Dictatorship and pastoral irresponsibility

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It’s extremely rare that I publicly disagree with a minister of any church, communion or denomination in my columns. For one thing, there’s so much out there with which I do not agree that every column for years could be about those disagreements. Of course, there are also people of good will who disagree with me.

However, one Tennessee minister with a very large social media following has made comments that I believe deserve a response.

He most recently garnered a great deal of attention by declaring that “only crack smoking leftists” believe that Biden won the election for the presidency. He has also stated that the Delta variant of Covid-19 is “nonsense.” But neither of those declarations are fodder for my observations, however controversial they may be.

According to Newsweek in their August 2, 2021, cyber edition, Pastor Greg Locke, of the Global Vision Bible Church in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., said in a recent sermon, “You will not wear masks in this church. You will not wear masks in this church. I’m telling you right now: Do not get vaccinated. Do not get vaccinated.” Pastor Locke has nearly 2,217,000 followers on Facebook, so the potential influence is enormous. So far, a clip of the sermon has received 1.1 million views.

I have several issues with the good pastor and how he instructs his congregation. One issue is the dictatorial attitude he seems to have toward his members. He did not suggest that people in the church not wear masks and not get vaccinated — he ordered them not to do either. I have had some experience with dictatorial pastors.

One was a pastor in East Tennessee whose church I attended for about a year decades ago. He attempted to rule every aspect of his members lives, including how much they would give (20% for some), the threat of hell if they left his church (I was a recipient of this tactic), parents instructed to bring switches to church to spank their kids if the pastor pointed to them during a service, and more.

When my wife was in the hospital following surgery, this man came to the hospital and said that people in his church who were right with God and the church (i.e., HIS church) did not get sick and have to have surgery. The implication that we had fallen short was clear. Eventually, he ran off with a college girl, abandoning his church, wife, and children. We were gone by then, thankfully.

Another was a man who led a 10,000-member congregation in Atlanta where the leadership was never to be questioned. He, too, was a man who made demands that people conform their lives to better serve the church. Eventually, he was undone by multiple accusations of immorality with church women, a number of them married. Both church leaders were cult-like figures, in my opinion.

Another issue is the art of finding a scapegoat. One television evangelist whose audience reached into the multiple millions worldwide, regularly hammered on three evils: (1) smoking, (2) drinking alcohol, and (3) Catholics. I’m sure there were others that I missed but these three were regular enough that I remembered them.

This man was from a denomination that prohibited both smoking and drinking, although I can assure you that there were plenty of church members who surreptitiously did both. And many people in this denomination were afflicted with “Romeophobia,” or “the fear of all things Rome, especially the Roman Catholic Church.”

But, since this man was “playing to his base,“ as they say in politics, all three were easy targets. He always got a healthy chorus of affirmations and plenty of money in the offering plates.

A third issue is simply about pastoral care. How could a person who is supposed to be a shepherd instruct his people not to wear a mask and not to get vaccinated when there is a deadly pandemic? And yes, there is a deadly pandemic regardless of what the naysayers proclaim.

In our church, we have never told people they must wear a mask, although we have provided the masks free throughout the Covid-19 season and continue to do so. We would never tell people to get vaccinated, although I have been vaccinated and so has my wife who has a Ph.D. in nursing. However, I would never presume to tell people NOT to get a vaccine that could possibly save their lives.

As one archbishop said to me about another minister who was anti-mask and anti-vaccine, “What kind of man would call himself a shepherd and do nothing to protect the members of his flock?” What kind of man indeed? Even if the pandemic is a “fake pandemic and the vaccine is a scam,” as CNN reports Pastor Locke saying, why take the chance?

There has been at least one of Locke’s church attenders that died of Covid-19, fake pandemic or not. According to CNN: “Locke agreed to an in-person interview with CNN on May 24 but canceled 20 minutes before it was to start. He did not respond to CNN’s email with questions, including ones about a parishioner’s death from Covid-19.

“However, in a statement on Facebook, Locke said when he pulled up to the interview he was supposed to have with CNN, he felt nauseous, and then God told him to cancel it.

“A few hours later, he did a Facebook livestream, in which he called CNN’s crew of three women ‘diabolical jezebel spirits.’

“’They’re trying to say we’re killing people,’ he said. ‘They’re trying to say that we’ve had a Covid outbreak. … If you’re going to run me out of church with a whip, you better be a full-grown man, ladies and gentlemen, a full-grown man is what I’m telling you. And I’m sick of their nonsense.’”

I do not know how much influence Locke has over his congregation, so labeling him a dictator would be unfair. Certainly, he is playing to his base and has a stable of scapegoats to attack: Leftists, President Biden, who, according to Newsweek, Locke called “demon-possessed,” the “fake pandemic,” masks, and vaccine, and, apparently, those who, like the women of CNN, may not agree with him. The large following he has on the internet is evidence that there are likely millions who do agree with him.

If people at Locke’s church don’t get the vaccine and don’t wear masks because he ordered them not to, and they contract the disease, can they sue Locke and the church? If someone dies, can the survivors sue Locke and the church? Could criminal changes be brought because of the pastor’s demands?

I do not know the laws in Tennessee but those really aren’t the right questions. The right question, I believe, was posed by the Archbishop from Alabama who asked, “What kind of man would call himself a shepherd and do nothing to protect the members of his flock?”

[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). During the pandemics, the church is open at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays but is also live streaming at www.ctk.life. He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life) He may contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]