“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. . . A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.”
It often takes a personal tragedy for Christians to realize that they can’t trust the religion’s party lines about much of anything. But once that tragedy strikes, it’s usually too late to do anything but feel regret for that misplaced trust.
One of fundagelical Christianity’s most cherished party lines is that people are meant to live in rigidly structured, hierarchical communities and to adopt very narrowly-prescribed roles in their relationships. One group gets all the power to make decisions and order everyone else around, and everyone else is supposed to obey without flinching. Not only are fundagelical leaders authoritarians, but their congregations tend to be in turn authoritarian followers. The dysfunction of the leaders makes sense to their followers, who are dysfunctional in different but completely complementary ways.
“Do what I say, and you will be safe and rewarded,” these leaders promise. It is a promise their followers desperately ache to see realized. But thanks to the nature of power in fundagelicalism’s deeply broken system, only one of those parties is going to get what they want.
The other party? Well, they get it in the shorts, as always.
Finding Out the Hard Way.
A while ago, I wrote about Jordan Root. He and his then-wife Karen Hinkley were doing missionary work in a little village in East Asia when she discovered that her husband was a raging pedophile. (Strangely, Jesus did not “convict” this minister of his eternal and totes-for-realsies Gospel into telling the truth earlier–any more than Jordan’s fear of eternal torture stopped him from committing these crimes in the first place.)
After he finished truth-trickling to Karen and she finally got a partial idea of the real scope of the situation, they returned home in disgrace. She began annulment proceedings immediately. Karen fully expected her home church, quaintly called The Village Church (TVC), to come down on her husband like a hatful of rusted hammers and to support her in ensuring that the church’s kids were safe. I mean, for real now, what kind of Christians would take children’s safety less than mortally seriously or demand that anyone stay married to an active pedophile?
Well, apparently TVC’s leaders, that’s who.
You see, Karen was divorcing, in their opinion if not in reality (divorce ≠ annulment). Worse, she was making this life decision without their permission or input! Her husband, however, had said he’d repented and was forgiven by Jesus already so why was anybody even talking about this pedophilia thing anymore? Gyahhh!
For an unconscionably long time, TVC’s leaders protected Jordan Root at their church’s kids’ expense by refusing to reveal publicly exactly what his disgrace involved (in fact, they wouldn’t even allow Karen to publicly warn other families at TVC that Jordan Root may have hurt their children and was indeed walking among them with the pastors’ full knowledge and permission–does anyone even wonder why they weren’t enthused about her suggestion?). They harassed her for a while, even demanding that she not separate her finances from her soon-to-be-ex’s, and refused to accept her written resignation from their church.
When she asked what the hell business her finances were of theirs, they told her something interesting:
By signing that five-page-long contract with TVC and becoming a member of their church, it seems, she had given them permission to control every single aspect of her life–forever–and to flex their authority at their sole discretion over anything they chose with the expectation of instant obedience, and there was absolutely nothing she or anybody else could say about the matter, and nobody she could appeal to for arbitration except Jesus, who had already sided with them, which they knew because, well, they were the pastors and she was the congregant.
They told her that “every aspect of [her] marriage is under the authority of the elders of the church.” Their church’s “bylaws” forbade members from leaving the group while under “church discipline.” (She hadn’t been at the time she quit TVC, but time is an ocean rather than a river to fundagelicals.)
They humiliated her for months and emotionally-manipulated her to “push her under our care,” to quote their own emails to each other.
And they were totally sure, until the rest of us heard about the incident and freaked out about it, that this was totally what Jesus would have done. Totes.
The New Way to Be Creepy for Jesus.
Karen Hinkley had run afoul of a relatively new trend in fundagelicalism called church discipline. The more toxic the church, the more likely you are to find this doctrine. Church discipline is a way for pastors to exercise rigid totalitarian control over congregants’ private lives both in and out of church.
To establish the pastors’ control, members may be compelled to sign literal contracts with their churches in order to be accepted for membership. These contracts are called “covenants” to make them seem extra-Jesus-y and less like the predatory permission slips for abuse that they are. And should a church member do anything that violates these unilateral contracts–which, as you can imagine, are vague in the extreme–then the church’s dysfunctional power structure has the authority to dole out all kinds of terrible retaliations.
Many thousands of Christians have signed on the line which is dotted, giving up their own power. And they’ve done it because they assume that why of course they’d never do anything off-limits and why of course they would certainly want to be reprimanded and disciplined if they ever did (???), and why of course their superiors in the church would never find fault in them that didn’t actually exist and would always handle them with fairness and love.
