Recently, a magazine publisher invited contributions regarding controlling or abusive churches. Rather than expose specific denominations, I have sought to outline the general principles that operate when Satan gets a foothold. Many of these things happen in the world at large, so I have sought to show these also – “We are not ignorant of his devices”. I have tried to turn what could be a very negative subject into an article that may have some spiritual food. When the enemy of our souls works in a systematic way, the following will be seen to a varying degree and in various combinations.
1. The authority of man (a man, a group of leaders, the “approved”) is emphasized. True leadership is a blessed thing. True leaders will bring souls into direct, living link with Christ, rather than interposing self between another’s conscience and him. It is right to be subject to one another and to recognize those who labour in the work. But it is spiritual laziness to allow others to be our “conscience”. It is easy to sit back and say: “Mr. So and So has been to bible college, he knows the truth, it must be right”. False teaching is more easily swallowed than the truth of God because it “tastes” better. False teaching will usually make much of me (and the teacher), instead of humbling and sobering me and putting me in the presence of the Lord. Scripture shows me examples to save me pointing at current companies of Christians. In 2 Corinthians 11:16-20 Paul rebukes the believers there: “For ye bear fools readily, being wise. For ye bear if any one bring you into bondage, if any one devour you, if any one get your money, if any one exalt himself, if any one beat you on the face”. It is incredible what otherwise intelligent persons will tolerate when the conscience is submitted to others. We must weigh actions and words. The Holy Spirit commended the Bereans in Acts 17:11 because they searched the scriptures daily to see if these things [the apostles’ teachings] were so.
2. Rules are made that become binding on all. Often these begin with good intent and are perhaps made by good men – say to curb a tendency to worldliness or other problems. The effect is to increase the authority of leaders and to imply that the scriptures are not sufficient. Often members of the company will say to themselves: “Well, it [the rule] is not evil or wrong, so we can accept it”. Finally, taken far enough, the scriptures are to some degree set aside in favour of the man-made rules. I don’t have to point to examples around to show this - just read Mark 7:1-13. The Pharisees and scribes washed their hands before eating. Nothing wrong with that, is there? In the light of modern science, it is hygienic. The Lord knew more about germs than Louis Pasteur ever did. They had made it a doctrine. They held it as necessary, as a tradition of the elders. It was binding. That was the issue the Lord has with them. We must carefully distinguish between what may be wise at the time and a rule that is binding. And finally, he pointed out that they set aside the commandments of God because their own commands had higher appeal – see Mark 7:9, “Well do ye set aside the commandment of God, that ye may observe what is delivered by yourselves to keep”.
3. Meetings - attendance mandatory and frequency increases. The scripture in Hebrews is pressed: “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the custom is with some”. In a “system”, people cannot be allowed time to think or “stray” but have to be kept together and watched and harried like a jackeroo with sheepdogs.
4. Pressure to conform becomes great. God loves variety, man desires conformity. When Israel was in Egypt, they had to make bricks, an example of sameness. Egypt in the Old Testament is often a type of the world as a system. God builds with stones - in both his house in Solomon’s time and his house now – 1 Peter 2:5 “yourselves also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house”. Each stone has its own character and has been fashioned rather than made in a mould. In any Christian gathering of reasonable size, there is likely to be at least one unusual or eccentric person. It is God’s way – “God has chosen the weak things of the world, that he may put to shame the strong things; and the ignoble things of the world, and the despised, has God chosen” see 1 Corinthians 1:26-29. We are exhorted to be of one mind. That does not mean that we all are at the same level of understanding of the truth of God. I think it means that we have the one object or purpose, the same outlook – to be here for Christ’s glory alone. Reporting any non-conformance is rewarded. How like communism and fascism.
5. Pressure to perform. There is always pressure when the enemy is active. In some places ill health is interpreted as a lack of faith to be healed - perhaps a moral issue; in other places absence of wealth means that you lack holiness or are not in the will of God; in others, not going to the mission fields or counting converts means that you are a second rate Christian. Have we not different gifts and different measures? In Egypt, the Israelites came under increasing pressure to perform. God heard their cry. Today, under global capitalism, the pressure in business is cruel. I think the ordinary person feels under increasing pressure, although unable to define it. Women are supposed to be liberated but have huge burdens as they go to work to earn enough to keep up with accepted “norms”, and keep house as well.
