Tuesday, December 4, 2012

False Teachers: The Hard Gospel and Grace

In my former church our pastor spoke that our church was different than others because he preached a tough gospel message.  It was implied that people in other churches would have difficulty getting through the narrow gate to heaven because their pastors preached what they wanted to hear, not what was necessary to get to heaven.  Our pastor didn't water down the Word and wasn't into seeker-sensitive or easy-believisim teachings.  Some current church members even mentioned this narrow gate wording on their Google reviews which have since been revised or/or removed.  It was (is) a source of pride among the congregation.  We felt thankful that we didn't have to listen to other pastor's sermons which were most likely weak.  There was a sense among us that other pastors must not love their congregations the way ours did because our pastor preached the hard teachings.  We were special ones to have this teaching, even though it meant a more difficult path.  

Spiritual abuse pattern:  A common trait in spiritually abusive churches is elitism.   If we are so special, and all others churches are inferior, who wants to attend an inferior church?  Elitism is a manipulation tactic to keep people at the church.  And it works powerfully because we become convinced that no other church will measure up to our elite church.

“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it.  Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.   Matthew 7:13-14

What we saw modeled to us to get to that narrow path, however,  was works-based religion.  We felt the need to be present at all church meetings.  If there was a car wash evangelism outreach, it was important to be there.  We felt pressure to go out and and evangelize on Friday nights, to other events he deemed important.  We had to use the right formula for evangelism, we had rules of how to dress, there were rules of when women could talk, what members did with our time outside of church.  Somehow, the pastor did not need to say a thing and people still felt  pressure and could hear his rules in their heads.   These were unspoken rules.  I've spoken to a number of people who sensed this pressure and felt guilty for not attending a specific event or teaching.

Religion always teaches that you can get to God by doing something.  Your good standing with God depends on what you do.  Do the law, perform religion, do it right, look good, try hard.  Is that the gate through which we are called to find life?  No.  Those leading people to it are ravenous wolves in sheep's clothing.  They look like sheep, and they appear to be the safest, most righteous, but they lead people down the wrong path.  Jesus plus anything is not Jesus! 
(from The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson & Jeff VanVonderen)

Look at the verse following the narrow gate passage:

15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.  

I discussed a bit of this with my friend, Pastor Ken Garrett.  Ken has first-hand experience of being involved in an abusive church for over a decade and has studied spiritual abuse at great length.  I always appreciate his insight.  He shared this with me and it goes right along with what we and so many people experience in abusive churches:

Dogmatic, demanding preachers are prone to boast that their "gospel" is THE narrow way; and they can usually point to a truck-load of rules, mores, taboos, and religious expectations and dogmatic doctrines that they've laid on their followers as evidence of just how "narrow" their way is!   Basically, any church that doesn't seem as "strict" as their church immediately is accorded the "broad-and-wide-way-that-leads-to-death" title.  It's the theology of bullies, and is an affront to God's marvelous grace.

Ken is exactly right.  A typical pattern we see in these churches, as Ken alludes to in the last sentence, is a lack of grace.   There is no gospel without grace.  If a pastor says "grace" from the pulpit, but his life and actions reflect otherwise, is he preaching the gospel?  I don't think so.   Preaching is much more than the words coming from the pulpit.  A pastor preaches and models to his congregants through his words and actions after the service, during the week as he rubs shoulders with congregants and those outside the church.  

Anyone can get caught up into a church like ours.  Because so much seemed biblical and accurate from the pulpit, I had difficulty articulating what the real problem was.  I share our personal accounts because my husband and I had been Christians over 30 years and we were fooled.  I knew something was wrong the first time I walked in the place, but could not identify it.    It took leaving the church, getting out of the environment completely to see things clearly, and even then, it was a process.  The wool was pulled over our eyes.  We drank the Kool-Aid.  The after-effects of the Kool-Aid are wretched and painful.  We are still dealing with it.  

