When I began my study of the phenomenon of abusive churches some 20 years ago, there was no conceptual model around to help me see what might be going on in these communities. Two questions loomed large. One was why anyone would want to attend a church where they might come to harm. The second question was why there should be Christian leaders prepared to exploit their followers. My reading over the years has helped me towards answers to both these questions. While I obviously cannot rehearse all these answers in a short blog, I wanted today to share a very helpful model that I came across as I struggled to begin to understand the mystery of church abuse. One very helpful book that I came across early in my studies was entitled Righteous Religion. This book likened and compared the church to a human family. Just as the good healthy family allows the children to flourish and grow to maturity in a safe, secure environment, so a dysfunctional family cramps and restricts the personalities of the children through a regime of fear, control and coercion. The same contrast can be found in churches. Some allow their members to grow to spiritual maturity while others control the development of their members so that there is little in the way of spiritual flourishing or joy.
In describing two models of family, church or human, Righteous Religion describes the difference between conditional and unconditional love. Conditional love is the kind that is only offered when a child (parishioner) pleases the parent by a rigid conformity to the parent’s wishes and desires. Unconditional love on the other hand, is one that allows a child to grow through mistakes as well as pursue his or her own interests. There is never too much in the way of control over these emerging events. The love that is expressed for the child will never be destroyed however much the child may appear to rebel and chafe against the discipline of living in a family.
The positive experience of church for many people is much like the experience of growing up in a family. Some things that a family offers are also offered by a church. A human family offers (or should offer) protection, love, food, shelter, and education. Although these needs are not precisely the same as those offered by a church, a growing child might well understand a church as being like a second home. The church will be an important part of the way that a child comes to be socialised and educated in learning to be part of the wider community beyond the home. The church community in turn is a prelude to recognising we are part of a worldwide community. It does not need to be emphasised how important church belonging can play in the rearing of a child.
An abusive church is likely to have much in common with a family where love is conditional. Some styles of Christian teaching seem to imply that God’s love is somehow conditional to our believing and behaving in a defined way. Although most of us find in Scripture the central proclamation that God loves us unconditionally, there are many churches where the message received is that God is preoccupied in punishing eternally those who do not turn to him. It is of course possible to read certain passages in this way but this is not the teaching of the Prodigal Son or the central thrust of Scripture. The model for human families that we applaud is one where love is offered unconditionally. Can we really believe that God is like an angry parent who withholds his love except for those children who successfully negotiate a long narrow list of commands?
The family model that seems to be followed in certain conservative Christian communities is similar to one known in Victorian times. Then the ideal father was one who maintained strict authority through the exercise of fear. This whole process of comparing the church to styles of family life and parenting models is one I have found helpful. Just as we rightly shrink from a model of child-rearing which emphasises terror, fear and threats, so we should also purge church communities of the message that God’s love is withheld from individuals and groups that a minister does not approve of. Exclusion of despised minorities was never something that Jesus did. We also should uphold at every point the message that God includes all and that it is never for us to declare that his love is anything other than unconditional.