This is the second part of a two-part series. Your may read part one here. You are strongly encouraged to read the part one before proceeding.
“The Human Heart is a factory of idols.”
– John Calvin
A few years back, I completed a custom painting for a baby boy’s nursery; one that would complement the minimalist style, warm color scheme, and the simplistic, one-dimensional pattern of the bedding set of the new baby’s African Animals-themed nursery.
After creating the landscape and sun, mimicking the simple, leafy shapes from the bedding’s pattern, I created a one-dimensional, dark silhouette of a giraffe.
Lastly, using a wide, fanned brush, I added a slight hint of depth to the painting by dragging layers of cream, coral, and red paint up from the bottom edge of the painting.
Contrast my very simplistic painting of the giraffe with the intricate, detailed painting of the leopard that my mother created and which I used in my last article.
While both paintings were created for very different purposes, my mother’s painting of a leopard is, quite clearly, far more representative of one of God’s complex creatures.
My painting of the giraffe, on the other hand, is but a shadow of this truly magnificent creature.
Predators in the Pulpits and Prey in the Pews
An even starker contrast between the two paintings is the subject of each: one a predator, the other one, prey.
In my last article, I discussed the concerning phenomenon of authoritarianism, of predatory leadership afflicting some Evangelical churches in America. This phenomenon appears to be on the rise and, since my last article was published, I have learned is far more widespread than I had initially suspected.
Pastor Steve Martin of IRBS Theological Seminary has identified the sins of the authoritarian church leader as :
- Idolatry: “[T]he sinful desire to always be in control, especially the control of the lives of God’s sheep. Such sin is but a thinly veiled attempt to play God for His people. And make no mistake, such men become as God to their flock. It is hardly surprising that pastors with such a sinful tendency will eventually attain near papal infallibility in their churches [and beyond]. Paul’s command to young Titus in 2:15 (‘…rebuke with all authority…do not let anyone despise you’) is their ‘life verse’ in practice if not in precept. Usually this idolatrous sin of always needing to be in control is accompanied by a wrathful, berating, anxiety-producing spirit as the controlling leader will tolerate no loose electrons in his personal universe of control (Cf. Ezekiel 34:4 & ff.; Matt. 20:25; 1 Pet. 5:3). Such self-deified leaders produce congregations which are more afraid of displeasing the leaders than they are of displeasing their Lord and Savior. Men who must be ‘God’ to their people ironically lose the authority of God’s Holy Spirit by their sin. Then their God-given authority is replaced by fleshly control maintained by manipulation, intimidation, verbal coercion and the ecclesiastical version of pulling rank (e.g., ‘Now, I’m your elder and you had better do this, or else…’!) The Apostle John’s description of Diotrophes seems to fall under such a category of sin (3 John 9-10).”
- Prayerlessness: “[A]uthoritarian pastors and leaders do not rely upon prayer for their people as a primary instrument ordained by God for the edification and protection of His people. As a result, they verbally coerce and bully their people into conformity… Such fleshly shepherds expend far more labor scolding, threatening, manipulating, confronting, ‘counseling’, and ‘EXERCISING DISCIPLINE’ to get their people to knuckle under to their will.”
- Unbelief: “[M]any leaders in churches do not believe the declarative statements and promises of God contained in His Word… In this pattern of unbelief, following hard on the heels of their own prayerlessness, authoritarian shepherds develop the mindset, ‘If I don’t make them do this, they won’t!’ or ‘If I don’t make them do this, who will?’ They really do not believe that Christ will shepherd His sheep and the Holy Spirit guide and convict the saints while they are away from the human shepherd… Sadly, such pastors and elders create a ‘police-state mentality’ in their congregations: everyone’s life is carefully monitored and scrutinized for any deviation, and any ‘sins’ or questionable activities are to be reported to the church leadership immediately.”
- Lack of love for the sheep: “Many pastors love to study, preach, teach and manage but they just do not like the people. Even their time counseling people is only to ‘fix’ problems that might mess up the church. Compare such attitudes with that of our loving and compassionate Lord for the sheep-like sinners of His earthly ministry (cf. Matt. 9:36 and 14:14; Mark 1:29-41 and 10:21). Do you see how far removed our Lord’s shepherd ministry is from many pastoral examples today?”
- Pride: “[A]t root, all the above mentioned sins of office bearers stem from an inflated sense of their own importance. John Calvin once observed that from the king on his throne to the scullery maid in her kitchen, each of us harbors a kingdom in our hearts. Such is the sinful pride of the human heart… How unlike their Master!”
