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Brother’s Keeper or Big Brother? 15 Signs of Surveillance in Your Church

We’re back to our series entitled “Frankenstein Faith” about scriptural distortions in the church and how to correct them. [You can see other posts in this series at the end of this post]

Big Brother is Watching

via The Student Review

In George Orwell’s famous dystopian book, 1984, the main character is ever aware of the presence of “Big Brother” looking on. In our culture, “Big Brother” has come to symbolize the surveillance—whether electronic or personal—necessary to keep citizens in line in a totalitarian environment. Surveillance creates a climate of fear by exposing and punishing even the slightest offenses.

My wife and I just watched a National Geographic special on North Korea—the world’s most totalitarian state. The behavior of the North Korean people—their fear, the way they act around government officials, their evident brainwashing, and their worship of their dictator—all triggered memories in me of my former Bible cult.

This post is about surveillance in spiritually abusive or cultic churches. Indeed, in spiritually abusive churches even thought-crimes and attitudinal sins are brought before the leader(s). This results in erosion of trust among families and friends, creates a climate of fear, and leaves the cult leader or abusive pastor in absolute control of the group.

It should go without saying that this is unbiblical, but Christian groups who practice surveillance use several Bible passages to justify their behavior.

5 Bible Passages Used to Justify Surveillance in the Church

1.) Genesis 4:9 – After Cain murders his brother Abel, God asks Cain where his brother is. Cain replies indignantly, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In evangelical circles, this phrase has come to symbolize the idea that each Christian is responsible for the welfare of his fellow believers. Not a bad concept. But in my former church, my pastor used the phrase as a way to guilt us into tattling on fellow church members who stepped outside the intricate network of manmade rules he created. To be a “brother’s keeper” meant to report any behavior which appeared to go against the pastor’s legalistic interpretation of the Bible.

2.) Leviticus 5:1 – “If a person sins because he does not speak up when he hears a public charge to testify regarding something he has seen or learned about, he will be held responsible.” Cult leaders use this verse to instill fear in their followers. They’ll say, “I’m telling you right now to report any infractions to me. This is for the good of your fellow believers so that they will not continue in sin. And it is for your own good—so that you will not be guilty of complicity.” But the context in Leviticus is a theocracy in which both civil laws and religious laws were clearly stated. It does not mean that a pastor can use this verse as a sweeping, perpetual directive for church members to spy on each other for supposed infractions of the leader’s rules, whether spoken or unspoken.

3.) Ezekiel 3:16-21 – This passage is where God calls the prophet Ezekiel a watchman for the house of Israel. God tells him to warn wicked people about their sins. If Ezekiel doesn’t warn them, says God, he becomes guilty of their blood when God judges them. Yikes. Our pastor used this passage to say that any member of the congregation who failed to report another’s sin to the pastor would be guilty of complicity. In our pastor’s parlance, “sin” actually meant anyone who spoke against the pastor, spoke ill of the church, demonstrated attitudinal sins (questioned the pastor’s teachings or complained about the strict rules), or broke any of the infinite number of manmade rules created by my pastor.

Peace, Hope, Surveillance

via Get Directly Down, Creative Commons

4.) Zechariah 13:3 – “If anyone still prophesies [falsely], his father and mother, to whom he was born, will say to him, ‘You must die, because you have told lies in the Lord’s name.’ When he prophesies, his own parents will stab him.” This cheerful verse is used by some cult leaders to create surveillance networks within families. But the context is the Second Coming of Christ and the beginning of the Millennial Kingdom. It is a hypothetical scenario showing the state of purity on the earth at that time. It doesn’t mean that Christians today must take draconian measures against family members who step out of a pastor’s favor.

5.) Luke 12:2 – Jesus tells his followers that what is whispered in private will be shouted from the rooftops. Cult leaders use this verse to destroy boundaries of privacy, saying that nothing is off-limits from the eyes of the pastor. The context of the verse, however, is Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. Jesus warns his followers that people who live hypocritical lives—that is, they act one way in public and another way in private—will be exposed for what they are before the world. This is not a license for pastors to destroy reasonable expectations of privacy.

