A Book Sale

Today I was at the largest personal book sale I ever saw. It was an estate sale, and had a large variety of books, especially for a person collection.

There was a time that I roamed used book stores all the time and always bought books. But I found over the years that so many I never actually used that I don’t buy very many any more.

I was trying to work my way into this man’s mind today. He had a lot of religious books, especially study or philosophical ones. But he obviously had wide interests. He was interested in writing, because he had various books dealing with markets for writers. He had reference books – I bought a fairly new Chicago Manual of Style. He had books on Islam and Baha’i faiths. But on the other hand he also had a vast selection on anthropology and ancient history. I bought a book on the Mayan Prophecies, for instance. But he was also interested in plants and in modern history. For instance he had the official biography of Ronald Regan, which I already have, and various books by Pierre Burton, most of which I already have.

So what kind of a person are we looking at here? He could have been a minister, or priest, but he didn’t have any books on counselling. I doubt he was married, because he had no books dealing with marriage or family. I think he was a man who dreamed (like I do at times) of being a writer. I think he had a lot of ideas that he would have liked to share, but it never happened. I left the place feeling sad, because I felt that had trodden on the shattered dreams of an unfulfilled person. My wife, on the other hand, thinks he was a seeker looking for spiritual fulfillment. Like Solomon, trying to find answers that were always just a step out of his reach.
Really, I think both could be right. In either case, it’s a sad legacy. His house was a run down rental. Very uncomfortable. Half full of books and a few cheap possessions that no one really wanted.

He was 8 years older than I am, when he died. So I wondered a bit about what others would think of my prized possessions when I was gone? I even thought a bit about what they are – and I decided that mine were mostly books, and a couple of computers. Doesn’t seem like much. And I wondered how many of the dreams that I still have left will be just that when I die. All my life I have felt that something was around the corner, but I’ve never found it. I suspect that this was what this man was like – somehow I could really identify with him.

Sort of depressing….

Emotional Difficulties in the Brotherhood: Part One

Christian Psychology:
Freud in Sheep’s Clothing?

Emotional difficulties in the church are nothing new. Over the years, various people in our congregations have had emotional struggles. In this series of articles we would like to examine some possible reasons for this. We will also look at some ways to help people who have such struggles as well as some ways that Satan uses such situations to make inroads amongst us.

In their desire to help the weak and hurting brothers and sisters in our circles, some have gone to “Christian psychology” for answers. In this article we want to examine some of the basic premises for this field of thought. In subsequent articles we will look at Scriptural solutions to emotional stress.

1.                  Sin and Emotional Stress

Sin and guilt are probably the most common reasons for emotional stress in the world today. Even in the church, this can be the case. “Christian psychology” appeals especially to those professing Christians suffering from emotional stress because they are living in sin. However, if emotional stress is caused by sin, all the counseling and psychology in the world will not avail. Because of this, we want to start this series with this basic question.

2.                  Christian Psychology?

I can remember clearly the days that various Mennonites began crowding into Bill Gothard’s seminars. It is true that Bill Gothard’s teaching on personal accountability and responsibility have helped some people, especially in modern home school circles, to a more responsible walk with Christ. But a few of his more radical concepts (such as generational sins) are being carried to extremes today. For instance, John Regier’s so-called Biblical Concepts in Counseling are plowing new paths amongst the same kind of people who were so excited about Gothard’s teaching.

Most dangerous of all, these influences are prying open the door to the doctrines of men like Neil Anderson. Already Anderson’s belief in demon strongholds within Christians, and in demon possessed Christians, are making inroads in the fringe areas of conservative Anabaptist groups.

These doctrines are taking the Protestant world by storm. If past history is a truthful indicator, we will soon begin to see a watered down form of these doctrines seeping into conservative groups. The purpose of this article is to warn us of the basic tenets of these teachings. However, to properly understand them we need to go back in history and look briefly at a man that most Christians would refuse to emulate.

3.                  Freud in a Nutshell

Freud was the father of modern psychoanalysis. He believed that almost all psychological problems are caused by suppressed memories of sexual abuses and desires experienced by very young children. While some modern psychologists downplay parts of his teaching, the concept that psychological difficulties are caused by suppressed memories and attitudes is still a very important part of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.

Many of the world’s mental and emotional problems are caused by sin and guilt, as we said. However, a society dominated by humanism, agnosticism, and evolution cannot admit this basic fact. This is one reason why Freud’s ideas have become so popular with modern sinners struggling with the repercussions of their sin.

In fact if you research modern psychotherapy you discover that it is basically escapism. Do you suffer emotional problems? The psychologist will help you to bring to mind suppressed memories of incidents in your childhood that cause these. The theory is that you can then deal with the subconscious influences that are troubling you, and be freed from your guilt and phobias. The assumption behind this process is that your problems are the result of someone else’s actions. The psychologist will seldom admit that his patient might actually be responsible for his own problems.

In reality, however, it has been shown by secular researchers that “suppressed memories” can be the result of the power of suggestion and may exist only in the patient’s imagination. Probably many of these “suppressed events” never happened, even thought the patient (and his doctor) believes they did.

Interestingly, in the last several decades, we have seen the rise of “Christian psychology”, a mixture of psychological and Christian concepts which one writer has aptly nicknamed psychoheresy. Christian psychology utilizes a scenario amazingly similar to Freudian psychology, except it has a sanctified appearance. These men appeal to Christians because often they have a Biblical emphasis in other parts of their theology.

We want to evaluate the doctrinal foundation of this movement in several areas.

4.                  Generational Sins?

Exodus 34:6, 7 states, in part, “The LORD… will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.” In similar vein, Exodus 20:5 states, “I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.”

The Christian psychology movement interprets this as a “generational curse”—a blight on your family bloodline. They use the examples of similar failure on the part of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as a proof of their thesis (among other examples).

Many people look at this angle and feel that their teaching makes sense. But we should not stop there in our evaluation. In common practice this concept is used to excuse sin (and eliminate any guilt resulting from it) in the life of a “Christian”. In short, if you have a problem with your temper, it is not really sin on your part since it is a curse that follows your family bloodline, perhaps originating with your grandfather or father.

The other hallmark doctrine of “Christian psychology” is similar.

5.                  Strongholds?

In 2 Corinthians 10:4, it states, “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds.” One advocate of this doctrine defines a stronghold as an area where Satan has you bound. This area may be in your life because of a generational curse, or it may be an area where Satan has found a loophole in your spiritual armor and has taken control.

It is especially interesting that counselors of this persuasion use personality evaluation charts and other psychological methods to try to isolate these curses and strongholds. Using trigger points discovered in this analysis process, they start to dig for suppressed memories, desires, and attitudes that are (supposedly) at the root of your problems.

6.                  An Evaluation

What does the Bible say? Ezekiel 18:20 states, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.” The entire chapter is worthwhile reading, in light of this discussion. Essentially it destroys the entire doctrine of generational sins (see also Jeremiah 31:29, 30 and Deuteronomy 24:16).

As far as 2 Corinthians 10:4 goes, a close reading of the context reveals that the strong holds are probably not in the Christian’s life at all. They are Satanically inspired spiritual opposition that the Christian faces in the world and sinners around him. There is no evidence in the New Testament that Satan can control an area of a Christian’s life. The Bible teaches Christian victory (see 1 John 3:1-9). God has made provision for the Christian who slips and falls (1 John 2:1-2) and recognizes that a Christian may need to gain maturity, but that is something entirely different from living in a state of defeat or known sin.

You have probably caught the connection by now. These doctrines are a means whereby the “Christian” can escape personal accountability for his sins. His problems are not his fault. Either they are the fault of the curse he inherited from an ancestor, or they are the devil’s fault. Some counselors even suggest praying for the forgiveness of your ancestor, and provide convenient preformatted prayers with blanks for your use in doing so.

The part that should scare us the most about this process is the power of suggestion that is used upon the patient. The search for suppressed memories and desires provides a wide open door for Satan to manipulate our minds. Besides, it is not a Scriptural approach at all. In Philippians 3:13, 14 the apostle Paul stated, “Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (emphasis added).