But there is a flip-side to this coin: idol-worshiping sheep.
“But it has also been my sad observation that a reaction has set in among some churches and leaders. ‘Authoritarianism’ has risen among some pastors and officeholders such that whole churches seem to be little more than idol worshipers of ‘the great man’ and the ‘omnicompetent elders’. Instead of wounded shepherds victimized by their flock, we now have the specter abroad of wounded sheep victimized by the very men called to feed and protect them.
Who is to say which set of sins is worse or brings more shame on the name of Christ and the gospel of grace?”
– Pastor Steve Martin
At least one university lecturer and researcher, Charles Chilimampunga, believes that the trend towards pastor/leader worship “is mostly due to the fact that such church leaders are taking advantage of people’s deprivation,” .
Pastor Steve Martin of IRBS Theological Seminary has identified the sins of the idol-worshipping sheep as :
- Idol-Worship: “[S]inful flesh is not content with the unseen reality of the one true God. It wants to fashion an idol in place of the invisible God who is spirit. There is always the temptation to act like the Jews of Saul’s time who wanted a human leader that they could see, rather than the unseen God Himself (1 Kings 8:1-18). But God shares His glory with no man, not even ‘called men’ who are promoted to demi-god status by their adoring flock. Such flocks too often find for themselves a man who likes to lord it over the flock. Thus a sinfully symbiotic relationship is complete with an abusive authority figure coupled to idol-worshipping minions (e.g., Jer. 5:30-31). Such people populate churches that boast of their preacher but speak little of Jesus Christ!”
- Fear of Man: “[T]oo many sheep are more gripped by the desire to please a man or more fearful of displeasing a man than they are of pleasing or displeasing Almighty God (cf. Prov. 29:25; John 5:41-44)… Men-pleasers have little stomach for potential conflict or simple disagreement. They would never dare question their exalted leader, no matter how respectfully. They would never ask for the biblical basis for a decision made by the leadership, even when that decision seems to fly in the face of clear biblical teaching. Such men-pleasers crave the smile of a man’s countenance more than the smile of God and they will not speak the truth in love (Eph. 5:15).”
- Unbelief:“[T]oo many believers do not believe that God still guides His people today through the means of prayerful meditation upon the Word of God and the illuminating ministry of the Holy Spirit… It is not surprising that Christians who put men of clay on pedestals, who then cravenly serve these idol-leaders, and who do not believe that God still guides should fall prey to abusive leaders. It is only the grace of God that it does not happen more than it does… Perhaps authoritarian shepherds are God’s chastening rods upon the backs of idol-worshipping, men-pleasing, unbelieving sheep who will not have God to be their God and who substitute a mere creature in His place (cf. Isaiah 2:22 and Psalm 33:13-19)?”
Unlike a giraffe on the Savanna who will put of a fight against any predator looking for a meal, idol-worshipping sheep willingly allow themselves to become fleshly prey animals for predatory church leaders.
As Pastor Martin has pointed out (emphasis mine) :
“Flocks of sheep with paralyzed decision-making faculties reveal exposure to shepherds who played ‘God’ for them. Thus the sinful tendency noted in John Milton’s wry observation (‘New presbyter is but old priest writ large’) returns to haunt the churches. And even more sadly, some idol-worshipping sheep love it to be so.”
Christ described those who would flock to such false shepherds, warning, “For wherever the carcass may be, there the vultures will be gathered,” (Matthew 24:28).
For those who wish not to become vultures, it is imperative to remember that the Word of God advises us “to check themselves and make sure they are not elevating pastors to a place that belongs to Christ in their hearts. Whilst we are to appreciate and love pastors, we need not give them the worship that is due God,” .
It is important to recognize and avoid systems of toxic faith.
A horrible and shocking thing
has happened in the land.
The prophets prophesy falsely,
and the priests rule by their own authority.
My people love it so,
but what will you do in the end?”
The Toxic Faith System
There are several notable features of and rules within an environment wherein Christian fellowship and Christian worship has morphed into a system of toxic faith, a system which enables Nicolaitan leaders to persecute their idol-worshiping sheep:
- Control: “When the toxic-faith leader struggles with control on a personal level, he or she also attempts to be in the center of control within the system. The leader desires to have the final say in every decision, whether minimal or monumental… so that total control, or at least the illusion of total control, can be maintained by the leader… The more the person seeks to control all details, the less likely that person will be able to maintain a clear vision of the larger issues,” .
- Blame: “When problems arise, immediately find a guilty party to blame. Almost every toxic believer caught in a public scandal has relied on this rule to explain or minimize the scandal,” .
