Hi and welcome back! Recently, we talked about a threat Ravi Zacharias used on one of his many victims: that if she revealed what he was doing to her, she’d be personally responsible for the ‘millions of souls’ who would inevitably deconvert upon hearing that news. That threat just electrified me. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and about the doctrinal beliefs that inspired it. And over time, my thoughts about it have come together more and more. We’ve talked about how abusers use this threat on those they harm, and about how the belief keeps Christians silent about their lived experiences in the religion. Today, let me show you how Christians use this threat as a silencing tactic against critics.
(A ‘broken system’ is one that doesn’t even try to fulfill its own stated goals. Instead, a stark disconnect exists between stated goals and members’ behavior. Instead, the leaders of such groups pursue their own covert goals — usually revolving around the gaining and flexing of power — at the expense of everyone else beneath them. A broken system is not necessarily an unsuccessful one. Indeed, broken systems operate along principles of power that often make them very successful in terms of longevity and membership.)
Silencing to Protect a Broken System.
For many years after I left Christianity, it just baffled me that most Christians respond to criticisms about their religion and its hypocritical leaders by demanding that those critics just shut up now already. And we’ve seen enough drive-by Christian commenters to prove it.
Oh, sure, you see Christians criticizing this silencing tactic. Sure. But they don’t tend to have any real power in the broken system of Christianity. Their cries go ignored — at best. Nobody but the group’s leaders can heal a system that has broken, and they almost never want even to try.
And oh sure, you can hear some of those leaders exhorting people to handle scandals and gossip in Jesus-approved ways. (In that link’s case, Jesus apparently has some very constrictive ideas about how that discussion should proceed. At least that person didn’t make a sex scandal into a terrible and tortured analogy about Jesus’ supposed resurrection.) But what actually happens is another matter entirely, as this Christian’s blog post demonstrates. Actual Christian culture demands utter silence regarding Christian hypocrisy.
Worse, often Christians blame abuse victims for their abuse, which encourages those victims to stay silent in the first place. Speaking from my own experience and that of other ex-Christians, I can say that this chilling effect happens in a lot of other situations. People learn not to speak up about criticisms of Christianity by paying attention to how Christians treat other dissenters. They quickly learn what can’t ever be discussed.
The stated motivation behind many of these silencing attempts is protection of the group’s reputation and credibility — and that of its leaders, by extension. After all, these stalwart defenders usually state outright, criticism makes people less likely to trust Christians’ sales pitches and even less likely to want to join any Christian groups.
So in the interests of protecting poor, fragile, delicate li’l Christianity, we all need to just shut up now already, kplzthnx.
Silencing in the Wild.
In just one news story about yet another fundagelical sex scandal, we find all these Christian randos using silencing tactics. They’ve learned well:
Let’s not look to point or to critize [sic] but look to prayer that God will do bigger and better things with the ministry of Paul Sheppard and the ALCF church family.
Please let’s not judge him lets pray for restoration and healing for his family.
I’m sure he has repented and I know that he has been forgiven, please be cautious not to judge . . .
While Pastor Paul may have engaged, this was unfair to his wife and children. We can’t allow our selfishness, to overshadow the common courtesies in life. You have helped to bring down a man, a ministry and shatter a family.
My point is Tiger [Woods] is no better or worse than [Paul] Sheppard. This is why we must never judge others.
None of us know what the moral failure was because did not tell us. So, I pray that everyone would stop speculating on what happened because we don’t know. [. . .] There is no man living today without sin so rather than talking noise about Pastor Paul….do what God commands us to do LOVE him without condition!
I agree that whatever the “Moral Failure” may be it is between he and his wife his family, and God.
We need to continuously pray and encourage them – not destroy them especially when situations like this happens.
I could go on and on. A lot of Christians weighed in on this one, and super-long sections upset my readability editor. But you get the idea, yeah? Christians close ranks when one of their own turns out to be a hypocrite.
