While finally cleaning out a room that I swore three years ago would become a study, I happened upon a booklet from my house church days entitled How to Have a Brothers’ Meeting. It’s just a photocopied transcript of a series of talks given by our group’s founder, Gene Edwards, addressing a handful of internal issues that tend to develop in a group like ours.
The Lost Years
In retrospect, it’s odd that I’ve never written about my involvement in the house church movement, which dominated ten years of my life. I wrote a good bit during that phase, contributing chapters to a book entitled Pagan Christianity, which deconstructed Protestant traditions like the sinner’s prayer, dressing up for church, giving an invitation, and even using pulpits and steeples. Eventually, I wrote a book of my own detailing the theological reasons I left behind traditional evangelical Christianity in favor of something more radically similar to the way the primitive church seemed to work in its earliest days.
I’m still digesting what role that period played in my exit from the faith, and in time I hope to unpack that more here. For some, their gateway drug to agnosticism/atheism was either liberal Christianity or the Emergent movement; for me, it was the house church movement. And for what it’s worth, to this day I bear no ill will toward those who led it. I feel like I learned a lot from those days and those people, and I sorely miss their company.
I think I know the reasons why I’ve been so quiet about that period. Churches that meet in homes can operate so differently from the traditional, brick-and-mortar kind that I’ve always felt it would sound foreign to most people—especially the way we did it. I suppose I’ve also figured the whole experience will sound more like a cult to outsiders than I’d have ever allowed at the time, and I don’t want to misrepresent how positive the bulk of my experience in that church was for me. Besides, life has shown me the only real difference between cults and denominations is a combination of time and numbers.
For now, I just want to pull out a few portions of this rediscovered little booklet in order to illustrate how movements like the one I joined 20 years ago can burn through eager young zealots determined to make their mark on the world. My hope is that after I’ve told my story, it will make you think twice before you completely sell your soul to a cause, no matter what it is.
Taking Up Your Cross
First, in order to appreciate how big a deal it was for me to walk through the scenario I’m about to describe, you’ll have to realize how directly it undermined a central tenet of our group’s founder, and therefore of our group’s identity.
Gene Edwards built a ministry career around the idea that churches should be started by people who equip them to take care of themselves and then essentially leave them alone to follow the leadership of the Spirit wherever it takes them. Once it’s up and running, the church planter must let go of control and never again try to take it back from those who rise up to lead it from that point forward.
He also spoke at length about the importance of “taking up your cross,” allowing yourself to endure mistreatment as God’s discipline in your life, uniting you more with him in spirit. He touches on that theme on the very first page of the booklet:
Theoretically, you should tolerate anything on earth that happens to you – no matter how bad you get insulted, or how you get stomped on, or how you get talked to, or talked about, or lied about, or misunderstood, or unjustly treated…As an individual and as a church you ought to hurt a long, long time before you do anything in the way of taking action toward anyone in the church. (p.1, emphasis mine)
On paper, this was as much about enduring mistreatment from peers as it was from “the worker” who shouldered the ultimate spiritual responsibility for the group. But the language he used in private to express this principle will sound familiar to anyone who has spent time in an authoritarian religious subculture. In a chapter entitled “The Inevitable Split,” Gene says this:
There are Christian workers I could probably send to prison if I chose to gather his [sic] detractors and we all put our heads together and concentrated on his faults. Excuse me, but I’d rather just go on honoring him! These brothers made big mistakes. And they keep making their mistakes over and over, and they keep hurting more people. But I am not going to lay my hand on them, because they still preach the Lord and still help some people. They may be hurting twice as many as they help, but it is not my business, ever, to lay my hand on another Christian worker, or any other brother or sister…
It is not my business to step into another’s life, no matter how big a mess he is about to make of it. It is not my business to criticize, to turn one believer against another…You have crucified your Lord afresh when you do that to someone who is part of the body of Christ! (pp.44-45, emphasis mine)
Gene inherited the bulk of his theology (and his ecclesiology) from the Local Church Movement, which made headlines decades ago for suing a small publishing group to have their name removed from a list of cults described in a book they put out. In 1985 the LCM won their libel lawsuit—the largest in history at the time—bankrupting the publisher. Coming from a movement which preaches the importance of “taking up your cross” and not defending yourself against attack, that in itself is noteworthy.