15 Signs That Your Church Has Surveillance:

  1. Climate of fear.
  2. Things you say in private—whether to other members or to the pastor in counseling—are exposed in public.
  3. You can’t trust anyone to keep a confidence. Therefore, you always end up saying the “party line” even if you don’t agree.
  4. Your pastor ignores church discipline protocols (Matt 18; 1 Cor 5) and tells everyone to immediately report concerns about other believers directly to him or her.
  5. Public shaming and punishment for private matters.
  6. Thought-Control: Group members are told to confess “attitudinal” sins such as pride, selfishness, and critical thinking.
  7. You alter your behavior when other church members are present.
  8. When out in public, you fearfully scan the grocery store or parking lot for other church members.
  9. You are afraid to disagree with your leader, no matter how wrong he or she appears.
  10. Confession is rewarded; silence is punished.
  11. Invasion of privacy: no healthy boundaries or reasonable expectation of privacy. Nothing is “off limits” for the pastor. The pastor may demand to read your emails, journals, or text messages; examine your home for evidence of “sin”; or demand that you confess to sinful thoughts or feelings.
  12. Lack of perspective: even minor or imagined infractions are punished severely.
  13. Defending yourself against accusations is labeled as “rebellious.”
  14. Catastrophism: The pastor gives dire warnings about what will happen to you if you refuse to report “misbehavior” of fellow members.
  15. The leader has a privileged status and is immune from scrutiny.

Conclusion

If you come from a healthy church background, this all sounds bizarre. But if you come from a cult or a spiritually abusive church, it rings familiar.

Big Brother is watching.

Posts in this Series:

Fixing a Frankenstein Faith: Ten Distortions of Scripture and How to Correct Them

Distortion #1: Love Thy Neighbor But Hate Thy Parent

Distortion #2: “Because I’m Your Pastor/Elder/Spiritual Leader, that’s Why!”

Distortion #3: Vestigial Organs in the Body? Natural Family vs. Spiritual Family

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

4 comments on “Brother’s Keeper or Big Brother? 15 Signs of Surveillance in Your Church

  1. This post got me thinking about the practice/sacrament of Confession. Our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ gave his apostles the “ministry of the keys” which is shorthand for the commission to proclaim forgiveness of sins or (for the case of the unrepentant) withhold forgiveness. See Matthew 18:18 and John 20:21-23. I believe this commission extends down to pastors today, and even fellow Christians as we remind each other of the promises of God’s Word which flow from Christ’s death and resurrection.

    In many churches throughout history and today, priests or pastors have used this commission to “justify surveillance” and mete out punishment much as you described. Some cases arose out of malevolence and lust for power, and others a confusion of law and gospel by well-intentioned but deceived people. However, in many churches today the pastors must take an oath that they will never repeat what they hear in the confessional. To come burdened with inward guilt, to hear a proclamation of forgiveness targeted right at you, to go on your way in peace and joy having been released of your sin and to know that your sin will never be brought up again to your shame and will indeed be forgotten, just as God does (Heb 10:17) — this is freedom.

    I suppose it goes to show the complete antithesis between a spiritually abusive church and a gospel-centered church (and more broadly, a spiritually abusive relationship and a gospel-centered relationship). Instead of having a pastor or friend who you fear will dig up dirt on you and make your life miserable, you have a pastor or friend to whom you can tell of your sin, knowing that the only words you’ll hear are words of liberty in Christ.

  2. A helpful article; we saw much of this begin to happen in the past 2 years at a church we were members of for 20+ years, with the calling of a new “pastor/dictator”. We saw numbers 1, 4, 6 ["bitterness" and anger was our accused sin], 8, 9 [ not so much afraid to disagree as told we should not disagree; we disagreed anyway :) ], 12, 13, and 15. We chose to leave last year.

    • I’m so sorry to hear about what happened =( It seems more and more important to me that a church have a true plurality of elders–not just a head pastor and some ‘yes’ men–but true peer-level accountability. Anyone who wants exclusive authority in a church is not fit to lead. I pray you can find a healthy church and community in which to heal and grow.

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