This week G.R.A.C.E (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), an organization that investigates abuse, reports it to legal authorities, and provides churches and Christian organizations resources and education to prevent abuse, quoted Rachel Held Evans on a Facebook comment. Her quote was “We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.” A person who will remain nameless didn’t have as much issue with the quote as with the fact that Held-Evans was even quoted. She stated,”A quote implies a tacit endorsement. RHE’s teachings are as dangerous as the abusers we abhor. I’m certain that a similar statement could be found, made by a sound teacher.”
I debated on whether or not to instantly get into a comment war with this person because just on its face, comparing a blogger and author to a pedophile is ludicrous, no matter how much you disagree with the person, however two things stopped me from launching into a pointless internet debate with this person. One was that I think better after pondering a subject and quick cogent one-liners so important to winning Facebook debates are not my strength. The second reason was that there was something else very disturbing about her statement that I definitely could not fit into a two-line comment.
As an avid reader of Rachel Held Evan’s work, I am often befuddled about how people can so strongly oppose her because most of what she does is to ask questions. Really, really good, hard questions. Many of her questions I have also asked. Some, I have vaguely wondered about, but never put into words. Some, I didn’t even have enough knowledge to ask. In fact, one of her biggest categories in her blog is “Ask a “ where she allows readers to ask questions of people with different points of view or experiences such as a Calvinist, a Funeral Director, A Stay at Home Dad and an Orthodox Jew. Although she does have a few well thought out opinions that she supports such as mutuality in marriage and encouraging the role of female pastors, she continually keeps a respectful and open dialogue with those who disagree with her.
This open questioning and acceptance of constructive criticism is in direct contrast to one of the hallmarks of a spiritually abusive leadership or a cult. The Wartburg Watch says this in regard to the teachings common to churches who are spiritual abusive : “Because the religious system is not based on the truth it cannot allow questions, dissent, or open discussions about issues. The person who dissents becomes the problem rather than the issue he raised. The truth about any issue is settled and handed down from the top of the hierarchy. Questioning anything is considered a challenge to authority. Thinking for oneself is suppressed by pointing out that it leads to doubts. This is portrayed as unbelief in God and His anointed leaders. Thus the follower controls his own thoughts by fear of doubting God.” One of the characteristics of a cult leader is blind, unquestioning obedience according to Joe Navarro, a 25 year veteran of the FBI.
The most dangerous spiritual leaders are not those who ask hard questions but those who profess to have all the answers.
In their attempt to control the doubting and questioning that may unhing the absolute control of their flock, spiritually abusive pastors and cult leaders often deride or even forbid the attainment of higher education, often mocking education as too liberal or worldly. They forget that the basics of Christian theology and even the translation of the Bible that the carry is the result of the work of highly educated, questioning and thinking people such as Augustine, Aquinas, Wycliffe, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley. God gave us a brain and it is my belief that She desires us to use it to the best of our ability.
With the importance of education and solid theology in mind, I would also caution people of disparaging the faith of those who do not have access or ability or experience to advanced education. The gospel is for us all, but Jesus made a special attempt to reach out to the poor, the sick, and the marginalized. In my personal experience, the times I have most felt the presence of God was when I was desperate, either because of a physical or emotional need. Stong faith is not as likely to be gained in the library as in real life and seemingly hopeless circumstances, something that the poor, sick, and marginalized are much more likely to experience. While theologians and translators are vital, they do not have a monopoly on truth or faith.
Those who are truly dangerous and abusive are neither those who are steep themselves in Biblical learning and theology nor those who have little education or resources, rather it is those who have some education, some access to recourses, who are charismatic and crave power like Warren Jeffs, Jim Jones, and David Koresh. They refused to allow their followers to doubt or question their teachings or authority.
Those create a safe space to question are actually creating an environment that is less likely to be abusive. This is why the Facebook commenter’s reaction was so disturbing, by degrading someone known for questioning, she is actually creating an environment more likely to be abusive.
I believe that faith should be simple, accessible to everyone, regardless of IQ, education, time or resources, but there are so many questions of faith that seem to big for me to understand, much less a child to grasp. Some aspects of theology make my head spin as I wade through dense hermeneutics and multiple theories from different people. I wonder if this study has any worth since Jesus called a child in front of his disciples and said they needed to become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven. As I was thinking about the characteristics of little children, I realized that they trust for their existence. They have faith that their needs will be met, that the adult will keep them safe and cared for, they have no real power in or of themselves. They are fully dependent on others. But there is another characteristic of little children that most parents recognize. They are always questioning, always asking “Why?” As Carolyn Curtis James says in When Live and Beliefs Collide “The moment the word ‘why’ crosses your lips, you are doing theology.”
Throughout the month of August on Mondays, I will be exploring questions that I have on well established, well-loved beliefs. It may not make me very popular and a lot of people will probably disagree with me, but that’s good. They should be asking “why?” too.