Now I don’t think that rules are bad things in and of themselves, not at all. I think that, like money, rules are not inherently “bad” or “good”, but how those rules are used (again like money) can be. Rules therefore, are either legitimate or illegitimate, based on the purpose for which they were established.
A “Rule” is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as:
“One of a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct or procedure within a particular area of activity”
I like that definition because it highlights the point that there are two kinds of rules; they can be either explicitly (directly) communicated or understood implicitly (indirectly).
These implicit rules are what I’m going to talk about in this post.
One thing you will most certainly find in any cult or toxic church are a propensity of these implied unspoken rules. Why unspoken? Well, the main reason is because they simply cannot be supported by scripture. What does that mean? Well remember I said in the beginning, rules are either legitimate or illegitimate, well how do we know what is legitimate and illegitimate in “church”? Usually that would be scripture.
Now, when a leader can’t find a scripture to support an idea, he has two choices: (1) abandon the rule or (2) imply that the rule is good or “Godly”, by using another method of verifying its validity; often using their own opinion or by loosely inferring from scripture, many times taking the scripture out of context.
Now you might say, “Hey, Wait a second there Terrence. How do you know that’s not the leader simply giving good advice rather than creating an unspoken rule?” And it’s true, it may very well just be pastoral advice, but here are three ways you can know the difference:
“Why would you want to…?”
In the church that I used to go to, I remember two occasions when another leader and I reasoned with the younger people about music, or rather why we shouldn’t listen to non-Christian music. Now we never said “you shouldn’t listen to worldly music”, but rather, “why would you want to listen to worldly music since it doesn’t glorify God?” See what we did there? We presented the rule, not as a statement but a question that basically gave the false dichotomy:
- Christian music = Glorifying God
- Non-Christian music = Not Glorifying God.
And what Christian wants to go against glorifying God?!? Well, I’ve never found anyone in that church since that would listen to (or at least admit to listening to) music that wasn’t explicitly Christian. You see like all false dichotomies this one was designed to lead people to a false conclusion for them to agree with us.
That’s an unspoken rule.
“It’s CLEARLY not of God”
After I left the group, I tried to have conversations with persons who were still there, about topics that I knew were established in that congregation as “Ungodly”; things like drinking alcohol, tattoos and so on. In every case (where I was actually able to get someone to talk to me) the conversation came to an abrupt end where the person would indicate that the thing we were discussing was “clearly” not of God or evil or dark, all the while not willing to even discuss the issue from a Biblical perspective. I mean if something is clearly not of God, we should be able to “clearly” show how… right? If not, all that we end up doing is imprinting our own sense of morality into scripture which incidentally is at odds with what the Bible actually says:
“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” [Colossians 2:8]
People will always disagree about what’s considered right and wrong and that’s ok. The problem is when people get to a point when they’re unable to discuss their own points of view on a matter or give an ear to opposing points of view. It shows that the unspoken rule has not only set in, but that the unspoken rule is also non-negotiable.
The truth is, when you hear someone says that something is “CLEARLY not of God”, nine out of ten times what they really mean is:
“I’ve already made up my mind about this issue, so I don’t want to explore it any further. I can’t actually explain my position, but take my word for it because I prefer that you also, will not check for yourself…. But trust me; you don’t want to do that. God won’t be pleased”
That’s an unspoken rule.
“It’s been my experience that…”
A “group mentality” is one of the major signs that something has gone wrong in a congregation. They are characterized by rehearsed answers to common questions or objections. What a group mentality really indicates is that the members of the group “believe” based on what they are told, rather than what they are actually persuaded of. It is opposed to free thinking and that is not in any way Christian.
I had spoken to four of the persons who are still a part of the group separately about a certain line of theology. It was one that I knew was not in the Bible yet was held as a core belief in the group. When I asked if they could substantiate this belief Biblically, they all gave the same response. “This isn’t a doctrine as much as it is my own belief based in my own experience”.
Remember these were four separate conversations with four different people who are all part of the same group.
That’s an unspoken rule.
“And the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.” [Acts 17:11]
So what’s the real problem with unspoken rules? Well, a system that would have you believe something, while at the same time not holding itself accountable for providing a direct and honest explanation for that belief, is simply a recipe for disaster. Look at what happens in the major cults. The leadership is always able to distance themselves from their followers who act upon what they were taught by the leaders.
The cult leaders say things like, “I never actually said…” or “I was simply asking the question” or “I was just stating my opinion”, while their followers take the fall for buying into the group mentality that was established. No, in contrast we ought to be more like the Bereans who didn’t take Paul at his word just because he was “Paul the Apostle”.
When this type of group mentality starts to occur, where leadership is no longer questioned or held accountable, the level of ethics in the group quickly deteriorates into an “ends justifying means” ideology, which I’ll talk about in my next Warning Sign.