A Fast-Moving Doctrine.
The mistake would be to think that this megachurch is some weird one-off practicing yet another arcane homebrew. To the contrary, these kinds of contracts are actually quite normal nowadays. Despite a small amount of pushback from all up and down the breadth of Christianity, you can now find them all over right-wing churches. Here’s one that is completely representative of the genre from a totally different church in a whole other denomination, and my goodness, here’s our old Southern Baptist pal Thom Rainer trying his best to make covenants sound like some kind of equal partnership instead of a totally one-sided servitude-as-the-bonus-plan bullshitting attempt that they are.
Anybody familiar with toxic Christianity likely won’t be surprised at all at how downright ubiquitous these contracts have become or how quickly they achieved their popularity.
Karen Hinkley joined TVC and gave them that kind of power over her life likely because she hadn’t ever imagined a scenario in which her own pastors would abuse that power, or one in which she’d need protection from her own church! Like a lot of us can attest having done ourselves, she thought that Jesus would make the system run the way it was supposed to run and keep everybody on the up-and-up.
But there was no Jesus behind TVC’s scheme, only power-hungry zealots who really didn’t like seeing a woman refuse their manly-man authority and who were well aware of what it’d do to their reputation if it got out that a pedophile had been discovered working in their mission field.
The Big Problem with Church Discipline.
Thankfully, public outcry protected Karen. She escaped TVC, and its leaders ended up looking super-awful. Her ex is now outed as a pedophile, while his church’s role in protecting him over his possible victims is now easily discovered by anybody with a search engine.
But the fallout of this case illustrates very well exactly what the problem is with church discipline:
The people pushing this idea assume that pastors will use their unilateral, uncontested, undeserved power wisely, rationally, consistently, and fairly.
Experience shows us consistently that this assumption is galactically wrong.
Pastors declare that if they are given this kind of power, then their congregants will behave less hypocritically and the church body as a whole will be more harmonious, and also that it will make Christians less likely to leave the church. Guess what that declaration is? It’s a testable hypothesis! Indeed, this is one of many such assertions that Christian leaders make, and like all their other testable assertions, it fails all tests completely. But we’ll look at that next time, because it’d make a good exercise in how to critically evaluate a claim.
Why The Idea Caught On.
This bad idea became canon in a startlingly short amount of time for the same reasons that all their other bad ideas become canonical. The idea fits into the rest of their teachings glorifying hierarchies and confirms their love of rigid structure in all relationships. It reinforces their previous teachings about how wunnnnnnerful it is to be in shackles to a loving master who would obviously never abuse authority or cause seething resentment because Jesus makes everyone happy to be exactly where they’re supposed to be–and with divine power infusing an organization, obviously it’ll run much better and more smoothly than anything mean ole godless heathens could ever dream up. Church discipline fits into fundagelicals’ pretendy fun time games even though it doesn’t work in reality–and maybe that’s its appeal.
Don’t count on anything changing, however, just because this system fails. When toxic Christians are confronted with failure, all they know to do is more of whatever they were already doing, except more of it and harder–which in this case means that when they start suspecting that these idiotic contracts are failing, all they’ve got, literally, is to give their leaders even more control over their congregations’ private lives than they had already.
As you could see from that second Thom Rainer link, the idea of church discipline appeals mightily to leaders frustrated by their churn rate. Well, this won’t fix their churn rate–so they’ll be trying to do more of it and harder rather than seriously re-examining the whole idea and junking it. A lot of those Christians will be put through a lot of unnecessary suffering before they escape–all because they made the huge mistake of trusting their indoctrination.
That’s why I want to look at this practice this week–t’is the season for Christians to make all kinds of wild claims, not all of them purely supernatural, and for us to rub shoulders with Christians more often than we normally do in a highly emotionally-charged environment. For those who are fresh off a deconversion, this combination of factors could be hard to fight. So I want to take a new trend in the religion and assess it with rigor (and much snerking). I hope you’ll join me!
Related: Church Discipline Charges Ramp Up As End-of-Month Quotas Loom (satirical, but eerily plausible)
Lambchopsuey has thoughtfully provided some links in case anybody needs them: why these “covenants” don’t hold any water legally speaking and a sample letter of resignation that should exempt a Christian from a “covenant’s” repercussions. (Thanks hon!)