Toxic Faith: Experiencing Healing from Painful Spiritual Abuse
by Stephen Arterburn & Jack Felton

Toxic Faith is supposed to help me learn how to reignite my love for all things Christian by exposing tactics of abusive churches and contrasting them with “healthy” churches. The authors start out defining “addiction” and quickly move to list twenty-one “beliefs” that can fuel toxic faith. It’s simply a short list of statements that the author believes he demolishes so spectacularly that you’ll slap your head and say, “How could I have ever believed that nonsense?”

Except he doesn’t.

Right out of the gate, with a strong third place showing, we have this toxic fallacy: “If I have real faith, God will heal me or someone I am praying for.” This statement is easily dismissed by Stephen because his brother, Jerry, had AIDS. Stephen prayed for him, and Jerry went to faith healers, and lots of other folks prayed for him, and he still died of complications from AIDS. [39-40]

Stephen assures us that healing didn’t manifest because, “God doesn’t work that way.” [40] God, you see, lets some babies die and some babies live. That’s how he rolls. Life and death, sickness and disease? Yep, God is actively involved in all that stuff. How and why he decides who will get AIDS and who won’t, Stephen says, is all about “sovereign will,” which is Christianese for “God is big and he can do whatever he wants.”

Here’s how Stephen explains it, “That he chooses to allow a child to remain sick is his sovereign will. Faith will help us to adapt to his will, understand it better, and grow from and through it. But God is God. He heals whom he chooses. We may not like that one bit. We want to be God or like God, able to change events to meet our pleasure. When we find this to be impossible, our guilt and anger come between us and God.” [40]

Holy crap! (Slapping my head.) How could I have missed that? God is God. Wow, that explains everything!

Except, of course, it doesn’t.

There are so many things wrong with that argument that it’s hard to decide where to begin. So let’s just allow Stephen to explain exactly how God really works in this world.

While Stephen was preparing his manuscript, as sovereign luck would have it, he ran into a “dear friend” who offered the amazing story of his secretary who was cured of a bone deformity in her hand when her healing was called out by Pat Robertson on a pre-recorded episode of the The 700 Club.

And this was no run-of-the-mill healing, no sir. This was a sky opening, angels singing, “finger of God” kind of healing. Think I’m kidding? Here’s Stephens’ description: “At the instant she looked at her deformed hand, a sensation came over her, a peaceful calm she had never felt. She looked up to see something bright, like a large beam. A finger of light burst from the ceiling and ended at her hand. In an instant, the bone deformity vanished; her hand was completely and instantly healed.” [41]

This healing was so spectacular that the woman, who was an unbeliever, became a believer, and lived happily ever after.

Let’s just put aside the fact that one premise of this book is that Christians don’t deserve anything special from God, shouldn’t expect anything special from God, and are led into spiritually abusive relationships when they attempt to obtain anything special from God. Instead, let’s take a moment to examine the story of this healing. A story that was itself miraculously revealed at the precise moment that Stephen was preparing his book for publication.

Stephen did not see a deformed hand. Stephen did not see a healed hand. Stephen did not have an x-ray of a deformed hand or even an x-ray of a healed hand. Steven did not even have a written medical report of a deformed hand that had been transformed into a healed hand. What did Stephen have instead? Hearsay. And the worst kind of hearsay possible; hearsay twice removed. It wasn’t his “dear friend” who was healed, it was his dear friends secretary.

And that, my friends, is how God heals people today. Stephen finds this healing more than simply credible but “mysterious” because it was called out on a pre-recorded TV show. There you go, that’s how God works…mysteriously. One day he’s really concerned about a deformed hand, the next day? Well, not so much. Because he’s God. And mysterious.