6. Devotees are lauded, flattered and supported. This can also appear as “love bombing”. When a fuss is made of people, it affects their ability to judge rightly. See John 5:44, “How can ye believe, who receive glory one of another, and seek not the glory which comes from God alone?” The consciences of many of the rulers of Israel told them that Jesus was the Christ, but they were hindered because of their love of place - John 12:43, “for they loved glory from men rather than glory from God”.
7. Money gets undue prominence. Paul stressed that their giving was to be prior to certain persons arriving at Corinth, “that this may be ready thus as blessing, and not as got out of you”. 2 Cor. 9:5. Enough said.
8. The young are appealed to, and the elderly set aside. Older persons who raise objections are ridiculed. If older persons are held up for honour, it is to sanction or “rubber stamp” the actions of the ruling group. Simple persons then say that things must be on a right course, because respected elders accept them. Hitler did this in the 1930s with Hindenberg, an elder statesman held in honour by the German people.
9. Church discipline is used harshly, or even politically. Discipline is necessary in the church of God - as it is in the household, the workplace, school, the military, indeed anywhere that people are together for a common purpose. In Matthew 18:17-18 the Lord first speaks of it. It is worked out by Paul in 1 Cor. 5. Here, the one that sinned was to be removed from them – bound, in that sense. Then in the second epistle, he exhorts them to receive him back as repentant – loosed. Heaven recognizes the public action of the church. See Matthew 18:18 and John 20:22-23 where the Lord anticipates the gift of the Holy Spirit and speaks of the remission and retaining of sins. [Please note that the idea of a believer binding Satan is not in scripture. If you were to bind Satan, when do you loose him? ] In 2 Thess.3:14-15 there is another example of discipline addressed to an assembly. In a company where there is departure from the truth, discipline can be used wrongly – even politically. The exercise of discipline, amounting to sinners judging sinners, requires a great degree of humility and self judgment on the part of the whole assembly, and spiritual sensitivity. Paul exercises the whole church at Corinth. He does not just send a note for one or two to fix the problem. The conscience of all must be involved.
How can simple folk know when error is being promoted? How can a person who is not well taught know that things are not right? Look past the words and look for simple honesty. When the enemy is at work, he leaves fingerprints – deceit (Satan is a liar and its father), slippery things, irregular monetary transactions, underhand dealings, etc. These things any honest soul can see. The Lord told us how to detect false prophets – “By their works shall ye know them”. I am so happy that we do not have to be doctors of divinity. Christianity can be worked out by even the simplest – another reason to praise the Lord.
What is to be done? What should be done when we are aware of such error? We are speaking now of systematic error, not someone making a mistake, or unclear about a certain part of the truth. Obviously, if able, a person should seek to set it right, speaking to the persons concerned, with facts and witness. However if the enemy has got a foothold, there will be denials, excuses, etc. to make things difficult to prove. When there is no possibility of matters being set right, one must leave. How much evil must there be before one leaves? The question is this: “Is evil being judged”? Not “How much evil is there”? Even a small amount is unacceptable to Christ’s name. At Corinth things were very bad, but Paul was able to go on with them because they judged it. If a person feels there is no hope of recovery then they are obligated before the Lord to separate, as John Hartley quoted in the October 2006 issue: “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord withdraw from iniquity” 2 Timothy 2:19. In Romans 16:17-18 there is another clear direction: “But I beseech you, brethren, to consider those who create divisions and occasions of falling, contrary to the doctrine which ye have learnt, and turn away from them. For such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting”.
After Paul instructs Timothy to separate from what is not right [iniquity] he also exhorts him to “pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace, with those that call on the Lord out of a pure heart”. I look out for others. This preserves from self righteousness. I do not separate because I am intrinsically holier than anyone else, but because my God is holy!
Finally, it is well to remember that heresy is not just someone making a mistake. It often begins with some part of the truth of God being pressed beyond its true place or setting, and goes on to persons gathering others around a teaching or opinion and around themselves, instead of pointing them to Christ. May the Lord help us to be alert, to “watch and pray” in the days ahead.