ABUSE & VIOLENCE IN THE CHURCH, Doctrine as Idol, Julie Anne's Personal Stories, Legalism, Spiritual Abuse, Spiritual Authority, Spiritual Bullies

Spiritual Abuse: Black/White Thinking Can be Used to Harm and Control

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When I was a young married adult, we attended churches where people sang praise songs with a smattering of hymns thrown in every once in a while. Later, we attended a church that had 50/50 hymns and praise songs. I’m a musician. I did not care for the music of hymns, but later, they grew on me. Hymns seemed to follow similar chord progressions and were originally not enjoyable to my musician’s ears at all, although the lyrics were deep and obviously took much more effort than repetitive praise songs.

It seems to me that the lyric-heavy hymns promoted focusing on doctrine; whereas, praise songs focused on certain characteristics of God, thus, the repetition. I appreciated both hymns and praise songs: hymns for the richness of faith, and praise songs for the intentional focus on the character traits of God, His holiness, His goodness, His love, etc. I think there is a place for both hymns and praise songs in worship, and question people who say either hymns or praise songs are the only way to worship. Nonsense. God has not limited us in how to worship Him – He wants us to worship Him from the heart.

However, I’m very aware that not all people agree with me. When you’ve experienced spiritual abuse and legalism and black-and-white thinking, you can spot it a mile away. Take the following conversation on Twitter I saw a while ago regarding hymns vs. praise songs, and notice how Elena uses black/white thinking. It’s her way or the highway:

Wow – that was intense – all because the dude didn’t appreciate hymns, she thinks he needs to repent and soul search? His thoughts are from the devil? Fo realz? Wowow!!! I think she forgot Jesus’ primary commandment in the New Testament is that we are to love one another. Her response was not loving at all and I’d like to give her a chill pill.

The Lord says:

“These people come near to me with their mouth
    and honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship of me
    is based on merely human rules they have been taught.
Isaiah 29:13

Black and white thinking is common in high-controlling and spiritually abusive churches. You are either right or wrong, you are either sinning or you are not in sin, you made the right decision or the wrong decision. Legalistic church leaders preach that it is wrong to be lukewarm or in the gray areas. The following is a verse commonly used by pastors who preach black/white thinking:

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. Revelation 3:15-16

If you think about it, using this verse from the pulpit about any variety of issues is a way to control. You can apply it to any topic (dating, whether one is allowed to drink alcohol, using swear words, church attendance, appropriate attire, etc.), but lets say the topic is hymns, and the pastor says only hymns are good. In black/white churches, you have two choices: follow along with the pastor, or you are immediately castigated as someone who has made the wrong choice. If people know of your “bad” choice, you may be called a sinner or rebellious. You may be told to repent as Elena tweeted above. It’s a way to divide people. In this way, a pastor can know who respects him and who does not. You may be put on the imaginary “bad” list in church leaders’ minds and the minds of congregants who know your stance.

Be aware of church leaders or congregants who use black/white thinking on issues where there is no clear position in scripture. You will typically find this kind of teaching in churches which lack grace.

Since leaving my high-controlling church, I find myself thinking of Jesus and how He would respond to specific scenarios. I do not read about Jesus being nit picky over things like music and dress in the Bible. I see Him caring about what truly matters – people, and their hearts. Let Christ be your guide. His command is to love.

 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels,
but do not have love,
I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
1 Corinthians 13:1

23 thoughts on “Spiritual Abuse: Black/White Thinking Can be Used to Harm and Control”

  1. Boring? Yes, some old hymns are. But all the new stuff would put me to sleep if it weren’t played so loudly. That’s my opinion.

    The young man has a right to his preferences. He doesn’t need to repent of sin. Just enroll in an open course on literary appreciation so he can tell good poetry from bad. LOL.

    A lot of old hymns were stinkers too. But most of those got culled out of hymnals. Mixing the two seems best since it is selfish to only want things our particular way. It’s how we do it in my new church. A lot of love there.

    That woman’s response was ridiculous. There’s nastiness on both sides in the worship wars.