We are accountable for the deeds we do. When we sin, we must admit our sin to God and repent. Then we can forget it and press ahead to greater victories. If we are living in spiritual defeat, we need to confess that sin to God and call on Him for strength to live in victory. Blaming our sin on our ancestors, or on Satanic control, has no Biblical precedent and is just a convenient excuse that Satan uses to keep us from seeking and finding Christian victory.

It is true that we are sometimes affected by the sins of our parents and others. A child with alcoholic parents, who cringed in terror behind the sofa while his father beat his mother, who roamed the streets alone and cold for entire nights while his parents hosted wild parties, who watched in horror while his drunken father abused a sibling, and who finally witnessed the complete breakup of his home, will have emotional repercussions. He will need help to forgive, and to rise beyond the example of his home.

Even those of us who did not grow up in such an environment are in part the product of our past. We have memories of past wrongs, events, and sins. We may have grown up in a background that influences us to make wrong choices, or which influences our attitudes and convictions. It is good for us to evaluate these things and to compensate for them from a Biblical perspective. It is possible that at times we need the help of mature brothers and sisters in the Lord to do this.

But a caring, sharing brotherhood relationship and compassionate Christian church leaders can help us get their eyes off themselves, and on Christ. This will do much more than the intellectual “counseling” of a psychologist (Christian or otherwise) who focuses on a person’s “suppressed” memories and inner self.

7.                  Demon Possessed Christians?

As I mentioned in the introduction, some teachers carry these concepts even further. The Biblical concept of demon possession shows a person rebelling against God, deciding to follow his sinful inclinations, and deciding to allow Satan to control his life. This pictures an “all or nothing scenario”. But some of these teachers are teaching that innocent children can be demon possessed, and that Christians can be filled with the Holy Spirit in most of their being, but demon possessed in one or two other areas at the same time!

This is the logical outcome of the doctrines we discussed above. Some fringe groups of conservative Anabaptists are already teaching a false doctrine of demonology almost identical to this. We dare not open the door an inch for this teaching but we will inevitably be pressured to do so.

It seems obvious that the “Christian psychology” movement is one of Satan’s methods of entrenching his control over modern Christianity. If we allow the errors associated with this movement to seep into our churches, they will be our downfall.

8.                  More To Come…

Christian psychology obviously appeals to those who want an excuse to continue in sin, or to blame others for their sin. There is, however, another important side to this whole story, which we want to consider, beginning next month.

Emotional Difficulties in the Brotherhood: Part Four

God’s Answer to Emotional Difficulties

This is the closing article in a series of four articles on this subject. This article will make more sense to you if you have read the first three in the series.

The Bible Says…

The Bible has some clear instructions for those who are helping others. Paul closed 1 Thessalonians with the words, “Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). He told the Galatians, “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). If we want to help those with emotional difficulties amongst us, we need to be ready to sacrifice self and do what these verses say.

The popular approach today is to consider all emotional sufferers to be mere victims of circumstances. Certainly this is sometimes true. Other times they have made mistakes that have triggered the problem. And sometimes it was triggered by a spiritual struggle against conviction. The Bible does call for a different approach, depending on the situation. “And of some have compassion, making a difference: And others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh” (Jude 22, 23). We must always seek the wisdom of God in facing such situations. But in any case, our help must be motivated by love for the individual. Otherwise our efforts will fail.

In most cases, the solutions for the church’s problems are found within the brotherhood. If love and care prevails in the leaders and membership, struggling members will find the help they need.

Things to Look Out For

We need to be sure that we are not creating emotional traps within our congregations. If congregational life is the peaceful brotherhood experience it should be, we will not have as many emotional needs amongst us. Or they will be easier to deal with when they do arise. Church problems often cause emotional difficulties. If we can learn to tolerate unimportant differences in detail, and deal judiciously but kindly with issues that do need to be looked after, we will make life easier for all our members.

God designed the congregation to benefit and strengthen His children. It is true that we need to keep the church pure, and not allow it to become the habitation of devils or an influence for wrong. Yet it is also true that the needs of God’s children are of equal importance, or greater, than any organization or system we may produce. The Pharisees made that mistake with the Sabbath day. We need to be careful that we do not emulate them. If we get this turned around the wrong way, we should not be surprised to face a wave of emotional difficulties in church life.

A Christian husband should be the first to note that his wife is losing ground, especially if she has had prior struggles with emotional difficulties. He should take immediate steps to try to alleviate the stress. He can give help with the children and household chores. Perhaps he can arrange for a visit away from home. Maybe he can hire a girl to help with the work. But most of all he needs to be understanding and not apply pressure on his wife that she cannot handle.

Similarly, a wife needs to be sure that she does not add pressure to her husband’s load. Often emotional difficulties in men are triggered by financial difficulties and nagging wives. Put the two together and you have the potential for a serious problem. A wife should never dangle financial difficulties in front of her husband’s nose because he is probably already struggling with inferiority. Instead she can quietly encourage him, and do her part by living frugally, and helping him to bear up under the load. The assurance of his wife’s love can go a long way to help a husband stay on top. (Wives in such a situation should also read 1 Corinthians 7:3-5.)

Most emotional sufferers feel caught in a trap. They are in a tunnel with no light at the end. They are in a corridor that ends in a solid brick wall. They are in a box with the lid nailed on. Their despair comes just as much from the fact that there seems to be no answer for their problem as it does from the problem itself. The problem itself can be almost anything: a problem child in the home; a sense of inferiority and failure in the husband, wife, father, or mother role; financial failure; undeserved criticism from a spouse, parent, or brother; or simply overwork or lack of sleep. Often the sufferer could cope with the problem, if he or she could see a solution for it. It is the sense of being trapped that triggers the breakdown. The solution to the breakdown needs to deal with the trapped feeling as well as with the problem.

Most congregations have some members who seem to be on the bottom of the social pile (or who feel they are, for some reason). Too often these members get brushed aside. But where true brotherhood prevails, the needs of all the members will be met. Every family in the congregation should have caring friends. Every family should be invited out for meals periodically. Every family should feel needed. All of these brotherhood principles will help us to overcome emotional struggles amongst us.

If we don’t love the brother and sister that lives amongst us, how can we claim to love God, whom we have never seen (1 John 4:20)?

Standing By…

The husband, wife, or parents of an emotional victim can be under a very heavy load. They probably need your love and prayers as much as the sufferer himself. Sometimes well meaning people add to this load by giving ill-considered advice and criticism. Normally the best thing we can do for such people is to show that we love them and are praying for them. If they ask us for advice, we should be careful how we give it, and assure them of our support even if they do not take it. Give such a person a chance to share his frustrations, or he may well be the next person down.

Sometimes, in their concern for their child or spouse, parents or a spouse will take a course that we feel was ill-advised, or even harmful. However, we need to remember that they took this course with the best of intentions. It is not fair to be critical in such situations. They tried the best they knew and should receive credit for that attempt. Never, never, tell such persons, I told you so.

A Word to Counselors

The Bible has many promises for the distressed Christian. However, the emotional sufferer is often not capable of finding these or understanding them. If the mentor is able to pray with him and point out such promises, he may find some comfort.

One thing that an emotional sufferer wants above all else is understanding. Point out to him that Jesus understands, and read Hebrews 4:15. Also point out that Jesus desires to give him rest, and read Matthew 11:28.

Don’t pressure someone, if what you are saying doesn’t seem to sink in. Be gentle and try again another time. But your goal should be eventually to help the sufferer to find rest and understanding in Christ. In the meantime, be sure he can find it in you.

Should We Take Medication?

In the past, taking medication for emotional problems has been unpopular in some church circles. This is sometimes tied to the idea that all emotional needs are merely spiritual problems in sheep’s clothing.

It is true that some people go running for pills at every little problem, and that these pills can become a serious crutch. In fact, an improper use of pills can even cause emotional problems. It is good for close family members to be acquainted with the possible side effects of the medication that is used. The patient themselves may not be able to handle that information due to the nature of their problem.

