Re: Ex members of John MacArthur's church
Date: October 14, 2016 04:13PM
This is an old thread, but I stumbled upon it by accident and feel I can offer much to this conversation. I cannot share all that could be said on this topic, but it is a very significant thread!
I agree, Grace Community Church is not a cult. There are however issues within the church like any church. I attended this church for about 12 years and then attended a sister church with similar experiences.
The thread asked for the good, the bad, and the ugly of those who have attended the church. This was clear and some missed that point in their responses. Others (well to be fair, the conversation was a ping-pong match between just a few) who commented imo do not have enough experience to really see the inner life of this church. It takes years to really see patterns.
I think the exchange between Braveheart and Bjw exemplifies what can take place at the church. Despite Bjw's very specific examples, they were not addressed. If even half of what was said proved true, that would be just cause to say there is a lack of integrity present on campus. There is pride in the pulpit and pride in the pew in this regard.
I disagree with the cult overtones of Bjw, but agree fully with the Nouthetic counseling issues. This is the Achilles' Heel at this church and others like it...and the consequences can be devastating all in the name of "love for God" which in turn can really be mentally toxic and lead one astray in deep confusion.
I wrote a response and cranked out four pages easily. There is a head-heart split in this church and at the core is an argument against psychology which MacArthur is adamant about. However, like most very rational arguments there can be something missing, something very important. The head can totally miss the heart of the matter and this is my experience and it is part of our sin nature. I call this a Pharisaical hangover.
There is much good at this church. It was said previously, but when push comes to shove, a similar phrase will be echoed, that being, "The teaching is good, therefore..." Back in the 80's, while I was in the college group, there was a joke surrounding the fact that the "love one anothers" was secondary to accurate expository teaching. In fact, I would say GCC is more a bible college than an actual church. Teaching is the primary focus and imo the distinctive way to manage such a large church. How do you manage the lives of 10,000 people? Keep them very busy! This church has little time for life's mess and complications.
So what happens if you are one who struggles beneath the surface with addictions, OCD, bipolar, same sex attraction and a host of other "disorders?" In short, you are screwed! Strong wording I realize, but when you experience how callous leadership can be, how naive, how controlling mere words fall far short compared to actually hurting others in the name of "love for God and biblical integrity." Again, Pharisaical hangover is alive and well here!
There are some psychological aspects of this church that does reflect cults. One is the the strength of a very strong leader. This gives the sense of security. Most people are followers unwilling to think independently and critically. Religion can be a very empowering experience! Being part of a tribe makes one feel secure. Anyone upsetting this can be seen as a malcontent or worse, leading the flock astray.
An historical perspective is needed. In the late 70's there was an exodus of church leadership. This greatly impacted MacArthur! I get the idea he never wanted that to ever happen again. This is why you have to be attending this church for years to get a feel for some patterns. One of which is the temperament of the leadership. You have to be totally on board with all doctrinal positions. No exceptions. MacArthur has a very phlegmatic personality (similar to an engineer) and most of the staff is likewise. The prison ministry pastors were the exception and seen as "soft hearted" which is why many of them never lasted too long.
The Grace Book Shack is filled with wonderful theological reading, but it is all very filtered. There is much more emphasis is the past thinkers and influencers than anything written today or within the past 50 years with a few exceptions. In other words, the more modern books are all approved and safe authors that fit their framework. This is not odd in any way, most churches do this. This allows the church to control the thinking. When everyone is thinking within the same framework, it is easy to "stomp out" a dissenter. For example, all the counseling books are from Jay Adams and Wayne Mack, along with MacArthur...his writings are everywhere. You will only see the Nouthetic model represented. It is this way for every theological position. Are you getting the idea here of how a confident church can impact it's members? MacArthur draws a line in the sand deeply and this gives people a sense of confidence, security, and purpose or better yet, a very strong identity! People crave this foundation in life.
One poster said this;
Fatalism and spiritual striving to prove yourself worthy of being called the elect is the culture at that church. So to admit that you struggle with sinful thoughts and actions like Paul did in Romans Chapter 7 is an admission of not being saved. The culture is very much like the Stepford Wives. Everyone must put on a persona of perfection and niceness (unless we are trashing some other church or unbeliever). One of the fruits of the cultic system is that eventually every one must act alike, talk alike, dress alike and think alike in order to be perceived as one of the in crowd. Everyone will take on the personality of the leader which is seen as holy. So the culture is one of dishonesty. Lie to myself, God and others about my sinful thoughts and habits so I will not be judged as and outsider or as unsaved. Rationalize all my dysfunctional behavior and pride as part of the personality of a true believer. Everyone is pretending to be completely victorious over sin.
