have observed our efforts to grow and change. I did not want to surface this struggle for everyone to read, but I have been praying that the Lord would use it to encourage others. At first I was concerned that some might use what I have written against me, but then I remembered that people are gonna do what people are gonna do—and I can’t control that.

James MacDonald is pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, and the author of Lord, Change My Attitude.


Projects Over People
I had a sampler made for my office to remind me PAMITP. It sits in plain view of my desk. No one knows what it means but me: People are more important than projects.

Alex Holloway, Leesburg, Florida

Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.
Spring 2001, Vol. XXII, No. 2, Page 34

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Pathetic Legalism or Authentic Love? (part three)

The previous two articles focused on the negative side of  the attitudes and behaviors of a segment of American Evangelicalism. Certainly not all believers in Jesus Christ are gripped with legalism and live accordingly. One of my main points is that to think and behave in the manner many Evangelicals do is contrary even to the rudimentary tenets of Christ’s teachings.

The irony for these legalists (of which I’ve labeled myself a recovering one), is that to live contrary to Christ’s teachings, indeed to live contrary to the empowered life of God’s Spirit, is to violate God’s Law in the third commandment:  “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” How is that?  Briefly, to take God’s name in vain is not merely to misuse the name in crude speech.  The Scripture teaches that the application of that commandment is broader than that (see the explanation given in the Westminster Larger Catechism). To wear Christ’s name, yet to deny him by living legalistically, hypocritically or by rejecting his clear teachings, is to take his name in vain.  For fuller discussion on this important issue, I commend the Westminster Confessional Standards, and the writings by John Frame and Jochem Douma on the Ten Commandments. So legalism at its core violates God’s basic legal code!

Legalism is pathetic, and it has done terrible harm to the reputation of Christ. Counter to legalism is the positive side of the life of Christ and the life in Christ.  As I stated before  the early Christians had the reputation for their love of Christ, for one another and for their neighbors.  Theirs was an authentic, proactive concern and care for others. They were living the Christ life.  This is how it should be with Christians today.

Their love was not motivated by sentiment, nor even merely because they were trying to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Their affirmative, dynamic love flowed from the plain teaching of Scripture, the infusion of Christ’s spiritual life, the supernatural empowerment and fruit of God’s Spirit, as well as the model of Jesus.

The love of Jesus is demonstrated in the four Gospel accounts.  It is also clearly taught throughout the rest of the New Testament. However, the most succinct and straightforward teachings on Christ’s love is found in the thirteenth chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians (New Testament).  The context of this chapter is in a section where St. Paul is explaining how Christians ought to conduct themselves and to live with one another and with the world.  The core of their living is in Christ, and the expression of that Christ-life core is love.  This love is genuine affection, and for those who are in Christ by faith, Paul says this love is necessary, expressed, permanent and superior to everything else.


Paul begins each of the first three verses by stating an existing condition.  Then he shows the results of that condition when there is an absence of love. In the first verse, he says you can speak any language, earthly, or heavenly for that matter, but without true affection, you are no better off, as the ancient church Father Chyrsotom said, than a “positive nuisance.”  By speaking many languages, Paul implies the one has knowledge, so-called wisdom and eloquence.  But words of a brilliant master linguist without love are irritating, senseless clangs.

To have, according to verse two, the best of all spiritual gifts as Christians but without love, we are nothing.  And we might give to others or offer up our lives sacrificially as Christians our offering might have some benefit for others, but it is of no profit to ourselves if there is no love.  His point is that love is an absolute necessity for the Christian life.  Remove it and all else is ultimately empty.


The second thing he points out is that true affection is expressed (chapter 13, verses 4-7).  He paints for us a picture, as one person put it, “of putting on love’s matchless beauty.”   True affection is expressed unselfishly (13:4). For one, authentic love is patient. Patience is restraint when you have the right to act.  Jesus give a parable of this in Matthew 18:21-35, of a king whose servant owed him an insurmountable debt that he could not possibly owe.  Yet the king was very patient with him.  The debtor, in contrast, was very impatient with his own servant who owed him a small amount of money.  This kind of loving patience is also the ability to delay a response, especially when wronged.  Jesus did this for our sake (1 Peter 3:20).  He was patient with the soldiers who apprehended him, patient with the religious and political powers that tried him,  knowing his restraint from acting with supernatural power would lead him to the cross.  It was his destiny to pay for our sins (in fact, for our lack of love and impatience) on the cross.

This authentic love is also kind (to illustrate just read Luke 6 and Ephesians 4).  In a sense, patience is a passive quality – a restraint.  Kindness is an active quality – a bestowal or giving.   Kindness is not to be confused with niceness.  Nice connotes a passive pleasantness or sweetness.  Kindness is assertive and proactive.  It may not be masculine to be sweet, but it is manly to be kind; for the God-Man Jesus is kind.   Kindness proceeds from a tender heart.  It contributes to the peace and happiness of others.  It is the opposite of one’s disposal to do harm to others.


The third quality of this genuine affection is that it is not jealous.  This kind of jealousy is a selfishness that boils with intense desire. In the bad sense, it is like envy, that feeling of “uneasiness at the sight of superior excellence, reputation or happiness enjoyed by someone else, accompanied by some degree of hatred…often with a desire to depreciate the person or to have pleasure in seeing him depressed”  (Barclay).  This is what we see going on in Acts 5:17, 7:9, and 13:45.  This envy-filled jealousy springs from pride and ambition. It is shocked that another has obtained what one has a strong desire to possess.  True affection has a desire that others would find success and happiness in their lives.


Still another characteristic of true love is that it does not brag.  It is not anxious to display itself like the little banny rooster who struts around because he thinks his early morning crowing caused the sun to come up.  Love is not ostentatious, putting on a display to build up oneself at the expense of others, parading oneself and campaigning to be at the center of attention.  In contrast, true love is humble (2 Corinthians 10:13).