I also agree that it is ideal to help a person through his valley without drugs, or by the help of nutritional-type therapy, if possible. But I also know of some good solid Christians who will probably be on medication for the rest of their lives. There is no stigma in taking medication for emotional needs. People have stopped taking pills because they sensed this kind of feeling amongst others, and have suffered serious consequences. (To be fair, we should add that others have stopped and found that they did as well or better without the medication.) There is a proper time for family members to discuss medication needs with a doctor. Perhaps a change would be helpful. But be very cautious about making changes on your own, since you could easily do more damage than good.

Various breakthroughs in this area of medicine and nutrition have been made in the last decades. Sometimes temporary medication can give a needed boost. In such a case, medication can help to bring healing to the point that the issues which caused the problem can be addressed.

What About Professional Help?

If you feel that you need professional help, start with your family doctor. An in-depth physical checkup may reveal physical reasons for the problems. For instance, low blood sugar conditions such as hypoglycemia are notorious for disrupting people’s emotional conditions. In sisters, hormone imbalances can work havoc at certain times of life. Even your eating, sleeping, and exercise  habits can come into focus. Some common sense adjustments in these areas can sometimes work wonders. If not, your family doctor can often give you good advice for seeking further help.

The question of going to professional counselors or specialists may be more controversial than the question of medication. Generally each case needs to be evaluated on its own merits, but there are times that it seems necessary to go for professional help. If you can find a trained practitioner who has sympathy for Christian values, you  may receive some genuine help.

Evaluate the practitioner carefully, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. In general a psychiatrist is to be preferred over a psychologist, since a psychiatrist is trained to work with the physical mechanisms that affect the mind. The psychologist will generally zero in on pseudo-spiritual reasons for the problems, though in actual practice the boundaries between the two fields are probably getting rather blurred.

Note that we should always avoid specialists who treat their patients from the Freudian school of thought, no matter what title they give to themselves. Do not, under any circumstances, allow your spouse or child to undergo psychological counseling or therapy. Psychotherapy is based on a philosophy that is opposed to Biblical concepts of dealing with sin and guilt. It operates under the assumption that the patient is suffering from suppressed guilt or suppressed memories and deals with it helping the patient to blame others for his difficulties—certainly not a Scriptural approach. This perspective can do much spiritual damage to an emotional sufferer, since such practitioners often try to pin a patient’s problems on the high standard of Christian victory that we believe to be necessary. (See also the first article in this series.)

Here again, if you have a family doctor who understands your convictions, he or she will be able to give you some good guidance. If the problem is emotional in nature, sympathetic counsel from a spiritual advisor may be all the sufferer needs. If it is a deeper mental disorder, you should consider professional help as soon as possible. In many cases this is not necessary, however, and you should work with both your ministry and your doctor if you are considering such a step.

An Ounce of Prevention

Some feel that emotional problems show a lack of trust in God. On occasion this may be true, and it is always proper to encourage people to trust in God. However, it  does NOT work to go to a person in the valley and tell him to snap out of it and trust in God. Instead, we should be helping our entire congregation to understand God’s character. God does love us. He does care for us. We can lean on Him in times of trial and stress. He does have answers and He does not despise us for our weakness.

Along with this, we need to teach and practice brotherhood in our congregations. Every brother and sister should feel needed and appreciated. Every brother and sister should sense that they are part of a caring brotherhood relationship.

All of these things can be a comfort to the person in distress if they have been taught to him before he lands in the valley.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Hopefully by applying some of the ideas in this series, along with common sense, Biblical principles and, where necessary, medical assistance, the suffering one can find relief and begin to rebuild his life. But that is not the end.

First of all, just because a person has a good week, don’t consider him healed. Inevitably there will be some reverses. But gradually the time between relapses should lengthen, and the relapses should become shorter and less severe. It is nothing new for this process to take several years.

The mentors should expect to be available for quite a while, but should start helping the recovering brother or sister to make sound choices in life style and spirituality that will help to keep the problem from recurring (note that physical fitness can be an important factor in emotional health). It is good to gradually wean the recovered brother or sister from being overly dependant on the mentors, as time goes on. It is ideal for him or her to gradually replace this relationship with a close relationship with Christ and the congregation in general. Probably there will always be a close friendship with the mentors, but we should discourage a permanent spiritual dependency.

But none of this will take place over night.

In Conclusion…

Emotional needs will inevitably surface amongst us. How we deal with these needs tells us a lot about the depth of brotherhood that exists amongst us. God has given us the poor and the needy to test our spiritual commitment and love. When one member of the congregation hurts, all other members should hurt with him. Something is seriously wrong when a congregation responds to a hurting brother or sister by casting stones.


Emotional Difficulties in the Brotherhood: Part Three

Healing the Brokenhearted

In the preceding two articles we examined how sin and guilt can cause emotional struggles, and the false assumptions of Christian psychology in dealing with these struggles. We also gave some illustrations of other things that may cause emotional struggles. In this article we want to give some practical helps for relating to people with such struggles. If you have not read the other articles you should do so in order to properly understand this one.

1.                  Bearing the Infirmities of the Weak

Romans 15:1 provides a Biblical basis for this month’s discussion: “We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” Many times it would be easier to ignore the weak and go on our way, but that is not the Scriptural way.

In the parable of the good Samaritan the priest and the Levite saw a fellow Jew laying in the ditch, wounded and dying. Both walked past without offering any help or sympathy. But the despised Samaritan saw a brother who needed help. He stopped and did what he could for him. He willingly changed his schedule and bore the extra cost of helping him.

It is a challenge to us to do the same for those with emotional difficulties. Yes, it may be unhandy, costly, and even embarrassing on occasion. And yes, we may see some obvious mistakes that the sufferer made that seem to have caused his or her condition. But we have a spiritual and brotherhood obligation to such that we cannot overlook.

Jesus told the Nazarenes, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised” (Luke 4:18 ).  He told the lawyer in Matthew 22:36-40 that the greatest of the commandments was to love God, and that the second greatest was to love your neighbor as yourself. Surely a brother or sister in the congregation struggling with emotional difficulties would be one of the brokenhearted Jesus came to heal, and one of the neighbors that He tells us to love.


2.                  Helps and Hindrances

Last month’s article gave some illustrations which have already suggested some ways to help people with emotional difficulties, and also some things that will make them worse. Let’s discuss some of these a little further.

Situations vary so much that again we are in danger of making sweeping and useless generalizations. However, in every such situation people have the right to the uncritical support and sympathy of their brethren and sisters. In some cases the sufferer will feel compelled to talk about his troubles to every person he meets. In other cases, he will find it impossible to talk, and may even be unable to face others at all. In both cases it is very important for brothers and sisters to be understanding, either by giving a listening ear, or by staying out of the way. Most of all, we must fight the compulsion to shower the sufferer with advice and home remedies!

Almost all victims of emotional breakdown have a mentor or two they cling to. It is important for this person to stay current with the situation and be available at any time of the day or night. He or she needs to take seriously the Biblical instruction to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, because an emotional sufferer will often be quite unstable, going from highs to lows quite quickly. Never belittle the joys or the sorrows that he is facing. This seldom does anything but shut the door to further communication. An emotional sufferer who will not communicate with anyone can seldom be helped. It is important for them to have a release valve somewhere.

Sometimes a victim may actually decide to do something quite foolish, such as leave home. To them it may seem like a sensible thing to do at the time. The important thing at such a time is to stay calm and not act shocked. Note that if they talk about the impulse, often they will get it out of their system that way. But if you act horrified and start “preaching” at them, they will clam up and may even do serious injury to themselves. It may, of course, be necessary to stop them from doing something they intended. Since they are not thinking straight at that point, it is often possible to get them sidetracked. Perhaps you can suggest eating supper first, or waiting until tomorrow when it stops raining. By then they will generally realize how foolish their idea was.

When a person has sunk this far into emotional despair it is important for someone to have a relationship with them that is close enough that such impulses come out in the open before they can be acted on. Of course, such a person should never be left alone.

If the emotional difficulties have been brought on by financial difficulties, or similar problems, it is sometimes helpful for someone else to take over the responsibility for awhile.