Earlier Stephen said that the reason we wanted to heal a sick baby was because we wanted to “be God or like God, able to change events to meet our pleasure”. So when your mom grabs the peroxide and a box of bandages to patch your leg, she’s trying to be…what, exactly? And when she realizes that she can’t stop the bleeding and scoops you up to rush you to the Emergency Department, isn’t she offering you up to a false God in a temple full of false Gods? There were only two options, we were trying to “be God” or we were trying to be “like God”.

This is such a spurious line of reasoning that it boggles the mind, but it points to the only reasonable conclusion I have been able to draw from this book. The author is simply playing, “My God is Better Than Your God.” Protestants love, love, love, this game. Stephen has the “God is mysterious in a good way” card, so it’s the only card he knows to play. Never mind that as parents we’d be considered negligent and charged with endangerment if we were “mysterious” in the same way as God. God gets a pass from Stephen simply because…God is God.

Gee, I’m feeling better already.

It never occurred to Stephen that his friend may be lying because he wasn’t just a friend, he was a “good friend”. He was such a good friend, in fact, that he would never pass along a fabricated story from a delusional secretary. So twice removed hearsay is produced as evidence to confirm the premise that God is healing people today on a sporadically mysterious basis, just as the authors card says.

But it’s much worse than that, because the premise of The 700 Club is that God is/was using Pat Robertson to produce hundreds of thousands of healings on a very non-mysterious and non-sporadic basis. A premise that is not borne out by facts.

Toxic Faith misses the mark by miles. It is a poorly thought out apologetic for Stephen Arterburn’s perfect church. He prefers that you jump out of the fry pan of abuse and into a healthy church, which of course doesn’t look anything like that fire you see lapping up around the edges of the pan.

The website “Philosophy and Religion” has a list of the “Charisteristics of a Healthy Faith” by one B. Jackson in a summary of the book Toxic Faith which is, in reality, an outline of the perfect church from Chapter 10 of Toxic Faith entitled “Seventeen Characteristics of Healthy Faith.” [247]

1. Focusing on a personal relationship with God in Christ, not religion
2. Looking to God to meet the needs for security and significance
3. Growing in faith as evidenced by walking into pain
4. Respect for the personhood of others
5. Serving others for their sake
6. Being vulnerable
7. A trusting atmosphere
8. Celebrating uniqueness by recognizing people’s spiritual gifts
9. Relationships being the heart of everything
10. People being taught to think
11. Balanced thinking rather than extremes in black and white
12. Non defensive
13. Non judgmental
14. Reality based
15. Able to embrace our emotions
16. Able to embrace our humanity as evidenced in the ability to allow for mistakes
17. The ability to laugh

And there you have it folks, just find that place and you’re done. Couldn’t be easier. If you’re looking for this one true and perfect church, however, don’t be surprised if you find that you’ve entered into another abusive relationship.

Toxic Faith has only one redeeming quality; it opens a discussion. It was originally published in 1991 and was on its way to the library for recycling when a friend of The Accidental Heretic mentioned that it helped him during a time of spiritual re-examination. Huzzah! And thank you, my friend.

Becoming the Accidental Heretic, Nothing Personal
part 3 of a series

I love “flash-mob” events.

If you’re not familiar with the term, it usually refers to a pre-planned event by a large group of people who quickly invade a public place, perform a song and dance routine, and then just as quickly disperse. It’s captivating and spellbinding for the unsuspecting bystanders. That’s kind of what it was like for a Catholic boy to attend his first Pentecostal Holy Ghost meeting.

I wasn’t completely turned off even though I was more than a bit skeptical. I’m extremely inquisitive, however, and I immediately began to scour the tracts and brochures they gave me. The 700 Club had already supplied me with plenty of materials and, of course, a Bible. Little did I know that this would be the beginning of a 30 year journey into that book and that movement.

The 700 Club set the stage for all sorts of new concepts and ideas about Christianity. The basic Evangelical approach was evident. I’d heard about the “God-shaped vacuum,” the “four spiritual laws,” redemption and the need for a savior. It was all new to me although Christ was not. Christ as savior was a Catholic standard also, but it was a gift that was imparted to me through baptism, as an infant, so even these teachings seemed new and relevant.