I’d like to share why this might be from a different angle.
Looking back, the one area of great weakness at GCC can summarized in one word—vulnerability. There is little to no vulnerability in this church. When was the last time you ever heard MacArthur share a weakness in his life? I even heard Patricia MacArthur (a wonderful woman) share in a Q&A that John doesn’t discuss personal issues because the focus is on God, not man. Hmmm, this makes sense and fits the church paradigm, but it also can be a convenient way to never share any weakness (vulnerability). The MacArthur family is very impressive. If you recall Mitt Romney’s family photo when he ran for president, my first thought was, “Wow…that resembles the MacArthur family picture to a tee!” Do not think I am suggesting any cult-like overtones here (Mormonism), I am just saying MacArthur can and I believe should share more about his family in this world of broken marriages and homes. If living for God produces so much fruit, than share the recipe with all of us! There are many families in this church with similar family strengths. I do not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I also am not naïve as well. If it looks too perfect, something isn’t right as well. I have come to realize that when one fully embraces the ideology of a church, GCC in this sense, and stays tightly within the boundaries, one can really thrive. But does that mean they are truly spiritual in the best sense? Not always.
Let me share further if still interested…
While I was in seminary, I sat under Dr. Larry Crabb. There was a great controversy within the school led by Dr. John Whitcomb. It seemed his last goal before he retired (I took his last class on Genesis) was to get Larry Crabb off campus…and he succeeded. This was the great “Bible Vs Psychology” controversy…and it got ugly! MacArthur just came out with The Gospel According to Jesus and was in hot debate with Dallas Theological Seminary, namely, Zane C. Hodges book entitled The Gospel Under Siege. Before seminary, Larry’s books and videos were at GCC. After seminary, all his works were gone. Larry was blacklisted, and I felt I was as well when I returned. These were dark days for me. How could men who were “saved” be so far apart? What was the truth?
Larry spoke at GCC while I was in one of his classes in seminary (Winona Lake, Indiana). Keep in mind John is VERY particular who sits in his pulpit. Dr. Crabb came back and shared there was little to no vulnerability among the elders while he visited. I sat in class and this was my experience as well. If you look below the surface of life, you are getting into psychology. You will be attacked!
This gets me to think about John MacArthur and a biblical view of emotions. John excels at biblical exposition, but does this always lead to wisdom? What is true reality, meaning, how do we really know how one lives unless you are close enough to experience these personalities (their marriages, kids, etc). If you do not attend GCC or do for less than several years, you will miss all this subtlety. It takes years to see through the external of this highly functional church. Judging MacArthur ONLY by radio sermons will never demonstrate relational issues.
I will give you an example of a Nouthetic counseling experience I had at another church (a sister church of GCC after I left. The pastors went to the Master’s Seminary and are 100% in alignment with GCC). I think this reflects GCC as well overall. You can judge for yourself.
I was having great struggles after my mom died. I was not sleeping, had intense anxiety, and felt total despair. In my first counseling meeting (it was VERY hard for me to expose myself, but I was desperate) I shared that I didn’t feel like I was going to make it. In other words, I hinted at suicide. This was ignored. The counselor didn’t even pick this up in our conversation. He was formally an attorney and in my judgment, not qualified to counsel just because he was very smart. In fact, seminary does not train one to counsel well. The standards in the secular world dictate you need thousands of hours of supervised training. Obtaining good grades in bible classes, studying the original languages and apologetics does not make one qualified to counsel! This is a HUGE problem in the church as I see it. No wonder people like myself then go to the “mental health professional” while the church attacks psychology. Really? The Nouthetic model allows for the biblically trained to counsel and feel they are competent.
The conclusion of my counseling was to read a 400 page book by a church father and to summarize each chapter every week together. I did this, and the counseling pastor forgot. In fact, he even forgot our next appointment. He apologized later, but by this time trust was broken and I declined to meet. There was no awareness of topics like addiction, guilt, and the holy grail of emotions, shame! If there was, it was intellectual understanding. Forget about OCD, bipolar, and the like—this is all a sin problem and nothing more!
Now there is truth to this which is why it is so hard to confront. In fact, if I was to be really honest, I would say, “You can’t impart what you don’t possess” meaning how can you move into the life of another when you have not dealt with your own issues? I believe this is the first step of humility.
