“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1
Sometimes I look around at church, see people enjoying the grace and freedom of the gospel, and wonder if they realize how good they have it.
For eight years I was entrenched in a church movement that, while not a cult, had cult-like tendencies. The movement was rallied around a noble cause—spreading the gospel—but in order to most efficiently and effectively spread the gospel, a rigorous structure was in place to recruit, train and send out more people. To keep the mission of the people tight and focused, a strong emphasis was placed on following and imitating your leaders. Therefore, there was one track for people to follow, and deviation from that accepted path was often perceived as a sign of spiritual immaturity or rebellion. This extended into many areas including the method for procuring a spouse (no dating), the method of child discipline (exclusive spanking), how you schooled your child (homeschooling), whether wives worked after marriage or children (nope), etc. And because of a hierarchical discipleship model, news of deviation from the normative beliefs always made it up the chain of command.
If your beliefs differed from the leadership—on everything from tertiary theological issues to life choices such as the career path you follow—you would most often remain on the outside. That is, you would not be accepted into leadership positions, and leadership positions were believed to be the main goal and desired path for all believers. First, if you were found to have the three pre-determined qualities necessary to succeed in the movement (one being “teachable,” interpreted as accepting the leaders’ stances on various topics), you would progress to a small group leader, then to a leader of small group leaders and then eventually and hopefully to a pastor or pastor’s wife. Because of the group’s aggressive church planting strategy, new pastors (and pastors’ wives) were always needed, and this was to be the goal of faithful believers. (Seminary training was shunned, and pastors were only raised up from the inside.)
But, perhaps most worrisome, was the emphasis on life-long commitment to the movement. To leave the movement or to move to a city without a church from the movement, was to move outside of God’s call on your life. Yes, there were other Christians, but no one doing it quite as well as they were. It was often implied that to leave the church was to move down the supposed ladder of Christianity to a life of apathetic faith.
As with many churches with cult-like tendencies, outside influences were not encouraged. People, especially college students, often distanced themselves from their families. The movement provided plenty of conferences and writings, removing the need to look to outside input from Christendom and limiting believers’ input to only the movement’s.
Reading this from an outside perspective, the red flags might seem obvious, and you might wonder why I stayed in the church for so long. But the subtleties aren’t clear until you move deeper into the movement and by that time, you have been indoctrinated. (And very often the recruits are 18-year-old college students, an age when I, at least, did not yet have the perspective, critical thinking skills and hutzpah to resist.) At first, it’s an incredibly warm and welcoming place. So many people join because you form such close, deep friendships. I still miss those friendships. And it’s wonderful to be part of a cause that you believe deeply in. It’s exciting to be part of something big where God seems to be moving.
It’s not until you are quite entangled that you realize that your arms have been pinned, if only psychologically. You realize that you are not free to think what you want to think. You are not free to move where you want to move. You are not free to discipline your children how you want to discipline them. More than two decades ago, this movement was the subject of scrutiny as being abusive and bordering on cultish, so they know their weaknesses and have tried to address them and improve. But a subtle culture of spiritual manipulation persists. It is hard to change decades of culture.
When I finally left the movement after a crisis of faith, realizing how much legalism and control had wrapped their fingers around my faith, I slowly began to taste again the freedom we have in Christ. I was surprised to visit churches where they didn’t seem to have an pre-planned agenda for my transformation but accepted me as I was—through the redeeming blood of Christ. I’m still, more than 10 years later, often surprised when the pastor doesn’t lay additional burdens on my shoulders on Sunday, but simply points me toward the cross.
If you have never experienced this kind of spiritual bondage, rejoice! You are free! If you have experienced this, remember—it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm. Never let anyone put a yoke of slavery on your neck again.
It takes years to recover from the subtle damage that spiritual control has on faith. I’m still discovering how my view of God, myself and the Bible are tainted by legalism.
That’s why it’s so incredible to me—even shocking—when I hear our leaders say from the pulpit that it’s OK if we don’t agree on certain tenets that are not primary to our faith. Why it’s so refreshing to hear that we believe other churches in our city are also places where God is moving—and aren’t just a distant second best to us. Why it’s so freeing to hear that what we will be known for is our love—not our “rightness.”
Let’s remember that the grace of God through Christ is the center of our faith.
Let us never put a yoke on one another’s neck, but continually remember to help each other remove the yokes the world keeps trying to put back on us.
Let’s stand together on Sunday when the pastor calls us men and women of God, without addendums or caveats, and say, “Amen!”
Written by a member of Pulpit Rock Church who wished to remain anonymous