Control of congregations

an-angry-mobOne of the most unpleasant things we can witness is a group of people filled with righteous indignation expressing their hatred and passion for a targeted group or individual. The lynch mob, as we might describe it, has persuaded itself that it is taking a stand for goodness and truth in the face of depravity and wickedness. What we are in fact witnessing is the desire of people with little self-knowledge projecting evil from within themselves onto a scapegoat figure. The person they condemn may well be guilty of a terrible crime or they may just be different. Whatever is the case, the profoundly disturbing way that people sometimes express their hate for the outsider does little to enhance moral values in any community. Sometimes of course this vengeful crowd is completely wrong in identifying a particular target for their venom. Most of us will remember the way a paediatrician was vilified by a vindictive mob because somebody thought that the title of her profession meant that she was a paedophile.

A book that I am reading refers to the difference between external and internal faith. The author describes the kind of church where particular styles of external faith are much prized. By external faith we are talking about outward aspects of behaviour and belief which visible to the outsider. The book is written in the context of conservative protestant America, but we can still recognise some of these aspects of external faith in church life in our own situation. The book is in fact primarily a study of pastors who are, the author claims, sociopathic. I will have more to say on this dysfunctional quality among church leaders on another occasion. In brief sociopathic behaviour will involve a coercive use of power over a congregation which is entirely devoted to extracting maximum benefit for the pastor himself. To gain this control the pastor has to gain complete authority over the flock and control their outward attitudes and behaviours. In the first place the congregation will have absorbed from frequent preaching the idea that the Bible teaches the final authority of the minister or pastor. Words like loyalty and obedience to the pastor will loom large in this kind of church. But there are three further techniques which are used by a power hungry minister to consolidate his control. The first is to appeal to the fears of the Christians in the pew. The second is to create a strong sense of moral outrage against some despised groups of people outside the church. The third is to create an image of purity and holiness that is expressed in visible ways.

To return to the first of these. It is not difficult to create a climate of fear in the congregation when you are constantly mentioning or hinting at the topic of eternal damnation. When people are genuinely frightened, they will look for a place of safety. In a typical conservative congregation that place of safety will be at the feet of a power seeking minister. He will be seen as having the keys of heaven and hell. Fear, in other words has handed him an enormous power to be used in whatever way he thinks fit. In the case of a pastor with little professional integrity, this power may be grotesquely misused to manipulate and control the vulnerable in the congregation. It is no coincidence that the sexual abuse of women and children has been a recurring issue in not a few congregations. Although child sexual abuse is reported in congregations of every kind, the independent churches, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other non-denominational groups seem to have particular problems in this area. It is not difficult to suggest that excessive power being handed to a single individual, here the pastor, will sometimes be the prelude to unhealthy sexual dynamics in a congregation. Whatever else is true, it is clear that the tactic of exploiting fear by a pastor within his flock will do little to enhance the overall spiritual health of the people in that church.

An encouragement of moral outrage among ordinary Christian against the evil ‘other’ is also something that is sadly widespread in many churches. I have written in previous posts about my puzzlement as to why the gay issue should be a red line issue in some Christian thinking. But it would be in the interest of a power-seeking pastor to get his people to feel strongly indignant about a despised group beyond the congregation. Hitler acquired a lot of his power from his creation of an enemy for the German people to hate, the Jews. Any organisation will always run well when it has identified a task which brings everyone together. A church always runs well when there is a harvest supper or similar event to organise. Boosting morale by getting everyone to act together will always work even when the task identified is that of hating a despised outsider. A deliberate incitement of moral outrage, as we noted at the beginning, can be an extremely effective, even if ugly way of creating a sense of unity. Some newspapers, which shall be nameless, sell many copies purely because they are good at articulating hatred for one group or another. The church, to its shame, also indulges in this kind of behaviour from time to time. Under the banner of hating sin, it welds its members together in a noisy demonstration of righteous indignation while creating feelings of smugness and self-satisfaction at the same time.

The third part of creating an external and shallow Christian identity is to make rules of behaviour which make your group different to everyone else. Some of these Christian life-style choices found in the States do not occur in this country. We do not normally insist on particular styles of dress for women or ban certain kinds of music as being unsuitable for Christian ears. Nevertheless some of the conservative teachings about how to behave towards women and children within the family must create a distinct and arguably harmful ethos. Disciplining children is an area of family life which has to be worked out by each set of parents. If parents allow this part of their family life, for example, to be dictated to by so-called biblical injunctions rather than by their good sense together with their natural instincts, much suffering can be created. In particular some Christian parents, even in Britain are persuaded against all their parental instincts to use a paddle to beat their children. This is what the Bible (the book of Proverbs) appears to say.

Fear, moral outrage and adopting an external ‘biblical’ lifestyle of some kind are the three ways that an authoritarian pastor can exercise effective control over a congregation. Each of these have very little to do with the internal transformation which is of far greater importance for the Christian journey. Any understanding of what it means to be a Christian would normally focus, not on external things, but on such issues as the inner struggle against sin and selfishness as well as allowing ourselves to gain a greater self-knowledge. Such self-knowledge would in turn be rooted and grounded in love and access to the power of the Spirit. The task of the Christian is to grow in inner wisdom, understanding and personal holiness. For a pastor, who should be teaching such things, to seek to control his people by frightening them is morally despicable, just as it is of dubious value harking on constantly about who are the enemies of the church. Even if such fears and a sense of outrage were to be justified, they would be no substitute for a profound engagement with the world of the spirit, a world which seeks to change us and make us always new.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

One thought on “Control of congregations

  1. Well said, Stephen. Truly morally repugnant. I did have a perfectly respectable Baptist friend who felt that smacking a child was wrong, because you shouldn’t use your hand, you should use something else. Something to do with the hand being used to give things to your child. She used to use a wooden spoon to smack the child’s bottom. I don’t think she went in for “beating” at all, but it was certainly an odd perspective.

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