Why some Wounded Christians don't 'Empty the Pews'


DEAR CHRISTIAN,

Thank you for messaging me. It guess you saw my tweet about the #EXvangelical* movement along with the storm of both agreement and reprobation that followed it.

You shared a personal tragedy and asked challenging questions about why I think you should not 'empty the pews' - as your hashtag called it. As I imagine that others might have similar questions, I’d like to respond in this format. 

Have You ever been Hurt in the Church?
It's been my experience that many join EXvan because they've become more theologically liberal than their childhood churches or because they've rejected Christian belief outright. It's also seems that others join EXvan because of acts of abuse they've experienced. You seem to be in the second category though you may have rejected parts, or all, of classical Christian belief as well.

Concerning abuse: You were treated in a way that is somewhere north of grotesque. For that, I am truly sorry for you. I can see why you left that congregation when you were old enough to. I lay no claim to such an extreme experience of victimhood. But I don’t mind answering your inquiry about my own journey:

by Aarón Tejedor
I remember one incident clearly. The angry leader who sat across from me was a former special forces soldier and was considerably bigger. He believed he had an ‘apostolic anointing’and was as full of himself as a Russian doll.

He raised his voice and made it forcefully clear to me that if I didn’t submit my social life to him, that he would make sure I’d regret it. I spent two hours in that church office being interrogated and threatened. The first hour passed like a kidney stone. The second one was worse. He gave me a homework assignment list and I was dismissed.

I never returned. I emptied that pew. He excommunicated me and I lost friends. I then worked to hold this pastor accountable. I knew I wasn’t alone. He had abused many by seeking control over their personal lives in a way not granted by Scripture.

That wasn’t the first time. I was also excommunicated when I was just 17. That left me disillusioned for nearly a year. Youth from that church who attended my high school would ignore me in the halls. They were following the lead from their pastor: I was dead to them.

My parents' divorce at the age of twelve also involved the failings of church leaders. It left wounds I still feel. But I do not wish to publicly tell all of that story.

Is this how you Treat the Victims?
I don’t share these stories to show that we are exactly alike. We are not. I was not sexually abused and I cannot fully appreciate the unique hurt you must experience. After reading your account, my own scars may seem minuscule by comparison. 

Most of those reading have not been sexually abused. Yet their wounds still matter. Church wounds are one of Satan's favourite tools. He uses the hurt people bring to provoke us to doubt God’s goodnessthe foundation of healthy spiritual life. 

How to handle these wounds seems to be one of the many issues that the EXvangelicals seek to address as they welcome people into their movement. I commend them for seeking to address it - even if I disagree with some of their advice. 

I share my story because you asked. But also because I want you to know that much of the advice I give to others who have been crushed in the church comes from my own journey as guided by Scripture. 

I took the advice to resist the tendency of seeing oneself through a victim lens. This is not to say that I didn’t admit I was the victim of someone else’s sin. I was. But, by God’s grace, I was going to work through it and not let it define my identity in a crippling way.

So I encourage other disenchanted disciples in this direction: be honest about the pain, cry tears in the company of safe people, pray Psalms of loss and anger, and avoid a long-term self-pity traps that will keep us unable to see the forest of God’s purposes for the trees of our hurt. And I encourage people to offer forgiveness (if we may dare to wield so beaten up a word) to those who hurt them.

Why do you let Abusers go Free?
Ouch. Would it bother you if I suggest that your criticism might be unfair?

I once reported a heavy handed shepherd to denominational superiors and he was disciplined by his authorities. He had to write an apology letter and a permanent mark was stamped on his career record.

Another was at an independent church with no denominational hierarchy to report the pastor too. I took to the internet and wrote an article about the abusive situations happening at this church. Eventually, as the spiritual body count grew, the church elders woke up to the situation and threw him out.

So I have been involved in the formal discipline or removal of two church leaderswhich I think is about two more than most of my critics who accuse, that by focusing on the victim being healed, I don’t care about abusers facing justice.

Whether we are successful in bringing effective rebuke to erring leadership does not stop us from helping to redeem those who have been hurt. We follow Christ’s lead to ‘bind up the brokenhearted’. We try, however imperfectly, to mend the wounded so they can go on to live fruitful and obedient lives for Christ. I believe this should be our priority. 

Why?

Photo by Jasmin Førestbird
Jesus taught that no one gets away with anything. The day of the vengeance of our God shall come. If we do not believe in the Final Judgement then anxiety will leak out of us like antifreeze whenever we experience personal injustice. We will furiously work to see due process done and sinners punishedfearful that it might never be done at all and that they’ll get away with it. 

But we shouldn’t believe that justice delayed is justice denied. One day soon every elder will stand before Christ and give an account for each life they’ve overseen. No abuser will have impunity. It will be and awesome and fearful day. No one will accuse Christ saying ‘Hey Jesus, you let that pervert priest off easy!’