    Heard some millennials mock people who are upset about NOTHING but Hillsong pop songs Sunday after Sunday. Say stuff like, “Get out of church you stupid old fart!” Liking Taylor Swift lite praise choruses is not a sin. But that kind of nastiness is.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We had “worship wars” when I was a missionary in Colombia 30 years ago. It was the usual-hymns vs more “modern” choruses. A group of pastors meeting with a colleague who was putting together a songbook for Latin America was polling pastors for the best of all genres. A group told him: “We need the inspiring, authentic Spanish worship songs like “How Great Thou Art.’ ” It was funny.
    I grew up with hymns and then sang all the Christian folk songs of the 70s, on to “power” worship in the 80s. Each genre has its good, mediocre, and awful songs. A wise worship leader will take the best of the best, and involve the congregation in the singing. A few times, in several churches, I have heard a song leader explain certain terms in a hymn, or the history behind it. Suddenly “What a Friend We Have In Jesus” or “Come Thou Font” take on significant, singable meaning.
    I am very wary of any church that thinks there is only one kind of music with which to worship God. Elena comes across as a control freak who has a much higher opinion of herself than she ought. Since when did God need any mere human to “guard His throne?”

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  3. Julie Anne – You made me stop for a moment at “Fo Realz!” 🙂

    Music has always seemed to be a bit contentious in church, but calling someone to repent over their music taste is a bit over the top. I think the warning to the Ephesus church of how they lost their first love is relevant here.

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  4. I did not care for the music of hymns, but later, they grew on me.

    How interesting because I felt the opposite! The occasional hymn will be sing songy, but so many ‘praise and worship’ songs I’ve heard tend to be of the three chord and three lyric variety it drove me away from them entirely and I now attend a service that only has hymns and am very happy about it.

    Of course, people can like what they like and I would never tell anyone that is the ONLY acceptable thing. I agree with you that’s completely silly. It’s all personal preference.

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  5. My take on the biggest differences between modern and older music is that for older music, the forgettable stuff has already been forgotten. For example, the Wesley brothers wrote something like 8000 hymns, but even Methodist hymnals these days have a dozen or so of them.

    No doubt that absolutism in issues like this is a huge issue, and I’ve seen it on both sides–everybody seems to have their preferences, what they’re used to, and a lot of the “worst offenders” try and doll up their preferences with a pseudo-Scriptural argument to make it black & white. As a rule, at least on the conservative side of the argument, most of those boil down to a guilt by association fallacy.

    (and so I find myself as a person who loves hymns arguing in favor of at least the permissibility of modern music styles….go figure)

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  6. Good post and needful! When we start proclaiming our personal preferences or commandments as God’s commandments, all we’ve really done is create God in our own image. I grew up in household like this where anything modern was bad. Like toddlers, my former church leadership would sit with their hands over their ears if anyone pointed out any bad theology in their canon of hymns or any good theology in a praise song. I personally don’t care anymore and don’t engage with any of my former fundamentalist/legalistic life because it’s not worth arguing about. I’m free to listen whatever I think feeds my soul, and many times it’s not Christian music at all.

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  7. I would want to understand “why is this genre of music being used for ‘worship’?”

    Many of the older hymns can function as useful teaching tools, and perhaps did function in that way in centuries past when books were more expensive, sort of ‘sung catechism.’

    It has seemed to me that at least some of the more contemporary style music can be used for emotional manipulation of the flock, and that worries me.

    It also puzzles me that the “modern” music is played so loud — loud enough, it seems to me, to cause hearing loss over time. That’s a strange thing to do to adherents of a religion in which “hearing” is considered to be so important.

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  8. What’s interesting about this is Jacob says “I prefer chanting psalms”. So the argument isn’t over hymns vs. praise songs, but hymns vs. singing scripture. So, apparently, God needs Elena to defend his throne against people who would dare prefer to sing what God himself intended to be sung?

    But, yes, people need to recognize the difference between personal preference and Biblical mandate. I’ve heard people say that, “if you don’t have a Christmas Tree, you’re not a Christian”

    My church’s saying is similar: “in clear things unity; in unclear things diversity; in all things charity”. They also talk about the “cone of certainty”. It’s the first church I’ve been to where the pastor doesn’t take a hard stand on infant vs. adult-only baptism.

