The Code of Silence
Perpetuating Commitment To a False Religious System
My family and I recently had the experience of leaving, after 17 years of involvement, what would, by some, be termed an abusive church. I use the term "abuse" to describe what happens when leaders, in the name of God, the Bible, and with false spiritual authority, seek to meet their own needs, or the needs of a cause, at the expense of and to the detriment of the individual members of the group. In other words, the needs of the shepherd outweigh the importance of the lives of the sheep.
During the months preceding and immediately following this life-changing decision to leave, many memories and realizations flooded my mind. It was as if hidden memories flashed back all at once, while at the same time, the scales fell off my eyes and I could see for the first time.
During this truly revelatory experience, my wife and I asked the same questions over and over: "How could this happen?" "Why didn't we see this?" "Why didn't someone say something?" "Why didn't we speak up?"
And finally, after we had left and were seeing somewhat more clearly, "Why are they so blind? Can't they see how ridiculous this is?"
After reading many books about cults, theology, mass movements, and abusive religious systems, I have come to find out that the questions I was asking and the experiences I had were uncannily similar to those of others who had been involved with legalistic, high-demand churches and cults.
How are these groups able to blind the most sincere Christians to the point where they become insensitive to gross, blatant abuse? How do these groups teach the members to excuse, ignore and even defend the leaders who use, abuse, fleece and injure their flocks? Why does this sort of thing go on openly, while many members are unaware there are any problems at all?
Hopefully, in this essay, I can shed light on and help answer some of these questions. Before going further, I must express my gratitude to the authors of the many books I have read that touch on these issues. Some of the ideas expressed below are not my own, but are borrowed. I will give credit where it is due when adopting someone else's idea.
For the most part, I was amazed that the books I was reading were not about my particular church and me, but about entirely different groups. The authors had never heard of the group with which I was involved, yet they were describing my life with frightening detail. Yes, as long as there have been sheep, there have been wolves. The tactics of predator and prey have not changed since the beginning.
The primary mechanism at work in these false systems is what has often been called, "the code of silence." This phrase is well known. It has been the title of movies, and has been used by lawyers to describe how harassment and abuse is covered up in the workplace. Everyone is familiar with the concept.
In spite of our familiarity with "the code of silence", this code is exactly what needs to be inculcated early on in every member's mind in order for a leader to carry out his agenda without having to give account for abuse that might be perpetrated.
A code is a system of principles or rules, written or unwritten. Written codes of behavior are common in everyday life. People know where they stand and what is expected of them under this kind of written code. It is unlikely that anything sinister or unethical will be in a written code, because when plainly exposed to objective reason and standards of decency, the code would be rejected outright.
If there is some aberrant or extreme idea expressed in a written code of behavior, then people are forewarned and have the freedom to avoid the system that puts forth the code. The military, certain occupations and various associations all have written codes, which must be adhered to by those who freely choose to join the group. This is all above board and involves no coercion or manipulation.
It is the unwritten code that causes problems. There is no need to hide what is proper and appropriate. We only seek to hide what is not appropriate or improper - John 3:20-21. In my particular group, the written code that was in effect was the Word of God, the Bible.
However, the more powerful, unwritten code was, "Never say anything to expose, embarrass, correct, humiliate or disparage the ministry or leaders for any reason." In other words, keep silent about problems. It was fine to talk about personal shortcomings, or sin in one's own life, but it was not a good idea to talk about problems the group's leaders or practices were causing.
To be sure, this rule, or code, was never said as plainly as written above. Certainly it was never written, but it was hinted at frequently. The main way it was taught was by observing what happened to people who unwittingly broke The Code. Johnson and Van Vonderen describe this very well in their book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. When people break an unwritten rule they quickly learn all about it, because of the way the leadership of the group reacts.
Assembly Example of the Code of Silence
I will give a real life example of this by relating the way the leadership of my group reacted in one of many abusive situations:
The "Worker" in my group, who was basically a leader over the other leaders, was guilty of all sorts of domestic abuse, for many years. His reputation in the community was terrible. His behavior in the gathering was substandard on every level when compared to the bar of participation that was applied to everyone else. He smoked cigarettes, yelled, falsely accused people and many other things that were inappropriate.
Amidst all this, he showed up to a Bible study with a black eye, and deep scratches on his face. His wife also had a severely bruised and bloodied face, with a black and blue neck. This was due to a severe episode of domestic violence where he attacked his wife and she defended herself. He explained to people who asked that he merely had an "altercation." He did not say what this "altercation" was. He preached the Bible study that night, with the bruises and scratches in plain view.