All of this and more is what any critics of Christianity can reasonably expect in response to their efforts. As “Spatula,” an atheist, said to a Christian silencer in that very discussion linked above:
I think you mean you welcome a conversation on religion, so long as religion cannot be criticized… which is of course not a conversation on religion at all (or at least a very one-sided one).
Yep. All of their responses mean one thing:
Just shut up already, you meaniepies. We’ll handle this ourselves.
But even if they get what they want, they never do. With silence, they get exactly what they really wanted in the first place.
The Belief that Creates a Culture of Silencing.
Christians believe that their god lives inside them. Thus, his presence in their lives is supposed to make them to want to behave themselves. Of course, they do wrong anyway. They inevitably will because their roadmap does not work–er, because despite the Bible’s absolute assurances they are still sinful creatures.
At such times, they think their god makes them feel convicted, which is Christianese for Jesus-flavored guilt. In turn, they repent, which is Christianese for psychically saying sorry to Jesus for offending him. In return, he forgives them instantly (because he absolutely must according to his rules), and they move on with their day with a clean conscience. Hooray Team Jesus!
But this doctrinal belief means that it’s not okay for other people to bring up another Christian’s obvious show of hypocrisy. Only Jesus matters. This sinful behavior stands between the sinner and Jesus. So, he’ll handle it as he pleases. Talking about hypocrisy only raises outsiders’ awareness of hypocrisy, which impacts sales. So, people shouldn’t talk about it, ever, especially around outsiders and newbies.
Church discipline draws upon a major permutation of this belief from Matthew 18:15-17. Wartburg Watch calls that passage “three short Bible verses which have caused untold pain,” and I’d agree. (See endnote.) These verses represent the ultimate handbook for creating a predatory environment in churches, because they tell Christians to keep their abuse quiet unless they’re willing to handle it in that exact way. The process keeps the wrongdoing under wraps for as long as possible. There’s no way that can go wrong! (/s)
And yet things do go wrong with it. All the time.
Why Silencing Doesn’t Ever Work Correctly.
Every one of those Christians I quoted above in the scandal story (relink) drew upon the beliefs I’m describing here. Many stated it outright. Many others who didn’t state it outright certainly alluded to the Matthew 18 process.
But had the Christians around that pastor obeyed the rules of their culture, Paul Sheppard would probably still be the pastor of Abundant Life Christian Fellowship, and if so then he’d still be doing whatever that cryptic “moral failure” means in the story.
Most of Christians’ doctrinal beliefs absolutely require a real live god to be behind everything to make it work the way it’s set up. So without an economy-sized shaker of real live Jesus-Flavored Fairy Dust to sprinkle on the beliefs, they do not work in reality. This idea applies double to their notion of sin and their process for dealing with hypocrisy. It requires good-faith acting from all the players of the Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game.
All the people involved must be completely onboard with Jesus-ing their hearts out and they must indeed possessed by the spirit of a real live god. If they’re not, then this process only serves the interests of abusers and predators.
Those committing that wrongdoing don’t just decide to stop doing it because they’re sad about offending their imaginary friend. Rot and mold in a group’s metaphorical home must be exposed and fixed. It can’t be ignored, because when it’s ignored it just gets worse and worse before it destroys the home itself.
Similarly, the longer harm to others is kept private, the longer those wrongdoers can keep harming them. Thus, wrongdoers are almost the only ones who benefit from Christians’ silencing attempts.
(In a moment, we’ll get to the other ones.)
The Wicked Permutation of Silencing.
As always, there’s another part of this belief and how Christians act it out in the wild. And it says some really bad things about them and their entire religion.
It will always be easier for Christians to police and silence dissenters than it is for them to deal with the wrongdoers in their midst. Sure, we might ignore them or even mock them for their efforts. However, they know very well what will happen to them if they start holding hypocrites truly accountable.
