I took a seat across from Pastor Bob at a booth right next to the store windows at Whole Foods. Plopping down onto one of those unforgiving wooden benches, I eyed my plate — a smorgasbord of, well, whole food. I’d never tried their buffet before. I realized at first glance that the quality here was leaps and bounds over what I used to find at Country Buffet on my high school baseball trips.
Tearing my gaze away, I glanced across the table at Pastor Bob. Smiling, he asked to bless the food and then did so. I bent over my steaming plate and closed my eyes.
It had been a while since I’d last met with this man. Pastor Bob and I had, and still do have, an amiable relationship. We met about six months prior, in the Spring of 2013, after I’d started dating a girl that went to his church. Bob and I got together several times to talk about it. Once that ended, I found myself having made a good many friends within Bob’s congregation, so I began attending his services in addition to ones at my own church. Each Sunday morning, after worshipping at the place I considered my home, I would then race over to Bob’s church to catch his service before lunchtime with those fine folks.
No, I suppose it wasn’t orthodox. At the time, I wished to expand my personal community and friend group, and the friends I made there have since become great ones.
Bob finished praying over our food and we dug in. He chatted casually at first, like he always did, asking about life and struggles. But then, out of the blue it seemed, Bob directed us headfirst into a doctrinal debate.
Of course, I’d never had any hesitations about discussing theology. All of my friends could’ve told you that I loved it, actually. But what made this encounter strange was that in every meeting I’d ever had with Bob, our discussion never wandered outside the practical realm. I valued his insight into a variety of experiential matters of life, but if I had theological, doctrinal, or biblical questions, I usually sought out members of my own church. This was because I never found Bob’s church services to be very meaty in terms of doctrine. In all my time (almost a year) of attending services there, I hardly recall hearing the Gospel preached — that is, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the propitiation of sins, to be absurdly concise.
And yet, if Bob now wished to dive into doctrine at Whole Foods, he found me eager to oblige. So he brought up two issues that I considered to be peripheral ones — prophecy and tongues. We cracked the Bible. He gave me his point of view, I gave him mine. And hardly any time had passed before all at once the conversation grew strangely tense. Bob’s voice began to rise in volume and take on a defensive tone. I grew uncomfortable and suggested that we change the subject. And that’s when the bomb came down.
Pastor Bob told me that one of my friends from his congregation had come to him asking questions that he didn’t like concerning these particular issues. The friend in question participated in a small group of men that I helped put together to read King’s Cross by Tim Keller, on our own time and of our own initiative. Bob said he didn’t like a lot of the conversations going on there. He said he thought they were divisive.
Taken aback, I assured him that I never had any attention to divide the body of Christ or more specifically, to be divisive to his church. I viewed our group as fostering honest, open dialogue about the Gospel and occasionally various other doctrinal issues.
In response, he told me that he thought it a bad idea that I attend two churches. Thus, he gave me two options: he suggested that I attend his church exclusively, and adjust my belief system in a way that fit in accordance with its tenets, or that I attend my own church exclusively, and expect to lose communal ties with those members of his church that I knew and loved.
After this, he assured me that he was doing this for my own good, and I believed him because of his caring language. Though I left Whole Foods with a mixture of confusion and hurt, I tucked it away. Something about the words he used to reassure me kept me from smelling anything fishy about the situation.
However, after mentally reviewing the conversation on the drive home, I realized with a quickening shock that I had just been delivered an ultimatum: stay and give up your doctrine, or leave and give up your community. Could that have been? Surely he must have meant something else… I asked my friends in the men’s group if they felt that any of our discussions felt divisive. They had no idea what I was talking about.
So I got back together with Bob, and we had many conversations after that, both in person and over the phone, and most of them went the same way: 90% encouragement with 10% stuff that left my head spinning with confusion.
“I’m not saying that if you leave, you can’t hang out with people at my church anymore, that’s definitely not what I’m saying,” he intoned once over the phone, “I’m just saying that it’s just a reality that you won’t experience close community with them anymore. They’ll want to grow closer to those in their own church.“
In a different call, he gave me an analogy: “Think of me as the shepherd of my flock,” he said. “The members are my sheep. If there’s a wolf that comes in, it’s my job to protect the sheep from being devoured.”
“So…I’m a wolf?” I asked.
“No, no, of course not,” he said. “You just might be someone else’s sheep. I’m just trying to do what’s best for you. I think you’d benefit most from putting all your resources behind one congregation instead of splitting them between two.“
That last part certainly made sense, I thought. I’d never been planning on staying long-term, anyway. But then what did he mean by the whole wolf thing? Bob continued to repeat that latter argument until it felt more or less like it was the only reason, and I felt ashamed at times for continuing to feel uneasy or for suspecting that I may have been manipulated.
I ended up leaving, of course. It’s taken me a year and a half to write about this, and I’m glad for that time, because in retrospect, it’s easier for me to see that I was, indeed, manipulated. That ultimatum had never been taken off the table, and in fact, it still stands. I was the wolf, in Bob’s eyes, even after his attempts to smooth over the stinging implications of that analogy with contrary encouraging words.
As I watched my own relationships with many (but not all) of those people deteriorate, and as I watched many more close friends that attended Bob’s church run into similar experiences, being pushed out or eventually choosing to leave in disgrace from church leadership, I became angrier and more confused. And I couldn’t stay that way; I had to figure out how to sort through it.