It is also not proud, or more literally, it does not “swell up like the bellows of a sail boat.” This Christ-love is not puffed up.  Paul made it clear that a central problem the Christians were having in the city of Corinth was that they were indeed proud.  And their pride manifested itself:  they were contentious (4:6), had a bad attitude toward Paul (4:18), were arrogant in their speech (4:19), were apathetic toward sin and evil (5:2), and displayed an intellectual arrogance that repulsed even non-Christians (8:1).  Reverse those things and you have a view of Christ’s love.


The next major thing Paul points out about this authentic Christ-love is how it is expressed behaviorally (13:5-6).  He has five ways of how love acts, though he puts them in negative terms.  First, it does not act unbecomingly.  That is, true love is not rude or deliberately does something to hurt or embarrass another. Next, love does not seek its own selfish ways and benefits as explained above.  Not that love is totally devoid of self, but rather self in an arrogant, self-absorbed way that becomes the source of impatience, unkindness, bragging, and unseemliness.

Thirdly, love is not provoked by wrongs or evil.  Love desires justice and what is righteous;  it even seeks those things.  Love’s response toward sin and evil is not a desire for personal revenge, but rather earnestly desires good consequences would come about so that the sinner or evil doer would change, or repent, or pay so that those who suffered at his or her expense would be properly, fairly served.  Love is not triggered to seek revenge nor allows unjust wrongs to provoke and embitter.

Along with this is the fact that true love does not take into account a wrong suffered.  There is not doubt you will be wronged.  Love for another does not put the wrong they did to you into a mental registry for which there is a plan to retaliate.  Instead, love desires grace and mercy to come upon the offender so that there would be restitution, reconciliation or repentance.

Note, the thrust of the good news about Christ’s life and work is that he took the registry of our sins, even the sins against him as our God, and paid for them through his sacrificial, loving death upon the cross.

The fifth point Paul makes is that love does not rejoice in or over unrighteousness.  It takes no delight in sin or evil. Love is grieved by wickedness, evil, and injustice.


The apostle goes on to present us with a positive way how love behaves:  genuine love rejoices in the truth.  Since love does not rejoice over unrighteousness, but does rejoice over truth, then love is never apathetic or neutral.  This is not merely truth as facts, but moral truth that has its connection to God and his good character.  Love and truth are intimate companions, one person said.  Another wrote, “Love does not avoid truth, and love does not compromise truth.”

The positive side of love is that is it expressed optimistically (13:7).  True love covers over all things. It keeps things in confidence in order to protect another’s reputation.  That doesn’t mean love keeps quiet about another’s sin or crime.  Love in this instance is such that it does not wish to broadcast to everyone something bad, even if it is true (1 Peter 4:8; 1 Corinthians 9:12).

It also believes all things; meaning that even when love has no forensic evidence, it believes the best.  Not that a loving Christian is to be gullible, easily fooled or conned, but rather s/he puts the best construction on things, unless of course there is sufficient warrant to believe otherwise.  For example, when a child tells his parent something, even if the parent is in doubt, out of love the parent will take the child at his word until such time as there is proof otherwise.

Love also hopes all things.  True love is biblically optimistic.  We often think of hope as the wish for a possible, positive future.  But this loving hope is not a hope found in situations, history, the environment, or in people. It is an assurance of a certain future that is rooted in a sovereign God who has all things under control and works all things together for our best (Romans 8:28ff).

The other positive aspect of this love is that it endures all things.  For the sake of Christ and the sake of others, love perseveres and endures whatever comes to it, positive or negative.
Another perspective on this is Paul means to say:

Love deals well with all things.
When love has no evidence, it believes all things;
When the evidence is adverse, love hopes all things;
When hope is disappointed, love endures all things.

(I believer Barclay said this)

We have seen that in contrast to pathetic legalism, the authentic love in Christ, that flows from Christ is necessary and expressed through certain behaviors.  Now we conclude by looking at the last two qualities about this love: it is permanent and it is superior.   Authentic love has a permanency about it (13:8-12).  True love is enduring. Its affects endure.  Other things, even the supernatural gifts that the Christians in Corinth so highly prized, are transient. Not so with love.  Furthermore, love is mature.


Finally, true affection is indeed superior (13:13).  Of the greatest virtues in the Christian life: faith, hope and love, it is love that is of the highest significance and importance.  And it is the fundamental quality of the character of a true Christian – not the law and not legalism.  Faith and hope are far greater and better than any law-produced virtue. In fact, love is far superior to even those virtues! As Paul points out in the thirteenth chapter of Romans, love fulfills the law!  Authentic love will love and worship God and him alone. Love will rest in God, and seek him always, but especially on God’s special day.  Love would never dishonor parents or authorities, or betray a marriage bond, or murder, or steal from others, or injure their reputation or falsely accuse another, and love would not be enviously greedy.


For the genuine Christian who has placed saving faith in Jesus Christ, authentic love is a necessity in life. Authentic love which comes from Jesus Christ and by faith, is at the core of the true Christian’s renewed soul.  It is expressed in a certain way, which by the way does mimic Jesus. It is also permanent, and is it superior to all other virtues.

This authentic Christ-love is what ought to motivate us as Christians today. This love is not motivated by sentiment, nor even merely because we are trying to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. This affirmative, dynamic love flows from the plain teaching of Scripture, the infusion of Christ’s spiritual life, the supernatural empowerment and fruit of God’s Spirit, as well as the model of Jesus. And it flows from us in a positive , godly, good way to one another and then to all people.

© D. Thomas Owsley

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Pathetic Legalists or Authentic Lovers (part two)

In the last article (part one) I proposed that many of today’s contemporary American Evangelical Christians  have lost their Christian way.  I also proposed that a significant reason for this is due to legalism; and that our society is right to complain about us, at least on that basis.  I also contrasted our brand of Christianity with that of the early church in that  one of the biggest complaints Roman society had against them was their “irrational”, non-utilitarian care and concern they had for one another and for their neighbors. 

It seems that many in the early church, though far from ideal or perfect, was gripped by the good news of Jesus, such that they lived out the love of Christ. For the most part, theirs was an active affection and an authentic love. Their love, as St. Paul wrote in Romans chapter twelve, was indeed sincere or more literally, unhypocritical.

