Friday, April 12, 2019

Hell Freezes Over at Longview Baptist Temple

Bob Gray II, the pastor of Longview Baptist Temple, recants dictatorial leadership and spiritual abuse of church members in a sermon where he discusses what he calls Spiritual PTSD. LBT has been known for this type of behavior in the past. It has been known for leadership that tells people what the will of God is for their lives, that deals with personal issues from the pulpit publicly, and that is hardcore in driving ministry involvement and numerical results. LBT is also known for a style of soulwinning that is often referred to as "1-2-3 pray after me". Bob Gray II recants every bit of this in this sermon. I could not believe what I was hearing - hell has frozen over! 18:32-22:30 is the core of his message and it is pretty great. Two things he said that stuck out for me...
"Whenever you do see the face of forgiveness you see the face of God."
"Serving the Lord is ... not a trip to Calvary to be crucified."
Now as for me, I'm already gone - from that church, from IFB, from evangelicalism, gone. Although LBT was a challenging environment they were not a primary cause of my exodus. I was a committed IFB (Independent Fundamental Baptist) when I arrived at LBT and I was a committed IFB when I left LBT. It took another church of the same stripe and specific actions by that pastor to cause me to want to break that commitment. This is not to say that LBT wasn't the kind of place one would get disillusioned with IFB, just that I wasn't in a place to be disillusioned, yet.
One could very easily pick apart this sermon from any number of viewpoints. I think it is important to accept it in the context and spirit in which it was given. He apologizes to those like me who have been "overdriven" and that is an apology I accept. Let us in turn not "overdrive" them past the next step they are able to take. If most IFB pastors would adopt the attitudes expressed in this sermon, some of the most serious damage happening in IFB churches could be stopped. It is about one victory at a time.
The rest of this post will be what I consider relatively constructive criticism and points for further reflection for men like him and others who want to see IFB leadership stop spiritually abusing people. You may ask why I would care if I am not "in the fold" any longer. I spent a lot of time in the past reckoning with the entirety of my experience and I think I can speak with some measure of authority as one who has been in the system.
Early on he mentions that for those who would "take issue" with his message, he "gives them that right" to do so. At first blush this is nonsensical. Who needs another person to give them the right to take issue? To even say such a thing is arrogance. Maybe there is a little bit of that here. But again, context - in a system where the pastor is dictator, the preacher expressing willingness to abide criticism is gracious. I wonder if he understood this or really thought his permission was intrinsically required? Or did he give it for the benefit of those who may have otherwise feared to criticize?
Those of us who broke with IFB pre-2008 voiced our criticisms IN SPITE OF IFB pastor-dictators. We weren't given permission, and we knew we weren't going to get it. We got online and spoke the truth; we even got our boards shut down at the insistence of IFB pastors (the original Fightin' Fundamentalist Forum) and carried our truths onwards in other areas. We fought IFB while IFB was still strong, long before the 20/20 IFB child abuse story came out. We spoke when our pastors smeared us as having critical and divisive spirits when it was they who were divisive.
Instead of giving permission, IFB pastors who are serious about not being dictators need to disclaim any requirement for permission to take issue with what the pastor is saying. Empower the flock, and be approachable and humble. Dignity is empowerment.
He says, "I am more interested in the flock around me than I am getting to the destination at the point of injury of the flock." If that is true, IFB churches need to end what I'll call "plugged-in" culture. This is the kind of mindset that fellowship is found within ministry. In too many IFB (and even other) churches, taking care of members and overall benevolence has fallen to the wayside. Everyone is supposed to be involved in ministry, and you get your fellowship and help there. But then when someone in ministry has a hard time, they still don't get help because everyone else is too busy in ministry to stop and help. This seems to be especially prevalent in IFB churches in California.
And it is here that the fundamentalist pulls out two verses - 1 John 2:19 - "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us." and Amos 3:3 - "Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?" And the fundamentalist uses these verses to marginalize those who drop out of church, even those who drop out because they were hurt or not cared for. (Despite the fact that it is a bad interpretation, but that's another discussion.)
What ends up happening is that the doctrine of separation results in mistreatment of those who dropped out of church because they got hurt. If IFBs are going to hold on to this doctrine, they need to do two things: 1) distinguish those who are committed to "error" from those who are apathetic, only nominally allied, or just given up, and 2) realize you can enforce separation in an "ecclesiastical" or church-cooperative way and still have a good relationship with the same people inter-personally. The only type of inter-personal separation insisted on in scripture is against a "brother" in moral sin under official church discipline- not a fellow Christian who listens to CCM or reads the NIV.
