1998 01/23. Explaining The Church of Bible Understanding To Those Who Were Not There.
This is a description of life in COBU I wrote for Beth on January 23, 1998. She wanted me to write it for someone who was studying COBU.
It is not easy to explain COBU in just a few paragraphs to someone who had not been there. I think many people are looking for something dramatic and shocking, such as crazy people under “mind control” chanting mindless phrases with far away looks on their faces, doing crazy things, or being a danger to society. To explain that “doctrine” was twisted in this or that subtle way, that we worked a lot of hours and that the leader was not to be questioned doesn’t seem all that sensational and maybe is not what people are looking to hear about. Why didn’t you just get up and leave? They might ask. Well, many did. And many more stayed. Or they might ask, Was it hard adjusting to “life on the outside,” or to “the real world?” – as if to say we were not living a real life in any way until the moment of leaving, or that until then, we had not been living in the real world. It is not so much an insulting question as much as it is a clueless one.
So, how do you explain? A brief answer is: There was mostly true Christian teaching with a poisonous undercurrent of salvation by works, we lived communally under a single authoritarian leader and worked a lot of hours without getting paid and we thought we couldn’t leave, if we wanted salvation. Relationships and marriage were forbidden, not by decree, but by the leader’s insistence that we were rebels who were unfaithful to Christ and therefore we could not have marriages. There! That’s the explanation of our lives in COBU!
Here is the essay I wrote:
The Bible is barely used now. We used to get into the Bible and study it, even if the study was prompted by Stewart Traill and done on his terms only.
Now, when the Bible is used, it is used as a hammer to beat people with and as a source of warning verses to terrify them with, or verses are pulled out of context in order to promote Stewart’s agenda.
(For example, “suffering” and “sell all you have” and “forsaking everything in this life” Bible verses are used to promote and continue a communal lifestyle where no one owns possessions or property and are not paid for their labor. This is especially done when Stewart wants even more work out of people who are already tired and worn out.)
Bible verses are sorted into categories according to subject. In itself, this is not a wrong way to study the Bible, but neither is the Bible allowed to stand on its own and speak on its own merit.
The Bible is never read at a meeting as chapters and books that fit together in context, but is broken down by verse and reassembled as topical word studies. These word studies are centered in: hell, death, and “warning” and “fear” verses.
When studied this way, the Bible is portrayed as being centered in these subjects, as if these were the main themes of the Bible, and the real message of the Bible is lost. It also deflects attention away from the Bible’s real message so that church members won’t read it for themselves. It can be compared to in earlier times, how the Church forbade the common people to read the Bible, or to have it in their native languages (it was in Latin only), because it would give them the power to read, decide and think for themselves, thereby lessening the power of the church over their lives, and loosening the hold of the church as the holder of the mystical keys of understanding.
Stewart can’t take the Bibles out of their hands, but he can refocus the message of the Bible on these bleak and foreboding areas. And since they are subjects found in the Bible, who is to say he is not teaching the Bible? But, it is a matter of degree. How much does the Bible focus on these subjects in relation to other subjects? He is hyperfocusing on these areas, to the absolute exclusion of other areas that are important for the believer to know and practice in his life.
And, since everyone is run into the ground, busy and working all the time, and have their backs against the wall defending themselves from one another and from him, who has time to systematically study the Bible? It can be easier to rely on Stewart to process, package, and deliver it to you. And it’s done in an environment that reinforces (and enforces) that dependence. He is seen as the great Bible teacher, so what he says must be what God says.
Which brings me to the area of meetings…
Much of this is done at meetings, and the meetings are where the doctrine is promoted and passed on to (or pushed on) church members.
There is rarely a meeting that is purely a doctrinal study. If there is a doctrine being “revealed” (sometimes revealed for “the first time since the Apostle Paul”), somebody is in trouble for not doing it. (Or for doing it if it’s about some kind of wrongdoing being exposed). It’s rarely an individual that’s singled out, but rather whole groups. For example, all the older brothers are guilty of something, or all the older sisters are.
If no one is in trouble yet, they will be by next week, because the doctrine has been revealed, and it will be noticed that no one has been obedient to it since it was revealed last week, and then the grilling and punishment begins. There will be inquisitional meetings about who is being bad and what are we going to do about it.
Whenever a doctrine is revealed or taught, it is reduced to a handy and simple line or slogan, which everyone must repeat constantly. (“100 times a day,” or, “every five minutes.”) They must say the line exactly right; they must be saying it to each other. Some of the brothers and sisters go around like those talking dolls with the strings that are pulled at the back of their necks. They have a small amount of stock phrases, and that’s all they say all day. Well, at least they do publicly, maybe they have a few close friends they talk to in private about realer things.
One of the constant features in meetings is that there is a judgment in which everyone is lined up and voted on according to how they did the teaching from last week. Categories are made. Gameplayers and offenders are found out, and those who have faithfully performed the teaching are backed in the voting. But the majority claim to be in the middle category. They were trying, didn’t measure up, but they are recommitting themselves to start over right now. There are different names for that category, depending on the current teaching and one’s expected response to it, but that is the underlying pattern. The majority are found in that category, because to claim and be backed as one of the faithful ones means to increase the pressure on your life to keep it up, and increased scrutiny on you to see that you are continuing to perform.
Everyone scrambles to escape the lowest (not faithful) category, because these are the favorite pick-ons, who receive the encouragement (and beatings) from those who are trying to redeem themselves and bolster their reputations by working on the weaker members. So the middle ground is the safest. You have nothing to prove, because you are not claiming to have been faithful, therefore, you don’t need to come up with your evidence and have it tested by Stewart or by other members using their uncompromising testing standards. Yet, you are not going to get a beating because you are promising to do your best. (Or, at least you don’t get as bad a beating as the hold outs do.) And you can hide in the mass of others, since there is a large crowd making the same claim. And besides, you are expected to be wiped out and useless, so no one is too angry at you. Yet, you are supposed to have a positive attitude to do whatever it takes, that is why the promise to try harder again is accepted. So, it is safe ground. And what you get is a roomful of adults, who should be doing better and more useful and realer things with their lives, scrambling for hours merely to be put into a voting category that will provide them with some measure of relief from the constant barrage of abuse and mistreatment. Adults are reduced to begging for a bone and to be let out of some of the pressure and are glad if they can get it.