God, they said, wanted a personal relationship with me, not a relationship through a priest, but a direct relationship with no intermediary. He had a plan for my life. I liked that at the time. Turns out, however, they didn’t really mean it. God, I discovered, did not want an actual relationship with me as much as he wanted me to have a relationship with a book.

When Protestants say you should read the Bible, they really mean that you should “study” the Bible. Your “relationship” with God depended on your understanding of scripture and your understanding of scripture depended on the depth of your study. The Bible was inerrant in the original signatures and, although available in many editions, was only reliable in the King James Version. So when they said “study” your Bible they meant your King James Bible.

OK, I got it, the Bible was important. It was, to them, as if God himself had handwritten the text and handed it to them. And it became that to me. It was very soon after becoming a full-time Pentecostal that I learned the Bible wasn’t written in English. In order to fully understand and conduct the kind of in-depth study required of serious sons of God, I’d need a Greek and Hebrew dictionary. There was one in the back of Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible that would suffice for now, so it was off to the Christian Book Store to pick up this large, unwieldy volume that would become the center of my studies for many years.

But Pentecostals had one more thing that set them apart from all the other Christians, they had the Holy Ghost. Apart from the obvious manifestations, the Holy Ghost would help me study, he would help me understand the Bible. I wanted that, but my focus on this new goal allowed the original promise to slip right past me. Everything from here on would be focused on that book rather than a “real” relationship with a real, living God.

When I was told that God wanted a personal relationship, what they actually meant was that God demanded a perfect understanding of who he was and what he required, and I’d get that information from the pages of a book. They couldn’t really tell me that initially because that, unfortunately, is a very hard sell.

© Copyright The Accidental Heretic. All rights reserved.

Becoming the Accidental Heretic, Mesmerized
part 2 of a series

Margaret was an older, motherly type woman with a big smile and a kind heart. She had been trying to coax me into going to her church for several months. Well, not just me, she was trying to get everyone to go to her church. Some of the guys made fun of her, but I always had a soft spot for people who were mistreated, so we got along just fine. I had no interest in her church, however. I still self-identified as a Catholic, even though I’d stopped attending church.

Margaret was some brand of Protestant, and I was warned against attending their churches. I was certain that one foot in a Protestant church was all that was needed to take you captive. Once in their grasp you’d be mesmerized and hypnotized and transmogrified. I was polite, but I didn’t need any transmogrification, thank you.

I had another friend in the shop who was a wirey little guy about my age but physically a bit deformed. I never asked what was wrong with him, we just got along. Ronny, I discovered, was a member of the same church as Margret. I didn’t hold it against him…or her. They were just good folks at the shop where I worked.

Once I had “accepted Christ” the 700 Club became my church. It was on-air Monday through Friday and I never missed an episode. Pat Robertson was insistent, however, that if I was going to be a real Christian, I’d need to find a “full-gospel” church…and fast. So I called in and they gave me a list of 700 Club approved churches. The little church that Margret and Ronny attended was on that list. Even though I no longer worked at that plant, I reconnected and made plans to attend.

“I have to warn you,” Ronny told me, “when the Holy Ghost moves it can get a little intense.”

Intense? Didn’t know what that meant. I’d seen Pat “in the Spirit” and it was rather tame. If that’s what he meant by “intense” then bring it on!

The first meeting at that little Pentecostal church was rather uneventful. It was a Sunday morning and everyone was in their good clothes, skirts and ties. I probably wasn’t, but I don’t remember what I was wearing. People greeted me, talked a bit and seemed genuinely friendly. The music was out of the ordinary for me. What A Friend We Have In Jesus, There’s Power In The Blood, that sort of thing. Definitely not Catholic, but upbeat and carried along by a make-shift choir. Oh, and drums. You’d never see drums in a Catholic church. We were still debating the appropriateness of acoustic guitars.

