People who attend authoritarian churches do not necessarily get abused in ways we have described in this blog. But the fact remains that when there is an authoritarian dynamic where spiritual power is used to emphasise constantly sin, salvation and eternal punishment, there will likely be an oppressive and heavy atmosphere. It is difficult to draw the dividing line between an oppressive atmosphere and one that should be named as abusive. That is something that needs to be debated. Nevertheless, there is one generalisation that is safe to make. In most, if not all, authoritarian churches there is an absence of joy.
In a conversation, someone once spoke to me about the facial expression that he most associated with a conservative Christian. He described what he called the ‘evangelical grin’. I knew exactly what he was talking about. It was an individual making a deliberate effort to indicate to the world that his opinions, beliefs and way of life were perfect. Given this perfection of his church, his minister and the teaching that is promoted there, the conservative Christian has a duty to give expression to his happiness, hence the evangelical grin. Those of us looking into the eyes of a Christian with this expression can see that this grin does not necessarily denote any real joy. Although this Christian has been given a promise of eternal salvation, uncertainties and real fears still abound. All the safety acquired through conversion can be lost if the relationship with his/her church is in any way changed. Any kind of disagreement or falling out with the minister could also place in jeopardy a hard-won salvation. Likewise doubts or uncertainties on doctrine would have potentially drastic consequences. Although I personally have never been in this situation, the experience of many Christians in this authoritarian tradition must be a bit like walking along a tight-rope. Unless one is tremendously careful, it is easy to fall off the rope and plummet to a place of abandonment and utter despair.
The gift that should be on offer within every Christian church should be the gift of joy. When I speak about joy I am of course not thinking about what lies behind the evangelical grin. Joy comes, not as a result of having the right beliefs and belonging to a church which is thought to be near perfect; it emerges from a sense that one is on a journey which is in some way within the will of God. The Christian pilgrim, if I may describe him/her as such, is not defined because they are Catholic, Protestant or conservative evangelical. A pilgrim may be any of these but the journey he/she is travelling will be marked by an inner freedom to follow the path which is believed to be given to them by God. In that journey is the gift of joy. Joy represents a complete opposite of the kind of coercive control that marks the life of many Christians who belong to authoritarian communities. So much teaching in these churches is based on terror. If you do not believe what we teach or conduct your lives as you are told, you are destined for hell. How can joy ever come into that environment? How can a Christian grow spiritually or emotionally when the whole setting of their Christian life is rooted in this fear?
Every Christian has a right to experience joy. If such joy is absent in a particular Christian community then that Christian has every right to move on elsewhere in order to find it. The gift of joy is providing every Christian pilgrim with a sense of direction, freedom and independence. A leader who provides these gifts is a bit like a parent who strives to provide the children with the means to live independent lives. Such a parent is constantly finding ways to surrender the power that he/she had been given at the beginning when the children first arrived in the world. Parental power to protect and guide was then a necessity for the flourishing of the children in those early years. Now the same power has to be surrendered so that emerging adult/mature Christian may claim for him/herself the freedom and joy of the individual who wants to make their own way in the world.
Readers of this blog will recognise this much-repeated theme. Spiritual abuse is possible when church leaders retain the authority and power of parents who cannot let go. In contrast, the freedom loving parent will be anxious to lead children into a way of joy. I would like to suggest that every church should take a test to see if they are promoting joy. Over the door might be an invisible slogan. ‘In this church we teach joy’. Underneath the slogan there could be further words. ‘In this church there is no cause for us to teach fear, control or power games. If you enter here we shall try to bring you to an experience of Life in all its fullness; you will be doing this with fellow pilgrims who are also making this journey. Come and join us. In the name of Christ, you are truly welcome.’