Christian Leaders and the “Don’t Talk” Rule

Since I come out of a Bible cult background, I know something about unwritten rules. In cults and spiritually abusive churches there is something called a “Don’t Talk” rule, an unwritten, unspoken rule which says that you are not allowed to criticize or question the leader because they are God’s man or woman. To say that there is a problem makes you the problem. Questioners are called “rebels,” which is a thought-stopping technique.

Thamimzy, Creative Commons

Thamimzy, Creative Commons

In my former church, our pastor taught us that we should obey our leaders and submit to their authority (Heb. 13:17). As a result, he said, God alone could call a pastor to account. The outcome was predictable: 25 years of increasingly severe spiritual abuse, without external restraint or any meaningful accountability, ending in the destruction of the church and damage to everyone involved.

So that’s an extreme example. Woe is me.

But at times we all use thought-stopping words, words used to show our dislike for something without meaningfully engaging with it. Words designed to make other people simply roll over and give up, thus invalidating their experience without thinking too hard if what we’re saying is true or dealing with the messy implications if it is.

Can you think of any examples?

I can. And it almost always involves me listening to NPR.

You know, NPR, National Public Radio, that hotbed of liberal opinion and left-slanting commentary. They run ads for al-Jazeera America and believe in global warming. That NPR.

Yesterday, as I was driving home from work, the commentator on “All Things Considered” was interviewing the American general involved in relief efforts in the Philippines. She asked the general about the slow dispersion of medical supplies. He gave a cogent answer which I thought cleared up the issue. The commentator sounded frustrated that her accusation had been rebutted, so she said, “Yes, but can you deny this particular instance where a witness says that their father didn’t receive medical help and died as a result?”

“Oh for Pete’s sake!” I blurted. “Don’t be so stupid!” I jabbed my radio button and punched it off.


And the sound of steam escaping from my ears.

Pause for a moment. Do you see what I did? I thought the commentator was ill-informed and had an agenda that I disliked—to find any fault with the American military relief effort—and so I decided to cancel her out by calling her “stupid” and shutting off her voice.

I guarantee this lady is smarter than me. And much more informed. So why did I initiate a thought-stopping technique to blot out her questions?

I think it’s because her questions challenged my worldview and my cherished values—I love the military and have many relatives, including my identical twin brother, who have served honorably. I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt. But this commentator was going for the jugular.

Let’s bring this back to the church.

Many of us come from backgrounds where critical thinking is discouraged and Christian leaders are not to be questioned. While many of us give lip service to wanting to be like the Bereans who searched the scriptures daily to see if what Paul said was true, in reality our actions show that we believe we should not disagree with Christian leaders.

Or at least we shouldn’t disagree with Christian leaders whom we have anointed as prophets and sages in our generation.

The Biblical Imperative for Critical Thinking and Confrontation

But the Bible encourages us to think critically, engage deeply, dialogue often, and when a person–even a well-respected Christian leader–teaches something which we believe is false, we are obligated to call them out on it.

Well-known biblical examples that come to mind are Paul publicly confronting Peter; the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas over whether John Mark should come on their second missionary journey (Paul was proved wrong, by the way, but God used the disagreement to spread the gospel); the prophet Nathan rebuking King David; and, oh yeah, Jesus rebuking the Pharisees (Matt. 23 still scorches my eyebrows).

Okay, you might say, we all know that apostles and prophets can confront other believers who they think have taught things which contradict God’s Word. But for Suzy Creamcheese in Pew #4, she’s not allowed to confront her pastor or a well-regarded Christian author like [insert name of your favorite author].

Bearpa, Creative Commons

Bearpa, Creative Commons

Is that right? And where in the Bible do we get this “Don’t Talk” rule?

I can’t find it, either.

Instead, we see a robust theology of critical thinking; exercising our full humanity as people made in the image of God with intellect, emotion, and will; and an obligation to confront those who teach something which we believe is inconsistent with the Word of God. None of us should appoint Christian champions who do our thinking for us.

The Bible says that those who presume to teach are held to a higher standard of accountability—not to a lower one. Since the four Christian men I included in my recent post on “The Myth of Biblical Manhood” have national platforms as a result of their speaking and writing, I believe that Christians everywhere should evaluate their teachings, and where those teachings seem unbiblical or harmful, to say so. This does not make us disrespectful, hyper-critical, or abrasive. Instead, it is necessary for the well-being of those who are taught by these leaders, and also for the well-being of the leaders themselves, that they might avoid falling into the tyranny of absolute power.