Romans 12:9 admonishes Christians to let love be sincere, or as it is woodenly stated in the original language:  the love unhypocritical!  The Greek word for hypocrite (the New Testament was written in the common language of trade, which at the time was Greek), was the term used for the masks that actors wore.  So, the Bible is insisting that Christians are to have an authentic, open, genuine love. 

However, if we Christians are gripped by legalism then we will not be loving, and certainly not authentically loving.  Merrill Unger writes that “the hypocrite is a double person, natural and artificial; the first he keeps to himself, the other he puts on as he does his clothes, to make an appearance before men.”  What Paul and other new Testament writers urge is that believers in Christ would not feign love or live insincerely.  When we do so the charge that we talk a big talk but don’t walk the walk is all too true. 

Legalists are hypocritical.  Hypocrisy is a contemptible characteristic that all people share and nearly all people hate. It is also a horrible characteristic that God abhors.  Before moving on to the proactive, positive side of the Christ life (authentically loving), allow me to make some points about Christian hypocrisy (inauthentic living and loving):

First, we hypocrites worship, but we do not do so from the heart.   Jesus, quoting God’s statement from Isaiah 29, rebuked the highly religious crowd, “These people draw near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.”  You ever like that?   I am.  More times than I care to admit.  But true love for God worships sincerely from the heart. True worship is an authentic connection in a loving relationship.

Second, we hypocrites parade ourselves as holy, righteous and pious people.  We play the part of righteous people, when true humility would reveal what we are truly like at heart:  unrighteous. Now, that does not mean we don’t have some semblance of a righteous character in Christ; for we have received his righteousness as believers.  Neither does that mean that no one does some sort of good.  What it does mean is that we are tainted with moral impurities, so that even the best we do is tainted with sin.  Much like someone who has a contagious disease, a virus or bacteria.  The disease or infection might not become a full-blown manifestation; nevertheless, it is still there.

Jesus was disgusted with the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who were radical zealots when it came to being right and doing the right thing.  He said that they let everyone know how much they give to help the poor (Matthew 6:2); they pray on street corners to show how wonderfully religious they are (Matthew 6:5); and they behave with a religious pouting when they fast (Matthew 6:16).

They prided themselves at how much they studied and knew their Bible.  They bragged about how pure they were and how immoral everyone else was. In fact, unlike Jesus, whom they considered among the dregs of society, they were so righteous that they would not have anything to do with the “untouchables” (people with leprosy or any other obvious disease), the unclean (those who were not religiously and ceremonially pure like they were, or those who were not of the same religioethnicity as they), or the sinners (homeless, drunks, druggies, prostitutes, homosexuals).  They could own that pride because they had worked hard, like good legalists, to arrive at their level of holiness or perfection, while others clearly had not. 

In contrast, true Christ-like love is humble.  Someone gripped by the love and grace of Jesus practices amazing grace.  S/he believes the simple, yet profound fact of who they really are when stripped away bare before the presence of a holy God.  They truly admit,  “Where would I be if God had not been gracious to me?  I am really no better than those who are labeled untouchable, unclean or sinner.  The only credit I have in my account is not mine, but Christ’s.  Therefore, with authentic humility I can have sincere love for those who are in every way on my same level.

Third, we hypocrites are judgmental.  Now, the Bible teaches the difference between a discerning kind of judgment, which we are called to have, and a condemning kind of judgment, which we have no right to have.

In Matthew 7, Jesus says that the hypocritical judge looks for the tiniest little fleck of dirt in someone else’s eyes and condemns him or her for having dirty eyes, while all the while walking around with an obvious dirty log protruding from his eye.  He uses such hyperbole to underscore how absurdly stupid such an arrogant judge is!  Every legalist and legalistic group does this. They size others up according to their own measure and then berate others for not making the grade.  At the core of a legalist is a fearful and insecure person who needs to condemn others in order to gain a measure of self-worth.

Writing in Romans, chapter two, Paul says that when we Christians criticize and judge others, we criticize and judge others for the very same things for which we are guilty.  We often see and hate in others what we refuse to admit guilt in ourselves. We act appalled when another believer sins or is discovered to have some indiscretion, fault or sin, while secretly sinning in a similar manner.  This is highlighted when, every so often (more than it should), some famous preacher who rants and rails against a particular sin is discovered to have the same fault, flaw or sin.  It ought to put us on notice lest we be like that.

Judging flows from pride, while grace, mercy and love flow from humility. The downside about emphasizing law and purity is our propensity to de-emphasize mercy and grace.  Judgmentalism is a nasty, vicious, hideous, moral cancer.  As I implied earlier, it falsely elevates us at the expense of others.  It is a masked narcissism. It broadcasts the stench of arrogance.  It manipulates and keeps others in their “place.” It is abusive, and restrictive (restricting true freedom).  The bottom line is that hypocritical, judgmental Christianity is an evil.

By contrast, genuine Christ-like love is not judgmental.  Instead, it deals graciously and mercifully with others’ deficits, faults and sins. This does not imply that “deficits,” faults and sins are to be ignored or not addressed.  They are indeed addressed by loving Christians; but not in order to point the giant forefinger and pronounce a guilty verdict with attendant sentences.  By all means Christians are to recognize genuine sin as sin and condemn those sins.  But no Christian individual has the right to pronounce any condemnatory sentence.  Only proper biblical authorities have the rightful duty to pronounce a sentence upon wayward rebels who call themselves Christians (Matthew 16, 18).  That sentence is to declare that they are not of the true faith. 

Sinners are to be addressed gently (Galatians 6:1) because they are addressed from a place of humility, with a concern for restoration.  The sins of a believer is to be addressed gently in order to help the person quit his error or sin and to make a positive, transformative change.  The sin is labeled (based upon Scripture’s clear definition and description, not on our personal standards) and a rebuke, reproof or correction is issued.  Again, the purpose is to call the person to turn around.  For example, Paul tells those who are in Christ to stop stealing, and instead go to work so as to provide for himself and others, and in order to have extra to help out others in need (Ephesians 4:29).