I hope our story helps to illustrate how false teachers creep in and can get even seasoned Christians fooled.  Just because your pastor teaches the hard gospel and uses scripture to back it up, and preaches against false teachers, calling them out, does not mean that your pastor is not a wolf.  Scripture says that they creep in unnoticed.    Their objective is to devour.  Look for the inconsistencies in their words.  If they preach grace, is the fruit evident in their lives and words away from the pulpit and in their personal life in dealings with others?  

photo credit: Norma Desmond via photopin cc


  1. Julie:

    It is truly sad but these pastors do not know what real grace is. What a shame, their preaching hurts so many people.

    1. Tom, it is that hurt that compelled me to speak out. I could not stand it any longer. It is so destructive.

      These kinds of pastors are all about feeding their own egos and controlling others. They "use" the gospel and God and the Bible in a manipulative way to feed their hunger issues.

  2. Thank you, Julie Anne. Your statement, "There was a sense among us that other pastors must not love their congregations the way ours did because our pastor preached the hard teachings. We were special ones to have this teaching, even though it meant a more difficult path" really rang a bell. Abusive-bully preachers often appeal to the old "this is gonna hurt me a lot more than it hurts you" vibe, suggesting that their harsh, unloving, bitter speech is supposed to be viewed by their listeners as being good for them! The result? Unloved church members who begin to mistake insult for blessing, and dogmatism for truth, and risk becoming unloving people themselves. Ugh.

    1. " . . . . risk becoming unloving people themselves" You nailed it, Ken. We saw this when we ran into members at both court hearings and these same people that we went hiking with, worshiped together with, played volleyball with, shared meals together with were now filled with so much anger towards us. They were like clones of their pastor.

      And I hate to say it, but it reminded me of Fred Phelps and his clone followers (Westboro Baptist).

      You just don't forget about that kind of response - especially when it came from people you loved and cared about (and still do!).

  3. Julie: You said:"They were like clones of their pastor." Absolutely, they do not become Christlike but pastor like full of his hate for anyone not like him. This is not Christianity!

  4. I have spent the last couple days just googling and reading about the many mega church Pastors that have reached celebrity status and it just amazed me at the amount of abuse, scandals, back stabbing, false accusations, real accusations, convictions, lies, greed, spending, hatred,killings, sex, divorce, adultry, bankruptcy, positions, titles, mansions, jets, tithes, power, money, resignations, reinstatement and the list goes on and on, taking place inside these ministries. Hollywood would have trouble scripting a soap opera to compete with what goes on in our churches everyday. And this is only the ones you can read about. McDonald and Burger King have a better relation than many of these Mega churches do. (and it's not only inside the mega churches)

    1. Raymond, did you feel like you needed to take a shower after watching all of that filth? I don't know how you did it. But I understand why. I agree with you that Hollywood would have difficulty keeping up. It is crazy. And what a very sad and profound thought that Burger King would have a better relationship with it's customers than Mega churches have with their people.

      It always comes back to love. Pastors who love their flock tend and care for them. They do not abuse. And they do not put themselves before their flock.


    People who love the "Hard Gospel" preaching probably want to hear it that way. If they really were opposed to that kind of preaching they could go elsewhere. But then I suppose some are so conditioned to the elitism that Jeff speaks of, that they are afraid to make a change.

    There is still that possibility that subconsciously these folks get a thrill out of feeling superior to all those bad old Christians in other churches. So they encourage their pastor to continue pouring out his BS on them....

    And they love it! They applaud when the pastor shouts the loudest and wipes the sweat from his forehead. It's on TBN. I watch it for 3 seconds and switch the channel.

    1. Sheep-Dog - That's an interesting idea that I hadn't thought about much - that the church members themselves get a thrill out of feeling superior when comparing themselves to other "inferior" churches. I think you could be on to something. The pastor's drive to power trickles on down to the congregants. Interesting. But that is exactly what we see with Westboro Baptist folks, isn't it? There has to be something in it for the congregants, too, in order to remain.

      It made me think of a Faith Tabernacle video I posted a while back and you're right - the people really did egg on the pastor, getting him all riled up even more than he already was. It was like a tag team getting into an emotional spiritual frenzy.

