Book review: Run away from the land of the walking wounded
The writer is director of the Association for Christian Development and host of Virtual Church. Visit the ACD on the Web at www.godward.org, or write P.O. Box 4748, Federal Way, Wash. 98063, U.S.A.
By Ken Westby
FEDERAL WAY, Wash.--Borrowing a line from Ezekiel 34, Brian Knowles finds an apt title for his new book, Because There Was No Shepherd: Ministering to the Walking Wounded of Churches (Wild Olive Publications, Monrovia, Calif.).
Ezekiel records God's condemnation of Israel's false shepherds who, instead of feeding the flock, feed on the flock. They did not care what happened to the people as long as they as leaders had all their own personal needs met. Because there were no true shepherds, the flock of Israel was led astray and scattered among the gentile nations.
Mr. Knowles finds in Ezekiel a parallel to recent events among that portion of God's flock we know best. He contends that the absence of good leadership will always lead to disintegration, personal and corporate heartache and even injury.
Perhaps absence is too kind a word to describe the leadership problem in his sights. He aims at the corrupt, predatory, gospel-for-profit, psychologically enslaving, evil leaders who, like hyenas, stalk, ravage, tear and kill.
Because There Was No Shepherd unloads the burden for the walking wounded of churches and answers the question: Where do we go from here?
This volume is long overdue. The Church of God community needed it years ago. Its message is an antidote to toxic religion and preying preachers. It needs to be read by everyone who has had a disappointing experience with ministers or churches.
Brian Knowles is not noted for mincing words or preaching smooth things. Here he is especially hard on preachers: "hireling preachers," that is. If he beats too long on one drum, this is it.
I understand his intolerance for the tin Hitlers who rule from the pulpit, his contempt for incompetent teachers and his anger over the injustice and hypocrisy practiced by the religious elite. But, after emptying his gun on them, he reloads.
He, too, was a preacher and a pastor for many years in the employ of the Worldwide Church of God. He considers himself among the walking wounded who have been worked over and cast aside by machine religion.
This book, however, is no spleen vent, nor an exercise in wound-licking. It is a frontal attack on hireling preachers who have no business in the ministry and on the cultic organizations where they roost. It is straight talk to those folk who have been disillusioned and injured by them. It is solid advice on how to build a fresh and more mature relationship with God and His Son: one that transcends past disappointments in churches and our own poor judgments.
The X Men--and Women
I've met people who introduce themselves by saying, "I'm ex-WCG" or ex-CGI, ex-United and now exliving-room church. Even before you find out if they have kids you've heard their resume of ex-churches.
Obviously we must feel it important to our identity or we wouldn't dwell on it so much, but perhaps a new identity is in order: a new frame of reference for our personal Christianity.
We pay far too much attention to organization pedigrees. This inclination arises out of what I call the one-and-only-true-church syndrome. There was a time in our experience when the church we belonged to was virtually all that mattered. Since there was only one true church, all others were false--even satanic.
The church organization didn't count for a lot; it counted for everything. I'm convinced there remains an organization preoccupation among many COG members, a kind of residual carryover from the days of hyperconformity to an almost sacred veneration of organizational culture and its hierarchy.
The mind as church
Even the virulent strains of antiorganizational and anticlerical biases--present everywhere in splitsville--have their roots in the past genuflecting before organizational church and ministry. They are simply an overreaction in an opposite direction.
Some have ridden the pendulum so far their confession echoes the deist Thomas Paine, who said, "My own mind is my own church."
Organization, corporations and an ordained ministry are not the problem per se. Rather, where we place them in our relationship to God can be. A church organization did not seize you off the street and nail you to its pew. Any past power it had over you, you gave it.
Oh, sure, you were led astray, duped, pressured, deceived and all the rest, but the bottom line is that you let them do it to you.
It is time we take responsibility for our own part in whatever unhealthy religious experience we had. I made a lot of stupid decisions. How about you? It is easy to play the victim and whine away your days in a state of permanent aggrievement. I see a lot of people doing just that. What a waste, and what a spiritually dangerous state of mind.
What's called for is a new frame of reference, a new spiritual identity. Cease seeing yourself as an ex-something, a former member of this or that church. Rather, proudly see yourself as a son or daughter of the Most High, an eternal member of the one and only true church, headquartered in heaven and ruled by Jesus Christ.
Further, see value in your past religious education and tradition: value that was added and that is needed within the diverse Body of Christ.
Even our biblical traditions of Sabbath and festivals represent an ancient and sacred tradition akin to that of the primitive church. This, too, is needed in the Body of Christ.
