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.
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].
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.