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Healthy Fellowships

June 17th, 2010

In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

Matthew 5:16


The harmful faith systems described in Arterburn’s and Felton’s book Toxic Faith, seem to miss the basic Christian principle taught by our Savior, that He calls us to a positive faith that brings light and joy into the lives of others.


One of the ways that these highly controlling religious groups can be understood is that they tend to prey on those who have some need for a religious authority in their life. We could call them religious addicts: addicted to what the group or the leader offers. Like any addiction, an outsider can observe that this causes pain to the addict, but the addict continues in his repetitive behavior nonetheless. Rather than treating the addiction and bringing freedom into that life, as the Spirit of God does (2 Cor. 3:17), the religious leaders use the addiction to further their own purposes.


We have examined the first three of these characteristics in the days before. The next seven are:


·        Punitive in nature: Toxic Faith systems are punitive in nature

·        Overwhelming service: Religious addicts are asked to give overwhelming service

·        The followers are in pain: Many religious addicts in the system are physically ill, emotionally distraught, and spiritually dead.

·        Closed Communication: Communication is from the top down or from the inside out

·        Legalism: Rules are distortions of God’s intent and leave Him out of the relationship

·        No Objective Accountability: Religious addicts lack objective accountability

·        Labeling: The technique of labeling is used to discount a person who opposes the beliefs of the religious addict.[1]


In each of these we can identify a distortion of a biblical and healthy spirituality. Consider this incident from the book. The story of John, a longtime Sunday School teacher in a church.


John had written a letter to the pastor about his concerns with the ministry. He had shared the letter with one of the elders ro get his response. The elder went to the pastor with information about the letter’s contents before John had decided what to do. That was it! The pastor felt that John had gone too far, that he was trying to undermine the ministry. The fact that he shared his concerns with one of the elders was proof. The pastor immediately called John at his place of work and informed him that he was no longer going to be allowed to teach and that he wasn’t welcome there any more. He was a traitor and he needed to repent of his rebellious spirit.


The pastor had private interpreted John’s concerns as rebellion. From the pulpit he preached on how a little leaven spoils the lump and how the congregation needs to expel those who would corrupt them. John and his family were no longer friends of those with whom they had fellowshipped over the years. They were “traitors” who had “betrayed” the pastor and therefore needed to be expelled. What John had done was simply to disagree with authority. At no time had he disqualified anything the pastor had preached, and he had shared his concerns with only a select few in leadership.


John and his family were devastated. Their lives had revolved around the church for so long that they had very few friends outside the church. Rejected and abandoned by those they had trusted and cared for, John’s family was broken and in pain because the system could not tolerate difference. John was no longer a person with feelings and intellect but a traitor with a rebellious spirit. By labeling John and by persuading other church members to believe that label, the insecure pastor was able to avoid having someone disagree with him.[2]


The problem stems from those who demand control – in the case of John it was the pastor, but I have also seen similar actions against a pastor taken by insecure church leaders. They are quick to label a pastor with negative terms because he had not given them enough attention or did not agree with the way they thought the church should be run. In the practice of the Christian faith there should be a reasonableness that is evidenced, where we are able to hear and listen to one another and decisions are made based on clear and level headed thinking, as the Spirit leads us.


James, the wise pastor of the church in Jerusalem, inspired of the Spirit wrote: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:19-20). We may call this “sanctified common sense” that the Spirit brings to us as we walk with God. When a Christian fellowship learns to listen to the Spirit, learns to hear what God is saying, then that fellowship is able to grow in unity and love and understanding and, thereby, in effectiveness in giving a heavenly witness in this lost and needy world.




Lord, we thank You for grace. Let the light of Your love dominate our souls that we might be children of the light. Amen.

[1] Arterburn and Felton, Toxic Faith (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 1991) pp. 159-189

[2] Ibid. pp 185-86.

Toxic Faith

Gracious Leadership

June 15th, 2010

But David continued up the Mount of Olives weeping as he went.

2 Samuel 15:30


David wept over the rebellion of his son Absalom who had temporarily usurped his father’s throne. Sadder than losing his throne was the fact that he had lost his son. When Absalom was killed and his forces defeated, so great was David’s grief that he momentarily lost perspective that he had saved the lives of the rest of his children. Only through Joab’s speech (2 Sam 19:1-8) was David brought back to reality.


Gene Edwards in his classic book A Tale of Three Kings, shows the humility of David who responded to Absalom’s threat with more graciousness than Saul had to the growing popularity of David when he was a young man. Saul’s heart filled with jealousy and anger and he lashed out to try and kill David. Absalom also had set his heart on destroying his own father and the rest of his family. But David’s gracious attempt to deal with his adversary stands out in contrasts with the others.


In Toxic faith systems the leaders exercise very little graciousness toward others. They seek to dominate and anyone who challenges them challenges God, or so they will say.  In some groups this is even the interpretation of family life, that the father rules as a tyrant over family and they are to simply obey unquestioningly. Whereas the Bible teaches that fathers are to be the head of their homes, it introduces the entire section in Ephesians with the words, “Submit to one another out of reverence to Christ” (Eph. 5:21). The biblical pattern of leadership is “servant leadership” that submits to one another and seeks to serve others.


The one who would lead in the family of faith takes on the position of a servant, leading others for their good, not for his own good. In toxic faith systems the leader normally leads for his own benefit, not really for others. As parents and as leaders there will be times when the ones we are seeking to lead may disagree with us in our decisions – especially is this true when our children are young – but still the wise leader keeps a dialogue open with those he seeks to lead, hears their concerns, and seeks to bring them into the logic of his or her decisions. We lead not just by our words, but by our example, by our patience, and by being submissive ourselves to our followers, without violating our Christian consciences.




Lord, give us the courage to lead, but teach us to lead humbly and graciously. Teach us to listen to You and to be mutually submissive to one another for your sake. Amen.

Toxic Faith