19-4 Vendettas And Hatred In The Church
How It Happens
I’ve met so many, many believers who have been hurt beyond description by what they perceive to be vendettas against them by other brethren. Listening to them, it does indeed appear to be the case. But it’s also highly doubtful that brethren who in many walks of their lives are good Christians, would purposefully sit down and plan out a series of attacks upon another brother or sister, with the conscious aim of bringing about his or her downfall in their community. And yet, looking at things from the viewpoint of those who are hurt, one can understand their perception.
I suggest that what happens is actually a psychological phenomena. Spiritual
and psychological principles are often seen more clearly expressed
in the natural world; and the phenomena of the ‘feeding frenzy’
seems to me to best explain it. “In the animal world, no activity
is more classically frenzied than the feeding of sharks, piranhas
or blue-fish when they encounter a wounded prey. These attack-fish
with extraordinarily acute senses first search out weak, ill or
injured targets. On locating them, each hunter moves in quickly
to gain a share of the kill, feeding not just off the victim but
also off its fellow hunters’ agitation. The excitement and drama
of the violent encounter builds to a crescendo, sometimes overwhelming
the creatures’ usual inhibitions. The frenzy can spread, with the
delirious attackers wildly striking any object that moves in the
water, even each other”(1).
Every phrase in this description has been simply so true in the unhappy experience of our community. The fact that doctrine and behaviour clearly matter, has led some to be hypersensitive to the possible faults of others, both in understanding and action. They’ve overlooked Rom. 14:1: “Him that is weak in the faith, receive…”! Coupled with an undoubted sense that there is ‘guilt by association’, these brethren have “acute senses”. They naturally home in on the weaknesses of others. If anyone is felt to be thinking outside the box, then the human weaknesses common to us all are sought out. And such brethren feed off each others’ “agitation”- lengthy phone calls, endless emailing, meetings, hand-wringing meetings of concern… lead them as a group to cast off the “usual inhibitions” which they have as Christians against unkind and unjust behaviour. This is why brethren who otherwise may lead truly good lives can end up part of a frenzy of attack upon others which is so uncharacteristic of them. The amount of time they spend about this kind of thing is usually a tiny fraction of the effort they actually make with the individual who is supposed to be so wrong. And the frenzy spreads, to the point of a delirious mania. Anything that moves is attacked; anyone who is thinking or acting for themselves outside of the herd mentality. And then, having hurt themselves during their mad frenzy, both emotionally and spiritually, they turn on each other. An analogy from the sports world would be the phenomena of ‘piling on’ in rugby football. A man is down, and there appears a senseless phenomena of all jumping on the pile of bodies. Both sides are hurt, energy is wasted, direction is lost, the ball is buried, the game can’t go on. And this, I suggest, is why a community which has the potential to radically change the world, to be a powerful, cutting-edge influence upon society, is so often found ineffective, lost and floundering.
What happens at times in our community is repeated many times in the world of politics and in other religious communities. And that’s simply because it’s the same basic psychological phenomena working itself out.
But pushing deeper. Why do people chose to believe slanderous attacks, or join in with them because others are indulging themselves?
The Collapse Of Reason
The decline in basic moral justice and judgment in our world has without doubt influenced us. The Western world in particular has almost stopped thinking, and is thus unable to arrive at truth. Conclusions are presented and accepted; sifting through written material and weighing up truth for oneself is a struggle rarely seen today. Communication has moved away from words to pictures and images- thanks to TV and the internet. And our reasoning, therefore, has become more subjective, rather than rational and logical. ‘Truth’ has been reduced to propaganda and nicely presented opinion; rigorous examination of evidence, the struggle of internal and external debate, is something 21st century people are too lazy for. Further, e-mail, text messaging, along with the TV and internet culture, has trivialized communication. Let me say it again, because I think it’s crucial: communication has been trivialized.