3.                  Is it a Spiritual Problem?

What if it is obvious that the situation was sparked by a spiritual problem? Spiritual stress can trigger the kind of emotional difficulty that we are discussing here. In that case, it will be necessary to get to the root of the spiritual problem in order for the struggling one to find true healing. However, we need to approach such a situation very carefully, and we had better be very sure of ourselves.

It the emotional problem is the result of known sin, and the sinner refuses our spiritual help, we can do little more. We cannot really offer such a person the promises of God outside the framework of repentance. To do so would be to give him a false hope, and would be reverting to the errors of psychology.

However, if the problem in focus is simply some unwise moves, or some mistakes the person made we should probably leave it alone until his emotional problem has been reversed. A deeply depressed and hurting person is not ready to be told where he has failed. If the sufferer volunteers information about a spiritual problem, we can help them with it. It is always proper to ask, in general terms, if the victim wants to share what they are struggling with.  But we should never accuse a person of sin or spiritual problems, simply because he is experiencing emotional struggles. To do so will generally drive him deeper into despair.

Sometimes we simply will not know for sure if the emotional condition is the result of a spiritual condition or not. The sufferer himself may not know for sure. In such a situation we do well to simply emulate the Lord as He dealt with Job, Elijah, and John the Baptist. Help them get their eyes off themselves and on to Christ. If they do this, the rest will fall into place. God will be faithful in pointing out to the individual what he needs to look after. What God ignores, we can safely ignore as well.

4.                  The Role of the Leader

It is ideal if the sufferer is relating to one of his ministry as a mentor. A sympathetic,  experienced, spiritual leader can provide balanced help. However, for some reason, some emotional sufferers seem to shy away from their ministry, choosing rather to share with a close friend. It is sometimes hard for church leaders to accept this, and they may even feel slighted or bypassed. Church leaders can do a lot of damage to the situation, unintentionally, at a time like this if they are not careful. It may be necessary for them to step back for a time and let someone else in the congregation deal with the situation.

It is important, however, for the mentor in the situation to stay in contact with the ministry throughout this time, so that they know what is happening. An experienced leader can be an invaluable counselor during such a time. This can, however, become a very touchy issue, since the emotional sufferer also needs to feel that their mentor is keeping their confidence, or they may clam up. Not everything needs to be shared, other then perhaps in general terms, and understanding leaders will support this.

Some people in the congregation will not understand the situation. Some may demand action. Others will feel rebuffed and left out. The ministry fills an important role as a buffer zone between the sufferer and the congregation. The entire situation, if handled discretely, may well build up a level of confidence between the sufferer and his leaders that will help to keep the situation from recurring.

Someone is sure to question the last several paragraphs. Is the sufferer’s aloofness from the ministry not proof of a spiritual problem? Maybe so, but not necessarily. We need to remember that people under this kind of stress are not quite rational. They have abnormal fears and phobias. One of these can be the fear of authority. The minister represents authority, and the sufferer may well have an irrational fear that he will be excommunicated for his problems. That can add serious dimensions to the problem, and it is important for ministry to be understanding. If leaders build up a relationship with their people during good times, so that their members view them as close friends, it is much easier for them to help someone weather a bad time.

Of course it is not always this way. Sometimes such a person will cling to their ministry in a way that becomes almost embarrassing, especially if the sufferer is an unmarried sister. Leaders need to seek much grace and wisdom from God (and counsel from fellow leaders) in dealing with such difficulties, and their wives will need to curb any feelings of jealousy and antagonism. Unmarried sisters occasionally seem to enjoy the special attention they get from a leader at such times. If this surfaces, it may need addressing. It is always wise for the leaders wife to be along on such occasions. If the sister in question starts to ask for personal interviews, and resents the presence of the leader’s wife, it is probably a sign of a deeper problem than an emotional one.

5.                  A Closer Look

Emotional sufferers can sense a kindred spirit a mile away, it seems. They may quickly build up a friendship with someone they hardly know, because of a common experience. This can be good. For instance, in the case of a mother with the “baby blues” or a young wife who has just had a miscarriage or lost a baby, no one will be able to help like another mother who has faced the same thing. Wise is the church leader who understands this and even initiates such a contact by asking someone with experience to visit the struggling person.

Emotional sufferers often feel that someone who has not been through the valley does not understand them. They will tend to put up a barrier immediately against such persons when they try to help. This person may feel he understands and has some important answers, and may even feel hurt that the sufferer will not open up to him as he does to some other brother or sister. In a Christian brotherhood where true love exists, these feelings will be pushed aside. We should be glad if someone else can help, even if he seems like an unlikely candidate to do so.

We could note too that a person with an emotional breakdown should not be allowed to simply sit and think about his problems. If at all possible get him doing something, or get him interested in helping you do something. The more that people sit and think about their problems the bigger their mountains become. If you can interest the sufferer in helping someone else in need, so much the better. (But do NOT make remarks like: Look at Sister Cecilia—her lot in life is worse than yours…)

It will also be helpful for the sufferer to maintain a disciplined schedule. Don’t let him lie in bed until 10:00 in the morning, or stay up until midnight. Again this may need to be played by ear, but there is a certain amount of security in a schedule. Include enough time for rest in the schedule (with a nap after lunch), since sleep is a natural healer. Also, be sure that the suffer has a nutritious diet, and enough exercise. These may seem like minor items, but all will be helpful in the long run.

Even a person with emotional difficulties can normally do some things. They may dread something, but if they can be encouraged to do it, they will feel good about the accomplishment. This will gradually help to restore a proper mental attitude towards themselves.

Again, take each case on its own in deciding these things. Where the emotional needs are caused by physical weakness, of course you need to take this into consideration.

6.                  Next Month

In the final installment of this series, we want to speak more directly to those called on to counsel or support those in emotional difficulties. We will also address the question of getting professional aid.

Emotional Difficulties in the Brotherhood: Part Two

Emotional Stress in the Brotherhood

Last month we looked at how NOT to deal with emotional stress. We also looked at the effects of sin and guilt on emotional stress. Now this month we want to look at another form of emotional stress sometimes found in our congregations.

1.                  Defining our Premise

First of all, what do we mean by emotional stress? There are many shades and forms of emotional stresses, but basically we are talking about a person who cannot function normally with the regular routine of life because of his condition, or who is in danger of getting to this point.

Such people may not be able to attend church or visit for extended periods and may even find it too tiring to read. It is true that we believe that God provides for His own, even in times of weakness. Many saints have died victoriously in severely weakened conditions. Yet there are many trial associated with such a state, which can seriously weaken a Christian’s emotions. (Note that we are not speaking of sinful attitudes or responses here. See further below.)

We could illustrate it this way…

The man who screams as he loses his arm in a piece of machinery does not necessarily have an emotional problem; his response is natural.  However, if he cries some weeks later because he spilled a glass of water, his overreaction indicates an emotional problem, likely brought on by the stresses involved in his accident.  If he stares off into space, unaware of a child who has crawled onto his knee, his under-reaction indicates the same thing.

Perhaps we can further define our premise by giving more true-to-life examples…

2.                  A Biblical Scenario…

Job is one of the most interesting Biblical examples of a person facing  emotional stress. Job was an example of the kind of believer that all of us strive to be, but too few of us attain to. (God even used him as an illustration of perfection to Satan.) In fact, God was so sure of Job’s spiritual strength and integrity that He allowed Satan to attack him, with very few restrictions.

This was an immensely stressful situation for Job. Not only did he lose almost all his possessions, but he also lost all of his children. On top of this, he fell ill with a very painful disease, his wife turned against him, and his friends accused him of being a sinner, reaping what he deserved.

Job, of course, had no idea why this all took place. It seemed very unfair to him (Job 19:6, 7). In his heart he knew his own integrity and faithfulness. He did not deserve to be treated like this! But Job chose to believe that God was in control and he chose to trust God even if God slew him (Job 13:15).

Job’s ignorance was an important part of the test, of course. He did not know that his life was a battleground between God and Satan, and that God was using him as an object lesson to prove that a faithful man would trust God in adversity. Had he known, the test would not have been a typical one, and would have proved nothing.

