Rigid. Legalistic. Strict. Hardcore. Shunning. Members Only. Elitist.
These are words I have heard used to describe the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement, of which I was apart of for 15 years, and I fervently rejected those labels as false while there. We weren’t rigid, we were Holy. We aren’t legalistic, we are keeping ourselves from sin. We didn’t shun people, outsiders, ex-members, backsliders – we avoided the influence of Satan to the saving of our families!
Of course, we had the only saving message, no one else spoke in tongues like we did, or dressed holy, or rejected the orthodox trinity, rolled on the floor, jerked and spasmed in worship, were ‘slain in the Spirit’, etc. We were the True Church, the Body of Christ. Others may have been sincere, but sincerely wrong and most importantly, lost. When Jesus came again for his Bride, we knew we were the only ones who were the ‘Five wise virgins.’ When others prayed, we called it ‘insincere’ or ‘so fake’. Christians that wore crosses were ‘following a false god’. Any preacher that sits on a stool in jeans and talks to his flock is a ‘hireling’ creating ‘two fold children of hell’. At least, that is what our preacher taught us.
Watch the video version of this article here.
My story began in 2002 when a charismatic sales manager at the company I worked for, who always seemed to have it all together (and I didn’t!) started talking to me about the Bible, lifestyle, growth, etc. (Isn’t that how all these cultist stories start?) I grew up slipping in and out of Sunday School as we moved every six months, but I still carried an old Bible around from my childhood and God wasn’t strange to me, but organized religious thought was. Soon this turned to Bible studies, promises that God would increase my income, my health, find me the ‘right’ girl, etc. Through coaching things started getting better, I dressed better, moved up in the job, made more money and eventually got involved in the Church. I even found the ‘right’ girl, and we have been married for nearly 11 years and have a beautiful family.
Like every ‘first timer’ I thought these Pentecostals were crazy. They were, and I was! Through time I ‘came in’ to the Church as they call it, which simply means I bought in to the message, got baptized, became an adherent. The fruits of the Spirit started showing up in my life, which to them means I conformed to the rules, threw out my TV, threw out my short sleeve t-shirts, never let any hair show on my face, etc. The indoctrination is slow, in baby steps, but the realities of the ‘requirements’ didn’t take long to sink in. I need to say that the church I attended was an independent (red flag word) church not affiliated to the more commonly known UPCI (United Pentecostal Church International) organization. When the UPCI started allowing wedding rings and television, the hard core fundamentalists broke away.
Just a few of those requirements…
- No Television/Movies of any sort – Satan was in every show.
- Strict dress standards, no short sleeve shirts, shorts, etc. women must wear dresses/skirts (Pants are mens apparel), no metal objects can be used in the hair, or metal tie clips, etc. A man must have very short hair, it can’t touch the ears…no facial hair is allowed, etc.
- Controlled courting/dating, by the Pastor’s approval only (He alone has divine wisdom to know who is right for you)
- Control of what you think, read, listen to or see
- Control of who you can fellowship with, no outsiders should be ‘friends’
The list of requirements to maintain ‘holiness’ is far too long to list in a blog article, but suffice it to say they can be suffocating. In Toxic Faith, written by Stephen Arterburn, he says;
Conformity is paramount. So little room for individuality exists that the kids rebel by the droves. When they do, they are considered outcasts and of little importance compared to the few who are willing to stay inside the system, follow the rules and reproduce the addiction structure.
It took many years of spiritual discomfort before I had the courage to step out. Your entire social circle is based in the church. (Toxic Faith Characteristic #3, “Us vs. Them Mentality”) Your family that are strict believers will push you away (to be fair, when you do leave, you also tend to pull away from them), your friends that would invite you out to lunch suddenly can’t text you any longer, or find the time for a meal. Inside the church, we are taught to stay away from those who leave the Church, especially if they leave on bad terms. Of course, bad terms simply means they no longer obeyed the every command of the pastor. I know of a young family who simply moved to another town (Moving requires the pastors permission too) and since he didn’t wait for the pastors approval, only two people in the church will still talk to them. They are in rebellion and likely will be ‘lost’.
In my departing letter to the pastor, I wrote two lines that I go back and read again to affirm the reality that I was in a Toxic Faith church, and as such, had to leave immediately! If you read this blog post and think, “I’m going through that too..” regardless of the denomination, leave right now!
“This has taken years to gain the courage to do so, which proves the absolute necessity to do so.”
“It has taken me a long time to wrestle with the reality that I was in, and sinfully promoting an abusive, controlling and non-Christ focused Church, though Christ is mentioned as reason for obedience to a man.”
How was I sinfully promoting the church?
“…for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” Romans 14:23
I had no faith in what I was doing. I was obligated, I feared ‘getting in trouble’, I did what I did to maintain status quo and to tow the company line. In a legalistic church you don’t question authority. In my church the Pastor was the absolute rule, he had no oversight. The so called ‘board’ was all hand-picked followers. If you questioned the Pastor you were in rebellion. If you asked to work in certain areas of ministry, you were scolded. Only he can choose what, if and when you are capable of serving God. If you felt called to Preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it was only if ‘he’ said you could. The ‘he’ wasn’t God either. Today, celebrating 41 years in this small town, our church hasn’t produced a single preacher, missionary, evangelist, etc. Kings don’t like other Kings.