They sang, took up an “offering” and then the preacher said a bunch of stuff. I was sitting with Ronny and toward the end of the service the Pastor mentioned an evening service. Ronny leaned over and said, “The Holy Ghost usually moves in the evening service.” Sure, OK. Don’t know what that means. “Would you like to come? We can have lunch at my place and come back for the evening service.”

I was open. My spiritual father had approved this place, so why not? “Sure, that sounds good,” I told Ronny.

The evening service started just like the morning service. Singing, collection, preaching. The preaching didn’t get very far, however. Someone in the congregation seemed to be mumbling. “That’s the Holy Ghost,” Ronny assured me. Still sounded like someone mumbling, but it was catching on as another one or two people joined in.

Then, one of the mumblers got real loud. It seemed to be a bit more than loud mumbling, however. I looked around and saw it was the Pastor’s wife. A rather zaftig woman, she was kind of swaying and trembling and loudly, um…speaking. Not actual words, but word-like syllables. She went on like that for several minutes. Those Catholics were right, I was mesmerized. Then she stopped and everyone went quiet.

“Thus saith the Lord your God,” came the booming voice of the Pastor. And he went on for several more minutes…in English. When he was done, he got real happy and began to thank God for “the word he had sent”. He called up the choir leader, who called up the choir, and then it got even more, um…enthusiastic.

I was just a spectator but I was confused by what I was seeing. Some people were simply singing and others were shouting. One guy came from the back of the church, right past me, and made his way to the front of the church, all the while looking like he was being riddled with machine gun fire.

A lot of people were now at the front and one woman was rolling from side to side on the floor. “The Holy Ghost is all over this woman,” shouted the Pastor, “Glory to God!”

I’d say this went on for an hour or two. Eventually everyone settled down a bit. The Pastor declared the service ended, but said we could stick around as long as we liked. Most of the people left, but I was getting debriefed by Ronny.

Everything I had seen that night, Ronny assured me, was orchestrated by the Holy Ghost. I was repeatedly assured that what I experienced was the genuine Holy Ghost of the God of the Bible. This is how it was on the day of Pentecost, I was told, when those who received the Holy Ghost had rolled out into the streets of Jerusalem praising God, speaking in tongues and generally acting like a bunch of drunks.

I was accepting. The 700 Club had placed their stamp of approval on this little congregation, I was being obedient to Paul and my spiritual mentor, and I knew two of these people outside of this experience and they were just as sane as the rest of the guys I’d worked with on that shop floor, maybe more so. I was accepting and curious – two horrible flaws.

© Copyright The Accidental Heretic. All rights reserved.

A Priest, A Rabbi, and the Accidental Heretic

You always want to become like the person who’s most influential in your life. Over time those people change and the motivation changes also, but the first influence I can remember were the parish priests.

When I look back I wish it had been a baseball player or a fireman but unfortunately it was the priests. It’s unfortunate because, for me, there was a roadblock to every single vocation throughout my entire life, starting with the priesthood.

You’d think it was the celibacy thing, but I had no idea what that meant so it was no real obstacle, even in my teen years. And the poverty thing was obviously not a promise to only eat bread and water. We had several nuns in the family, so we knew a bit about their living conditions.

The greatest obstacle for me, however, was The Calling. It’s the first question on the Roman Catholic Priesthood Apprenticeship Application. You were expected to be “called” into the priesthood…by God. And they wanted details.

I had a desire to help people, which was, as far as I could tell, the number one job of the priest. You also had to learn how to perform a mass but that was more of a side job. Oh, and confessions. And what’s not to like about confessions? You got to sit in that little box all afternoon and listen to the sordid details of peoples lives and then assign them a few prayers to make them feel better and not jump off a cliff. It was brilliant!

