Developing Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is crucial to personal growth and the prevention of spiritual abuse. No one is born with it; it must be cultivated. 

The following excerpt from Steven Smith’s article, “A Biblical Perspective on Spiritual Authority and Critical Thinking” might serve as an excellent New Year’s resolution list:

‘How can a Christian develop critical thinking skills? Here are ten steps I wish I had followed:

  • Pray for the Spirit of wisdom (James 1:5-8).
  • Intentionally encounter diverse people and perspectives. Travel. Listen to podcasts from other preachers and teachers. Cultivate friends outside of your church circle.
  • Zondervan’s Counterpoint series is an excellent way to study thorny theological matters. Scholars from each major position present their case on a particular topic, and the other scholars interact with those essays.
  • Learn to dialogue instead of shutting down at the first hint of difference.
  • Educate yourself about the world at large. Read foreign English newspapers. Subscribe to a blog (or ten). Think outside the box.
  • Learning to think critically is like training for an athletic event. Find “trainers” who will stretch you, tone you, and give you a good workout. Ravi Zacharias always helps me to think more clearly (find his website here).
  • Idolize no man or woman. Respect and admire, but put no one on a pedestal except for God.
  • Do theology in community. Yes, discuss spiritual things in your own local church, but also engage with the Church universal, and the historical church. There are (and have been) wise Christians throughout the world who have thought well about God, other people, and themselves.
  • Embrace mystery and give grace for “grayness” in disputable matters. Not every theological issue is critical for salvation. Really. As one of my seminary professors says, heaven will be like torn paper: it tears unevenly. We will be surprised at some of the people who made it in…and even more surprised by who’s missing.
  • Relax. Enjoy being part of the Body of Christ and humble yourself to receive from other people, even people outside your church or denomination. If Solomon’s temple couldn’t hold all of the presence of God, neither can your little church.’
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How To Be a Good Cult Member

While it is very important to recognize abusive behavior in leaders/ministries, it is no less important to recognize and avoid enabling behavior. They are two sides of the same coin. There is (and I quote a friend) the danger of those who are driven by the compulsion to dominate and manipulate, and there is the danger of those who desire order to such an extent that they will allow themselves to be dominated and manipulated.

In his article, “Someone Like Me: Anatomy of a Cult Member,” Steve Smith talks about what made him an excellent cult member for 25 years. Being a blind follower. Being a rule-abider/legalist. Seeking belonging. Having low self-esteem. A lack of critical thinking. Being performance oriented.

This is the kind of behavior that gives abusive people their power, but unfortunately many Christians are taught that being blindly obedient and submissive is virtuous and godly, and that critical thinking is rebellious and dangerous. We need to break away from these false notions and work on developing genuine Christian character, which would include sagacity, strength and nobility.

Steve gives us a lot to think about. Here’s the link to his article:

Whistleblowing in the Church

After a friend shared some articles about the ongoing situation with James MacDonald & Harvest Bible Chapel – one of which contained a charge from one of the (resigning) elders on his staff concerning cult-like behavior – several people threw their hands up in horror at hearing the word “cult” associated with a church.

It may come as a surprise that even evangelical churches can become cultic groups. But so it is. Quoting Steve Smith :


Can a group affirm the Bible and still be a cult?
Yes.
What makes some groups destructive is not their doctrine but rather their practice. Jesus said, “By their fruits you will know them,” (cf. Matthew 7:15-20), and destructive groups have a way of twisting scriptures and practicing coercion which results in damaged followers. Ironically, groups like this are often intensely concerned about the fruits of salvation in their followers, yet their own fruit is rotten.


In his paper, “Cult Formation“, Robert J. Lifton, M.D. listed three primary characteristics of a cult as follows:

a) A charismatic leader [or, I add, nucleus of leaders] with no meaningful accountability,

b) A process of coercive persuasion or thought reform, and

c) Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.