    2. Yes.. Westboro Baptist will certainly go down in history as one of the most hateful bunch. And they love hating. I may be wrong, but somewhere I read that Westboro is just one family. Not sure about that.

      Notice I did not say "Christian" but "bunch". This is probably the most radical of any so-called "church" that I have ever heard of in my life. I hope never to see another quite that far-out in luneyland.

    3. They do have more than just their family there, but they are a small church - and a very powerful one as far as their exposure. It's amazing how the internet can make a small church seem large (case in point BGBC!). I looked up Fred Phelps - they have 13 kids. I know at least 2 of the sons have left the group. At least one of them has left church entirely. They do seem hateful. It's amazing that they have brought others in to join their church. I don't understand what the appeal is.

    4. Headless Unicorn GuyDecember 6, 2012 at 10:08 AM

      I don't understand what the appeal is.

      What C.S.Lewis called "The Lure of the Inner Ring". They're the Speshul Remnant Who Alone Are Right With God and Doing God's Work.

      Or at least what God would want if God Only Knew What Was REALLY Going On.

    5. Headless Unicorn GuyDecember 7, 2012 at 5:17 PM

      It made me think of a Faith Tabernacle video I posted a while back and you're right - the people really did egg on the pastor, getting him all riled up even more than he already was. It was like a tag team getting into an emotional spiritual frenzy. -- Julie Anne

      Invoking Godwin's Law for a moment, the same thing is visible in films of the Nuremberg Rallies and was commented on in an Allied Intelligence Profile in 1943 (and by Michael Jackson as an example of a performer working an audience). A.H. began his speeches slow and hesitant, only gradually warming up as the audience connected, then the two went synergistic and whipped each other into a common frenzy in some sort of feedback loop. The image of a ranting A.H. comes from late in the speeches when he'd been working the crowd (and the crowd was working on him) for a while.

  6. But then again you have what is called the seeker friendly type church where your ears are being tickled by false doctrine that leads one into believing in wantom grace. That is, believing that as long as you say you believe in Jesus, you can continue to live in sin claiming the blood of Jesus.

    It is because of being saved we can manifest the evidence of such by the fruits that are sown. That is, works of the spirit and not of the flesh.

    1. Right, Linda - there are false teachings on both sides of the spectrum and that is why it is so confusing. We must be so careful to watch the fruit in the lives of church leaders.

    2. Headless Unicorn GuyDecember 6, 2012 at 10:10 AM

      "The Devil sends errors in opposing matched pairs. So that in fleeing one, we embrace the other."
      -- either C.S.Lewis or G.K.Chesterton (from memory)

  7. René Girard is a french anthropologist who did a lot of work on what he calls mimetic theory.

    One of the people he worked with was a Catholic theologian named James Alison. There are a couple of quotes I ran across today.

    This was was a quote of Alison from Brian Maclaren.
    "If you give people a common enemy you give them a common identity. If you take away their enemy you take away the crutch by which they know who they are."

    Another quote from Alison found here: http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/eng/texts.html
    “The group identity that is built up by mutual regard is impervious to the regard of God. Or, stated differently, reciprocally given identity is a closed system, and it is only through undergoing a loss of reputation, which means a loss of identity, which means a certain form of death, that a gratuitously given identity can break through.”

    The effect of what he is saying is astounding to me. It is only when we loose that group identity through loss of reputation or other means that the identity that Christ gives us can appear.

    For example, by creating such a strong identity for the church by, as you state, "...our church was different than others because he preached a tough gospel message. It was implied that people in other churches would have difficulty getting through the narrow gate to heaven because their pastors preached what they wanted to hear, not what was necessary to get to heaven.", your former pastor was actually making it harder for the people in the church to have Christ plant his identity in them.

    1. Those are deep thoughts, Joel. Your last sentence is spot on and I've had a draft post about that very topic. There is so much confusion about personal salvation in a church like this. I've never seen so much spiritual confusion in my life.


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