Mr. Standfast's Crazy (former) Church: Part II
You know what, I was going to go into all kinds of detail on my crazy-church experience, and I even began the post and spent a good deal of time on it, but I soon realized the whole process was kind of distasteful--like remembering dysentery or something. Also, I started losing sight of the whole purpose of the post to begin with: which was to explain why I don't like feeling out-of-step with my church.
I'm going to give you a nuts-and-bolts version of the story. Suffice it to say that the congregation I entered into was soon to undergo a factional battle of epic proportions. At least that's how it seemed at the time. Since then I've discovered that nearly every long-time Christian has a horror-story much the same as mine. Sad but true.
There was a pro-pastor faction, and an anti-pastor faction. I don't even remember the points of contention, but they were many, and it seemed to me mostly trivial. The pastor was a headstrong little fellow, and this was his first "call" after leaving seminary. He had all the finesse of a bull on steroids. He had no trouble depicting his opponents as enemies of the Church (yes, that capitalization was intentional). His sermons were often nothing more than thinly-veiled screeds against these "dissidents."
Of course, I didn't catch on to any of this at first. I took the appropriate catechism classes. I got baptized. As far as the pastor was concerned, I was the 6000-dollar man. That's because the church had spent that much on a big evangelism program, with ads in the paper, evening services, and I was the only newcomer to join the church during that entire period. I didn't know that the whole program had been pushed through (by the pastor) over strenuous objections. But as long as one soul was saved as a result--meaning me, of course--it was all worthwhile. So you see I was the pastor's justification for the expense--his ace-in-the-hole. Still, the opposition grumbled.
Well, I don't want to bore you with the details, but you need to know that through a convergence of unexpected circumstances I came to be president of the church council. That's right. The 6000-dollar man was suddenly the council prez. Nothing to it, they said. Just run the meetings. You know, Roberts Rules of Order, all that.
Telescoping events quite drastically here, the next thing I knew was that the dissident-faction went into open rebellion. Well, not exactly open. It seems they'd held a meeting. At least that's what the pastor said. Their intention was to discuss some sort of formal complaint-procedure with the goal of ousting him, or so the pastor told me. He seems to have had a stool-pidgeon "on the inside." Anyway, they had to be stopped.
The next three or four years were simply consumed in this battle. The "dissidents" never admitted to any such intention. Meanwhile, the pastor denied communion to any congregation-member who had attended the meeting. Now, this is a big-deal in the LCMS. "Where the body and blood of Christ is rightly distributed," that's practically what defines a church for these people. Its a "means of grace" after all. These folks would have to repent of their actions before the entire congregation, if they wanted to ever receive communion again. They remained among us, but they were outcasts. Few even spoke to them, especially in the pastor's presence. They came and went from Sunday services in stolid silence, even as they pursued a complaint procedure against the pastor.
Now, as I've said already, this leaves out lots and lots of details. For example, I forgot to mention that the pastor induced his fiercely-loyal secretary to file a sexual harassment complaint with the local police against one of the leading dissidents and council members. The police-order effectively banned the man from church property except on Sunday mornings. Meanwhile, the beleaguered pastor grows more and more combative, even as his allies gradually fall away. His secretary is calling me frequently to commiserate, to blow off steam, and to check on my own loyalty. Just to make things more complicated, you should know that she's a closet alcoholic, and is often three-sheets-to-the-wind during these conversations. In one conversation she admits to me in anguished tones that she's in love with the pastor.
Well, this is where the story gets even more ugly. One of the leaders of the dissident faction dies while under "the ban." Meanwhile, the pastor tries to coerce the council into filing a civil lawsuit against a high denominational official who seems to be siding with the dissidents. Here's where the dewy-eyed young Christian, me, begins to "fall away." Isn't there something in the Bible, I say, about not taking brothers to civil court? No, I will not support it. I'll resign first!
This is a serious blow. His hand-picked council president, his fair-haired boy, has turned on him. The pastor's sermons now are nothing more than declarations of his own martyrdom. One Easter he takes to the pulpit with a full size cross-beam strapped across his shoulder-blades, a real crown of thorns pressed into his brow. There's blood running down his face. He is truly inhabiting the role. I well remember him shouting, "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!" The implication was clear: his opponents were not simply opposing a mere man: they were re-crucifying Christ by coming against His duly-appointed under-shepherd.
I'm going to wrap this up now. It's all very distasteful to me, but I promised I'd tell it. In the end I did resign the council position. The pastor stopped speaking to me, along with his remaining cohort of loyalists--mostly women who seemed to hold him in awe. He also turned on the secretary, firing her. She seemed to be falling into despair. Once she told me on the phone that she wanted to kill herself.
I'm only skimming the surface here, but you get the picture. It's one big religious mess. I wonder why day-time television hasn't done a soap-opera about church-life. And this was my introduction to "organized Christianity!" I was ashamed to invite anyone to my church. Meanwhile, my children, who had once seemed so on fire for God, so faith-filled, stopped attending. The darkness of those days was worse even than before my fondly-recalled front-porch experience.
There is another chapter to this story, the happy-ending part. Happy for me, but not for everyone. After Laurie and I finally left the church, we got a call from the secretary. She had filed a complaint (within denominational channels) against the pastor, charging him with attempted rape. High mucky-mucks investigated. Her case was dismissed for lack of evidence, but since then a few more women have apparently come forward, or so I've heard.
A new chapter in my spiritual life began when I walked out of that church for the last time. For that story: stay tuned.