Most of the book of Job is a record of the dialog between Job and his friends. We can sense the increasing frustration on his part, as we read, and see the increased stress as his words become more intense and less rational. He cursed the day he was born, he questioned why God seemed silent and distant, and he spoke forcefully to the “friends” who came to help him, calling them “miserable comforters.” Yet in all this Job’s spiritual integrity remained intact.

God, of course, listened in on Job’s discourses. He noted that Job could benefit from a lesson in humility. At the end of the book, God reminded Job through a series of questions, how little he really knew, even about the natural things that were around him all the time. The inference was: If you know this little about the natural things of life, how can you raise questions about supernatural, spiritual issues? How can you question God, and His ways? In his physical and emotional extremity, Job had gone beyond human propriety in speaking of God and in trying to expose God’s intentions.

But it is interesting that God did not accuse Job of sinning. Instead, at the end of the book, He told Job’s friends that Job had spoken rightly about Him, and that they were wrong.

3.                  More Scenarios

Elijah provides another Biblical example of the effects of  stress. In spite of the miraculous way that God had just worked through him, Elijah fled from Jezebel’s opposition. Evidently, perhaps because of his doubt and fears, he sank into a state of deep depression.

But God did not forsake Elijah in his need. First, He sent an angel to feed him. Then He gave him strength to travel forty days to the mount of God. Then He gave him a group of object lessons, before finally speaking in a still small voice.

God’s way of dealing with Elijah is quite revealing. He asked: Why are you here, Elijah?

Elijah poured out his heart to God. Everyone has forsaken the faith, he said. I alone am left.

No, you aren’t, God assured him. I have over 7,000 followers left in Israel. You are not alone. Furthermore, God added, I have some work for you to do for me. You are still needed.

Here are some more up-to-date examples…

Take, for instance, the fairly common condition often called “baby blues”. A young mother has a baby, and loves it. But gradually she finds herself succumbing to the pressures of looking after it. She may have other children that demand her attention. Perhaps her husband works away, and she doesn’t have a lot of help to keep up with the housekeeping, but is still weak from having had a baby. She starts to feel depressed with her situation, and her work load begins to look bigger and bigger. Perhaps it is canning season, or she has a problem child to cope with, or both. Whatever the reason, the pressures finally build up to the point that she becomes physically or emotionally unable to guide the house. She begins to lose sleep and she might cry at little crises that did not affect her that way before. Often she will also need help to avoid negative attitudes. She may even need to be released from her duties for a time.

For another instance, take the young brother who is getting a start in business and has some financial reverses. To make ends meet he starts to burn the candle at both ends, getting up early and working late. When he does get to bed he is too tense to sleep and lies there calculating how many bills he can pay with the money he will get next week for some work he is doing. To top it off, the car is making trouble, one of the children needs dental work, and the deacon has put out a plea for money to help with a special need. Gradually this brother’s tension builds up  and he starts to lose his initiative. Work he once enjoyed becomes a drudgery. He may speak more curtly to his friends, or begin to avoid them, and little molehills become mountains. He prays and God does not seem to hear him. He sleeps less than ever.

We could mention mothers battling with hormone changes. Or children growing up in a stressful home setting where one parent is a Christian and the other is ardently opposed to it. Or a young person with a physical or nutritional deficiency or a chemical imbalance, ADD, or fetal alcohol syndrome. Or the family caught in the middle of a congregation that is not at rest. These are not excuses to sin or to curse God. But they do at times result in emotional difficulties for some people if not countered by the right response from the Christian brotherhood.

4.                  Do Emotional Difficulties Denote Sin?

The question of whether or not sin was involved in a given emotional problem can be a difficult one because few people handle their troubles perfectly. Probably we could find a failure in any situation if we look hard enough. What should a friend or counselor do about this?  Here we could point to the example of the Lord as He dealt with Elijah, with Job, and with John the Baptist (Matthew 11:1-11).  In all three cases one could criticize the sufferers for the sin of “faithlessness” and perhaps more.  But the Lord did not focus on this.  His rebukes, if any, were very mild.  Rather He offered encouragement and reassurance, getting these men to look away from themselves to Himself.  His example stands in sharp contrast to Job’s friends, who kept trying to solve Job’s problems by urging him to confess sin, and even suggested what sins they were.

It is true that the people in the above scenarios made some mistakes. Job did, and Elijah did. Almost certainly the young man with financial difficulties also did. Were they sins? It depends on our interpretation of the word and the circumstances.

In I John 5:16, 17 John speaks of a “sin not unto death.” This verse has been interpreted various ways, and may be speaking of those areas of immaturity where we still need to grow closer to the Lord. Personally, I think it could also refer to a situation like the above, where the person in question was under so much stress that they did not realize what they were doing or saying. Later, perhaps, the Lord will speak to them like He did to Job and help them to make things right. But the Lord also overlooked a substantial part of what Job said, simply because He knew Job and the attitude of his heart.

There is little difference in the situation of a person who does not understand because of a lack of maturity, and the one who, like Job, makes foolish statements because of emotional stress.

We are zeroing in on those situations in this article, not on the cases where the emotional stress is directly caused by sin and guilt. Much of the emotional distress in the world is caused by sin. People live with guilt every day of their lives. It is no wonder that the world needs psychologists, mental institutions, and nerve medication.

However, in the church, there should be very little ongoing emotional stress caused by sin and guilt. But that does not make us immune to emotional stress, and it is important that we know how to help brothers and sisters who are allowed to experience such a situation. Note that not every case will fit into these scenarios in every detail. A series of this size cannot deal with all of the possible variations of emotional suffering. I have attempted to give some general guidelines to deal with the more common symptoms.

5.                  Causes and Effects

In many of our backgrounds “nerve trouble” was considered to be either a spiritual problem, or a mental weakness. In either case people under emotional stress were often looked at in derision, especially if they required medication to help them back on their feet. Some of this attitude still prevails amongst us at times. This has the potential to do a lot of damage, since such people often have an almost uncanny ability to detect how people feel about them. People in this condition already experience great enough trials, without being stigmatized on top of it.

What causes emotional stress of the magnitude we are discussing? The individual causes are as diversified as the individuals involved. Family members or friends closely involved in the situation are probably best able to diagnose this. However, normally it is brought on during a time of physical or emotional weakness by some area in the individual’s life being overtaxed.

Our responses to the emotional stress of others can either make them stronger or more susceptible to Satan’s attacks. I could give other real life examples, but for the sake of anonymity, let’s look further at the two true-to-life examples above.

First, take the young mother with the “baby blues.” During the early stages, this mother can be helped fairly easily by brotherhood and family support, in spite of her condition. But, if her husband is unsympathetic and grouchy; if she can’t get a maid for a few weeks; and if she can’t find a “sympathetic” sister to share her struggles with, her problem may become more serious. Her trials will increase if she discovers that her church sisters have been talking about her incompetence, or if the minister’s wife starts dropping unsettling remarks to her about attitudes and spiritual problems.

(It is true that Job retained his integrity and that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness. We do not turn our back on God just because we are unable to function normally. But that is not an acceptable reason for making life more difficult than necessary for such a person. God will hold us accountable for such actions. I believe we could apply the principles of Matthew 18:6, 7 to this situation without discrediting the Scriptures.)

Or take the young brother with financial difficulties. At this point, like the sister above, a caring brotherhood can provide the help he needs. But if his wife starts to hound him about his incompetence (reminding him that Brother Sam is making a go of itand getting his bills paid); or if the deacon reminds him that his school donations are falling behind; or merely if he can’t find someone sympathetic to share his struggles with, his plight may become more complicated. And if, along with this, he discovers that some of his brethren think he has a problem with laziness; or if the ministry begins to drop hints of possible church censure for mismanagement, then his faith would be severely tried. May God help us not to play into the enemy’s hands in this way.

These two examples are typical of other possible scenarios. A situation like this may drag on for months and years, just below the surface, until a crisis forces it into the open.

What can we do to help such brothers and sisters? We will look at some practical helps next month.