- Perfectionism: “A toxic-faith system traps all its religious addicts into the tyranny of perfectionism. Because they are taught that they belong to an elite system, followers believe they can attain perfection, think they need to attain it, and feel terrible shame when they fail… This rule against making mistakes increases shame and fear and motivates members of the toxic system to deny and repress their humanness. A mistake is considered a reason to fear that their faith lacks strength. Fear becomes the motivation to work harder to compensate for a lack of faith that has produced the mistake… The toxic-faith system has no room for error and no room for people who make mistakes. Since people in need, people who mess up, and people who reveal their humanness glaringly point out the weaknesses of the toxic-faith system, they must be removed. Their expulsions also motivate others to measure up to the perfect standards of the organization. They try harder, lest they be thrown out too… The perfectionist practice of faith becomes product-oriented; the relationship with God becomes less important than the product of acceptable behavior. Anything short of perfection elicits the shame of not being quite good enough… The toxic believer… endeavors endlessly to avoid the shame and pain of not measuring up. He or she always hopes that “this time I’ll do it right,” (emphasis mine) .
- Delusion: “Never point out the reality of a situation. Religious addicts aren’t interested in reality. They don’t want to know how things are. They are interested in how things should be and how everyone can work together to create the illusion that everything is the way it should be. Anyone not creating that illusion will be discounted or removed. To talk of reality is to commit organizational suicide. If more faithful followers were willing to commit organizational suicide and become outcasts, all the other religious addicts would be forced to face reality and change to meet the needs of the people the ministry is supposed to serve,” (emphasis mine) .
- Perpetual Cheerfulness: “Never express your feelings unless they are positive. Religious addicts don’t care about people. They don’t care how people feel or what their needs are. They care about their own feelings and their own needs. Addicts who know the rules will never reveal a thought, feeling, or doubt that would make the toxic leader feel uncomfortable. The leader wants to be reinforced only with positive feelings and statements of affirmation. No room exists for those who are negative, depressed, or worried about a problem. In a toxic-faith system, followers must always wear pasted-on smiles. Individuals who make known their problems are considered outcasts and are ostracized,” .
- Spotless image: “At all costs, keep up the image of the organization [or leader(s), or movement]. The toxic-faith organization and the toxic-faith family exist in a world of denial. They deny everyone’s humanity, including that of its leader. One foundation for the growth of a toxic organization is the image of a godlike leader. The leader must be presented as having a level of perfection that others cannot attain… The toxic-faith organization and the toxic-faith family exist in a world of denial. They deny everyone’s humanity, including that of its leader. One foundation for the growth of a toxic organization is the image of a godlike leader. The leader must be presented as having a level of perfection that others cannot attain… This rule is never observed 100 percent, however. Some members of the organization or a family always come to see the group for what it is and challenge the false perceptions. They become outcasts, but as they go out, they force a crack in the delusive image of the leader, the family, or the organization. Eventually, enough cracks destroy the facade completely, and people recognize the organization for what it is… All rules in a toxic system have something to do with maintaining religious addiction. Rules are designed to fuel the addict’s ego, protect the addict’s position, and perpetuate the status quo. This is the central poison in the family or organization and in the faith of the addicted followers,” (emphasis mine) .
- Blind Loyalty: “Don’t ask Questions, especially if they are tough ones. Religious addicts must be blindly loyal. Questions, especially the tough ones, reveal that a follower has some doubts and lacks faith. Any questioning is considered resistance to the organization or the leader of the family. Questions are met with responses that indicate certain issues are not to be mentioned. Expenditures of the organization, for example, are said to be beyond the understanding of the followers… There was a time when everything in the solar system was said to revolve around the earth. Those who questioned this belief were cast out, and some were punished. In a system of religious addiction, the toxic-faith leader believes that the ministry or the family should revolve around him or her. Anyone questioning that approach, or suggesting that the ministry revolve around people’s needs, has no place in the system,” .
- Conformity: “Don’t do anything outside of your role. A toxic-faith system doesn’t permit personal growth. Those who remain in the system must learn their roles and not deviate from them. Otherwise they will be perceived as rebellious and unstable. The toxic-faith leader doesn’t want individualism; he or she wants predictability and conformity. If a person can’t adhere to the rules of the assigned role, that person must be ejected from the system… A toxic-faith system is intent on maintaining the homeostasis of the system, that is, keeping the boat from rocking… The toxic-faith system gets victims to stick to their roles by shaming them. Those at the top encourage followers to shame the rebel to intimidate him or her back into submission… The only individuals who can exist over time in the toxic system are those who stay within the bounds of their roles and continue to find new ways to serve the leader. The more a person can accomplish for the toxic-faith leader, the longer the person will stay and the more respected the person will become,” .
