Where’d Everybody Go?

In light of the response to this post, I would like to offer the following disclaimer:

First, the views expressed in this space are mine and mine alone. Those who have attempted to take out their anger over it on my family and associates have shown how petty and pathetic they truly are. They have only proceeded to prove every point I have attempted to make. Shame on them. Secondly, I realize that both what I have said in this post, and the tone with which I said it, have been inflammatory. No apology will be offered for either.

Well, friends, I finally went and did it. After more than two years of feeling what I suppose we could call spiritually homeless, in a sense, I finally took the challenging yet necessary step of joining myself to another local church. People say change is hard–but this decision really wasn’t. Sometimes you just know. And I knew when I found myself praying something along these lines:

“Lord, I know this church has problems. I know the pastor here is greedy, hungry for power, and spiritually abusive. I know he’s surrounded himself with people he can control while he’s isolated anyone who might hold him accountable while he dismantles the church from top to bottom. And I know there are people in ministries who are neither called or equipped for those roles in the church body. And I know he’s allowed false doctrine into the church in the name of ecumenical unity ‘in the gospel,’ and anyone who condemns or even questions it is publicly slandered from the pulpit. And I know he twists the Scriptures out of context to push his own agenda. And I know he sows discord among brethren by ordering his followers to listen for and report any criticism of him they hear, and tells people in the church to cut off anyone who has joined another local body. And I know the people in the church are blindly following the man off a cliff because they’ve traded doctrinal purity and scriptural church polity for business and social connections, but let me ask you, God…should I stay there?”

See, I don’t believe in asking God ignorant questions. Sure, He knoweth our frame and remembereth that we are but dust, but sometimes we ask Him stupid questions that are completely unnecessary. God has given us His word and His Spirit to teach and guide us, and with that in mind, sometimes there are just things we don’t need to ask. So when it came time to finally unite myself to another local body that wasn’t about to be laid out on a metal cart with a sheet over its head and a tag on its toe, the Lord told me there really wasn’t any deliberating to do. It will be more challenging to write this post, as it will be more personal in nature than my usual offerings.

In May 2016, I was sitting in a church employee meeting where the pastoral and support staff were informed of coming changes. The church was hiring a business administrator, which was a reasonable step for a ministry with a budget and facilities of that size. One of this individual’s tasks in the coming months would be to evaluate each of us on our job performance and see how we could best serve the ministry there. Okay then. Then came the curve ball. We were told up front, before the new man ever officially took the job, that some of us (names not mentioned) would be let go and if any of us were thinking about finding new jobs, we should inform the proper people because it would really make things easier if we would go ahead and see ourselves out.

The reason for this unexpected shift was that “Statistics show that most pastors and congregations aren’t fully comfortable with the pastor in his new role until about his fourth year on the job.” As he had just marked his third anniversary and was now into his fourth year as pastor, statistics told him he should be able to get away with making more drastic changes now.

Just over three years later, the church finds itself in complete disarray from top to bottom.

What compels people to leave a church where they have been active members for decades? And what causes this scenario to play out over and over again as dozens of church members flee as though the building were on fire? People who have been faithful for decades, taught Sunday School, served as deacons and trustees, supported the church financially, won souls, raised families in the church, and been through all its ups and downs don’t just leave without there being a major paradigm shift they can no longer abide.

In other words, a remnant of people realized their identity is in Christ and not in their church membership, so they sought out a place where they could serve Him free of the corruption of bad doctrine and the tyranny of spiritual abuse.

Calvinism

“But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.

(II Corinthians 11:3)

I’ve written at length about Calvinism in this space in the past, so I won’t take the time now to point out why it is Scripturally incorrect. As a matter of fact, the pastor of my former church has done so in his own pulpit. And yet:

  • The church’s Sunday School curriculum was written by a committee comprised overwhelmingly of Calvinists, many of whom are associated with the Gospel Coalition.
  • The church’s new music comes from Getty Music and Sovereign Grace Publishers, whose affiliations with Calvinism have been well documented.
  • The church’s bookstore is filled with resources written by Calvinist authors, notably Presbyterian pastor Tim Keller and Mark Dever, whose Nine Marks of a Healthy Church provided the basis for an entire sermon series.
  • The church sends and supports Calvinist missionaries.
  • Church members are admonished not to question or criticize Reformed theology, under the pretense that Calvinists are our co-laborers in the gospel.

As much as some may protest through crocodile tears that they are not Calvinists, the principle of “guilt by association” would seem to apply. It doesn’t matter if the pastor doesn’t personally subscribe to their perverted theology if he allows it to influence every area of his ministry.

Spiritual Abuse by the Pastor

I recently read an eye-opening article by Stephen Altrogge from The Blazing Center. While I don’t know enough about the writer or organization to give either one an overall endorsement, this particular article was on point, and elements of what Mr. Altrogge put forth will be incorporated here.

A few months after that staff meeting, I was told that my services as an administrative assistant were no longer required, and I was being put on part-time custodial duty. It was a “business decision.” (A few weeks after my “no longer necessary” admin assistant position was eliminated, it was recreated. I made a “business decision” of my own to find better employment elsewhere, and it ended up taking two people working a combined 60 hours per week to accomplish what I had been able to do by myself in 40. I guess that was a more efficient use of God’s money.)

