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From Charisma Magazine ~ July 1992

Lessons Learned From A Covenant Community

By Ralph Martin
This article was published in Charisma Magazine, who owns the copyright. It is reproduced here because of its unavailability via Charismas online archives. Ralph Martins article appears in the final three pages. The primary article by David Johnson and Jeff Vanvonderen is also of importance, as it describes the negative mechanisms of spiritual control used to manipulate, coerce and/or intimidate members of Christian Communities into unhealthy forms of submission and control.




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among you," Jesus said, "must be your servant" (Matt. 20:26, NIV). Spiritual leaders are called by God to serve His people, to nurture and equip them. Yet in some Christian groups--churches, organizations and even families-leaders use their authority to control and dominate others, to "lord it over them," as Jesus described it (v. 25). Through the subtle use of the right "spiritual" words, members are manipulated or shamed into certain behaviors that entrap them in legalism, guilt and begrudging service. This problem might well be called spiritual abuse-<leeply ingrained spiritual codes of written and unwritten rules that enslave believers to a system, a leader or a standard of performance that saps true spiritual life. Relationships between people in such spiritually abusive systems, whether they're found in churches or other Christian settings, are dictated by at least seven major dynamics. Here's a brief description of each one-and suggestions for what to do if you find yourself caught up in a system that operates this way. 1. Power-Posturing: Power-posturing occurs when leaders spend a lot of time focused on their own authority and reminding others of it, as well. This is necessary because their spiritual authority isn't real-it's an empty claim based on something other than genuine godly character, which is the real biblical basis for authority. Those who are in positions of true leadership demonstrate authority, spiritual power and credibility by their lives and message. If they don't, they're not true leaders. The reason any of us is given spiritual authority is that God has led us through reallife experiences, by which He has reveaJed Himself and His Word to be true. Thus spiritual authority is seen in those who say: "God and His Word are true-I've proved them in the fibers of my being. I know there is hope in God!" The apostle Paul said to his followers: "You yourselves are







our letter [of recommendation], written on our hearts, known and read by everybody ...the result of our ministry" (2 Cor. 3:2-3). Being hired or elected to a position of spiritual leadership, talking the loudest or giving the most does not give someone authority. God gives authority to leaders so they can build up people, serve them, equip them and set them free to do God's agenda-which mayor may not coincide with the personal a$enda of the people in leadership. 2. Performance Preoccupation: Abusive spiritual systems are preoccupied with the performance of their members. Obedience and submission are two important words often used. God teaches that He looks first upon the heart; He's concerned that we not do the right thing for all the wrong reasons. It's true, of course, that obedience to God is not negotiable. Yet the way to tell whether people are doing the right thing for the wrong reason is to see whether they're keeping track of it. If obedience and service are flowing out of you as a result of your dependence on God alone, you won't keep track of it with an eye toward reward; you'll just do it. But if you're preoccupied with whether you've done enough to please God, then you're not looking at Him-you're looking at your own works and are concerned about who else might be looking at you, evaluating you. Are obedience and submission important? Without question. The Scripture says, "Obey your leaders, and submit to their authority" (Heb. 13:17). To bring balance, however, we must add to these verses an equally important passage. Consider the words of Peter and the other apostles to the religious leaders he was disobeying: "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). Out of context, obedience to leaders looks like good theology. Add the larger context, and you'll see that it is only appropriate to obey and submit to leadership when their










JULY 1992


authority is from God and their stance is consistent with His. True submission isn't following orders to avoid being shamed, to gain someones approval, or to keep spiritual status or church position intact. It's only compliant self-seeking. True obedience can't simply be behavior legislated from the outside; it must come from a heart that loves God. 3. Unspoken Rules: In abusive spiritual systems, people's lives are