The result of this is that we not only have difficulty in truly communicating, but we have a problem with any form of judgment or coming to truth if it means concentrating upon written material, or our own judgment of truly first hand evidence (2). We tend to shrug and think ‘There’s no smoke without fire’ when we receive allegations against others, and not seek to either ignore the matter, or get to the first hand truth of it. All this has led to the supreme truth of the maxim: “The media is the message”. It’s no longer so important what you say, the position you adopt, the truth you communicate, the basic person you are. It’s all about how you articulate it. The person who makes a slick, attractive presentation will carry the day, rather than the one with truth and reality on his side, who simply says it how it is. It’s always been the case, but in this ‘media is the message’ world, it’s truer now than ever before. And when the slick and the suave present slander and personal attacks in an acceptable way, very few see it for what it is.
And all this links in with another sad feature of our modern world- a lack of personal loyalty. Friendships and relationships of a lifetime are torn up, because individuals chose to follow the lead of what they perceive to be as ‘truth’ about another individual- without judging the issue by their personal knowledge of the person, and with little attention to actual truth. So powerfully has the media become the message, that it is allowed even to destroy personal relationships- if the ‘message’ is to dissociate from your friend or family member. And so as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, " In the end it is not the words of our enemies we will remember, but the silence of our friends."
Against this background, there arises the basic problem that there are amongst us some paranoid about ‘heresy’. They perceive in any innovative thinking an element of change; and this becomes perceived as a threat to their doctrines and traditions which they perceive as unmovable. And of course, the basic truths of the Gospel are unmovable; and there is such a thing as heresy. But this doesn’t justify attacking those who do and speak of things which we simply don’t understand or haven’t experienced. Ironically, the Greek word for ‘heresy’ is the very word used to describe those divisions / ‘sects’ which should not be amongst us (see its usage in Acts 15:5; 24:5). To divide the Lord’s body is itself a heresy; and yet it is so often done in order to protect His body, supposedly, from heresy. Yet the difference between the heresy and the heretic is often fudged. The person gets attacked rather than their beliefs. So often we’ve seen this happened. A brother may, e.g., have views of the interpretation of prophecy which are found obnoxious by some. Yet the criticism of him will tend to get personal; his character is besmirched, because it’s felt that this is justified because he [supposedly] has ‘heretical’ views.
But as we know, there is such a thing as heresy / false teaching. But we must be absolutely certain that any given brother or sister is in fact holding and spreading those wrong views, or living a profligate life. It’s quite wrong to take statements or actions out of their context; and of course it’s always easier to attack those who have written and thought and laboured the most. This is how it happens that a community ends up persecuting or even expelling their most active workers and thinkers. They provide more material through which the critics can nose in order to find ammunition for their cause. And this has led to a great paradox: a fine living and hard working brother or sister who expresses a slightly controversial interpretation of Scripture, or who makes a momentary personal slip, is likely to suffer character assassination and expulsion. If someone e.g. writes a book that is perceived as controversial, soon the attacks move on from criticism of what was written, to the personality of the author. Over time, the actual issues become less important, and the person of the author becomes the main point of attack. The unconscious reasoning is that we must ‘kill the messenger’ in order to stop the spread of the message. But this is certainly not how the Father and Son deal with error amongst us. The result of this is that each ecclesia likely has its share of those who , e.g., rarely read Scripture, pray little [on their own admission], abuse drugs, are regularly immoral, fill their lives with the things of the world, share their lives with unbelievers… and [quite rightly] the ecclesia patiently bears with them, and every effort is made to keep them coming along to meetings, however occasionally.
There must be a personal approach to the person we’re so worried about. Yet this is so rarely done. Surely this would indicate that there is not much desire for the personal salvation or correction of the individual; rather is there a concern with doing what is perceived to be right or ‘sound’ amongst our peers, or an upholding of a community position. Care and value of the individual is simply lacking if we fail to approach them first, privately, over any matter. And if there is a genuine retraction of wrong teaching or action, let’s realize how much humility that requires. Let’s also recognize that we all have gaps in our understanding, and we all certainly have a whole history behind us of misjudgements, weakness of character, and outright sins. We should only enter the battle of criticizing another with a trembling awareness of our own intellectual, spiritual and moral frailty, ‘considering ourselves, lest we also fall’ (Gal. 6:1). And nearly all Bible heroes are characterized by some major moral or spiritual failure; and certainly aspects of their understanding of God’s revelation which were significantly incomplete. David, Noah, Jacob, Abraham, Jonah, Peter, the disciples, Elijah… came randomly into my mind as I write this. Not that this in any way minimizes our own failures. Nor those of others. But it’s a point worth bearing in mind, as we seek to reflect the restorative spirit of the Lord to others.
