In my experience, most churches act in predictable ways when the media accuses them of cult-like behavior. They either huddle up like the three monkeys, or else leap into damage-control and lash out at their accusers.
I know, because eleven years ago my church appeared on the front page of the State’s largest daily newspaper with the headline: “Pastor’s Methods Set off Concerns.” As follow-up, the local weekly ran a summer-long series on my church and why people thought it was a cult. Local news stations, not to be outdone, interviewed numerous former members and tried to interview the pastor.
My church reacted the same way other groups respond in similar circumstances. Our pastor became defensive and shouted “Persecution!” Members gathered in a protective huddle and waited for the pastor to explain everything away so that we could get on with our efforts to be saved.
To admit that the media was right—even a little bit—was to suggest that our pastor was not as infallible as he claimed, or that the Spirit had not led our little group with perfect guidance (or that we had sometimes failed to hear the Spirit). It would also call into question our practice of shunning others. Admitting such possibilities would have destroyed the protective husk of infallibility and moral righteousness which our church required in order to isolate members from non-members.
Thus, paradoxically, the net result of intense media coverage is often a hardening of resolve in a particular church. A sense of fulfilled prophecy that the elect will be persecuted in the last days.
Sometimes the media does get it wrong. Sometimes a church truly is misunderstood. But those occasions are rare, because in general the media avoids discussing religion unless something illegal or scandalous has happened.
In the case of my church, the reporters were right. We were a cult. Our group disbanded eight years after those initial media reports.
Let me suggest ten questions a humble, critically-thinking Christian might ask when his or her church receives bad press. These are questions I wish I had been brave enough to ask eleven years ago. If your church is healthy, you have nothing to fear from asking the following ten questions. If your church is unhealthy, you have a lot to gain.
1.) Why is the media writing about my church?
In journalism class, I learned that reporters prefer to write about something interesting. As a genre of people (this is a gross generalization, forgive me), reporters are generally disinterested in religion. This means that when they write about a church it is not because the church is doing good deeds, but rather because the church has done something illegal/salacious/immoral/or cruel.
Reporters don’t care about your church. They don’t. Your church is not being written about because you have long sermons or because church members wear older-style clothes or avoid makeup and alcohol. That is old news and doesn’t sell newspapers. Your church is being written about because something majorly bad has happened, and your leaders are denying responsibility and instead blaming everyone else who says that there is a problem. This makes for interesting news articles.
2.) Is what the media says about my church true?
Consider for a moment whether the facts are accurate. This takes courage, because most isolated groups operate within a worldview which categorically dismisses any contemporary who is not a member of their church. But if the media has more-or-less accurately presented the matter of concern—that a church controls its members through fear, that its members are encouraged to separate from their families, that a baby was allowed to die by withholding medical help, that the pastor has abused people, that there are inconsistencies in the financial records—then it is true regardless of who says it. All truth is God’s truth.
3.) If what the media says about my church is true (or at least partly true), then why are my leaders describing the media coverage as “persecution”?
This is really simple. Criticism is not persecution if it is true. If a church has allowed a baby to die, for example, and the media covers that story, it is not persecution. It is truth. Church members should avoid assassinating the character of outsiders who are concerned about aberrations of belief or practice in the church. This is called blame-shifting and it is a technique of abusers.
The media is not the problem for saying there is a problem.
4.) Why do my leaders feel the need to re-interpret every criticism against my church?
Part of the subtlety of spiritual abuse is that everything which seems clear is reinterpreted and nuanced by leaders in impossibly complicated ways. Leaders use dozens of Bible verses—generally without context—to support the group’s position. Group leaders may admit that they encourage members to separate from their families, but they redefine this as an act of “love” and prophetic confrontation. They then throw the blame back on “carnal” family members who refuse to rubber-stamp the group’s activities.
Okay. That’s an interpretive choice.
But words have meaning. The Bible encourages Christians to live simple lives which avoid mental or spiritual gymnastics, eliminate self-justification, and eschew cleverness. If the media—or family members who are outside of a particular group—make a claim against a church, members should consider it at face value instead of analyzing it to the nth degree.