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allowed to minister in any capacity in this church." In this case, the unspoken rule is, "Do not disagree with the church authorities--especially the pastor-e-or your loyalty will be suspect." Rules like this remain unspoken because examining them in the light of mature dialogue would instantly reveal how illogical, unhealthy and antiChristian they are. So silence becomes the fortress wall of protection, shielding the pastor's power position from scrutiny or challenge. Breaking the rule, on the '.~ .~?ft~~~~1~~::!~~:!-:.~~'::?fr?~~:r!~;~~~r~~fr~~,~~~:~~~ ow eo you 'choosebetween fight-or flight? !\Sk-yourselfthe other hand, leads to one following questions. Your answers should help clarify which of two consequences: 'course of action would be better in your situation: .' ,i.' ., . either neglect (being LDoesgrace really have 'a chance here? Because God is in ignored, overlooked, -charge, gracealwayshas a-chance-But ~itua:tions~on'ia1ways shunned) or aggressive legalism (being ques,tUI1?around .. -, ";':":">,i?;' .:,~2:,',lA-re you supporting what ,Y~uh~te1 'Are you Ft?,Iitfib~tiRg tioned, openly censured, "your' time:' money and energy j9;~elp~~linitaini~~rn~~~g 'that, asked to Ieave=-or in extreme cases, even cursed). Exposing implicit rules provokes such severe reactions because the most powerful of all unspoken regulations in the abusive system is what we term the "can't talk" rule. The thinking runs this way: "The real prob. <;:4~;;:(:an you ;stay, arid ,healtby),ourself.,;at,!hesllme' lem cannot be exposed ,~\time? ,The sYstem isn't W()~'!()sini',the~irin{ii:l~:psy~hol()glca1' because then it would ~,and.physical~.ecilth of you' and, yourfaIDily~~"''~f7-~~~~~:~:~~:'::>~-~~'_;' to be dealt with and :'. . , have ':'S.:Can you"deCideY~ur. own limits and 'stick ~futh~m:? If ' things would have to you stay and fight, you need determine howm:ucii~of.yourselL change. So it must be pro,.you're willing to invest ,y;,ithout .seeing ,healthychan.ges.:Set tected behind walls of sior by yourlimits, and 'have someone outside the system bold yo~ ac- -; lence (neglect) countable to them. '" assault (legalistic attack). 6.. Do you genuinely believe God cares more ,about the If you speak about the . system than you do? If you struggle with feeling responsible problem aloud, you are to 'fix every problem, you'll find it hard 'to Ieaveanyplace the problem. In some way, you must be si"where the problems haven't beensolv~Poyourecognize that GOd canfix it without you'? :'.. '::>-i;,f.", '., .;"":,~;,, .. t:: . : lenced or eliminated." ,. 7. Is it possible the sJ'~te~ ~igh:t'~eed At:ii~es" If all that unites us is a God writes "Ichabodv--v'theglory of lhe Lord hasdeparted'<-; pretense of agreement, .on a system and leaves~ . ..' ". ':L , ...: . ,.:. . then we have nothing more than an illusory 8. Are you trying to help the system, even though you .are exhausted? If SO, you're no longer resting in God. _ ,.' . . peace and unity, with un, 9. Are you able toIisten to the voice of sanity? Find the dercurrents of tension and people whoieftthesystem but were kind. andgracious .when backbiting. This is far .they did. Can you receive what'they hav~ 16 say! ~;": ,c-,.' , from preserving "the ,.to.Do you really-know.whererosowf Jsthe~system,where unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace," the '., ;y()~',re trying to ',:fov?'~e1!Utl1 good :soi(~;- r&;'liy? ,~11.,,ff:youcame today for the 1irst 'thne;,knOwIDg wh~tF()U" true hallmark of healthy ;"the" c, '.,. ., .,". ~ls' Christi an churches (see Eph. 4:3). Continued on page 28

controlled from "the outside in" by rules, spoken and unspoken. Unspoken rules are those that govern unhealthy churches, organizations or families but are not said aloud. Because they aren't made explicit, you don't find out they exist until you break them. For instance, no one at a church gathering would ever say aloud, "You know, we must never disagree with the pastor on his sermons-and if you do you'll never be trusted and never be