In the Comments section of my recent post, there were several brothers who disagreed strongly with the point of my story and very passionately tried to explain how I was wrong. I respect them for doing so. By engaging with my story and then offering a thoughtful—and yes, impassioned—counter argument, they showed that they valued me as a person and were willing to engage in debate based on our interpretations of the Bible. They joined the conversation, instead of trying to shut it down.

That is all to the good, and I have already re-thought some of the ways I wrote the initial post. I even—hold onto your dentures—checked out a couple of John Eldredge books from the Columbus Metropolitan Library. I want to give his recent work a glance.

But when other brothers and sisters essentially say, “Shut up! You’re stupid! Stop talking!” they have initiated the “Don’t Talk” rule and have created thought-stopping statements designed to squelch conversation and preserve the status quo.

Sometimes our worldview needs to be challenged.

Even by NPR.

22 comments on “Christian Leaders and the “Don’t Talk” Rule

  1. This has been one of the more discouraging attitudes that I have encountered. To approach a man that I thought I had some relational capital with about something that he said at the pulpit that I thought was irresponsible and essentially to be smacked down and put in my place was a very eye opening experience. To lose that much respect for a person in one simple email response is a bit of a shock to the system.

    When it comes right down to it most pastors will say that they are chiefly concerned with preaching the word of God, but that can just as easily be a way for him to lift his own word than it is an invitation to truly be sharpened. Your average Protestant pastor would likely laugh at the idea of papal infallibility, but it is scary how many of them function as if they were infallible themselves.

    I am thankful that I presently have a couple of awesome brothers to get together with to help sharpen each other in God’s word. We can each bring perspectives that help to shape our understanding of scripture because we are open to being taught. If a pastor is no longer open to being shaped by those around him then perhaps he has ceased to be a part of the body which is frankly as sad for him as it is for anyone else in the congregation.

    This may have been a little ramblesome but the post struck a chord with me, and I couldn’t help but respond. Thank You

    • Thanks for sharing your story, dswoager. I know that many pastors are open to feedback and welcome input from those they shepherd. But there are others–like your pastor–who do not. This is wrong, and you are right to compare it to the idea of papal infallibility. Let’s try to model the same openness to correction that we hope to see in our leaders, and also never to be afraid of speaking up when we perceive that something is wrong.

  2. For over 20 years I lived under the oppression of this no talk rule. Our leaders told us to rebuke those who criticized the leadership; so out of fear of being rebuked, I kept quiet and observed. We bought our “must have books” that were pre authorized by the leadership in our own building bookstore. We spent most of our lives looking for our next indwelling sin or mortifying the existing ones. (pride was my big one.) I was “too proud” to submit to abuse. I left that religious organization three years ago. I am beginning to thaw out and come out of the fog, (fear, obligation, guilt) but I still have many questions (thank God). It was horrible and exhausting and did much damage to my family. This no talk rule came to a head for me when I began to ask questions and decided not stop until I received an honest answer. After twenty years, I left that place without an honest answer. Questions were a sign of pride. Women should obey their husbands and husbands should keep their wives in line. Now the legal authorities are involved – Thank God. Now on to learning and living.

    • Good for you, patti! I’m sorry that this happened to you, but am so glad that you were able to leave that church and that authorities are now involved. We have nothing to fear from honest questions. Jesus responded very positively to honest questions. The only questions he got steamed about were insincere questions the Pharisees used to try to trap him in his words. Thanks for sharing your story.

  3. I come from a Catholic family, and I was having a conversation with my mother and one of my sisters about a previous pope and the scandal in the Catholic church about covering up child abuse. They were outraged and they could not believe that I would say something like that. They even went as far as to tell me that my information was false and that I was ‘brainwashed’. Their uncritical, unquestioning loyalty to papal authority confounded me, but it also got me thinking about how, in other church circles, we tend to do that as well with our leaders, pastors, vicars, etc … I go to an Anglican church in Beirut, where critical thinking and questions and doubt are always welcomed in conversation. We pray for one another, we discuss things with each other that we are struggling with or do not agree with. As a church, I believe our strength is open and honest fellowship.

    But I also lived in Dubai for a year, and the church leaders at the church I went to always encouraged us to voice concerns or questions if anything that they were teaching was unbiblical. Yet they had already decided that some theological stands they took were not to be questioned, such as biblical manhood and womanhood, and women’s role in the church, that conversations regarding that, as well as other things, left me feeling like my convictions and thoughts were inconsequential, and they had no right to be voiced. So, eventually, over time, I became too intimidated to say anything.