When the whole Harvest situation came to my attention, and I read MacDonald’s version, members’ testimonies and Roys’ investigation (which I did, not out of morbid fascination but because James MacDonald is a familiar name and several of my friends follow his ministry), what stood out immediately to me were those basic cultic characteristics.

Some people are taking exception to the fact that the situation is being made public, and that Christians are sharing links to the investigation on the social media, something they call “participating in a smear campaign”. They think we are bound to only speak well of other Christians, protect their reputations, overlook facts and cover up any sin in the interest of love & good testimony.

But reputations are not sacred – in fact, as Rebecca Davis pointed out in her outstanding article, “The only thing a person deserves when it comes to reputation is to have his reputation match his character.” If Christian leaders or groups are engaging in cultic behavior, they SHOULD be exposed – in the interest of all. Those being wronged should be helped. Those wronging should be stopped, and they should receive the opportunity to repent.

Silence (the no-whistleblowing policy) is not always the spiritual option – not when:

It replaces truth-telling;

It is inspired by fear;

It keeps wrong unchallenged;

It covers up harm;

It enables harmers.

There are situations where Paul’s directive applies: “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather EXPOSE THEM” (Eph. 5:11).

Protect His Sheep: An Open Letter to New Testament Assemblies

This letter was sent out last week by the directors of the Galilee Program to all the listed assemblies (“Plymouth Brethren“) in North America. It is a call to identify and address the problem of child abuse (sexual, physical and emotional) in our church circles.

This problem, as the authors state, is not limited to a few isolated cases, but is much more prevalent than we realize. Its seriousness has been greatly underestimated and the response has been inadequate.

It is my personal persuasion that this problem is directly fueled by supposedly “Biblical” teaching on child-rearing and by supposedly “Biblical” teaching on authority, and that the problem is by no means limited to children but encompasses women as well. Sexual abuse and domestic violence are a terrible, present problem in our church circles. It is HIGH TIME they were addressed.

The website Protect His Sheep, linked below, contains the letter and helpful resources. May I encourage you to read and share.

LINK: Protect His Sheep

Train Up A Child In the Way He Should Go, And…?

Let me start with this truly humble disclaimer: I am no expert in child-raising. I’m still raising my own and making plenty of mistakes in the process – so no, no kind of expert, and yes, still in the school of hard knocks.

That being said, over the years I have reached conclusions on some methods that don’t work. I can say this with confidence because I’ve observed them first-hand and seen the results.

Recently I read a short series on a blog that reminded me of some of these things. It’s a critical review of Reb Bradley’s Child Training Tips, a book which lines up pretty well with a few others you may or may not recognize:

What the Bible Says About Child Training, Richard Fugate
To Train Up A Child, Michael Pearl
Withhold Not Correction, Bruce A. Ray
Spanking: Why, When, How?, Roy Lessin

These books offer a supposedly Biblical parenting formula that guarantees success: the “right” training method equals godly, obedient children who grow into godly, obedient adults. The results, however, reveal important flaws and dangers in the formula (something Reb Bradley himself had to admit in his later article, “Exposing the 7 Major Blind Spots of Homeschoolers”).

This is the breakdown of the critical issues reviewed in the series:

#1: Parents are pushed to assume the worst about their children instead of being encouraged to demonstrate the virtues of mercy and understanding.

#2: Parents are urged to exercise an extreme level of control of their child’s mind and body, which prevents the child from preparing for adulthood.

#3: Parents are instructed to use spanking as their primary tool of discipline, not only for behavior modification but also to force the child to change their opinions or feelings.

#4: Parents are urged to isolate their families in order to maintain extreme levels of control over their children without outside interference.

If you’re raising a kid/kids I’d love for you to read the author’s exposition of each point –  not only for the excellent analysis, but for the practical advice and encouragement it offers. The series is linked below.

In addition, I’m sharing a link to an article by Sally Clarkson, a truly excellent essay recently passed on to me by a friend, which I wish I had read years ago, called “First-Time Obedience: How’s That Working For You?”