At the time there were more than people living in his home for the purpose of being "trained" to serve God. I am sure the reader would agree that this sort of behavior is outrageous and disqualifies a man like this for Christian service. Certainly, the written code of my church, the Bible, has much to say about this sort of sinful behavior.
However, the unwritten code said that this was OK. Not only was it excusable to beat one's wife, but it was very serious and sinful to discuss or expose the husband who beats his wife. Why? Because to do so makes the leader and the group look bad.
A woman living in their home who witnessed the beating followed the written code, the Bible, and went to the leaders of the church and told them that she, along with others, was an eye-witness to the violence. Furthermore, she had witnessed many other such things in that home. She said that this man's family was dysfunctional, which was absolutely correct. All the leaders immediately told her to keep quiet about it.
Her character was then assassinated. She was labeled divisive, a wolf in sheep's clothing, a predator, an unstable woman, a worker of iniquity and many other slanderous names. The very man who had beaten his wife denounced this truth-teller from the pulpit, with his bruises in plain view. A week or so later, she was ex-communicated and other members were told to avoid her.
The day before she spoke up, she was known as a real "servant of God." She was paying rent to this abusive leader, while living in his home and helping to home school his children.
The day after this leader beat his wife, after she did the right thing by speaking up, the unwritten code was applied and she was silenced. Those who watched the events unfold learned very quickly that you never, ever say anything against a leader. The perpetrator of the abuse was asked not to do it again; the woman who spoke out against it had her whole life ruined.
The reader might wonder why people put up with this nonsense. People knew there was domestic abuse, but it did not register in their consciences because they had long ago been taught the "Code of Silence." The unwritten Code of Silence was taught from the very first moment a potential member made contact with the group.
Not Getting the Real Image
When a visitor comes to an event in the church I used to belong to, they see a small, tight knit group of people who meet simply, seem to know their Bibles very well, sing enthusiastically, dress formally and who are seriously active in all kinds of service. This looks great at first, and causes many people to mistake this conformity for real spirituality. However, what a visitor does not see or hear is all the murmuring, grumbling and disappointment that the members have. The image they see is not real, but contrived.
Many of the members of our old church were unhappy. Some of them had a close friend in the group they could complain to, but everyone was very careful not to let any negative feelings be aired in public, for fear of betrayal to the leaders. In public, it was all "Praise the Lord! I am rejoicing!" Only in private, to one trusted friend did the truth come out.
But many members did not have a close friend with whom they could confide, because "special friends" were absolutely discouraged. Special friendships were seen as a potential source of division. Consequently, members remained utterly silent about their innermost problems. Many members may have tried at one point to speak to a leader, but then, due to the unwritten rule, have chosen to keep quiet ever since.
The result was that when a visitor had been coming out long enough to begin to think seriously about joining the group, they had no idea that things were not as they seemed, but unhealthy. After they had made an emotional investment in the group and had experienced the tremendous outpouring of support for doing so, new members became willing to adopt the group's lifestyle to some degree.
Sooner or later, they will see something that does not seem right. They may freely point out this problem, at which time they run up against the unwritten rule, the Code of Silence. They soon find out that all of these "spiritual" people, who are discipling them into a "deeper " walk with God, are in agreement with the Code of Silence. The members try to make The Code seem good, and normal, even Biblical.
The new member must now make a choice: Do what seems right and stand for the truth, or "trust God" and do what the rest of the group is doing. Real Christians trust God, right? Trusting God should not violate one's conscience however. After one or two experiences of ignoring and searing one's conscience, it becomes easier to do so in the future.
Indeed, it must be done frequently in order to keep from having severe emotional stress when faced with future abuse. Unfortunately, searing the conscience only postpones and amplifies emotional stress. In time it will come out like a flood and may seriously damage the faith of many.
Expanding Biblical Definitions
Another powerful tool that was used in our former church was a liberal definition of the Biblical ideas of gossip, criticism, and "causing divisions." We will discuss the Biblical definitions below. In the Code of Silence, these definitions are distorted in such a way that they can be used as spiritual billy clubs to enforce the unwritten code.
The Bible is supposed to be handled like a sharp two-edged sword, or like a surgical scalpel. It is never to be mishandled in such a way that it is used to manipulate or coerce people to "toe the line."
"A talebearer reveals secrets, but he who is of a faithful spirit conceals a matter" (Prov. 11:13). In this verse, the talebearer is one who reveals secrets, not one who reveals what is done in public. Webster's defines gossip as revealing matters of a personal or intimate nature. In other words, it isn't anyone's business that a member of the church has hemorrhoids. To reveal this to someone else might result in embarrassment and humiliation. It is gossip. The only purpose for revealing this type of personal information is to harm the innocent. A faithful friend would conceal this sort of thing, not reveal it.