On that note, regarding that scandalous pastor mentioned above in the quotes section: The year after his 2009 disgrace, Paul Sheppard simply started another church and attracted a new congregation. (Don’t even tell me you’re surprised.) In 2016, according to a Christian blog, his old church formally “reconciled” with him. It’s amazing how hard it is for popular Christian leaders to be run out of leadership — unless, of course, they start looking a mite too friendly to the tribe’s culture-war enemies. In Sheppard’s case, that Christian blog post declares that “Satan [was] horrified” by Sheppard’s triumphant return to his old church.
(Really? Cuz I’d rather say the opposite — if Satan were real. He’s the one who always told the truth in the Bible, after all. Even in the Book of Job, he didn’t let the unspoken truth remain unspoken.)
Indeed, Christians never seem to appreciate outsiders’ retort about the easiest solution to their pressing problem of people talking about their many scandals: enforcing a zero-tolerance rule regarding hypocrisy and scandals.
But here is the eternal truth of things:
No evil in the world ever ended because people agreed never to talk about it in public.
The System That Doesn’t Deserve Protection.
Any system that requires the protection of silence does not actually deserve that protection.
If the truth would shatter any group or bring low any leaders, then it deserves to be shattered and they deserve to be brought low. If it’d deconvert someone, then that’s also good. At least now they know the truth and can decide what to do with it in the light.
But Christians fear all of those outcomes. Their leaders indoctrinate them to value their group’s protection over and above their own safety — and that of their own loved ones as well. Abusers and predators, in particular, certainly seem to appreciate this protective streak.
And just as wrongdoers are the only ones who really benefit from this culture of silence, Christian leaders are the only ones who benefit from the flocks’ own demands for silence.
What Silencing Attempts Mean in the End.
It’s worthwhile to remember that when Christian leaders possessed terrifyingly-coercive powers, they regularly enforced the silencing of critics. Didn’t bother them at all. And this culture of silence sure didn’t lead to any vast increase of rules-following in the flocks or in leadership ranks — quite the opposite, really. It’s worth noting, as well, that when their powers to silence criticism began to wane, that’s when the real horror stories of abuse came out at last and their many victims finally got a little justice.
So when Christians demand critics’ silence, they’re saying they’d rather have hypocrites in their midst operating in privacy and safety, and victims suffering without end and without justice, than fix their problems.
And why? Oh, you know. They’re just silencing critics for the sake of all those “millions of souls” who converted on the basis of lies. Can’t risk all those souls, now can we? Can’t have “millions of souls” going to Hell through exposure of all that rotting, molding, festering hypocrisy!
Won’t all their critics please think of
the children the million souls?!?
The Dishonest and/or Stupid God of Christianity.
I haven’t been able to tear my mind away from the whole “million souls” threat since I first read it days ago. Maybe, at last, I’ve figured out why.
A win is still a win in Christians’ minds, even if it’s dishonestly gotten.
It’s like sex: it still counts for them even if they cried the whole time or had to wear a paper bag over their head. Their imaginary-friend of a god accepts dishonest sales just the same as honest ones, and gives them full credit for those few customers they retain on the basis of lies. Thus, the ends have always justified the means for them.
That mindset, in turn, becomes one of the most potent criticisms I could ever possibly bring against Christianity. It’s also a big part of why Christianity has literally always operated as a broken system.
And all of this and more is why irrelevance and decline couldn’t possibly happen to a more deserving bunch of people.
NEXT UP: Tomorrow, we return to cognitive dissonance — and the worst part about it for Christians.
Regarding how churches lean on Matthew 18:15-17, for those who don’t know: Matthew 18:15-17 tells Christians to first take up problems with the offender privately, then to take a few friends for a second confrontation, and only if the offender doesn’t straighten up and fly right to take the matter before the church. If the offender still doesn’t clean up their act, they get disfellowshipped.
A huge number of authoritarian, church-discipline-obsessed churches just love these three verses. I automatically file all of them into my “probably abusive” mental folder. So far, I’m batting perfectly there. (Back to the post!)
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Last thoughts: The crack at the end about sex comes from the hilarious song “I Just Had Sex” by Lonely Island. Enjoy your new ear worm.