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At all costs, the leaders of broken systems protect their power. One of their more insidious methods of doing so involves convincing members that they, themselves have the power to repair the system. Through members’ own effort, goes the logic, they can return the system to its original values, even get it moving again toward its stated goals. But this teaching is as wrong as wrong could ever possibly be. If anything, this teaching is even more wrong than the supernatural claims made in service to that primary mandate. No, members do not possess the power to repair their broken systems. Today, we roll through why that is.

(Ross Griff, CC.) An abandoned church in Pennsylvania. We can hope!

An Historic Moment.

A few days ago, a young Catholic priest gave a sermon in the Washington, D.C. area. This sermon earned him a standing ovation.

Yes. Speaking before 200 parishioners, Alec Scott spoke about the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report. He urged his sheep not to lose their faith. Very graciously considering his affiliation, he offered his condolences for what he called the parishioners’ “frustration.”

Then, he told them something remarkable. He said, “Without you, reform won’t be possible.”

That common Christian assertion came early in the article. Therefore, rest assured: I read the rest of it in anger.

I’ve heard this dog-and-pony show before, you see.

A dreadful lie doesn’t become more true the more often it’s told.

Continuation of An Old Error.

For many years–really, ever since Christians began noticing their retaliatory powers waning–a strange teaching has emerged in Christianity. We see it everywhere: Catholicism (as noted above), the Church of England, in progressive Christianity (note: John Shore’s opinion runs closer to mine on that score; he offers other progressive Christians’ opinions in the post), and oh, especially in fundagelicalism.

From posts to op-eds to articles to comment threads, Christians all across the religion talk about this idea.

It runs thusly: instead of leaving their churches, Christians should remain.

They need to stay. They can’t just leave. Leaving becomes a sign of moral cowardice and even laziness.

See, these dissenters must effect change from within.

In this version of warped reality, goes the teaching, Christians who see something going horribly wrong in their groups must fix it somehow. And they can make way more of a difference by remaining than by leaving. If they leave, they’ll never be able to help their group.

I’m getting pissed just writing this section.

How It’s Supposed to Work.

In Christian-Land, reality quickens and flows in markedly different ways than it does in Reality-Land.1

There, up is down, black is white, we’ve always been at war with Eastasia, and ordinary Christian laypeople can totally change the architecture of Christianity from the pews.

See “John’s” comments on this oh-so-hip fundagelical’s blog for an excellent example of how he perceives the situation. He graciously concedes that he “can understand” the blogger’s “frustration with the church.” But he wags his finger over the idea of simply walking away:

Much about church is valuable, and what isn’t is often best changed from within by people with a vision of something essentially good and meaningful.

UGH. Just ugh.

Often, Christians point to some Bible verses about conflict resolution as their blueprint for this demand. In these verses (Matthew 18:15-17), Christians learn they must first speak privately to the offender who wronged them. If the offender doesn’t listen, they must try again–this time with a few Christian friends. If that still doesn’t work to amend the behavior, then they must air the grievance in the church as a whole. And finally, if that doesn’t bring about change, then they shun the offender.

Somehow in this mess, victims get justice, perpetrators get cast out, and the church’s squeaky-clean image soldiers onward.

That’s how it’s supposed to work out.

Why It Doesn’t Work That Way.

In reality, it’s a real Underpants Gnomes scheme. Indeed, these verses lack some essential middle parts. And because it can’t take into account the insidious social and interpersonal power dynamics involved in broken systems, it can’t possibly successfully resolve any real problems.

In broken systems, the group long ago stopped focusing on whatever their charter contains. They no longer care about reaching their stated goals. Nor do they use methods that’ll come anywhere near reaching those goals.

Instead, their methodology supports another goal entirely. That other goal remains unstated, but it drives every single action the leaders and fervent members alike take.

That single-minded focus largely brings broken systems to a depressing, inevitable similarity. If you learn what propels and informs broken systems generally, you can spot them easily in the background. It’s why Buddhist-esque cults in Japan sound so familiar to ex-members of Pentecostal churches in Alabama, why both seem so reminiscent of the tactics used by weird New Age sex cults in New York State, and all of them sound just like the largely-secular pseudoscience-peddling groups online.

The actual ideology of an individual broken system becomes nothing more than window-dressing. These groups’ single-minded, laser-locked focus is on power. Because the groups re-situate themselves along the goal of acquiring and flexing power over other people, they can’t possibly protect anyone from abuse.

“Separate But Equal.”

If not restrained by forces they can’t deny, like the law applied consistently, people in a broken system pare personal autonomy and power away from anyone they possibly can. Their leaders organize along predictable lines: those with power, those without. Everyone settles into a ladder, a hierarchy, that determines all social interactions.