  4. Stephen- I just had to post here and not on your last one any more; and just poor my heart out! I am sick of it Stephen, just sick of it! I come on your blog because I can rest for awhile and drink in your understanding words of grace for those who do not have voice.
    This is a reason I left the church (really physically I have not because I still attend a small church, but my heart is not there anymore in the church). I am tired of the constant- “you need to go this way, you need to go that way- right or left”; “your marriage needs to look like this”; “you need to give in, you need to give out”; “your life needs to look like mine”; “the reason you are going or doing this way is because……” I am really tired of it. You know how exhausting it is to even try any more?? I am tired of the barrage of books that state this is the way, yet our country looks worse and acts like crap (excuse my language)!
    Why? because our performance based outlook is not working people. We are still in the same boat and its leaking heavily. These men are just men. Where in the world are the people standing up for those who have been ousted of their church because they dare QUESTION AUTHORITY; yet they will stand up for one like Piper or Driscoll who are teflon proofed because they are protected by their elite status of religious popery? Huh?? Thats what I want to know–where are the ones to stand up for the multiple of marriages destroyed because they could not measure up to the standards of these men, so allowed guilt to take over and sin even more?? Oh yea I know a thing about guilt- it eats and destroys; it sucks out the life of a believer.

    All your last post was your OWN feelings/opinions about what you see in the church leaders today, but of course the vultures start circling once more. I mean I get it that others FEEL that they have to chime in to protect their idol, I was once there too; and they have every right given to us to freely speak. I will definitely protect that right to speak, but my goodness haven’t you people had enough of just trying to perform and not allow the Holy Spirit to work in the heart of each and every believer and just REST? Can’t we TRUST that God is far more capable of taking on the marriage issues, drugs, sexual problems, child rearing, spiritual growth, etc issues then we can. I mean, yes, books and pastors can have a “part” to play in facilitating growth, BUT that is just it – a small part; not the larger picture.

    This is why we have the “nones” – most are people who do not outright reject God, they just reject the notion that God fits the agenda of many of these men and their doctrines. Believe me this is just going to continue and people are going to keep leaving and maybe this is the reason so many feel threatened. Threatened because their whole “world of American Christianity” that was what they THOUGHT maybe….just maybe…. not viable in truly changing the HEARTS; oh yes, it might change the outward actions and surface of an individual; but the heart is a total different instrument altogether. This belongs to God or to self. At some point it will only be between that person and Christ. Peace and Rest are necessary to the health of a Christian; also a focus on the fruits of the Spirit, which can only come from the Spirit is vital. I am so thankful (to tell you the truth) to be OUT of the system and I am more at rest, because I know that my performance is not predicated on someone else telling me what to do, but on the gentle conviction of the Holy Spirit.

    Thank you for letting me share

    • And I thank you for sharing, Faith. And for pouring out your heart. Thank you for engaging time after time in discussions in hopes that someone who is blindly following someone else or who is trapped in a performance-based system might discover the rest and peace we have in Jesus Christ. I love your heart, Faith. God is using you as a faithful witness. I feel your pain and frustration, and I think that God does, too. Thanks for sharing. Thanks for always being so full of grace and truth. Press on, dear sister. The Lord is with you. Grace and peace to you, and all good things in this Thanksgiving season =)

  5. Happy Thanksgiving to you guys- tell your wife I said so! 🙂
    Thanks again for being an oasis to just sit for a spell; I have appreciated it so much!

  6. Hi Stephen,

    Great article…I loved your example of the radio interview, because I did EXACTLY that the other day, when listening to a debate/discussion about Scotland leaving the UK! The only difference is that I never stopped to think about my actions.

    I have posted thoughts and meditations from Richard Rohr on here before, and I hope you don’t mind me doing so. But, having lived for many years firmly in the ‘conservative’ camp of the great divide within the worldwide Church, and having found myself increasingly uncomfortable with my need to be in any camp, I found this comment very helpful (because this issue applies here in Europe too, although possibly less violently):

    Liberals Versus Conservatives Meditation 21 of 52

    At this time in history, the contemporary choice offered most Americans is between unstable correctness (liberals) and stable illusion (conservatives)! What a choice! It has little to do with real transformation in either case. How different from the radical traditionalism of T.S. Eliot: “You are not here to verify, instruct yourself, or inform curiosity or carry report. You are here to kneel . . . ” (Little Gidding)

    There is a third way, and it probably is a way of “kneeling.” Most people would just call it “wisdom.” It demands a transformation of consciousness and a move beyond the dualistic win/lose mind of both liberals and conservatives. An authentic God encounter is the quickest and truest path to such wisdom, which is non-dual consciousness.