- Mistrust: “Trust is discouraged so that the system’s leader maintains allegiance of power… Religious addicts exist inside a system based on false reality. Rules are made up, and those living within the rules are unreal. No one can trust in a system where no one is being real. When people do not say what they think or express what they feel, no one can be trusted. Where one must sacrifice the reality of what one thinks, feels, hears, and sees, trust is impossible. In the absence of trust, manipulation and fear grow. Victims allow themselves to be manipulated as long as they remain in the system. Unable to rely on anyone but the leader, they permit that leader to reign over them,” .
- Elitism: “Religious addicts are at war with the world to protect their terrain and to establish themselves as godly persons who can’t be compared to other persons of faith. In their attempt to maintain and protect their beliefs, religious addicts line everyone up in two camps; there is no middle ground. A person is either part of the toxic-faith system or against it; a person is either supportive or destructive. The toxic organization fosters this mentality until its followers believe that everyone on the outside is a threat to the ministry, has no understanding of what is “really” going on, and must be ignored if they challenge the beliefs of the religious addicts. At the point of any new threat, the leader and the religious addicts are ready to go to war. Individuals who have not made a similar investment will be perceived as enemies ready to strike at any moment… Religious addicts often cease to react and operate like human beings. They show no compassion for the hurting or those who feel trapped in sin. Zealous addicts make sinners feel alienated and hated. The attractive, gathering nature of Christ is lost in the religious addicts’ desire to set themselves above and apart from all the rest. Self-righteousness replaces the humble service to God that probably characterized their walk of faith at the beginning… As the ministry grows, it will come under closer scrutiny, and some of its toxic beliefs will be revealed as such by those who suspect the motives of the leader, the addicts who follow, and the entire organization. When these investigations begin, religious addicts are manipulated into believing that they are being attacked by the enemy. The prudent course would be to admit the mission has gotten off track, confess the wrongs, and bring it back in line with biblical teachings. But religious addicts would never do that until every other option had been taken away,” (emphasis mine) .
- Labeling: “The technique of labeling is used to discount a person who opposes the beliefs of the religious addict. Labeling attempts to dehumanize critics so that dismissing them or their opinions becomes much easier. The religious addict chooses not to address a critic individually but places a negative label on all who would disagree… Rather than say that John Smith has asked some questions, the addict proclaims that there are “detractors,” “traitors,” or “malcontents” who would destroy the ministry or organization. The labels become rallying points used to squelch a revolt. Once the label is in place, it becomes more difficult to see that person as a human with real needs and the potential for good judgment… By labeling John and by persuading other church members to believe that label, the insecure pastor was able to avoid dealing with disagreement. The military uses labeling to enhance the “killability” of the enemy. The last thing a military leader wants a soldier to think about is that the person in his rifle sights may be a father of five little girls who will starve without a daddy. The enemy is given an ethnic label in an effort to dehumanize him. The soldier is better able to kill one hundred of them than one father or husband. Religious addicts use the technique well, and when they use rumor and innuendo to kill the reputation of a sincere critic, other followers are more apt to go along if a label can dehumanize the dissenter. The purpose of labeling is to separate and divide… The approach is transferred to the person’s individuality. The person is shamed and demeaned for beliefs that have little to do with the person’s value or unique gifts from God. Disqualification by labeling hurts the victims and allows persecutors to continue in their toxic faith. It is sheer poison… Because it is difficult to rally against rational-thinking people who have distinctly different views, labels must be used to polarize the opponents and energize the followers to fight those opponents… Labeling discounts and dismisses the opposition and establishes the superiority of religious addicts. It does not invite the exploration of the beliefs of others; it reduces them to objects of scorn. Labeling becomes the perfect weapon to attack the enemy or defend the toxic-faith system, its beliefs, and addictive practices. Labeling allows religious addicts to define truth, uphold that truth as defined, and destroy anyone who would dare to question that truth,” (emphasis mine) .