However, if I were to see a church member using illegal drugs, beating his wife, stealing, or some other public sin, and I were to reveal this, it would not be gossip. In fact, we are admonished to "have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them." Eph 5:11 If, after entreating my brother, he refuses to repent of gross sin, I am obligated to expose it. Matt 18:15-20 To conceal this matter is to have fellowship with darkness.
Allowing gross sin, especially in a leader, to continue will result in a false "church" where everything looks good, but is entirely lacking in spiritual life. The members will suffer, but will not know the reason for their heaviness of heart. The Code of Silence, with its new definitions, ensures that sin remains hidden, where it can do the most damage.
In our church, gossip was expanded to mean anything bad about a leader, whether true or not, whether public or not. If I was caught telling the truth about a leader I was admonished not to gossip. We were frequently urged to refuse any sort of "gossip." To be specific, we were emphatically taught to shift blame by stopping our ears and saying, "That is gossip and sin, I won't hear any of that; now lets pray about your sin of gossip." In time, everyone policed himself or herself with regard to the unwritten rule. They instinctively knew from experience when something would be considered gossip and avoided the pain that would come if they told the truth.
Also, many falsely believed the Bible really did say that telling the truth was gossip. We were so zealous for God, there was no way we would let Him down by committing the terrible sin of gossip. In this way, many members did not know how corrupt their leaders had become, because no one talked about what was actually going on. The new, expanded definition of gossip was in opposition to the Bible, which we publicly claimed to follow. Our tradition, like the Pharisee's, negated the commandment of God.
What is so very interesting is that to this day, there remains the most efficient grapevine of stories, murmuring and yes, gossip in that church. There is no such thing as confidentiality in a system as described above.
Criticism was a grievous sin. We were taught that if someone had a critical spirit, they were not able to receive revelation from God. Criticism, it was said, was a form of "biting and devouring" one another, which the Bible clearly teaches we are not to do. However, the Bible does not actually teach that we should not be critical. In fact, the word criticism does not appear in the New Testament. Certainly, a person who is extremely critical, and only finds fault with everyone and everything is not demonstrating the Spirit of Christ. This type of person has a much greater problem than merely being critical. We are to bear with such a one, and help them get victory over this type of sin.
However, if we expand the definition of criticism to include such things as paying attention to the preaching and noting when something is wrong, or drawing proper conclusions about a leader's sinful behavior or pride, then we find that Scripture says, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1). The word "test", in the above verse, means to try, to prove, to discern, and to approve. It is the idea of criticizing, with the view of approving what is right. Clearly, the Bible teaches that we should exercise criticism, especially with regard to leaders and teachers.
"Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses. Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear" (1 Tim 5:19-20). How can an elder be accused or rebuked if he is above criticism? With unwritten rules like The Code of Silence, it is impossible to follow the Bible. Consequently, abusive leaders are never held accountable and all sorts of terrible things take place.
The verse immediately following the above says to do all things without showing partiality. Contrarily, The Code of Silence operates in a multi-tiered way that resembles the Hindu caste system. The more important a leader is perceived to be, the less he can be criticized, while a lowly "brother" can be told what to wear, where to live, who not to marry, how much money to make, even what to eat or drink. To expand the Biblical definition of criticism in this way is to encourage people to check their brains at the door and to open their minds to any sort of teaching that comes along. Saying "Amen" and pretending agreement becomes more important than being a "noble Berean. "
Stressing that we were not to have our own opinions constantly bolstered this definition. Expressing an opinion that was at odds with the official group view was critical. This was "leaning on our own understanding,” which we were told not to do. This was coded language for, "Do what the leaders say." Biblically speaking, leaning not on our own understanding means getting God's guidance through the Bible. We are not to do what everyone else is doing, but should find out what God has to say. This does not mean that we must do whatever our superiors say, neither does it mean we may act with impunity; there is a balance and reasonableness in biblical Christianity.
People, who spoke out against wrongdoing, breaking the Code of Silence, were quickly admonished that they were being divisive. This label produces real fear in members who have agreed to The Code, because in Roman's 16 it says that we should shun people who cause divisions. Shunning those who break The Code serves to keep other members from hearing the truth. "Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them" (Rom 16:17). Biblically, the person who causes division is one who teaches false doctrine. In the case of the passage above, the false doctrine had to do with the Gnostics.
However, it is not limited to them in application, except that it refers specifically to doctrine, not just to people whom Paul didn't like. Perhaps the doctrine is not false, but extreme emphasis is placed on it to the point where it causes a division, interrupting Christian fellowship. An example of the former would be one of the groups that deny the deity of Christ. This is false doctrine and has resulted in numerous cults.