He says, "Spiritual PTSD can be defined as this: spiritual shock, spiritual distrust, and spiritual burnout, due to dictatorial, manipulative spiritual leadership that was about building church kingdoms at any cost, with no regard for the family structure, and/or personal dignity." Later, "[the sufferer's] commitment is so great to not pass this type of spiritual warfare to their children, that they would rather settle for a bad version of the bible, contemporary music, watered down standards, in order to be treated with dignity and respect from the pulpit, and a pastor. Heavy handed pastoral and spiritual leadership has done nothing but force conformity to man's traditions based on personal preferences and hidden agendas for one generation."
I think it would be better to call it spiritual abuse, not PTSD. We call it PTSD in cases of war because we don't consider "war" to be "abuse". But there is nothing circumstantial about "spiritual PTSD". You can call it that, but to ignore the clear fact that pastors have been abusing their flock for their own gain is to give a pass. It is saying we meant well, so we aren't really abusive, but we are sorry for what you went through, and we are going to lead better in the future. Gray needed to call out the fact of this "abuse" and he does not, and this is the worst part about his sermon. I don't really think Gray is trying to give anyone a pass because he later admits to "ill-treatment" of others but still, the language ought to be stronger and the word "abuse" should have been used.
The next thing to note is that he promotes one right bible, traditional music, and strong standards, and then in the very next sentence, denounces "conformity to man's traditions based on personal preferences". Later in the sermon he says "it was never about [the standards]".
Traditional music is, well, about tradition. The KJV, well, that's tradition too. Traditional dress codes are tradition too. You can't gloss it over by saying it is "Biblical" unless you want to condemn ancient Jewish men and women for all wearing the same thing - robes, for dancing to highly rhythmic music, and for reading the Septuagint.
The thing is, you can't make standards out of things that have no cultural meaning. But if things have cultural meaning, then the standards must follow that cultural meaning. At one time, women did not wear pants, therefore the standard was, women are not to wear pants. The cultural meaning precedes the standards: KJV, dress, and music. It took a few centuries for the KJV to fully supplant the Geneva, for instance, which was the bible used by the first American colonists. When the cultural meaning changes, the standard changes, because the standard speaks to culture, or else it has no function.
Now the cultural expectations have shifted again. It is not considered odd for a women to wear pants, although a man in a woman's pair of pants might draw some unwanted attention... the point is, the old standards are of necessity and by definition irrelevant; for example, the so-called "worship wars" ended YEARS ago, and nobody other than a strident fundamentalist would think twice about contemporary music in church, although traditional worship is still offered many places.
The upshot is that for the last 25-30 years, these irrelevant, outdated "standards" have been used as tools of control disguised as Christian holiness. The reason that Gray can say that those with Spiritual PTSD are leaving for contemporary churches is because there is no place in fundamentalism for them to go, because all of fundamentalism is about these outdated standards that have no use except to control. Implied in this and borne out by facts, is that fact that overwhelmingly, when IFB pastors over the last decade have come to understand what Gray is saying, they typically end up converting their churches into contemporary ones... not fundamentalist ones with a "nice" pastor. Laymen are pretty much making the same move where their IFB pastors are not.
Is it wrong to prefer the KJV and prefer traditional dress and music? Of course not. It is when these preferences get turned in rules or laws that the control aspect inevitably comes in. At this point in American culture these preferences are fading away where they are not already faded out and any attempt to maintain them will necessarily involve rules and control.
Also missing in Gray's analysis is what I'll call the "lieutenant problem". In the few IFB churches with pastors that do "lead softly," they typically end up having assistant staff or prominent laymen leaders within their church that do NOT "lead softly". There is still control, it is not coming from the very top, but it is getting rubber stamped at least in an implicit way from the top. The church is still characterized by dictatorial, abusive control and manipulation.
I am disheartened that Gray also puts the proper treatment of brothers and sisters in Christ below the propagation of the gospel. The first commandment is to love God, the second is to love each other, and they will know you are Christians by your love for another. So propagation of the gospel must be third.
I'll just leave it here and I want say that regardless of the above criticisms I am truly impressed with the message. Fundamentalism lost its first love(s): the love of God (preeminence of Christ) and love of each other (proper treatment of brothers and sisters) and Gray seems to be reaching to get those back. Maybe a remnant of fundamentalism will find their way to Christ putting their candlestick back in its place. Who knows.