The LCM in turn got its theology—along with its authoritarian way of thinking—from the Plymouth Brethren by way of the China Inland Mission, which eventually produced Watchman Nee, a hero of the Local Church Movement and predecessor to their founder, Witness Lee, who relocated their movement from Taiwan to California just in time to take part in the Jesus Movement in the late 1960s.
Gene spent so much time digesting and internalizing Lee’s vocabulary, along with the rest of his prolific spoken ministry, that Edwards’s own books later sported titles identical to Lee’s, as did his own spoken messages. Among those common themes and theological emphases was a top-heavy view of spiritual authority, sublimated though it was in his ministry through subtle (even if unintentional) passive-aggression.
Gene’s most successful book, A Tale of Three Kings, which often shows up on seminary readings lists, uses the story of King David to argue that the best way to deal with abuse from people in authority over you is, well…to take it, and to do so without fighting back or criticizing those in authority because they are God’s anointed. In a chapter entitled “God’s Blessing” in How to Have a Brothers’ Meeting, Gene discloses how he sees things more directly:
I am going to tell you why “the blessing of God” leaves a people, a movement, a church. And never forget what you are about to read!
Point One: The Blessing of God follows a worker…When you throw the worker out or force him out, the blessing goes…
Second point: I do not have any respect for a man who will tell people about point one. (pp.50-51, emphasis mine)
The time I first read this, I actually loved the way he contradicted himself. My evangelical Christian upbringing had so normalized incongruous statements like these that it made me like him more, not less. In the Bible, God contradicts himself so many times and in so many ways that you learn to view impossible paradoxes as evidence of divine provenance. Incidentally, this explains why evangelicals so heartily embrace the irreconcilable flip-flops of our current Commander-in-Chief, but let’s leave that topic for another day.
Related: “How Faith Breaks Your Thinker“
Gene’s management style was so gentle, so non-confrontational, and so charming that we all found it easy to trust that his intentions were as free from authoritarianism as anyone we had encountered. But go back and read again what he said. Could there be any valid reason to disagree with or undermine “the worker” in a church governed by this ethos? No, there could not. And that’s a huge problem, no matter how pure his intentions.
Back in my football days, our coaches taught us to watch a runner’s hips—not his head or his torso—to determine which way we he was going to go. Reconciling people’s words with their actions is kind of like that: when the former seem to contradict the latter, you should always watch what they do rather than what they say. That way, you’re less likely to be misled.
Now that you’ve got a little bit of context, I want to tell you about the moment I should have taken my family and left the church…but didn’t.
“This Conversation Never Happened”
Young men and women in their late teens and early twenties are looking for a purpose, a cause to which they can devote their boundless energy and passion. Effective leaders know this, which is why every organization and movement I’ve ever witnessed was built on the backs of those just starting out in life, looking for something to make their whole lives about.
People in positions of power eventually learn the value of the eager young zealot.
Idealistic, impressionable young people are the fuel of every cause, movement, and religion. Note the ages of those who blow themselves up for Allah, or who go out as missionaries (ironically termed “elders”) by the LDS church. Come to think of it, note the likely ages of the young men we are told Jesus gathered around himself at the inception of Christianity. Impressionable. Young. Eager to please.
For me in my young twenties, that cause was the house church movement, and I was willing to sacrifice social and professional security (along with any hope for a decent income) to ensure my time and energies were free to support it. Somewhere around the time my third daughter was born into our lives, the economy took a downturn and I found myself pulling graveyard shifts managing a busy gas station that operated 24-hours-a-day.
Given the leadership role I had already fallen into in the church, Gene was moved by my plight and soon reached out to me to establish a more direct line of communication. Despite my being the youngest “brother” in the church, he soon recruited me to begin traveling to other churches to help minister to them, delivering messages and sharing stories about lessons we had learned, etc. I was flattered.
As time went on, he began disclosing secrets to me, eventually sharing with me a letter written by another church to their own church planter, Tim Richey. Gene shared the letter with me in confidence because Tim had become our “worker” upon Gene’s relocation to Jacksonville, Florida, to start a new church which would serve as his next base of ministry. At this point, if he would be true to his own words, Gene was to let go of control of our church, trusting his replacement to carry out his work without interference.
The letter Gene sent me detailed the reasons why the other church was cutting ties with Tim, gently but firmly casting his leadership methods in a critical light. We idolized that particular church, and their words always carried a lot of weight for us. This would have been a bombshell in our tiny little world if I had shared it with the church, but Gene instructed me to burn it after reading it, insisting that if I told anyone else about the letter, he would swear it didn’t exist and would call me a liar.