- Sheep Become Co-Conspirators: “[The sheep] are addicted to religion as the means by which they feel accepted and significant… conspirator. In large organizations, more than one co-conspirator usually exists. Several co-conspirators work together to form a team of yes-men and yes-women who will do anything to protect and defend the persecutor. They feed into the persecutor’s ego and further blind him or her from reality. When conflict arises, they usually find a way to agree with the persecutor and support his or her position. They are loyal and supportive of the persecutor in every way. If it were not for them, the persecutor’s empire would fall quickly. In a toxic-faith system, these are the most dangerous followers. They are as driven and misguided as the persecutor, and because they are close to power, people trust them. Because they so deeply believe in the persecutor, many will continue to support that person when trouble, rumor, or admission of wrong surfaces… The primary role of a co-conspirator is to make the persecutor look good… In a typical crisis, the co-conspirator comes to the rescue of the persecutor… Co-conspirators believe their actions are genuine. They say, “I know God’s hand when I see it, and his hand is on this person.” They see everything from the point of view of the persecutor, that he or she has been called of God to head the family or run the ministry and that everything must make sense in light of that divine calling… and further enhance the delusions of the persecutor. Each co-conspirator sees the evil plot as out to get the persecutor [“a faithful minister”] and takes it as a personal mission to protect the persecutor at all costs. If it means that lies and distortions must be propagated, then lies and distortions will be devised. If it means lying to prevent the authorities from taking children out of the home, then lies it will be. For this willingness to lie, thus continuing the delusion of sincerity and purity, the co-conspirator is rewarded with gifts, power, money, and prestige,” (emphasis mine) .
“For from the least of them to the greatest,
all are greedy for gain.
From prophet to priest,
all practice deceit.
They have dressed the wound of My people
with very little care,
saying, ‘Peace, peace,’
when there is no peace at all.
Turning Sheep into Vultures
As you have likely now noticed, the toxic, pack-like environment of a toxic faith system turns the sheep into simplistic shadows, into silhouettes of the Christ-loving people they once were… They lose all ability to empathize with others whom they view as “wrong” (for any reason) and are incapable of humility and forgiveness.
They become caricatures of their former selves.
Consider the below, highlighted passage from page 33 of Pastor Richard Wurmbrand’s book, “Tortured for Christ.”
The sheep became predators, joining in the hunt for His sheep.
Thee became vultures.
These vultures will lie and slander without pause.
These vultures will stalk those deemed “opponents,” both virtually and in person.
These vultures will put good Christians in harm by doxing them.
Some vultures have even gone so far as to send, via “snail mail,” fallacious and defamatory letters to one blogger’s church members (including the janitor), “as well as denominational leaders, the chancellor of a wellknown local university medical center, the chiefs of certain medical divisions, the president of a related denomination’s seminary and a cardiology practice,” and also “all of the members of a community board on which” she and her husband sit .
Worst of all, these predatory sheep have sacrificed their relationship with Christ for the worship of a toxic leader and a toxic faith system, and have smeared their once-Christian witness to the world.
“They were bewildered (harassed and distressed and dejected and helpless), like sheep without a shepherd.”
I did not write this for those who have already dedicated themselves to such idolatry (and whom I know will be seeking out and reading this article due to their predatory impulses).
I write this for those who have not yet forfeited themselves to a toxic leader, those who do not yet posess “paralyzed decision-making faculties,” as Pastor Steven Martin describes, and for those precious Christians who, currently, may be feeling trapped in a Nicolaitan fellowship.
Christ is a gift, not a curse.
Christ is humanizes, not dehumanizing or heart-hardening.
If you find yourself in a system where you are being pulled in a direction of becoming a vulture, get out now!
Never create a golden calf out of any human, no matter how much you admire him or her.
Keep your focus on Christ and never let him go!
 Pastor Steven Martin, Authoritarian Shepherds and Idol-worshipping Sheep, Abuse of Authority in the Church, IRBS Theological Seminary (2016). Retrieved at: http://irbsseminary.org/abuse-authority-church/
 Brenda Twea, Are we idolizing church leaders?, The Nation, retrieved at: https://mwnation.com/are-we-idolising-church-leaders/
 Ibid. .
 Ibid. .
 Ibid. .
 Steven Arterburn & Jack Felton, Toxic Faith, WaterBrook Press (2001), P. 216-217.
 Ibid. , P. 217-218.
 Ibid. , P. 218-221.
 Ibid. , P. 221-222.
 Ibid. , P. 222-223.
 Ibid. , P. 229-231.
 Ibid. , P. 223-225.
 Ibid. , P. 225-226.
 Ibid. , P. 226-227.
 Ibid. , P. 154-157.
 Ibid. , P. 164-168.
 Ibid. , P. 191-197.
 The Wartburg Watch, How a Letter Meant to Hurt Dee in Her Church and Community Gave Her a Precious Gift Instead, retrieved at: http://thewartburgwatch.com/2017/08/16/how-a-letter-meant-to-hurt-dee-in-her-church-and-community-gave-her-a-precious-gift-instead/