I might be too sensitive here, but guess whose kid in church paid the least amount of attention? I got this feeling I have had in other churches—the pastors’ kid has to go to church, is so used to this world, they detach and shut off. So in the pulpit we have very high end (almost idealistic preaching) but in reality, we see very normal people dealing with the same hurts, habits, and hang-ups of others, but, with little to no vulnerability. Thus, things are overlooked or swept under the carpet. There is a Pharisaical feel at this point and again I ask, "How do you measure spiritual maturity?" I believe the answer is found in relationships and relational styles. When there is a strong defensive posture than someone is hiding something and we are only as sick as our secrets!
Another quick story: The minister of music had a baby. The child was less than six months old. In the parking lot after church a friend and I met the first time father with his wife and baby. In the ten minute conversation about his baby he must have called the child’s behavior sinful ten times or more. Really? “The baby is already exhibiting his sinful nature and disobedience….” It is a BABY! This told me the language of “sin” is so common place that it lost its impact. If you use a powerful word like “sin” so often, what does this say about the church and this culture? Something is very wrong here! I could go on and on over examples like this. Then years later, there is that one child in the family that rebels and almost always there is NO connection to parenting and driving the child away from the church. Maybe the truth is the child has no respect for the parent because of their "death by a 1000 paper cuts" experience in the home. Again, no humility, but blame to remain in control.
One more example. At this same church, I went to a single’s retreat for the weekend. Very similar dynamics. Pastor taught on the holiness of God. Solid biblical teaching. The assistant pastor also taught (29 year old) who was also a counselor and wore many hats at the church. A very intelligent and ambitious man. Both the pastor and assistant pastor came from dysfunctional homes (alcoholic father and single mother home). I listened to the pastor share a little of his story (this was a rare glimpse not seen in the pulpit at church) and he told a story about being in middle school and the battle with his dad over doing chores after school. Either get a beating or give in and do the chores. He discussed his anger and how he memorized scripture to deal with this. That was the level of vulnerability (anger) he shared. This pastor was a very disciplined man! I got the sense that the way he dealt with emotional pain was to “muscle-up” and “work” his way out of it. How would someone test if he was balanced? Simple, relationships. This was a man who was hard to get close to personally. He was always in control and distant. He seemed more comfortable studying while sharing his emotions in the pulpit (a place of control). He did a course on presuppostional apologetics. When he taught, he seemed powerful and leaned towards “assassinate the opponent.” Now I took apologetics from the same professor and knew this subject well. After, I spoke to him and commented, “I agree with what you said, but I didn’t hear much on gentleness and humility.” His response was, “Well, we have limited time, we cannot cover everything.”
The assistant pastor also said before we leave the cabin that weekend that we need to make sure it is cleaner than when we arrived. I agreed. Guess who started a food fight that hit a young believer in the eye and did not lend a hand in cleaning up or offer an apology to this young woman who was hurt and confused? I confronted him on this the next day. He responded by saying, “I thought about what you said, and if I had to do it again, I would. We need to learn to have fun.” The pastor after this incident said, “That’s my assistant pastor” and shrugged it off with a chuckle. So the message was clear once again, in the pulpit we preach a very high view of life, but in real life, we cannot come close to this standard. When we are confronted, we rationalize and make excuses. Hmmm, sound a little hypocritical? This is how a church like this survives. You are either part of us, or against us. Do not cause us to look within with all that psychology nonsense!
My point here is if you walk with these folks, there are great inconsistencies. There is what I call a “head-heart split” and this is what we see in the quote above by the other poster. It takes time to get inside this culture! Listening only to podcasts or Mp3 messages will never unpack these nuances.
If you look closely at the marriages, you will see highly functional homes but little real intimacy. Stay busy! You will rarely hear any vulnerability or talk of emotions. Everything is very rational and intellectual. The head is very strong, but the emotions muted. You cannot shut off emotions, so they will leak out in subtle ways that manifest in control issues. Again, how do you maintain control in a huge mega-church? Keep them busy, working, serving, and challenge them intellectually (the pastor is a bible teaching machine type personality which makes them VERY intimidating to approach) unless you speak their “seminary based language” and have the confidence to approach the “elephant in the room.” Few people ever publicly challenge. Most people want the security of knowing they are right. John MacArthur provides this “emotional security” and “certainty.” I am NOT saying his teaching is wrong, but even with “right” teaching, these dynamics can take place. This is why you can have an “out of sight, out of mind” style of relating. If you get sick for a few weeks, you disappear without getting a call. If you need a bible based question answered, you can call 20 people. If you need a ride from the airport, you go blank, much less if you are really struggling emotionally. People just “disappear” then come back. There is a lot of immaturity in this sense. Keep the submarine on surface, and all is well!