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4. lack of Balance: Characteristic of a spiritually abusive system is an unbalanced approach to living out the truth of the Christian life. This shows itself in two extremes: Extreme objectivism. The first extreme is an empirical approach to life, which elevates objective truth to the exclusion of valid subjective experience. Tnis is seen in religious systems where, even though the Holy Spirit's work might be acknowledged theologically, on a practical level it would be suspect, or even denied. This approach to spirituality creates a system in which authority is based upon the level of education and intellectual capacity alone, rather than on intimacy with God, obedience and sensitivity to His Spirit. The objective spiritual system also limits God to act only in those ways that we can explain, prove or experience. We are left with a trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Bible-as if understanding and memorizing Scripture is the only way to hear from God. Extreme subjectivism. The other manifestation of lack of balance is seen in an extremely subjective approach to the Christian life. Truth is evaluated on the basis of feelings and experiences, giving more weight to them than to what the Bible declares. In this system, people can't know or understand truths (even if they really do understand or know them) until the leaders "receive them by spiritual revelation from the Lord" and "impart" them to the people. So it becomes more important to act according to the word of a leader who has "a word" for you than to act according to what you know to be true from Scripture, or simply from your personal experience. As with the extreme objective approach, Christians who are highly subjective also have a narrow view of education-most often, that education is bad or unnecessary. There is almost a pride in not being educated and a disdain for those who are. S. Paranoia: In -the spiritually abusive church or family, there's a sensespoken or unspoken-that "outsiders"
Adapted from The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen. copyright J99J. Published by Bethany HOU.H:'. Used with permission.

won't understand what the group is all about. "Let's not let them know much about us," they say, "so they won't be able to ridicule or persecute us." The "insiders" share an assumption that what they say, know or do is a result of being more enlightened than others.

For that reason, they conclude that outsiders will misunderstand and respond negatively unless they become one of the group themselves. In a place where authority is grasped and legislated, not simply demonstrated, fear of persecution becomes an excuse for keeping everything within the system. This mentality builds a strong wall-bunker around the abusive system, isolates the abusers from scrutiny and accountability, and makes it more difficult for people to leavebecause they will then be outsiders, too. While it's true, of course, that there's a world of evil outside the system, people are misled into thinking that the only safety is in the system. Yet ironically, Jesus and Paul both warned that one of the worst dangers to the flock was from wolves in the house (Matt. 10: 16; Acts 20:29-30). Not only does this spiritualized paranoia make it hard to leave the system; it prevents people from getting the help they need. How sad, for example, when we hear that a pastor has covered up child abuse in one of his or her church families because of distrusting the "evil, secular, social service system." Let's never forget that one of our main functions in guiding God's flock is to find spiritual help for hurting

people-even if it means submitting to someone who has expertise in an area where we have little or no wisdom. 6. Misplaced Loyalty: The next characteristic of spiritually abusive systems is that they foster and even demand a misplaced sense of loyalty. We're not talking about loyalty to Christ, but about loyalty to a given organization, church or leader. Once again, because authority is assumed or legislated-and therefore not real-following must be legislated as well. This is commonly accomplished by setting up a system where disloyalty to or disagreement with the leadership is equated with disobeying God. Questioning leaders is equal to questioning God. After all, some people reason, the leader is the authority, and authority is always right. This causes people to misplace their loyalty in a leader, a church or an organization. Once again, this strengthens the wall around the system and makes it more difficult to leave. Three factors here add up to misplaced loyalty: "We alone are right." Members must remain in the system if they want to be "safe," or to stay "on good terms" with God, or not to be viewed as wrong or "backslidden." Scare tactics. We have counseled many Christians who, after deciding to leave their church, were told horrifying things. "God is going to withdraw His Spirit from you and your family." "God will destroy your business." "Without our protection, Satan will get your children." "You and your family will come under a curse." This is spiritual blackmail that causes people to stay in abusive places. Humiliation. Unquestionably, appropriate church discipline has its place. But in the abusive system, perceived "disloyalty" rather than ungodly behavior usually provokes the threat of being exposed, humiliated or removed, thus ensuring allegiance and insulating those in authority. People are made public examples in order to send a message to those who remain. Phone campaigns may even be launched against them to warn their friends and others in the group about how "dangerous" they Continued on page 30 are.