In the experience of the wider Christian community, it is very often Charismatic or Pentecostal types who come under personal attack and character assassination. Some quite justifiably; but far from all. I sense here another great irony. The tension between emotion and rationality has, in my experience, been at the root of much division. The supposedly ‘rational’ types are repulsed by the supposedly ‘emotional’ or subjective approach of others; and they are easily charged with heresy. But here’s the rub: in line with what I tried to explain earlier, the heresy hunters, defenders of the faith, etc, are the ones guilty of not being truly rational as God wishes. Very often the victims on the ‘emotional’ side are caricatured. Because, e.g., someone plays a guitar at a meeting…he’s therefore and thereby ‘sloppy’, ‘unsound’, ‘loose’, ‘red under the bed’, ‘undermining us’ etc etc. And the ecclesia where he plays is caricatured as ‘apostate’, ‘emotionally out of control’, ‘rejected the Bible’ etc. Or unrepresentative statements or individuals are focused upon in order to blacken an individual or an ecclesia. It’s frightfully easy for both ‘sides’ to caricature the other. But here’s where what we said about true rationality, right judgment, comes into play. Such caricaturing shows a lack of concern for the individual, and certainly no attempt at understanding, which is surely so crucial to the love and grace we have known in the Lord Jesus.
The Damage done
Looking back through the history of the preaching of the true Gospel, there have been periods of great growth and dynamism; yet nearly all of them came to an end as a result of church politics, and personal attacks upon the main sources of dynamism. Paul is the obvious example; maligned and rejected by his converts, all Asia turned away from him, and the amazing mission he spearheaded came to an end, with the church dividing and going off into institutionalization and apostasy. Or take the amazing growth of the Brethren in Christ movement in the years 1870-1885, as chronicled by Andrew Wilson. The numbers of baptisms dropped off sharply after 1885 as a result of the split between Robert Roberts and the main preachers, who were initially accused of false doctrine, and then personally villified. And it could be that history is working itself out again. There was an unprecedented expansion of the same group world-wide in the 1990s. But recent frictions mean that this great explosion, which could have possibly even heralded the Lord’s return, by getting the true Gospel into “all the world”, will now likewise fizzle out due to politics. But we don’t have to allow this to happen. History is there for our learning. It would appear that the Christian community has now within it a group of brethren who are acting more like vigilantes, searching around for guilt on the part of those they have focused in upon, asking around for even childhood recollections of their victims, acting like the witch hunters of previous centuries, carrying out “justice” at the tip of their pen or on their computer keyboards rather than with a noose. They need to be accountable to the community they belong to. Their lack of accountability only enables them to go on in their misguided work. And it is us as individual members of the Lord’s body who should hold them accountable. And we do this by judging just judgment, and communicating properly and meaningfully as God intended.
Our motive must surely be for the unity of the Lord’s body, that we don’t lose yet more fine brethren and sisters, and so that the wonderful growth of the Gospel can continue, ushering in the Lord’s return to a body that is united as His bride should be.
(1) Larry Sabato, Feeding Frenzy: How
Attack Journalism Has Transformed American Politics (New York: MacMillan,
1991) p. 6.
(2) Seeing the Bible is a written medium,
this has some frightening consequences. The Lord likens truly hearing
His words to digging a foundation on hard rock. The Bible isn’t an ‘easy
read’; and it’s a long book. Yet we are living in a world where information
has to be presented in easily digestible form, as a quick, attractive
read- or else nobody will bother with it. When I hear brethren say ‘Well,
I don’t read long books’, I wonder what they make of the Bible.