Jesus said that even a child could understand his message. Conversely, the serpent was full of guile in the Garden of Eden, and his complicated reinterpretation of God’s clear command spawned innumerable copy-cat practitioners. Church leaders should avoid behavior which would invite comparison with Satan.
5.) Why is my church so afraid of accepting rebukes from those outside of it?
The book of Proverbs says time and again that a righteous person accepts life-giving rebukes from other people. A life-giving rebuke is based on the truth. What Proverbs doesn’t say is that the rebuke must always be from someone within one’s own church, or tribe, or sect. Never eliminate a source of potentially life-giving rebuke simply because the source seems unlikely. God rebuked Balaam with a donkey. He should have little trouble using the media.
6.) What does it mean to be made in the image of God?
Bear with me—this is relevant.
It says in Genesis 2 that men and women are made in the image of God (what theologians call the imago Dei). This means that every human being—not just Christians—possesses intellect, emotion, and will. That’s what separates us from the animals, besides an eternal spirit.
So when a church discourages critical thinking or disallows members from seriously considering the criticisms of outsiders—as most cults do, despite their protestations to the contrary—or persuades members to “stuff” normal emotions in favor of a religious mask, or disallows group members from making decisions on their own, the group leaders have successfully defaced the three-fold image of God from men and women under their care. I’m not sure how to describe how horrible this is, but it is at least unbiblical, if not inhumane and anti-God. It turns people into machines—robots, clones, zombies—and imposes the leader’s personality on everyone under his or her influence.
Christians more than any other group of people should exercise a robust capacity to think critically, embrace the full spectrum of emotions, and independently make decisions without coercion or undue influence from a leader. Anything less defaces the image of God.
7.) Is my church obeying the biblical command to cultivate a good reputation with outsiders? (Proverbs 22:1; 1 Peter 2:12; 1 Tim 3:2ff)
Unhealthy churches believe it is their duty to make themselves offensive to outsiders. They do this, they think, because the gospel is “offensive.” But the Bible says that Christians should be well-regarded by outsiders, and should do nothing to cast reproach on the name of Christ. It should go without saying that a condescending manner, sexual abuse, negligent homicide, breaking apart families, and child endangerment do little in the way of cultivating a good reputation with outsiders and is not Christ-like behavior. No matter how many scriptures a person uses to justify such abhorrent behavior.
8.) Am I obeying the biblical command to not judge a matter before fully hearing both sides of the situation? (Proverbs 18:17)
While leaders of churches who experience negative press are fond of quoting this proverb about the media—suggesting that the media is one-sided and is unfamiliar with the church’s interpretation of events—the proverb cuts both ways.
When church leaders scream “persecution” or respond to outside concerns with diatribes and manifestoes detailing outsiders’ sins, they put up a Great Wall around their church and effectively say that no criticism of their church is allowed, ever. But the Bible says that believers should listen openly and without pride or self-justification to the concerns of other people. Anything less is disobedience to God’s wise principles.
9.) Am I disobeying the Bible by allowing a leader in my church to mediate my relationship with God rather than taking ownership for my own faith?
This applies whether someone is “saved” or “unsaved.” There is only one mediator between God and people, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5). Is the leader of your church Jesus? I mean, really—is the person who stands behind the lectern actually Jesus? If not, then he or she cannot tell you for certain whether or not you are saved. The Bible says that salvation is a transaction between you and God, not you and your leader.
I don’t know how to make this any clearer or simpler: if someone tells you that you have to follow them in order to be saved, unless they are Jesus Christ incarnate, then you are committing idolatry.
10.) What would happen if I discovered that the media was right, that my leaders were wrong (or at least partly wrong), and my church dissolved?
Would your faith remain unshaken because it is fixed on Jesus Christ? Or would it collapse because you can no longer get saved because Pastor So-and-So is in prison or got hit by a bus and now you have no way to know if God is pleased with you or if you’re bearing the right kind of fruit?
Christians need not practice damage control when they receive negative press. Instead, view it as an opportunity to exercise critical thinking, display full emotion, and make independent decisions about what course of action to pursue. This makes you fully human, made in the image of God.
Don’t be a monkey.