An example of the latter might be certain Pentecostals, who teach that all believers must speak in tongues. If those who hold this doctrine avoid fellowship with professing Christians who do not speak in tongues, and teach that they are not truly saved; they cause a division. Many believers have suffered shipwreck because, try as they might, they were only able to fake the gift of tongues, tragically concluding that they were not saved. This is the sort of division we must avoid. However, in our former group, the idea of "causing division" was expanded and elastic, able to be invoked to meet any end the leaders might have.
In this particular church there was all sorts of strife and murmuring under the surface. Leaders were not in agreement many times. People did not agree with many things that went on, but were compelled to support them anyway. Due to the Code of Silence, there was a pretend peace, and a make-believe unity. As long as no one said anything that was in violation of The Code, this pretend peace and unity was maintained.
My wife was asked to give a message at a baby shower. Ordinary events in this church were given profound spiritual significance. Biblical messages and admonitions had to be included in everything. At this shower, my wife had a real desire to talk about Proverbs 23:26, "My son, give me your heart, and let your eyes observe my ways." She wanted to communicate that raising children was all about establishing a loving relationship with them, not just disciplining them into good behavior. This idea broke The Code. The chief leader had always taught a strict, authoritarian style of child training and marital roles. He did not even like the word "Parenting", because, to him, it connoted worldly ideas. The church had vigorously adopted and carried out his views.
True to form, those who disagreed with the leader kept quiet about it. The idea of a loving relationship was a threat to the make-believe unity, a criticism of this leader’s ideas, and was seen as divisive, because some unhappy mother might start seeking a healthy relationship with her children instead of correcting them all the time. My wife was denounced, her message "clarified" and she was not allowed to share at any more showers. This was after fourteen years of dedicated involvement. At the same time, I shared some "dangerous" thoughts to the effect that a wife does not always have to obey her husband, if it violates her conscience before God, and that God can lead through a woman if He wants to, not just through a man.
The result for causing this sort of division is that we were removed from our responsibilities and were told not to talk about anything pertaining to children or marriage with anyone. Prior to this time we were considered a proper family and were quite involved. What is so fascinating is that there was no real unity at all, only a fake unity. My wife's message did not disrupt anything, it simply shed light on the secret thoughts of the members, who were at that time seeing the leader's adult child rebel, even after a childhood of "training." They had already drawn their own conclusions that were contrary to the leader's views. The division was already in place, whether my wife spoke or not.
I remember numerous conversations with different leaders where they related to me that they confessed to something they did not do in order to "maintain the unity." The chief leader would accuse them of lying, which they never did, but in order to "stand" with the brethren, they would themselves tell a lie, by asking this man to forgive them for something they never did. This did nothing to make Biblical unity, only a false peace and a false unity. The Code of Silence insists on and breeds this sort of hypocrisy, because to tell the truth would in some way make the group or a leader look less than perfect.
Many messages were preached about how the children of Israel complained against Moses and perished in the wilderness. The leaders assumed the role of Moses, while the members were forced to play Israel. Any disagreement with the leaders was tantamount to disobeying God. Of course, many people disagreed all the time. As long as they obeyed The Code, and did not vocalize their disagreement, everything was fine. If everything looked good on the outside, no questions were asked. Asking questions that had answers that might break The Code was risky business.
Numerous Biblical examples were driven home about how bad things befell those who criticized "The Lord's Servant." If someone was labeled "The Lord's Servant," such as leaders, itinerant preachers, etc., then they could say or do almost anything they wanted without having to give account. To question them, or point out error was simply not proper. No one would be allowed to make the leader look less than perfect. This was divisive, under the expanded definition.
Our written rule, the Bible, states that all believers are priests and have direct access to God. The Code, however, made it clear that certain leaders were more than just priests and brethren; they sat in Moses' seat and had power over the other members. Division meant potential ex-communication, which could result in tremendous emotional trauma. For the true believer, ex-communication meant forfeiting their inheritance in God's Kingdom. The leaders actually postured the power and authority to withhold a believer's inheritance! It put real fear into many. What a gross, horrible, arrogant sin! Yet, this goes on to this day. No one speaks of it out loud.
The whole system of theology was twisted to enforce The Code. Suggestions were sometimes heard, but only if they were delivered "in the Spirit." If someone became angry, frustrated or worried about the group’s practices, no suggestions from them would be heard because it was taught that these emotions are a sure sign that they were "in the flesh." In my flesh dwells no good thing; therefore to listen to the suggestions of a worried, frustrated member is simply not profitable.