The fourth thing about Christian hypocrites is that we are double-tongued.  We say one thing but do another.  Double-tongued also means we do not keep our word (James 3:10).  Authentic love is loyally committed to and relatively consistent with what one says. 

Fifth, Christian hypocrites are generally unwilling to help fellow believers in need (James 2:15-16).  Those possessed with authentic love helps fellow believers and others who are in need.

Obviously there are many other characteristics we could list about Christian hypocrisy.  These are merely five, but they are the common ones that the Bible lists.   A perfect Jesus condemned false humility, arrogant legalism, and hypocritical love.  One time he rebuked his disciples for their failure to follow his teachings, “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, but you do not do the things I tell you to do?” (Luke 6:46).  At another time he said that religious legalists observe the law but ignore and reject true justice, mercy and faith.  The rest of the Bible teaches us that genuine love is just, merciful and comes from a life of true faith.

Saint John, the “apostle of love,” wrote in his first letter to the Church,  “He who says ‘I know him (Jesus)’ and does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth (of Jesus) is not in him.”  Put bluntly, for those who believe in and own the name of Jesus, inauthentic and hypocritical love is intolerable.  Christians are called upon to listen intently to Jesus with a willingness and a passion to follow through. The overflow of that willingness and passion, which comes from a spiritual empowerment God gives, is clearly manifested in authentic love and with an active compassion.

So what are we to think and do?  If you are a Christian hypocrite like me, the first thing to do is come to grips with God’s law and his love.  Forget measuring yourself against your own or others’ standards as a way to identify the ideal perfection.  Measure yourself against God’s Law and know that he not only requires perfection in what you do, but also perfection of your attitude, thinking and heart.  Then humbly recognize that it is impossible for you or anyone else to measure up to such pure, holy, and perfect standards.  That failure to measure up is called sin and the act of stepping over the line, breaking his Law, is called transgression. 

Secondly, give up pride and humbly confess to God your inability and failure(s).

Next, trust in Jesus who perfectly fulfilled God’s Law in heart, word and action.  Trust in Jesus who paid for your guilt and shame when he died upon the cross. By his love he took upon himself your deficits, flaws and sins.  By his mercy he assumed your indebtedness and stepped into your failures. Through this simple but saving trust in Christ he graciously transfers and credits his righteousness to you.  You have all that is needed to be acceptable to God as one who can rightly stand before God no longer condemned with a sentence.

Hypocrisy is among the worst of sins (Matthew 24:51). It is a sin to be avoided as much as any other sin we consider heinous (1 Peter 2:1).  Let us not forget that. One of the remarkable characteristics about almost all the saints in the Old and New Testaments, those heroes of  the Faith, was that they were incredible sinners!  Yet it was by faith in God’s forgiving mercy, trusting his pardoning grace that they were forgiven, and through faith declared righteous (Genesis 15; 17; Habakkuk 2:2; Galatians 3:10-11).  

God calls us to live by faith at Jesus’ Cross, so to speak (Galatians 2:20).  By faith we receive Christ’s righteousness and by faith we live righteously. From the vantage point of the Cross we have the remedy for legalism, arrogance and hypocrisy.  From that position we have hope; a hope and life that comes from trusting in Jesus Christ. From that hope flows the righteousness of Christ to others; a righteousness that is identified and expressed through authentic love (Romans 13:10).

This authentic love is merciful because we have been shown mercy. It is forgiving because we have been forgiven by God. It is giving because Christ first gave himself for us and to us.  This authentic love comes through a vital faith in Jesus; a faith that is honest, transparent, humble, truthful, caring and free.

Christian, let your love be sincere, authentic and without hypocrisy.

© D. Thomas Owsley

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Pathetic legalists or Authentic lovers? (part one)

If you have any interest in history or sociology you might enjoy reading John Barber’s book, The Road from Eden (studies in Christianity and Culture).  There are more than a few interesting things the author points out in the early chapters. One point that struck me was how the main charge the political power of Rome leveled against the early Church was that they were atheists; essentially charging them with sedition and treason.  It was not that the Christians did not believe in a god, but rather they did not believe in their gods, especially in the emperor who was the man-god of the day.  As Barber brings out, Christianity was declared by the Roman Senate in A.D. 35 to be “strana et illicita (strange and unlawful)” (Barber, p. 17).


The second charge by the Romans, well, more of a complaint, was “one that would be noted over and over again, even by cynics, was its love for people.  Despite the fact that the early Christian period was distinguished by the Church’s uneasy relationship with a truculent state, it is beyond question that the conventional stronghold o believers maintained a high degree of sensitivity for the daily needs of Greco-Roman society.  Justin’s quote is worth repeating, ‘Why then do we think that this is sufficient and do not observe how the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of the dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause?  Each of these things, I think, ought really to be practiced by us.’” (Barber, p.22).


While Christ’s demonstration of care, concern and love, which the early Church had, appears often in “foreign” places, it is does not seem to appear enough on the home front.  As a consequence the American Evangelical Church (used in the broad sense) has, over the past eighty or so years, gained the reputation for being self-righteous, arrogant, mean-spirited and obnoxious.  Anything but loving.  In my opinion, it is a charge often well deserved.  I can certainly empathize with some who have an attitude of disgust toward the Christians.  However, I most certainly sympathize with those who were once of the Church but who are now disenfranchised.  Some of my former friends no longer participate in “church” at any level.  Others have declared themselves atheists.  Still others have been so battered and bruised by fellow Christians that they too are ready to bolt.


If this grieves me, it certainly grieves Christ. I can make such a bold assertion based upon what we know from the Gospels and from many New Testament verses. Christians, who represent Christ, ought to be accused of being caring and loving and doing good (as James, Paul and Peter write about in the New Testament). However, what is it, I’ve asked, that has pulled segments (large?)  of the Church in the self-righteous, arrogant and obnoxious direction it has gone?  Well, I leave the historical, sociological, and deeper evaluations to wonderful authors like Alister McGrath, David Hall, Mark Noll, George Marsden, and others.  In my limited intelligence I believe the simple answer is legalism.  For clarification, legalism is making rules and regulations the heart of religion or the central thing to life.John Frame says that Christian legalism is putting law in the role reserved for God’s grace. Dominic Aquila says that legalism is putting people into a mold and then saying that mold is the only template for life with which to work.  Saint Paul of the New Testament says that legalism kills.


