I know many people whose lives revolve around church. I often bump into a phenomenon I could call conserva-burn—the painful effect of elevating conservative standards and reforms in a way that leaves people feeling inferior, rejected, and shamed.
Let me say up front that in most cases, the standards and reforms are not the problem—the delivery method is. Let me identify two sources of “burn” and show how they can instead be a blessing:
Standards are actual requirements for membership. The church needs reasonable standards to function as an organization. Appropriate, biblical moral boundaries provide shape and continuity to church life. Without those boundaries, the church becomes indistinguishable from the world and, in a large measure, loses its function as a spiritual refuge. For example, elders should be the husband of one wife (1 Tim. 3:2). How safe would you feel in a church with polygamist elders?
Reforms, in contrast, are not required for membership; yet they can be a blessing. For example, the Adventist Church does not officially require members to be vegan or even vegetarian, but there is a plant-based movement within the church. The same is true for dress reform, homeschooling, and other “conservative” reforms. Those movements, if carried out in a gracious spirit, can be tolerable at worst and a blessing at best. Gracious vegans have helped many a heart patient learn to prepare more plant-based meals.
The Delivery Method
But time after time I hear the same story—a member urged standards heartlessly; a reformer, rather than inform, pushed others to conform. The recipient of such treatment typically becomes resistant to the very thing urged. Cramming tofu down someone’s gullet will pretty much guarantee an association between tofu and the gag reflex. This is not health reform, it’s health deform.
Where standards and reforms go awry is the point where they fuel self-righteousness. Fallen humans love to exalt themselves and will use religious rules to do it. When we lose sight of the gospel and allow do’s and don’ts to become the substance of our faith, we have committed the worst of apostasies. Paul said, “You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal 5:4). The first step any reformer or standard-bearer should take is to heart-searchingly ask God to ground them in the gospel.
Called to Heal
Now, let’s shift focus. Can victims of conserva-nazis do something to heal? I think so. However wrongfully treated, they should let God lead in their response to the harm suffered, lest they add insult to injury. In particular, the wounded among us will benefit from some steps:
Refrain from overgeneralization- One bad vegan doesn’t spoil the whole bunch. Be open to the fact that some reformers and standard-bearers have better attitudes and spirit than the spiritual terrorist you encountered.
Watch for overreaction- It’s okay to cry. Tears are not wrong. Our emotions are open systems that will at times suffer from the actions of others. But we should not let even the worst religious abuse eclipse the lovely face of Jesus. Seek His face. Get help. Heal.
Draw lines of separation- It can be difficult not to assume that God speaks directly through religious people and experiences. If we admire a certain pastor, for example, we may be inclined to interpret his harsh treatment as from God. Take a step back. Clear the head. Connect directly to the Lord.
Move on- A soul wound causes a sense of dissonance we will want to resolve. This can lead us to stay connected to the source of burn in an attempt to gain the approval they withheld. This instinct can keep us stuck in unhealthy relationships. Jesus walked away sometimes. So can we.
Avoid revenge- A shame wound can fester quickly. Keep it clean of the desire for revenge. Vengeance belongs to God; when we take it into our own hands, we effectively block His influence (Romans 12:19).
I hope something I’ve said here has ministered to you. I write exactly what I wish someone had written for me when I was covered with conserva-burn blisters. Trust God. It gets better.
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Blog post by Dr. Jennifer Jill Schwirzer