One Narnia book I like above all others is The Silver Chair. In it, Aslan offers a warning: “Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind.” Sometimes I think it applies as much to the Church as it does the World.
I remember when I learned about that cult that beat one of it’s members to death. It was sad and tragic and just plain wrong – but it also just some church over in another state and really had nothing to do with me. So I didn’t devote much thought to it and filed it away. Just the other day, I learned that another cult has been exposed for enslaving foreigners for at least two decades. Perhaps it sticks a little bit more with me because I picked up a little Portuguese just for the fun of it. (É uma linguagem divertida!) But both cults have this in common – the air is thick with confusion. It strikes me that any average church is not immune.
What do I mean? Well, it’s the tendency to shut down diversity of thought and opinion. When everyone is on the same page – there’s no checks and balances. These cults show us that just because everybody believes something to be true – it doesn’t make it right. The only reason why churches get a pass on it is that they’re not known for believing the wrong things. It’s funny – parents are known to criticize their kids for falling for popular trends: “If everyone else jumped off of a bridge, would you?” only to do just that come every Sunday.
We think: “that could never happen to us.” Not realizing that we’re just lucky we haven’t fallen for the sort of leaders who could do that to us. We were warned that the air gets thick with confusion. Teachings about that might not be from the true source – causing us to cling to whatever is popularly accepted – after all, everyone can’t all be wrong, can they? We don’t even realize that we’re beginning to conform when we put aside our favorite Bible translation in favor of the one the pastor uses or the bible study teacher reads out of.
But one cult that we all fall victim to is that of personality. You know that one teacher who you really admire? You have all his books and a number of his sermons recorded to listen to at your leisure? Do you remember the excitement when you heard that he would soon be in your area as you made plans to see him in person? All it takes is teacher that’s that charismatic, who seems to speak to God or have God speak through him or her, in order to separate you from the fallen world and lure you into the chosen few destined for true salvation if only you follow their precepts. Or perhaps, you’re at a regular church and the new pastor has decided to make a lot of wholesale changes. The old teachers are gone, replaced with his chosen servants who teach only his preapproved material. Slowly the liberals and moderates seem to vanish from the congregation. They weren’t true believers – or as true of believers as the rest of the faithful who remain. You might not end up doing bizarre practices like screaming at the top of your lungs or purifying sinners by beating them up – but you might end up losing a lot of spiritual autonomy and not even realize it until it’s too late and somebody happens to report you for having an unchristian book in your library.
I’m reminded of what Martin Niemöller wrote back in his day:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Having watched the Conservative Resurgence / (Takeover) – I’ve seen how many liberals and moderates were either sent packing or shown the door, many got the hint and just left. Those who remain have nobody left to go after but their fellow conservatives for not being conservative enough or as conservative as they are. The focus on evangelizing others is like a laser – aiming only for those who conform to the conservative worldview.
Jesus – didn’t come just for the conservatives. He came for everyone. He would want a diverse church … sort of like my old one. There was a time when it didn’t matter whether someone was Arminian or Calvinist, how many points they believed in, or if they didn’t really believe it at all – so long as they believed in Jesus, their foremost identity was as brothers and sisters in Christ. They were a good family to be around, sure, they’d get in some pretty crazy debates at the dinner table, but that was half the fun. The air was filled with different teachings, but it wasn’t thick with confusion – you could believe whatever and nobody thought you the lesser for it. But that’s not our church anymore.
More and more it feels like Christianity had begun the process of becoming more cult-like, isolating itself around charismatic leaders that answer to no one, celebrating conformity and erasing diversity, authoritarian leadership structures are common to both, isolation from the world, friends, and family members can result as easily in churches as it happens in cults. There seems to be a fine line that separates the two and fine lines are often the easiest of all to cross. Maybe that’s why I have such a hard time finding a church – I want one that’s okay with me unleashing my inner devil’s advocate and fostering diverse perspectives … and I really don’t think I’ll find one.