All people have the propensity to define what they believe is right, good and acceptable.  All people have the propensity to judge others who don’t measure up or who aren’t like them.  So, in a general sense, the problem is a people thing.  However, in the more narrow sense, the problem is more pronounced with Christians.  Why?  Because it is love that is the intrinsic characteristic of those who believe and follow Jesus Christ, not legalism and its offspring of self-righteousness, arrogance, meanness and obnoxiousness.


Now, I am not talking about love as sentimentality, nor merely about the attendant emotion that flows from authentic, Christ-like love.  Neither am I saying that I personally have arrived at the pinnacle of lovingness. Can’t because I’m a legalist at heart. What I am saying is that if we Bible-toting, Evangelical Christians are going to be accused of anything, it should be like those brothers and sisters in the early Church who were accused of being genuinely caring, merciful, gracious and loving! And that’s what this commentary is about (for I’ll have much to write about legalism at some later time).


I came out of a nominal Christian home where we attended worship services probably a dozen times until I turned sixteen.  My siblings and I grew up in home where there was great tension between the legalism of a perfectionist father (who grew up as a “pentecostal” Methodist and kept the legalistic trappings but not the religious forms), and the grace of a loving mother (who grew up Roman Catholic).   The legalism was overbearing. So by the age of twelve I declared myself an atheist, by fifteen was desperate to run away from home.


When Christ introduced himself to me through providential circumstances, he came to a battered and bruised mind and soul; one that was also depressed and bitter.  His entrance into my life was very much light to darkness, mercy to injury, and grace to needy.  For the first few years, though profoundly ignorant in the teachings of the Bible, I was possessed by a foreign compassion for others.


Then, after receiving teaching by well-meaning people of the Christian fundamentalist stripe, I became a legalist.  Also, consequently became more pronounced in my arrogance, fearful of the world out there, and insecure in so many ways. While allowing myself to become a polished, self-righteous Christian, I became a card-carrying, thorough-going, genuine hypocrite.  What did that do? As legalism often does, I was pious on the outside, but angrier on the inside.  Instead of living freely before the face of God, I was living fearfully before the expectations of people. Instead of becoming fearless I became more fearful.  And instead of being more honest and truthful I was closed up.  I became the Christian who was belligerent toward those who were not as good as me, Christian or otherwise.  The big pretender who was more concerned with being right than being humble, with following the rules rather than following Christ, with pressing others into my mold than presenting love with mercy and grace.


The fascinating thing about legalists is that while they flock together, they are really a cannibalistic society.  I’m speaking metaphorically, of course. What I mean is that they eat each other alive, and especially eat the less perfect, the weak, and the infirm.  I was a diner, until I became the feast.  It nearly killed me; for some of those cannibals nearly killed me.


Christian legalists are essentially Christian  atheists:  they live and act as if there is no God.  More specifically, they live and act as if there is no Jesus Christ. They live and act as if Jesus did not come; that he did not live flawlessly, fulfilling the true moral and legal requirements issued by a perfectly righteous, just and holy God.  They live and act as if God was and is not merciful. As if God did not shield those who trust in him from his anger, judgment and condemnation. As if Jesus did not take that judgment upon himself, when in fact he did.  They live and act as if God was and is not gracious, giving to us far more than what we deserve.  They live and act as if God is not loving and caring, as expressed in his benevolence through the life, acts and work of Jesus.


Yet the problem really is worse than this.  Like all legalists, they set themselves above God and set their rules higher than God’s.  With such people no one is able to measure up. In fact, under them all die a slow, painful, gruesome and bitter death.


Christian legalists, of which I am a recovering member, are miserable, and miserable for the Church as well as for society.  For a long time, the American Evangelical Church has needed to turn itself around (in Christianeze, “repent!”).  It needs to stop pointing those crooked, ugly fingers at the world and demanding that our society straighten up, become holy, righteous and flawless.  It needs, instead, to become humble and welcome God’s judgment upon itself (as Saint Peter says, judgment starts within the household of God).  As professing followers of Jesus, we need to be living followers of Jesus.  We need to recognize that no one measures up perfectly, but that Christ died in our place because we have failed the standard of perfection.  As living followers of Jesus we need to accept Jesus’ payment of the brutal beatings, the crucifixion and the temporary abandonment of God as our payment – in full.  And quit demanding payment from others.  As living followers of Christ we have no business being proud, mean or obnoxious. We must stop being hypocrites and instead be authentic loving souls.  It is our business to live out of hearts filled with gratitude that we are accepted in Christ, the God who is merciful, gracious and loving.  It is our business to be merciful, gracious and loving; especially so toward those outside the Church.  Perhaps then, the only complaint the world will truly have is that “these Christians have an authentic love for people!”

© D. Thomas Owsley

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Abuse and the Yeast of the Pharisees

by Edward J. Cumella, Ph. D.

(Originally posted as The Yeast of the Pharisees: Spiritual Abuse by Pastors and Counselors)

Spiritual abuse began in the Garden of Eden: Satan manipulated God’s words and convinced our earliest parents to follow him instead of God. This event epitomizes all spiritual abuse.

Spiritual abuse occurs across denominations, in non-denominational churches, and across faiths—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, et al. It usually has little to do with the theologies of major religious groups and more to do with the personality of individual leaders. Spiritual leaders with personality pathology—especially narcissistic, antisocial, obsessive-compulsive, borderline, and histrionic traits—may become spiritually abusive. Because of emotional, relational, and cognitive problems characterizing these personalities, the Bible, theology, and church relationships can be distorted by such leaders to the point of serious harm.

Christians believe that human beings have a spirit that connects us to God. As such, spiritual abuse consists of actions that distort or sever our relationship with God. Since identity derives from knowing who we are in relation to God, spiritual abuse harms self-concept and self-worth. Spiritual abuse also causes mental and emotional distress, and is therefore a form of mental/emotional abuse. In extreme cases, it includes physical and sexual abuse justified by the abuser as God’s will through the twisting of scriptures.