Yeah, I could do this…except for that Calling part. I was supposed to have heard from God pretty clearly before making a commitment like becoming a priest. Nuns were expected to do the same but I figured the bar was set a little lower for them ’cause there were overwhelmingly more nuns than priests at Saint Francis.

I did eventually work up the courage to ask one of the priests, Father Bianchi, about The Calling. What was it? Where did it come from? Was it tangible? OK, I didn’t actually say “tangible” but that’s the gist of what I needed to know. Am I looking for a bright light to slowly fill my room? Maybe a physical presence.

Priests were all a little scary to me. I was certain that they could read my mind so I always had to keep my thoughts under control when they were around. Father Bianchi was a short, slightly stern looking priest who would have been right at home in a hard hat and tool belt. I made an appointment and figured if I worded my question just right I’d be in and out in 5 minutes.

“This calling business, Father, what are the three main manifestations that I should be expecting and what type of verification will you be needing to corroborate the experience?”

I’m sure I was considerably less articulate than that, but he seemed to know exactly what I was looking for and gave me what I’ve since learned is a pretty standard line even among Protestants. “You’ll just know.” He said a lot of other stuff but it all boiled down to, “You’ll just know.”

Really? You’ll just know? That’s it? It seemed so anticlimactic. I left a little stunned. OK wait, I get it. I’m sure that what he meant was, “The Call of God will be so overwhelming clear, my son, that you’d have to be blind or a moron to miss it. Now go in peace and I better see you in church on Sunday.”

Yes, I’m certain that’s what he meant to say. This calling business was a Damascus Road sort of thing. It had to be. So you’re always looking for that…well, something, because you need it to validate your application. You can’t move to the next stage without your Call, even if you’re a Protestant. The difference is, Priests seem to get in and that’s the end of it while Pastors need to keep reminding you of it. “When God called me into this ministry,” etc, etc.

The implication is that something mystical happens to people who are called into ministry. A direct intervention by God that is unequivocal, when the reality is that people apply for a job without an ounce of understanding about what the job entails or how to respond to its inevitable ups and downs, its successes and its failures.

Throughout the years I’ve heard preachers use the failure of other ministers to reinforce their own superior calling instead of recognizing that they are different only by degree.

There’s really no Rabbi in my story.

© Copyright The Accidental Heretic. All rights reserved.

Becoming the Accidental Heretic, Cathoholic
part 1 of a series

I was raised a Catholic but I was introduced to Protestant Evangelical Charistmatic Christianity through The 700 Club. I didn’t “leave” the church with any agenda. My religion was given to me as a child, but it seemed incapable of answering the “me” problem. In my early 20’s I was, through The 700 Club, re-introduced to Christianity from a different perspective.

It was at that time that I began a 30 year journey thorough Pentecostalism, Evangelicalism, and more traditional Protestant denominationalism. I really don’t know what I was searching for anymore. What I wasn’t looking for was healing and miracles. They were, however, presented as simple, everyday occurrences by the host of The 700 Club, Pat Robertson, and his side-kick Ben Kinchlow.

What I felt I had found, through an essentially Evangelical appeal, was a “personal relationship” with the Son of the God of my childhood. A God I had abandoned out of indifference, for sure, but also out of a disillusionment with the book at the heart of the religion, the Bible.

Mr. Robertson and his guests spoke about the Bible and their relationship with God in much more real terms than I remember from my youth. It gave me the sense that the Bible was true and recorded actual, historical events rather than metaphorical tales. It was enough to make me a regular viewer.

In just about every show there came a time for Pat to pray. With his eyes closed and one hand slightly raised, he would begin to recite miracles that were allegedly taking place in the viewing audience. I don’t remember what I thought at the time, but these “manifestations” were not really a draw until much later. A real, living Christ? Now that was a draw. All I had to do was ask him in. “Just repeat this prayer.”