Much of that hierarchy bases its rankings on fixed characteristics like race, gender, sexual orientation, even age, and some changeable ones like marital status, tenure in the group, and socioeconomic status (SES). The way members reckon who stands above and below themselves gets complicated sometimes! But they all know the same one truth: anybody above someone else has the power to control that other person, while anybody above themselves can control them. If someone acts out of line with the hierarchy, the group jumps on that person with both feet to get them back into the traces.

Members spend their time jockeying for positions higher on the ladder. This is the only way the group has determined to escape control by the most people. Escaping control somehow becomes the only way to lessen the risk of harm.

If I sound like I’m describing a dystopian nightmare, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Antihero Worship.

Personal power–both to resist control and abuse, and to inflict it–grows greater the higher up the ladder we travel in the group. At the top, the leader enjoys unilateral, unquestioned, unlimited power over everyone below their level. Nobody can successfully check or even criticize that leader. The person below-rungs lacks a voice entirely, and the person above-rungs likes it that way. Sometimes voices say unwelcome things, after all.

And then these groups promise their members that if they follow the group’s rules (whatever they are), then the leaders will take care of them and ensure they stay safe. Often the members believe firmly that outside of the group, safety is downright impossible. Sometimes they even celebrate their powerlessness, or thank their leaders for stripping their autonomy away.

However, these groups long ago lost any sense of focus on protection of those they’ve so painstakingly stripped bare. Now the people offering protection care only about protecting their positions–or even moving higher up the ladder.

They can’t take seriously any accusations of abuse against those fellow leaders. Hey, they might need their own fellow leaders one day, and they need to count on that protection.

Worse, too much scrutiny, too many complaints, too many accusations, might lead people to reconsider their affiliation with the group. Leaders need followers. Abusers need prey that remains in the sheepfold.

Leaders of broken systems know they can’t rule over people who are willing to walk away. They can only exist in an environment of coercion.

All that clawed and seized power can evaporate in the space of one crazily-thudding heartbeat of joy and exultation.

The Confusion We Never Feel.

Now, let’s zero in on Christianity.

If Christians’ claims about their groups’ functionality were true, it’d be confusing as all get-out to the rest of us. We wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to process that knowledge. We wouldn’t understand it.

I mean, the whole reason America banned “separate but equal” was that it doesn’t work. We know already how totally disastrous the idea is, how it just doesn’t work, how easily abusers can warp a system based on that idea to serve their dark purposes. We consider serious disparities in power levels as a red flag as bright as Aldebaran itself.

If extremist Christians lived within and fostered a system that enshrined separate-but-equal as an operating principle and somehow suffered almost no abuses, that’d be a powerful testimony. It wouldn’t PROVE YES PROVE that their supernatural claims were true, but it’d at least speak to their groups’ social rules being undeniably effective despite having failed so many times in Reality-Land.

But that’s not what happens when Christian groups enshrine massive power disparities into their groups’ structure.

It’s Always Been Like This.

In fact, the more extremist the Christian group, the more often its leader seems to fall to scandal and the more often we discover horrific abuses within the group.

These Christian groups held a great deal of coercive power in the past in their local communities, which is one of the reasons we didn’t hear very often about those scandals and abuses then. Victims feared retaliation for speaking up–both from leaders and from members who felt overly-protective toward their group. And, too, many victims felt protective of it too.

Now that those groups’ cultural power has begun to fray at the edges and seams, we’ve begun hearing way more often about what’s clearly always been going on to at least some extent.

In Christian-Land, Christians often imagine that non-Christians envy their communities and relationships. But in Reality-Land, nobody does.

Especially not lately.

How It Goes Hideously Wrong.

So these churches devise a method of resolving accusations against their members and leaders. They set this method up as the only divinely-approved and -mandated method of doing it. They pretend that this method totally works to bring harmony back to the group–and justice to the victims using it.

And then they retaliate against members who don’t follow it. The retaliation grows especially vicious if those members draw any secular attention to the accusations.

People who’ve endured church-based abuse likely perceive some serious issues with the advice in Matthew 18. Indeed, it seems custom-designed to keep a broken system safe from change. If I were trying to set a system up to silence victims and give cover to predators, I don’t know if I could do as good a job as the commonly-held teachings about these verses.

Even evangelicals themselves recognize abusers’ love of Matthew 18. Abusers invoke these verses to perpetuate abuse. Worse, they use it to retaliate against and silence victims.

Abusers’ shielders and protectors love the verses too. They use them to duck mandatory-reporting laws.

Matthew 18 ensures that a church’s members value the protection of the group’s image over the protection of abuse victims and punishment of abusers. It pushes victims to jump through hoops to find justice–and to keep chasing the promise of it. It keeps things right where they are now.

If members stay in groups pushing this faux-resolution process, they cannot do a thing to alter the group’s dynamics. The dynamics were designed to prevent anything like that from happening. As Pope Francis shows us, not even its masters can affect change from within if the system is entrenched enough. Even if they want to, they can’t.