Fundamentalist Mennonite Churches

I don’t think we realize how much influence that Fundamentalism has had on Conservative Mennonites. If you look at the older confessions of faith, you will see that all of them start out with a statement about God. Ever since 1920, however, most of our confessions of faith have started with a statement about the Bible.  Here’s how that strikes me…

The older Anabaptist approach was to emphasize our relationship with God. The fundamentalists changed this – they emphasized the Bible instead, using it like a formula for spiritual success. If you think about this for a little, I think you will see that this makes for some subtle differences.

The Anabaptists didn’t belittle the scriptures. But they viewed them as one way, along with others, that God used to speak to people. They read the Bible because of a consuming desire to understand the mind of Christ rather to find a formula for pleasing God. To them a relationship with Christ was everything, and they read the Bible to understand Christ better.
The fundamentalists changed that.  They held their relationship with the Bible above their relationship with Christ. In many cases this led to people having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof.
Conservative Mennonites have adopted this approach but taken it to another level. They build a layer of church “standards” and rules on top of the Bible. That tends to remove them another step from Christ, because often the typical member is more worried about pleasing other members than he is about pleasing Christ.
We tend to take the fundamentalist approach by default (after all, it sounds so good). We start with Guidelines, as a way to shore up what the Bible says and make sure that we aren’t disobeying any of its principles. We assume that this is because we want to glorify Christ. But in reality, we don’t spend a lot of time in glorifying Christ. Instead we try to put together a formula that will do it for us.
I think we should reverse our priorities rather than taking the Fundamentalist approach. We need to come to Christ first and emphasize building a relationship with Him. To maintain this, and strengthen it, we will read the Bible to learn more about the mind of Christ. As we do this our relationship with Him will prompt us to follow His direction.
This approach will also lead us to brotherhood with other Christians. Together, we will try to weed out the things in our lives that would destroy our relationship with Christ. This will probably mean that we will draw up some interpretations and guidelines. But somehow, I still feel that if we get the first two in place the latter won’t be needed nearly as much.
I know that isn’t very popular thinking among conservatives. Depending on your background, it probably sounds rather dangerous to you. But give it some serious thought before you just brush it aside….


God’s People and Authority

     It was a beautiful summer day in 1692 in rural Switzerland. The little house in the trees overlooked some of the world’s most beautiful scenery—yellow fields of ripening grain, bordered by green forests reaching far up the slopes of the towering, snow capped Swiss Alps. In fact, to an onlooker, the whole picture was an eye-catching panorama of beauty and tranquility.
      But the meeting taking place inside the house reflected little of the serenity of its natural setting.
     Inside the house, grim looking men sat on hard chairs placed in a circle around the walls of a plain parlor. The meeting, apparently, had not been a pleasant one. They didn’t know it, but the aftermath of that day’s discussion would impact the lives of thousands of people over the next centuries. In fact, only eternity will reveal how many people in the past 300 years have been lost because of what came out of that meeting.
      It shouldn’t have turned out that way. You see, these men were ministers—leaders of Anabaptist congregations gathered in common concern for their people. The meeting had been intended to be about the apostasy and drift of the Swiss churches, but the focus had become authority.
      Since this scenario has been replayed dozens of times in the intervening years, we want to examine this meeting and its context a little closer.

      All eyes were on the austere man who earnestly addressed the group. Everyone present knew that the small group of visitors he represented had a genuine concern. Things were not quite as they should have been in the Swiss churches, and they all knew it. Most of the men present would have liked to do something about it. However, they had a problem.

     First of all, the bishop addressing them was a visitor, with no authority in the local setting. He had not been invited, but had come on his own accord to share his concerns. Secondly, the local bishop had refused to come to the meeting, which had been called by the visitors. Perhaps, he resented the intrusion into his territory. Perhaps, he didn’t fully agree with their concerns and this was the easiest way to avoid a conflict. Or, perhaps he was just too busy with his farm work to come to the meeting—at least this was what he told the messenger they sent to beg him to join them.
     This was one reason for the grim looks on everyone’s face. The visiting bishop insisted that the group needed to take disciplinary action against the local bishop for refusing to come to the meeting. Apparently he had anticipated that this would happen because he pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket, on which he had written an indictment of excommunication against his fellow bishop.
     This alone would have caused the grim faces, but the visitor didn’t stop there. He went around the circle of leaders and asked them one by one whether they supported his action. Undoubtedly many of the men faced with this ultimatum wished they had done as their bishop had, and stayed home to harvest their fields. But the visitor was inexorable in his purpose. He would break down the rebellion in these Swiss congregations and he would start at the very top. This was a no-holds-barred battle. If any leader refused to support the action, or even if he just asked for more time to consider it, the visitor excommunicated him on the spot.
     Naturally the room pulsated with tension and consternation, but one man was brave enough to raise the real issue. “I can’t make this decision,” he said. “I have to bring this to my congregation.”
     You’re a liar,” sneered the visitor. And he excommunicated him on the spot.

     The visitor was not satisfied with this. He called for every member of every congregation in that part of Switzerland to meet with him and give assent to the action taken. Any who refused or did not agree with him were summarily dealt with. 
     All in the name of Christ, who had given the visitor both the authority and the duty to deal with sin in the Church.

     The question at the heart of the above scenario was not sin in the church. It had nothing to do with apostasy and drift in the church. Rather the question was one of authority. The visiting bishop was the final authority in his group of congregations. He had the right to handle such situations according to his personal inclination, since he was God’s representative on earth.
     It is possible that he didn’t know that the Swiss congregations did not give this kind of authority to their leaders. The minister who spoke up and said he needed to take the issue to his congregation was right, even though the visitor called him a liar (this is documented history). The Swiss congregations placed the final authority for such decisions in the hands of the congregation, not in the hands of a bishop or group of ministers. According to the writings of the time, the minister who faced this dilemma actually sympathized with the concerns brought by the visitor, and would have gladly worked with him to bring about a solution. It is possible that his congregation would have agreed with him in this situation.
     This, of course, is an extreme illustration. But the question has been debated ever since by Anabaptists. Who is the final authority in church life? Is it the bishop? Is it a group of bishops? Is it a local bishop, along with the ministers? Or is it the entire local body of believers, the local body of Christ?
     Most conservative groups would be quick to tell you that God is the authority in their congregations. Then they would add that the Bible is final authority because it is God’s revelation. Probably they would also add that the Holy Spirit is part of this because He interprets the Bible to us. Probably most would also say that they take questions to their congregations to discuss. But finally the question still exists: When it all comes down to deciding what God wants in a given situation, and there is no direct Biblical precedent, who decides? Where is the authority vested?[i]


     It is true that we are more interested in being Biblical than we are in results, since bad results are not always the result of bad choices. Yet, in the long run, results do tell us something. And we have some very good prototypes to look at in church history when we think about the subject of authority in the church.

     The Dutch Anabaptists were very similar to the illustration above. For instance, it is said that most Dutch Mennonites of the 16th and 17th centuries were excommunicated three or four times in their lifetime, generally through no fault of their own. Leaders had the habit of excommunicating entire neighboring congregations when disagreements arose. Menno Simons tended to be less harsh in his leadership than some, but his fellow bishops, Leonard Boewens and Dirk Philips, were very stringent in their use (and abuse) of excommunication. They ended up locking horns themselves, and Leonard silenced Dirk. When Leonard died, Menno Simons reinstated Dirk.
     Due for the most part to such leadership tendencies, the Dutch church splintered into various groups. Most of these divisions were caused by disagreements about unimportant interpretations of various biblical principles. The deep hurts caused by them led to years of bitterness in the church experience of many innocent people. Eventually, in spite of all the strong leaders who stood strong to the end on their personal beliefs, almost all of the Dutch churches fell into apostasy. In fact they fell away much quicker than their neighbors, the Swiss Brethren.
     Most of the remnant groups that laid the foundations for the American Mennonite churches came from the Swiss Brethren congregations which we mentioned earlier. These congregations faced bitter persecution for years, and eventually died out as well. But they laid the groundwork for many remnant congregations. They did this in spite of their lack of strong administrative authority and discipline, such as the Dutch practiced. They did this in spite of their lack of church districts and conference structure, which were also very important to the Dutch. They did this in spite of their belief that the entire congregation was part of the administrative authority in the church, which the Dutch did not practice.
     We are often told that strong leadership authority and strong church structure, as practiced by the Dutch churches, is the only hope for the survival of our churches. According to this, the Swiss should have apostatized much sooner than the Dutch. Yet when you look at history, you see the opposite.[ii]

What Place Does Authority Have?