This is my biggest issue with the strong expository church, the issue of emotions and the lack of vulnerability. Why would someone share any weakness in this culture? In fact, the pastor’s role is much like the role of a father in the family. If the father does not deal with emotions or vulnerability, he will in turn shut down the “weaker” child, which might be the most honest in the home. There is no awareness of shame and how one can shame another, all in the name of “God’s love!” They are great on guilt, but clueless on shame (which usually is the fuel for all disorders).
The great irony is on paper is they have a great view of sin (hamartiology) but in practice they are very naïve, and have a weak view of sin. They cannot deal with anything outside of their “control box” that is rooted in BIBLE! Where does the bible discuss bipolar, OCD, depression, sleep problems and so many disorders? There is a giant umbrella to cover a broad range of issues summarized in one word, SIN. There are deep control issues and a pressure to conform to a behavioral standard (which does work because nobody drinks, smokes, watches porn, etc), but how do we really know because there is no vulnerability outside of, “I struggle with pride or anger” which is safe to reveal and requires little vulnerability.
There is no public confession of sins. There is far more vulnerability in any of the “Anonymous rooms” than in a men’s bible study! What is the result? Hold it all inside, work hard, keep busy, stay shallow, judge others, and stay within your own world…never risk or dare to question the culture! Keep in mind, this is in the “ugly” part of my experience, there is a lot of good, but the ugly is really ugly. Ever wonder why MacArthur attacks the Charismatics so ferociously? I sometimes wonder if this is more than a theological reaction. There is another big issue—cessation Vs non-cessation argument. In John’s argument there is a lot of truth, but could there be another “shadow?”
Lastly, I will say John is a 5th generation preacher. This tells me the great dysfunction in his world growing up was legalism (he has stated this). There was no addictive abuse, sexual abuse, high dysfunction I have heard in the “Anonymous meetings” I have attended. Literally, horrific stories of profound shame! If the church is to be exclusive to only healthy families who thus reproduce healthy families, where do those suffering go? Where does a man go if he struggles with same sex attraction? They have to go elsewhere, and when they do, they are criticized. This is where they cross the line. Offer a solution in your church which they do, but nobody would ever risk being really vulnerable. Why would a man or women EVER share something like same sex attraction at a bible study? Can you imagine how uncomfortable they would make everyone? Shock. In this sense, there is a lack of compassion for others and much judgment not in word, but in reaction, which can hurt deeper. The churches that DO offer help are criticized for being too charismatic or liberal or seeker-sensitive or…
THIS is the real break down which can really mess someone’s head up with the message, “I guess I am NOT saved because I do struggle with (__________) and I guess I am the only one who does because nobody else ever shares deep struggles…and when I try to get help I am attacked for leaving the church.” Hmmm, kinda reminds me of the dysfunction in a family someone came to church for in the first place! I had a very insightful conversation with a long time friend who grew up at GCC. His parents were divorced, his father was publicly excommunicated for adultery and living with another women, remaining unrepentant and his mother very angry most of her life (she was very depressing and emotionally shut off). He was an only child. When I shared about him really dealing with his emotions he said, "If I really look inside I will lose control and sin and it is better not to sin so I don't look!" It would be wonderful, that at salvation God healed all inner wounds rooted in shame, but He rarely does. This man (a good guy) will simply pass the sins of the father on to the next generation. This first two years of his daughter's life he would not hold her. He admitted he did not feel comfortable with affection towards her. THAT is why if you really love God you look within and deal with your own issues. His not dealing with them is very selfish and thus "sinful" because he was far more interested in protecting his own life than loving his daughter.
If you want a bible college education, then this church is for you! If you want to grow and be healthy, this church will help, but not if you struggle with issues that are toxic. You will be marginalized, reduced, and worse, made to feel like a fool because you risked being vulnerable to very shallow people who simply cannot handle vulnerability! This is not a balanced view of the church, God, and sanctification.
“You cannot get a man to understand something when his career depends upon him NOT understanding.” Sadly, this is true in the world, and at this type of church. Substitute “career” with theology, ideology or emotional security. This is why someone after many years might say GCC feels similar to a cult.