Spiritual abuse has debilitating effects and is thus a legitimate focus in counseling or pastoral care. Depending on its manifestation, spiritual abuse may involve actions—such as severe mental/emotional abuse or physical/sexual abuse of children—that professionals are legally required to report to state child protection agencies. When perpetrators of spiritual abuse are licensed or certified counselors/pastors, ethics compel reporting the perpetrator’s behavior to licensing boards or church/denominational oversight authorities.

Spiritual abuse is usually more severe in church than in counseling settings. Pastors are often accorded great respect and authority in critical life domains— marriage, sexuality, relationships, and finances. They lead communities that exert social pressures and offer belonging and fellowship. Abuse in these contexts affects most aspects of life.

Spiritual abuse occurs on a continuum. Some churches are virtually free of it; others are occasionally and mildly abusive; still others abuse frequently and with great intensity. Experiences of spiritual abuse are also unique to the individual. Some—such as those inclined to perfectionism, obsessions, anxiety, or self-derision—are more likely to hear messages as inflexible rules or condemnations. Others in the same environment and exposed to the same messages might not experience trauma.

Spiritual abuse can arise in counseling offices, but is usually less severe than in churches, for several reasons. Counselors are rigorously trained to be person-centered, to listen, and to respect the beliefs and choices of their clients. Counselors are less commonly accorded the same authority as pastors, nor is counseling typically imbued with the authority of God. Counseling is temporary; counseling is commonly and easily terminated. But church membership can be seen as a lifetime commitment. Leaving counseling does not mean separation from family and friends, but leaving one’s church may.

Scripture addresses spiritual abuse best through Christ’s scathing words to the Pharisees (Matthew 23), who are perfect examples of spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse has 12 features.

Authoritarianism. Rather than modeling and teaching obedience to God, abusive leaders expect believers to obey them. Councils of elders, deacons, etc., are expected to rubber stamp leaders’ intentions rather than provide accountability.

Coercion. Rather than respecting freedom and conscience, as God does, and offering messages that persuade based on scriptural integrity and reason, abusive leaders use strong-arm tactics to coerce believers into overruling better judgment and following their demands.

Intimidation. Rather than building up the Body in the bonds of love, abusive leaders use threats of punishment, excommunication, and condemnation to force people into submission and continued church membership.

Terrorism. Rather than inviting people to follow Christ with the Gospel of love and forgiveness, abusive leaders intensify believers’ fear, shame, and false guilt, teaching that problems in believers’ lives are due to the believers’ personal sins.

Condemnation. Rather than refraining from judgment lest they be judged, an abusive leader liberally condemns those who leave his church, outsiders, and those whom he defines as sinners. The message is that believers will join the ranks of the condemned should they deviate from the leader’s teachings or leave his church/denomination. Individual members become the scapegoat when something goes awry in the congregation.

Classism. Christ was no respecter of persons. Abusive leaders are preoccupied with power, promoting church hierarchy, referring to and treating people according to their titles and roles. Those lower on the hierarchy are taught that their needs don’t matter.

Conformity. Abusive leaders have the greatest hold over inexperienced, naïve, and dependent individuals who are seeking a strong leader. These individuals suppress their objections to the leaders’ teachings for fear of being shamed or ostracized. Hence, abusive churches often appear unified, but beneath the surface there is discontent, anguish, whispers, rumors, secrets, and a desire among many to leave.

Manipulation. Rather than taking scripture in context, interpreting the Bible with the Bible and according to long-held Christian beliefs, abusive leaders twist scripture to convey their personal opinion rather than God’s intent.

Irrationality. Because scripture is manipulated, one interpretation may contradict another. Interpretations may contradict reason and obvious reality. This requires suspension of critical thinking. Some abusive leaders claim to receive direct messages from God about their church or individual members, but these messages typically deviate from Scripture and reality.

Legalism. Rather than treating others with love, grace, and forgiveness, as Christ commanded, abusive leaders offer little grace. They communicate instead that one’s worth and the amount of love one deserves depend on performance and status in their church. Abusive leaders expect believers to make heroic financial, time, and emotional sacrifices for their church and its members.

Isolation. Rather than respecting family ties, community obligations, and friendships, abusive leaders are concerned that such influences will interfere with their control over  believers, so they encourage isolation from family, friends, and the outside world, and wage war against the outside world as a sewer of sin devoid of anything redeeming.

Elitism. Rather than modeling and encouraging humility, abusive leaders beam with false pride and teach the same to believers. An attitude arises of, “We’re it! We’re special! Everyone else is condemned!,” partially compensating for the shame and worthlessness that believers feel because of other experiences in the abusive church. The leader instills that believers must protect the church’s image at any cost.

Ensnarement. Rather than promoting maturity among believers, abusive leaders inevitably promote self-doubt, guilt, and identity confusion, since believers struggle with the contradiction between what their conscience and reason tell them and what they are being taught. This ambivalence, coupled with fear of condemnation and loss of direction and fellowship, make it difficult and painful for believers to leave abusive churches.

Think about a cult, for at its most severe, a spiritually abusive church is a cult. It has so diverged from solid Biblical teaching and grown so warped in the authoritarian rule of one man, that it has become a place of idolatry where God is no longer worshipped. “Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough… Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees…” (Galatians 5:7-10, Matthew 16:6).

Assessing Religious Abuse
Assessment is simpler when clients already define their religious experiences as abusive. When clients do not recognize their possibly abusive experiences, cautions apply:

Respect adult clients’ religious choices. Labeling religious experiences as abusive may interfere with religious autonomy. However, therapist authenticity, integrity, and responsibility require that possible religious abuse be addressed openly. It may be useful to assist clients in articulating the issues to arrive at their own conclusions about abuse. Remember, not everyone experiences the same events in the same manner; seemingly harsh religious experiences may not traumatize everyone.