     The intent of this article is to speak against the wrong use of authority, not to denigrate all authority. The Bible is clear that God’s people need leaders, and that they must lead in order to perform their duty. But it is very easy for leaders to become powerful and lose their way. That is my concern.

     God’s people are the church. And even the leaders of God’s people ignore the church at their own peril. It is true that a godly leader should obey God in all things. But if He finds himself standing alone on issue after issue, then something has gone sadly amiss. Any group kept from drifting by sheer authority has already lost its way.
     In fact, I would suggest that probably it would be better for a leader to temporarily allow some things in his congregation that he is not happy with, and retain the congregation’s cooperation than to become a dictator. This will give him time to share his concerns, to teach them, and to help the congregation regain conviction. As a dictator he may temporarily win the battle, but he will do so at loss of his spiritual respect.
     In general, a well taught congregation that respects its leaders will honor the convictions of its leaders. If it doesn’t the leader should probably check his own heart. The problem may well start there. If he lays open his own heart to his brethren, and asks for their help in dealing first with his own problems, and then with the group’s problems, things will begin to happen.

[i]  This is not the complete story, as one reviewer told me. The point of this article is not to evaluate the Amish division. Rather, I have simply used this as an illustration of the wrong use of authority. The Amish, including Jacob Amman (the bishop above) later admitted this in writing, in a letter of apology.
[ii]  As someone noted when reading this manuscript, this could be an oversimplification. The German / Russian Mennonite groups had Dutch background. But they basically kept their form rather than their spirituality. The Hutterites survived longer, but it was their emphasis on brotherhood and evangelism, rather than an authority emphasis, that was at the root of their survival. The Swiss Mennonites and a few Amish groups were basically the only groups who survived into the 20th century as spiritual groups.

Ant Hill Kids…

Ant Hill Kids, People’s Temple, and Conservative Mennonites

I never met Jim Jones, but I remember his story very clearly. My wife and I were barely back from our honeymoon in 1978 when he forced hundreds of faithful People’s Temple followers to commit suicide by drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. Soldiers from the US armed forces cleaned up the mess and found his body with the rest. He had promised his followers that they would regroup in the next world, where unfriendly governments would not hinder them.

More recently, Roch Theriault, the former doomsday leader of the “Ant Hill Kids” cult in Ontario was murdered in his prison cell – a fitting end to a life that left many innocent people scarred for life.

Perhaps one can hardly call adult followers of Jim Jones and Roch Theriault innocent, but the children they took with them in their deception certainly were. We would hardly want to describe on paper the immoral life style that these two men forced on their followers. Both of them are now in the hands of God, who will judge them with a righteous judgment.

Why do people join cults?

Cults appeal to people who are looking for security. Since cults do the thinking for their members, it means that they do not have to make choices for themselves. Most cults believe that obedience and submission are the doors to eternal life. They do not want members thinking for themselves: obedience is a virtue, but analysis is not. This process appeals to insecure people who are trying to please God. It relieves them of responsibility.

Some people believe the cult’s teaching, and join because they agree with them. Others join because they can be part of something important, or because the cult will meet their financial needs in return for their submission. Some join because of the charisma of a revered leader in the cult. And finally, some join because they have been deceived.

Why do people stay in cults?

Some people actually believe what the cult is teaching. They are dedicated members, passing out the cult propaganda to “unbelievers” and trying to convert them. These are the people who tend to become leaders and teachers within the group. They would not consider leaving for the same reason that Theriault’s wives kept visiting him in prison – they believed in their messiah and would not forsake him.

Many people stay within the cult because that is the easiest thing for them to do. This is one reason that cults keep their people isolated. The cult is the only thing they are familiar with. Other environments are uncomfortable; it is easier to simply stick with what they know. After all, even if they don’t care for their environment, the unfamiliar one might be even worse. So why take a chance?

Even cult members who no longer agree with the teachings of their cult will often stick around because they are afraid that maybe they will be lost if they leave. They have been taught for years that their salvation depends on being part of the cult, and while they don’t really think that this is true, they can’t make themselves take the chance.

There are many ways to keep people from defecting besides using force. And most cults are experts at using emotional pressures such as guilt and humiliation to keep people under control. Even people who finally break free often suffer emotionally for years afterwards.

What are the characteristics of a cult?

Scholars have identified four basic characteristics of a cult, all of which have to do with personal control.

1. Behavior control, i.e monitoring of where members go and what they do.

2.  Information control, such as discouraging members from reading criticism of the group, or other information which would place the authority of the group at risk.

3.  Thought control, placing sharp limits on doctrinal questioning. This, along with the second one, controls members by controlling their minds and keeping them from doubting or resisting the teaching of the group.

4. Emotional control—using humiliation or guilt to keep members from rebelling against the cult leaders or the control of the group.

Along with these, you will find that most cults control the finances of their people, and almost all have an extreme and dictatorial leadership. (Often the cult is centered around the charisma of a particularly appealing leader.) And finally, cults tend to be secretive, restricting outside knowledge of what goes on within the group. As part of this process, they make it very difficult for members to leave the group.

Most cults would defend these controls as being for the good of their people. Almost all believe that the eternal salvation of their people depends on their support of the group and its controls.

What can we learn from this?

I am not trying to insinuate that Conservative Mennonites are a cult, or that we fall into the same slot as the People’s Temple or the Ant Hill Kids. However, structured, leadership oriented groups can slide into a cult-like rut if they aren’t careful.

For instance, our churches are bishop controlled. We believe in regulating behavior and appearance. We discourage our members, or even forbid them, to access certain types of news media. We warn against reading books that we feel would turn people against our way of life. Many of our leaders feel threatened if people ask questions about why we do what we do. And many conservative churches feel they have the right to forbid someone to move to another church setting, if they don’t agree with it in some (often minor) way. People who don’t submit without complaint in these areas are excommunicated or treated as if they were.

In many of these points we are simply trying to protect our people from worldly influences. But it is a fine line between asking our people to refrain from doing what would harm them and forbidding them to do it because the action would offend the authority of a leader.

Our churches do practice the four basic controls listed above, to some degree. We don’t apologize for giving guidelines to our people. Some books are wrong to read; some places are wrong to visit; and submission is necessary for everyone at times. But the other point, emotional control, can become a trap for us if we aren’t careful. Talented preachers can easily play on the emotions of their audience. This approach seldom builds solid convictions. In fact it can destroy people with over-sensitive consciences, and in the long run often hardens those who have under-sensitive consciences.

No, our churches aren’t cults. But let’s be sure that we do what we do because it is Biblical, not because we are slipping into a structure based system built on the authority of men.

The devil loves nothing better than to take a temple of God and turn it into a People’s Temple.

Behind the Scenes With God and Uncle Dale…

It’s been a number of years since I wrote the book, God and Uncle Dale. I’ve been surprised at the favorable responses the book received, and where those responses all came from. I’ve also been a bit surprised and sometimes nonplussed at the lessons some people have tried to lift from the book. I thought maybe people would be interested in my thoughts on some of this. 

You can normally order God and Uncle Dale online at Amazon.

A Surprise Audience

I haven’t kept a diary of the telephone calls and letters that I’ve received about God and Uncle Dale, so I’ll probably miss some things. But I noticed one surprising thing very soon after its release. The first people who called or wrote me about the book were older people. Many of them could remember being caught in circumstances similar to those recounted in the book.
I wrote the book especially for older teenagers and younger married couples. I didn’t anticipate this deep interest from people old enough to be my parents. In fact these people probably bought the majority of the first printing of the book, in some cases giving each of their children a copy. (The first printing sold out in less than three months.)
This doesn’t mean that younger people haven’t read the book. Many have, though I think it startled a lot of them because its setting is so foreign to their experience. In fact some of the younger men at Rod and Staff who reviewed the book were dubious about its veracity. It was pushed through by some older men who knew from personal experience the realities of what the families in the book faced.

