I knew our volunteer youth group Bible class teacher wouldn’t be back. I knew before they announced it in class the next week. I knew before the adults had tense phone calls with the elders. I knew before my parents got angry and had a family pow-wow (what we called family meetings) with my sister and me. I knew that our volunteer Bible class teacher was getting fired the second the sentence came out of his mouth.
I don’t remember what his lesson was about that Wednesday night. I do remember that he made a joke about his wife. I don’t remember what the joke was, but I remember that 16-year-old me didn’t think it was offensive, sexist, or mean. I remember the joke being slightly adult, but it didn’t strike me as inappropriate. I remember that the joke wasn’t planned. It was off the cuff and in the middle of a back and forth, and I could tell that when he said it, the joke made our teacher a little uncomfortable. It was like he had told a joke that would have been fine around his adult friends, but he hadn’t meant to say it around kids. And if he had just moved on, it would have been no big deal. The joke didn’t get the volunteer fired, it’s what he said next.
In the awkward aftermath of his slip of the tongue, our soon-to-be-former-teacher said the phrase that sealed his doom:
Don’t tell your parents I said that.
Bye bye, volunteer.
On the spectrum of things you can’t say to children, “don’t tell your parents” is one of the worst. I knew it as a kid, and I understand it as a parent. If you want my kids to hide something from me, you have obviously done something wrong. “Don’t tell anyone” is an acknowledgement that something inappropriate has happened. It admits guilt and tries to silence the witnesses in an effort to bury the evidence. And as a church leader, I’ve come to recognize that there are people who employ that same kind of secrecy and manipulation in spiritual contexts among adults as well.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some good times for a church leader to ask you not to tell anybody about something in a church setting. Here’s a list:
- Surprise parties.
- Confidential times of confession or counseling.
Yeah, that’s all I can think of.
When church leaders push you to be secretive about what they are doing, it’s is a red flag that you need to be on guard. If a church leader starts saying things like “we don’t want anyone else to find out about this,” or “don’t tell anyone what we do here,” the wise person asks why. More often than not, it is a mask for hypocrisy or sin. After all, Jesus compares his followers to a city on a hill that cannot be hidden. If that’s the calling, you have to wonder why a church leader would ever call his or her people to hide in secrecy.
Unlike kids who are conditioned to be wary of the phrase “don’t tell your parents,” we adults are often misled by this type of secrecy, because we like the feeling of being in the know. We will miss the danger signs because we have been blinded by the feeling of being on the inside. That’s why so many cults use exclusivity and secrecy in their tactics. From Christianity Today:
The…most commonly used definition [of a cult], refers to a religious group that is:
1) Exclusive. They may say, “We’re the only ones with the truth; everyone else is wrong; and if you leave our group your salvation is in danger.”
2) Secretive. Certain teachings are not available to outsiders or they’re presented only to certain members, sometimes after taking vows of confidentiality.
3) Authoritarian. A human leader expects total loyalty and unquestioned obedience.
These kinds of groups are the most extreme example of a fairly universal truth: we will often ignore the warning signs of spiritual manipulation, abuse, and hypocrisy for a chance to belong to something we think is exclusive or that only we know about. That is why master manipulators use these tactics, and that is why discernment is so important.
When our volunteer youth group teacher said “don’t tell your parents,” he was done. It honestly didn’t matter what he said before that phrase. It could have been “Jesus loves you” and he still would have been gone, because parents can’t tolerate an untrustworthy adult around their kids. This is obviously more nuanced for adults. But if you find yourself in a situation where your spiritual leaders are demanding secrecy, recognize the warning signs. Hypocrisy and sin thrive in the darkness, but they shrink away from the light. If your spiritual leaders are pulling the church equivalent of “don’t tell your parents,” push to know why. A good leader may ask you to keep something private, but they will also be willing to explain their reasoning and then you can judge their request in wisdom. If they evade or won’t share, proceed with caution. Like Jesus says in Luke 12:1-3
Beware the yeast of the Pharisees – their hypocrisy. The time is coming when everything that is covered up will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all. Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear!
Blessings and peace be yours in abundance!