Have you heard the sound of an alarm ringing recently? The volume has been steadily increasing, and although not resoundingly loud, its warning is starting to catch the attention of Christians who are prepared to stop and listen.
That warning has been ringing louder and louder in my own heart, which is why I have finally followed God's prompting to share this exhortation. My intention is not to offend anyone, but rather to add a little extra volume to the warning that is crying to the church, "Remember God's grace!"
One of the most wonderful things about life in Christ is that we have liberty and freedom. The new life that we receive when we make Jesus our Lord and Savior, is an abundant one. Not only that, but we have each been given the Holy Spirit who will, in the words of Jesus Himself, "guide [us] into all truth." (John 16:13 NIV)
This is such a precious and priceless gift of grace, that it makes me wonder why so many Christian men and women now seem so willing to surrender that freedom to the control of others even when those "others" are their brothers and sisters in Christ.
Over recent years there has been a growing trend toward this type of controlling behavior within the life of some very rapidly growing and apparently successful congregations. At this point, it's very important that no one misunderstands what I'm saying. It's not that these churches aren't Christian or that they have anything but the best of intentions for their members. I'm certain that they believe they are doing the best thing for their congregations and for the extension of the Kingdom and the results in regard to church growth do seem to back up that belief. However, best intentions or not, somewhere along the way the line has been crossed that divides encouragement from control, and exhortation from authoritarianism.
This crossing of the line does cause some concern, but what makes it worse is the knowledge that in this particular style of church, positions of great authority, such as small group leaders, are sometimes given to relatively new believers.
We recently had a teenager visit our church with a friend, and share that she was feeling as though she was being pushed into a role of leadership by her own church; a role that she knew she wasn't ready for. This young lady, "Tracey," admitted that she wasn't even sure if she really believed at all yet, here she was being told that it was time for her to take on the responsibility of leading a small group herself. Based on the model of leadership being followed, this would place her in a position of spiritual oversight, authority and, to some degree, power.
Tracey also mentioned that she knew that her small group leader would be angry at her for visiting another church. As it turned out, Tracey was right.
Extreme spiritual leadership and excessive authority, in anyone's hands, isn't good ... but when it's given to someone who is quite young in the faith, or uncertain regarding their beliefs, then it becomes horrifying.
Although this concern has been growing steadily in my heart for quite some time, the extent of this controlling authority was clearly shown when a young couple recently told me their story.
In their case, the young lady attended a church that followed this particular format, while the young man, on the other hand, attended a totally different denomination. When these young people decided that they would like to start going out together, the young woman was told by her "spiritual parent" (the small group leader) that she wasn't allowed to do so, as the young man didn't attend their church and hadn't been brought to the small group leader for approval.
Thankfully, the young woman was sensible enough to make her own decision. However, that's beside the point. No one has the right to dictate the path that any other person should take. Even God gives room for His children to make their own choices for right or for wrong.
The bottom line is that every Christian man and woman is sealed with the Holy Spirit, the perfect Counselor, and our guidance and direction should, first and foremost, come from the Word as it is revealed to us by Him.
That's not to say that He won't at times speak to us through another believer. However, even when that happens, we alone are accountable for the decisions and choices we make whether they be in agreement with those who are trying to lead us, or not.
My 17-year-old son, Matt, probably summed it up perfectly when ministering recently to a girl who had been left emotionally bruised from a chastening encounter with her small group leader. When she said that her leader was angry with her for not following advice, Matt simply said, "Advice can be given, but it's up to us to choose whether to take it or leave it. No one should tell us that it has to be received."
Oh precious and dearly loved child of God, I pray that you never forget ... "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty, emancipation from bondage, freedom." (2 Corinthians 3:17 Amplified)
Let no one, even with the best of intentions, steal that away from you.
Something to Think About ...
Perhaps you are in a church that has stepped into some type of controlling or abusive behavior. If you recognize the warning and know that you are, then it has most probably been causing you distress. You may be feeling exhausted, depressed, out of step with the rest of the congregation, unfulfilled, isolated, alienated and out of place. It's even possible that you may feel a little guilty almost as though there must be something wrong with you for feeling the way you do.
If that's the case, then it's time to step back from the situation and ask God to guide and direct your path ... to do so is the desire of His heart. From a vantage point outside the influence, you may start to see things in a whole new light.
Father God ...
May we hold on to your gift of grace;
Never trade it for old chains.
May we live as You direct Lord,
Washed clean from all sin's stains.
May we live within Your liberty
Knowing freedom every day.
Set free from every bondage
By a price we didn't pay.
May we nurture all Your children
May You use us as their guides,
But always as Your servants Lord,
Without a hint of pride.
Copyright Deborah Porter May, 2005
Deborah Porter is Editor of FaithWriters' Magazine and Coordinator of the Writing Challenge. A freelance writer and editor (www.finessewriting.com.au) she also has her own website (www.breathfreshair.org). Deb is the writer and presenter of the new Cool Country Gospel Hour on Sydney's radio 2KA.