Is This Merely a History Book?

The main characters in the book (especially Dale and Sheila) were actually fictional. The book was NOT about my uncle – that was a literary technique which somewhat embarrassed me by its success. Evidently some readers are not acquainted with some of the techniques used by authors to make a book seem more real. Also, Rod and Staff Publishers has a policy not to publish a book about living people, and they financed this book as well as publishing it. (One brother actually complained that the book should not have been published because he recognized a few of the background characters. However that could hardly be helped if the book was to remain true to the history of the times.) Had I used real people as the main characters in the book, I would have been forced to get into some weaknesses that would have been embarrassing to some people still living.
The book is true to life, however, and the main background events in it all happened. People who had been in similar situations caught the reality that was behind the scenes and I heard over and over, “That’s exactly what we went through.” In fact I heard various times, “We had it even worse than that.” Many younger people in our churches have a hard time comprehending that their parents or grandparents actually stuck it out in such a setting for as many years as they did.
I had to tone down the book substantially, especially in the area of immorality. Most younger readers, and some older ones, would be horrified if I shared some of the things that I know about the moral conduct of the youth and younger married couples in those settings during those years. Very little of this is even hinted at in the book, again due in part to publisher constraints, and partly due to my concern for the moral purity of the readers.
So it is certainly true that this is a book about history. This is a period of time that was very real and many who lived through it did not survive spiritually. In this book I wanted to show our youth where we came from, and why we have some of the concerns we do. But this book is about more than just history.

Is It a Warning Against Apostasy?

The fear of apostasy has been a major paranoia in conservative circles ever since the 1960’s. Not only will most conservative churches bend over backward to avoid worldly practices, they will also fervently avoid anything that could conceivably lead them astray down the road, no matter how far away that might be. The “Great Apostasy” almost became our nemesis, and we can’t forget that.
This book doesn’t pretend to comprehensively cover the reasons that the Mennonite churches drifted away from truth during the first part of the 20th century. It simply portrays what happened to one family within one congregation of that whole scenario. It’s true that it is a bit of a shock for conservative Mennonites to realize that a group of young folks could get together for a church function and end it by singing Elvis Presley’s greatest hits together and consider it normal. But that was part of the reality of the times.
It is also true that all of this could happen again to us. So some church leaders and parents have used this book to warn their youth that, “If you continue the course you are in, you will end up where the church in God and Uncle Dale was.”
But this book is more than just a history book intended to scare us into avoiding apostasy.

Is This Book About Nonconformity?

The doctrine of nonconformity in dress has been a mainstay of the conservative Mennonite church in North America in the past, though maybe not to the degree that many of our people have been led to believe.[1] It is certainly true that the mainstream Mennonite church lost most of its nonconformity in the decades before and after the 1960’s. Even some of the conservative minded people who finally left the mainstream churches had drifted a long way, though this is not always recognized. For instance, one brother who was quite young when his family was in this setting was very startled when he learned that his older sisters didn’t wear cape dresses at that time and that his father allowed it.
But I did not write this book to promote the plain coat and the cape dress. These two items were important in the book because they symbolized Biblical principles of separation, simplicity, and modesty — all of which were being lost in the main Mennonite settings. However, Christian people were obeying these principles long before the plain coat and cape dress were ever invented. The Mennonite churches did not go astray because they put aside some of these traditional garments. Rather they went astray because they ignored the clear Bible principles behind them.
So, while I am a strong believer in these Biblical doctrines, I did not write this book to promote any particular local interpretations of these doctrines.

One More Caveat

I suppose some people will be quite frustrated with me by now. I am not trying to belittle any of the points we have just discussed. All of them are true to a degree. But I feel we need to go beyond these ideas.
For instance, I believe that it is a mistake for us to be constantly making our choices in light of the “Great Apostasy”. I also believe that it is a mistake to live in constant fear of where a choice might take us. Certainly, we need to be sensible, and make Biblical, Spirit led, choices. But finally, it is most important that we choose in light of God’s will and direction. Rather than asking, “Will this action lead me to apostatize ten years down the road?”, I should be asking myself, “Is this God’s plan for my life?”
So, while I agree that each of the issues above is important, they were not my main purpose in writing this book.

Then Why DID I Write This Book?

Both Dale and Shelia were interested in serving God. Both wanted to do what was right. But Shelia failed and Dale succeeded. Why? Dale’s parents gave him some help that Shelia lacked, but the real reason went beyond that, since Dale’s help made up for most of that lack in Shelia’s life.
Dale succeeded because he made a serious effort to find out what God’s will was for his life. He studied his Bible, he prayed, he asked for advice. In other words, he succeeded because his spiritual life became an intensely personal thing for him. He had no church to fall back on to make his choices for him. His parents were too discouraged to really give him all the guidance he needed. (I think he would have succeeded even if his parents had failed.) He had to find his own way.
Shelia became so real to me during my writing that I shed tears for her. (One young sister actually wrote me and practically insisted that surely, even at this late stage, someone could find Shelia and help her recover the faith she lost in her youth!) I probably liked Shelia even better than Dale, and it hurt me to have her take the course she did. But finally, she lacked the personal spiritual drive that Dale had. She depended on others, and worried about what others thought of her, rather than finding her own way with God. In the end, her path came out miles away from where Dale’s path ended.
It still hurts me to say it, but I don’t believe Shelia was ready to meet God.
I wonder sometimes how many conservative Mennonite people are caught in the same trap Shelia fell into. They might be considered good solid church members, never rocking the ship, and doing what is expected of them, but they have never moved beyond a politically correct spirituality to one based on a personal relationship with Christ.
Most of us have become accustomed to have others do our thinking for us. For instance, what kind of vehicle should we buy? Instead of seeking God’s direction, our first thought too often is, “What will the church say about it?” It is proper to respect our church and its decisions and guidelines. But if we never get beyond this in our spiritual relationship with God, we will probably not get to heaven.[2] There are always times and places that we face issues that the church hasn’t spoken to. Or we may find ourselves, like Dale, in a setting where the church doesn’t even care.

What then?

If we have prepared like Dale did to find God’s direction, we will get it, along with His help. But if we’ve always depended on our parents or our church leaders or our friends to do our thinking and make our decisions, we will probably fail.[3]

So, to put it into a nutshell, my purpose in writing this book was to encourage young people and young married couples to get so close to God that they could stand alone if necessary.
If you haven’t seen that in God and Uncle Dale, it’s probably my fault for not making it clear enough. But read it again with this in mind and I think you will see what I am talking about.
For every Dale in this world there are dozens of Shelia’s who won’t make it. Remember, both Dale and Shelia wanted to do what was right. But only Dale actually did it and found his way. My challenge to you is, be a Dale. Don’t be satisfied to be a Shelia.
—Lester Bauman
Nov. 2009

[1]  For instance, never in the history of the Mennonite church has any conference ever held as rigidly to the plain coat and cape dress as the EPMC and the NWF congregations do. Many of us consider this a historical norm. That is another subject – suffice it to say that this “historical norm” is mostly fiction. Also, both the cape dress and the plain coat are North American and were not brought from Europe. Nonconformity in dress was not really an Anabaptist doctrine, since it was hardly needed in medieval times.
[2]  Ouch! That startled even me as I wrote it, but the more I think about it the more I believe it.
[3]  For some reason we often assume that a person who builds up a personal relationship with Christ, and does his own thinking and decision making, is automatically going to be a rebel. I find this hard to understand. After all the same Spirit who led the church in it’s development, is guiding you and I as well. Why would we come out somewhere else in our thinking? Of course there are always those who use this reasoning as a foundation for rebellion. But that is totally different from what I am promoting here. Dale became a strong church supporter because of his personal convictions and relationship with Christ. The same can be true for us.