by Cindy Foster
The Preacher and his wife graduated from Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. At the time he attended there, the college was quite conservative. There were strict rules about dress, dating, curfews, entertainment, music and much more.
The Preacher actually grew up in Springfield and was a member of a church that was not nearly as rigid in its standards as the college was, so in the beginning of his ministry as pastor, he did not have the extreme beliefs that he eventually embraced later in his ministry.
It was several years after the church had started and was established with its own building that the more relaxed climate began to change to rigid. There were several contributing factors.
The Preacher had always extolled the merits of the old-fashioned preachers, past and present. The God-loving, sin-hating ones who cried for a return to the value of unquestioning obedience to all authority, days when it seemed that children respected their elders, women knew their place, homosexuality and other sexual sins were crimes, and preachers were not afraid to preach against sin, name the sins and those who committed them from the pulpit.
He was lifted up by some of these older ‘men of God‘ as one ‘wise beyond his years‘ and ‘called by God‘ to lead a church as a ‘remnant‘ back to the ‘old paths’. He seemed to also believe himself to have some kind of special leadership qualities that would aid him in keeping his church pure. At least one of those factors was us.
There was also an event in The Preacher’s life that became the catalyst for change in our attitude towards him and our position under him in the church.
The Preacher had a procedure done to get rid of kidney stones that had plagued him off and on for months. He had some kind of reaction to the anesthesia or something and it was feared he wouldn’t survive it. It was grave enough that Paul went to see him in the hospital. There were statements made about the care of his family should he not make it, and Paul felt terribly sorry for him for the state he was in. He also felt guilty that he had not treated him with the respect that was supposed to be due a man in the position of ‘pastor’.
So, he made the decision that he would from then on give him the respect he was supposed to deserve as a ‘pastor’. Up until that time, Paul treated The Preacher no differently than any other person. Whenever they ‘got into it’, whether it was concerning work, church, or family–there was no consideration for his position. They would really, ‘get into it‘ not unlike more normal brotherly relationships. But everything changed in that moment.
THE CHURCH WE BECAME
Paul and I began to be much more attracted to the teachings of ‘old-fashioned’ preachers and evangelists who seemed to be having great success in raising ‘Godly’, obedient, adoring children. We frequented camp meetings where these preachers and evangelists could be heard. They were loud, passionate and charismatic pulpiteers who knew how to deliver powerful sermons and lure audiences to surrender.
The atmosphere at those meetings was electrified by talented singers with bass and electric guitars, keyboards, and sound systems amplifying toe-tapping Southern Gospel songs rich with dynamic, spirit-grabbing lyrics. We made friends easily with the people who regularly came. Some were kindred spirits who shared our views about separation and home schooling… also an indirect result of compelling arguments made by those same preachers and evangelists.
It was by the influences that we got ‘convicted about watching television. Paul eventually decided to ‘make a statement’ by taking it outside, digging a hole in the ground, placing the TV in the hole and shooting it to pieces with a shotgun while all the kids watched in shocked amazement.
Since there was no TV, I became an avid listener to Christian talk radio shows as I spent many hours nursing babies. These shows decried the subtle ‘Satanic‘ messages prevalent in such things as toys, fairy tales, secular music, public schools, Disney movies, politics, Promise Keepers–ad infinitum. I wanted nothing more than to protect my children from the lures of ‘the World’, so Paul and I bought into just about all of it–hook, line and sinker and began passing these ideas on to The Preacher, his wife and others in the church.
The Preacher was unimpressed by the camp-meeting styled preaching services we enjoyed so much, and even warned against the appetite for excitement and enthusiasm that was generated by all the sensationalism. But he came across to us as being more jealous of their success in winning our admiration than any real concern that we would over-indulge in camp-meeting sensationalism.
Nevertheless, between his propensity toward extremes and our naive attraction to the ‘old paths’ message, a potent, toxic mixture was formed. A preacher who was a driven authoritarian and who soaked up any support for his authoritarian leadership and praise for his preaching, combined with his ‘second man’ who was willing to accommodate those tendencies. From that mixture arose a toxic camaraderie that was unified and focused towards a successfully controlled, preacher-dominated church.
Then, at some point in all this, The Preacher had become convinced that our church being ‘incorporated‘ by the State was the same as making the State the ‘head‘ of it thus removing Christ’s position of preeminence. He also came to similar conclusions about marriage licenses, so after some special meetings where representatives from a group called ‘The Ecclesiastical Law Association‘ detailed the specifics, we voted to dissolve the corporation. Of course, this action led to making policy that couples who plan to marry in our church, could only do so by covenant. The Preacher refused to even so much as open or close a wedding service in prayer if the couple had a marriage license! To our way of thinking, we were really ramping up the church’s level of commitment to ‘truth’.
The Preacher also decided that para-church organizations were unscriptural and anti-local church, so we pulled out of the Baptist Bible Fellowship meetings, youth rallies, and support of the Baptist Bible Fellowship-run Bible college. Moreover, the practice of sending our young people away to a Bible college to be trained in ministry was likewise deemed to be unscriptural because in the New Testament churches, it was the pastors‘ responsibility to train their young for ministry. So, we eventually started our own institute.
