Guide for New Christians – How a Healthy Biblical Church Structure Helps to Prevent Spiritual Abuse and Christian Cults

May 23, 2013 by

Guide for New Christians – How a Healthy Biblical Church Structure Helps to Prevent Spiritual Abuse and Christian Cults

Guide for New Christians – How a Healthy Biblical Church Structure Helps to Prevent Spiritual Abuse and Christian Cults

http://churchofphiladelphia.net/NewChristianChurch4.mp3

We have already covered that the early church model was a democratic/republic system, and not a monarchy/oligarchy – that elders were meant to be elected representatives, representing the congregation and facilitating them functioning in their gifts. In contrast to the present day monarch/oligarch system, the point of elders originally was precisely to keep guard against one person or a small group of people from establishing authority and power over everyone else in the church. The elders were meant to be representatives elected by the people, for the service of the people, who would exercise authority derived from consent of the people, in a limited capacity. Elders were those with the gift of administration, who were set in a limited capacity over the people with their consent in order to administrate them in their operations as directed by the holy Spirit through their individual gifts of the Holy Spirit. And we know they were to be qualified per qualifications in the Bible – which limit qualified elders to monogamous or single men, or women, and do not exclude women. See last Part 1 for more details.

In this second part let’s cover how a healthy biblical church structure helps to prevent spiritual abuse and Christian cults. These are signs of spiritually abusive or cultic churches taken from http://www.rickross.com/warningsigns.html

Ten warning signs of a potentially unsafe group/leader:

1. Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.

2. No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.

3. No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget, expenses such as an independently audited financial statement.

4. Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.

5. There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil.

6. Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.

7. There are records, books, news articles, or television programs that document the abuses of the group/leader.

8. Followers feel they can never be “good enough”.

9. The group/leader is always right.

10. The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.

By Rick Ross, Expert Consultant and Intervention Specialist

Spiritual abuse can occur in a church with a healthy structure, if an individual takes abusive actions. However, in a church with a healthy structure there are things like accountability, checks and balances, and Matt 18 principles are applicable in practice to everyone in the church, including leadership ie elders, deacons, or pastors, teachers, counselors, staff etc. No one is above anyone else in rights, so all members of the body of Christ can apply Matt 18, and no one is above correction. Because of this in a healthy church structure, if spiritual abuse takes place, it is less likely to get out of hand or spread because the abused member can tell someone who has the ability to do something about it.

In a healthy church structure the principles of Matt 18 are present: first correction in private, 2nd step involves a couple witnesses, 3rd step involves “the church”. Who is “the church”? Everyone. Ideally a matter can be brought before the enter congregation (if needed) to resolve the issue. Because in a healthy church authority structure the Bible sets the standard and the church itself is set up to revolve around practice of the Bible, this means that an injured party should have a way to bring a matter before the congregation in a healthy church structure as a 3rd step in Matt 18. The elders, elected representative, may be those who are best qualified to facilitate conflict resolution and correction if needed at the 2nd step of Matt 18 – however they need not be. But when it comes to the 3rd step, taking a matter “to the church” does not mean to the elders. It means taking the matter to the congregation. Why? Because in this way if an elder is the one who has sinned against a member of the congregation, and other elders are corrupt and seek to cover it up at the second step of Matt 18 – the injured congregant still has a right to bring the matter before the entire congregation. Because of this there is no way for an elder to keep it a secret if they have sinned against a congregant – the congregant still has a right to speak to the church publicly about it. And because of this power to hold the elders accountable to the entire congregation, held by all members, it is impossible for an elder to get away from accountability or have secrets kept, as long as the congregant is willing to exercise their rights. In order for this to work and be the model, it pretty much requires that the way the church functions includes regular opportunities for “open floor” meetings which allow for congregants to raise whatever matters they want to the entire assembled congregation. With a church practicing this structure – elders have knowledge beforehand that they can and will be held to account for their actions to their brothers and sisters who elected them as representatives – and so because of that are less likely to commit spiritually abusive acts in the first place, or to sin against anyone. And the same goes for all members of the congregation, one with another, regardless of position of service, deacons, teachers, etc.

What about? 1Ti 5:19 Against an elder receive not an accusation, besides except before two or three witnesses. Them that sin correct before all, that others also may fear. We just covered that, but to spell it out, Timothy was a deacon, assisting Paul, with new elders in place. Timothy was not to receive an accusation against an elder outside of the 2nd step in Matt 18 – outside of Timothy being one of the the 2-3 witnesses. The point here was that the wronged party needed to go to the elder privately first. The second point was that as a deacon, Timothy was able to publicly correct elders in front of everyone, even though they were elders, and he was a deacon. This shows that there is no rank above fair accountability in the Christian church, or was not meant to be. Any member can publicly correct the elders if need be. That was supposed to be the point. Instead people have twisted this in ignorance to mean that elders are supposed to be held to a higher standard, requiring more evidence than 1 person’s say-so, in order for church leadership to believe an injured congregant, to take action. Or even, in other words, that any wrongs done in private of an elder against a congregant are invisible, unprovable, and given the silent treatment – they cannot be held responsible to be taken to account – because there are not 2-3 witnesses of the crime. It sounds alot like the Muslim women under Sharia law that need 4 muslim men to testify as witnesses that they saw the muslim woman being raped, in order for her to not be held guilty of it being consensual. Her word and say-so alone is not enough. It sounds like that because in practice it is the same principle – and elder’s word against 1 congregant’s word is not enough in practice for a sinning elder to be held responsible and held to account. But this is Not the way of the early Christian church, which instead assumed for the equal worth, respect, and value of all members of the body of Christ – and as such the word of any member, elder or not, was held to be of equal weight.

Of course then the congregation has the responsibility of deciding the matter, and if the one witness is lying, and there is no other evidence or people to serve as witnesses, then the assumption is that the elder is innocent. Innocent until proven guilty is the Biblical standard set forth in Deut 19. In fact, the use of 2-3 witnesses is nothing new. No one could be condemned under the testimony of only 1 witness. In fact the people were told that 1 witness should not rise up against another person solo, without 1-2 other witnesses. If the people decided in favor of the accused, then they should do to the plaintiff what he would have had done to the defendant if found guilty. The main changes found in the NT system of Matt 18 is that anyone could take a private sin forward in the process, involving witnesses of their word, but without needing them for evidence, even up to the matter being heard and decided by the whole congregation. Why? Because with regeneration in the Holy Spirit, and under the New Covenant of Grace, practicing Love there was a higher standard set. Neither the plaintiff nor defendant was going to be assumed guilty or innocent by the Law, but rather the people – practicing forgiveness, love, and having gifts of the Holy Spirit of discernment, prophecy, relationship directly with the Holy Spirit – it seems assumed that the body of Christ could find out the matter.

Also, the consequences were radically changed – rather than death or excommunication, instead there was being treated as a pagan, tax collector – even if treated to be like an enemy, the admonishment was to love even your enemies and to bless them, give to their needs as needed as opportunity arose, and to pray for them. Keeping a distance and caution, you were to kill them with kindness, regardless of need to speak up against them, correct them, or keep distance from them. Even if treated as pagans – Jesus’ instructions were to great not only your brethren, but your neighbor – and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves – even those treated as a pagan or tax collector after the 3rd step in Matt 18. Which really leads into the wronging and abuse that takes place when shunning is practiced, that can be so detrimental to people so abused – even as neighbors and enemies, Jesus instructs us to never treat people like that. Shunning can easily be argued to not be a NT church practice under any situation or circumstances – and this matches with the psychological reports from numerous case studies showing it is a form of abuse almost always causing psychological and emotional trauma to the victims of the practice. There’s no real love involved towards the person when shunning is practiced by the rest of the people. The rest of the community may say they love the person they are practicing shunning against, but it is incompatible with the model of love as outlined in the NT.

Yet entirely too many Christians do not understand these things, and so there is much spiritual abuse which can potentially take place in Christian churches, even ones which may have a healthier democratic/republic model of authority structure which they are following. If they allow practices like shunning, or elders not being held to account because of testimony refused to be taken from one person – the reasons that people are shunned or elders are not held to account is because of ignorance of the scriptures and a lack of sound doctrine. In churches in which doctrine is more important than practicing love, this is an option, but in church in which love is more important, people are more important, then you are more likely to see elders, staff, deacons, being held to account by people, because they feel more responsible for each other’s well being through a relationship of love. You might not understand correct doctrine, but sincerely loving people does prevent you wanting to see them hurting or treating them unfairly and how you would not want to be treated.

Another point to be made is that in this system of equal accountability, between the congregation as members, elders or not, is that the worst that can happen if an elder is innocent, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, isn’t too bad. It leaves it up to the congregation, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to decide the matter. If there is 1 person making a false accusation – let’s say of sexual impropriety towards that person – but there is no proof because there is no evidence and no witnesses besides that one person – then the accusation must be treated as false per Biblical standards. The elder is assumed innocent without evidence beyond 1 single person’s accusation. If the elder is innocent, little harm is done – but perhaps the congregation trying the case will help bring to light whatever matters do need to be resolved about the false witness. If the elder is guilty, then even if treated innocent, the elder will be afraid to try the same thing again with anyone else out of fear of 2 independent witnesses resolving the matter as guilty. Effectively, if guilty, the elder’s behavior is held in check – and he is rebuked to not do the same thing again out of fear of two witnesses. And the same can be said for Anyone in the congregation, any member, elder or not. But if there is evidence/witnesses and it is true, then the elder must step down – but the matter can be handled so that repentance and forgiveness can occur – the same as with any member. And on the flip side, the congregation is alerted to a potential false witness or slanderer, even if not proven guilty of such in the process.

If nothing else, this openly airing out all matters like this in front of the congregation makes them all to take these matters seriously, in having to practice deciding these matters in a fair manner. It also helps to prevent gossip, because gossip itself can be corrected before the entire congregation, and gossipers have to face those they gossip against, and take the consequences seriously when they face the congregation for the truthfulness of what they say or lack thereof. Untrue gossip can be confronted as the bearing of false witness it is by the entire congregation, and the matter brought to light by any member, forcing gossipers to face those they accuse, and the serious consequences of bearing false witness and others realizing this is what they have done. By everyone holding everyone else accountable, and having a reserved right, time, and place to do so within the structure of the church (set up in advance) it helps prevent spiritual abuse from occuring, and stop it quickly if it does occur.

Elders who decide they are willing to be elected to office are deserving of respect, because they know going into this that they make themselves set up as targets for ruthless people who would bear false witness, as a risk they are taking in office. All the more so deserving of respect, as those who fill these positions do so, realizing that these positions exist as such, because there is no other way for the people to be guarded against the spiritual abuse that can occur in an authoritarian structure in which elders are above the people, not held to account, keeping secrets. In other words, if there are not elders to assume this risk as targets of potentially malicious slander and false accusation, within a fair democratic system, as is needed to make the system exist and function – then the only other option left to the people is an authoritarian structure without fair and equal accountability in which people can easily be abused. It comes down to the choice about the church model structure itself – the only way to guard people longterm against the wrong abusive person abusing an authoritarian position, is to not have an authoritarian structure in place. The model that must be self-replicating and permanent must be democratic, with open, fair and equal measures of accountability that can only be implemented through open, fair and equal voices in the congregation. The congregation must be given an open floor to address matters such as correction, a time and place to speak through regular open assembling of the entire congregation.

The way to prevent dark secrets of abuse cannot rest upon the integrity of any person – but rather must rest upon practicing a structure of accountability that is so utterly transparent, that secrets cannot be kept. The way to prevent no accountability of any one person, is to require open fair and equal accountability to everyone, implemented by anyone. The way to prevent a special few (elders, deacons, pastors) being able to carry out abuse without consequence – is for elders to make a conscious decision to guard against such ever happening, by implementing a system of governance that does everything to prevent it – even though this means they have to make the personal sacrifice of making themselves targets. But that is what elders, also called overseers or shepherds, are called to do. To implement a system of government so airtight and solidly guarded against abuse, and so self-sustaining, that they can know their own great-grandchildren would be more safe against abuse in this church than any other, even long after they are gone. Not because of their personal presence and keeping of things under control personally, but because of it’s lasting structure and rules of operation based on Biblical principles, that restrict and curtail what an evil man could do if ever one got into power in this church. Ensuring that check and balances are in place which would restrict the most evil of men from ever abusing power is the only way for elders to protect the flock of Christianity for generations to come from harm. It is building a sheepfold of a wise church structure that prevents spiritual abuse of positions of authority to occur, and minimizing their damage, stopping abuse quickly, should it ever occur.

Another matter that must be addressed is that of correct doctrine, teaching, theology, and prophecy. The early church model allowed prophets and teachers to function within the local body, under guidance of the Holy Spirit. Teachers must learn the Bible before teaching it, studying it as students themselves first under other teachers. Prophets could speak, but 2-3 other prophets were to discern or try what was said. Those with tongues were to have those present at assembly to interpret it. And as such, it seems that each gifting of the Holy Spirit had some self-regulation within it among those members with some of the same gifts. Teachers raised up students to themselves after studying, be able to teach. The revelations of prophets about prophecy were to be tried or discerned by other prophets. This sort of self-regulation of each gifting group, lets call them “guilds”, would not have been possible under a system which did not recognize them in the body as free members, free to practice their gifting of the Holy Spirit. If prophets had no chance or right to speak, how then could they discern about eachother’s sayings? If teachers had no chance to teach, how could new students learn or come to teach themselves? Each Gifting Guild, as I’ll call them, must have had a right to practice their craft (can you tell I’ve been to a Renn Faire recently?) and so the elders, their representatives, must have recognized each guild’s rights to function, and each had a time and place to do so to at least some extent in general assembly. Beyond this, teachers had time to teach students, and surely prophets may have also had time with other prophets. Speakers of tongues and those who interpreted surely got together sometimes outside of the general assembly, or else how would it ever be known and decided who had the gift of interpretation, if there was not to be tongues spoken in the general assembly, without someone present to interpret? Maybe not for all the gifts – but even with the apostles we saw they got together to search the scriptures and pray and would not take time away from this to wait tables – they had a right to do their thing as apostles. And so surelt prophets, teachers, etc. have a right to the time and place to do their thing also – both within their Guild, and also contributing at the general assembly of all members, all guilds.

What do apostles do best? Plant churches, evangelism, and they set an example of being able to teach, understanding of prophecy, and miracles and healing following them also. But are they the best at prophecy, teaching, helps, administration, miracles? No – because the eye cannot say to the hand “I have no need of you”. And so because of this, the apostle cannot be a master of all trades – the apostle is best at evangelism and planting of a new church in ways that prophets are not, that teachers are not, that those with the gifts of helps or tongues, are not. So who does prophecy best? Prophets. Who is best at teaching? Teachers. Who’s does the most miracle working? Miracle workers. Who do you go to for healing? Those with the gift of healing. And so every member of the body has their major gifting, and works best as a specialist in that area. The church was not meant to be composed of many jacks of all trades, and masters of none – but the specialist hand, the specialist foot, the specialist eye, the specialist ear. We do not walk on our hands, pick up things with our feet, or hear through our noses. And who is best at administrating? Those with the gifts of administration or leadership, who are those best to be elected as elders. Anyone who wants to be elected to serve as an elder or deacon may do so, if they qualify – and some may have a gift such as teaching or prophecy or tongues – but they also have a gift for administration or leadership also.