No. The tears you shed are kept by flaming seraphs to be rained down as napalm on those unrepentant leaders who abused you.

This is why we pray for the leaders who hurt us to repentbecause what is coming will be truly terrible. But whether they repent or not, we refuse to live in prisons of bitterness, repeatedly dreaming about personal revenge. As it is written: ‘Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”’

Why are you Telling the Abused to Repent?
God forbid we do that! We assist people in leaving congregations where unrepentant abuse in leadership is happening. In that sense, we support the notion of ‘empty the pews’.

When one sided abuse of authority in leadership happens (or one sided rebellion in the congregation) then only one party should repent to the other. The abused should never have to repent to the abuser.

But this should not be understood to mean that we cannot repent to God when hurts come our way. Our lives are to be ones of continual repentance. This is the first word of the Gospel. Our bruises and blights can bring unbelief and vengeance to the surface like few other experiences. This good. We turn our faces to meet pain’s fierce kisses knowing that this affords us opportunity to find mercy for inner darkness that we never knew existed.

We did not choose to be ill-treated. But we can navigate the course we want our lives to sail in after such calamities occur. We think of Paul who was persecuted, abandoned, lied about, and opposed both in and out of the church. He continually stood back up with a heart free from offence and filled with grace. Don't we want what that? 

No angry pastor can send us to hell. No abuser can damn our souls. The only thing that can do that is our own sin. Our greatest treasure on earth is not seeing punitive justice descend in flames on those who hurt us. Our greatest treasure is our holiness before God.

So we take hope in our hurt. When we bring our tears to be washed in the blood of the Lamb, they get collected into God’s bottle of remembranceto one day be served as fine wine at His wedding banquet of redemption.

Why Not Leave Church Altogether?
Photo by Ashim D’Silva
If you're not part of a congregation because you no longer believe that Christ rose from the dead, that's understandable.

But you imply that you have stayed away from church due to your past abuse. Have I misunderstood?

Instead of encouraging people to 'empty the pews' and stay out of church altogether, I'd encourage you to find a different pew - that is, a new congregation.

Do you think the problem is systemic and that all churches are like this? Well, I do not live in your part of the world. In my part of the world, though we do occasionally find heavy handed or abusive leadership, it is the exception. Most pastors that I know are under-paid, over-worked, and they and their families have made great sacrifices to take spiritual responsibility for the church they are trying to lead. Most could be making more money, with far less complaining, doing something else.

So unless your part of the world is radically different, let me encourage you to start visiting congregations. Look for healthy leadership. In 'God, Hierarchy, and Power' Ashley Purpura writes, 'Power is primarily problematic if it is held in an unchecked position that can be dangerous to its subordinates without recourse to means of mediation.’ In other words, find a congregation with a healthy leadership structure so that, when leaders fail (and they do) those failings can be addressed in healthy ways.

Why should you?

First, yes, some of us have experienced pain in church. But we have also experienced great love. Some of the most caring people we have ever met are in the church. Though we may be on the receiving end of some disappointments when we join a congregation, we also receive grace.

Second, when He adopts us, God becomes our Father. Consequently, we get a whole new family―one that’s just as broken and screwed up as we are. Repeatedly in the New Testament we are instructed to ‘forebear’, ‘submit to’, ‘be patient with’, ‘love’, ‘forgive’, ‘don’t stop meeting with’ and ‘be patient with’ one another.

God intends that our growth as Christians should largely come via both the joys and the challenges that come with being a committed part of a congregation.

Third, we realise within ourselves the possibility of unrighteous motives in avoiding a congregation. There is the subtle allure of a life free from spiritual shepherds calling you to repent and live in purity. There’s a part of every son of Adam and daughter of Eve that despises authoritybe it parental, ecclesiastical, or political. There is also that the rush of freedom in getting rid of difficult people. But all this is only the liberty of a runaway; the temporary relief of the lost son.

We also stay in church to avoid self-righteous pride. When we leave church fellowship, it is easy to get into a complaining spirit that sees church through a very narrow lens as being ‘the problem’. We think of all the ways in which ‘church’ has disappointed us and see ourselves as the righteous ones who now nobly suffer outside the camp.

Of all our sins, this type of self-righteous anger can be the most delicious. We feast upon memories of when we were so right and the other person was so wrong. We nibble upon thoughts of how ignorant their actions were and how we were far more righteous. But one day, after we have been satiated on all these memories, we will realise that it is only ourselves that we have eaten. The feast has been our very selves. 

How about, instead of asking, ‘How will my faith survive the church?’, let’s ask ourselves, ‘How will the church survive my faith?’’ Doing so might save souls.  