In my time thinking about how to write about this, and indeed, whether it would be helpful to write about at all, I had to consider what was at the heart of this mess. Please hear me: I’m not another millennial harping on the failings of the modern church (though I am contending for her purity). I love my church, I love the Church, and if it hadn’t been made clear to me that I couldn’t attend regularly at Bob’s church, I might still. Even though I don’t agree with how he’s handled many situations, I still love Pastor Bob and try to catch up with him occasionally, knowing that he is human too and takes most of his leads from those pastors over him.
The reason I needed to write this is to present a concrete example of one present-day reality that harms many of us. We’re bad at calling a spade a spade. And all too often, our encouragements and suggestions to fellow Christians are really just thinly-veiled mandates. Let me explain:
If I would have asked anyone in leadership whether or not I had to leave the church or whether I had to change my beliefs, they would have said, “Of course not!” But they made sure that I knew that there were consequences if I didn’t. In reality, they allowed me no choice. And yet by smoothing over the fact with encouragements and kind words, they gave me the illusion that I did have a choice.
Another example: one of my friends who stopped conforming to the church’s courtship-over-dating “suggestion” was as a result pushed to the outskirts of the church’s social groups. When he told Bob that he was planning on leaving because he felt isolated, Bob “suggested” that he go through a process they called getting “prayed out.” That meant that my friend met with Bob the last few times to explain his reasons for leaving, at which time Bob would present his arguments for staying. Then, if he still wanted to leave, it would usually happen that my friend got up in front of the congregation to be prayed for. Everyone would wish him luck on his future endeavors, essentially creating a clean break from Bob’s aforementioned close community.
Of course, Bob said that this wasn’t a necessary step to take in leaving the church. However, if he didn’t do it, he was told that he would then leave on a bad note, with disgrace. This would allow other members to remember him as “leaving with bitterness.” That would render any justifications he had for leaving void of clear reason as, they argued, his decision was clouded by bitterness. It was a way to wall themselves off from any critique.
To put it more simply, he had 3 choices: stay in the church, leave and lose his friends, OR leave, lose his friends, and face public ridicule. Of course, those last two options weren’t the most desirable. Still, he proceeded in leaving and is much happier now.
Unfortunately, another of my friends has tried to leave on several instances, and each time when it comes to getting “prayed out,” people convince him to stay by threatening him with the loss of his community, and he ends up blaming himself for having negative thoughts about his brothers and sisters in Christ.
On paper, it’s easy to see the manipulation going on. But it’s much murkier in real time, and it’s taken me many months to begin to sort through. It might be easy to chalk it up to this particular church exhibiting cult-like behaviors in more ways than the ones I’ve mentioned above, but….
Here’s why I’m writing this:
We all do this. I do this. I manipulate people and blur the line between suggestion and mandate, and I do this by adding my own prerequisites onto what it means to be Christian. I, in essence, add to the Gospel.
As Paul says in Galatians 1, any alteration or addition to the Gospel makes it “no Gospel at all.” We have no right to redefine what it means to be a Christian. We have no right to tack our ideas about dating, about spiritual gifts, or about church policy onto the Gospel as another essential, saying things like, “To be a Christian, believe in Jesus, and also make sure you don’t leave your church without being prayed out!” This is exactly what the false preachers were doing in Galatia when Paul wrote to them.
Of course, as demonstrated above, it isn’t always communicated that explicitly. Sometimes it’s done sneakily, hidden inside words that actually sound nice at first. In my case, Bob couldn’t truly accept me as a fellow brother and beloved of Christ unless my beliefs aligned with those of his church and my experiences matched what the church’s expectations for normative Christian experience were. I didn’t fit their mold. And yet because Bob cared about me and wanted me to stay, he used manipulative measures to try and get me there.
How else does this happen? Here are a few simple examples:
- Thinking a Christian can’t watch rated R movies.
- Thinking a Christian can’t drink alcohol.
- (My personal favorite) Thinking a Christian must experience a subsequent “baptism of the Holy Spirit” (a peripheral doctrinal issue).
But it gets a lot more subtle than that too:
- Thinking a Christian shouldn’t set boundaries on what movies he or she watches because he or she has freedom in Christ.
- Thinking a Christian should never abstain from alcohol because that leads to legalism.
- (My personal downfall) Thinking that those who believe in a subsequent baptism (a peripheral doctrinal issue) don’t “get” the Gospel.
Somewhere in there, while trying to figure out how to process this experience, I realized that I had to stop being a hypocrite. I had to recognize the same sin disease in me that was in Bob — thinking that in order for the church to be a Christian one, it had to think like me, and much worse, that it was my responsibility to get it where it needed to be (which was incredibly prideful). I had to stop looking at Bob’s church as a them, while I was a part of the us. There is no us and them in the Kingdom of God.
Of course, I do pray for Bob and for his church, that the Gospel would take deeper root in it. But I always do so with trembling, while also confessing my own sin and praying that those same Gospel roots would travel further through the depths of my own heart as well.
In short (or perhaps, in long), that’s the story about how I, Blake, not only got kicked out of church, but also how I kick people out of the church of Blake all the time.