    Also, what I’ve read about the worship wars is the opposite – not Millennials wanting praise songs, but that rock-style worship was brought in by the baby boomers, and that Millennials tend to prefer more liturgy and greater depth. What I have seen is somewhat bookends – in the legalistic church, such an emphasis on perfection and rules that the object of worship is lost, and in the ‘free’ church, such an emphasis on the performance that it distracts from the object of worship.

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  9. And it’s funny how people use the Colossians passage to make claims about what we know today as hymns. A Jew of that time would correctly identify them as the titles given to the 150 Psalms in the Septuagint.

    The best evidence for the first “modern” hymn can be traced back to the 3rd century, much later than the writing of Colossians. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phos_Hilaron – although some scholars would claim that certain poetic outbursts of Paul should be considered hymns.

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  10. Rules versus feels.

    Been in both kinds of churches. It wasn’t the legalistic rigidity of the one nor the mindless hyper-emotionalism of the other as much as the lack of love in both.

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  11. I was a deeply fundy for many decades. There are 3 things I discovered are the most controversial when being discussed at church meetings. The first is music styles, then there’s what colour should be chosen when the sanctuary needs re-decorating and then any proposal to change the time of services, even just by a half hour. So I’m not surprised by this exchange with x-tians being adamant that all churches should use the style of music they personally like best or they are disobedient to god’s will and won’t thrive and grow. A bit like Elena, they are sure they, and they alone, have a hotline to god on the matter of their church’s choice of music.

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  12. Matilda – it’s interesting because the things you described are so superficial: hymns/color of sanctuary/time of service. It reminds me of a verse about man looking at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart. The heart is completely missing in these frivolous scenarios. Thanks for your comment!

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  13. Being one who is on a worship team, I have very much appreciated my church, and the effort to have a mix of the new and old. Back about 9-10 years ago I visited a public worship service in a town festival where they did a medley of How Great is Our God with How Great Thou Art and I was totally inspired and couldn’t wait to take that back to my church. And have since done other similar song-combos and a worship team leader initiated another one. What a great way to bring the generations together!
    I have visited liturgical churches, chanting churches, Catholic masses, and churches where the music is all new and “rocky” and I have come to the conclusion that when your heart is focused on God and His Word, you can be ministered to no matter the style.
    Now time to go back and see if any of these “medleys” were used in our Sunday Gathering posts. That might be a good idea to consider.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Lol, Elena comes across as a real kook.

    And IMHO it’s ironic that she cites “How Great Thou Art” as a hymn that glorifies God. I’ve always seen it as just the opposite — “When I do this, when I do that.” The word “I” occurs many more times than the word “Thou”!

    I’m rather partial to plainchant and polyphony, myself. Both of which predate “How Great Thou Art” by many centuries. I bet they would give Elena conniptions, though. 😀

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  15. @DianeKamer:

    Lol, Elena comes across as a real kook.

    Take a look around.
    Crazy is the New Normal across the board.

    “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
    — Hunter S Thompson

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  16. Worship seems like a never-ending pendulum. On one axis, there is involvement vs. observation, and on the other, there is simplicity vs. complexity. No matter where the pendulum is, there will always be those who are happy and those who are unhappy. When it changes, there are those who want to go back, those who want to press forward and those who think it is just right.

    I find it’s easy for me to be distracted, no matter what the style. I’m sure others will be in the zone no matter what the style, so I wonder if it’s more about asking where my heart is than trying to point the finger elsewhere. That said, there are definitely things my mind/body can’t get past… like worship bands that think appropriate volumes should be in the triple-digit decibels.

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  17. A side note on music in the church, beyond the obvious “where Scripture is silent, both sides of the worship wars are pretty dogmatic”, is the notion that music is first of all not technically worship (prostration, try to sing when bowed down towards Jerusalem), but rather praise and instruction. Second of all, we might posit that the purpose of music for Christians is to impart God’s Word/theology in lyric form to God’s people, and to give them a means for returning praise to Him. (hence praise/instruction)

    That is, a song succeeds or fails on whether, with the target audience, it either instructs or allows a response in Biblical terms.

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