Monday, 28 April 2008

Thinking on my feet - this is badly written and needs editing

People no longer fear becoming backslidden if they leave the JA, says "Minister of the Gospel"; if they backslide, it is no longer the JA's fault, but because a person's heart is, as she put it, out of kilter with God.

This isn't an unusual thing for a Christian to say; loss of faith is always blamed on the individual: you weren't healed because you didn't believe enough, etc. It is an aspect of Christianity that I find so nauseating. Minister of the Gospel is herself a church leader, though as a woman, she had to leave the JA to become one, but as a church leader it is important not to be seen to be critical of other leaders. So the JA gets off the hook if people who leave lose their faith.

This is a philosophy which does not accept that there is a human aspect to what people believe and fear. And when, for however many years, you have had to submit your own thinking and spiritual insight to the scrutiny of elders and adjust it when it was out of line with the received view; when you have spent years under the discipline of the church - and your so-called "personal relationship with God" has first been moulded by people who believe that they ARE the kingdom of God and that God would never call anyone to break a lifetime covenant with their particular church.....

isn't it inevitable that someone who leaves believes himself to be a "covenant breaker", is filled with guilts and doubts and fears. You would have to have a pretty extraordinary psyche (or not have been an entirely committed member in the first place) not to feel out of kilter with God when you leave.

Is this your fault? Do you deserve to feel a loss of God's grace or covering? Is this not the time, perhaps more than ever before, when a Christian needs to know that God is still with him or her? These are questions which Christians have to answer; I don't because I don't believe in God. They must square their belief system with the desperation felt by people who leave the JA as Christians but lose faith. They cannot blame God, so it is easiest to blame the individual.

To my mind nobody can reasonably be expected to leave a church which makes leaving as close as possible to the unforgiveable sin and not expect people to feel out of kilter with their God....or with their unreconstructed belief system. Loss of faith is almost inevitable. Those who leave and keep their faith, as I did (at a time when unforgiveable sin and lost salvation was far more explicitly taught), do so out of a sense of sheer bloody minded determination not to lose it; less froma love of God than from a determination not to prove Noel right. I continued to profess Christ for about 5 years until it became quite clear to me that Christianity is a human construct.

I believe that people who lose their "kilter with God" do so because the JA has constructed a pseudo-reality where you can only have God if you take the rest of the package. That is what makes them a cult. They are not just like any other evangelical church in that sense. When you leave the JA you ARE leaving God, not because you want to but because the JA have constructed their reality that way. Not only do they feel themselves to be THE kingdom of God, but they feel they actually OWN God.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Who is responsible if we lived for years in the fear of lost salvation?

A poster on JAW who calls herself Minister of the Gospel has suggested that we, not Noel Stanton, are responsible for believing that we would be damned if we left the Jesus Fellowship/JA because, she asserts, Noel never actually taught it. My recollections of what Noel actually taught are quite different but I take her point that this almost universally held fear was less taught than it was culturally held to be true. If we weren't actually taught it as doctrine, we certainly were not taught anything else.

If we all believed it and regularly repeated it to each other, using it to keep people on track and in fellowship; used it as a way of cajoling and bullying each other and preventing people from leaving, is it reasonable to absolve Noel Stanton of responsibility for this heresy?

It suited the eldership for us to live for years in fear of "leaving the kingdom", "leaving Zion". Any true man or woman of God leading a church would have disabused us of a doctrinal misconception which kept Christians living in fear.

"Minister of the Gospel" says that God will judge Noel's heart, which she implies was good because he was taking a strong line to make people committed to the Kingdom. But if there is a God worthy of the name, surely He will see a heart which put the building of an institution above the spiritual welfare of its members.

Can a church built on deceit and fear be Godly?

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Is its "central-zion" model of control killing the JA?

In the 9 months since I helped someone leave the JA (and he stayed with me over the summer), a further 4 people have left the same household and contacted me and another two have left it to be part of another one, where they can be confident of less friction with the house leader. The leader they are leaving, whose style of "shepherding" most closely follows the more traditional, hardline, central zion model is a zealot for Noel's style because he attached his church group to the JA only in recent years, and presumably wants to make a good impression.

So the household with which I was in contact a year ago now only has three adults and a child; only one adult is not actually a member of the elder's family. This household now has fewer members than when it joined the JA wholesale about five years ago, suggesting that, far from the JA regime bringing more people to Christ and nurturing them, it is stifling and oppressive....and certainly this has been the experience of all 7 of the people who opted to leave this household in the last year.

The two adult non-community members, a husband and wife, who ironically bought the house for the elder's house-church, originally (before it became subsumed into the JA), have opted to be associated with another one in another city, where the model of shepherding has a more laissez faire reputation; or "slack and compromising", as the elder they are leaving characterises it. It may have been his judgementalism which confirmed this couple in their belief that this would be a more appealing place to worship.

The irony which will be lost on the declining household is that the "slack and compromising" one has a thriving congregation. It's elder, Ian, was in the church when I was a member twenty-something years ago and is a lovely chap, who I know to be a solid Christian with a large family, all of whom are enthusiastic Christians, while the more intense elder's children who are old enough to have left home have done so, and while devoted children, are not associated with the church in any way.

The JA will usually tell anyone who alludes to the church's unsavoury past that things have changed, that the church has outlived its earlier experiments in community, where many mistakes were made, but where the church is now mature, more sensitive. But all 5 of my contacts tell me just the same sorts of stories about bullying and control as were typical in my time. What I think is most interesting though, is that their experiences were at the hands of someone who did not join until nearly two decades after I left, while the more liberal households are those that are considered backslidden...and are led by people who were around in my time. As an outsider, it was strange to be told by the intense elder that this other household was backslidden. It seemed that there was no sense of faithfulness to fellow members of the Jesus Army....even when talking to me, a known critic of the JA.

It was inevitable, surely, that Noel and the leadership of the JA would not be able to maintain the intense level of control which the fellowship had in the early days. This is not a fellowship which has grown anything like as large as its PR suggests, not when it counts almost any type of association as membership (with its many levels of commitment). In fact, one of the first signs of its number manipulations dates back to my time, when Noel, our Prophet, prophesied that the church, which then had about 100 Servant Groups (church-growing cells), would have twice as many groups within a year. Frantic effort and lots of naming and claiming went on...but the church did not grow, so that we were forced to make the prophesy come true by dividing every cell group in two. Where previously I had been part of a thriving group, I found myself the leader of just three of us in our cell - myself and two sisters.

The most noticeable difference in the fellowship from my time is the shrinking emphasis on "community" which had always been what made us distinct from the rest of Christendom, so much so that we were dismissive of Christians who did not live in community, which we held to be God's model. Community (and its structures) was what made it possible to control people. Numerically, there are no more people in community now than there were in my time and a schism in styles of shepherding, even within this number, has been made clear to me in the last year.

The schism makes it possible for some people, rather than leaving altogether, to find households where leadership styles are far less cultic and where the lifestyle is far more normal, some would say "worldly"...while others would just say that it more closely imitates more mainstream evangelical house churches. I predict, and the recent experiences of the local JA household bear this out, that the hard-line JA will die out and those who stay at all will do so in clusters of Christians, the type of which Noel always charaterised (when it happened elsewhere) as having "the form without the power". Perhaps, given the fact that such clusters appear to thrive, while Noel's model is under threat of extinction, Noel should give some thought to what he means by "power" and whether it is really such a good thing?

The form without the power? What form, what power?