Responding to harmful faith

god-hates-fagsAs my regular readers will know, I refer quite often to the fact that mainstream religion pays very little attention to the harmful extremes that exist on its periphery. To take one example, you will not find any discussion within the Church of England about the activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Every Vicar in a parish will have met ex-members of this group and perhaps has tried to help them. Even if they have read nothing about this heterodox body, they will know some of the consequences of leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the experience of shunning experienced by ex-members. The books that do exist and attempt to describe what takes place in the Kingdom Halls up and down the country, will normally be of an evangelical-type. In such books the argument with the JWs will be on matters of biblical interpretation. They will spend less time in examining the psychological and social issues that take place in what is a closed group. A variety of other fellowships also cause harm to their members by a misuse of Scripture. Examining their approach to the Bible will, however, only take you so far. More likely the ‘expert’ will want to look directly at members and ex-members and their psychological well-being or lack of it. This expert will have mastered one or other of the disciplines within psychology to get a handle on what might be going on in one of these closed groups. Attention may also be given to the leadership styles of the ministry, whether it is local or there exists some overseeing structure, perhaps based in another country.

I wonder how many people have attempted to answer the text quoting of a Jehovah’s Witness on the doorstep. The JW foot-soldiers who trudge the streets will have learned 30 or 40 texts from the Bible which ‘prove’ a particular narrow interpretation favoured by their body. The patient listener will be regaled with these texts and the Jehovah’s Witness follower will believe that his or her quotations have given him access to complete biblical truth. I suppose that the appropriate way to counteract these quotations might be to show other scriptural passages which say something quite different. But this would be completely futile. The sections of the Bible that counteract the Jehovah’s Witness position would be completely unknown, not only to be member standing on the doorstep, but also those who had trained them in their robot-like conversation style. The same thing would apply to books that are trying to undermine the Jehovah’s Witness reading of Scripture. We might for example want to challenge the various mistranslations that occur in the New World Scriptures. But what would be the point as the person who is speaking has learnt everything he or she knows inside a bubble of closed knowledge? Is there any point in sharing access to knowledge and information that exists beyond the bubble of the Jehovah’s Witness culture?

From time to time in this blog I have allowed myself to point out discrepancies, contradictions and difficulties within the scriptural text. The purpose of appointing these out is not to undermine the value of Scripture, but to show that simple text quoting is probably not going to solve completely any arguments about the deeper meaning of Christianity. Finding one text which presents a particular idea, does not sort out for all time a dispute or close down theological discussion on a particular topic. We need to look across many texts to discern a cumulative approach to human and spiritual issues. And even when we think we have found such a theological conclusion, the liberal seeker (infuriatingly for many) will realise that his conclusion remains somewhat tentative. It is capable of being refined and taken further. This tentative approach to Scripture and theology, may seem to many to be defeatist and undermining of the task of evangelism. Surely people crave the certainty of the text and they also want final answers. Perhaps they do claim to want certainty, but I would compare this desire to the way that, for many, political life is more comfortable when under an authoritarian dictator. Life may be more comfortable when other people make decisions but the same life will lack a sense of creativity and freedom that we associate with a full life.

Trying to respond to the excesses of authoritarian groups by arguing with their scriptural analyses, is, I believe, going to be a waste of time. I occasionally try to read books which argue for the Calvinist perspective on theology but find these incredibly hard work as I simply cannot share the enthusiasm of the author for certain carefully selected scriptural proof texts. When I come to examine a group, whether mainline Christian or on the fringes of the church, I look far more at the effect that the teaching is having on the members. Are they fearful or does their faith allow them to be generous and welcoming to outsiders? Does the church support and enhance family life or are the unbelieving parts of those families cast out and made to feel superfluous? One chief complaint against the Jehovah’s Witnesses is not their bizarre treatment of Scripture, but the appalling way that they treat those who decide to leave them. Shunning is a form of psychological murder and the effect on the victims may literally involve their death. I am unlikely to waste my time arguing Scripture with people who tolerate such atrocious activity and believe it is scripturally sanctioned. The same thing is true of a number of other groups which purport to be repositories of truth in the setting of a world which has, according to their beliefs, abandoned God. It is not profitable sitting down to discuss Scripture when a leadership has tolerated the breaking up of families or the expulsion of young people who question the church’s teaching. ‘By their fruits ye shall know them’. The church which creates fear, alienation and psychological and spiritual harm must be resisted. Arguing with the heterodox scriptural ideas of a fringe fellowship which tolerates abuse, requires patience and application. I for one do not have this when a far greater threat is apparent.

I wish that I had a simple description for the kinds of church which have arrived at a place where teachings, apparently derived from Scripture, have become the cause of harm to their members. This accusation of course cannot by any means be levelled at every conservative congregation. There are many churches where Scripture is taught from a perspective that I would not agree with, but the overall spiritual and emotional health of the church membership is good. But equally there are others which teach similar things but where the leadership and the structures of authority have become toxic and potentially dangerous to their members. With the first group there are differences of interpretation with a more liberal perspective but theological and scriptural discussion is possible and appropriate. In the second group the only thing that stands out is the toxicity of the church life. I am not suggesting that the boundary between the two is easy to draw. But I am certain that we have to be aware of places of spiritual danger in Britain, and certainly in other parts of the world. After reading the Langlois Report, it would be correct to describe Trinity Church Brentwood as a toxic church, and this is certainly how most of its ex-members have come to see it. An invisible line has been crossed so that one goes from the territory of a healthy conservative theology to a place where a similar theology has become a ground of danger and harm. Arguing Scripture will not help the victims in such places; naming the abuses may perhaps help them. But, as we know, even when a 300 report page report is published describing in great detail abuses to Christian people, very few people sit up and take notice. This is why this blog has to continue its work.

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.

3 thoughts on “Responding to harmful faith

  1. Thank you Stephen,

    This is another very important blog. It gives a very balanced perspective on the misuse of scripture. What I find greatly encouraging is that it points to the Spirit, (Holy Spirit) touching a life where mere words cannot help! How I wish that this could be communicated to our evangelical friends.

    Let us pray this Christmas for the countless thousands all over the world captive to religious theatres, which wall them up with scripture.

    “These are the damned circles Dante trod, terrible in hopelessness”
    (Fredrick Manning)

  2. Good post, Stephen. Moonies do it, too. And you’re right, firing texts at each other doesn’t work. They’re taught not to listen, anyway. Both groups also tend to split up couples, not usually those who are actually married. And then they find someone else for you. In the case of the Moonies, it will often be someone who is from a different country. They will send you abroad, too, to make sure you’re isolated.
    On a lighter note, a happy Christmas to you and your family.
    And to all my readers!

  3. Excellent. Thanks! My first cousin got drawn into the Moonies forty years ago, through their love-bombing, but managed to escape, thankfully.
    A happy manger-full Christmas to all our readers . . .

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