But usually, they don’t even want to try. That system benefits them richly. What are a few victimized children and women, compared to those benefits?

change from within that we can believe in!
(Thomas, CC-SA.) Another abandoned Pennsylvania church–this one is labeled as the onetime Sleighton School Chapel. Behold the future. (And daydream of “afternoons & coffeespoons.”)

So No, This Teaching Is A(nother) Lie.

Let’s wrap it all together and bring it home.

No, members in broken systems can’t change anything “from within.” That’s totally impossible. The system itself won’t allow it. And by and large, the leaders absolutely don’t want to let members wreck what they have so carefully created and/or maintained.

Here are the red flags to watch for, to know if any change “from within” can happen or not:

  • Leaders granted a huge amount of power over members
  • Members get reprimanded or retaliated-against for dissenting or criticizing leaders
  • Certain demographic groups granted more authority; others set into subordinate positions; all done largely according to accident of birth
  • Group claims to follow a divinely-approved or -mandated accusation/resolution process, which cannot be questioned or examined critically
  • Instead of taking full responsibility, members of higher-authority groups lay blame against those in lower-authority groups for “causing” or “bringing on” their own abuse
  • Watch for the use of euphemisms or won’t-someone-think-of-MEEEEE not-pologies for abuse
  • Especially, watch for lack of full accountability for abusers: abusers shuffled around; crimes hidden; protectors of abusers remain in place
  • Leaders declare that the Big Problem Here is that members aren’t drilling down hard enough on the group’s ideology; the solution will be for them to drill down harder; the system itself remains the same

The more of those you perceive in the group, the less likely that any individual member will be able to have any effect on the group “from within.”

What Works Better.

More and more often, people simply leave abusive groups. And there, we see that they have a far greater impact on the group itself.

First and foremost, they remove their money and other resources from the group. They no longer tithe, make extra donations (often called love offerings), or bequeath money after death. Money makes the world go around–in so many ways. Nor can the group benefit from that member’s free labor. Most churches need and utilize volunteer labor extensively, with only a couple of paid staff members in the entire group. So withdrawing that help hurts them very much bad.

Second, they remove their butts from the pews of that group. Christians often point to the number of their membership as some kind of barometer of divine approval. Well, guess what that makes declining membership to them? It’s why Catholic leaders make it so damned hard to get a departed members’ name off their membership roles.

Third, they show members another option besides staying in an abusive group. That may be the most dangerous of all three of these results, at least to the group. The more people who leave the group, the less cultural power that group holds in their local communities–and the more diluted their retaliations become.

Every thread of affiliation these members can snip through is that much less ability the group has to harm others or hide predators.

An Unexpected Admission.

Earlier this month, I caught a news report about yet another child sex abuse case that erupted in Christianity. Police began investigating Kevin Berry, its pastor at the time, for possible aggravated indecent liberties with a child. His church initially very much sided with the accused child abuser. They pretended to care about the victim(s) involved, telling parents that they’d suspend him from children’s activities, but that turned out to be a lie.

Police eventually arrested him, and the heat piled on the church led them to take down their whole internet presence. Things got superheated fast in the church, as one faction remained supportive of their pastor while the other, well, didn’t.

Then I read this statement from one of the church’s other leaders (title unspecified). I couldn’t believe my eyes! John Hubert told the paper:

We’ve taken the biblical approach rather than the secular-humanist worldview of how to solve problems — and it hasn’t resulted in the most positive results. But it’s resulted in the results that we can biblically live with, so things are moving forward now.

I think this is the very first time I’ve ever seen a fundagelical leader talk like that.2

Hey, maybe they can learn. A little.

But they’re way out of time for this half-step to make any real difference.

NEXT UP: “Times when the day is like a play by Sartre/When it seems a bookburning’s in perfect order.” Join me for a look at this grand fundagelical tradition. Then we examine the Southern Baptist Convention’s big plan to maintain members. And book reviews and the Unequally Yoked Club! See you soon.


1 Christian-Land is “reality as it works within Christian imaginations.” Reality-Land is “how reality actually works.” A great deal of cognitive dissonance within Christianity comes from Christians’ sabotage of their own perceptions. They must find ways to ignore those perceptions–or explain them away into nothingness. If successful, they craft and pursue policies that similarly ignore or play off challenges to their working assumptions. (Back to the post!)

2 Finding out exactly what denominational slant Berry’s church holds–out of 40,000+ potential ones–wasn’t easy. But Bruce Gerencser’s excellent blog contained a reference to Berry’s past pastor gig at Amoret Christian Church, whose information page reveals that it was indeed quite, quite fundagelical, which makes Berry quite, quite fundagelical. I know I could have simply assumed that fact given the power differentials involved in the abuse he stands accused of committing and the fact that his church stood so firmly on his side for so long, but I don’t like assuming stuff. Call me a perfectionist! (Back to the post!)

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...