Additionally, the youth camp we had attended for 10 years or so allowed too much ‘liberal’ music and since we no longer permitted our ladies and girls to wear pants, it seemed contradictory to continue to attend that camp. We even stopped fellowshipping with other churches who did not share our standards and beliefs. Instead, we searched out and found a camp that practiced the same level of separation that we did.
The ‘truth be known’ it was at the youth conference we took our teens to directly following the week at the new youth camp we took them to, that the teens made decisions to sell-out to God. Though it could be claimed that it was the Church that chose the events, that got ‘the job done’, it was still those teens who yielded to the teachings. As soon as we completed those two weeks, they came home and jumped head-first into applying all that they had learned and committed to by getting fully involved in the scheduled vacation Bible school immediately following.
The teens themselves made the decisions to change their already conservative dress, to what I can best describe as a more ‘Pentecostal-holiness’ style of dress. It was only later, when The Preacher began to notice slight changes back toward the more up-dated styles (though still very modest by all reasonable standards) that as a knee-jerk, reaction, he began to claim and own their standards as his and the church’s– regulating lengths, looseness and eliminating even the slightest slit.
He also insisted that boys hair had to be cut military-short and parted. Ties had to be worn to every service (if their parents were in leadership, if they were in any kind of leadership themselves or students in the Institute). The Preacher’s only contribution to the change in dress standards before, was to disallow pants and shorts on women and shorts on men.
For every perceived problem presented, a new rule and accompanying belief was added until it seemed that there was no end to them. But, all these efforts towards regulating our church away from the ways of the world and its liberalizing effects on other churches, seemed to be working. Nowhere was this more apparent than in our young people.
Imagine 50 some odd teens and single young adults actively, willingly attending every service, every youth activity, teaching Sunday school, working bus routes, discipling children and other young people, singing and accompanying specials in church. Sweet-faced girls wearing long, flowing dresses, guys sharply dressed in shirts and ties–sporting military short hair cuts, all cleaning church, working in the Bible publishing ministry, working in the Nursing Home ministry, studying in the church Institute, witnessing to and bringing their friends, yielding to the altar calls, surrendering to be pastors, church planters, evangelists and ministry wives, submitting to a host of unnecessary and oppressive beliefs and surrendering their futures to the religious dictates of their pastor and parents. Who wouldn’t enjoy such ‘fruits’; who wouldn’t enjoy ‘glorying‘ just a bit in such splendid advertisement of efforts? It was intoxicating…….while it lasted.
One would think that the pastor of an ‘on fire‘ group as this would be humbled and gratified to shepherd such a hard-working bunch. One would think that the pastor of such a group would want to commend, encourage and enjoy them. Not so with The Preacher. He preached that easing up on them or the rest of the church, would cause them to “slip”, so instead of preaching sermons praising God for loving and strengthening our young people enough for them to do the work they were doing, he found more to criticize and condemn. Every sermon was full of warnings and rebuke. Every sermon was loud, long and angry. It was as if he was solely responsible for not only the church’s appearance of spirituality but of the actual spirituality of every member in it.
He spent an inordinate amount of time on Moses and the stubborn, rebellious Children of Israel. He identified himself with the character of Moses, while identifying the character of the church with the rebellious, idolatrous Children of Israel.
After about two solid years, three or four hour-long sermons per week, the spirit of the young people began to change in ways ranging from zealous to rebellious. Discouragement led to despair which turned in to cynicism, apathy, frustration and disillusionment.
There had always been a competitive undercurrent particularly between the women, since he continually defined certain behaviors and attitudes such as humility, respect for and unquestioning obedience to authority, submissiveness, contentment, disdain for ‘worldly’ clothes, entertainment and ambitions as well as loyalty to him and the church. These qualities became identifiers for ones truly dedicated to God.
Naturally many of the women secretly desired their children to live up to his definitions. They may not have revealed those desires overtly, but they were manifested as jealousy and contention towards each other and intense pressure on their kids to perform well. There were bickerings and squabblings among the women, particularly the ones in leadership, that trickled down to the daughters causing contention among them. All this was going on while on the surface, the church appeared to be full of love and unity. All that ‘glittered’ there, certainly was not gold.
As the disillusionment of many of the young people mounted, so did The Preacher’s anger. It seemed he saw a demon behind every neutral expression. If he didn’t see eager, smiling, submitted, unquestioning countenances, he suspected pride and rebellion. He even said it to my husband, after suspending almost all the young people (for reasons I will explain later) from participating in music specials. My husband questioned whether this might make them more discouraged, The Preacher said, “They have pride. I can see it.” This was his rationalization for punishing them thusly.
While I am certain he thought he was purging the church of the “leaven” so that his church could passionately pursue the ‘cause of Christ‘ unhindered and unencumbered by the weight of the contentious ones, I have to wonder if had he known how messy and how far-reaching the effects would be, if secretly he regrets what he did. It is now obvious he and the rest of the church have paid a heavy price.
Open comments below
Cindy Foster is “Mom” to eight gorgeous, talented, temperamental, noisy, opinionated, alike-but very different kids. She has been married to their daddy, Paul, for 34 years. Cindy blogs at Baptist Taliban and Beyond.
NLQ Recommended Reading …
‘Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich
‘Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland
‘Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce