In this series, we’re talking about ten distortions of scripture which lead to spiritual abuse and/or mistreatment of other people. You can read the intro to the series here.
This first post (a long one—sorry) is about the misguided practice of shunning parents who may not agree with their son or daughter’s involvement in a particular church. Many spiritually abusive churches justify this type of behavior. Mine did.
We used verses like Deuteronomy 13:6-11 (which talks about stoning to death relatives who encourage idolatry) and Luke 9:57-62 (which speaks of the dead burying the dead and not putting your hand to the plow and then turning back) to justify our cruel behavior toward parents who were outside of our church.
Indeed, family members who professed Christ—but were outside of our church—were considered damned. Our pastor taught us that true Christians who heard about our church would join it, or at least would applaud our beliefs and behavior.
When the parent(s) of a church member expressed concern about our pastor’s controlling behavior, that member was required by our pastor to cut off contact with his or her parent(s).
Our pastor’s logic—seemingly supported by numerous Bible verses—was that the disapproving parents were false Christians who were like the yeast of the Pharisees. They must be cut off completely to avoid contaminating our church. Church members must reprove and contend with their parents who falsely professed Christ, our pastor said. They should dishonor their parents, divide their family with the sword of God’s truth (Heb 4:12-13), and thus honor God.
It sounds sacrificial and heroic, doesn’t it? I mean, golly, think of the pain caused by demonizing and shunning your own parents. God must approve of such self-sacrifice, right? You almost have to turn off your natural feelings of love and coat yourself in concrete to execute such draconian orders.
Um, yes. In most instances that’s exactly what you have to do.
But what about God’s command to honor your parents? And what about the biblical command to love your neighbor as yourself? Aren’t your parents a sub-set of who your neighbor is? How can you love your neighbor but hate your parent(s)?
I believe that Christian sects who teach their members to dishonor their “unconverted” parents in order to honor God make a number of false assumptions and commit several scriptural distortions in order to reach this conclusion.
Let’s think this through. We’ll start with some broad assumptions that these groups make, and then look at a couple of specific ways they distort scripture.
False Assumption 1: These groups believe that they interpret scripture correctly.
Rebuttal: This is a big one. In these groups, you don’t start off hating your parents. Instead, you start off interpreting scripture through a particular lens which you believe is correct. This is a huge assumption, because not all interpretations are equally valid. As one of my Greek professors used to say, “If you come up with a novel interpretation of a passage, the heresy bells start ringing.”
So how can we tell which interpretation of a scripture passage is most accurate? Two ways.
First, there are hermeneutical (“interpretive”) boundaries which limit the possible number of orthodox interpretations. A sign of true wisdom is holding one’s interpretive decisions with a good deal of humility. This is especially important in controversial matters where one group differs with the majority of other professing Christian groups.
For a small sect to believe that its interpretation of scripture is the most accurate—and that everyone else is not just wrong but demonic—stretches the limits of credulity, don’t you think? It certainly stretches the limits of humility.
Second, if our interpretation of a passage causes us to disobey other of God’s clear commands, then our interpretation is wrong, even if we don’t understand why. This is called “coherence.” Coherence makes us ask the question: Does my interpretation of this particular passage jive with the rest of scripture? Does it match the heart of God that I see in the rest of the Bible? If not, then my interpretation is wrong.
Most of these small sects who advocate disowning parents are actively destructive, relish ripping families apart as a sign of holiness, and sometimes cause people to die. Their destructive practices show us that their interpretation of scripture is inaccurate, since how they interpret the Bible leads them to destructive behavior which disobeys many specific biblical commands.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how many Bible verses they string together or how forceful their personality is. Mean people suck. And the Bible says that’s sin.
False Assumption 2: These groups believe that they are saved and that almost all other professing believers are unsaved.
Rebuttal: This false assumption builds on the sifting sand of False Assumption #1. By misinterpreting what the Bible says about salvation, these groups create a false gospel which is less than, not more than, the biblical gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone (Eph. 2:8-10).
Almost all of these groups believe in some sort of works-based righteousness. Now, they’ll argue till the cows come home that they believe in salvation by grace through faith alone, but the proof is in how they live. They judge each person’s professed salvation based on their behavior. This equates to a works-based salvation where if you fail to demonstrate an acceptable level of sanctification (as defined by the group leaders), the group leaders can pronounce you unsaved. That’s a sub-biblical gospel which has nothing at all to do with Jesus’ death and resurrection for you and me while we were still sinners. And it disobeys the biblical command to judge nothing before the appointed time (1 Cor. 4:5).
False Assumption 3: These groups believe that it is an “act of love” to confront and shun their “unsaved” parents.
Rebuttal: The Bible does say that the rebuke of a friend brings life. And the New Testament teaches that Christians have a responsibility to evangelize the unsaved. The problem is that these groups define everybody as unsaved—even professing Christians—and they confront people in combative, rude, aggressive ways. When folks respond defensively to such assaulting behavior, these sects interpret their defensiveness as resistance to the gospel rather than as protection against unsafe people.
Such behavior is unloving. 1 Corinthians 13 explicitly says that love is not rude. Even a child can tell if someone is being boorish. When members of these sects act in belligerent ways, get angry, speak condescendingly, pontificate, patronize, or harass their parents, they are disobeying God’s command to honor their parents. To say that such behavior is “love” is to empty words of all meaning and to create an Orwellian double-speak environment which cannot sustain life.
This brings us to the specific distortions of scripture which these groups use to redefine rudeness as love.
Scriptural Distortion 1: That Deuteronomy 13 may be used by Christians to justify cutting off their parents.
Rebuttal: The Deuteronomy passage has all kinds of problems with it, starting with this: If all of this passage is directly applicable for Christians today, then we need to start killing any person who tries to get us to follow someone other than Jesus. In all honesty, these small sects are not far from that point, psychologically. Emotionally, they already do “kill” and dehumanize other people who disagree with them.
The basic problem here is that much of the Old Testament was written for the theocratic nation of Israel. Deuteronomy 13 is sandwiched between a chapter about the Tabernacle and a chapter about clean and unclean food. Christians today don’t worship at the Tabernacle and we do eat pork and lobster. So we’ve all made some interpretive decisions about what applies to us and what doesn’t.
Groups who use the Old Testament to justify cutting off parents have a poor understanding of biblical context and the difference between Israel and the Church. They also are inconsistent in how they apply Old Testament passages, cherry-picking part of a verse and leaving out the rest.
Can you read Deuteronomy 12-14 and see some of the problems with an unfiltered interpretation? Make a list of the things in these passages which Christians do not practice. It’s a pretty long list, right? While we can probably all agree that relatives who try to lead us into idolatry are an impediment to our Christian life, I think we can also see that there is a quantum leap between how God commands Israel to relate to such a scenario and how New Testament Christians are to react.
The core of the Old Testament is the Ten Commandments. The fifth commandment is to honor one’s father and mother. While Christians need to have healthy boundaries in all of their relationships—including with their parents—God never says that it is okay to dishonor your parents. In fact, Jesus got pretty sore 1400 years later when the Pharisees discovered a way to dishonor their parents and make it sound religious. 2000 years after Christ, religious hypocrites still use scripture to make the same false arguments. Let’s not fall for these age-old tricks.
Scriptural Distortion 2: That Jesus taught his followers to abandon their parents and to hate unsaved relatives (see Luke 9:57-62; 14:26).
Rebuttal: The passages cited by sects who promote dividing families are misinterpreted and therefore misused. We have already seen that scripture cannot mean whatever we want it to mean—it means what it meant in the context in which it was given.
Jesus often said extreme things to confront individuals with their particular sin issues and to impress on his listeners the absolute allegiance they must have to God over and above any other allegiance. His parables and calls to commitment were designed to shake his listeners out of their comfort zone and out of their idolatrous relationships. He still calls us—today—to follow him with undivided loyalty and to have no other gods but God.
Yes, but in what manner should we do so?
Nowhere does God say we have to be mean about our commitment to Christ, or that we have to cut off unsaved family members (let alone professing Christians), or that it is our job to wield the sword of God in our families in order to isolate ourselves as a holy people who are actually just rude.
When Jesus says that we must “hate” our family members compared to Christ, he is using a well-known Hebrew idiom which means to prefer one thing over another. He is telling us that our allegiance comes first to God. Jesus cannot literally mean “hate” because the Bible commands us to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
God cannot contradict himself—this is the coherence principle at work. When Christian sects use these verses to justify cutting off “unbelieving” parents, they do as much violence to the meaning and intent of scripture as they do to the people they cut off.
Scriptural Distortion 3: That familial “division” comes via believers, and that it is commanded by Christ.
Rebuttal: This shows how a misunderstanding of description and prescription can result in spiritual abuse. Churches who teach their followers to shun their parents who are not members of the group take Jesus’ descriptive words about bringing a sword as a prescriptive command to go and do likewise.
The Bible condemns divisive people (Rom 16:17-18; Titus 3:10). Who is a divisive person? Someone who seeks to divide people through arguments, quarrels, sectarianism, and plain ol’ rudeness. Someone who wants you to follow him or her exclusively.
Division can be a positive thing, but only as an act of judgment and only when done by God—the Ultimate Judge—or by the corporate church in a discipline scenario which carefully adheres to biblical practice and which is a restorative attempt of last resort in a matter of major unrepentant sin by a professing believer (Matthew 18; 1 Corinthians 5). Phew. That’s a lot of qualifiers. Your parent who thinks that you are in a cult doesn’t meet this criteria.
When Jesus says that he came not to bring peace but a sword, he is saying that the Truth does indeed divide people. However, this division does not come through believers, but rather through the choice of unbelievers who may resort to violent hostility and opposition to the gospel. Did you catch that? The divisive agents are not believers but unbelievers.
For example, new Christian converts from Muslim or Hindu backgrounds understand that their profession of faith often results in division in their family—not because they rudely confront their parents with the gospel, but because their family members want nothing to do with them and instead actively persecute them. I know several converts whose own parents disowned them. But the child had done everything they could to honor their parents, love them, and speak respectfully to them. They would have lived at peace in their parents’ household if the parents had not been the ones to cast them out.
So which camp does this put divisive churches in?
A church which turns Jesus’ description of how some unbelievers will respond to the gospel into a prescription for how all believers should act has twisted scripture. They are acting like unbelievers. Pretty diabolical, isn’t it?
When Christians claim God’s authority to wield the sword, Crusades happen. And as in Peter’s case in the Garden of Gethsemane, our timing, target, and aim are always off. Instead, Jesus commands his followers to be peace-makers whose winsome conduct wins unbelievers to faith.
Jesus encountered a similar mindset in the religious hypocrites of his day who had worked out a spiritual-sounding method to dishonor their parents. Here’s what Jesus said to the Pharisees in Mark 7:9-13:
“You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”
To love your neighbor but hate your parent is to distort scripture and misrepresent the heart of God.
Here are the other posts in this series:
Distortion #1: “Love Thy Neighbor But Hate Thy Parent”
Distortion #4: Brother’s Keeper: Surveillance in Spiritually Abusive Churches
Distortion #5: “It Says in Deuteronomy…”: Misuse of the Old Testament
Distortion #6: God or Mammon: Logical Fallacy of the Excluded Middle
Distortion #7: I Committed Adultery Watching the Smurfs: James 4:4 Unpacked
Distortion #8: You Shall Be Holy Unto Me (So Ditch the Budweiser)
Distortion #9: “We Alone are the ‘Remnant,’ all 75 of Us!”
Distortion #10: Fun in the Shun? Confessions of an Excommunicator