Contir.ved from page 28

7. Secretiveness: When you see people in a religious system being secretive-walch out, People don't hide what's appropriate; they hide what's inappropriate. One reason spiritually abusive churches, organizations and families are secretive is that they are so imageconscious. People in these systems can't even live up to their own performance standards, so they have to hide what is real. Some believe they must do this in order to protect God's good name. So how things look and what others think. becomes more important than what's real. They become God's "public relations agents." But the truth is, He's not hiring anyone for this position. Another reason for secrecy in a church is that the leadership has a condescending, negative view of the lr.iry. This results in conspiracies on the leadership level. They tell themselves, "People are not mature enough to handle truth." This is patronizing at best. Conspiracies also develop among the laypeopJe. Since it's not good to notice or tan: about problems, people form conspiracies behind closed doors and over the telephone as they try to solve things informally. But since they have no authority, nothing really gets solved. And all the while, building God's true kingdom is put on hold.
Breaking Free
If you should find yourself in an abusive spiritual system, what can you do to break f1"(:2? First, you have to reach the point where you realize you're being spiritually abused and ask for help. Second, you need a renewal of the mind because in a real sense, you've been spiritually brainwashed. So you must be immersed in the biblical truth about who God really is and what He's done to settle the issue of your value and acceptance. For that to happen, you can take one of two basic routes: flight or fight. There's no neat checklist to help you decide which option is best; in the end you have to pay attention to what's going on in and around you, and listen especially to what God tells you to do. The questions in the box on page 26 may help you clarify what He is saying. 30

If you decide to stay, don't be naive. Here's some advice about the fight you'll face: Decide whom you will serve. You can't serve God and His people if your primary motivation is to please others. Be ready/or resistance. The Bible shows that truth is usually met with opposition and threats. Keep telling the truth. That's the best chance you have for breaking the crooked "codes" people have for communicating. Know who your true enemy is. People may be used by Satan, but people aren 't the enemy; Satan is. "Our struggle is not against flesh and blood" (Eph. 6: 12). Hang on to the Chief Shepherd. Rising up in aggressive anger is not necessary or helpful; we must depend on God to set things right. Hang on to Him. Confront the leaven. The "leaven" Paul warned against is legalism (see Gal. 5 :9). Expose it. Know how a healthy spiritual system functions. A healthy system is a body of many members, all with gifts and needs, interrelated and interdependent on one another. At the center of the system is Jesus, the true Head. Meanwhile, you must experience safe relationships where you can heal from your psychological and spiritual wounds. Find friends who understand, and tell them about it. Get some support. In that healthy context, you can receive permission and opportunities to practice getting your sense of identity as a gift from Jesus. Above all, listen to God. That may be especially difficult because the spiritually abusive system you've been a part of has probably attempted to hinder your spiritual hearing. But God will never leave you or forsake you. If you listen, He'll speak-and His truth will set you free from the bondage of spiritual abuse .
David Johnson is senior pastor of Church of the Open Door in Crystal, Minnesota. Jeff VanVonderen, pastor of counseling at the Church of the Open Door, is also director of Damascus Inc., a family-focused recovery ministry.

