Monday, May 17, 2010

Accountability and Church

I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about this topic. I had one of those yucky feelings as I’m about to embark on another—seemingly negative—comments. It is always hard, at least for me, to know if it just some of over-active self conscientiousness or true guilt. Anyway I will continue but I will try to paint the picture in the most positive terms I can.

I’ve said it before, but my basic view of the Church (big C intended), is that about 10% of what we see is mandated by scripture . . . the other 90% a product of human culture. There is nothing wrong with culture. Culture is the natural byproduct of creative humans living together over a long period of time. Culture can be beautiful or can be used to manipulate one another. The medieval Church was a prime example of this manipulation on a mega scale . . . while it happens on a small scale now every Sunday. The problem that I see when it comes to church is when extra-Biblical culture is wrapped in Jesus and thus becomes dogma. Then culture can get in the way.

The most blatant example of this Jesus wrapping is the TV evangelist saying, “God-da said to me, ‘Bob, I want you to raise a million dollars for me and build yourself a new studio so that you can reach the whole world for Jezzzzzus!’ So don’t turn your back on the Lourd just when he needs you most. He will bless you if you give until it hurts. You can never out-give God-da!”

Okay, you can throw up now.

But in a much more subtle way, we evangelicals do the same all the time. Actually we all humans do these kinds of linguistic tricks and this is where linguistic deconstruction can have a healthy role.

So, in summary, when I heard again the message that we all should be heavily involved with the local church for accountability’s sake, it didn’t sit right . . . meaning that it didn’t ring true to life. The main reason it didn’t sound right is that this is one of my biggest frustrations with church life, that there is no real accountability within its doors. No one there knows what’s going on in my private life and when I attempt to tell them they get offended. I would love for them to confide in me about their personal lives but when I inquire, they also seem offended. This is where I started to think about things a lot.

The way we use “accountability” in the context that our and many pastors do is more about control and social coercion to support the local Christian culture than about our spiritual well being. That is why I’ve seen very involved people suddenly disappear, with no warning, and then hear through the non-church grapevine (but a reliable source) that they are in the midst of all kinds of trouble. Where was the accountability? They felt that they couldn’t talk about their problems while they held key rolls in the church.

I’ve only seen one act of accountability since I’ve been at my present church and I can remember one more from an old church in Marquette, Michigan. I may have told these stories before. Both of these acts of accountability left a very bad taste in my mouth because, in my opinion, it had almost nothing to do with the 10% Biblical mandate to “encourage one another towards love and good deeds” but everything to do with the self-centered Christian culture.

Both cases occurred when I was a church elder. In the Michigan church, a mother came to the elders and said that the 14 year old son of a new church member had molested her 6 year old daughter. What a horrible crime . . . if it really happened. How did she know it happened? The mom came around the corner and saw the boy and her daughter standing in the coat closet (which was huge and open to the main hall) and the little girl was tucking her shit tail in. When her mother asked her what she was doing she said the boy had “made my shirt come out.” That is the only thing the girl ever volunteered.

I personally spoke to the boy and his mother. The boy told me that he was playing with her and showed her a trick which he had done on his litter brother many times (and honestly I’ve done the same with my own kids). He had her stand facing away from him, bend over and reach back and put her hands between her legs. He would reach down grab her hands and yank up on them hard and it would cause her to do a backwards summersault . . . landing on her feet. Right after they did it, her mother came around the corner.

Now I can’t say what the truth was because I wasn’t there. I do know that the boy gave a reasonable explanation, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t lying.

But the mother of the little girl was an upper-middle class mom, very out-spoken and had been involved with many church programs. The family of the 14 year old were lower class and new to the church with few friends. I was alarmed at the sudden pronouncement of guilt on the boy by the elders with so little evidence. The little girl never said that he had molested her. As I sat around the kangaroo court—I mean elders board—I saw this emotional frenzy start to take hold. They even reported it to the cops but the cops quickly saw that there wasn’t enough evidence to pursue the case. One of the elders had a “demonic feeling” when he first met the boy and his single mom. I protested the haste to judgment but was quickly out-voted.

The elders admitted that there is no way for them to know the entire truth, but for the “sake of the church” (meaning their local culture club), it would be best if the elder board “disciplined the family” by removing their new membership and asking them to go to another church. I thought it was a horrible decision.

I met with the boy and his mom and apologized. In the back of my mind, I was thinking, what if the boy was telling the complete truth? How would he see Christianity from this time forth? Of course child molestation has to be taken seriously. If he was lying, sending him to another church would not have been the answer either. But this, the elders said, was “Biblical accountability and church discipline.”

The most recent account of this type of church discipline or accountability was when I was an elder at this church some years ago. We divided up church members for visitation. I was paired with a wonderful senior man and head elder (and I really mean wonderful as I have the greatest respect for the man). He is our most conservative church member and is the pastor’s right hand man and is the one who suggested that I couldn’t be a real Christian if I didn’t believe the earth was only 6,000 years old.