So each Gifting Guild is composed of specialists in that area, and the body needs each Guild in the body in order to function properly. Individual members each need eachother, the hand needs the foot, in order for the specialty of one to benefit the other. These are experts in their own craft, specialists in their own field – so who should decide matters about teaching? Teachers. And who should decide matters of prophecy? Prophets. And who gifts them? The Holy Spirit – who calls them each to their major task or calling. So should anyone have a right to tell another member of the body he cannot do as he was called to do? Should he with tongues tell the elders they may not administrate? Should prophets forbid tongues? Should miracle workers say apostles should not plant churches? No. Then why should those with the gift of administration ever be permitted by a congregation to disallow tongues, prophecy, teaching, etc? And why should those with gifts of administration, alone, not specialists in that guild, tell another guild’s members what to do as to their craft? Should anyone be telling anyone else they have no right to practice their calling? No. Even elders with administration only have a gift from the Holy Spirit, and what hypocrisy it would be to use that gift to tell another member their gift had no place – or to use the operation of their gift to tell others their gifts had no right to operate. There is nothing in the early church’s structure that allowed any members the right to forbid, negate, or criticize, another having the right to use his gift. Rather, elders were to facilitate each member having a place and using his gift, respecting the right of each member to have and use their gifts, elected as representatives precisely to facilitate each member doing such, and not forbidding but rather protecting the rights of each guild to operate in the body of Christ. So each guild, and member of that guild, votes for and is to be represented by the elders, who facilitate each functioning within the body, protecting their rights to exist and operate. Because of the “why” that each member is needed, the elders are to not forbid, but rather facilitate “when” and “where” each member using their gift to benefit each other member of the body. That is “who” the gifts are meant to benefit.

Now, should someone with tongues, not gifted in teaching, be telling the teachers “how” to teach, or “what” to teach? No. Should teachers who are not gifted in prophecy, be telling prophets “how” or “what” to prophecy? Should prophets be telling the apostles the “what” or “how” of evangelism and church planting? No? Well then why should those with gifts of administration or leadership, elected by the people as “elders” or “deacons” tell teachers how and what to teach, prophets how and what to prophesy, apostles the how and what of evangelism and planting churches? Unless an elder or deacon also has a gift of teaching, etc. they should not be presuming they are qualified to tell teachers how and what to teach. Teachers are gifted by the Holy Spirit themselves, with direct personal relationship with Him also, under their own calling. The same with prophets, apostles, tongues, miracles, all of each of the gifts. The members of each Gifting Guild are the specialists in that area – and have a right and deserve to be treated with respect as the specialists in that area they are called to. The best way to let the Holy Spirit direct the body is for each member of each Guild to be able to freely operate, and see “how” and “what” the Holy Spirit is doing with each member, as is. The Holy Spirit can be self-regulating in the process, balancing Himself, through the actions of all members. Teachers with more study correct those with less, 2-3 prophets discern the revelation of prophecy of another prophet, apostles can regulate other apostles (remember Paul correcting Peter?) Beyond this, all members need each other, and there is an order prescribed. What does it mean?

First are apostles: Without evangelism and church planting, there would be no christians, and no church body. They are gifted at getting the lost found, understanding how to start a church. There would be no prophets or teachers or miracle workers or tongue speakers without the apostle who led these people to Christ and planted the new church. Apostles have some level of prophetic, teachings, working of miracles gifting – and establish key essential doctrine – but are not necessarily as specialist at the gifts of prophesy and teaching.

Second are prophets: Prophets are gifted to understand the mysteries and knowledge in the Bible, both prophesies about the future, and information about the past, and thus can orient people as to their time and place in history. They can provide the insight needed to understand correct doctrine and theology, put things in context, and have dreams or visions about the future, past, or present which often tie to the Bible to give insight along these lines. They provide a needed and useful framework that others need to understand certain passages in context and correctly. They are better at Bible prophecy and larger framework issues, good at deciphering prophecy.

Third are teachers: Teachers are those most gifted at teaching the Bible to everyone else, regardless of anything. Teachers first need to study the Bible (including what prophets can contribute) but once having studied it, they can pull insights out of the Bible that have practical applications in the people’s lives. Teachers need to defer to prophets on mysteries that are their specialty, but prophets need to defer to teachers on teaching because they are much better at it. Teachers are good at teaching all of the Bible, prophets are good at deciphering passages of bible prophesy and larger framework issues. Teachers are better at communicating the Bible to the people.