I hope they prove as helpful for you as they have for me!

LINK: “Biblical” Parenting: A Series By Latebloomer
LINK: First-Time Obedience: How’s That Working For You?

The Debt of Honor

“Honor all people” (1 Peter 2:17). “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12). These are two general commandments meant to preside over us as people of God in our relationships throughout life.

If we are to truly live them out, however, we need to understand what we are being summoned to do. We need to be able to distinguish between what genuine honoring is and what it is not. We also need to determine if there are ever any exceptions to these rules. This will keep us from falling prey to unrighteous demands and being trapped in diseased relationships.

What honoring IS

Honor is a word which in Hebrew (kabad), and in Greek (timḗ), means to value, to respect, to give weight to. It has also been translated as “treat honorably”, “show respect for”, “treat with dignity” and “prize”.

Fundamentally, all people deserve to be treated with dignity because of their identity as human beings. We owe one another honor as fellow members of the human race. In this sense we are all peers, no matter what our age or social rank (much less our ethnicity or gender).

Parents, specifically, deserve to be cherished because of their unique role in our lives. We owe them, in summary, everything. They brought us into this world, loved us fiercely, cared for our needs, tried their best to shape us into good and happy people. The bond between us is sacred. The honor we owe them can be shown in many ways, not the least of which is caring for their needs as they grow older. This, as a matter of fact, was precisely how Jesus defined honor on the only recorded occasion that he expounded the Fifth Commandment.

What honoring IS NOT

It is not a synonym for obedience. As someone observed[1], if this were the case, the words could be used interchangeably in Scripture. The most cursory analysis will prove they cannot. The effort to merge the two concepts is simply untenable. Although it is true that in some contexts honor will be expressed through obedience, such as children (those being brought up) towards their parents, it is not true that obedience is mandatory where honor is concerned.

The oft-wielded Ephesians 6:1 – “Children, obey your parents in the Lord” – is not an alternative translation of Exodus 20:12, but the adapted version for children, precisely because they are being prepared for adulthood (this is upheld by the context, see v. 4). That is, in fact, the whole point of obedience. It is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The goal is transition to sui juris, the launching of a full-fledged person. Parents (or spiritual leaders) that seek to keep their children in perpetual pupilage, making obedience instead of maturity their aim in training, reveal a selfish and ungodly agenda: POWER AND CONTROL.

It does not imply a chain of command. Honoring someone does not mean that they are in charge and that you are to “keep in your place”. It does not mean you are under an obligation to report to them, obtain their consent or follow their orders.

It does not mean relinquishing our critical faculties. Some would have us believe that any criticism of their attitudes or methods constitutes a dishonor to their persons. This is false. Unconditional compliance is not honoring, it is spoiling. It also empowers overbearing and abusive people.[2]

Exceptions

Are there any exceptions to these two general rules? I believe any honest scrutiny of real-life situations compels us to accept that – sadly – there are. Only the most oblivious people could think otherwise. There are indeed people, there are indeed parents, who cannot be honored in any genuine way beyond the most basic respect owed to any person.

People who have inflicted deep pain and lasting emotional and/or physical harm on others (a thousand times more heinous when inflicted on persons under their care), and who are so self-righteous that they are incapable of change. People who poison the environments they control with their hubris, their incessant demands and their destructive behavior. People who, while exacting honor for themselves, systematically dishonor others.

Perhaps the only honor we can give in such cases is that of withdrawing from the sphere of their influence and praying for future healing and reconciliation.

Conclusion

May God give us the wisdom to discern between true and false honor, and may true honor grace all our dealings with one another.

 

[1] http://www.recoveringgrace.org/2011/09/honor-vs-obey/ (accessed January 27, 2015)
[2] More on what honoring is not at http://www.recoveringgrace.org/2014/09/four-tools-of-spiritual-manipulators/