Jesus
Lastly, many of us stay because we were never there for the church in the first place. We were there for Him. We didn’t sign up to follow Christianity, Evangelicalism, Catholicism, or any such movement. They didn't bleed for our sins. Those movements could collapse tomorrow and it wouldn't destroy us. Christians are from below and will always fail. He is from above and is always faithful. 

Jesus saved us and we joined our broken selves to one of His broken congregations. As is such, we believe that we should persevere when things go south. Occasionally, we may have to find a new congregationespecially if we think our church leaders are not submitting themselves to what God teaches in Scripture. We may trade one pew for another one. But we don't seek to empty them. 

Why?

Photo by Felix Koutchinski 
Jesus love His church. The Bible calls it His ‘Bride’. As followers of Jesus, we strive to have the same attitude towards the church as Jesus had - or risk being hypocrites. Yes, we are sometimes angry when we see her fail. Yet we seek to be respectful if, and when, there is a need to publicly point out her sins. We speak to save, not to destroy.

If you care, why don’t you join EXvangelical?
Yes, there are things in evangelical subculture (particularly American evangelical culture) that I find troublesome and hard to understand. I find the way in which some relate it to their politics to be odd. There are also legalisms and strange practices that I perceive to be less than Biblical at times. In 2014 I authored a book entitled 'Forbidden Friendships' in which I advocated for closer spiritual friendships between men and women in the church. I got a lot of push back from some evangelicals because it went against 'the Billy Graham Rule'. There is certainly room for constructive critique.

But I do not join the EXvan community for three reasons. The first is theological: my belief system is still classically Christian. Secondly, so much of the criticism I read from EXvan leaders seems more designed to destroy rather than to humbly lead in repentance, reform, and growth. The last reason is that my advice to crushed Christians is different from what I see in the EXvan community.

If someone rejects (classical) Christianity because they think another creed is more trustworthy, then so be it. But to reject a faith simply because one was hurt in a community that professes it, well, that may be a conflation of issues.

I recommend to fellow wounded travellers:

·   Share your hurt with the leadership. If they respond well, you might reconcile. If not it could be best to find another congregation.

·   Understand the scope and limits of the authority granted to church leaders by God in the Bible. (Here)

·   Refuse to make victimhood a core identity. I am a forgiven sinner before I am person sinned against. The debt I've been released from is always greater than the debt I release others from. Our ultimate joy is not in seeing our demonic abusers cast down, but that our names are mercifully written in heaven. (Lk 10.20)

·    Be humble in your politics. Our Brexit referendum in 2016 was a divisive, emotionally charged election. People in our congregation belong to different political parties and they voted differently: some to stay in and some to leave the EU. But they still worship together and love each other. Their ultimate identity isn't defined by a political philosophy. May I humbly challenge my American brethren on both sides of the political divide not to root their identity in their politics. Neither Clinton nor Trump are worth dividing over.

·    Cherish that, as a Christian, your God is unique. Christ is the only god who became man and allowed others to abuse him - all while praying for their forgiveness. Why? So that we might be healed.

·  Report shepherds who, without repentance when confronted, abuse their authority to proper denominational or other authorities (in case of things like sexual abuse, tell the police).

·   Talk to trusted friends or mentors. There’s also no shame in getting professional therapy or counselling.


·   Through the pain, make it your goal to have Christ’s attitude towards his church: one to save and not to condemn. 



My Life Now
I used to trust the church. Not so much now. I love the church, but my trust is in Jesus. Being disillusioned has helped me separate following the church from following Christ. And I think I can serve Christ, and the church, better because of it.

I am no longer bitter towards the church, but thankful that Jesus allows me to be part of it. He has led me away from the unforgiving desert of victimhood to the joyful country of redeemed sinners. 

I invite you to join me here.  

If you want more to think about, I wrote two articles touching on church a couple years back: When A Shepherd Bites' and  'Should Christians Obey their Pastors?'  


Thank you for taking the time to read. These are big issues and I hope respectful, healthy dialogue can continue.

Yours,
Joshua

*For those unfamiliar with the EXvangelical movement, this is NOT a critique of the movement. It isn't for three reasons: first, it would take up far too much space. Secondly, I do not feel qualified for such a task: the movement touches on a number of social, political, and cultural issues. Lastly because the comment I'm responding to was primarily about abuse - which is only a small part of the 'EXvagelicalism' movement. There is a lot online from EXvan leaders themselves if you wish to learn more.
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For more on how to address failings in both yourself and the church, please check out Elijah Men Eat Meat: Readings to slaughter your inner Ahab and pursue Revival and Reform 

Comments

  1. Thank you! I was not aware of the exvangelicals movement, but your answer is humble, wise and accurate. Keep going!

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