Then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations (elders, deacons), varieties of tongues.

As such, these groups can be self-regulating internally, and also there is a role for them to inter-regulate and be interdependent as well. Those with gifts of administration who are elders or deacons may also have secondary giftings, but may or may not be as specialist in them. In any case, those with gifts of administration who are elders and deacons do not, on the basis of their position they were elected to, have authority in that position to overstep their speciality and determine matters that are the specialty of the other groups. The role of elders is to facilitate the working of the members of the Body, and all of their gifts operating. Elders are to facilitate teachers having who, when and where to teach – and not to decide on what or how they are to teach, outside of their specialty. Teachers determine what and how to teach, prophets how and what to prophesy, apostles how and what in church planting and evangelism. Apostles who have founded a church also serve to administrate that church, without election, but on a peer level as the elected elders, as having equal decision-making power. Once determinations have been made by those who are of a specialty, and apostle, prophets, and teachers have come to agreement, then the elders enforce the consensus of the specialists in the body on a matter, but of course with opportunity to be revisited.

In the elders’ enforcement of what teaching has been established by apostles, prophets, and teachers, we start to see the checks and balances present in this system about correct handling of the Word of God, as to doctrine, theology, and prophecy. The elders are an executive branch in the capacity of enforcing to the rest of the body the standard of sound doctrine, theology, and prophecy teachings as they have received. However, the elders only enforce these standards – “they do not write the laws, they just enforce them”, or in this case they enforce the standard of sound doctrine as best understood by the specialists, to encourage the rest of the body in this understanding. In essence, if correct doctrine, theology, and prophecy was the “laws” then the apostles, prophets, and teachers write these laws, and the elders serve to enforce them as the standard. But on the other hand, the elders are representatives of the people, of all the members, and so also serve to protect any members or guilds from being detrimental to the others. For instance, a new (false) teaching from a teacher that tongues had passed away, presented to the elders, in light of their representation of members present who speak in tongues, should be vetoed from being enforced as a standard. Or, if a prophet calculates the name of someone he doesn’t get along with to be 666, the elders as representatives of the member so accused, in light of being his representation, should veto the idea this member is the antichrist, from being enforced as a standard. In other words, there is great leniency and freedom in the practice of teaching and prophecy, but it does have limits. Neither the Gifting Guilds, nor the elders, have total authority or power, but there are check and balances. The elders rely on the teachers and prophets, but they also rely on the elders. The other Guilds also rely on the elders, and also on the apostles, prophets, teachers, who all in turn rely on all the members of the other Guilds. And this is besides for the ability of any member to address the congregation, the entire assembly, about any matter, and express their views publicly, as well. The people are able to represent themselves if/when they need to.

This is similar in some function to modern democratic republics, even the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the US government. However, the American system seems to have had in it 1 potentially fatal flaw: the ability of the people to address their representatives themselves and demand their needs be met and concerns be addressed. But the early church structure system did function in such a way that any member could address the entire assembly (1) the elected representatives of elders/overseers who administrate (2) the apostles, prophets, and teachers who legislate; and (3) every other member, the entire assembly, to appeal to the consensus of the Body as judicial, to “take it to the church” as per the third step in Matt 18.

Let’s look again at our checklist from http://www.rickross.com/warningsigns.html

Ten warning signs of a potentially unsafe group/leader:

1. Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.

2. No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.

3. No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget, expenses such as an independently audited financial statement.

4. Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.

5. There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil.

6. Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.

7. There are records, books, news articles, or television programs that document the abuses of the group/leader.

8. Followers feel they can never be “good enough”.

9. The group/leader is always right.

10. The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.

By Rick Ross, Expert Consultant and Intervention Specialist

Especially numbers 1,2,9, and 10 above are effectively prevented by having checks and balances of power as described above, or seen in the chart below. In this we can see how essential the inherent church authority structure is in preventing spiritual abuse, holding abusive persons accountable. A good church authority structure includes checks and balances of power, allowing members the freedom found in being able to choose, having rights, the ability to hold abusive person accountable, and to be safe from authoritarian control or influence over their lives.

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