Some groups which could be classified as cults or abusive religious groups by Evangelicals strongly discourage thinking independently from the groups leadership. Jehovah’s Witnesses Watchtower Bible and Tract Society went so far in the 1980s as to run articles which boldly declared to “Avoid Independent Thinking.” Once the organization has made a decree the followers must simply hear and obey. When I teach on this I often find Evangelicals shaking their head with a sort of tsk, tsk reaction. But many Christians, it seems, are not in much better shape. Extra biblical official positions are handed down and lots of Evangelicals march in lock step. If someone dares question, they are viewed as an anti-Christ or at least back slidden in the faith.
We find this quite a bit in dealing with apologetics and false teachers. For example, in 1999 there was a great deal of hype and hoopla about Y2K. Michael Hyatt, Chuck Missler, James Dobson and many others were pronouncing the end of the world as we know. At midnight on December 31, 1999 all of the computers in the world would shut down, electricity production would cease, coffee makers would stop functioning and cars would no longer start. Back to horse and buggy days and Hyatt even suggested that his readers needed to decide how far would they be willing to go in protecting their food supplies. Kill the hungry hordes of invaders perhaps?
We looked at this carefully and printed our findings in early 1999 in an article titled “Y2K: Genuine Crisis or Over-hyped Circus”. The response was quick, with letters, notes, and emails asking why we didn’t believe the Bible? How could we question and “attack” these faithful godly leaders? Our financial support dropped substantially.
We published our book, A Matter of Basic Principles: Bill Gothard and the Christian Life, about three years later. This one really cuts to the heart of the matter. Has God given an authority which must be unquestioningly obeyed, as Gothard has historically taught? Is the pastor the boss and supreme leader who cannot be questioned? There are a number of churches that hold this view or something similar to this view. Gothard was pretty upfront about it and taught a “chain of command” and revised that to an “umbrella of protection” without actually changing the teaching. The “umbrella of protection” was a God-ordained authority. If you are under the umbrella of protection, you are obviously, protected. Getting out from under the umbrella of protection is rebellion, and rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft. So, the issue is clear. If your authority (pastor, husband, father, etc) has spoken, yours is to obey. To do otherwise is rebellion and, you guessed it, the same as practicing witchcraft. These teachings have been fairly pervasive in the church. They have influenced, if not given birth to the patriocentric movement where the father reigns supreme. If one questions the pastor, they are “put under church discipline.” Considering leaving such a situation comes at a very high price, a loss of close friends and perhaps even family members. Our Senior Researcher, Ron Henzel, has had experience with questioning the self-proclaimed God-given authority and shares it in his article “Leaving a Spiritually Abusive Group”.
In some ways, Christians are mired in a bog of circular reasoning. How do you know God called the pastor? Well, because he is the pastor. But why is he the pastor? Simple, because he is called to be a pastor. But how do I know he is called to be a pastor? Because he is the pastor. This can continue indefinitely. Can I question the pastor? No, he is your authority, and you are accountable to him. But who is the pastor accountable to? God. But how do I know he is accountable to God? Because he is the pastor. But… and so it goes.
This authority is buttressed with threats of punishment from God toward those who question or, worse yet, do not submit. The punishment may be that God causes your car to break down, your dryer to quit working, and perhaps your children to rebel. Stories are told of others who dared not to obey and leave. They ended up divorced, unemployed, or contracted cancer, or their unmarried teenage daughter became pregnant. If these very same things happened to those who remained under authority, they are chalked up to either “God is testing you” or “there is sin in your life.” The circumstances in life do not change whether one submits or rebels; only the spin in the explanation changes. Which explanation depends on which one the leader thinks will keep you under their thumb better? It is precious few that adhere to Jesus’ own words on this issue. In Luke 22, the disciples were arguing over who gets to be the boss. In verses 25 to 27, He said:
And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.
These whom Jesus instructed to be servants and wash one another’s feet are the ones who will be sitting on 12 thrones and ruling over the 12 tribes of Israel (v:30), and the contrast is astounding. The “Gentiles” (in the then Jewish view, Gentiles were unclean unbelievers) act like the bosses, those in authority, and “lord it over” those under them. On the other hand, Godly leaders are actually to have the attitude of the lowest servant. In this view, the higher someone ascends in authority, the more accountable they are to a larger number of people. As we often say at MCOI, leaders live in glass houses, and everyone around them has Windex. Thinking independently is an important aspect of the Christian life. We are told to “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing” (Matt. 7). That requires questioning and being discerning. Just because someone claims to be a prophet or in some way ordained by God doesn’t mean they are. One of the questions and indicators is, are they a servant? Are they accountable?
In Acts 17, the Bereans are called “more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica,” why? Because they listened to what the Apostle Paul taught and then independently checked him out against the Scriptures.
It is incredibly easy to follow a leader that is a true servant. They are correctable, encourage their sheep to ask questions and search out biblical answers for themselves, and are not threatened by the big questions. The goal is to have their people become less and less dependent on them and more focused on their relationship with Christ. I will never forget a conversation I had with a pastor some years ago. He was teaching the women’s Bible study, and I asked why he didn’t have one of the more mature women leading it. There were several in the church. He looked at me a bit startled and, in a moment of honesty, said, “I am afraid of what the Holy Spirit might do.”
Independent thinking. It is for those believers who desire for God to view them as “more noble-minded.”Ω