Not all Pentecostal Churches are the same, like any other denomination they have good and bad apples. Likewise, not everything in ‘my’ church was bad! I gained a lot of insight, I graduated from a three year Bible College with a 4.0 GPA, I met my wife and will cherish her the rest of my life! Without this step in my journey of faith, those things wouldn’t have happened and thus I cannot say this was a mistake. What I can say, is that staying as long as I did was the mistake.
In a short counseling session afterwards (yes, you’ll need counseling after 15 years in an abusive church, don’t be ashamed of it) I was explaining my fears and the counselor said, “You keep saying I’ll lose everything. With everything you are explaining, and as bad as it is, what are you really losing?”
You know what – that question was important in my healing process which is still on going. My entire mindset was that ‘being an outsider’ was evil, wicked, fearful and even shameful. I had to come to grips that ‘being an outsider’ meant I was leaving behind the spiritual abuse and all the trappings that came with it! How many times do we hear of a domestic abuse victim staying for fear of losing the only ‘love’ they have? It is very much the same brethren and you must get out. Abuse is often tendered with, and tolerated out of love.
In the book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse written by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen, chapter six is titled ‘When you can not leave’ and some of the words are so applicable I must write them here.
In a place where authority is grasped or legislated, not simply demonstrated, persecution sensitivity builds a case for keeping everything within the system. Why? Because of the evil, dangerous or unspiritual people outside of the system who are trying to weaken or destroy “us”.
We have counseled many Christians who after deciding to leave their church, we were told horrifying things. “God is going to withdraw His Spirit from you and your family.” “God will destroy your business.” “Without our protection, Satan will get your children.” “You and your family will come under a curse!”
This is spiritual blackmail and it’s abuse. And it does cause people to stay in abusive places.
This is the very heart of the reason I had to leave and why you, if you are nodding your head reading this must also leave your toxic church! There are more loving places that will accept you and lead you to the real Christ. Leaving is difficult to say the least. If you are married and your spouse is still ‘buying’ the message, there will be some divide. I urge you to never use this against your marriage! In all things stay faithful, true, honest, open, loving and understanding.
That spouse will see you as the ‘outsider trying to pull them out’, and you will probably try to pull them out! However, let the real demonstration of spiritual authority, which is following Christ, not legislating others be the guide that brings them out. Jesus sent his disciples into the world to ‘show’ them who was that Light, not legalize them and make them follow Him.
Now, and finally, I do not want to be labeled as ‘one who causes division among the brethren’, but I want you to honestly search your heart, your church, your religion and your relationship to God. Ask yourself, “Am I following God in my heart, through Faith in Jesus, knowing His Word and seeking His Will, or am I following a structure, an organization and a set of rules or an absolute ruler that makes me feel holy and acceptable to Him by rigid compliance with threat of loss?”
In an article, The 10 Signs of Spiritual Abuse I found a mirror for what my church was, and it’s leadership. If you and your church identifies with these, make preparations to move. Find a loving Church that teaches simply what the Bible says. Meditate on Mark 7:7 before reading this list and comparing it to your church.
“Their worship of me is worthless, because they teach human rules as doctrines.” Amplified Bible
- Personality Centric
- Charismatic, Strong, Intelligent. Holds complete sway and power over the congregants and his/her authority cannot be questioned.
- Operates Independently
- No oversight, no governing body. The pastor of the local assembly answers to no one.
- Engulfment (Isolation)
- Members only, outsiders are only ‘loved’ if they ‘come in’ or are in the ‘process of coming in’. Otherwise they are heathens.
- Keep members so enslaved to the ‘work’ of the church, you can ‘never give enough’, spirituality is questions if members become tired and request a reprieve.
- Keeping tabs on members, checking their prayer times, givings, what they are reading, listening to, watching, hanging out with. This often involves cannibalization whereby members spy on and turn in other members when ‘bad behavior’ is spotted. Cult?
- Coded Language
- Members only jargon. If your preacher ever says, ‘Stop the recording’, you had a giant red flag waving in front of you.
- Unrealistic Promises
- God will give you a pay raise, ‘If’…
- Courting Rituals
- Pastor controls when, if and who you can date, who you can marry, how long you should date and when you can marry. Notice that ‘Should’ is never the case, and in these churches, choosing to date who you wish without permission is instantly labeled as ‘immoral’.
- In our church, any members who leave are not to be fellow-shipped. They are disfellowshipped. They taught ‘wave nice when you see them in the store, but don’t be spending time with them…’
- The Ends Justify the Means
- The above 9 stands are justified if it means ‘we make it to heaven.’ which is equated to following the rules of the church.
Let me end this with saying that this should not be used to attack people of the Pentecostal faith! They are just as sincere as those they mock. They are loyal (mostly) and are seeking God like most Christians do. The ‘abuse’ comes from the top of a Church. Even the Pastors may not be guilty of willfully abusing the flock. They are carrying a torch that started long before they took the reins. It only takes a cursory glance through the Bible, from Acts to Jude to realize that ‘legalism’, or obedience to a ruleset was rejected by Christ and his Disciples, yet authority requires obedience when authority is placed in a mans hands.
Rather, use this article is a dipping stick to see if your heart tells you that you may be in a legalistic church. My story is simply one of hundreds, thousands and perhaps millions. The Charismatic/Pentecostal movement is one of the fastest growing denominations right now because it is intense, loud, charismatic and exuberant. Many stay for the spirituality – some stay out of fear. If you fall into the latter case, examine whether the spirit of your church be ‘of God’. Pray, seek Him, seek guidance from outsiders and ask questions, with a right spirit. Most of all, follow Christ!