When Religion Goes Bad: Part 1

by Dale S. Ryan and Jeff VanVonderen

It is probably obvious to most regular readers of STEPS that religion can “go bad.” Nothing too surprising there. You don’t really have to go further than the morning newspapers these days to learn that sometimes religious conviction can become horribly twisted and abusive. Many of us are personally familiar with the misuse of religious ideas to support domestic violence, the misuse of the Bible to prop up spiritually abusive systems, the religious reinforcement of family dysfunction, and the forms of abuse made possible by the cloak of religious authority. And more than likely most of us have some sense of our own vulnerabilities to religious dysfunction. This is not just a problem that other people struggle with. Maybe we have used religious behaviors addictively. Or used the Bible against other people. Or used our spirituality to protect ourselves from the truth. There are many, many ways in which our religious instincts and behaviors can become distorted and even harmful to ourselves and others.

It is important to emphasize the obvious about this. When religion goes bad it can cause a lot of pain. People get hurt. And the wounds are not usually superficial. When religion goes bad, we often get hurt down at the core of who we are. We develop resistances to faith, immunities to spiritual things. And that can do “God damage” to our hearts that can last for years, even for generations.

In this series of columns we plan to look at a variety of ways in which the Christian faith can become dysfunctional. The Christian faith does not, of course, have a monopoly on religious dysfunction. You can find dysfunction in any religious tradition. It is our conviction that the dysfunctions we need to look at most closely and urgently are the ones that are closest to home. Because looking at religious dysfunctions that are close to home can be difficult and potentially painful, we need to remind ourselves that finding religious dysfunction in the Christian context is nothing new.

If we look at the history of the community of faith in the Bible we find example after example of times when God’s people succumbed to dysfunction. In the Old Testament most of the prophetic literature is focused on religious dysfunction. The prophets complain about the ways in which religion goes bad and how people at every level are affected. Jeremiah is a good example:

“A horrible and shocking thing
has happened in the land:
The prophets prophesy lies,
the priests rule by their own authority,
and my people love it this way.… ”
(Jeremiah 5:30–31)
“From the least to the greatest,
all are greedy for gain;
prophets and priests alike,
all practice deceit.
They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say,
when there is no peace.”
(Jeremiah 6:13–14)

We suspect that many of you can attest to having experienced these kinds of things in churches and/or religious organizations in our day as well. There are still many leaders who “rule by their own authority,” many followers who “love it this way,” and many who do not take seriously the wounds of God’s people.

In the New Testament, Paul’s letters to the churches provide an analogous picture of communities struggling with religious dysfunction. These were often churches entangled in performance-oriented religiosity. They couldn’t seem to tolerate the grace-fullness of the gospel, so they reverted to more familiar religious traditions. For instance, the Galatians went back to trying to earn God’s favor and “get God to work” based on their religious performance. Paul wrote:

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? (Galatians 3:1)

And the Corinthians apparently believed that God favored them more, based on which teacher they followed:

My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ’
(1 Corinthians 1:11–12)

Even before Paul, Jesus himself confronted religion gone bad. His harshest words were reserved for religious professionals who preached a graceless, performance-oriented, try-hard religion. In the book of Matthew, for example, Jesus says, “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4).

Religious dysfunction was apparently very common throughout the entire biblical period. There is no “golden age” in the history of the Christian community, no early pristine period when everything worked just like it was supposed to. As far back as you look, you find broken people struggling to support each other in their efforts to free themselves from religious bondage. If we were really successful in “restoring” the early Christian community, we would not find an ideal, pure community where everyone liked everyone else and got along and didn’t have problems. The evidence is exactly to the contrary. If we restored our churches to the New Testament model, they would still be full of struggling people, still susceptible to all kinds of dysfunction. Naive idealism that leads to reinventing history about earlier periods of the chuch is just not helpful.

We don’t have the space to look at the history of the post–New Testament church, but what you find are long periods in which one kind of dysfunction or another seems to have become dominant. It is easy to become discouraged by the extent to which religious dysfunction has impacted the Christian community. Martin Luther’s comments on the abuses of the Eucharist in his time are a good example of this frustration:

I am attacking a difficult matter, and one perhaps impossible to abate, since it has become so firmly entrenched through century-long custom and the common consent of men that it would be necessary to abolish most of the books now in vogue, to alter almost the whole external form of the churches, and to introduce, or rather re-introduce, a totally different kind of ceremony.1

That is how it often feels when we get clear about dysfunction. It feels like there is no way to change things—like the dysfunction is everywhere, it has always been with us and everything will need to change for things to get better. Luther’s response to his own realization of the magnitude of the problem was, “But my Christ lives, and we must be careful to give more heed to the Word of God than to all the thoughts of men and of angels.” This perspective can help us as we proceed to look at dysfunctions that are very common in the Christian community today. It is depressing to see with clarity the extent of the problem. It is discouraging. And it is not easy to figure out how to fix the problem. But there is a power higher than our own. We can do what we can do and leave the heavy lifting for God.

In future issues of STEPS we will look at specific kinds of religious dysfunction. These will include religious addiction, spiritual anorexia, religious codependency and several others. It is our hope that through this series clarity will prevail where confusion has been sown, that grace will win out, that burdens will be lifted.

1 Martin Luther, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church

Dale Ryan is the executive director of the NACR. Jeff VanVonderen is the executive director of Spiritual Abuse Recovery Resources and a professional interventionist .

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