We were assigned to go to a young couple’s house that had not been in church for several weeks. I was assigned to pray and the senior elder to do all the talking. It seems like I’ve shared this story before. Anyway, I sat and cringed while this senior elder lectured the couple from scripture (sort of) about the requirement for them to be in church each Sunday (I know, you have to really, really twist scripture to arrive at this). I was hearing from the couple some things that wanted me so much to find out how THEY WERE DOING. He had lost his job. The wife was working two jobs including week ends at a pizza place to pay the rent. He had to watch their baby Sunday morning. I wanted to scream! I wanted to let them know that we didn’t come to lecture them about attending church. I couldn’t have cared less about their church attendance, but I cared a great deal about them. This was used as an example of “accountability.”

So most of the time so-called accountability doesn’t ever happen. I know that some churches are very different. But the accountability that is implied would play out more like an “intervention.” That is where some man in the church is abusive to his wife, or some women is having an affair or someone is drinking excessively and the board of elders meets with them and lovingly confronts them and helps them to deal with it in a positive way. Maybe this does happen in a lot of churches, but I’ve never seen it happen. I also have seen true accountability (the kind I’m talking about and will describe in my next posting) happen. It happened when I was in a Nav group in college and grad school (one of the good things about the group) and it happened when I led a small group Bible study in Michigan.

But when “accountability” does happen, it is often about social coercion or conformity to the human culture that has risen up around the simple, Biblical, church. This accountability comes in the form of, “Why aren’t you involved with programs X, Y or Z? You know, God wants you to be involved with His programs. God likes a good church worker.”

This is where I will skirt a little on linguistic deconstruction (I lost some sleep last night when I was going to do the entire post about this but it sounded so cruel). When we protect our “church programs” so much, we are really protecting our own enterprises in which our egos become so entangled. I’ve been there. I’m not above this. I’ve been in church leadership roles where I really feel threatened when people don’t participate in the programs, which I started, for my spiritual ego. I was a master manipulator . . . wrapping Jesus around every thing I did. To reject my ego boasting program was, well, to reject Jesus . . . so I claimed. We are all human and are subject to such debauchery. But to suggest what I just said to most pastors or elders, would make them mad as hell in the quiet places of their hearts . . . but
“spiritually concerned” on the surface.


Anonymous said...

I've lurked here for a while and been reading your postings. I've been very impressed. In regards to your accountability segment let me briefly share my experience. I confessed a sin (usual for guys) and really got hammered and beaten up. Meanwhile my accountability partner lived a double life and was very deceiving becuase he was afraid of confessing that same sin. He was afraid of being ripped a part as a Baptist. What I leanred from the experience is that to be a good Christian you have to lie and project a facade. I walked away from Christinaity for so many reasons, but I really don't know if God exsits. My church experiecnes have been really troubling. This is part of the reason why I no longer believe anymore....

MJ said...

Sorry for what you've been through.

I think that disillusionment serves up a double whammy. First it is the original disappointment then there is the code of silence that must follow. To speak of it, is to contradict the Christian mythology that we are far better than our non-Christian counter parts.

I realized that “godliness” or even “Christian maturity” was some what of a farce when I observed several of the most godly people I had ever known, and who were the hardest on me, show their very, very ugly under belly. The little hidden mistress, the emotional abuse of their wife, stealing lots of money and etc. Then the last straw when I discovered my own dark side.

Thank God that the gospel is about forgiveness and un-earned righteousness and a very long, methodical and glacier-like process of redemption.

I can certainly understand why you lost your faith, I was very close to that point (maybe I actually reached that point) several times.

Recovering Alumni said...

Wow, reading this post actually made me sick. What you described, especially in that second story, is nothing less than spiritual abuse. Beating people with the Bible and shaming them - instead of encouraging them. Ugh...

MJ said...

It is a bit sick, but very common don't you think? I know that is a typical "visitation" experience I've had.

In past churches, when I've been the talker, I would sit and eat cookies and talk about the person's life, trying to listen anyway I could. I never told them that they OUGHT to be in some program. Yet, my visitation approaches were not highly appraised as being the ideal because I didn't lecture them about something.

Heqit said...

I don't quite know how to post this without seeming disrespectful of either your faith or your church -- which I don't want to do, because reading about your journey and your struggles with your faith and community has touched me deeply, and obviously you know your own needs best and you probably haven't posted everything you've done or tried on this website. And I'm an atheist, to boot, and a former Catholic, so...

But this post was just mind-boggling to me. I was a Christian for years and my entire family is Christian and 95% of the people I know and interact with on a daily basis are Christian, and in the South, too, and I have never ever encountered a church whose idea of outreach was to keep tabs on people's attendance and harangue them if they don't show up! I mean...what is THAT about? So what I really want to ask is: have you considered joining a church that doesn't do that? That doesn't have a board of elders, and where people are happy to see you but don't mark it down if you're not there for a week? I realize that for an Evangelical Catholicism is a scary thing, but both the Catholic church I grew up in and the mainline Protestant churches of my friends were/are a lot more...relaxed...about this stuff.

Ack. Not meaning to imply that you're doing something wrong that I know how to do right; I think I just wanted to mention that that kind of thing isn't an inevitable part of belonging to a church.