Look not behind thee
To experience God's healing and a resurgent, fresh Christian walk, Brian Knowles advises we must stop looking backward.
"If you have been hurt or wounded by churches, forgive and let it go. If you want the wounds to heal, stop rubbing salt in them. Stop agitating them through unforgiveness and bitterness. If your life has been negatively affected by the sins of a church leader, take it to God in prayer. Ask something like this . . ."
He then writes a sample prayer whose effect, if sincerely offered, can be like a clean shower after shoveling out the chicken coop of poop. Believe me, it works. It works because it is God's will.
The strength of Because There Was No Shepherd is its program for building a renewed and vibrant faith. Mr. Knowles writes:
"The fact that you have left a congregation, or a denomination, does not mean that your spiritual needs have suddenly disappeared. In fact, they may now be greater than ever. Leaving a church can be a traumatic experience. Spiritually, you may need more support at this time than at any other in your life.
"This can be a time of floundering, indecision, confusion. You may feel that you have been cut loose from your moorings. You are now adrift in a sea of bewildering choices. But at least you don't have to deal with the baggage of the past. Your conscience is clear, and you have placed your life and destiny in the Lord's hands. That last point is the key to everything from this point forward."
Sorting out the options and making the right choices is the challenge. Here Brian Knowles gives us useful information. He reminds us that:
"Our faith, to be authentic, must be portable. It goes where we go. It is manifested when we think, speak or act. We have internalized it. It's what we really believe in our heart of hearts. Anything else is external, and relatively meaningless.
"Even though we may have been expelled by, or have voluntarily left, a church group, we are not relieved of our obligations to God or fellow man. Because we have once accepted Christ, it is unthinkable that we should abandon Him at this juncture in our lives. This is a critical juncture in our spiritual lives. It is a true crossroads situation. We can take any of several paths."
Mr. Knowles is candid with the reader concerning his spiritual journey, including its wrong turns. He tells of his disillusionment with a corrupt church that led him deep into the dark and turbulent waters of humanism and scientific materialism--until God brought him to his senses.
It is a warm story of a good God gently saving him out of chaos and bringing him back to Himself, back to a renewed faith and to such discovery and growth never before experienced.
Mr. Knowles, in this book, intends to share the life ring God threw out to him.
Three elements of Christianity
Drawing on his 16 years of research into the Hebrew roots of Christianity and rabbinical teachings, he offers a summary of the discipleship formula--the three elements of true Christianity:
"The missing element is 'to do.' In our Western, Hellenistic way of thinking, merely knowing something is often viewed as more important than doing it. Knowledge takes precedence over action. In certain churches, especially authoritarian ones, and sometimes in Evangelical ones, there is at work a peculiar syndrome. It may be expressed this way: If you talk the right talk, you don't have to walk the right walk. In other words, if you say or espouse the 'right things,' you can get away with living pretty much any way you like. This is a deadly error.
"The point of all this is God is not just calling us to know things, but to do things. He has called us to a way of living, not just to a way of knowing. He is far more concerned with our actions than He is with our words, our knowledge or our doctrinal orthodoxy. God's litmus test is not espousing the Party Line. It is obedience."
(As I like to point out, the great omission in the great commission, as popularly practiced, is the "obey" in Matthew 28:20.)
Mr. Knowles continues: "We, like Ezra, are called first to learn. The apostles were told to 'make disciples.' That means students, learners. Once we learn, we put our newfound knowledge into action.
"We live what we have learned. Ministers who have never lived the life shouldn't be teaching congregations. It isn't enough to go to seminary, get your head stuffed with information, and then go out and disgorge it on a congregation. The greatest challenge in being a minister is living an exemplary life . . . Living an exemplary life is perhaps the most difficult thing a Christian is called upon to do."
I found the book an inspiration and personal encouragement. It is not written by a bitter man but by a Christian friend who walks among and loves the flock of God.
If you are or were among the walking wounded, consider the experience like walking away from a house fire. You're a little singed, but alive. In a small bag in your hand you carry away the only possessions you saved. Open that little bag and with widening eyes see that it is filled with the sparkling, beautiful, precious, priceless crown jewels of God's own truth.
Among these jewels are two important documents: your birth certificate into the Kingdom of God, signed by Yahweh, your heavenly Father; and your membership certificate in the Church of God, signed by Jesus Christ.
It seems you walked away with everything that counts. And you're still walking--Godward, I trust.
© The Journal: News of the Churches of God