Monday, January 09, 2012

The Price of Biblicism

I've written elsewhere about the dangers of fundamentalist or evangelical biblicism--the practice of attempting to apply the Bible's teaching based on the assumption that it is inerrant, self-sufficient, self-evident, internally consistent, and universally applicable. One obvious example is the way biblicists use the Bible to condemn gays and lesbians to an agonizing struggle to become "ex-gay" or remain celibate. Others are when they use it to preach salvation in very exclusive ways or still another, when they teach the supposed "end times," which is, by the way it's taught, extremely manipulative.

These results are the "price of biblicism," the fruit of making the Bible into something that the original writers (and God, I believe) never intended it to be. Another grave example I highlight here is the real-life case study of Soveriegn Grace Ministries (SGM - formerly People of Destiny International), a 30-year-old denomination that is now going through a very public investigation of ongoing spiritual abuse of church members and leaders. The root of this, I contend, is this denomination's strict adherence to biblicism.

The heart of most of the problems in this denomination is how it views its leaders' authority. For example, they take very literally Hebrews 13:17, which says "...Obey your leaders and submit to them. For they are keeping watch over your souls as those who will have to give…an account." And as the leader of SGM, C.J. Mahaney, recently taught, they believe God has inspired and preserved these specific words in Hebrews with their churches in mind.

To see the fruit of taking such a Scripture so literally and applying it to church leaders, pastors, and members, one only has to visit two websites that track a myriad of cases of serious, spiritual and emotional abuse. and are chock full of stories from former SGM members who report on specific examples of leaders using verses like Heb. 13:17 to control people's lives, impose psycological guilt trips, and manipulate/reject members or other leaders when they stand up to the abuse. It's a sad commentary, but important for people to be aware of so I encourage interested readers to check these sites out. The abuse can only stop when things come to light.

I was recently reminded of these websites when I noticed one of the founding leaders of SGM, Larry Tomzcak, had finally posted his story of how he was spiritually abused more than 13 years ago. Also, having attended one of these churches back in the mid-to-late 80s and early 90s, I have personal experience. Finally, one friend of mine from those days, Darla Melancon, wrote a book about her family's abuse (I just discovered last year), called The Things I Learned After Being Kicked Out of Church. These sites and this book is a massive case study on the horrific price some people have to pay for biblical literalism.


Kerry Miller-Whalen said...

Heya, Michael! Nice to see you back blogging again (& am only just catching up with your last few posts, as I've been away from the blogosphere for a bit, myself :)

As you know, I'm really not a fan of what you call "biblicalism" - mainly because I just don't think it makes sense. However I'm not sure I'd place the blame wholly on that, for spiritual abuse. Certainly, taking things too far in a very literal way can make people blind to the needs and feelings of others as they follow the "letter of the law". Not healthy.

However, not all fundamental Christians are experiencing or perpetrating spiritual abuse. And not all abusive groups are following Biblical literalism.

I think the roots of spiritual abuse have more to do with legalism and control. Particularly control (though the two do seem to make easy bedfellows). Even secular organisations can become unhealthy and controlling.

If true Christianity is about relationships, rather than rules (and I think it is), it is SOOOO important that we keep our relationships free of coercion or control.

Michael Camp said...

Hey Kerry, Thanks for stopping by again! I appreciate your comments. I'd agree the blame can't placed wholly on biblicism, but I still believe it's foundational. It doesn't mean all biblicists abuse, but that all biblicists are particularly susceptible to abuse.

Think about it. From where do most cults and cult-like groups come from? I daresay, from fundamentalist/evangelical mindsets. Progressives don't make good cult leaders because there's no controlling authority (a legalistic God and a literalist-viewed Bible) to appeal to. I also daresay that even though not all fundamentalist Christians aren't experiencing or perpetuating abuse, they all have a degree of control that others don't, just by their biblicism. Also, keep in mind that many fundamentalists don't experience abuse until they try to step over the line.

Anyway, I could be wrong, but I'm basing this on my experience in a variety of churches. The blog post above on Mars Hill is one example, and my experience at PDI/SGM is another, as is other churches I discuss in my book.

I'm always up for disagreement and challenge so I welcome your perspective.

Kerry Miller-Whalen said...

Yes, I think we both agree that once you place your faith in the realm of what is "right and wrong", and focus on measuring what is and is not "correct", you lose sight of relationships and love. & that's a bad place to be!!

Kerry Miller-Whalen said...

Guess I'd add to that, that while "progressives" tend to hold their doctrinal beliefs with an open hand, & Fundamentalists tend not to, you don't have to be a "Biblicist" to be rigid about a dogma! I know environmentalists and atheists who are just as rigid! (& am a bit of an environmentalist myself, so not knocking greenies at all) Any ideal taken to extremes can become damaging.

Michael Camp said...

Agree with you one hundred percent there. Extremists are on both sides. In this discussion, I'm tending to believe at least for "spiritual abuse" (as opposed to some other form of emotional abuse), biblicism plays a large role as source, if not the foundation.

Kerry Miller-Whalen said...

Thanks for the reply, Michael - and yes, I am with you that Biblicism is like an open door to extremes of ideas.

Interestingly, while we've been having this discussion, I have been reading a wonderful article by Dr. Richard Beck, discussing the book "The Bible Made Impossible". Really insightful & worth a read! Find it here:

Michael Camp said...

Kerry, Funny you said that. Click on the "elsewhere" link at the top of this post and you'll see my discussion of the The Bible Made Impossible. Great book. I'll check out Beck.

Kerry Miller-Whalen said...

Hehe, seems we had quite a discussion on that post, too!! Beck is great - I have gained a lot by reading his blog :)

Michael Camp said...

Yes, I like Beck, although I disagree that what Smith says is psychologically naive. Hey, I'm looking for people who would be willing to review my book. The review copy should be out in 2 weeks. May I put you on my list? If so, email me:
Great chatting w/ you. Cheers!

Kerry Miller-Whalen said...

Ahhh! Your book is nearly done! That explains why you've been a bit quiet on the blog of late!

I commented on whether or not it is "psychologically naive" on Beck's post - was hoping for his perspective - but given that I think I was commenter number 62 or something, probably not surprising that he hasn't responded - if you can bear to scroll through them all and find it, I'd love to hear what you think!