Let that sink in for a second. He had dirt on a coworker, but his entire ministry had been built around never criticizing such, so he quietly shared it with the youngest brother in the church, asking him not to breathe a word of the interchange.
An older, more experienced Neil would have ended the conversation right then and there, announcing he was done with the movement for good. To my embarrassment, however, I kept his secret and reveled in the knowledge that one of my heroes had confided in me, trusting me with something potentially explosive within this small but international network of churches. What an honor.
I took the flagship church’s concerns to heart, and at Gene’s instructions I spoke with one of the leading brothers in that church to get the rest of the story. By the time those conversations were done, I had confirmation for a number of the same concerns that had arisen locally in our church over the methods and mannerisms of Gene’s successor, whom he was supposed to leave alone to do his work.
It wasn’t long before my concerns began to influence the rest of the church. In time, conflict arose between “the brothers” in the church and “the sisters,” particularly the ones who didn’t have husbands who could come home from the men’s meetings and relay the reasons why our attitudes toward Tim were beginning to sour. Nor was it long before it became obvious that I was the one responsible for spreading dissent, questioning the worker’s methods in precisely the ways this little booklet told us we should not.
To make a long story short, I eventually bowed out of leadership in the church, as did Tim, and in time I left the whole thing behind entirely after a decade of total immersion in that world. I knew there were those who blamed me for Tim’s departure, and I also knew it would change everything if they were to learn that Gene himself was the source of all this. But I kept his secret like a good little protégé, and for all I know they never did learn the truth. I wouldn’t know though, because after I quit attending meetings almost all of them stopped talking to me even though we all lived in the same neighborhood.
To this day, I regret the stress and strain this must have put on my wife at the time, who bravely followed me into this risky ecclesiastical experiment despite the loss of approval it earned us among our families, some of whom are Southern Baptist ministers. She did not follow me out of the faith, but she shouldered the burden of this phase graciously, and I’ll always be grateful for her support through those days.
This drama had less to do with my departure from the faith than you might think, but it surely added to the pile of reasons that I became more honest with myself about the bigger questions I had lived with for the duration of my years as a Christian. But then so did my involvement in every other church, including several which I would argue are paragons of the traditions to which they belong.
Of course, nothing I say will prevent people from blaming my apostasy on belonging to “the wrong church.” Whatever helps them sleep at night, I guess.
Related Talk: “Shoot Christians Say to Me“
Trusting Your Gut
I’m sharing this story today for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it helps me to process some of my own history out loud, so to speak. That’s kind of how writers function. I also share it in hopes it may help others think about their own involvement in groups or movements like this, encouraging them to ask harder questions of themselves and of those who lead them.
People should learn to trust their instincts more often, especially people who are relatively self-aware.
Thinking back through all the books I read and messages I heard about “taking up your cross,” it’s no wonder I’ve struggled as much as I have with self-ownership and personal agency, advocating for myself and my own needs in relationships of every kind. Being by nature an empathetic sort (and a middle child to boot!), I suspect my own psychology made me more vulnerable than most to the self-negating dynamic of always “going to the cross.”
But this business of using young people to fuel movements isn’t limited to religious groups alone, even though the God ingredient does act like an accelerant. People do this in all walks of life, and they will keep on doing it as long as there remains such an endless supply of energetic young people eager to please their heroes. I could easily write an even longer, more scathing article about my experience in the atheist/secularist movement, which similarly chewed me up and spit me out, but I’m still not ready for that one.
Stubborn people like me don’t learn our lessons without going through the ringer firsthand. But just in case it helps, I’m warning you anyway that people accustomed to power can actually smell the vulnerability of those most ready to be used by them, and no matter how much they talk about not taking advantage of that, their actions speak louder than their words.
Come to think of it, Gene himself was the one who first warned me about movements and their tendency to burn through the young and impressionable. But then again, he was also the one who made the biggest deal about “not protecting your work,” trusting God to care for a church without interfering in the work that others put into it, so make of that what you will.
Some lessons still get through to us in spite of our mentors’ inability to embody those ideals in real life. As a parent and as a teacher, I find that a deeply comforting thought.
[Image Source: Adobe Stock]
Postscript: For more about this tiny world I left, here’s an old post written by Kevin Knox, who spend a decade in the same church, leaving just before I got there. I feel like I basically took over his spot. I wonder who occupies that position now?
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