The Barnabas Ministry
Book Review

Letters to a Devastated Christian- Healing for the Brokenhearted
Gene Edwards  (The Seedsowers, Jacksonville, FL, 2001). 94 pages.

Gene Edwards, perhaps best known for A Tale of Three Kings, "explores different techniques practiced by Christian groups who demand extreme submission and passivity from their members" (from the back cover).

Edwards generally does a good job discussing many unhealthy church dynamics, both from the point of view of the "system" as well as from the point of view of the individual.

I am prepared to believe it is impossible-- based upon the facts of church history-- to draw a large number of people to a Christian movement unless this "we are it" attitude is introduced and actively promulgated.

The second most frequently found ingredient in authoritarian movements in any age is the call to oneness in the body of Christ. (pp. 20, 23)

Edwards discusses many of the traits and motives of abusive, controlling church situations. Edwards tries to help the reader see the traps "from a distance." Such a discussion helps the reader feel like their present situation, if unhealthy, isn't the first unhealthy situation. There is good comfort in this discussion.

One part of the book I take issue with is Edward's willingness to blame the "devastated Christian" for choices he made in his own pride or selfish ambition. While pride and selfish ambition can certainly be part of the equation and should be addressed, Edwards seems oblivious to the concepts of manipulation and deceit (aka thought reform) on the part of church leaders:

Ken, it was you who gambled. You made the choice. Ken, it is you who must bear the responsibility. If it was a bad decision, you have no one to blame but yourself (p. 72).
In context, Edwards is trying to give "Ken" (the recipient of the Letters) reasons to not be bitter about what happened, helping him take responsibility for his own actions. I don't have a problem with that. However, blaming Ken for being on the receiving end of manipulation and deceit is off-base. I'm no fan of bitterness, but most people in unhealthy church situations didn't sign up for an unhealthy church situation when they started. They signed up for something they hoped and thought would be something worth giving their lives to, only to learn about the dark side of it later on or to have it turn into a bait-and-switch scheme by those who make up the rules as they go along. The way Edwards discusses this, you'd think everybody has a selfish motive, that nobody is sincerely seeking God's kingdom and genuine service in it.  Edwards' admonishments about bitterness being rooted in human pride in this section are too broad and potentially hurtful.

In my opinion, those who have been deceived and manipulated can only avoid life-poisoning bitterness by honestly recognizing exactly what happened and forgiving it.

Along these lines, Edwards doesn't focus on the perpetrating individuals and groups much. Granted, the book is entitled Letters to a Devastated Christian, not Letters to an Devastating Church Leader. In focusing on helping devastated Christians get on with their lives, he is a bit soft on the abusers:

If anyone ever uses these letters to try to bring harm to any group or movement it will be over my protest. ... I have problems with men making such use of another man's words. And I put in deep suspect any man-- anywhere-- that sows discord with any movement. Period. No matter how gross that work might appear to him. (Author's note p. 15, italics in original).
Apparently, those who run across an unhealthy church situation are supposed to run for their lives and learn from the experience. But nobody should challenge the system that perpetrates abuse? Nobody is to warn others of involvement in an unhealthy group, or be their advocates, on the grounds that it only "appears" unhealthy to them? Are our senses so unreliable? That's like saying if twenty people are held hostage in a bank by a criminal and one gets free, he should run like mad and let the other nineteen saps deal with their misfortune on their own, as well as let unsuspecting customers walk in the door as though nothing was amiss. This strikes me as cowardly, selfish and unloving. The Jesus of the Bible was a hero and advocate for the "helpless and harassed" (Mt 9:36) sheep. Of course, trying to stand up to an abusive system will take a toll on anyone. I can personally testify to this. But is it really more spiritual to look out for yourself and your own "spiritual well-being" and leave others to fend for themselves? I don't think so.

On the plus side, Edwards recognizes that building trust in the lives of those who have been devastated in a church is difficult but necessary. And he recognizes that there is a time to "move on" and not let the experience overshadow the rest of one's life.

In summary, Letters to a Devastated Christian is a helpful, penetrating discussion of many "heart" issues that "devastated" Christians are likely to experience. But don't look to it for encouragement in going after an abusive system for the benefit of those still held captive by it.

Copyright © 2004 John Engler. All rights reserved.

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