I felt at as though I had been told, in not so many words, that my spiritual gifts and my ministry were of no value to the church anymore. After nearly two years of using my position to serve pastoral staff, missionaries, lay leaders, and families in the church, all I was apparently good for was unlocking doors, pushing brooms, and bleaching toilets. I never felt as if those things were beneath me, but they required none of the spiritual gifts I had enjoyed using to serve the Lord and His church in a unique way. It was hurtful. It was also the first encounter I had with what has become a pandemic of spiritual abuse in that church in recent years.

That was the first sign I noticed: the removal of certain individuals from ministries in which they had served faithfully and no longer allowing them to use their spiritual gifts within the body. Sometimes this was done because the individual’s particular demographic was at odds with the image church leadership wanted to present. (Interpret that how you will.) After all, how can a church be expected to attract young, suburban professionals if staff members and Sunday School teachers are over 40? Faith, hope, and charity are fine qualities, but we’d prefer they be a little more photogenic.

In other cases, folks were removed from or marginalized out of ministry positions because their agenda was out of step with the pastor’s—namely, devotion to and exaltation of the pastor above all else. A spiritual abuser—the pastor, in this case—demands an unreasonable level of loyalty. Those in ministry and leadership positions in the church must, first and foremost, support his agenda and never disagree with him about anything. Loyalty to him becomes the prime qualification for ministry in the church. Those who don’t give it, either out of active refusal to do so or a desire to simply serve Christ without getting caught up in church politics, have to go. Positions in ministry, then, have become political rewards for sycophants and yes-men. The pastor has filled key positions in the church with those who are not called, not equipped, and not qualified…but they will follow orders and rubber stamp whatever he wants, and that’s all that matters.

As a result, there is no one to hold him accountable. Those who, on paper, are theoretically able to hold him accountable have been marginalized, ostracized, and kept in the dark about every decision. One of our core values as independent Baptists is the idea of the self-governing local church. What we have seen is a local church turned into a de facto dictatorship.

So, what happens when people finally can’t take it anymore and leave? For months now, they have been publicly slandered and falsely accused of wrongdoing…from the pulpit. The church has been instructed to cut off contact and end relationships with those who have left. One former church member wrote a private letter to the pastor and a number of church officers explaining why he was moving his membership, and months after the fact, the pastor began a multipart series offering a public rebuttal to the letter, frequently taking the former Sunday School teacher woefully out of context to make him appear ignorant and mean-spirited.

The ever-dwindling crowd of remaining church members have been told that nothing is really wrong. When the sky is falling around you, the propaganda machine has to kick into overdrive to spin the mundane into major victories. It was so good to see God’s people living out the gospel by showing their love for one another through their fellowship after the service this morning! Because no one in a Baptist church ever made conversation in the lobby after a service until they had gospel centeredness explained to them.

In order to deflect everyone’s attention from real, deeply-rooted problems, blame is shifted to the people who have left the church. Faux-spiritual jargon is used as a weapon. If you disagree, you just need a deeper understanding of the GOSSSS-pelll [emphasis added for the sake of sounding obnoxious]. Your problem is that you’re searching for your i-den-ti-ty in something other than JEE-sahssss [emphasis added for the sake of sounding obnoxious]. We have more GOSSSS-pelll-centered preaching right now than we’ve ever had in this church, so if you feel like you aren’t being fed, that’s your own fault [you get the idea]. On a side note, evidently gospel-centered preaching means talking down to one’s congregation with smug condescension, but maybe that’s more of an individual stylistic choice.

This is ultimately the reason why I decided to write this post. I’ve had enough of listening to people of faith and good character be viciously and repeatedly slandered by their former pastor. Recently, he made the case that the “faction,” as he calls us, are like the false converts and antichrists alluded to in I John who left faith and fellowship because they were never genuinely converted. Either he is twisting the Scriptures shockingly out of context to push his own agenda, or he actually believes such outrageous tripe. Either way, should not such lunacy and loose cannon antics disqualify a man from standing in the pulpit?

The pastor should be ashamed. Those who believe their highest calling in the church is to give him their loyalty should be ashamed. Those who walk in step with his agenda by furthering his lies and slander should be ashamed. We know from Scripture that hatred, wrath, strife, slander, and backbiting are fruits of the flesh, so one would do well to examine one’s self and one’s church and make the proper classification. God knows and judges hearts.

At its core, the problem afflicting the church is not complicated. We can investigate, analyze, and postulate until Jesus comes about what is bringing about the downfall of this local church in particular and American “evangelical” Christianity in general, but the answer at its core is as old as corruption itself. Let’s open it up for a little audience participation. It starts with a “p” and ends with “ride.” Anybody?!

Lucifer fell from Heaven because he desired worship and exaltation above the station ordained by his Creator, and God won’t hesitate to cast down those who continue in the same sin today.

Where did everybody go? They realized their spiritual health was too valuable to stay in a toxic environment. We want preaching that communicates the truth clearly without being cluttered with sanctimony and arrogance. We don’t need Keith and Kristyn Getty to tell us how to worship. We don’t need the Gospel Coalition to tell us how to exposit Scripture. We don’t need Mark Dever to tell us how to have a healthy church. (That worked out well.) We want a church where we can serve Christ free from an agenda. There are still people in 2019 who desire church the way it used to be, without the bells, whistles, frills, smoke, and mirrors.

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