No matter how valid the suggestion, or how justified the anger, The Code prevailed. The Code says, "Don't listen to the truth if it is negative. If you happen to hear it by accident, use any means possible to discount the truth teller, and blunt the message."
If someone voiced doubts regularly, they were publicly labeled as being bitter, struggling, deceived, divisive, and even mentally ill. This was nothing more than character assassination. Almost everyone who had left this particular church has been painted with this brush to one degree or another.
Several years ago a very prominent member left. His entire family was lambasted as divisive, bitter, deceived, etc. His son was openly called a homosexual. This young man had the audacity to break The Code in front of the founder of the group and his chief servants. He was young, angry, intimidated and frustrated, but he told the truth. In order to keep a lid on things he was ex-communicated and slandered. Today, this young man is married with children. He is a pastor and is quite a Bible scholar. He is not, and never was a homosexual. Here are his website and blog.
If an abusive church can convince the members that the people who speak up and break The Code are always liars, deceivers, moral reprobates, bitter, divisive, gossips, covetous, mentally ill, and full of other vices, they do much to perpetuate The Code of Silence. After all, what sincere Christian wants to keep company with the sort of people who say negative things about a leader? Who wants to risk friends and family, and even their eternal reward by foolishly speaking up? It is far better, they think, to keep quiet about things and let God take care of it.
False Teaching About The Character of God
Yes, the ultimate tool used to enforce The Code is a distorted idea about God and prayer. Sometimes abuse is so grievous it just can't be whitewashed over. When this occurs, The Code demands that as little as possible of the sin be admitted to. If you can't keep silent, at least keep quiet. Repentance in this case is always vague; repent only enough to quell the audible murmurs. Members are then told that "details" are not important. What is important is that they all pray, and let God deal with the situation. The problem with actions is that they speak loudly. If the problems were to be actively dealt with, The Code of Silence would be broken. Instead, vague prayer is offered and people are told they should be comforted with the knowledge that God is on the job.
"For they have healed the hurt of the daughter of My people superficially, Saying, 'Peace, peace!' When there is no peace" (Jer 8:11). This false idea of prayer and abdicating responsibility is what God calls "dealing falsely." The unwritten rules that reign over abused sheep, in the final analysis, encourage false and hypocritical relationships with God. The poor deceived victims of systems that operate under Codes of Silence think they are deeply spiritual, when in fact they have a false peace and use prayer and silence as a means of avoiding responsibility. The Code perpetuates their involvement in a false system.
If The Code is broken, the captives can go free, which is why false leaders must always enforce The Code. Problems must not be discussed, because then they have to be acknowledged and dealt with. It is far easier to abide by The Code and maintain the status quo. The Code teaches us to act as if everything is just great, even when there may be terrible problems.
(Read more on false teaching in Brent's article The Leaven of the Pharisees.)
Some members have the wrong idea that they are able to avoid harm in a system like this. They believe that somehow, a little leaven doesn't really leaven the whole lump, but that they will somehow escape and prosper. This is a wrong idea. Denying reality, in Jesus' name, is not Biblical. Their lack of joy and freedom in Christ should serve as a warning, but to express this is in violation of The Code.
If this essay struck a nerve with you; if you find yourself suffering under The Code, or some other unwritten rule, there is only one thing to do: "Therefore, putting away lying, let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor, for we are members of one another. Be angry, and do not sin, do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil" (Eph 4:25-26). It is high time to speak the truth in love. Yes, it is time to get angry and tell the truth. It is time to expose The Code of Silence and the false peace that it protects. It is time to expose the works of darkness and speak what is necessary for edification.
In doing so we must be careful to not proceed out of malice, or bitterness; but out of love for God, and love for the Truth. There is nothing wrong with anger, just don't let it result in sin. God says He is righteously jealous with regard to His people. Therefore, He displays righteous anger. God will give you the strength to stand for the Gospel and to confront the false authorities that plague you. God will also give the grace we need to forgive those who have hurt us.
"But if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the foundation and mainstay of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15 ).If the church is to be the foundation and mainstay of the truth, is it proper to not tell the truth, especially regarding public sin in those who lead the flock? Do we really think that God will bless a church that hides corruption, saying, "We have no sin?"
Do we think that because no one vocalizes any disagreement we have unity? Can we say that we are the church of the Living God when we know in our hearts that the truth is not welcome? Do we really love the truth even if we stop our ears when we hear something that is negative about our leader or our group? I think that any honest person would answer, "No," to these questions. Isn't it time to walk in integrity before God? Yes it is.
May God grant you to know the Truth and may His Spirit guide you to green pastures.
January 15, 2001