Regarding children, utilize an objective standard of abuse. Most authorities agree that religious abuse has definitively occurred when the experience has led to serious and diagnosable behavioral, cognitive, emotional, or mental disorders. Short of this, it is inadvisable to use the word “abuse” to describe religious experiences.

A psychometrically valid and reliable questionnaire may be useful in this assessment, such as the Remuda Spiritual Assessment Questionnaire (, which contains a factor score measuring spiritual abuse. It is short, easy to use, with either paper and pencil or computerized administration, and free of charge to healthcare professionals.

Treating Religious Abuse
It is not possible in this overview to detail treatment for spiritual abuse. Detailed treatment resources appear in the bibliography. However, there are some basics. Common issues arising among clients in recovery from spiritual abuse include betrayal of trust, learning anew whom to trust, fallout with and forgiveness of God and family, grief over lost years, and understanding grace and God’s loving nature. Those who have experienced spiritual abuse often evidence the following additional difficulties:

• Feelings of worthlessness as opposed to dignity and self-respect
• Efforts at control as opposed to an ability to surrender trustingly to God
• Shame vs. self-acceptance
• Guilt about vs. recognition that past sins have been forgiven
• Anxiety about performance and punishment vs. peace
• Moral rigidity vs. grace and unconditional love
• Isolation and secrecy vs. a sense of belonging and ability to be authentic with others
• Addictions/compulsions vs. healthy boundaries and coping skills
• Confusion vs. clear understanding of the Gospel and nature of God
• Hopelessness vs. a sense of meaning, purpose, and direction

Regardless of spiritual abuse history, spiritual interventions are contraindicated when clients don’t want them, are psychotic or delusional. If spiritual interventions are warranted, inform clients at treatment inception that you may use spiritual interventions and obtain informed consent. Spiritual interventions are most effective once trusting therapeutic relationships have developed. However, Christian counselors should express a commonly understood Gospel truth, including Christ’s atoning sacrifice, forgiveness rather than punishment, and God’s unconditional, unmerited grace and love rather than legalism, performance, or the need for perfection.

Primary spiritual interventions include:  teaching spiritual concepts; bibliotherapy; prayer; spiritual imagery and meditation; forgiveness; counsel from pastors or spiritual directors; encouraging involvement in a healthy faith community; cognitive restructuring focusing on the nature of God; a mature understanding of suffering, self hatred and perfectionism as obstacles to receiving God’s love; and an application of clients’ values to their own lives to reduce cognitive dissonance. Self-help groups, such as Christian Recovery International, may be recommended.

It may be necessary to guide clients toward finding a healthy faith community. The four F’s suggest that healthy faith communities offer:

• Food: sound Biblical messages promoting personal growth and maturity
• Fellowship: supportive relationships
• Fit: commonality with other members
• Fruit: service to community and one another

It is a sad commentary about the modern church that abusive Christian leaders are so pervasive that we must write articles like this and give them prominence in order to warn the faithful. Yet it is also true that perverted pastors, false prophets, and evil leaders have always existed in the history of Israel and the Church. And most importantly, if we cling to God and stay vigilant, He promises to make the way straight for us.

Copyright © 2006 Christian Counseling Today. (Originally Published in Christian Counseling Today 2005 Vol. 13 No. 1:35)
Edward J. Cumella, Ph.D., a Licensed Psychologist, is Director of Research and Education at Remuda Ranch Programs for Anorexia and Bulimia, Inc., the nation’s largest inpatient eating disorder facility. He presents frequently at national and international conferences and has published at least 50 papers on mental health topics, including spiritual abuse.

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Johnson, D., VanVonderen, J. (1991). The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers.
VanVonderen, J. (1989). Tired of Trying to Measure Up. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers.
VanVonderen, J. (1995). When God’s People Let You Down/How to Rise Above Hurts That Often Occur. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers.

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Filed under Abuse in the Church, Church Leadership, Pastor & Church Relationship

Listen Up!

In my opinion, the quality of a good relationship is measured in part by how well the parties listen to each other.  Reflecting back on the best of all times with others it was when genuine conversation took place; where there was a sweet rhythmic dance of the dialog.  I am reminded of such times with a set of friends in Louisiana. We’d gather spontaneously, usually at our home.  What often started off as checking in with each other ended up hours later with a most memorable and delicious fraternity.  We joked and laughed as we played games, then strolled into one another’s lives touching upon the ups and downs we faced.  Often we would get seriously quiet as we contemplated some pretty profound things one or more of us were facing.  At times we would cry together. At other times we would laugh together.  All in all, those were good times, and we bonded more than mere friends would.  In those hours we were like an ideal family.

As time marched on, those events happened less and less.  Why?  We had tasted something very good, and we longed for it.  The most obvious reason was that we moved away, or they did.  Periodically when we would travel to Boise, we would enter into such heavenly episodes with family or those old friends (who had lived in Louisiana).  Once in a while we found the dance among people and friends in Denver, San Diego, Monterey, or San Jose.

Certainly there is a positive chemistry between dancers. Temperaments, personalities, and common interests come into play.  With some, such as a dear family we met in Long Beach before we moved, things just click. With them it is as if we had known each other for years and therefore could converse pretty much about anything.
But why?  There are, no doubt, many reasons.  I will name two.  First of all, I think that we all had a mutual respect for each other.  There was no fear.  Neither was there an attempt to be better than the other.  There was a simple humility that said, “You are important and I am going to respect you and what you say.”  Second, I believe, is that there’s a willingness and ability to listen.

As a seventh grader, relatively new to a town in New Jersey, I wanted to know how I could make friends.  In one of our required hours at the school library I noticed a book that grabbed my attention.  Now that was rare because I had not yet learned to enjoy reading.  The book was How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.  The biggest thing I gleaned from that popular and informative book was the value and importance of listening. From that time on listening was a premium quality worth owning.

A few years ago, while preparing to teach a leadership class on the subject of communication, I came across another good book. Listen Up by Barker and Watson is well worth absorbing.  It is from this book that I write the rest of this article.

