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I watched a TV programme entitled “How to get to Heaven with the Hutterites” (BBC2 3.3.2013). They are an isolated pacifist Christian Community in the vast American plains. The movement was founded 500 years ago, and the programme showed the very tight control that the Chief Elder had over the whole of that colony of 100 people. There are 500 similar colonies, mainly in Canada. I will not describe all their very restricted and controlling practices in detail, but I was struck by certain points.
The Chief Elder said “Our two rules are ‘Love God and your neighbour as yourself” and “If I live a life that will be pleasing to God where I will follow his commandments in everything that I do and don’t do, I expect when I die to pass on from here to get eternal life.”
There was nothing about being “born again”, faith in the death of Christ, the certain promise of heaven for God’s people, etc.
With a faith that seems to be based on “works only” one can only wonder what their standing will be before God.
Just one lady said “We read our Bibles every day”. Assuming that they had a Bible with a good translation (and not “doctored” for their own beliefs), surely some of them must have read John 3, Ephesians 1v4, Romans 8v28 and the many similar passages that speak of those chosen by God and their certainty of heaven? If they did, I am sure that questioning the interpretation of the Elders would not be tolerated.
Before we examine this Christian group any further, I am well aware how anti-Christian the BBC are, and how they can slant reporting to give any impression that they wish – invariably critical. The second half of the programme concentrated on those who had left the colony, which I am sure would not please the Elders that allowed them to film them. However, even with this in mind, certain points did stand out.
Every activity was rigidly controlled from the top; what work the men did, the duties of the women, mealtimes. Men, women, boys and girls all ate separately and their chairs were allocated to them by age – and no talking was allowed. What was so very noticeable was the complete absence of real hearty laughter, or any sense of obvious joy in doing their work or even when talking to each other. Whilst there were smiles bordering on laughter, there seemed to be an air of resignation over the whole colony. They seemed to be reasonably happy with their lot.
Only the minimum contact with the outside world was allowed, and even going with you wife to the dentist required the permission of the Chief Elder.
It was as I was thinking about their strange situation that the word “maturity” came to mind. It dawned on me that, adults though they were, they were so sheltered from the many difficult situations that arise in the modern world that they would probably have great difficulty in handling them in a fully mature Christian way. Christ said “you will be IN the world but not OF it”. In their situation they were most definitely NOT even IN the world!
This led me to further reflection about all such colonies, cults, sects and similar organisations that exert a rigid control over ALL – or, in varying degrees, almost all – of their activities.
What is going on in these tightly controlled groups between the elders and the members?
Features of controlled groups
I thought of several similar organisations that held varying degrees of control over their membership. Amongst them I would include –
Other similar large or small “closed colonies”
Jim Jones Community
Churches that use “heavy shepherding” over their members.
What are the features of such organisations? I would suggest that the following would apply in varying degrees to them.
(1) Dominant leadership, usually centering on one man.
(2) Total control of membership.
(3) Salvation is ONLY found within the group. There is no salvation outside the group.
(4) Specific and detailed directions on what work each person must do.
Clearly, such organisations must have two components –
(i) Dominant control by a strong leader AND
(ii) The willing submission of the people to him.
Thinking about these two necessary components, I realised that the situation flatly contradicted a very fundamental requirement of the Bible.
I find myself continually returning to the important verses of Ephesians 4v11-13 – the only passage in the New Testament that clearly sets out the reason WHY God placed us in gatherings we call churches; v11 “(The church was given) some to be Apostles, some to be Prophets … (v13) so that we may become mature attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
Thus, it should be the PRIME aim of all Elderships to train their flock to become fully mature Christians, able to deal sensibly with all the problems that this challenging, dangerous and tempting world should face them with.
But this is NOT what is found in the types of community gatherings or strict churches that we have listed above.
If any member is expected to go to the Eldership for permission to do anything that they should have decided for themselves in normal life, then there is something seriously wrong with the organisation. Such a willing submission displays a lack of maturity on the part of the person.
Yet the leadership insists on this situation continuing as a fundamental part of the organisation. Failure to comply results in ejection from the group. Why should this be?
The “drug” of “Control”.
I have become increasingly aware that there is a very powerful drive in some individuals to be in control over other people. Indeed, it has all the symptoms of being a drug. They simply cannot help themselves in this urge to be in control of others. Twice, I have personally seen it at work, where someone “makes a bid” to take a prominent leadership role, only to be thwarted by the resident leader who was far too well secure in his position!
With this situation, inevitably the strong leader will not tolerate challenges to his authority on any issue. To admit that the challenger is correct on any subject under discussion is damaging to the image of superior wisdom that he has spent so much effort in projecting to those under him.
Challenges to his decisions are most likely to come from independently minded, mature, thoughtful and intelligent people, so people with these characteristics are opposed, blocked and gradually “eased out” of the group. This was exactly what was happening in the Hutterite community – people with any spark of initiative eventually left.
A friend made a very pungent comment on this subject of a strong desire to control other people. He wrote -
“Anyone who seeks power over others, whether he wishes his power to be visible or concealed, is mentally a child, with all the vices and character faults which a child, if competently brought up, should have abandoned by the time he has reached adulthood. There can be no exceptions to this: a mature person would be far too aware of the inadequacy of his attempts to govern his own life to seek to govern the lives of others."
Now this does NOT apply to those who want to lead groups - say young people or Bible Studies. Behind their thinking is the genuine desire to help people to grow. What I am concerned about are those who seek senior leadership for itself - and the prestige that it gives that boosts their ego. They will certainly claim that this is not their aim, but those around them will recognise it for what it is. One test is to ask yourself "How do I take sensible criticism?"
Is “Control” a modern ambition?
Is this strong desire to be in control of a church of recent emergence in this increasingly aggressive age?
Not at all! There is a clear case in the NT. In 3 John1v9-10, Diotrephes “who loves to be first… stops those (who want to welcome the brothers) and puts them out of the church.”
A clear case of a “control freak” in the NT! Man’s pride was as strong then as it is now, and it shows itself in just the same ways. It is only the background scenery to this “Drama of Life” that changes over the years!
The Ideal Church?
What, then, is the ideal church? One in which the Elders deliberately aim to encourage the congregation to become increasingly mature as Christians, able to sensibly handle ALL that life throws at them with Christian godliness. Obviously, not all can reach this level and will need help and advice on how to behave, but the essential thing is to encourage them to mature and take responsibility for their actions and decisions as best they can.
I once heard a sermon given very shortly after the Bradford City Football Club disaster, when rubbish under the wooden flooring caught light and 56 people died. He said that it only took a cigarette to start it all. In the same way, he said, it only takes one “trouble maker” to cause a great “conflageration” in the church.
I pointed out to him afterwards, that the real “trouble makers” and guilty party was the management of the stadium for allowing the rubbish to accumulate in the first place. They had been warned of the seriousness of the situation and had done nothing about it. They had allowed a tinderbox situation to develop that only required the smallest spark to ignite it.
It is surely relevant that the preacher was himself an extremely “strong” character who clearly disliked those upsetting “troublemakers”!
I have no idea who will read this article, but let me ask a simple question that will highlight what I have been trying to say. In a church consisting of mature Christians, there should surely be NO subject that cannot be discussed in a mature, sensible and open way, without rancour, anger or hurt feelings if one of more persons are shown to be wrong. So let me ask -
“Is there ANY subject that it is felt that CANNOT be raised in a church meeting (or any other time) for fear of ‘upsetting people’”. Then insofar as this is the situation, I would suggest that the church elders and membership is exactly that much immature!
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