''1l11ln'litltc:\'o~:(hange" ',6" fruit ofthe lif: of the community hin',,,.lu,,,,,u,llS 10 re-evaluate our '-dered us from treating those criticisms ':tbeTatholic communi~" with the seriousness they deserved.
was "the" Christian approach to numerous areas of life and expected community members to follow our rules. For example, rather than simply presenting what Scripture teaches about modesty, we dictated which types of clothing were acceptable in the community. Rather than simply teaching about male and female roles and identity, we spelled out what household chores we believed men could and couldn't do, These "recommendations" carried enough weight to make people extremely uncomfortable in the community if they disagreed with them. The requirements we set in place often had genuine merit. But the cumulative effect was to create for many people a burden too heavy to carry. Many people experienced a growing gap between what the community taught they should be doing, and what in fact they felt they were able to do in their own lives and families. This resulted in an atmosphere of guilt, inadequacy and discouragement that sapped the spiritual vitality of the community . Judgmentalism. Legalism also cultivated a judgmental atmosphere. We found ourselves measuring one another by our conformity to external standards that tended to overshadow the more fundamental qualities of love and mercy. Members of the community felt that they dared not share their problems in their small groups lest they be condemned for not following successfully all of the practices we had mandated. The ultimate result was an oppressive burden of stress and fear that prompted many people to seek help from outside counselors or mutual support groups-help they could have received in the community if the atmosphere had been different. Self-importance. We developed an exalted view of our particular place in God's plan and exaggerated our importance. Building covenant communities, we thought, was clearly the most important work to be done by Christians, Consequently, we only wanted to be involved in what could directly contribute to "our work." We insisted that any Christian who had the opportunity should join a covenant community. . Disdain for other Christians. Along with this view of self-importance

A Gradual Shift
In any case, these negative communitydynamicsdidn't emerge full-blown overnight. They grew slowly over time and were difficult for those inside the system to evaluate properly until the numbers of those hurting made us realize something had to be done. The Word of God community began

counsel from whomever they wish.. ',' .in the, year Bishop Albert ',.'theCatholic bishoppf '" "Ohio, announced the re-. evaluation he bad conducted yt~~)L1the<G()Ve:na.nt community in that city .much that' was good, .', ',ah;6~sriC)tte_,(j, some-of the 'same probarrickhad observed in the'

',is .eoumenical, .anumber of our nembersareCathclic, and the local . cbisbop-::-KennethPovisha~",fueen';:eDcoui-aging about the "'ll'~H;;,-.".oJrcommuniry is nowmak'recorning to the end ofa pee~afuation and change that has tte'ffiPted" ~o"deal with many of the 'addressed by the. bishops other:dties.<:Povish considers the rlireCtionsbeing taken as "healthy" . _ .leading the .communi ty into "the ,m'ainstreamofthechurch." <;"1'0t~all of the evaluation has 'been prompted by church authorities, 'how. .Someof the.impetus 'for change from within the communities . In our own community, we ,ncluc:ea,thata growing number of comii)~,~:mumit:y" members were seeking counseland participating inIz-Step groups. They needed help with problems that :jseemed, at least in part, 'to be linked to ,,: \the negative dynamics that had devel:)ped over-time in the environment of , community itself. :i:':Criticisms of certain aspects of our life bad appeared periodi-

in a genuine encounter with God in the power-of the Holy Spirit. We wanted to give our whole lives to Him and be fruitful in His service. To a large extent, this is what happened. But over the years, our fundamental trust in God and the power of the Holy Spirit was subtly supplemented by greater human effort to "safeguard" this work of the Lord, to "ensure" that it didn't get off the track. ' A gradual shift occurred that we scarcely noticed at first: We moved from primarily trusting in and exalting Christ to focusing more and more on "our way of life," "our teaching," "our leaders," "our approach," "our community." This subtle but fundamental shift expressed itself in several ways: Legalism. In an attempt to build a comprehensive Christian environment, we overemphasized externals. We didn't teach scriptural principles and point people to Christ and the Holy Spirit for specific ways of applying them in their own lives. Instead, we spelled out in detail what we thought