    Neither expelling nor excluding (conservative temptation), nor perfect explaining (liberal temptation) is our task. True participation in God liberates us each from our control towers and for the compelling and overarching vision of the Reign of God—where there are no liberals or conservatives. Here, the paradoxes—life and death, success and failure, loyalty to what is and risk for what needs to be—do not fight with one another, but lie in an endless embrace. We must penetrate behind them both—into the Mystery that bears them both. This is contemplation in action.


    • I love this, Jon! Thanks so much for sharing it. I love the focus on kneeling in the mystery of God. I remember one of my professors talking about the Trinity and how uncomfortable students got when he said several times in response to their theologically-esoteric questions, “We just don’t know.” The students kept trying to drill down into the mystery so they could figure things out to their own satisfaction. The professor finally said, “Listen. Mystery in this case is not lack of information. Mystery is more information than you can fathom.” I liked that =)

      • There is a lot of hurt amongst the folk who are using your blog here as ‘church’ Stephen, and I wonder if they have heard of the naked pastor website http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nakedpastor
        which was set up to provide support and community for those who have been wounded or judged or excluded or bullied or…by the established church.

        I only became aware of this person and his website recently, and it has taken me a while to get my head around what problem he is actually addressing. I think I am slowly getting there, aided partly by your own web contributions and the stories here. After all, for as long as I was happily within the ‘normal’ part of a church congregation, I felt safe and accepted. Why were others so unhappy with the status quo, I asked myself. They must have been at fault in some way, I reasoned.

        I have two specific friends who find the Naked Pastor to be both intellectually stimulating and faith enhancing. There is a wisdom and a gentleness that is all too often missing from mainstream church life.

        Thanks for your comment about mystery…I like that definition you share!


      • Thanks for this recommendation, Jon. I thought I had replied earlier but received an error message. Not sure why =/ I plan to check out the blog you mentioned. Someone else suggested it, as well, so two witnesses have been brought forth to advocate for it 😉 Your observation about folks who fit in the “normal” church not understanding why other folks feel hurt by it rings true with me. Most people have never heard the term “spiritual abuse”, but once they do they can usually think of a family member or friend who has been involved in an unhealthy church or a cult. I’m happy to hear of other blogs which have long been addressing the need of these folks for healing and gentleness. Praise God!

  7. Beautiful! Are you sure you went to DTS? Just kidding. I like the way you think and write, if you are ever in Dubai let me know, would love to talk over a coffee.

  8. Jonathan Wheeler i sure like the way you write!
    I may not agree on your view of conservatism because I find conservatism and its meaning quite different then what the American church even views it as. Real conservatism is based on principles of hard work, self sufficiency (and I am not talking about the NOT sufficient on Christ), responsibility for oneself and not allow the government to make those decisions for you or being dependent on government, low taxes, entrepreneurship; these principles in my humble opinion lead to more charitable giving and care of others. When you are responsible, you end up helping others do the same thing. The American church, however, is more collectivist in its philosophy; because it focuses on everyone being and doing the same thing. There is no freedom in Christ, but a shaming and guilt for ALL to be in quote “unity”. Many churches call themselves conservative, but in reality are just as collective and socialist as the government of ours. I believe that we have the capabilities to be able to logically think and act for ourselves (up to what the law allows); the more another person thinks that he has the answers for the masses, he has then become the controller. This is just my take on conservatism.

    By the way another great site to check out Jon is http://www.theGodJourney.com
    Hope to hear more from you around liberty for captives. Merry Christmas!

  9. This won’t be a Godly post, because I don’t tend to make Godly posts. But I hope it helps anyway. Please forgive me if it’s very obvious.

    What you experienced while listening to NPR was a comment that ran afoul of your ideology. We all hold to ideologies because we want or need to. We want to believe the military is honorable (or we want to believe the exact opposite.) We don’t want to believe in global warming, even though the facts are out there. We want to believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. We want to believe in Young Earth Creationism. Whatever we want to believe in without accepting challenges to is ideology, and it keeps us from being honest, compassionate, growing, fallible human beings.

    I started reading “True Enough: Living in a Post-Fact Society” because I wanted to understand how people process information. The truth is that we often don’t process information, because it runs afoul of our ideology. And that is why we don’t hold our spiritual leaders to higher standards, not only for fear of repercussions, but because we have bought into (willingly or unwillingly) a certain belief, even when that belief is abusive. It’s the belief that one man, or one denomination, or one interpretation of the Bible is *the* correct one.

    To be betrayed by one’s ideology is painful. But to recognize why you were betrayed is essential to forward movement.

    I believe we should all be able to read the Bible and come away with some of the truth ourselves. Being open to discussion about verses is healthy, but when one person insists that there is only one way to understand it, be on guard.

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