I didn’t, of course. I’d had my fill of “repeat after me” religion, I could do this on my own. That was around 1975 and I was in my early 20’s. I watched every night. Sometimes drunk, sometimes sober. Pat and Ben made religion seem real, their guests assured me that it was all true. I couldn’t leave it up to a pastor or priest, and I couldn’t have it “imparted” in an infant baptismal. I had to accept the sacrifice of Christ personally. It made sense to me, and it was completely different from the Catholic church where everything is done for you and all you had to do was show up.

Evangelicalism, I would eventually learn, put everything in my incapable hands, but nothing was required up front. “Don’t wait until you think you’re good enough,” was the mantra at the time. Ultimately the requirements were elaborated. I was to evangelize everyone I met and be ready for any challenge to any Bible verse, no matter how obscure. I was also responsible for everyone’s sin. I was supposed to never sin myself, and I was to do everything I could to see to it that no one else did either. And Pentecostals upped the ante by adding requirements to speak in tongues, heal the sick and raise the dead. Yes, literally.

I would discover all of these things much later, but for now I was simply told to get a Bible and read it, pray, and get to a church. Specifically a “full-gospel” church. The list they gave me included Pentecostal as well as Charismatic congregations. The distinction, it seems, was mostly congregational demeanor.

© Copyright The Accidental Heretic. All rights reserved.

Heresy – Breakfast of Champions

It’s hard to consider yourself a Christian yet concede that you are indeed a heretic. I am fortunate that I live in the USA and we have pretty much abandoned the killing of heretics. If you’re on the wrong side of certain scriptures, however, you are still a heretic and are subject to ridicule, rejection and shame; which pretty much sums up my 30 years of “churchiness” anyway, so what the hell.

It’s impossible to study the Bible and not be a heretic…in my humble opinion. You see, that verse that you are so certain means one thing would have gotten you hanged in a different era by another group of Christians who were certain that your “misinterpretation” was blasphemous.

I didn’t know that was the case when I first joined the Protestant hordes, but it became apparent when I actually began studying church history. It should have been obvious when you consider the massive number of denominations, but it wasn’t to me.

Here’s a heretical thought to get us started. What if you discover that you have no idea how to love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength? That’s from Mark 12:30 and was covered in Matthew and Luke also. Seems like a pretty important bit of advice for all three of those guys to mention it. And yet I have no idea how to do that. I don’t love anyone with that much of all of me. I don’t even “like” anyone with that much of all of me. Yet that’s what I have to tell everyone that I do or I’m not a Christian.

The evangelical part of me is clearly on the side of, “Yes! Amen! Preach it brother!” And yet the “real” me knows that I haven’t a clue. Here’s the problem, this demand is said to have been spoken by Jesus as a summary of the entire Hebrew Bible. And he tossed in love your neighbor to boot. “Yes, amen brother!”

Every preacher I’ve ever been associated with treated that command like it was Jesus spiking the football. He was putting the religious lawyers in their place; that was the real intent. Even if a little bit of it seemed to wash back on me, it was really something I shouldn’t dwell on, I was assured.

Except I did.

Not for long, but for long enough to recoil at the recognition that all my trying to “please God” had culminated in an emptiness that for years I was told Jesus would fill. Fill? Really? Fill to the point where I love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength? No, I didn’t have that. And why would I? Where would that kind of love come from? Jesus was going to give it to me, they said. Yeah…still waiting.

I have a pentecostal part of me that was subjected to some of the most wonderful lies about what God was doing “amongst the brethren”. You intentionally blind yourself to the failures and false teachings. You make excuses for the preacher. You make excuses for God. You blame yourself. You blame others. But eventually you think the unthinkable; maybe it was God who set me up. He set me on a path that lead to years of fake healers, tedious theologians, and mindless recitation of scripture disguised as brilliant oration.

Heresy? I’m sure it is to some, but after 30 years I still haven’t got a clue how I could love God with all those bits of me…or why I should.

© Copyright The Accidental Heretic. All rights reserved.


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