One of the reasons why I (we) have not often been able to find those enriching engagements is because most people are poor listeners.  The Bible is informative on this subject, as is Listen Up. Here are a few reasons:

* they never learned good skills for listening
* they learned skills from bad behaviors taught or modeled by others
* laziness (for it takes work to hear a person out)
* mental deficiency or disorder
* mental fatigue
* talking too much so as not to give others the chance to talk

However, it seems the most common reason is due to pride.  Pride carries the belief and attitude that what another person has to say is unimportant. Pride says that I know enough or more, so I have no reason to hear you.  Pride says that I am more important, so I will not waste my effort or time on you.

Pride also practices irritating habits. Listen Up lists only the top ten (Barker and Watson, p. 88), but they are worth mentioning:

1.    Interrupting the speaker.
2.    Not looking at the speaker.
3.    Rushing the speaker and making him feel that he’s wasting the listener’s time.
4.    Showing interest in something other than the conversation.
5.    Getting ahead of the speaker and finishing her thoughts.
6.    Not responding to the speaker’s requests.
7.    Saying, “Yes, but…,” as if the listener has made up his mind.
8.    Topping the speaker’s story with “That reminds me…” or “That’s nothing, let me tell you about…”
9.    Forgetting what was talked about previously.
10.    Asking too many questions about details.

What I seem to encounter most often by others in my little world is the habit of disconnecting within the first few words of a discussion.  Their eyes get this glazed over look revealing they have changed their mental channel.  On occasion I’ll start a conversation in one direction and jump to something completely unrelated just to see if there’s any reaction.  There rarely is.

The other thing that often occurs is being cut off by the “listener” while you are speaking.  Oh, pardon me, but was I talking? The third most annoying thing that frequently happens is when someone will tell you something, usually having to do with their life, and when you begin to sympathize by talking about something similarly encountered they ignore what you say and continue talking about their thing or their life.

Those irritating habits are certainly annoying. What’s more, they are denigrating and at times humiliating. Like the pride from which they flow, they say that “I am unimportant, unworthy of being in their presence.”  So, my response, good or not, is to leave, or if it’s someone who is known to have these irritating habits then I just merely refuse to engage, and if possible to avoid altogether.  Nearly everyone who comes to mind who regularly does these things do not even seem to care whether anyone is listening.  They’ll talk and talk and talk.  I suppose it’s because they are the only ones they will listen to?

Frankly, bad listening negates relationships. Bad listening will not allow for the dance of caring engagements or the melody and rhythm of beautiful dialogs. Indeed, bad listening often destroys established relationships, be they friendships, marriages or familial ties. For all those counts I really, really hate bad listening. It’s torture. My worst nightmare would be that I would end up in Hell for eternity, and Hell would be a place where you are among a dozen or so people who are all perpetually talking but no one is listening.  I am there, but functionally invisible. Perhaps I hate bad listening most of all because it steals the slightest opportunity to have a precious, rewarding, life-enhancing discourse and exchange?  It’s like going to a dinner and being served a plate of rotting, putrid fish when you know that the possibility exists for having your favorite dish.

So what to do?  Bad listeners, can, with desire, determination, training and a good measure of humility, become effective and good listeners.  The authors of Listen Up tell us that good and effective listeners have these common characteristics (Barker and Watson, p. 108):

1.    patient
2.    caring
3.    loving
4.    understanding
5.    selfless
6.    attentive
7.    poised
8.    generous
9.    open-minded
10.    thoughtful
11.    intelligent
12.    empathic
13.    involved

Not surprisingly, most of these qualities are presented in biblical Scriptures (but that’s for another time).
The authors help us by giving us strategies for improving our listening skills (Barker and Watson, pp. 109 ff).  Of course they provide details, but allow me, if you will, to highlight their four main points.

First, know when to be silent and when to speak.  Counselors have used a very simple technique, particularly with couples who are having a difficult time communicating.  They give the one partner an object, such as a ball.  S/he then has the right to speak.  When s/he has made the point s/he gives the object to the other person and that person speaks.  The first partner is now obligated to keep quiet and work at listening. When the second partner has had his or her say then the object goes back to the other. And so it goes. Simple, but effective training tool to develop the skill of when to speak and when to be silent.

Second, “put a lid on it.”  Keep emotions under control.  This is certainly a useful strategy in formal or business relationships.  I would say, though, that when people know how to communicate well (which involves good listening), then emotions become a natural part of the dialogical dance.  For example, loving, Christ-like relationships are supposed to have the ability to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice (Romans 12).  Otherwise, the authors have an excellent point, and they suggest the following “tips to stop emotions from taking over:”

1.    Be aware in advance of people and topics that trigger emotions.
2.    Analyze why you react to some words and ideas emotionally.
3.    Resist the temptation to get defensive.
4.    Empathize and remember that the speaker may have different meanings for words than you do.
5.    Withhold judgments until the speaker is finished.

Third, show interest.  It takes a basic level of humility and care to develop this.   They say we can show interest by remembering what was said in previous conversations; remembering their names; using eye contact effectively; and making it easy for others to talk.  What they mean by that is consciously doing what often happens naturally when a good rapport has been established:  nod your head, keep eye contact, lean forward, do not interrupt, and casually mimic the other person’s body language (don’t overdo this or make it obnoxiously obvious).

Finally, the authors suggest using paraphrasing and reflecting skills.  This means repeating back to the other person what you hear them saying so as to gain a healthy level of understanding.

So what’s the point of all this dribble?  Listen!  Selfish pigs (and people too) don’t listen.  Prideful ones have no room for others, and so they will live in their own little world oblivious to the reality of other worlds where people genuinely engage one another in a way that is healthy, helpful, caring and of mutual benefit. They are deaf to the music of mutual concern, benefit and affection.  Listen! Because of the great rewards good listening can reap for you, for others and for society.  Listen – because of the potential for developing and enhancing relationships.  But most importantly, for those who name the name of Jesus, listen! Listen – because he has spoken and is speaking, and calls us to hear.  Listen, because we are called to have loving sympathy, even empathy for others.  Listen, because he first listened.  Listen, so that you can dance the dance.

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Filed under Communication, Conflict and the Church