went a condescending attitude toward those who "merely" preached the gospel without establishing communities as well. We failed to value highly enough the contribution of others and emphasized the "weakness" of other groups and organizations. We magnified the "dangers" out there in the wider church and world, and insisted that only covenant communities could protect Christians from such pitfalls . Self- preservation. Our desire to preserve the institution we had created often meant we didn't adequately respect community members' reasons for leaving us or their ability to hear the Holy Spirit for themselves. We assumed that if they were thinking of ending their relationship with the community, they were probably making a mistake-and we communicated that assumption to them. This caused them to feel fear, confusion and guilt over their attempts to evaluate their situation, and such feelings were intensified if they decided to leave. The problem was heightened by a solemn approach to the community covenant itself. In practice, our exaltation of that explicit commitment led many to put it, at least unconsciously, on the same level as the fundamental Christian covenant that brings us into relationship with God or the marriage covenant that joins husband and wife. Fear and guilt about leaving was further compounded by the fact that members were required to have the approval of the community leaders in order to Jeave in "good order." In fact, there were a few cases of outright ostracism in the process. By the grace of God, reconciliation has been reached now with the individuals involved. But more typical was a generally non-approving attitude expressed to those leaving, which cut off the love and encouragement they should have had . Lack of accountability. Some of our approaches to leadership made it more likely that the imbalances and abuses I have described would occur. For example, we made it almost impossible to change top leadership.

especially a problem within an ecumenical community like ours, where there was no single church authority. Accountability by leaders to the members of the community was similarly lacking.

unofficial "off the record" manner, . stemming from attitudes of authoritarianism.

Learning to Rely on God

Bishop Sam Jacobs, Catholic bishop of Alexandria, Louisiana, and chairman of the National Service Committee of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, summed up the situation well in an article published in New Covenant magazine. He noted that in our covenant communities, structures were developed to build the "perfect community," to create the "perfect unity" between Christian brothers and sisters-"something that the broader church has not been able to accomplish in 2,000 years." Policies were imposed from the top down by an elite group of leaders, he observed, and "everything was tightly controlled for fear that it would not hold together of itself...Father, forgive us." As a leader during this time, it's been humbling, embarrassing and a cause for grief to see the many ways we've gotten off the track and the ways in which we've grieved the Lord and our brothers and sisters in Christ. It's been a time for repentance, for soul searching, for change. With Bishop Jacobs, we must ask God-and the brothers and sisters we've wrongedto forgive us. At the same time, however, it's been a time for joy and gratitude that the Lord loved us enough not to leave us in these problems. We know that God's merciful judgment and purification come out of love, and we're profoundly grateful that He's correcting what needs to be corrected so we can participate with Him in the wonderful things He has in store for all of us in the days ahead. Over the years, we came to focus on too many things other than "Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2). So we're finding it a joy to return to Him now in a new way and to dedicate ourselves anew simply to knowing Him and the power of His resurrection .
Ralph Martin is the senior leader of The

Accountability to higher church authority-while provided for on papernever functioned properly. This was 32

Authoritarianism. In an effort to compensate for the stress on independence and individualism so prevalent in contemporary society and parts of the church, we overemphasized submission to spiritual authority-that is, to the leaders of the community. Leaders tended to take on too much responsibility for giving direction to individuals, and individuals handed over too much responsibility to their pastoral leaders. The common practice was for members to submit decisions within all areas of life to their pastoral leaders: finances; approach to family life; daily, weekly and yearly schedules; service in the community; vocational matters; interaction with relatives and more. This led to stress and burnout in leaders, and it created an unhealthy passivity and dependency among members on their leader or community. Conformity. We put great stress on submitting to community norms for the sake of unity. In the process, we failed to recognize that unity first needed to be rooted in truth and that loyalty to Christ Himself must supersede loyalty to community leaders. The result was an enforced and deadening conformity. Secrecy. Along with this emphasis on "unity" went a teaching on secrecy and confidentiality that stifled legitimate disagreement and open discussion of issues that would have prevented some of the imbalances we are now working to correct. Many of these negative social dynamics could never be discovered simply by reading our official documents; they operated in an



Word of God community in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and host of the weekly television program The Choices We Face.