Wednesday, August 14, 2013

TACO Churches?

Back  in the days of our old PIBC curriculum I taught a course called “Cults” several times. Since 2009 we have put most of the content of that course into a new course called “Theology 4, A survey of the Religious Groups Encountered in Micronesia” in our PIU curriculum. One of the reasons we don’t use the word “cult” any more is that it means such a wide variety of things to different people that it is not a useful word. Second it is such a pejorative term that it does not promote dialog with those who need to hear what you say, and, when you are messing with groups that really fit the old extreme definition of “cult” it can open you up to reprisal or lawsuit. Another issue I always had with the word is that some groups that were called cults didn’t have most of the traditional “cult characteristics.” So what do you call them? There were also some groups that weren’t called cults because their doctrine is within the bounds of orthodoxy but their practices at least bordered on the abusive and dysfunctional. I used the word “cultish” to describe them, but that wasn’t too helpful.

This is why I was interested to read an article about “TACO churches” on Roger Olsen’s blog this morning. (I read several theological blogs regularly across the theological spectrum and I have been asked to make comments about them and link to them on my blog so here goes – I don’t always agree with everything on each one; just saying) TACO stands for "Totalistic, Aberrational, Christian Organization.” These are churches that may have a very good doctrinal statement and be in the “mainstream,” but they are so dysfunctional in practice that people interested in them should be warned to “run away as fast you can.”

Of course the difficulty here is that this is not a black and white issue. But Olsen lists nine "behaviors that should cause people to RUN from a congregation EVEN IF it is perfectly orthodox doctrinally and even though its reputation is evangelical”  I will also make a couple comments in blue. I am still thinking about this and am interested in what you think. Are all of these “run away” issues? Are there others he has missed?”

1) Condoning (including covering up) sexual abuse or sexual immorality of leaders within itself.

2) Silencing honest and constructive dissent. This is an abuse of authority that I have seen in the islands a few times. Often people are told that to dissent it to “disrespect God-given authority.” Do all Christians have the Holy Spirit or only a few select and gifted leaders?

3) Treating leaders as above normal ethical standards, above questioning.

4) Implying that “true Christianity” belongs to it alone or churches in its network. This is a line I repeat often to my classes, “if your pastor says ‘we are the only church on island that is really preaching the word or doing God’s kingdom work,’ find the exit and get out as fast as you can.”

5) Using intense methods of “discipleship training” that involve abuse of persons–including, but not limited to, teaching them they must absolutely lose their own individuality and sense of personal identity in order to become part of an “army” (or whatever) of Christ and using methods of sensory deprivation, brainwashing and/or abject obedience to human authority.

6) Teaching (often by strong implication) that without the church, especially without the leaders, members lose their spiritual connection to God. (This happens in many, often subtle, ways. For example a church may claim that its “vision” of the kingdom of God is unique and to depart from it is to depart from God’s kingdom, etc.)

7) Simply closing itself off from all outside criticism or accountability by implying to its members that the “whole world” outside the church is evil.

8) Falling into magical, superstitious beliefs and practices such as “spiritual warfare” with an emphasis on destroying all of a certain kind of object because objects “shaped like that” are often inhabited by demons. (A few years ago some churches were teaching people that if they were having marital problems it was probably because they had owl-shaped objects in their homes. I was told by members of a church that having books about world religions or cults in my library would corrupt my spiritual life. A church held bonfires to burn records and books considered unholy. Etc., etc., etc.)

9) The pastor literally owning the church lock, stock and barrel.


Howard Merrell said...

On 40 years of pastoring,I've seen this. Acrually I feel we were delivered from an "ish" sxperience not that long ago.
Sometimes these aren't "bad" people. A strong doctrinal inclination, spiritual formation, heresy hunting, or s desire to tise above mediocrity, can all lead to this.
Not only must we do what God says, but how He says ro do it.

Roger Pierce said...

I am very glad you posted this Dave! We recently switched churches to one which, on the surface and by the doctrine statement, appears to be fundamental and evangelical. After becoming involved with the ministry for awhile several things came to light which raised my hackles and caused me to question their true theology, not just the public persona of the charismatic pastor. Your post and the one you linked to have helped me decipher the 'fine points' which I was struggling with, and I'm sorry to say, have made me realize how 'cultish' the ministry truly is! Thanks for enlightening me!

Brad Boydston said...

At the risk of nit piking the president -- you're probably thinking of THEO 301 - Christian Doctrine 3. That's the course that used to be about cults and which I've taught several times. But even then I keep mixing it up with THEO 302 - Christian Doctrine 4 -- which I'm teaching this semester. In my mind we should flip 3 and 4 around. And it sounds like in your mind you've made the same leap.